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Behind the Lines | Train Man

By Marc G. DeSantis
Autumn 2017 • MHQ Magazine

When the Continental Army captured a huge cache of British artillery at Fort Ticonderoga, George Washington turned to Henry Knox to get them to Boston.

 

IT WOULD HAVE BEEN EASY TO FEEL SORRY for young Henry Knox in 1758. With the colonial economy sinking into depression, his father’s successful shipbuilding business in Boston had begun to falter, forcing William Knox to move his family into less expensive quarters. The following year, when his business failed completely, William Knox abandoned his wife and children for the West Indies.

Henry Knox (Alamy Stock Photo)

Henry, who was nine when his father died of unknown causes the same year, had little choice but to drop out of the Boston Latin School to help support his family. His two older brothers were off at sea, leaving him alone to look after his mother, Mary, and his younger brother, three-year-old William. Henry found employment as an apprentice to William Wharton and Nicholas Bowes, the owners of a prominent Boston bookshop.

Henry was entranced by military history, devouring Plutarch’s Lives and Julius Caesar’s Commentaries, among other books, and also studying the vital engineering disciplines of fortifications and entrenchments. His interest in military affairs was not just theoretical. In 1772 he cofounded a militia unit, the Boston Grenadier Corps, and became its second in command.

A year earlier, at age 21, he had opened his own bookshop, the London Book Store, where in time he attracted the attention of Lucy Flucker, the daughter of a leading Boston businessman. Lucy’s father, a solid Tory, was on the other side of the political fence from Henry, who was decidedly sympathetic to the colonial radicals opposed to King George III’s policies. But Knox persevered in courting Lucy, and they were married in June 1774.

The American colonies were becoming increasingly restive as they chafed under British rule. When fighting broke out at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, in April 1775, Knox knew that he must join the patriot cause. He and Lucy made their way to Worcester, where he left her with friends, and Knox continued on to join the rebel army, encamped in Cambridge north of Boston.

Nearly 14,000 men drawn from the militias of Massachusetts and the surrounding colonies had come to lay siege to Boston, which was in the possession of some 6,500 British troops under the command of Lieutenant General Thomas Gage. Knox set to work planning fortifications for the rebels, including two forts in Roxbury. He soon came to the attention of the newly appointed commanding general of the Continental Army, a 43-year-old Virginia planter and surveyor named George Washington.

The patrician Washington found much to admire in the 24-year-old self-taught soldier, despite their wide difference in social standing, and decided to put Knox’s knowledge of military science into the service of the nascent Continental Army. The Continentals had almost no artillery. In November 1775 Washington made Knox a colonel and put him in command of the army’s tiny artillery corps. He then gave Knox his first mission.

 

IN MAY, ETHAN ALLEN’S GREEN MOUNTAIN BOYS HAD SEIZED seized Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain in New York from its surprised British garrison. Inside they found a trove of guns that they knew could be vital to the Continentals in taking Boston back from the British. But Ticonderoga lay some 200 miles northwest of Boston, and the guns would have to be hauled over a largely trackless wilderness to be of any help to Washington. “The want of [the guns] is so great, that no trouble or expense must be spared to obtain them,” Washington wrote in his official orders to Knox, which were transmitted with funds to underwrite the expedition.

Knox, accompanied by his younger brother, William, who was now 19, set off for New York City. They arrived there on November 25 and three days later proceeded north on horseback, following the Hudson River. By 2 p.m. on December 4 the two had come upon Fort George, on the southern end of Lake George.

At daybreak Knox and his brother continued their journey, sailing up the 33-mile-long lake and reaching Ticonderoga in the late afternoon. Knox quickly took stock of the cannons in the fort. While most of the artillery was worn out, some 59 pieces, ranging from very small 4-pounders to large 24-pounders as well as howitzers and mortars, were still serviceable. All told, the guns weighed 119,900 pounds. These would have to be pulled all the way to Boston. On December 6 Knox loaded the weapons onto three boats, took them down Lake Champlain, and then portaged the boats and guns overland to Lake George’s northern end.

On December 9 the cannons were back on the boats. Leaving his brother with the two bigger boats, Knox went ahead in the smallest craft to the southern end of the lake to organize horses, oxen, and sleds. The largest boat, a scow, ran aground, and William was barely able to free it. When he and his crew caught up to Knox, they rested for a few hours before relaunching their boats, only to be met by a fierce wind that made further progress impossible. At dawn they tried again, and Knox at last made Fort George.

