Visionary General of the American Revolution
By Mark Puls
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2008 Mark Puls
All rights reserved.
LOVE AND WAR
Nine-year-old Henry Knox entered the Boston bookstore, leaving his childhood behind. The boy, blond and tall for his age, could see shelves of books and boxes of fine stationery adorned with floral designs imported from London, along with writing materials, inkwells, quills, pamphlets, and writing paper neatly laid out for customers. His days of playing with friends or attending school would be replaced with the bookshop's chores and adult concerns over money and the support of his family.
His life had been turned upside down that year, 1759. His father, William Knox, a once-prosperous shipbuilder, left the family after his business collapsed in the midst of economic hard times sweeping the American colonies. Plagued by debt, the disillusioned Knox boarded a ship bound for St. Eustatius in the West Indies, leaving his family with no means of financial support. Henry was left to care for his mother and his three-year-old brother. His older siblings, John and Benjamin, had left home years earlier to earn a living as merchant seamen, never to return to Boston.
His mother, Mary Knox, pulled Henry out of Master John Lovell's prestigious Boston Latin Grammar School, an elite primer for students aspiring to attend Harvard College, and set aside whatever hopes she had for him to offer his labor to Messrs. Wharton and Bowes, who had taken over a fashionable bookshop from Daniel Henchman on the south side of Boston. Taking pity on the family, Nicholas Bowes agreed to hire Henry and provide him with whatever paternal attention and moral guidance the now-fatherless boy needed. Mary took solace that her son could continue his education in a bookstore, in an atmosphere of literacy and learning, frequented by the most educated and influential people in Boston.
His employers showed Henry around the store and pointed out the books that might be helpful in furthering his education—volumes on mathematics and history, Greek and Latin classics, and literature—telling him that he could take any home to study. His employers said they would tutor him in the craft of binding and repairing books and teach him everything about the trade. Henry was then put to work, running errands and doing chores around the shop, helping customers, and making deliveries.
He had been saddled with substantial responsibilities, but Henry accepted his role as provider with a secret pride, believing he needed not only to save his family from financial ruin but to reverse its downward spiral. The once-proud Knox name was still revered in Scotland, where his ancestors had descended from nobility. His lineage could be traced to William Knox, lord of Gifford, a manor near Edinburgh in the Scottish Lowlands. William had been the older brother of John Knox (1514–1572), the renowned Reformation preacher who furthered the Protestant movement in Scotland, turning the country predominantly Calvinist and gaining the enmity of the Catholic monarch, Mary Queen of Scots. Religious conflicts between Catholics and reformers drove many Scotch Presbyterians, including Henry's family, to resettle in Northern Ireland.
In 1729, Henry's father, seventeen-year-old William Knox of Derry, Ireland, a town near Belfast, sailed to America with a congregation led by the Reverend John Morehead. Reaching Boston in 1730, they established the Church of Presbyterian Strangers on Bury Street. The first names on the church's baptismal records were Knox and Campbell, the families of Henry's father and mother. William was a shipbuilder and merchant, and construction yards for vessels thrived along Boston Harbor. Because lumber and labor was plentiful in America, ships could be built 20 to 50 percent cheaper than in England. The colonies would soon produce a third of all British ships.
William bought a wharf along Boston Harbor to dock imported goods, a construction yard, and a picturesque two-story, wood-sided home with a gambrel roof and two fireplaces on Sea Street (later renamed Federal Street), near Summer, that overlooked the harbor. A picket fence bounded the property, and a garden provided vegetables.
When William began his courtship of Mary Campbell, his future looked promising. The couple exchanged wedding vows before the Reverend More-head on February 11, 1735. Henry was born in the family's prosperous home on July 25, 1750, the seventh of ten sons, of whom only four survived to adulthood: John, Benjamin, Henry, and his younger brother, William. An energetic child, Henry was fond of playing with toy soldiers. He and his boyhood friend, David McClure, who later became a prominent Connecticut clergyman, were intrigued that a man had tried to "fly" by jumping from the steeple of Boston's North Church, in what may have been an early demonstration of parachuting. The boys climbed to the roof of a small building owned by Henry's father and slid down a long ship oar to feel the sensation of an airborne flight.
His parents recognized that Henry was intelligent and inquisitive. They applied for his admission to the Boston Latin Grammar School—founded in 1635, a year before Harvard College, by Boston Puritans—then under the direction of John Lovell, an educator considered "the pride of Boston's parents and the terror of its youth." The school was open to students from all social classes, and its alumni included Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Adams. For his admission exam, Henry read verses from the Bible before the stern-faced Lovell.
