Henry Knox strutted along with his pigeon-toed gait. A heavy young man, he carried his weight like a man toting a bowling ball under his vest. It was a cold night in Boston with a hardened crust of snow on the ground. Candles flickered through frosted windows. His hard shoes clicked on cobblestones. It was still winter though there had been several thaws. Knox walked briskly, his ponytail and scarf trailing over his shoulder. His ruffled shirt, vest, and coat were thin for the weather, and he wore another scarf wrapped around his left hand. He was all of nineteen. Knox navigated Boston’s icy, crooked streets on which he had run as a boy and then as a young man in the South End Boston gangs. A bit of rum burned pleasantly in his stomach after visiting friends. He had been on his own since he was nine, when his father, an unsuccessful shipbuilder, abandoned the family. He then joined a South End gang and found he was taller than most of the boys and stronger. The gangs battled it out in bloody fistfights, with Henry winning most of the fights and taking on the leaders of other gangs. For three years he was the toughest boy in the neighborhood. On Pope’s Night, his prowess with his fists held him in good stead. Each gang carried an effigy of the pope and the devil to Union Street, where fights broke out and the gangs tried to capture opposing effigies. The South End gang that Knox led had theirs in a heavy cart that lost a wheel. Knox put his shoulder under the axle and held the cart up while the boys fixed it, and they proceeded on to the center of town. Word spread of the strength of Henry Knox. This was all years before. Henry ticked off the corners where he and the gang once congregated. He passed the darkened Boston Latin Grammar School he attended before he went to work to support his mother and three-year-old brother William. One of ten brothers, four of whom survived until adulthood, Henry’s older brothers John and Benjamin had left years before to become merchant seamen, and Henry’s new job was his salvation. Messrs. Wharton and Bowes ran a fashionable bookshop in south Boston and agreed to hire the boy. They showed their new employee around and pointed out the books that might help 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.”1 Mathematics, science, and engineering quickly became favorites and, later, military engineering. He simply could not read enough about what men constructed during times of war. Henry took on the job with secret pride, believing he could save the family from financial ruin and restore the Knox name. Descended from crusading nobility in Scotland, William Knox was “lord of Gifford; a manor near Edinburgh in the Scottish Lowlands,”2 and the brother of John Knox, who led the Reformation movement preaching Calvinist conversion and furthering the Protestant cause in a predominantly Catholic country led by Mary, queen of Scots. The conflict between Catholic and Protestants drove Henry’s family to Northern Ireland and eventually America. Henry’s father, William Knox, sailed from Dublin in 1729 at age seventeen. William was part of a congregation that departed Derry Island for the New World and established the Church of Presbyterian Strangers on Bury Street. The strapping young man became a shipbuilder then a merchant and made money in the new economy building ships for 25 to 50 percent less than England due to the availability of cheap labor and lumber. The Irishman prospered, buying a wharf in Boston Harbor, a construction yard, and a “picturesque, twostory, wood sided home with a gambrel roof and two fireplaces on Sea Street.”3 William’s home had a white picket fence and overlooked the harbor, where he could see the goods arriving that he would sell for a profit. His courtship of Mary Campbell sealed his success as an early rags-to-riches parable in Boston’s rapidly evolving social structure. The couple married and Henry Knox was born in the new home on July 25, 1750. Henry was a rambunctious child who sought adventure at an early age. He and childhood friend David McClure attempted to “fly” by climbing onto the roof of a shed and sliding down the length of an oar to feel the sensation of flight. Knox’s parents recognized early their son’s intelligence. The Boston Latin Grammar School was founded a year before Harvard and counted Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Adams as alumni. Knox read verses of the Bible before the stern headmaster John Lovell in order to gain entrance. In 1751 the Boston economy slipped into a depression after Parliament passed the Currency Act, which “prohibited the provinces from issuing paper money. The shortage of money led to a sharp drop in prices and many businesses went bankrupt.”4 When his father’s business began to fail, possessions in their home disappeared as William Knox began to sell his property. The home was then sold, and Henry and his brothers moved into a smaller home when he was eight. His father, broken by the failure of his business, boarded a ship for St. Eustatius in the West Indies, leaving Henry, his mother, and his brother to fend for themselves. Years later word came that his father had died at age fifty in the Caribbean and Henry felt the abandonment keenly, swearing to himself to never abandon his own family as his