- 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
Hurrying on alone by land in the attempt to beat the arrival of heavy snow or to take advantage of any normal snowfall, Knox arrived at Oscillate, two-thirds the distance between Fort George (now the village of Lake George) and Albany, to obtain animals and sleds from Squire Charles Palmer, whose assistance in the matter had been assured. Returning to Fort George, thus supplied in part, Knox had an additional 42 heavy sleds made and finally collected eighty oxen for the big pull south to Albany. Schuyler, meanwhile, had dispatched men and horses from Albany and Saratoga to help Knox through the foothills of the Adirondacks.
Knox had written Washington from Fort George on December 17: “The route from here will be to Kinderhook [New York] from thence to Great Harrington [Mass.] and down to Springfield. I ... expect to move them to Saratoga on Wednesday or Thursday next, trusting that between this and then we shall have a fine fall of snow, which will enable us to proceed farther, and make the carriage easy. If that shall l)e the case, I hope in 16 or 17 days’ time to be able to present to your Excellency a noble train of artillery.”
Knox was an eternal optimist. But in following the rude woodland roads south to Albany he believed he would have to cross the unreliably frozen Hudson four times, although actually he had to cross it but once and the Mohawk once. At Albany, a thaw for a time prevented his crossing to the east side at all. Where open water confronted the teamsters, it was necessary to load sleds, guns and horses into scows for the crossing. Where the ice was too thin to support the train but too thick to permit boat passage, Knox was helpless. He frequently had to cut holes in the river’s ice in order for the overflow of water to freeze and add to the ice’s thickness.
John P. Becker, a twelve-year-old lad from Old Saratoga, who served with his father as a driver for Knox on the trip from Fort George to Springfield, Massachusetts, has left an account of the trip, which was first published in the Albany Gazette in the 1830’s.
“We felt an unusual degree of interest in fulfilling our contracts,” Becker remembered. “My father took in charge a heavy iron nine pounder, which required the efforts of four horses to drag it along. Others had the heavy resistance of 18’s and 24’s to overcome, which required the exertions of at least 8 horses. We had altogether about 40 or 50 pieces to transport, and our cavalcade was quite imposing.”
At Lansing’s Ferry, near the mouth of the Mohawk River, the cavalcade tried to cross on the ice to the east bank of the Hudson. As a precaution, a 40-foot rope was tied to the first sleigh tongue and a teamster walked alongside with a hatchet, ready to cut the rope and save the horses should the heavy gun crash through the ice. Halfway across, the ice did give way, “and a noble 18 sank with a crackling noise, and then a heavy plunge to the bottom of the stream.” The water fortunately was shallow and the gun was recovered. The crossing at that point, therefore, was abandoned. Back tracking, the train finally crossed the Mohawk at Klaus’s Ferry on thin ice, remaining on the west side of the Hudson until Albany. One cannon was lost in the Mohawk and left there. Recovered much later, it is now at Fort Ticonderoga.
The first cannon, a brass 24-pounder, reached Albany on January 4, 1776, somewhat behind Knox’s schedule. Within three days the remainder of the guns had entered Albany for the final crossing of the Hudson. “Our appearance excited the attention of the burghers,” Becker wrote. “... This was the first artillery which Congress had been able to call their own, and it led to reflections not in the least infurious to our cause.”
Knox hired some of the interested “burghers” at the pay of “one and four pence a mile, and, when . . . detained by breakages or other accidents . . . 15 shillings a day.” Knox wrote Washington a pained letter on January 5, while waiting for the ice to thicken at Albany: “The want of snow detained us for some days, and now a cruel thaw hinders from crossing the Hudson River . . . The first severe night will make the ice sufficiently strong; till that happens, the cannon and mortars must remain where they are. These inevitable delays pain me exceedingly.”
Eventually the freeze arrived and Knox’s artillery train streamed across the Hudson. Continuing south, Knox arrived at Claverack, where a broken sleigh detained him for two days. The need for plenty of able-bodied help in case of a mishap prompted Knox’s policy of delaying the entire column if but one of its components got into trouble.
At Claverack, Knox took the hazardous military trail used by only a few others, which headed east over the Berkshires, through Great Barrington, Otis and to Springfield on what is now Route 23, a treacherous road for motorists even today. Using eighty oxen again in place of horses, Knox wrote, “We reached No. 1 [referring to Monterey, Mass.] after having climbed mountains from which we might almost have seen all the Kingdoms of the Earth.”