Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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Henry Knox was from a large Irish family in Boston.  When his father died Henry gave up school and became the sole support for his mother.  He worked for a Boston book seller until he was able to open his own bookstore, where he developed a keen interest in books on military strategy.

As a resident of Boston, Knox was keenly aware of the heavy-handed tactics of British governance.  In 1772, at the age of 21, Knox believed in the Patriot cause and became a member of the Boston Grenadier Corps.

Upon learning that Britain’s General William Howe was planning to overtake the city of Boston, the local militias were willing to defend their city in battle. The militiamen fought valiantly, and inflicted considerable damage on the British troops. However, from the beginning, the Patriots were outnumbered, and were in clear range of cannon-fire from the British war ships in Boston Harbor.  This event marks the June 17th 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill as the first official battle of the Revolutionary War.

When George Washington arrived in Boston as Commander of the Continental Army in 1775, Upon meeting the 24-year-old Knox, Washington was impressed with Knox’ knowledge of military matters and inducted him into his army at the rank of Colonel. 

After Bunker Hill, the British General, William Howe, proceeded to take control of the city Boston, confiscating the citizens guns, torching their homes and businesses, and causing them to flee on foot into the countryside.  Aware that this could be their fate, the colonial militias, now under the command of George Washington, became even more committed to defending their homes and country against the king’s tyranny.           
Well-placed Patriot spies reported to Washington that Howe was planning a massive attack which would cut New England off from the rest of the colonies. This would allow him to march his troops south to capture New York, Philadelphia, and the rest of the colonies and end this ‘colonial rebellion.’ 

The fleet of British Naval vessels supplied Howe’s army with men and armaments, while the Americans had to deal with constant shortages, including gun powder.  Because of the dominance of British forces in Boston, local militia leaders convinced Washington to postpone an all-out attack on the city until wintertime when the British ships would have difficulty navigating in the frozen harbor. 

Word reached the Washington’s encampment that in northern New York, the American General Benedict Arnold had forced the British to abandon the heavily armed Fort Ticonderoga.  Knox reasoned that if he could retrieve the storehouse of armaments left by the retreating British, they could be used against Howe’s further attacks on Boston.  With Washington’s approval, Knox and a small group under his command immediately headed to New York. 

In fifty-six days, in the dead of winter, Knox and his men transported sixty tons of military supplies, including fifty-nine heavy-weight cannons over 300 miles to their destination on Dorchester Heights above Boston which was out of range of the Howe’s war ship’s guns.  

The following are excerpts from Knox’ accounting of the trip to General Washington on January 15, 1776:

      “I brought with me the Cannon being nearly the time I conjuctur’d it would take
       us to transport them to here.  It is not easy to conceive 
the difficulties we have
       had in getting them over the Lake owing to
the advanc’d Season of the Year &
       country winds…I have had to make 
forty-two exceeding Strong Sleds & have
        provided eighty Yoke of 
oxen to drag to Camp…(some) roads are tolerable, but
 that there are none…I hope in 16 or 17 days time to be able to present
        to your Excellency a noble train of artillery.”

Overnight, the cannons were hauled up and placed in position atop Dorchester Heights.  The frozen ground prevented digging trenches, so the troops had to provide timber to build defensive walls for protection—all done in near silence.  On the morning of March 4th, the over-confident General Howe, and his entire army, found themselves looking up at an impenetrable brigade with enormous cannons that seemed to come from nowhere. 

“The rebels have done more in one night than my whole army would have done in a month.” Stated General Howe as he evacuated his troops from Boston.

Henry Knox was promoted to General, and continued to provide Washington with exemplary service through the end of the war.  In 1789 he was appointed Secretary of War in President Washington’s new administration.

History records that Henry Knox, and his small unit of men, accomplished what is considered one of the greatest feats on the American Revolutionary War.  In 1927, the Hudson Valley Institute dedicated granite and bronze monuments to be placed along the 300-mile path of what has become known as “The noble train of artillery.”