Hazards of Travel

October 25th, 2012

In October 1790, Secretary of War Henry Knox and a Mr. Strong were involved in a carriage accident. As Knox explained in a letter to Jeremiah Wadsworth, the coachman took a turn too fast and the carriage overturned. Although the carriage was “much broken,” Knox and Strong luckily walked away with only bruises. “We do not so much repine at our misfortune as we rejoice at escaping greater evils, which we might have sustained” wrote Knox.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, carriage accidents could be dangerous, even deadly. Gouverneur Morris, New York politician and signer of the Constitution, lost his left leg below the knee in a carriage accident in 1780 and wore a peg leg for the rest of his life. In June of 1789 Daniel Huger, a member of Congress of South Carolina, was thrown from his carriage and fractured his leg. It could have been worse, as carriage accidents sometimes resulted in death. Huger might have shared the 1781 fate of a Massachusetts doctor who was thrown from his carriage, run over by it, and died a few days later.

While Knox’ letter appears to be the only one in the Papers of the War Department describing an accident, there are other instances where department carriages broke down. The receipts for General Wilkinson’s trip from Washington to Pittsburgh in December 1800 show his carriage being repaired at least four times, on the 4th, 11th, 15th, and 17th of that month. Poor road conditions contributed to breakdowns, damaging axles and wheels.

Travel by boat was not necessarily any better. In 1791 a boat carrying ammunition struck a rock, and while no one was hurt they had to transfer the supplies to a new boat. Six years later, a group going up the Allegheny River were less fortunate. Their boat sank, dumping some of the cargo into the river and leaving the rest damaged. Travel, whether by land or water, could be hazardous for members of the War Department.