Revolutionary Friendship

Two men are sitting drinking pints of ale in a Boston tavern. One is a strapping, full-faced young merchant given to loud laughter; the other has shoulders broadened by work in an iron forge, but is lame, asthmatic and a little unsure of himself in the big city. It’s 1774 and the men are meeting at the Bunch of Grapes, a patriot hang-out. They’re talking about war.

The scene is not documented but we know that something like it occurred. It was the beginning of the remarkable friendship between Henry Knox and Nathanael Greene. In the eighteenth century, bonds of friendship rivaled or surpassed those of romantic love in depth and intensity. Friendship was emotionally sustaining. It was a cohesive force in military and civilian organizations. Cicero, revered in the Revolutionary era, had written, “If you should take the bond of friendship out of the world no house or city could stand.”[1]

In spite of the military flavor of these two friends’ conversation, neither had known combat first hand. Knox, born in 1750, had been too young for the late French war. Greene, eight years older, came from a pacifist Quaker family in rural Rhode Island. It’s hard to imagine two men less likely to play leading roles in a war that would change the course of history.

The catalyst was knowledge. Theory and systematic thinking were having an impact on warfare during the Enlightenment, as they were on many fields. A grounding in the latest system for managing troops was essential for a commander. Artillery was growing more important in battle, and handling big guns required an understanding of mathematics, geometry and chemistry.

Knox had access to knowledge because he ran a bookstore and could indulge his interest in military science. Greene, with his brothers, had inherited a prosperous iron and trading business and could afford a substantial library of military volumes, the titles recommended to him by the more savvy Knox.

1883 engraving depicting the burning of the Gaspee. Source: Harper's New Monthly Magazine, No. 399, August 1883.
1883 engraving depicting the burning of the Gaspee. Source: Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, No. 399, August 1883.

Living in the cockpit of revolutionary fervor, Knox had been studying war for some time. Greene, out in the provinces, had been jolted into political awareness in 1772 when one of his company’s ships was confiscated by the commander of the British revenue cutter Gaspee. An outraged Greene successfully sued over the injustice. He was not involved in the burning of the Gaspee by the Sons of Liberty–at least he had a solid alibi for the night of the attack. The incident focused his mind on the fraught tensions between the colonies and the Crown and made them personal.

They were two very different men. Knox was a fat, self-assured city boy. He had grown up on the raucous Boston streets, where his fists had been a match for those of tough sailors and dock workers. An apprenticeship in a book shop had given him the chance to indulge his wide-ranging intelligence. The boom of a cannon celebrating the king’s birthday in 1767 had drawn him to the intricacies of artillery. He had practiced with a militia unit, then started one of his own.

Into his late twenties, Nathanael Greene had been dominated by a strict, religious father. But Greene loved to read and after the Gaspee affair he had veered ever farther from the pacifism of his Quaker background. Under Knox’s tutelage he had filled his mind with military matters. Soon after the outbreak of violence at Lexington, Greene was writing, “As Marshal Saxe said once . . .”[2] He was showing off his familiarity with the writings of Maurice Comte de Saxe, a leading eighteenth-century authority on warfare. Knox had recommended Saxe’s book to John Adams and probably sold a copy to Greene as well.

The two friends reunited in camp during the siege of Boston. Knox must have been surprised to see Greene arrive at the head of the 1,500 troops sent from Rhode Island. Only months before, Greene had been denied a position as lieutenant in his local militia unit because of his limp. A combination of luck, political connections in the Rhode Island legislature and Greene’s deep book knowledge had catapulted him to the fore. He would soon be named the youngest brigadier general in the Continental Army.

Nathanael Greene, Knox would later write, “came to us the rawest, most untutored being I ever met with,” but in less than a year, the Rhode Islander “was equal, in military knowledge, to any General officer in the army, and very superior to most of them.”[3]

Knox’s rise was less meteoric but just as surprising. Having designed many of the fortifications for the force besieging Boston, he came to the attention of George Washington when the Virginian arrived to assert the authority of the Continental Congress over the ragtag army of New England militiamen. Washington, always an astute judge of men, appointed the twenty-five-year-old Knox over more experienced officers to head the American artillery corps and convinced Congress to raise the erstwhile bookseller to the rank of colonel.

