- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 13, 2008


By Mark Puls

Palgrave MacMillan, $24.95, 282 pages


Perhaps it’s the very idea of a seven-part television documentary devoted to the life of that pompous, scheming windbag John Adams that makes me so grumpy these days. But lately I find myself annoyed at the outpouring of hagiographies of very minor figures during our struggle for independence and nation-founding. Anyone who held Washington’s horse is now treated as an all capital letters Founder.

Happily there is an antidote for these Founding Father blues. “Henry Knox, Visionary General of the American Revolution,” is a tightly written story of one of the truly indispensable creators of our nation. While Knox is a virtual unknown to general readers, his story is all the more worth the time and money not only because of his unmatched contribution, but because the distance he had to travel to greatness was perhaps longer and harder than any of his brothers in arms.

Not only does author Mark Puls, a Detroit journalist turned historian, bring Knox into focus through selective quotes from his voluminous correspondence, he fills in a gap that too many writers about the War for Independence ignore. A large part of Knox’s importance to the patriot cause generally and to George Washington personally was his skill at man handling thousands of tons of unwieldy cannons over huge distances and to get them into position so they could slam walls of explosive metal at superior numbers of advancing enemy troops.

It was Knox and his cannons that won the first battles that forced the British to abandon Boston in 1775. At Yorktown six years later it was the sudden and never-ending barrages of the combined American and French batteries Knox put in place that convinced Cornwallis to surrender. Not bad work for a Boston bookstore owner.

But Knox had two other qualities that set him apart from that fractious, jealous9 and occasionally treasonous pack of American generals who caused Washington almost as much trouble as the British. Knox was from beginning to end devoted to Washington to an extent unequaled except for the young marquis de Lafayette. He also had a gift of looking ahead from a present crisis and seeing not only a solution to the current task but what needed to be done in the future. Author Puls calls him “visionary” and that may be putting too many eggs in the omelet, but Knox certainly had more common sense than most men of that time.

One of the reasons we are so fascinated with the story of our nation’s Founding is that it is a story of how ordinary men and women managed in the face of unimaginable handicaps and setbacks to successfully fight a war to win independence and then to make the political choices needed to establish a successful democratic government — both unprecedented achievements.

Knox’s life underscores one of the most tantalizing of the questions that comes out of that fascinating tale. Just how did these farmers and mechanics manage to fight a war that was both a hit-and-run insurgency and a classic European set-piece stand-up-and-hurl-explosive-metal war?

In 1775, just before the battles at Lexington and Concord, most of the patriot military leaders were self-taught or had limited experience fighting the French and Indians guerilla-style a decade earlier. In the meantime, war as it was being fought in Europe was undergoing a dramatic change with tacticians placing increasing reliance on the heavy throw-weight punch of highly mobile artillery as an offensive support for attacking infantry, much the way the modern tank is used to clear the way for the foot soldier of today. But who in America knew how to use artillery that way?

Henry Knox did. The two bits of early luck for the still forming Continental Army that surrounded Boston in that stupefying hot summer of 1775 were that Washington was made commander-in-chief almost by acclamation and that he quickly made Knox his chief gunnery officer.

Knox in his youth faced a common enough problem in 18th-century America. His father’s shipbuilding business went bust and the elder Knox abandoned his wife and two sons to go restart his fortune in the Caribbean; he never returned. So at the age of nine, Henry as the oldest boy, was taken out of school and apprenticed as a clerk in a bookstore. There his education continued, even accelerated. Henry matched his educational progress with tremendous physical growth as well. Among the violent gangs of apprentices that roiled Boston’s streets, Knox was the undisputed leader of the toughest bunch; as a young man his weight was recorded at an astounding 260 pounds and he would add much more as he aged.

As a teenager during the French and Indian Wars, Henry joined a Boston militia company of artillery and became fascinated with the elegantly complicated mathematics and tactics involved in moving and shooting cannons accurately. He read books displayed in his employer’s store on military tactics and organization until he became a recognized authority on gunnery drill even before he was 20.

Both as an apprentice and then as the youthful proprietor of his own bookstore, Knox was a prominent member of the Boston patriot faction that vexed the colonial authorities to the point they asked for British troops to be quartered there to restore order.

Once the war started in earnest Washington was dismayed to learn the entire stock of artillery in the Continental Army consisted of a dozen heavy guns and a regiment of about 635 ill-trained men. But in May 1775, Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold captured British Fort Ticonderoga on the New York shore of Lake Champlain and with it 60 tons of the highly mobile artillery the new war required. Along with muskets and shot there were tons of gunpowder even more priceless because colonial trade laws forbade its manufacture here. Knox had to wait until winter ice and snow made hauling the guns 300 miles to Boston, but he did it and Washington had both an artillery arm and a ready-made commander.

Knox’s excellence as a logistical planner and mover of troops was at its best in the Christmas Eve attack on Trenton which required crossing the ice-strewn Delaware River with men, horses and cannons in secret in weather so cold that two of the soldiers on the march actually froze to death on the way. But again, it was Knox who was the most prominent and honored of the officers who stood by Washington when Horatio Gates and other disgruntled generals lobbied Congress to replace him as commander.

A man of gargantuan girth and appetite to match, Knox soldiered from start to finish, often dragging his long suffering wife along in the army’s wake; the couple lost eight children to disease during this marriage that was as fraught with fear but sustained by genuine love.

As Washington’s successor as head of the Army and later his Secretary of War, Knox stood by his commander while others inthe Founders pantheon started brawling for place and reputation. He proved his political chops however in lobbying for the new Constitution, for the creation of a strong Navy to protect our struggling trade efforts, and for the creation of a military training school which became West Point.

The only time the pair came close to a break was when John Adams succeeded Washington as president and nearly got us into a war with our old ally France. In a panic, Adams demanded that Washington retake command of the greatly reduced Army and in the clumsy fight over the second command spot Knox got his feelings hurt. Still, Washington and Knox patched it up, war with France was avoided and both heroes died in bed.

A story that is a sure cure for the Founding Father blues.

James Srodes’ latest book is “Franklin: The Essential Founding Father.”

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