(Richard H. Ryder, 2017)
As a very young man growing up in colonial Boston it seemed unlikely he would become one of America’s military icons. Yet, that is exactly what Henry Knox achieved. Without his self-taught artillery knowledge and persistence, it is possible that today the Union Jack would be flying over government buildings, in schools, and in Masonic lodges in America. Although one of General Washington’s most trusted generals, Knox is hardly a household name like that of Revere, Franklin, or Adams. His career spans many historic moments, but this article will highlight just two: delivering cannon from Fort Ticonderoga and the Battle of Trenton, both watershed moments in the birth of our nation. But first, let’s learn a bit about the early years of Henry Knox.
Growing up in Boston
Henry Knox was born in Boston on July 25, 1735. The son of Mary and William Knox, he was the seventh of ten sons. Only he and three other brothers, John, Benjamin, and younger brother William, survived to adulthood.
His father was a prosperous businessman in imported goods. He also owned a construction yard and a two-story house on Sea Street, now Federal Street, in Boston. However, he soon experienced hard times when the colony fell into depression from Parliament’s 1751 Currency Act, which prohibited the province from issuing paper money. In 1752 Henry’s father left, never to be seen again by his family. John and Benjamin had left home earlier, leaving Henry to care for his mother and three-year-old brother, William. Mary removed Henry from Boston Latin Grammar, a preparatory school for Harvard College, and arranged for him to work at a fashionable Boston bookstore. Here, Henry received paternal attention and moral guidance from the two owners. He was also exposed to great literary works and met influential people, like cousins Samuel and John Adams. It was here that Henry would later educate himself in the art and science of military artillery.
Two events laid the groundwork for Henry’s military asperations, greatly influencing his response to the political and economic conflict brewing between America and Great Britain.
The first event, according Mark Puls in his book, Henry Knox, Visionary General of the American Revolution, occurred when Henry was seventeen. To celebrate the birthday of King George III, the local militia paraded through town. Watching that parade Henry “observed a train of artillery under the command of Lieutenant Adino Paddock.” Pulls mentions that “Henry, impressed with the artillery company…decided to join the ranks.” There, he learned to “build entrenchments and fortifications…engineering and geometry, as well as the calculus involved in gauging distant targets and firing guns with accuracy.” Most importantly, he “learned the best way to transport cannons weighing several tons, how to survey a position to find its topographical strength and weaknesses, and where to place the most effective entrenchments.” This experience, coupled with his self-study of military science, would eventually lead to a distinguished career in the Continental Army in the War for Independence.
The second event that influenced young Henry Knox occurred on the cold night of March 5, 1770, when tensions between Boston citizens and British Regulars culminated in a bloody confrontation. Knox, out for an evening visiting friends in Charlestown, found himself in the middle of a confrontation at the customhouse, not far from his home. A verbal confrontation began between a boy and a British sentry recently involved in a fight at Gray’s Rope manufacturing factory. Knox was six feet tall and not a stranger to an occasional fight. He said to the sentry, according to Mark Puls, “If you fire, you must die for it.” Puls notes that “Under British law, any soldier who fires on residents without orders from the civil authorities was subject to capital punishment.” Pulls continues to state that soon, towns people, yelling insults and profanity, verbally confronted an increasing number of soldiers. The escalating confrontation moved up King Street, now State Street, toward the town house, which we know today as the Old State House. Knox demanded of Captain Thomas Preston that he “Take your men back again. If they fire, your life must answer for the consequences.” Tensions mounted further. A shot was fired and Preston was struck by a club. More shots were heard near the town house and soon five colonists lay dead in what later became known as the Boston Massacre.
With the British occupying Boston following the Battles of Concord and Lexington in April 1775 and the Battle of Bunker Hill in June, it became imperative that the colonists take back the city. What became known as the Siege of Boston required a line of defense. This included Roxbury, which held the only land passage, known as Boston Neck, out of the city. Knox, who took part in the Battle of Bunker Hill, drew up plans for this defensive position. Critical to the line of defense was artillery, which was in short supply. However, cannon at Fort Ticonderoga, recently captured by Benedict Arnold and Nathanial Greene, provided a rare opportunity to add to America’s limited arsenal. But, being 300 miles away, across hills, rivers, lakes, and little used roads, how would the colonists transport 43 cannons and 16 mortars to Boston?
On October 23, commander-in-chief George Washington received a letter from congress authorizing the movement of cannons at Fort Ticonderoga to Cambridge. Knox volunteered for the job. When others doubted the plan, Washington, according to Mark Puls, “saw something in Knox, his energy, his integrity, and his determination, that made him believe the young man could overcome seemingly impossible obstacles.” Puls goes on to say that on November 16, Washington ordered Knox to “gather as many cannons and as much ammunition as he could cart back with him.”
Thus, began the almost impossible task of transporting 120,000 pounds of cannon. Puls tells us the men used gondolas, bargelike scows, and dugout canoes to navigate the short distance to Lake George. Next, sleds and oxen carried the load across land through Kinderhook, Great Barrington, and then to Springfield. However, the snow required to make the journey easier was lacking, jeopardizing the mission.
