The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 27, Number 4, January 28, 2024, Article 24


This new Stack's Bowers Coin Resource Center entry discusses the famous Washington Before Boston medal. Here are two excerpts - the first describes the valiant efforts of Washington's engineer (and professional bookseller) Henry Knox. -Editor

  betts-542-washington-before-boston-silver-medal obverse betts-542-washington-before-boston-silver-medal reverse

Fort Ticonderoga, on the west bank of Lake Champlain, was taken by American forces under Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold in May 1775. Once Washington began assembling his plans to push the British out of Boston, it became evident that the 59 British cannons captured at Ticonderoga represented the nearest American-held artillery - and those cannons were 300 miles away.

Fortunately, Washington's army included an amateur engineer (and professional bookseller) from Boston named Henry Knox, who had familiarized himself with fortifications and cannon during the early days of the campaign. Knox, just 25 years old, impressed Washington enough that the General gave Knox command of an expedition to deliver the guns of Ticonderoga to Boston. Knox left on November 17, 1775, and arrived at Fort Ticonderoga on December 5. The winter weather was brutal on Washington's troops, but welcome beneath the oxen hooves and the sleighs that Knox used to carry 60 tons of iron eastward. Knox took the guns south to Albany, then east to Boston, arriving in Cambridge on January 27, 1776.

The cannon were not originally intended for Dorchester Heights, a high ground that looked down on Boston from the south, but that's where they ended up - and they ended up there all in one night. Under cover of darkness, with the view somewhat blocked by hay bales and other temporary fortifications, Washington's men humped the big guns to the top of the Heights. On the morning of March 5, the British forces awoke to an unimaginable sight: the high ground fortified, the guns of Ticonderoga looming, and their own position under grave threat. Washington had overseen the seemingly impossible, and made the dug-in occupation of the British in Boston indefensible. The British commander on the scene, General William Howe, is supposed to have said "My God, these fellows have done more work in one night than I could make my army do in three months."

When the British artillery erupted on the night of March 9, it was clear to all present that the noisy cannonade was a cover for evacuation. It took ten days for the entire occupation force to leave. After they left, it took Congress less than a week to vote to award their very first ever medal to the man who oversaw the bloodless triumph that saved Boston.

By rights, this medal could just as easily depict the stout Henry Knox, whose image is measurably less easy on the eyes than Antoine Houdon's elegant bust of the godlike Washington. While Washington conceived the plan for the siege of Boston, only Knox's dashing-through-the-snow derring-do enabled the Commander-in-Chief to push Howe's army out to sea.

And here's some information on the design and production of the medal. -Editor

Du Simitière produced a nice design and was paid for it by the Continental Congress. It was never produced. As Congress moved on to prosecuting a full-fledged war against the most powerful nation on the planet, Washington's medal was back-burnered by every committee assigned to it. Eventually, Benjamin Franklin, serving as the minister plenipotentiary to France, was asked to help in September 1779. Franklin dropped the ball, succeeding in obtaining only De Fleury's medal for Stony Point and his pet medallic project, the Libertas Americana medal. Time passed, and David Humphreys was asked to pick the medal project back up in the summer of 1784. He arrived in Paris soon thereafter, set to work, and by the spring of 1785 had successfully nailed down designs and inscriptions from the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in Paris. Washington's medal, along with those for Horatio Gates and Nathanael Greene, was finally coming along.

Humphreys wrote to Washington with an update on May 10, 1785, describing the designs and inscriptions the medal would feature. "I think it has the character of simplicity & dignity which is to be aimed at in a memorial of this kind, which is designed to transmit the remembrance of a great event to posterity," Humphreys wrote, adding "you really do not know how much your name is venerated on this side the Atlantic." The next letter Humphreys sent to Washington from Paris, dated July 17, 1785, noted that "M. Houdon" was set "to depart for Mt Vernon" from Paris, with the help of Thomas Jefferson. Jean-Antoine Houdon and three assistant sculptors arrived at Mount Vernon on October 2, 1785 to produce a statue of Washington that had been commissioned by the state of Virginia. Houdon took a life mask during his two week stay, then returned to Paris to complete the project. Humphreys updated Jefferson on Washington's medal on January 30, 1786, noting "there is no obstacle to commencing the medal for Gen. Washington, since Houdon's return, etc."

While Humphreys apparently inquired with Augustin Dupre about accomplishing the Washington medal, the duty of executing the Houdon bust and other design elements fell to Benjamin Duvivier, who finally finished the dies in the spring of 1789. He was paid 3,600 livre tournois, more than twice the sum he received for the Cowpens medals for Howard and William Washington, and more than the 2,400 livre tournois Dupre was paid for each of the medals to be given to Daniel Morgan and John Paul Jones. The completed gold Washington medal was displayed at the Salon of 1789 that summer in Paris, then hand carried to the United States by Thomas Jefferson in October 1789.

To read the complete entry, see:
Betts-542 1776 Washington Before Boston Medal (

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Wayne Homren, Editor

NBS ( Web

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