father had. In the Boston bookshop, young Henry had a big personality that filled the book-lined store, which served as something akin to a literary salon. It provided a liberal education for “clergymen, merchants, seamen, mothers, and daughters,”5 but the military veterans who came looking for books held Henry enthralled. The old soldiers described battles with the French and the Indians in the continuing war for the Ohio River valley and exchanged tales of an 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.”6 The soldiers kept Knox riveted in place long into the night, the voices of high adventure painting pictures against the flickering tallow light. Knox’s intelligence, ability to listen, and wit caused men like Whig leader Samuel Adams to remark that Knox was “a young gentleman of very good reputation.” 7 He plunged into Plutarch’s Lives, loving the stories of ancient battles and using his knowledge of Latin from grammar school to teach himself French. John Adams, a young lawyer, also noticed that Knox was “a youth who attracted my notice for his pleasing manners and inquisitive turn of mind.”8 A few months before his eighteenth birthday, Knox watched a local military parade and became fascinated with a train of artillery commanded by Lieutenant Adino Paddock. Paddock, the local chair maker, had the artillery unit fire their three-pound brass cannon, shaking the windows of the bookstore. The artillery company was known as “the Train” and Knox quickly joined, learning that “to be a competent soldier encompassed more than just valor, honor, and duty, there was an underlying, dispassionate science to military art.”9 Firing a cannon and building fortifications required understanding engineering and calculus, and Knox ramped up his study in the bookstore, poring over books like Sharpe’s Military Guide, and borrowing other books from the Harvard library. Knox had to know how to calculate range and heading in order to hit a distant target, and he also came to understand how to transport cannons weighing several tons. The symphony of firing an eighteenth-century cannon was a dance that required precision and coordination. A cannon crew was usually comprised of six to ten men with an officer in charge. The officer had overall command and determined the target, range, and accuracy but usually didn’t participate in the actual firing. The “firer” held a linstock, which is a long wooden stick, to grip a slow match, usually a burning cord treated with potassium nitrate. The linstock allows the firer to light the cannon without getting hit by the recoil. Once everyone was in place, the careful choreography of firing the cannon was initiated. The cannon was searched with a “worm” to make sure all shot was gone. Then the barrel was swabbed with a wet sheepskin skin to extinguish lingering embers with the vent hole stopped up. A new powdered cartridge—usually black powder sewn in a fabric bag—was placed in the cannon then rammed down the barrel. Then paper or usually hay was jammed down along with the shot. The powder bag was pricked through the vent hole with a sharpened iron bar, powder poured in for priming, and “primed” shouted out. The crew then moved to firing positions with the command “make ready,” and the burning match attached to the linstock was touched to the venthole and the cannon fired. Firing a cannon appealed to the inquisitive young man in the bookstore, but it was during the far-ranging discussions under the candlelight that the real education of Henry Knox occurred. Political discussions elbowed in with the odious Townshend Revenue Acts leading the charge. The act 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.”10 Knox must have remembered the destruction of his father’s business at the hands of the Currency Act passed by Parliament, the long hand of personal disaster reaching across the ocean once again. Samuel Adams organized a continental boycott of British goods and the bookshop canceled orders from Boston with a subsequent drop in revenue. The young man listened to radicals like John Adams who frequented the bookstore and seeded a distrust of the British along the faint dream of independence for America. Knox’s store catered to both sides of the political fence with Tories on one side and young Harvard students and professors, the “campus radicals” of Boston, on the other. Knox often met at the Green Dragon Tavern with young zealots where discussions of British tyranny swirled among coffee, tea, beer, and wine. But his final evolution was about to come.