The goal was to reach Cambridge by New Year’s Day, but that seemed optimistic. Days went by without snow, but then, on Christmas Day, two feet of snow fell and despite bitter temperatures and wind the team reached Albany on December 26th. Then, temperatures rose and delayed a Hudson river crossing. Frost arrived on January 6 and allowed the crossing, but twelve miles of mountainous terrain was ahead of them. Knox had to plead with and cajole the teamsters to push on. Once through, the team was welcomed by residents of Westfield, MA ten miles outside of Springfield. Knox and his team eventually arrived at Cambridge on January 24, three weeks beyond the New Year’s Day plan, but most welcomed and praised for their heroic efforts.
Today, the iconic though misleading image of Washington crossing the Delaware on Christmas day, 1776, is an image of patriotism and bravery. Its artistic liberties should not, however, diminish the real and present danger faced by the Continental army and artillery. These patriots executed a brilliant and almost impossible Christmas day attack on the 1900 Hessian soldiers barracked at Trenton, NJ.
Once again, success was not guaranteed. In fact, mother nature proved a harsh and formidable obstacle, but she was no match for Henry Knox. He was charged with supervising the Delaware river crossing by the main body of the army. The crossing of the 800-foot-wide section of the Delaware at McKonkey’s Ferry, upstream from Trenton, included eighteen field pieces, which were to prove pivotal during the battle. Swift currents and ice threatened the crossing of the 2,400 men, many with tattered clothes and no shoes, leaving blood in the snow as they marched. Present that night was future president James Monroe and future Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton.
Knox remained confident, shouting orders in his baritone voice. Boats forty feet long and two feet deep, with adjustable oars and two masts for sails, were used to cross the frigid waters. Leading the nighttime navigation were Marblehead fishermen. Just before midnight on Christmas day, blinding snow and sleet with a cutting wind hampered the crossing. Washington had hoped to be across the river in plenty of time to travel the nine miles to Trenton and arrive before dawn. That hope was quickly being jeopardized. Knox would later write to his wife, Lucy, that “Perseverance accomplished what first seemed impossible”.
By 2 A.M. the first boats reached the opposite shore, after which Knox lead the process of completing the crossing and bringing the cannon on shore. By 4 A.M., the time when Washington had hoped to be reaching Trenton, the men began to march. This meant that arrival after sunrise would negate the element of surprise. Puls states that “As the blizzard continued, the troops moved out under orders not to utter a sound and with the warning that any man who deserted the ranks would be put to death.” Early on, the terrain was steep, requiring the use of ropes tied to trees to pull the cannon, reminiscent of the trek from Ticonderoga.
A half hour after daybreak, with the snow still falling heavily, the troops under Knox and Nathanial Greene were an hour outside Trenton. The advanced team were beginning to engage the Hessians. Knox, north of the city, then proceeded to seize the enemy cannons, after which he and Washington entered Trenton. To prevent an enemy charge Knox placed field guns and howitzers at the head of King and Queens Street, which ran perpendicular to the river. According to Puls, Knox placed cannon at all routes leading out of town. Knox would later tell Lucy that, “It was impossible for them to get away.”
Knox’s tactics at Trenton proved pivotal and the key to success. By using cannons as mobile field guns, leading the assault, and placing guns at the head of columns rather than behind, Knox proved he could fight a modern war. Years later, Napoleon would use the same tactics to his advantage. On December 27, 1776 the Continental Congress promoted Knox to brigadier general, without knowing of his accomplishments at Trenton.
According to masonicgeneology.com, Henry Knox “was believed to have been a member of The Massachusetts Lodge, which was organized in Boston in 1770, shortly before Henry Knox became of age. Researches, however, by Prof. Gilbert Patten Brown of New Jersey convinced him that General Knox was made a Mason along with Major General Nathaniel Greene, in St. John’s Regimental Lodge in the winter of 1776-77 at Morristown, New Jersey, where Washington’s army went into winter quarters following the victories of Trenton and Princeton. Major General Philip Schuyler of New York presided and Washington himself was present. These facts were communicated to our Lodge [Major General Henry Knox Lodge, chartered in 1926] in a letter of Brig. Gen. William E. Horton which was read at our meeting on September 25, 1929 and are entered in the records of that date.”
Post War Years
Following Knox’s contributions at Yorktown, the last official engagement of the war, Washington promoted him to major general, making him the youngest to hold that rank within the Continental army. Knox later became Secretary of War under the confederation government, helping to suppress Shay’s Rebellion in Massachusetts in 1787-1787. He later served in this capacity during Washington’s presidency. After retiring from public life in 1794, he spent his remaining years on a Thomaston, Maine estate inherited by his wife. Henry Knox tragically died in 1806 after swallowing a chicken bone.
Knox’s impact lasted well beyond his time. His ideas still live on within the National Selective Service manuals. The Springfield arsenal in Massachusetts, originally created by Knox in 1777, operated until 1968. The West Point Military Academy exists today in part due to his belief that there should be a school to train our nation’s military leaders.