Knox proved himself by pulling off one of the remarkable feats of the war: hauling many tons of ordnance overland from Fort Ticonderoga in New York to Boston. He oversaw the placement of guns on Dorchester Heights that drove the British out of the city in March 1776.

By the time New York became the principal theater of war later that year, Greene and Knox were both among Washington’s most trusted subordinates. Both had married in 1774, and their young wives, Caty Greene and Lucy Knox, accompanied them to the city. They hosted each other for dinner at their respective headquarters. Washington put Greene in charge of critical defenses on Long Island. Unfortunately, as the British invasion loomed, the Rhode Island general fell ill. He missed the subsequent battle, a defeat that almost extinguished America’s recently proclaimed independence.

At the Battle of Harlem Heights in September, Greene first experienced the exhilaration of combat that had long been fueling his imagination. But the real test of his generalship came two months later when he decided to defend what proved to be an indefensible Fort Washington. The British and Hessians captured more than 2,800 men in a few hours. Greene was responsible for the worst loss of the war so far and he knew it.

He was, he wrote afterward, in a “melancholy temper” over “the misfortune of loosing Fort Washington.” He felt “mad, vext sick and sorry.” He turned almost desperately to Henry Knox for solace. “Never did I need the consoling voice of a friend more than now. Happy I should be to see you.”[4]

Not only had Greene been in command, but he and Knox had laid out the general plans of the fort during the frantic preparations to defend New York. “I was afraid of the fort,” he told Knox. “The Redout you and I advised was not done.” He suggested that such dereliction might have been the reason for the fort’s sudden fall. As was his habit, Greene worried about his reputation. “Pray what is said upon the Occasion,” he demanded of Knox. “A line from you will be very acceptable.”[5]

It’s possible that Knox, who had become a close confidant of Washington, put in a word in his friend’s favor. In any case, the commander in chief retained his faith in Greene. Both Greene and Knox contributed to the surprising victory at Trenton in December. Knox performed the Herculean task of getting the troops and guns across the ice-clogged Delaware; Greene led the charge into the village.

Greene came to Knox’s support in the summer of 1777 when Congress considered replacing the portly artillery chief with Philippe Charles Tronson du Coudray, a veteran recruited from France. Both officers threatened to resign if du Coudray was confirmed. Knox, Greene wrote, was “as good an officer as we have in the service.”[6] Congressional delegates sputtered but held off. Du Coudray’s death in an accident rendered the matter moot.

Later that year, the friends enjoyed a rare break from the war: a shopping trip together to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Knox promised his wife he would “purchase some things for my dear, dear Lucy” during his visit to “this singularly happy place” beyond the reach of the war.[7] The arrival of General Howe and the British army at the head of Chesapeake Bay cut short the respite and brought the two officers hurrying back to Philadelphia.

When the grumbling over Washington’s leadership reached a crescendo during the Valley Forge winter following the loss of the capital, Knox and Greene joined to rally around the commander in chief. Their loyalty made them targets for criticism. “Gen’l Knox equally shares the censures of individuals,” an aide wrote to Nathanael Greene, “for having the ear of His Ex__y.” Another correspondent mentioned to Greene that Washington was being pilloried for his “Partiality to You and Genl K.”[8]

As the so-called Conway Cabal unfolded, Joseph Reed wrote to Greene that General Mifflin had claimed he did not “oppose the Commander in Chief, but his Favourites (yourself and Knox) who had an undue influence over him.”[9] Supported by his tight inner circle, Washington got the better of those who had, quite justifiably, raised questions about his ability to command.

With the 1778 campaign season looming, the problem of supplying the army had reached a crisis. Washington asked Greene to give up his field command and take on the duties of Quartermaster General. Reluctant to assume a position that would put himself outside the line of glory, Greene wrote to Knox, “I wish your advice in the affair, but am obligd to determine immediately.”[10] He chose to take on the onerous administrative role.

During the middle years of the war, the two friends made important and parallel contributions to the revolutionary effort. Greene applied his businessman’s mind to the intractable problems of supply and logistics that had brought the Continental army to the point where it must, Washington warned, “starve–dissolve–or disperse.”[11] Moving cannon and keeping gunpowder, muskets and ammunition flowing had long been central to Knox’s duties. Together, the two men played central roles in maintaining the Continental Army in the field.

