Young and vivacious, Lucy Knox surrendered privilege and comfort to be with her lover, Henry, on the long journey to revolution and victory.
In August 1773, as a local militia drilled on Boston Common, 17-year-old Lucy Flucker observed a tall, “uncommonly good-looking officer” on horseback. The officer, Henry Knox, wore a dark silk cloth tied around his left hand to disguise its disfigurement from a gun accident that had blown away two of his fingers. Intrigued, Lucy was soon visiting Knox at his New London Bookstore, a fashionable meeting place frequented by the likes of John Adams and Nathanael Greene.
It was a curious match in a city about to be engulfed by the American Revolution and one that would personify the complexities of the coming split between England and the American colonies. At 24, Knox was a rising star among Boston’s patriots with a keen interest in military science, a passion he indulged by reading everything he could find on the subject. Lucy was the independent-minded daughter of loyalists. Her father was Thomas Flucker, the Crown-appointed secretary of Massachusetts; her mother, Hannah Waldo Flucker, was heiress to vast tracts of land in the district of Maine. But Knox was so smitten by Lucy’s flashing dark eyes, glossy black hair and voluptuous curves that he fumbled making change for his customers whenever the spirited young woman appeared in his shop. Before long, the couple was talking of marriage.
Lucy’s parents disapproved. Knox, they protested, was a lowly “man in trade,” and his radical attitude toward British rule was quite objectionable. Everything Lucy enjoyed—the family’s Summer Street townhouse, fine clothes, books, imported household goods, servants—emanated from her father’s royal appointment. If Lucy married Knox, they warned, she would “eat the bread of poverty and dependence.”
None of that mattered to Lucy. She was determined to marry Henry and cast her lot with the patriots. She “claimed the privilege of thinking for herself on a subject so deeply involving her own happiness,” Lucy’s daughter, Lucy Knox Thatcher, later observed. The Fluckers eventually “gave a half-reluctant consent” but “refused to sanction [the marriage] by their presence.” On June 16, 1774, six weeks before her 18th birthday, Lucy married Henry at Boston’s King’s Chapel. The only attendants were her sister Hannah and her half-sister Sallie.
Lucy had wed “the best and tenderest of friends,” whom she called “her Harry,” but war intruded on their happiness. After the battle at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, General Thomas Gage, commander of the British forces in America and a friend of Lucy’s father, pressed Knox to join his army. Knox refused. Gage resorted to threats: If Knox tried to leave Boston he would be arrested.
The Knoxes would not be bullied. Wielding her needle, Lucy “quilted” Henry’s sword into her cape. One moonless night they slipped out of Boston and arrived in Cambridge, where the burgeoning revolutionary army was camped. While Henry volunteered to serve, Lucy, like other displaced patriotic women who followed their husbands into war, sought refuge in a local “safe house.” Henry had different frustrations. From his intensive study of artillery and engineering manuals, Henry recognized the need for defensive lines around Roxbury to secure the only land route out of Boston, but he’d been forced to leave his manuals behind. Relying on his memory, he built fortifications so impressive that George Washington appointed him colonel of artillery in October.
Lucy, meanwhile, had reluctantly moved in June to the safer, more distant town of Worcester, but separated from “her Harry” and pregnant with her first child, she felt alone and invisible. Henry was “always in my thoughts, whose image is deeply implanted in my heart.” Knox was equally devoted, calling Lucy “the dear idol of my heart” and “the charmer of my soul,” but he could not ignore the desire “to render my devoted country every service in my power.”
In early November 1775, Washington assigned Knox to retrieve the big guns of Fort Ticonderoga. The Americans had captured the fort in May, and its artillery pieces were desperately needed at Boston, where the British had been under siege since Lexington and Concord. Lucy, by then nearly five months pregnant, was horrified at the thought of Henry’s 600-mile round trip to the shores of Lake Champlain with winter coming on. If Henry perished from disease, exposure or attacks by the British or British-allied Indians, what would become of her and her unborn child? “Don’t be afraid. There is no fighting,” Henry reassured her. “I am going upon business only.” The three weeks’ absence Henry originally estimated for the journey turned into 58 tense days. Finally, on January 24, 1776, Knox and his troops reappeared on the Boston Post Road with 43 cannons and 16 heavy guns. Lucy—and the Continental Army—rejoiced.
To celebrate this remarkable achievement, on February 1, the Knoxes were invited to dine in Cambridge with Washington and his newly arrived wife, Martha. Lucy was in her element at social functions, even with her advanced pregnancy, and Martha warmed to her wit and charm, becoming a fond friend. Henry was preoccupied with the placement of the rescued guns, but on February 25, Knox asked his fellow artillery officer Henry Burbeck to position several cannons at Lechmere Point for him. “These things I should have done myself,” Knox explained, “but Mrs. Knox, being exceedingly ill, prevents my leaving her.” In 18th-century parlance that meant Lucy was in labor. The next day she delivered a girl, also named Lucy. Still more triumphs lay ahead when on March 4, 2,000 Americans stealthily placed more than a dozen cannons on Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston. The next morning British General William Howe was stunned to see the formidable firepower now looming over his position. He soon decided to evacuate the city.
