J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Henry Knox’s Thank-You Letter

On 10 Feb 1774, a young Boston bookseller wrote this florid thank-you letter:

The mariner, when the danger is past, looks back with pleasure and surprize on the quicksands and rocks he has escaped, and if perchance it was owing to the skillfulness of the pilot or great activity of some brother seaman on board, the first ebullitions of his gratitude are violent but afterwards settle to a firm respect and esteem for the means of his existence. So, Sir, gratitude obliges me to tender you my most sincere thanks for the attention and care you took of me in a late unlucky accident.

The readiness with which you attended, your skill to observe and humanity in executing, are written upon my heart in indelible characters. Believe me, Sir, while memory faithfully performs her office the name of Doct. White will be retained with the most pleasing sensations. Accept then, Sir, the annex’d as the smallest token of respect from him who is with the greatest pleasure your much obliged and most obd’t H’ble Servant,

Henry Knox
Knox sent this letter with three guineas (a coin used mostly by gentlemen) “To Doctor White of the King’s Hospital, Boston.” He sent a similar letter with five guineas “To Doctor Peterson of the ship ‘Captain’ and Surgeon to his Excellency Admiral [John] Montague, Boston.”

It appears that the “late unhappy accident” Knox alluded to was when he blew off some fingers on his left hand while hunting birds on a Boston harbor island on 24 July 1773, according to his earliest biographer. Gen. Henry Burbeck recalled the event this way: “the fusee accidentally bursting in his hand occasioned the loss I think of two or three of his fingers and otherwise mutilating his hand.” (This is of course a widely published example of a gun accident in the founding era.)

It’s notable that the two doctors who attended Knox were attached to the British military. The “King’s Hospital” had been set up to treat the soldiers at Castle William, and Peterson arrived with the navy. Those men may simply have been the nearest physicians, but Knox sought care from British military surgeons instead of the town’s notable Whig doctors. As I’ve written before, I think contemporaneous evidence shows Knox trying to find middle ground in pre-war politics rather than, as later biographers said, being a well-known Whig.


Anonymous said...

I wonder - could Knox's choice of physician also have been based on the idea (rightly or wrongly) that military doctors might have a better understanding of how to deal with this sort of wound? Were civilian doctors able to handle such a complex injury? Perhaps the answer to that question goes back to just how common gun accidents were at the time...

R. Doctorow

J. L. Bell said...

I did wonder about that. Some of the older physicians in Boston had experience as military surgeons, however. The royal military units in Boston in 1774 hadn’t been in a war for over a decade, so I’m not sure how much more experienced their surgeons were. (I tried to find out more about these two particular doctors, but didn’t.)

John L Smith Jr said...

Knox walking that hazy middle ground in pre-1775 times was partly also because I assume 1.) He was married to a Flucker, and 2.) I'd heard many of his London book-shop customers were indeed Loyalists and British officers. I'd also heard that in exchanging Committee of Correspondence intel, Revere would feign to get into a verbal fight with Knox inside the store and storm out. Any truth to that, that you know of Mr. Bell?

J. L. Bell said...

I wrote about the source and implausibility of the Knox and Revere story here.

I think Knox’s marriage to Lucy Flucker did indeed put pressure on him not to espouse strong Whig views. I also think it even offered good prospects if he joined the royalist side. Not necessarily as good as some legends say (I think a commission in the king’s army would have been unlikely), but enough that Knox gave up a secure future when he joined the provincial forces.