- Historic Sites
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
The artillery command belonged to an aged and infirm veteran of the French and Indian War, Richard Gridley, and Washington, less than a month after he had arrived in Cambridge, wrote the president of the Continental Congress that Gridley should be replaced. “Knowing no person better qualified to supply his place,” Washington wrote, “or whose appointment will give more general satisfaction, I have taken the liberty of recommending Henry Knox to the consideration of Congress.”
To Washington, artillery was the all-important element. He was impressed by Knox’s perpetual optimism in the face of a gloomy predicament and by the large man’s resourcefulness in ideas. Nor did Knox let the general down. One day he suggested to Washington that the cannon captured at Fort Ticonderoga the previous May might be sledded and floated the 300 miles to Cambridge that winter and be available for use against the British the next year, 1776. Washington at once endorsed the proposal, adding that “no trouble or expense must be spared to obtain them.”
Knox, then 25 years old, left for New York in late November, taking with him his brother William. They took a boat up the Hudson to Albany where, on December 1, Knox reported to General Philip Schuyler, commander of the northern armies. Schuyler had been instructed by Washington to help Knox in his venture in every way possible and the major general willingly arranged for Knox’s transportation to Ticonderoga and promised to help with the problems of transporting the heavy ordnance on the later trip across the mountains into Massachusetts.
The severity of the early winter is known from a diary of the trip sketchily kept by Knox. He and William reached Ticonderoga four days later, riding on rutted, frozen roads to Fort George, at the southern end of Lake George, and by boat to Fort Ticonderoga.
Ticonderoga stood where Lake George empties into Lake Champlain and where opposite land juttings squeeze Champlain’s width to a quarter-mile. The fort occupied the western headland. It had figured prominently in the French and Indian War when it was held by the French as Fort Carillon. Montcalm had held it against the British in 1758 but the next year Lord Jeffrey Amherst had taken it from the French. Amherst had blown up the defenses and retired, but later the British rebuilt it and named it Ticonderoga. With the conclusion of that war, leaving French Canada in English hands, there was no Canadian border to maintain; the fort became more of a settlement, meagerly staffed and used as a supply post. Ethan Alien was encouraged by the colonists to take it to protect their rear from an attack by a Canadian force. In executing this assignment Alien’s forces, with Benedict Arnold, had also captured guns and boats at nearby Crown Point.
Much of the captured artillery at Ticonderoga was too worn to be of use, but 78 pieces were salvageable, ranging from 4-pound to 24-pound guns, as well as six mortars, three howitzers, 30,000 flints, and tons of muskets and cannon balls. A rare prize, indeed, if the ponderous equipment could be dragged over the Berkshires and across the length of Massachusetts before a spring thaw sabotaged the effort.
Knox at once dismantled nearly sixty cannon and lowered them from their lofty wall emplacements to the ground where they were carted across a swampy, wooded peninsula by the colonist garrison and loaded into three boats: a scow, known as a “gondola,” a bateau, which to French Canadians and Louisianians meant a flat-bottomed boat with tapered ends, and what Knox in his diary called a pettiauger .
Leaving William in charge of the heavily-laden craft, Henry hurried ahead in a lighter, faster bateau, in order to get together all the oxen, horses and sleds necessary for the next part of the trip back to Boston.
Navigating 33-mile Lake George with this priceless cargo was a breath-taking enterprise. The lake, which at its widest is only three miles across, was forming ice on either side a mile from shore. A favorable wind died almost immediately. The scow ran on a sunken rock and William managed to free it only to have the unmanageable craft go aground in earnest at Sabbath Day Point, not halfway down the lake. The damage this time was so substantial that the guns had to be unloaded from the scow and some added to the other boats, already low in the water from their loads of lead, brass and iron. Eventually, the guns arrived at Fort George without a loss.
Henry and his crew had been fed and warmed their first night on the lake by friendly Indians at Sabbath Day Point, but the next day they ran into a headwind which forced them to row desperately for ten hours to make Fort George.