Labeled in history as the father of American army artillery, Henry Knox was born in Boston, Massachusetts on July 25, 1750, the seventh of ten children, to Scots-Irish immigrants William Knox and Mary Campbell. William’s profession was that of a shipmaster whose trading territory was the West Indies. In 1759, William died at the age of fifty due to the emotional stress surrounding financial difficulties.
Henry was 12 when his father died. He quit school and went to work as a clerk in one of Boston’s bookstores to support his mother. He later opened his own enterprise, the London Book Store. An avid, though slow reader, Henry was fond of history and self-educated himself in the study of artillery. (In military-speak, artillery is composed of crew-served big guns, howitzers, or mortars which have the capability of projecting munitions beyond the range of infantry weapons or small arms.)
On June 16, 1774, Henry married Lucy Flucker, the daughter of Boston Loyalists. Though they would endure long periods of separation due to Knox’s military assignments, their marriage was strong and they remained a devoted couple until Henry’s death. During his time away, they carried on an extensive amount of correspondence. Lucy’s life during the course of the Revolution was essentially homeless due the couple fleeing Boston in 1775 and her parents returning to England after Washington’s success at Dorchester Heights. That was the last time Lucy would ever see them.
As early as 1772, Knox showed a strong support for the American cause. He greatly favored the rebel organization known as the Sons of Liberty and witnessed the Boston Massacre. He joined the Boston Grenadier Corps and volunteered during the Battle of Bunker Hill in June of 1775. During this time he served under the direction of General Ward, who commanded the Boston colonials. In 1775, command would transfer to General George Washington. After Knox met Washington, they quickly developed a friendship which would carry on throughout their lives.
Washington was aware of the special part artillery would play for the Continental Army and when he learned Knox was well-versed on the topic, Washington sought his opinion on what should be done. Knox felt the cannons at Fort Ticonderoga, located in upstate New York, would be of great benefit. After Knox received a colonel’s commission, Washington placed him in charge of the artillery and gave him the task of transporting the cannons from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston.
The task Knox now faced would not be easy. The fort’s French artillery weighed approximately 120,000 pounds consisting of mortars, 12 & 18 pound cannons (guns which fired cannon balls weighing 12 & 18 pounds) & a giant 24-pounder made of brass. 58 mortars and cannon were selected by Knox. Each of three mortars weighed in at one-ton. The brass cannon was 5,000+ pounds (2-1/2+ tons).
Add to this the trip occurred during the dead of winter. Utilizing horses and oxen, Knox and the men assigned to aide in the mission would travel for 300 miles over snow and ice to Boston. After leaving Fort Ticonderoga with the cannons on board ox-drawn sleds, Knox’s band journeyed south along the Hudson River’s western bank to Albany. Here they crossed the Hudson and continued east through the Berkshires, finally arriving in Boston. These weapons would form the basis of the Continental Army’s artillery and play a vital role in the Battle of Dorchester Heights.
Once Boston was in the hands of the Americans, Connecticut and Rhode Island received help from Knox to form a proper defense in preparation for the next onslaught by the British. In the meantime, Washington began to move a number of soldiers to New York. Knox joined him there later. When 18,000 American troops faced off against 30,000 British on December 8, 1776, the Americans were forced to withdraw to Trenton. In the process, the Americans seized all boats along the Delaware River, making it impossible for the British to follow.
Knox worked with Washington to encourage the troops, who at this time were severely reduced in number, poorly armed, scantily clothed and quite despondent. On Christmas night, during the Battle of Trenton, a return voyage was made by the troops when Washington’s famous trip across the Delaware occurred. Though hampered by the ice and cold, Knox worked with John Glover’s Marbleheaders to transport an attack force comprised of artillery, men and horses across the river. No losses of any type resulted in the process. The colonial troops were able to use the element of surprise in their favor against the Hessian forces who occupied Trenton. In the process, 1,000 men were captured, as was a stockpile of needed supplies. Later, under Knox’s direction, 2,500 Americans made yet another trip across the Delaware with their spoils and prisoners in tow. The success did much to lift the troops’ spirits from its downward spiral and resulted in Knox receiving a promotion to brigadier-general.
In 1777, Knox’s position over the artillery came close to being usurped by a Frenchman named Monsieur Ducoudray, backed by Silas Deane, who at that time served as America’s Minister to France. After his interview with Washington, Ducoudray prepared to present himself to Congress. Washington immediately sent a letter to Congress, dated May 31, 1777, on behalf of General Knox. In the letter, Washington stated:
“General Knox, who has deservedly acquired the character of one of the most valuable officers in the service, and who combating almost innumerable difficulties in the department he fills, has placed the artillery upon a footing that does him the greatest honor; he, I am persuaded, would consider himself injured by an appointment superseding his command, and would not think himself at liberty to continue in the service. Should such an event take place in the present state of things, there would be too much reason to apprehend a train of ills, such as might confuse and unhinge this important department.”