The responsibilities of their respective positions were enormously burdensome. Only during winter camp did they have time to relax. In the winter of 1778-79, their New Jersey headquarters were five miles apart. In February, Knox hosted an “entertainment” for Continental officers, complete with “a very fine set of fireworks” and “a very splendid ball.”[12] The two men’s wives, along with Martha Washington, had become the leading ladies of the camps, offering solace to their husbands and a touch of domestic elegance appreciated by other officers and men.

Knox and Greene were reunited following the betrayal of Benedict Arnold in the autumn of 1780. Washington had left Greene in charge of the Continental Army when he, Knox and Lafayette had gone to visit French general Rochambeau in Hartford, Connecticut. Arnold’s plot came to light a few days later. When the alarm was raised, Greene led a corps of troops to the suddenly vulnerable post at West Point and Knox set to work reinforcing the works at that critical strongpoint.

Another crisis was already upon them. Congress had sent General Horatio Gates, the hero of Saratoga, to repel the advance of British General Cornwallis’s force in South Carolina. Gates’s army had been virtually obliterated in the battle of Camden. Referring to Gates’s long retreat after the battle, Knox, described as a “hearty and jolly” man, wrote to Greene, “G Gates is recalld to answer to Congress some matters respecting the Geography of the southern states.”[13] He was wryly referring to Gates’s 180-mile “retreat” after the battle.

Someone had to go south, reorganize the shattered army and find some way to stop Cornwallis. Who would it be? Washington selected Nathanael Greene. But although he longed to assume a field command, Greene did not relish the prospect of venturing into an unfamiliar, problematic part of the continent. The likelihood of falling victim to a superior British force and seeing his reputation permanently besmirched gave him pause.

He reportedly told Washington that his friend Henry Knox was the man for the job: “All obstacles vanish before him; his resources are infinite.”

“True,” Washington replied, “and therefore I cannot part with him.”[14]

Portrait of Nathanael Greene by Charles Willson Peale. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Portrait of Nathanael Greene by Charles Willson Peale. Source: Wikimedia Commons

When he arrived in North Carolina, Greene found the situation as desperate as he had imagined. His army was “rather a shadow than a substance, having only an imaginary existence.” Knox wrote him a sympathetic letter, quoting Gen. Alexander McDougall as saying, “By the laird Knox I pity our friend Greene. He must have had a choice of difficulties. Poor fellow!” He ended the letter by asking for a “line” to assure Knox he still had his friend’s “love.”[15]

Greene felt isolated in the South. “I cannot contemplate my own situation without the greatest degree of anxiety. I am far removed from almost all my friends and connections.”

But Nathanael Greene turned out to be the man for the job, just as Washington had suspected. His ability to out-maneuver of Cornwallis in the South became one of the most admired accomplishments of the war.      His masterful command of a “weak force” to achieve victory, Knox wrote, established his friend’s “reputation on the most durable basis.” To John Adams, Knox said of Greene, “without Means, without anything he has performed Wonders.”[16]

It wasn’t long before Greene was returning the compliment, writing to Knox about his critical role in the victory at Yorktown in October 1781. “Your success in Virginia is brilliant glorious, great and important,” Greene declared. “I long to be with you, our spirits are congenial, and our principles and sentiments the same.”[17]

Knox replied that Lucy had just given birth to a son and that he would have named the boy after Greene “were it not for the confounded name given by your scriptural father.”[18] Greene’s Quaker parents had insisted on the Biblical spelling Nathanael, rather than the more common Nathaniel. Knox chose the classical name Marcus instead. Sadly, the boy, like ten of Henry and Lucy’s thirteen offspring, died in childhood.

Greene remained in the South until the peace became official in 1783. Knox wrote of his wish to see his friend. “I would fly to you with more rapidity than most fat men.” But while the war continued, he said, he was “linked in with the cursed cannon.”[19] During their long separation, Knox had berated himself for his “indolence in writing” to his friend. “I have no excuse.” After the last British troops sailed away, the two men were finally reunited in New York. Their meeting was an emotional one. “Your observation,” Greene later noted, “that you was rather affected than joyful was highly flattering to my feelings.” He went on: “My esteem and affection for you has never suffered diminuation and to merit and preserve your friendship and esteem is one of the first wishes of my heart.”[20]

Portrait of Henry Knox by Gilbert Stuart. Source: The Athenaeum
Portrait of Henry Knox by Gilbert Stuart. Source: The Athenaeum

Greene was talked about for the post of Secretary of War in the new government, but he preferred to “indulge the natural bent of my mind which is reading and retirement.”[21] The post went to Knox instead.

