Henry Knox: Myth and History

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Don’t tell the folks at Knox’s Headquarters State Historic Site where he held court as the Revolutionary War came to an end, but no one really cares about Henry Knox. It’s not that we shouldn’t, it’s just that we don’t – don’t have the stomach for it.

It’s mostly Knox’s own fault, he was kind of a jerk who lived opulently after his retirement in Maine where he hoped to exploit a retinue of labors and craftsmen in shipbuilding, brick-making, and cattle-raising. His neighbors came to despise him, rejected his leadership, threatened to burn him out, and tore down his mansion after his death.

Knox’s Maine estate, Montpelier, was the center-piece of his million acre holdings – an empire acquired through graft and corruption. Once a right-hand man of General George Washington who later served as the nation’s first Secretary of War, Knox was so unpopular in his later years that local settlers armed themselves and threatened to burn his home to the ground and voted him out of office (electing a local blacksmith in his place). Unfortunately, Mark Puls’s Henry Knox: Visionary General of the American Revolution ignores these details and instead paints an all-too-friendly portrait of the man who served as a model for Col. Pynchon in Nathanial Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables.

Puls’s Henry Knox is just a simple hero and the basic outline of his career is rehashed as a central figure in the American Revolution. “In many instances,” Puls writes,” Washington depended on Knox to save the army, and in doing so, he placed the fate of the country in his hands.” Perhaps this is just the value of Puls narrative, to remind us that there were others who participated in the the revolution that established a new government here in America. But serious students of history want more, a fuller picture of a complicated man.

For example, it’s inconceivable that any treatment of Henry Knox can leave out Joseph Plumb Martin. Martin joined the Revolution in 1776 as a Private and was eventually made a Sargent. Compared to Knox, he was a relatively obscure man during his life. After the war he spent some time as a teacher in New York and then settled in Maine where he was elected Selectman, Justice of the Peace, and for more than 25 years, Town Clerk. Martin’s popularity with his neighbors isn’t the only thing that separates him from Henry Knox. There was also that time Henry Knox drove him from his 100 acres.

Henry Knox’s encounter with Joseph Plumb Martin (and his other neighbors) might have not come to light at all had it not been for the work of more serious historians and Joseph Plumb Martin himself. His narrative A narrative of some of the adventures, dangers, and sufferings of a Revolutionary soldier, interspersed with anecdotes of incidents that occurred within his own observation, published anonymously in 1830 and rediscovered by the general public in the 1960s, has become a central primary source for the American Revolution. Puls certainly must have known about it, and recognized Henry Knox’s role in the life of his fellow patriot.

“I throw myself and my family wholly at the feet of your Honor’s mercy,” Plumb Martin wrote Knox in a last ditch effort to save himself and his family from losing his 100 acre farm to a man who owned a million acres, “earnestly hoping that your Honor will think of some way, in your wisdom, that may be beneficial to your Honor and save a poor family from distress.”

Henry Knox didn’t bother to respond to that request and Joseph Plumb Martin lost his farm. In what might be considered a fitting twist of fate, Knox’s businesses failed and he was forced to sell his holdings to pay his debts. Knox coked on a chicken bone a few years later in 1806 and was a burden no more to the people of Maine. When his widow died Knox’s grand mansion was neglected and torn down for a railroad right-of-way.

In the nativist revival of the 1920’s, a local Daughters of the American Revolution chapter organized to rebuild the Knox home. In a way not unlike Mark Puls’s sprucing-up of the old General’s career, the rebuilt Knox home was made of concrete block – sturdier than it ever was in real life.

Mark Puls is the author of Samuel Adams: Father of the American Revolution, winner of the Fraunces Tavern Museum Book Award, and co-author of Uncommon Valor: A Story of Race, Patriotism, and Glory in the Final Battles of the Civil War with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Melvin Claxton. Puls has worked as a journalist for The Detroit News. He lives in Hawntranck, MI.

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3 thoughts on “Henry Knox: Myth and History

  1. Anonymous

    As an actor who portrays Henry Knox for the American Historical Theater, I have consumed virtually everything written during the last 200 years about Henry Knox. I have not come across the evidence that Knox obtained his lands in Maine through “graft and corruption.” Yet this story and phrase seems to repeat itself over and over by those who want to bring down Knox. Would someone, particularly the book reviewer, please cite the source for the graft and corruption that is mentioned in your review of Puls’ biography of Henry Knox?

  2. Knox

    A great deal in this article is incorrect. Just a few of the errors are 1. General Knox did not own a million acres. The original Waldo patent consisted of roughly a million acres but by the time Knox obtained the land it was half that size. 2. He did not die choking a chicken bone. While dining at a friends house he ingested a piece of a bone which then perforated his esophagus or intestine. It became infected and after a painful two days he died. 3. The current mansion in Thomaston is not made of concrete block. It is a steel beam frame with a brick core and walls. It was constructed in this way to adhere to Knox’s descendant, Henry Thatcher Fowler, that the museum be “fire proof” to protect the family objects housed in the Museum. 4. It is insinuated that the locals tore down the original mansion. It left the family in 1856. After passing through various owners a local Railroad company purchased the property, ultimately tearing it down. The local townspeople attempted to save the structure and asked the state for funds but were rebuffed. In 1799 Knox employed 105 locals in his many business ventures in the area. Clearly they were not that upset with him. Knox absolutely was guilty of land speculation, but as easy as it is to make him a glowing historic figure it is just as easy to chastise him with inaccurate facts


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