In addition to Washington, Knox received backing from Generals Green and Sullivan. Knox retained his position and Ducoudray volunteered under Washington’s command. Though he proved a knowledgeable engineer, he never received preference over Knox. In the summer of 1777, Ducoudray rode a very spirited steed through Chester County, Pennsylvania while in search of Washington. In the process of entering a flat-bottomed boat to cross the Schuylkill River, Ducoudray lost control of the animal and suddenly both he and the beast plunged into the river where Ducoudray drowned.
The time Knox spent at Valley Forge was of great benefit to the Continental Army due in part to his ability to assist in organizing crews as they erected forts. The structures provided needed shelter for a defense against British attack during the Army’s winter encampment. He left for a short time to visit his family in Massachusetts, but though on a bit of a holiday, he remained active in his efforts to enhance the revolutionary cause.
While in Massachusetts, he was effective in rushing needed supplies to the troops from the New England states, as well as establishing the Springfield Armory and raising an additional battalion prior to his return in the spring. The arsenal he created served a valuable source of weaponry and ammunition throughout the remainder of the war.
A few years later, Washington sent Knox as his representative to the northern states in an effort to obtain needed aid. Washington hoped he was facing the war’s last campaign. On January 1, 1781, Washington sent Knox a letter from New Windsor in which he said:
“You will generally represent to the supreme executive powers of the States, through which you pass, and to gentlemen of influence in them, the alarming crisis to which our affairs have arrived, by a too long neglect of measures essential to the existence of the army, and you may assure them, that, if a total alteration of system does not take place in paying, clothing and feeding the troops, it will be in vain to expect a continuance of their service in another campaign.”
Knox proved successful in his efforts.
Prior to the Siege of Yorktown, Knox had outfitted the artillery in a strategic position. Following the surrender of General Cornwallis on October 19, 1781, Knox received a promotion to Major General.
In 1782, Knox was stationed at West Point and remained at this post until the British evacuated New York. He left West Point in the fall of 1783, following the British as they departed, then met with his officers at Fraunces Tavern on December 4th for a final assemblage prior to Washington’s withdrawal from New York. Knox then returned to Boston where he received a warm welcome.
In 1785, Congress elected Knox to the position of Secretary of War. In 1789, he was appointed to that same position in the new cabinet of President George Washington. In this capacity, Knox faced the growing unrest taking place on the young country’s western frontier. A treaty was finally put into place under Knox’s capable leadership, thereby restoring law and order.
On December 28, 1794, Knox submitted his letter of resignation to President Washington. In it, Knox told his longtime friend:
“After having served my country nearly twenty years, the greatest portion of which under your immediate auspices, it is with extreme reluctance, that I find myself constrained to withdraw from so honorable a station. But the natural and powerful claims of a numerous family will no longer permit me to neglect their essential interest. In whatever situation I shall be, I shall recollect your confidence and kindness with all the power and purity of affection, of which a grateful heart is susceptible.”
It was with regret Washington agreed to accept Knox’s resignation. Then acting Postmaster General Timothy Pickering was appointed to succeed Knox as Secretary of War, taking over on January 2, 1795.
In 1796, General Knox settled with his family at Montpelier, his new estate in Thomaston, Maine. During the closing years of his life, Knox busied himself in a variety of businesses, including: cattle raising, ship building and brick making. He also served his state in both the Governor’s Council and the General Court. Though President Washington sought to appoint Knox as the Commissioner to St. Croix, Knox declined the offer.
On October 25, 1806, Knox died unexpectedly. He was buried in Thomaston, Maine. .
Both good and bad memories serve to illustrate Knox’s character. On the good side, Henry and Lucy were forced to flee Boston in 1775. After they left, the British took up residence in his home and looted his bookstore. Though he suffered personal financial hardship, Knox fulfilled the last payment he owed of £1,000 to London’s Longman Printers. This covered a shipment of books he previously ordered from them, though they were never received.
Those who knew him in Maine had a somewhat negative attitude towards Knox. Remembered more as a grasping tyrant, he served as the model for Colonel Pynchon in Nathanial Hawthorne’s story The House of the Seven Gables.
Across the trail traveled by Knox from Fort Ticonderoga in New York to Cambridge, Massachusetts, 56 plaques are situated approximately 5-3/8 miles apart. The distance between these plaques is how far Knox and his men were able to journey each day while transporting the 59 cannons and mortars for Washington. The 56 identical plaques commemorate the number of days required for Knox to make the journey, which took place from December 5, 1775 until January 24, 1776.
Two American forts, Fort Knox (Maine) and Fort Knox (Kentucky), bear his name. At Fort Sill, Oklahoma, home of the Field Artillery Center and Field Artillery School, Knox Hall is named for him. The states of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Tennessee, and Texas each contain a Knox County in his honor, and Knoxville, Tennessee wears his name as well.
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