The school was a one-room brick building with a bell steeple on the south side of School Street, constructed in 1748 to replace a wooden structure from the opposite side of the street. The school bell rang at 7 A.M. to open classes in the summer and 8 A.M. in the winter. Instruction extended until 5 P.M. with an hour break at noon. After classes broke, Henry and the other students attended a nearby writing school. He studied Greek and Latin and was introduced to European history along with math and practical sciences. When snow covered the ground, Henry and his classmates, who included future patriot Josiah Quincy, brought sleds to school. After studies, the boys would coast down the incline of Beacon Street before heading home in the evening darkness.
Shortly after Henry's brother William was born in 1756, the family's finances began to collapse. The colonial economy slumped into depression, in part because Parliament passed a currency act in 1751 that prohibited the provinces from issuing paper money. The shortage of money led to a sharp drop in prices, and many businesses went bankrupt. William Knox's business failed, and he began to sell off his property. Items within their home began to disappear to satisfy creditors. When Henry was eight, his father sold the home in which he and his brothers had been born to move to cheaper housing. Within a year, his father had disappeared from his life as well.
* * *
If Henry had ever wished to be rid of the drudgery of school, it was unlikely that he wanted to trade it for a job in a bookstore. Yet he harbored an ambition to distinguish himself and did not neglect his studies. During idle moments in the shop, he read, submerging himself in Plutarch's Lives of ancient Greek and Roman leaders. He enjoyed the romantic adventure of ancient battles and characters from antiquity. His knowledge of Latin from the grammar school enabled him to teach himself to read French and gain passable fluency in speaking. He read classic histories and philosophy.
Henry possessed a genial, gregarious personality, and he enjoyed dealing with customers: clergymen, merchants, seamen, mothers, and daughters. He especially enjoyed talking to veterans of the militia, who stirred his imagination with stories of battling French soldiers and Indians in the ongoing war for control of the Ohio River Valley, which had exploded into a world war between Britain and France. With rapt attention, he listened to tales of the unsuccessful expedition led by Massachusetts governor William Shirley to capture Fort Niagara in 1755 and the victorious siege of Louisburg three years later to protect the gateway of the St. Lawrence River. Henry must have imagined himself as a soldier, transformed from his obloquy to the heroic status of the men who showed their scars from these illustrious battles to the awe and hushed reverence of onlookers. Confined to a bookstore, he longed for adventure.
Whatever hope he harbored for his father to return and restore the family was dashed when he was twelve years old. Word reached Boston that William Knox had died in the West Indies at the age of fifty. The cause of death is unknown. Feelings of abandonment must have haunted Henry. Any child would have wondered if his father had thought about him and longed to see his son. Why had he not returned? Did his father realize that his son was supporting the family? Henry's memory of his early childhood, the comfortable home on Sea Street or playing at his father's construction yard, must have seemed as illusory as a dream.
Henry sought friends among the tough juvenile street gangs that fought for dominance of Boston's winding streets. He was taller than most boys his age, and he developed a muscular, athletic build. He enjoyed fighting, which provided him the chance to vent his conflicting emotions and the anger he felt over being abandoned by his father and put to work by his mother. Henry became part of a gang from the south side of Boston near the docks, boys whose fathers were shipyard workers and seamen and tavern owners. Their rivals came from the north end, on the other side of the Common, boys from families of merchants and mechanics and dockworkers. In tests of toughness, the gangs fought each other in bloody fistfights. Henry became the champion of his neighborhood and frequently took on the leaders from the rival gang. For at least three years, he was known as the best fighter in the area.
The opposing gangs engaged in a ritual parade on November 5, or "Pope's Night," which invariably led to a battle for dominance. Each gang marched from its neighborhood carrying effigies of the pope and the devil. When the columns met near Union Street, a fight erupted to capture each effigy and chase their defeated foes through the streets. During one of these processions, the south side's effigy was erected on a cart, which lost a wheel during the procession. Knox bent over, nudged his shoulder under the axle, and bore the weight of the cart as the march proceeded. Everyone began to talk about his unusual strength.
Yet inside the bookstore, the rough and aggressive Henry was transformed. He impressed customers with his pleasing personality, intelligence, and his politeness. Radical Whig leader Samuel Adams thought Knox was "a young gentleman of a very good reputation." John Adams, a young lawyer from Braintree who had recently opened a practice in Boston, thought Knox a "youth who had attracted my notice by his pleasing manners and inquisitive turn of mind." Some of young Knox's questions concerned the political controversies swirling around Boston over British tax measures, which began to cost the bookshop revenues and customers and greatly concerned his employers. In 1767, Parliament passed the Townshend Revenue Act, which placed a duty on tea, glass, red and white lead, paper, and paint in an attempt to raise £20,000 to pay the salaries of royal governors and crown officials as well as for British troops in America. In opposition to the measure, Samuel Adams spear-headed a Continental boycott of British goods. The bookshop canceled orders from London and saw a sharp drop in business.