Henry Knox turned the corner, passing down the winding streets, where a whiff of the harbor lingered in the air, the scent of dead fish and the tar used on the ships. The moon shone brightly and at times he saw his shadow on the snowy cobblestone streets. Lately Knox had been thinking of starting his own bookstore after having worked in the trade for eleven years. His own bookstore would be a revelation, but the Parliamentary Acts had kicked off another boycott of English goods, and he could order no books from London. He could do nothing until Britain lifted the odious tax on all imports. Knox made his way down the streets without lamps. He could see very well with the crisp snow lapping the window crests and the ruddy glow of candles against frosted glass. It was 9:00 p.m. and the streets were empty. There had been much talk of not being out after dark. The “lobsterbacks” were up in arms over the beating of several soldiers by workers at the Gray’s Rope Manufacturing factory. Knox didn’t think about the warnings. He was a fighter and he had proved it many times in the street gangs. Now, at six feet tall, broad shouldered, with a heavy build that topped 250 pounds, he had the booming voice of a sailor and saw no problems he couldn’t handle. Boston had been simmering ever since the Massachusetts House of Representatives had responded to the Townshend Acts with the boycott of taxed goods. The British countered by sending the fifty-gun warship HMS Romney into Boston Harbor along with four regiments of British soldiers. Knox had watched the smartly dressed soldiers march into town as Boston became an immediate flashpoint for confrontations between the redcoats and Bostonians. Two regiments eventually left Boston in 1769 but the Fourteenth and a Twenty- Ninth Regiments remained. Life in the city had changed. “Boston had become an armed camp and spectacles such as public floggings for military deserters became frequent at the Commons. The British commanders ordered that a cannon be placed directly in front of the Massachusetts Provincial House, which had been converted into a barracks.”11 Knox heard the urgent low voices in the bookstore and their talk of rebellion and independence from Britain. This excited the young nineteen-year-old who felt the passion of the “Sons of Liberty,” as many called themselves now. “Like many in town, Knox seethed at this threat to his freedom.” He became friends with many in the Sons of Liberty including “Benjamin Edes and Jonathan Gil, publishers of the Boston Gazette, and Paul Revere, the silversmith and sometime dentist.”12 Knox continued, hearing the soft crunch of his shoes. The clear strike of church bells rang in the frigid air. It was a call of distress for fire and he began to run toward Provincial House, where the British were waking up along with the town. The catalyst for the ringing bells was a young wigmaker’s apprentice named Edward Garrick who had yelled at a British officer, Captain Lieutenant John Goldfinch, while crossing King Street, “There goes that mean fellow who had not paid my master for dressing his hair!”13 The debt had been settled, but Private Hugh White, standing guard in front of the Customs House, heard Garrick. White had been involved in the Gray’s Rope fight before and called out to the boy that he should be more respectful of officers and then shouted, “Show me your face!”14 “I’m not afraid to show my face to any man,” Garrick shouted back, approaching White and poking him in the chest with his finger.15 The British soldier swung his musket, clubbing Garrick in the head with the stock. The boy fell to the ground, stunned, then jumped up and ran off. A witness who saw the redcoat strike the boy rang the fire alarm that brought Henry Knox and fifty other Bostonians on the run. Knox ran into the square, his breath puffing into the cold night. He saw Garrick return with friends and begin throwing snowballs at Private White. “There is the soldier who knocked me down,” Garrick yelled.16 Knox felt his heart throb. There had been fights in the last few months between the British, the townspeople, and Loyalists. Several people who found themselves on the wrong side of quickly gathered mobs had been tarred and feathered. Loyalists and soldiers had become targets ever since the Boston Tea Party and the Intolerable Acts. Boston was a loaded keg of gunpowder, and it was only a matter of time before the flint was struck. More snowballs, sticks, bottles, stones started to pelt Private White, who loaded and primed his musket. “The lobster is going to fire!” another boy yelled out.17 Knox turned and ordered the boys to leave the soldier alone. Henry then turned to the soldier. “If you fire, you must die for it!”18 It was an amazing moment. Knox put himself in the middle of the fight, but it was a British law that deemed capital punishment for any soldier who fired on civilians without an explicit order. The crowd had grown with some holding torches. The frightened British soldier backed up to the Custom House. “I don’t care,” he yelled to Knox. “If they touch me, I’ll fire!”19 He then retreated to the door of the Custom House and, pounding on the wood, shouted, “Turn out the Main Guard!” A servant rushed from the custom house to the British barracks and screamed, “They are killing the sentinel!”21 Six soldiers with fixed bayonets from the Twenty-Ninth Regiment of Foot led by Captain Thomas Preston rushed to White’s aid. Knox persisted, telling the captain that if the soldiers fired, it would be death for them all. He shouted at the regimental commander, “Take your men back again, if they fire, your life must answer of the consequences!”22 The crowd shouted at the soldiers, moving closer: “Lay aside your guns and we are ready for you. . . . Come on you rascals, you bloody backs, you lobster scoundrels, fire if you dare. We know you dare not!”23 “I know what I am about,” the captain yelled at Knox as his men loaded their muskets.24 Several soldiers pushed back against the colonists, now numbering eighty. The six men formed