Friday, March 23, 2018

Henry Knox and the Noble Train of Artillery

Henry Knox by Gilbert Stuart

Instructions to Colonel Henry Knox
Cambr[idge] Nov. 16 1775
You are immediately to examine into the state of the Artillery of this army & take an account of the Cannon, Mortars, Shels, Lead & ammunition that are wanting; When you have done that, you are to proceed in the most expeditious manner to New York; There apply to the president of the provincial Congress, and learn of him, whether Col. Reed did any thing, or left any orders—respecting these things, & Get him to procure such of them as can possibly be had there. The president if he can, will have them immediately sent hither; If he cannot, you must put them in a proper Channel for being Transported to this Camp with dispatch before you leave New York. After you have procured as many of these Necessaries as you can there, you must go to Major General Schuyler & Get the remainder from Ticonderoga, Crown point, or St Johns—If it should be necessary, from Quebec, if in our hands—the want of them is so great, that no trouble or expence must be spared to obtain them—I have wrote to General Schuyler, he will give every necessary assistance, that they may be had & forwarded to this place with the utmost dispatch—I have given you a Warrant to the paymaster General of the Continental army, for a Thousand Dollars, to defray the expence attending your Journey, & procuring these Articles, an Account of which you are to keep & render upon your return. Given under my Hand at Head Quarters at Cambridge this 16 day of November Annoque Domini 1775
Go: Washington
Endeavour to procure what Flints you can. (Source)

The Berkshire Mountains as seen from the New York border,
Henry Knox would recognize this view.

In the winter of 1775-76, Henry Knox, formerly a bookseller in the town of Boston, was sent by General George Washington to Fort Ticonderoga at the southern end of Lake Champlain. The fort had been seized in May of 1775 by Colonels Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold, yes, that Benedict Arnold.

While the fort was in disrepair and had been weakly garrisoned, the American colonists discovered there a store of cannon, powder, and flint. Something desperately needed by the forces surrounding the town of Boston, garrisoned by the British Army under General William Howe.

General Howe was content to remain in Boston, he had been at the Battle of Bunker Hill (more properly Breed's Hill) and had witnessed the Pyrrhic victory gained by the red coated British troops that day.

As Lieutenant Colonel James Abercrombie, late of His Majesty's 22nd Regiment of Foot, lay dying of his wound* some few days after leading the grenadier battalion in an assault upon the hill, said...

"a few such Victories would Ruin the army."

Not wishing to assault the entrenched colonials again, the British waited.

General Washington knew of the guns at Ticonderoga, so he sent Colonel Knox and some men to fetch them. (Technically a civilian when sent to get the guns, Knox had actually been granted a colonel's commission by the Second Continental Congress in November. He was unaware of that at the time. Then, sometimes now as well, the wheels of government move slowly.)

It was a hard journey which you can read about here, Wikipedia I know, but the description is concise and fairly accurate. I have traveled through the Berkshires in the winter, fortunately in a car, not on foot dragging cannon through the forests, and those are ancient hills, said to be amongst the oldest mountains on the planet. Heavily forested and prone to a lot of snow in the winter. (That I've witnessed!)

I cannot imagine moving through those woods and hills in the dead of winter. Somehow Colonel Knox and his men did it. New England tradition has it that one morning the British awoke in Boston to see fortifications looming over them from Dorchester Heights, stocked with the cannon that Knox and his troops dragged, mostly by sleigh, all the way from Ticonderoga. Not long afterward, the British Army and their Tory friends sailed away from Boston.

Never to return.

While the reality is rather less romantic (and you can read all about it in Derek Beck's excellent bookThe War Before Independence: 1775-1776) it is one of the tales I heard growing up in Vermont.

And as a rather stout, bookish fellow myself, Henry Knox has always been one of my personal heroes as well as being a hero of the American Revolution.

That's a long way to move cannon in the winter, or any season for that matter.

And in reality, they used horses mostly, though most paintings show oxen!)
One last thing, looking for some fascinating reading? Check out the Founders Online, it's where I found General Washington's letter to Colonel Knox. Lot's of great material there, I fear I may wander in and never come out! (Well except to write a blog post every now and again...)

* Said wound being inflicted by an American soldier of African descent, Salem Poor.


  1. Spend enough time visiting the sites listed on your sidebar, now ANOTHER site to "down the rabbit hole"(heh-heh). Not as if I don't have the time being retired and there's no outdoor jobs to do yet and it's too cold/windy for the range.....hmmmmm lets check Mr. Jefferson....

    1. Hahaha!

      It's the same with me, also there are so many books you readers have recommended that I need to read. I need to retire just to keep up!

  2. Colonel Knox is one of the few in command rank (colonel and above in the Continental Army) who didn't turn against George Washington at one time or another during the War for Independence. It makes him a rare and special man - a citizen soldier who understood loyalty as well as service. At a time when many of command rank were trying to feather their own nests, Henry Knox just served. And he ended the war viewed properly as a hero.

  3. More history that I was unaware of. Well done! By the way I love to browse the links on your sidebar and I noticed recently that "Your Crazy Uncle Bubba" has disappeared. Any idea what happened?

    1. Thanks Russ.

      I think Bubba fell afoul of Google, seems his blog has been taken down. Sigh...

  4. I remember back in '76 there was a tv show Go USA ( renamed for the bicentennial) that featured a story on this.I need to find the book you mentioned.


    1. Missed that, I was on Okinawa for most of '76.

      I think you'll enjoy the book.

  5. Just when the Sun starts shining and spring begins, you gotta drag out Ol’ Man Winter again.

  6. Knox has always been a favorite of mine, also. Not the most, hrmmm, physically fit persons, being always rather rotund, and not the normal ideal of the steely-eyed Minuteman. More a normal dude, who achieved epic heights by just being the best he could be. A fat bookseller. Who, because he read a book on artillery, knew more than the people around him, so, "poof" he became the Chief Artillery Officer of the Continental Army.

    He kicked ass.

    He was one of the few officers to remain completely loyal to Washington during the war.

    And he loved his wife until he died.

    Ha, fat white dudes are just plain scary when they get moving, ain't they? Something people these days ought to be remembering, ayup.

  7. Another superlative post.

    Thanks for the post.
    Paul L. Quandt

  8. All recommendations for history books are gratefully accepted. I devour history books like some folks read romance bookshelves are overflowing, and still I buy more. I feel I have serious problem; at least hubby is afflicted with the same disease!

    1. It's good that one's spouse shares the same passion.

      There are two books which Mr. Beck wrote concerning the years just prior to 1776. Both are excellent and I highly recommend them, the one I mentioned in the post is the second.

  9. Well, at least in doing this in the winter time, Knox and his company didn't need to worry about the black flies. They can be brutal from late April through late October, depending on when the hard frost occurs. And, by sleigh would be the best way to move heavy cannon, as the roads in that neck of the woods were just Indian trails in many places. At least until you got as far east as middle Massachusetts. But a sleigh, over a hard packed surface, would move right along. Of course, breaking that trail to make the "hard-packed surface" would be quite the job.


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