Shortly before his eighteenth birthday, Knox took time off from his clerking duties to watch the local militia parade through town to celebrate the birthday of King George III. Governor Francis Bernard's troop of guards, whose ranks came from the sons of the leading families in Boston, led the vanguard of the procession, which included the town's regiment followed by a train of artillery under the command of Lieutenant Adino Paddock, a Boston chair-maker with a shop along Boston Common. Paddock had a reputation as an efficient, disciplined drillmaster. The soldiers mustered in King Street, where the riflemen fired three rounds. The artillery regiment responded with a booming shot from each of their new field pieces. The three-pound brass cannons, the pride of the town, had arrived in February aboard the ship Abigail. The Massachusetts general assembly had sent two aging cannons to London to make a cast for these new guns, which bore the insignia of the province.
Henry, impressed with the artillery company, which Paddock put through the choreographed movements of a mock battlefield engagement, decided to join its ranks. The company, proudly known as The Train, had formed in 1763 under the direction of Captain David Mason. Paddock, an ardent Tory with loyalty to the British, took over command in 1768. Unlike the governor's guards, the members of the artillery unit were not among Boston's leading families, but were mostly sons of south-end shopkeepers, shipyard workers, and blacksmiths, silversmiths, and cobblers. Although they were amateur soldiers, they had gained great proficiency thanks to instruction from a group of British gunners two years earlier. In the late autumn of 1766, a regiment of British artillery arrived in Boston on its way to Quebec. As it was too late in the season to proceed up the St. Lawrence River, the soldiers quartered in the militia barracks on Castle William Island, a fort in Boston Harbor, where they remained until the following May. Over the winter, the professional soldiers took the time to instruct and drill members of The Train in the intricacies of firing cannon with precision.
Henry took his place among the ranks drilling under Paddock, learning how to load and fire a cannon and how to maintain it. He quickly realized that learning to be a competent soldier encompassed more than just valor, honor, and duty; there was an underlying, dispassionate science to military art. To build entrenchments and fortifications, he needed to learn engineering and geometry, as well as the calculus involved in gauging distant targets and firing guns with accuracy. He pored over the bookshop's volumes on military science, such as Sharpe's Military Guide, and borrowed books from the Harvard library. He had already spent years preparing himself for life as a soldier by studying French under the then-widespread belief that war with France would erupt again someday, and he had also familiarized himself with biographies of famous generals and by reading Julius Caesar's Commentaries. Knox longed to distinguish himself by earning military laurels. But unlike most militia at the time, he saw the need to apply in-depth study to the craft and take an analytical approach to battlefield tactics. He learned how to design fortifications that would protect musket men while allowing them a clear view of the field and providing vantage points to unleash enfilading fire in all directions. He learned the best ways to transport cannons weighing several tons, how to survey a position to find its topographical strengths and weaknesses, and where to place the most effective entrenchments. Within months, Knox became a skilled engineer and military tactician.
The political controversies between England and the colonists also provided Henry with opportunities to learn the craft of being a soldier. In August 1768, two ships sailed out of Boston Harbor bound for Nova Scotia. The governor of the province, Francis Bernard, let it be known that their mission was to transport troops of Irish regiments to Boston to occupy the town and quell agitation and resistance over Parliament's tax measures. On September 28, the ships sailed back into the harbor. On the first day of October, two regiments landed. Knox could watch the soldiers disembark and march in an impressive military parade along the length of Long Wharf, which led into town, with beating drums and glistening bayonets. Each man carried a cartridge box of sixteen balls, the allotment usually packed when entering enemy territory. The British battleship Hussar provided protective cover from the landing with seamen ready to open fire on any resistance from the townspeople, who could do nothing but watch in apprehensive silence.
The regiments took up quarters in unoccupied houses and public buildings in town. Knox watched the soldiers drill on Boston Common and Brattle Square to the sounds of an ear-piercing fife and the pounding of drums. The townspeople were incensed by the sight of the armed men. In the evenings, the Sons of Liberty, a secret Whig society that undermined British tax measures, played soothing and patriotic melodies on violins and flutes to calm residents.
Boston became an armed camp, and spectacles such as the public flogging of military deserters became frequent at the Common. The British commanders ordered that a cannon be placed directly in front of the Massachusetts Provincial House, which had been converted into a barracks. Knox watched the professional artillerists practice their maneuvers and carefully studied their movements. Like many in town, he seethed at this threat to his freedom. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Henry Knox by Mark Puls. Copyright © 2008 Mark Puls. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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