Lucy was ecstatic. “Her Harry” had become a hero. Yet joy quickly turned to sorrow when she learned her mother and sister had sailed with the British to Nova Scotia—without a letter of farewell. Lucy returned to Boston, a city devastated by its British occupiers, with her new baby but without Henry. Washington believed the British would attack New York City next and ordered the Continental Army to relocate there.
Contrary to Washington’s expectations, the British did not immediately appear in New York. After weeks of waiting, Lucy grew impatient and saw no reason to delay joining her husband. Henry reiterated his qualms about a British invasion, but Lucy would not be deterred. She appeared in Manhattan with her infant in early June. Reunited with Henry at his residence in Bowling Green, she hosted dinners for other officers, toured New York with General Nathanael Greene’s wife, Caty, and visited the Washingtons on Staten Island. All went well until the morning of June 29. As the Knoxes ate breakfast in their home overlooking New York Harbor, an ominous fleet of sails appeared on the horizon. The British had arrived.
“You can scarcely conceive the distress and anxiety that [Lucy] then had,” Knox reported to his brother William in Boston. “Guns firing, the troops repairing to their posts and every thing…bustle.” Worst of all, Knox had no time to calm Lucy, saying, “My country calls were loudest.” In the press of war, he had “scolded like a fury at her” for having stayed too long on the island.
Stung by Henry’s outbursts, Lucy and her baby left for Fairfield, Conn., with Caty Greene and another officer’s wife. In an angry letter, she proclaimed, “I am not deserving of the severe censure that I have received.” Especially irksome was Henry’s habit “to remind me of my incapacity of judging for myself….I am afraid you do not bestow the time to read my scrawls with any attention.” After a week without word from Henry, a letter finally arrived on July 18. Knox explained he had hustled Lucy out of New York for her own safety and “out of the most disinterested friendship cemented by the tenderest love.” Chagrined, Lucy apologized. “It grieves me that I have…given you pain but I [am] sure you will…forgive when you reflect, that my affection for my dear Harry led me into the error.”
Even so, the Knoxes’ marriage was strained by separation and distressing news from the front lines in New York. Through the autumn of 1776, Lucy remained in Connecticut as Washington’s army endured defeats in New York, Harlem Heights and White Plains. When several of Lucy’s letters failed to arrive, Knox complained to her that he was “exceedingly afflicted.” On November 6, Lucy fumed, “You accuse me of neglecting to write by three posts—and impute it to pleasure or negligence— neglecting you is a thing I never shall be guilty of.” She wasn’t so sure about Henry, completely engrossed as he was in the war: “I imagine by this time you have almost forgot my very looks and if perchance my name is mentioned you cry what have we to do with women….Alas, what a change from the happy days I have seen.”
As the war dragged into 1777, Lucy keenly felt the absence of her family. She reached out to Hannah in Halifax: “I wrote several times during the siege of Boston but never obtained a line in answer, a circumstance that surprised and grieved me….I am not only deprived of father, mother, brother & sisters but also denied the satisfaction of hearing of their welfare….My sister, how horrid is this war, Brother against Brother and the parent against the child….The art of killing has become a perfect science.” Adding to her distress, Henry had forbidden her to visit him until she was inoculated against smallpox, which was rampant in the American camps. “I am very anxious to have it immediately,” she wrote Henry in April and soon reported that she and little Lucy had been inoculated successfully. Still he refused her visit.
The war was going badly for the Americans, but things also looked bleak on the home front. “The behavior of our town meeting has almost made me a Tory,” Lucy declared in May. “Old Mr. Erving is among the number who they have passed a vote to confine in close jail…upon the suspicion of their being Torys. I do not mean to blame them for ridding themselves of those persons who in case of an attack, would take a part against them, but their meddling with that old gentleman…can be from no other motive but to share his estate….The mob have so much the upper hand at present.”
By August Lucy could no longer contain her frustration. Henry had been promoted to brigadier general and chief of artillery in January and she fretted that his rising authority in the Continental Army came at her expense. “I hope you will not consider yourself as commander in chief of your own house,” she wrote, “but be convinced there is such a thing as equal command.” Henry finally relented in May 1778 and invited Lucy to visit him at Valley Forge, which by then had overcome the hardships of the previous winter. Food was in ample supply, and reinforcements had been trained for battle. As soon as Lucy arrived at the camp near Philadelphia,
Henry folded her into his arms. So compatible were the Knoxes that their friend Nathanael Greene wrote his peevish wife, Caty, that they seemed “a perfect married couple.” But “Mrs. Knox is fatter than ever, which is a great mortification to her,” Greene gleefully added. “The General is equally fat,” Greene noted, “and therefore one cannot laugh at the other.” Indeed, the Knoxes’ size was often commented on—Lucy weighed 250 pounds, Henry nearly 300.
