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"Those Who Knew And Loved Him": The General Henry Knox Family Documents in the Americana Collection

The DAR Americana Collection explores the life of Revolutionary War General Henry Knox through his letters and other documents and images. The online exhibition features a selection of the materials archived in the Americana Room at DAR Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

In the Service of His Country

In 1775, General George Washington inspected a rampart at Roxbury designed by a 25-year old former bookbinder named Henry Knox and was impressed with the younger man’s abilities.  Self-educated in engineering and military strategy, Knox soon became Washington's chief of artillery and eventually rose to the rank of Major General. 

Knox’s Revolutionary War accomplishments include leading the expedition to transfer sixty tons of captured British cannon from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston, directing Washington’s famous Delaware River crossing, and taking charge of the placement of the artillery at Yorktown.

Knox’s service to the new nation particularly is distinctive in that he was both the last secretary of war under the Articles of Confederation and the first secretary of war under the United States Constitution.  His salary in 1793 was $3,000.

Reprint of portrait of Major General Henry Knox, 1783 By Charles Peale Polk (1767-1822) Copy after Charles Wilson Peale, circa 1800, National Portrait Gallery, NPG.73.11, Smithsonian Institution

In the Service of His Country

Military discharge of George McBride signed by Major General Henry Knox, 1783
Americana Collection, acc. 834

Family and Friends

Henry Knox was born in poverty in Boston to Irish immigrants William and Mary Knox in 1750. After William died at the age of fifty, Henry left Boston Latin Grammar School to apprentice to a bookbinder, helping to support his widowed mother. He became a clerk in a Boston bookstore and opened a bookstore of his own when he was 21 years of age. 

He married Lucy Flucker, the daughter of Boston Loyalists, in 1774.  Ten of their 13 children died before they were grown.  They were formidable and conspicuous not only for their generous sizes—they both weighed over 250 pounds—but also for their gregarious personalities and love of the good life. 

Lucy, spirited and brave, accompanied her husband into the field as often as possible during the Revolutionary War.  Less than one year after their wedding, the Knoxes escaped to Cambridge in the aftermath of the Battle of Lexington and Concord with Knox’s sword sewn into the lining of Lucy’s coat.  During the war, Lucy camped with her husband’s command at New Haven, Morristown, and Valley Forge.

Reminiscences of LFK Thatcher by Lucy Knox Thatcher, n.d.
Americana Collection, acc. 4098 (q)

Family and Friends

Henry Knox and George Washington were great friends as well as colleagues and often socialized together with their families.  Henry and Lucy Knox occasionally hosted official functions when one or both of the Washingtons were unavailable.  The Knoxes’ daughter, Lucy, attended school with Martha Washington’s granddaughter, Eleanor Custis, and recalled becoming “much attached” to her. 

George Washington was a serious, reserved man and often depended on the Knoxes to put his dinner guests at their ease and to provide conversation at the table.  The Knoxes’ daughter, Lucy, wrote that “there was [a]n air of dignity and reserve about this great Man [Washington], which forbid all approaches to familiarity—which inspired a sort of awe, that almost precluded the free enjoyment of social intercourse, not that he wished to produce this effect, he loved to see his friends at their ease, but had not the faculty to make them so, he was deficient in small change, frequently had he requested my Father and Mother to promote conversation around them, saying you know how little luck I have in that line.”   

“…You may rely upon my returning home as soon as possible and endeavor to convince my lovely wife of the purity and strength of my affection for her—may our father who is in heaven…preserve us long a…Happiness to each other…”
Excerpt from Henry Knox to his wife Lucy Knox, c. 1774
Americana Collection, acc. 4098 (c)

Legacy

General Henry Knox retired from President Washington’s cabinet and departed Philadelphia on June 1, 1795.  Knox and his family settled at his family’s estate, Montpelier, at Thomaston, Maine in 1796.  Lucy Knox had inherited the land through her mother, the daughter of Brigadier General Samuel Waldo.  Knox’s intention when he relocated to Maine was to dedicate his "all to the development of the District of Maine." 

Hardly “retired” in the traditional sense, Knox participated in many of the emerging businesses in the area.  He shipped timber, quarried lime, made bricks, built a lock and canal system on the Georges River, built roads, helped to establish a local church, founded local militia groups, and experimented with agriculture, shipbuilding, and land speculation.  Henry Knox didn’t have time to become truly successful at any of these enterprises.  He died unexpectedly at 56 years of age on October 25, 1806.

Henry Knox’s Montpelier was razed in 1871; however, a magnificent replica established in 1929 takes its place.  Montpelier stands as a living memorial to General Knox.  It houses many of the objects he purchased for the original mansion and provides a place for visitors to learn about Knox’s life and times.  For more information about Montpelier, The General Henry Knox Museum, visit: http://www.generalknoxmuseum.org/.   

Image of Henry Knox’s Montpelier, Thomaston, Maine

Legacy

The Society of the Cincinnati was founded by General Henry Knox and other leading Continental Army officers in May 1783.  George Washington served as the Society’s first president from 1783 to his death in 1799.  Henry Knox served as its first secretary.  The Society includes thirteen state societies and a French society as well as its national headquarters located at Anderson House in Washington, DC.  It is both the first and the oldest continuing military hereditary society in the United States.  Among the original purposes of the organization were to provide fellowship for the officers of the Continental Army, to establish a charity to assist members’ families, and to secure pensions for Revolutionary War veterans. 

Certificate of Membership, Society of the Cincinnati of Dr. James Davidson, 1785, signed by George Washington, President and Henry Knox, Secretary
Americana Collection, acc. 1081 (c)

DAR Americana Collection

The Henry Knox papers in the NSDAR Americana Collection consist of 30 letters, one Henry Knox signature clipping, and a multiple-page autobiographical manuscript written by Knox’s daughter Lucy Knox Thatcher.  The correspondence includes letters between Knox and his wife Lucy, sister Hannah, brother William and daughters Lucy and Caroline.  The materials have been transcribed and are available for research use in the Americana Room by prior appointment.  The Historian General’s staff may be contacted by telephone: (202) 879-3256 or email: historian@dar.org.