a semicircle around Private White as the crowd continued to grow to two hundred and began to throw more snowballs, taunting the soldiers. Knox felt all the anger that had been swirling around the bookstore during the last year rushing out and catching fire like flames starved for oxygen. The crowd continued to taunt the soldiers, daring them to act. “Fire! Fire!” “You are cowardly rascals,” another man shouted, “for bringing arms against naked men!”25 Torches gave the scene a lurid cast. Knox knew the pent-up passions that had begun well before the Boston Tea Party had erupted into the open. Richard Palmes, a local innkeeper, approached Captain Preston with a cudgel and asked if the muskets were loaded. Preston assured him that they were but that the soldiers wouldn’t fire unless he ordered them to. The match to the American Revolution would be a heavy stick thrown at British Private Montgomery. Private Montgomery fell to the street and dropped his musket, shouting for his men to fire. He picked up his musket while Palmes swung his cudgel at Montgomery and then at Captain Preston. The British muskets flashed with fire in the cold darkness. Captain Preston was clubbed to the ground by Palmes, and the crowd began running for their lives. Henry Knox heard a second round of shots and saw smoke rolling out across the town square. He saw the first man killed in the American Revolution, a mixed-race former slave, Crispus Atticus, who had been shot in the chest with two balls. The owner of the rope factory, John Gray, died next with a clean shot to the head. Mariner James Caldwell was hit in the back twice by two musket balls and died instantly. Eight more people were wounded with Samuel Maverick, an apprentice ivory turner, dying a few hours later and Patrick Carr, an Irish immigrant, lingering for two weeks before expiring. It was over in seconds. Henry Knox stared at the snow laced with blood. All the talk in the bookstore and the loss of his father’s business and subsequent abandonment meant nothing compared to the blood in the snow on the Boston street. It was his baptism of fire and Knox felt a deep hatred for the British he hadn’t known before. The British were already reloading as Preston told them to stand down, striking their flintlocks with his hand. Knox tried to help with the wounded being dragged away, leaving rivers of blood across the snow. The entire town had awoken now to the news that the British had fired on the townspeople and many were dead. Bostonians ran to the intersection of King and Exchange Streets to stare at the carnage. Knox heard a townsman say that five thousand people were massing on a nearby street as battle drums beat throughout the city. “To Arms! To Arms!”26 The cry engulfed the young bookseller as Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson rushed into the street to plead with the gathering mob to return to their homes and let the law take its course. He told the British to return to their barracks as well. “The law,” he pleaded, “should have its course,” and he would “live and die by the law!”27 Knox later told magistrates what he had witnessed. Preston and the other soldiers who had fired were arrested later that night. The next morning, Henry went to a town meeting at Faneuil Hall along with twelve hundred others, where a statement was written demanding the British troops leave Boston. It was the first known organization of rebellion that Henry Knox attended. Samuel Adams along with a committee of fifteen were sent to meet with the lieutenant governor. The Twenty-Ninth Regiment, which had been involved in the shooting, was ordered to leave Boston, but the Fourteenth Regiment remained. Knox watched in amazement as patriots from the surrounding towns of Roxbury, Charlestown, Braintree, Dorchester, and Cambridge descended on Boston with muskets at the ready.28 It was a dry run for what would happen at Concord and Lexington, and by nightfall ten thousand rebel colonists were in and around Boston. The British pulled further back to the barracks at Castle William Island in the harbor. Knox attended the funeral of the four Bostonians on Thursday, March 8, with twenty thousand people marching down Main Street. “Shops were closed, and bells tolled in slow solemn cadence not only in Boston but neighboring towns . . . at 4 p.m. several hearses formed a procession on King Street at the scene of the tragedy. They proceeded up Main Street followed by fifteen to twenty thousand mourners, who marched four and six abreast through the narrow lanes.”29 The Boston Gazette noted, “the distress and sorrow visible on every countenance, together with the peculiar solemnity with which the whole funeral was conducted, surpass description.”30 The bodies were held in a burial vault until the spring thaw. Paul Revere produced a famous engraving of the Boston Massacre showing the British shooting the unarmed citizens of Boston. Knox returned to the bookstore, and on April 12, Parliament repealed all the surtaxes on goods from America, acknowledging the effectiveness of the boycott. The boycott ended in Boston, and the young bookseller could now order books from London. Henry Knox was ready to leave the bookstore of
Wharton and Bowes and strike out on his own; the rebel bookseller would now have his day.