Knox personally procured the engraved cannon and the medal that Congress awarded to his friend, but Greene was hard pressed by practical matters. He had long neglected his own business, and he had guaranteed the debts of military contractors toward the end of the war, leaving his finances in shambles.

“I thank you for the polite attention you are paying to my public Trophies,” he wrote to Knox, “but I have been so embarrassed and perplexed in my private affairs for a long time past which originated in the progress of the War that I have but little spirit or pleasure in such subjects.”[22]

Trying to prosper on a farm that the state of Georgia had awarded him, Greene was again vexed by bad luck and demanding creditors. “My family is in distress and I am overwhelmed with difficulties,” he wrote to Knox, “and God knows when and where they will end. I work hard and live poor but I fear all this will not extricate me.” His young wife, he reported, was “transformed from the gay Lady to the sober house wife.”

“This,” Knox noted, “is the last letter I ever received from my truly beloved friend Genl Greene.”[23] Nathanael Greene died of a stroke in June 1786, less than three years after the end of the war he had helped win.

We cannot know how the course of the Revolutionary War might have differed if Nathanael Greene had never stepped into Henry Knox’s bookshop, or if the two men had not formed a bond at the Bunch of Grapes. Their friendship allowed them negotiate the many jealousies and fierce political infighting that plagued the high command in the early years of the war. It sustained them during repeated bouts of disappointment and defeat. Remembering their relationship offers us a human perspective on two of the most important figures of the war.

[FEATURED IMAGES AT TOP: Henry Knox engraving by Alonzo Chappel. Nathanael Greene mezzotint by Charles Willson Peale. Source: Wikimedia Commons]

 


[1] A.C. Grayling, Friendship (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 47.

[2] Richard K. Showman, editor, The Papers of Nathanael Greene, vol. 1 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1976-2005), 90.

[3] Terry Golway, Washington’s General: Nathanael Greene and the Triumph of the American Revolution (New York: H. Holt, 2005), 67.

[4] Showman, The Papers of Nathanael Greene, vol. 1, 351.

[5] Showman, The Papers of Nathanael Greene, vol. 1, 351.

[6] Showman, The Papers of Nathanael Greene, vol. 2, 104.

[7] Showman, The Papers of Nathanael Greene, vol. 2, 146.

[8] Showman, The Papers of Nathanael Greene, vol. 2, 251.

[9] Showman, The Papers of Nathanael Greene, vol. 3, 145.

[10] Golway, Washington’s General, 137.

[11] John Ferling, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 277.

[12] Showman, The Papers of Nathanael Greene, vol. 3, 70.

[13] Showman, The Papers of Nathanael Greene, vol. 6, 380.

[14] Golway, Washington’s General, 165.

[15] Showman, The Papers of Nathanael Greene, vol. 8, 358-9.

[16] Golway, Washington’s General, 286.

[17] Showman, The Papers of Nathanael Greene, vol. 10, 27.

[18] Showman, The Papers of Nathanael Greene, vol. 10, 44.

[19] Golway, Washington’s General, 288.

[20] Showman, The Papers of Nathanael Greene, vol. 13, 253.

[21] Showman, The Papers of Nathanael Greene, vol. 13, 276.

[22] Showman, The Papers of Nathanael Greene, vol. 13, 668.

[23] Showman, The Papers of Nathanael Greene, vol. 13, 669.

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  • By coincidence, yesterday I was looking in four early biographies of Greene for documentation about him knowing Knox before the war. The first mention of such a relationship appears to be in George Washington Greene’s second biography of his grandfather, and he acknowledges it’s no more than a tradition. Similarly, he labels the Bunch of Grapes as a guess. And it seems notable that G. W. Greene didn’t write about either detail in his earlier biography.

    Greene and Knox clearly became good friends and colleagues during the war, but I’m still looking for evidence of when they met.

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