Knox had his guns placed on sleds, with the heaviest pieces in front. But the scow, with William in it, had not yet arrived. Word reached Knox that the scow, which was carrying the bulk of the expedition’s cannons, had sunk. For Knox, this was a catastrophic loss. He also presumed his brother to be dead. Then a letter came from William, informing him that while the scow indeed had sunk, it had gone down so close to shore that the water had not overtopped the vessel’s gunwales. The scow was refloated and joined up with Knox at Fort George two days later.

“It is not easy to conceive of the difficulties we have had in getting the cannon over the lake,” Knox reported in a letter to Washington. It was almost winter—a terrible time to try to move heavy guns cross-country. Nonetheless, Knox wrote Washington, “I hope in 16 or 17 days to be able to present to your Excellency, a noble train of artillery.”

 

THE EXPEDITION NEXT MADE GLEN FALLS, where Knox spent a snowy Christmas Eve in Saratoga. The snow, thankfully, eased the sledding of the artillery. On Christmas Day, Knox and his men went to Lansingburg in two-foot-deep snow and tried to push on to Albany, but their horses refused to go any farther. Leaving the horses behind, the men pulled the guns through even deeper snow for two more miles.

Knox reached Albany in the early afternoon of December 26, though much of the train was left lumbering far behind him. There he conferred with Major General Philip Schuyler. By New Year’s Eve, they had assembled 124 pairs of horses with sleds. On New Year’s Day, Knox’s men cut holes in the frozen Hudson River in the hope that the water pushing up through the ice would coat and thicken it. Nevertheless, one of the biggest guns, an 18-pounder, plunged through as it was being hauled across. Again, luck was with Knox. Though the gun had gone under, the water was very shallow, and the weapon was readily retrieved.

In a letter to Washington, Knox apologized for his extreme tardiness. He and his men had been held up by the snow, he explained, and now a “cruel thaw hinders [us] from crossing the Hudson River.” All he could do was wait until the temperature dropped, the river froze enough to permit passage, and the guns that were still lagging behind found their way to Albany.

On January 6, 1776, the needed freeze came, and the next day, the expedition departed, crossed the river, and made Kinderhook and Claverack. By January 10 it was in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts. Knox marched 12 miles through the passes and a pine forest. But his teamsters had had enough and would go no more. Only after Knox had spent hours whipping up their patriotic fervor to hit back at the British could the expedition once again head east.

The route became somewhat easier when Knox found an old Indian trail and continued across Massachusetts. In Westfield, curious townspeople gawked at all the artillery. “We found that very few, even among the oldest inhabitants, had even seen a cannon,” wrote 12-year-old John Becker, who, along with his father, was part of the artillery train.

The expedition moved on to Springfield, with the going again slowed by melting snow and mud. Knox’s teamsters, who were far from home, wanted to return to New York. Knox released them and replaced them with men freshly recruited in Massachusetts.

The temperature dipped once more, and with the ground hardened, Knox and his guns reached Framingham—just a few miles from Cambridge—on January 25. Knox’s arrival in Washington’s camp was a cause for celebration. The British still occupied Boston, but now the Americans had guns of their own. With thousands of rounds taken from the captured British supply brigantine Nancy, Knox’s artillery hammered Boston from the fortified Dorchester Heights overlooking the city.

Seeing that his troops and the Royal Navy ships in the harbor were vulnerable to American fire and having no way to eject the Continentals from their strongpoint, Major General William Howe, the new British commander in Boston, gave the order to evacuate the city. On March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, Boston was free, and the credit was due in large part to Henry Knox’s “noble train of artillery.”

The Continental Congress approved Washington’s promotion of Knox to colonel while he was still on the march back from Ticonderoga. Knox would go on to serve with Washington until the end of the war, rising to the rank of major general, and would later become the new nation’s first secretary of war in Washington’s presidential administration. MHQ

MARC G. DeSANTIS is the author of Rome Seizes the Trident, a naval history of the Punic Wars.

Photo: Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection/Brown University Library

This article appears in the Autumn 2017 issue (Vol. 30, No. 1) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Train Man

 

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