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Americana Corner The legacy of Henry Knox
tom hand new

Henry Knox was 44 years old when he retired from public office after devoting the previous two decades to the American cause. Henry and his dear wife Lucy headed to Thomaston, Maine, where Henry built a three-story mansion on a large family estate which he named Montpelier. There, Henry built a sprawling business operation that included ship building, lumbering, and harvesting limestone.

Unfortunately, his ventures were heavily leveraged, and he was forced to sell off part of his estate to satisfy creditors in July 1806. But the ever-optimistic Henry believed matters were finally turning around.

Unfortunately, things did not work out. As Henry was dining one night, a chicken bone got lodged in his throat, and the area became infected. As a result, Knox died on October 25, 1806, at the age of 56. The General and former Secretary of War who had given so much of himself to the United States was buried with full military honors, befitting a great soldier.

George Washington has been called America’s “Indispensable Man.” In many ways, Henry Knox was Washington’s Indispensable Man. Knox was by General Washington’s side at every major engagement from 1775 to 1781.

He fought at Bunker Hill, Brooklyn Heights, Trenton, Princeton, Brandywine, Monmouth, Yorktown, and many more.

Knox planned and executed the daunting mission to bring the “noble train of artillery” from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston in January 1776 which gave General Washington the firepower to drive the British from the city. Knox organized and directed General Washington’s famous crossing of the Delaware that blustery Christmas night in 1776 which led to our glorious victory at Trenton the next day. Knox created the Continental Army’s artillery corps from scratch and trained the men so well that they were able to batter British forces under Lord Charles Cornwallis into submission at Yorktown on October 19, 1781.

As Secretary of War, Knox was President Washington’s most reliable and longest serving advisor.

While Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton were busy bickering between themselves and creating their own political parties, Henry focused on doing his job.

Whereas they left Washington’s cabinet in 1793 to pursue their private interests, Henry remained until January 1, 1795, even though he longed to retire from public life. As Henry stated in a letter to his friend Henry Jackson, “I cannot leave my situation in this critical state of affairs.”

Given Knox’s accomplishments, one wonders why he is not better known today. There are several reasons. First, when Henry died in 1806, his closest brothers in arms, those once-powerful men who knew Knox best and revered him most, were all dead.

George Washington had died in 1799. Knox’s best friend and fellow Continental Army general Nathanael Greene had passed away as a young man in 1786. And Alexander Hamilton, Henry’s companion at Monmouth and Yorktown and in President Washington’s cabinet, had been killed in his infamous duel with then-Vice President Aaron Burr in 1804.

It did not help that Henry largely existed in George Washington’s shadow, and Washington cast a large one. While it must have been special to spend so much time with the Father of our Country, it caused many people to overlook Knox’s achievements.

Finally, by the time Knox died, contemporary public opinion had drifted away from him and his views for the nation. Thomas Jefferson, who never served in uniform and was no great fan of military men, was President when Knox died. His administration controlled the newspapers of the day and Jefferson, who had refused to attend George Washington’s funeral, chose to ignore Knox’s passing.

Regardless, this Boston bookseller turned Revolutionary General was an American classic.

George Washington once wrote the following to John Adams, “With respect to General Knox, I can say with truth, there is no man in the United States with whom I have been in habits of greater intimacy; no one whom I have loved more sincerely, nor any for whom I have had a greater friendship.” Pretty high praise.

WHY IT MATTERS: So why should the life of General Henry Knox matter to us today?

Henry Knox was arguably the greatest soldier-statesman of the Founding Generation, other than George Washington. His accomplishments in the field as a soldier and in the halls of government as Secretary of War exceeds all but the Father of our Country.

Knox devoted most of his adult life to helping create and strengthen our great nation, especially regarding military matters. The example set by Henry Knox of service to his country is worthy of our admiration.

SUGGESTED READING: Henry Knox: Visionary General of the American Revolution, written by Mark Puls and published in 2010, provides an excellent account of this important Founding Father.

PLACES TO VISIT: Montpelier, in Thomaston, Maine, is the beautifully reconstructed home of Henry and Lucy Knox. The property includes Knox’s Georgian style home with period artifacts, gardens, and a first-rate museum.

Until next time, may your motto be “Ducit Amor Patriae”, Love of country leads me.

Tom Hand is a Ford Field & River Club resident, a West Point graduate and an Army veteran. He has a website, www.americanacorner. com. Check it out.

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