May 14, 2008

Gratuitous Llama Historickal Book Review


Henry Knox: Visionary General of the American Revolution by Mark Puls.

If you're looking for a very quick survey of the life of Henry Knox (and Tom, who isn't?), then this is probably the book for you. But contrary to the jacket blurb by Joseph Ellis, this is hardly what I would call the "definitive biography" of the man.

According to Puls, Knox was essentially the unknown Wonder Man of the Revolution, and "visionary" is not too bad a descriptive term. Knox appears to have been a more or less self-taught master tactical artilleryman, and, if Puls is to be believed, following on Knox's spectacular cross-country movement of artillery from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston and his subsequent fortification of Dorchester Heights in 1776 leading to the British evacuation of that city, Washington practically did not breathe without consulting him first. But this vision of Knox's was not confined to the battlefield and did not stop when the last gun had fired: he was an avid organizer of arsenals and supply lines, an early proponent of a military academy at West Point, a critical figure in the establishment of the United States Navy and even a prescient advocate for the total revamping of the Articles of Confederation into a form very similar to the Constitution which was eventually drafted.

Unfortunately, Knox appears to have been less happy in his personal life. Abandoned by his father when a child and forced to fend for himself and his family as an apprentice bookseller, he eventually worked his way up to wed a prominant Boston lady who left her Tory family for his sake. Although they were married nearly fifty years, nine out of their twelve children died prematurely and they were continually plagued by debt and separation. And in one of those goofy twists of fate, the old war hero who had been at Boston, Trenton, Princeton, Valley Forge and Yorktown, died from an infection contracted when he got a chicken bone stuck in his throat at dinner.

Puls throws all this together in a brisk and, to me, far too surfacy manner, sometimes jumbling facts about Knox's personal and professional life in a way that doesn't make immediate sense. He also dances back and forth into pop-psychology about Knox's fatherless childhood and the surrogate father figure that Washington became to him later on, always dangerous ground imho. And ultimately (because, I think, of the style of the book), Puls never satisfactorily answers the burning question: If Knox was one of the foundation stones of the Revolution, why is it that only history geeks have even heard his name these days? Sure, Knox was an ardent Federalist and his fame diminished when that party's fortunes crashed, but so were other now well-known figures like Adams and Hamilton (for the latter of whom Puls seems to display some hostility).

Puls' book also contains some technical flaws. First, there are a number of rayther glaring missprints which suggest a not-too-thorough editing job. Also, Puls has a habit of identifying correspondence as, e.g., "in a letter dated Friday, July 18, 1787" that began to make me twitch after a while. Who cares what day of the week it was written? And if it is important, why so? Puls does not elaborate.

There are also some curious substantive omissions and errors. For example, Puls notes the longstanding friendship between Knox and Gen. Nathaniel Greene, and while he refers in general to Greene's success in the southern theatre, he never once identifies the Battle of Cowpens, Greene's great victory over Cornwallis that was critical in Cornwallis' decision to retreat into Virginia, where he was eventually trapped at Yorktown. I note this simply because Puls does make numerous references to other critical battles in which Knox and his friends did not participate directly, such as those at Saratoga. Also, at one point Puls states that Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were guillotined by the French Revolutionaries in January, 1793. This is incorrect and just plain sloppy: Louis himself was beheaded then, but the mob did not do away with the Queen until October of that year. Also, there is not a single map, diagram or picture in the entire book. Particularly given Puls discussion of the siege of Boston and Washington's attacks on Trenton and Princeton, I think such aids would have been very useful.

All in all, however, I think the book was well worth my impulsive purchase of it. As I say, a good overview of an interesting man. But those looking for more indepth scholarship might want to seek it elsewhere.

Posted by Robert at May 14, 2008 02:24 PM | TrackBack

Actually, Cowpens was Morgan v. Tarleton, not Greene v. Cornwallis. Maybe you're thinking of Guilford Courthouse, the phyrric vistory for Cornwallis that preceded the race to the Dan?

Posted by: ScurvyOaks at May 19, 2008 05:28 PM