Big Guns For Washington

How tough Henry Knox hauled a train of cannon over wintry trails to help drive the British away from Boston

Knox was one of those providential characters which spring up in emergencies, as if they were formed by and for the occasion.

—Washington Irving, Life of George Washington .

Men Of The Revolution: 13. John Sullivan

He was Irish, but with neither the proverbial charm nor the luck. Generals are not much known for the former quality, but the latter, as Napoleon suggested, is one no successful commander can be without. And John Sullivan was an officer whom luck simply passed

He was Irish, but with neither the proverbial charm nor the luck. Generals are not much known for the former quality, but the latter, as Napoleon suggested, is one no successful commander can be without. And John Sullivan was an officer whom luck simply passed by. Read more »

Men of the Revolution: 17. Joseph Reed

He served well as Washington’s secretary and Adjutant General early in the War, but Reed was never quite sure how best to use his abilities.

Like many another well-to-do young man of his day, Joseph Reed seems an unlikely revolutionist. His background, money, education, marriage—all these, one would suppose, would have placed him firmly on the side of the status quo, kept him loyal to the Crown. It did not turn out that way, of course; yet Reed was something of an enigma even to his contemporaries. Political radicals thought him insufficiently radical; many fellow officers considered him a reluctant soldier. Read more »

Men Of The Revolution: 15. Frederick Mackenzie

Much of our knowledge about the British conduct of the war comes from Mackenzie’s eight volumes of diaries and drawings, including accounts of some of the critical early battles of the Revolution.

Of the British officers who served in America during the Revolution, the names Howe and Clinton, Burgoyne and Cornwallis, are the ones that echo across the years. There is some irony to this, since none of those captains—with the possible exception of Cornwallis—had any notable claim to posterity’s attention for their accomplishments on this side of the Atlantic. Yet just as they had in their day the perquisites of rank, so they were accorded the privilege of fame. Read more »

Men Of The Revolution: 14. John Hancock

When one of the wealthiest men in the Colonies sided with the Patriot cause, he was called a “wretched and plundered tool of the Boston rebels.”

His name led all the rest. On the document proclaiming America’s independence it is inscribed boldly with flourishes, the mark of a confident, proud man; and the fact that it was written an inch longer than he customarily signed it gave rise to the legend that John Hancock had recorded his name large enough for George in to read without spectacles. Read more »

Men Of The Revolution: 12. Richard And William Howe

The brothers were expected to perform an almost impossible task, subduing a people of the same flesh and blood and heritage.

Wars are more often lost than won, but in 1775 a man who predicted British defeat in the Revolution would have been taken for a fool. The mightiest, richest empire since Rome, Great Britain ruled the seas unchallenged; there seemed no limit to the power and resources that could be brought to bear against the uprising across the Atlantic. Yet after seven years of fighting, England withdrew from the contest, yielded up its sovereignty over thirteen American provinces, and left its lonely monarch to contemplate the wreckage of his hopes.Read more »

Men of the Revolution: 10. Cornwallis

In war the final defeat is the one that counts. Yet there are wars and wars, and only rarely do historians conclude that a particular surrender was not only a cessation of fighting but a watershed marking the end of one epoch and the start of another. Otherwise there would be no memorable pairings of the vanquished with the scene of ultimate disaster—Harold and Hastings, Napoleon and Waterloo, Lee and Appomattox. Read more »

Men Of The Revolution: 9. Israel Putnam

Perhaps the most experienced general in the American army, he was credited with shouting “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” at Bunker Hill. But “Old Put” was not without his faults.

In the early summer of 1775, when the time came to appoint major generals to serve with George Washington in the Continental Army, Congress voted unanimously that Israel Putnam was to be one of them. Then in his fifty-eighth year and known universally as Old Put, he was five feet six inches tall, powerfully built, and had the face of a cherubic bulldog mounted on a jaw cut like a block of wood.Read more »

Men Of The Revolution: 8. John Wilkes

Crowds on both sides of the Atlantic shouted “Wilkes and Liberty!” after he was jailed and thrown out of Parliament for defending the rights of Colonists and the “middling and inferior sort of people who stand most in need of protection.”

Not many political martyrs are born to the part; more often they are cast in it by government officials who are stupid or self-righteous or both. Take John Wilkes: a reckless, ambitious parvenu who became involved in the cause of liberty quite accidentally and emerged the champion of London’s mobs and the darling of America’s rebels—thanks to King George in’s intolerance for dissent. Read more »

Men Of The Revolution: 11. George Rogers Clark

Clark’s career was like the passage of a meteor—a quick, fiery moment that lit up the heavens for all to see and wonder at, then vanishing in oblivion.

It is of a piece with the rest of the story that the portrait of George Rogers Clark which his son described as “a Masterpiece” was painted long after the events that made him famous, when he was in the throes of his final illness, embittered and forgotten. Nor should it surprise anyone familiar with Clark’s sad tale that he should have commissioned the portrait himself or that he personally paid an itinerant painter named C. D.Read more »