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Big Guns For Washington
How tough Henry Knox hauled a train of cannon over wintry trails to help drive the British away from Boston
April 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 3
Knox was one of those providential characters which spring up in emergencies, as if they were formed by and for the occasion.
—Washington Irving, Life of George Washington.
By the time Washington took command of the American Army at Cambridge in July, 1775, his troops had dug fortifications on the hilltops ringing Boston. The British, who had occupied the city for over a year, were pinned down but could not be starved out as long as their navy kept the port open. The Americans lacked siege guns and trained storm troops. On the other hand, General Gage, the British commander, had been made cautious by the mauling his infantry had received on the Concord expedition and at Bunker Hill.
American artillery could threaten British shipping only on one of the two heights situated at opposite tips of the crescent formed by the American lines: Bunker Hill, north of Boston, and Dorchester Heights, across the bay to the southeast. Bunker Hill had been won by the British and neither side was yet ready to fight for Dorchester Heights—the British because of Gage’s reluctance to risk the loss of more troops difficult to replace; the Americans because they lacked the artillery to take advantage of the superior location once it had been occupied.
The military situation had reached a frustrating stalemate. In keeping secret his shortage of arms and powder, Washington had divested himself of any ostensible reason, in the eyes of his men and the Continental Congress, for not taking Boston. His troops, after all, outnumbered the British better than two to one. The inactivity was fomenting low morale and wholesale desertions. In a few months, the year’s enlistment period would be up for Washington’s army and the straws in the wind were enough to inform him that there would be few soldiers who would remain for a second hitch. Supplied with artillery, he could quickly place the guns within effective range of the British land defenses and naval vessels and drive Gage out of Boston.
Where were enough artillery pieces to be obtained? Even if they could be spared from defense points elsewhere in the colonies, the logistical problem of transporting them in time and in sufficient number to be worthwhile could not be overcome.
Washington’s answer came from one of the few men he had come to like, trust and respect since the general’s arrival in Cambridge: Henry Knox, a civilian volunteer, a bookseller.
Knox was a native of Boston. His parents were Scotch-Irish who had emigrated from northern Ireland. The elder Knox was a ship’s master who died bankrupt in the West Indies when Henry was twelve. Henry was the seventh of ten sons and one of only four to survive childhood. Of these four, the two eldest were lost at sea, leaving only William, the youngest, and Henry.
The support of his mother and six-year-old brother fell upon Henry Knox when he was twelve. He left school reluctantly, but went to work in a Boston bookshop where he was able to continue reading on company time. A military enthusiast, he joined the provincial militia, an artillery group trained by British officers, and read books on martial subjects. Knox opened his own bookstore in 1771, in the midst of the growing storm of the approaching Revolution, continuing to import his literary stock from London.
Knox was a huge man, and his large frame supported his 250 pounds strikingly. He had charm, poise and a forceful personality. By romantic standards, it was quite understandable that Lucy Flucker, daughter of the royal secretary of the province, should not only fall in love with Knox but, having married him, should willingly adjust her politics to fit his when war began and her loyalist family was forced to flee Boston with General Howe. An enthusiastic huntsman, Knox lost two fingers of his left hand when his fowling piece exploded during a hunt on Noddle’s Island in 1773.
General Gage took over the military occupation of Boston in 1774, the year Henry was married to Lucy. Knox, along with Paul Revere and other local tradesmen, belonged to the intelligence committee which watched and listened and kept such colony spokesmen as John Hancock and Sam Adams informed as to British movements and intentions. Knox was known to the British as a colonial sympathizer and hence was forbidden to leave Boston. He and his wife, therefore, left the city secretly the day after the battle of Concord, leaving his bookstore to the management of his brother, William. The store was looted and wrecked almost immediately and there was nothing for William but to join his elder brother in Worcester, where Knox had taken Lucy.
General Artemas Ward was in command of the New Englanders surrounding Boston and Knox volunteered as an artillery expert without rank. He was assigned to supervising the construction of fortifications then being dug above Boston. His accomplishments moved Washington, after that gentleman had taken command in July, to write glowingly of Knox to the Connecticut governor.