Once settled in Knox’s hut, Lucy visited with the wives of other officers and helped Martha Washington sew shirts and knit stockings for the soldiers. Her visit was short, however, for the Continental Army was preparing for the summer offensive. During the June 28 Battle of Monmouth, Lucy and her daughter lived with friends in New Jersey, but in August they joined Knox in camp at White Plains.
In November 1778, Lucy, pregnant for the second time, followed the Continental Army to its winter residence in Middlebrook, N.J. There the Knoxes lived in a Dutch farmhouse adjacent to the Pluckemin Artillery Cantonment, an academy Henry had established to train artillery and engineering officers.
On a sunny Thursday, March 18, 1779, the Knoxes hosted the Grand Alliance Ball at the academy to commemorate the first anniversary of the American alliance with France. Once again, Lucy’s pregnancy did not interfere with her social duties. She relished playing the role of hostess to some 400 guests, among them military officers, their wives and prominent patriots, including Benjamin Franklin and former president of the Continental Congress Henry Laurens. And she was proud of her husband for organizing what is now recognized as America’s first war college. After a cannonade, military processions, toasts, a banquet and fireworks, Lucy danced a minuet with Washington to open the ball.
Ten days later she delivered a second daughter, Julia. “Though we wished a son…it is a divine child,” Knox wrote his brother. By May 2, Lucy felt so well that she rode to Middlebrook to watch the Continental Army parade before the French minister Conrad Alexandre Gérard. A week later, however, she grew “most alarmingly ill.” Her skin turned yellow, leading the doctors to conclude she suffered from “jaundice, occupied by bilious obstructions.” In all probability, she had contracted infectious hepatitis, a disease common to overcrowded sites like army camps. Lucy slowly regained her health that spring but young Lucy and baby Julia fell ill.
In late May, an alarm sounded through Middlebrook. General Howe’s men had seized Stony Point, N.Y., a key garrison on the Hudson River. The next day, the British took Verplanck’s Point on the opposite shore, blocking the river crossing at King’s Ferry. Washington ordered the army to the Hudson. From his headquarters near Newburgh, Knox anxiously inquired about “dear Julia,” and asked his wife to “kiss her and my angelic Lucy for me.” Ten days later Lucy reported that the baby was gravely ill. On July 2 Julia died.
The Knoxes were devastated. Plans to bury the child in the nearby Dutch Reformed churchyard were scuttled when it was discovered that the Knoxes were Congregationalists. Local legend has it that Lucy and Henry’s landlord, Jacobus Vanderveer, solved the problem. “Bury your child here,” he allegedly told Knox and led him to a site beyond the churchyard fence. There lay the grave of his own daughter, who was believed to be insane when she died and had also been buried outside the churchyard. In all probability, Knox remained on duty on the Hudson and time has distorted the story. Nevertheless, Julia Knox and Vanderveer’s daughter were indeed buried outside the fence, and a later generation of congregants moved it to include them.
Lucy was so despondent over the infant’s death that she ceased writing Henry. “I have not had the happiness to hear from you since your Letter of the 28th….I entreat…that you would…confer that pleasure on your Harry,” he wrote. To cheer Lucy, he promised they would soon be reunited. Like her, Knox longed for “that period when my Lucy and I shall be no more separated, when we shall set down free from the hurry, bustle and impertinence of the world, in some sequestered vale.”
After the summer of 1779, Lucy and Henry were rarely apart except during battles. They spent the brutal winter of 1779-80 in camp with the army at Morristown, N.J., where Lucy, six months pregnant, braved her way through a blizzard to attend a “dancing assembly” organized by Washington and his officers. As they had at Middlebrook, Lucy and Washington opened the ball. In May she delivered a son, Henry Jackson. Lucy and her growing family joined Henry at his New Windsor, N.Y., headquarters later that year, and they followed him to Virginia in 1781. While staying with Martha Washington at Mount Vernon, Lucy learned of the British surrender at Yorktown in October.
From the time she left Boston in the spring of 1775 until the Morristown encampment four years later, Lucy Knox moved at least 15 times, often while pregnant or with a baby in tow. In December 1781, she gave birth to her fourth child and second son, who did not live to see his first birthday. Of the Knoxes’ 13 children, only three survived to adulthood.
A 19th-century writer remembered Lucy as “one of the heroines of the Revolution, nearly as well known in the camp as her husband….Both were favorites, he for really brilliant conversation and unfailing good humor and she as a lively and meddlesome but amiable leader of society.” Later generations marginalized Lucy because of her girth, a sometimes elitist manner and an obvious fondness for the good life. The sacrifices that Lucy Flucker Knox, the once privileged daughter of loyalist parents, made to the patriotic cause, her cheerful presence in the army camps of the Revolution and her devotion to Henry Knox were long forgotten.
Nancy Rubin Stuart’s most recent book is Defiant Brides: The Untold Story of Two Revolutionary-Era Women and the Radical Men They Married.
Originally published in the October 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.