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
“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
Mark Puls is the author of
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