Henry Knox diary, 20 November 1775 - 13 January 1776
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[ This description is from the project: Witness to America's Past ]
8th. Went on the Ice About 8 oClock in the morning & proceeded so cautiously that before night we got over three sleds & were so lucky as to get the Cannon out of the River, owing to the assistance the good people of the City of Albany gave, In return for which we christen'd her - The Albany.
One of the most notable Revolutionary War generals in George Washington's army was Henry Knox of Massachusetts. Formerly a Boston bookseller and self-educated in military science, Knox rose from the civilian book trade to become the youngest American major general in the Continental Army. Knox's most remarkable achievement during the war was the establishment of a formidable artillery regiment, when virtually none existed, by retrieving the captured cannon from Fort Ticonderoga and dragging them 300 miles through the dead of winter to blast the British out of Boston.1 This small and sketchy diary, hastily penned by the hand of Henry Knox, chronicles his incredible journey from Fort Ticonderoga and across the Massachusetts frontier to Westfield, Massachusetts, where he recorded his last entry just four days before reaching the Cambridge camp.
Born in Boston in 1750, Henry Knox was the seventh son of William Knox and Mary (Campbell) Knox. When his father abandoned the family in 1762, Henry at the age of twelve was apprenticed to a local bookseller. There he devoured the volumes that surrounded him, and he became most interested in military history and engineering science. At the age of twenty-one, the enterprising and sociable Knox opened his own book and stationery store in Boston. It quickly became a favorite meeting place for Boston patriots, British officers, and fashionable women. One lively Tory lady, Lucy Flucker, caught his eye. Henry's staunch patriotism was well known and much to the displeasure of her father, Thomas Flucker, Royal Secretary of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, Henry and Lucy were married in 1774. That same year, the British Army took over the military occupation of Boston.2
In the fall of 1775, the besieged Boston was at a frustrating stalemate. General Washington was in need of big guns to contest the British troops and their imposing naval fleet. The Continental Army, however, had virtually no regular artillery company nor any impressive cannon except for a few unserviceable field pieces left behind by retreating enemy troops. Washington and John Adams were so impressed with Knox's energy and knowledge of military science that they advised Congress to immediately appoint him to succeed the ailing Richard Gridley as colonel of the Regiment of Artillery. Enterprising, energetic, and persistently optimistic, Henry Knox proposed the wild idea of undertaking the trek to Fort Ticonderoga to retrieve the cannon, captured by Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys, to fortify Boston's Dorchester Heights. Washington immediately dispatched Knox to New York commanding that "The want of them [cannon] is so great that no trouble or expense must be spared to obtain them."3 Exceedingly cold weather, snowstorms, and unexpected midwinter thaws were to compound this treacherous journey.
On November 16th 1775, Knox rode to New York City to order ammunition and then proceeded on to Fort Ticonderoga. For three days his troops disassembled fifty-nine brass and iron cannon, howitzers, mortars, and cohorns from their mounts and secured several tons of shot, 2300 pounds of bullet lead, and 30,000 gunflints.4 They then hauled the over 119,000 pounds of guns and ammunition to the northern tip of Lake George for the beginning of an incredible 300-mile journey of unbearable winter hardship. The munitions were loaded onto a "Scow, Pettianger, and a Battoe," and Knox rushed to sail the lake before it froze. At Fort George, he wrote to Washington and promised him a "noble train of artillery."5 For two weeks, Knox hired a convoy of New York teamsters with wagons, sleds, horses and oxen to transport the heavy ordnance down the western Hudson River shore. Holes were cut in the ice to strengthen the river crossing at Albany, but a few of the heavily laden sleds broke through and their vital cargo had to be dredged up from the icy river bottom.6
Knox's impressive artillery train, including "42 exceeding strong sleds" and "80 yoke of oxen," crossed the river and the weary teamsters labored eastward through the freezing weather and snow-covered forests of the New England Berkshires. Massachusetts wagonmasters replaced the New York teamsters at Springfield, and the convoy continued on to Washington's elated army at Boston. Generals Ward and Thomas directed 2,000 men and 400 oxen to position the guns at Dorchester Heights, and the British eventually evacuated the city on March 17th, 1776.7
Major General Henry Knox's formidable artillery regiment continued to exhibit skill, precision, and valor through all the major battles in the North. After the Revolution, Knox was appointed first secretary of war under the Constitution, drew up plans for the military academy at West Point, and was founder of the Society of the Cincinnati. Knox's brilliant military career ended abruptly in 1806 when he died at the age of fifty-six in Maine at his mansion Montpelier.
1. North Callahan. "Henry Knox: American Artillerist." In George Washington's Generals, George Athan Billias, ed. New York, 1964, p. 240.
2. North Callahan. Henry Knox: General Washington's General. New York, 1958, pp. 16-32.
3. George Washington to Henry Knox, Nov. 16, 1775. Knox Papers, MHS.
4. M. L. Brown. Firearms in Colonial America: The Impact on History and Technology, 1492-1792. Washington, 1980, p. 300.
5. Henry Knox to George Washington, Dec. 17, 1775. Knox Papers, MHS.
6. Christopher S. Johnson. "Henry Knox and his noble train of artillery." Harvard Magazine 78 (1976), p. 28.
7. "Major General Henry Knox." The Bulletin of the Fort Ticonderoga Museum 3 (1933), pp. 65-66.