- 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
Plunging into a twelve-mile stretch called “Greenwoods,” made dreary and forbidding by dense evergreen forests, Knox passed through what is now East Otis and reached Blandford, where more trouble awaited him. The descent of Glasgow (now Westfield) Mountain had to be made. It required three hours of arguments by Knox to assure the Hudson Valley teamsters that the treacherous trip down could be made without danger from runaway, weighted sleds plummeting downhill upon them. Knox supervised the precautionary measures taken, such as drag chains, poles thrust under runners, and check ropes anchored to one tree after another.
By January 14, the train lumbered into Westfield. Knox’s diary had by now ended, but Becker, who was still along, later continued the eyewitness account: “Our armament was a great curiosity [in Westfield]. We found that few, even among the oldest inhabitants, had ever seen a cannon . . . We were great gainers by this curiosity, for while they were employed in remarking upon our guns, we were, with equal pleasure, discussing the qualities of their cider and whiskey.”
At an inn that evening, Knox was surrounded by local visitors, all of whom seemed to be officers in the militia. “What a pity,” Knox told an associate, “that our soldiers are not as numerous as our officers.”
At Springfield there was the broad Connecticut River to cross. The ice held, but on the far side the “noble train of artillery” bogged down in the mud of a sudden thaw. Knox paid off the drivers from New York State there and hired native teamsters. When the ground froze again he pushed on. At Framingham, he temporarily deposited most of the heavier pieces in order to rush the more portable cannon to Washington at Cambridge.
Back in camp, Knox learned that the colonists had accidentally acquired plenty of ammunition to fit his guns, thanks to an American warship which had captured the British supply brigantine, Nancy , and had salvaged her cargo of powder and shot.
Knox’s artillery began a bombardment of Boston on March 2, 1776, and Washington moved men into Dorchester Heights in preparation for cannon installations there. The British didn’t wait for these to materialize. General Howe (Gage had been recalled some months before) made halfhearted plans for taking the heights and then decided instead to evacuate the city. He threatened to burn Boston if his embarkation was molested by Knox’s artillery and, on this unpleasant note, took his departure practically undisturbed. This was on March 17, which is observed annually in Massachusetts by a proclamation by the governor.
Knox’s own modest estimate of his remarkable achievement in those desperate winter months of 1775-76 is possibly reflected accurately in the simple memorandum of expenses he submitted at the conclusion of the arduous venture: “For expenditures in a journey from the camp round Boston to New York, Albany, and Ticonderoga, and from thence, with 55 pieces of iron and brass ordnance, 1 barrel of flints, and 23 boxes of lead, back to camp (including expenses of self, brother, and servant), £520.15.8¾.”
By standards of military supply in any age, this amount (some $1,458.20 in modern currency) charged the Continental Congress in exchange for Boston, must represent a model instance of government spending.