Henry Knox wrote a letter in 1797 to President Washington, in which he makes reference to the kind of personal tragedy which was then part of 18th century life - even for those of his wealth and potion - but which seems almost inconceivable today.
"The loss of two lovely children, on which you condoled in that letter [of last summer], has been recently revived and increased by the death of our son, of seven years of age, bearing your name. His health has always been delicate, having been born prematurely. We flattered ourselves that his constitution would mend with his years, but we have been disappointed. Unfortunate, indeed, have we been in the death of eight of our children, requiring the exercise of our whole stock of philosophy and religion. We find ourselves afflicted by an irresistible, but invisible power, to whom we must submit. But the conflict is almost too great for the inconsolable mother, who will go mourning to her grave".
Henry and Lucy (Flucker) Knox were married in 1774 against the wishes of her loyalist father, at that time the Royal Secretary of the Province of Massachusetts Bay. Lucy Knox was traveling with Knox toward New York in 1776 when she had to be left behind in Fairfield, Connecticut to deliver their first born. She was with him at Valley Forge and for most of the remainder of the war, and her pregnancies came in quick succession, eventually giving birth thirteen times. Only three of their children survived to adulthood.
By the time the war ended, both she and her husband had become very fat - he tipping the scales at 290 pounds, she at 250. They eventually retired to her family estates in Maine, which she alone could inherit since they had been Tories. Whenever our family makes the turn out of Thomaston toward Port Clyde en route to Monhegan Island, we pass their grandiose "Montpelier" which is now a museum. Writing about "Lady Knox" in American Heritage, Diana Forbes-Robinson notes:
"Here William Bingham Knox, aged eleven, and Augusta, aged nine, died on the same day, probably of diphtheria, and within a year, Julia Wasdworth, an enchanting girl of fifteen, died of rapid consumption. Lucy’s final pregnancy brought her a stillborn child. A bedroom in Montpelier became known as the “dead room,” where each victim in turn was laid out. In the end only three children were spared her of the thirteen she bore—the eldest, Lucy; Henry Jackson, who caused endless heartache by his instability; and the youngest girl, Caroline."
Having endured the stillbirth of our first child, I cannot conceive of the grief attendant to the loss of ten, especially living children cut short before adulthood. Mrs. Knox is described as "high-strung, demanding and stubborn", but who can say whether these character traits ossified around the hard lump of such losses? And after the deaths of so many of his children, even as Henry Knox puts on a brave face for his old commander, he allows that the inscrutable ways of God had become a faith straining affliction.
In this age of modern miracles, we expect our children to grow and prosper. We set aside the "what if" chapters of the guides for expectant parents little thinking that a time will come when we will have recourse to their sober contents. Once that happens, though, we discover a larger fellowship of grief than we suspected still exists in our society. The scale of the tragedy is different in an age of smaller families, but no less painful and perhaps even more unexpected than in the Knox's day. It still requires "our whole stock of philosophy and religion" to come to terms with our grief.