Some tasks in life seem, at first glance, impossible. In order to succeed in these “impossible” tasks, one has to possess a spirit of resilience. The individual must look into the face of those insurmountable obstacles and declare his or her determination to overcome them. During the first year of the American Revolution, there was an American officer who set himself to a task that appeared all but impossible to fulfill. Indeed, the very forces of nature seemed determined to stop him, but his tenacity and perseverance were stronger. His success not only brought about America’s first major military victory, but it also transformed the young officer into one of America’s most important commanders. His name was Henry Knox. This is the story of how he battled overwhelming circumstances in his attempt to transport several dozen cannons from Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York to Boston, Massachusetts.
Life taught Henry Knox an early lesson about determination and perseverance. He was born and grew up in Boston, Massachusetts to parents of Scottish origin. He began his education by entering the Boston Latin Grammar School, but was forced to quit after only three years to provide for his mother and younger siblings following his father’s death. He served as an apprentice to a local bookseller and quickly learned the trade. Later he managed the London Book Store, devouring any book on the military and in particular on the use of artillery. Despite losing two fingers in a hunting accident, he joined the local militia and later helped organize an artillery company for the militia. As Britain cracked down on the colonies, Knox joined the Sons of Liberty and personally witnessed the Boston Massacre. For a man dedicated to the American cause, it was ironic that he fell in love with Lucy Flucker, the daughter of the Royal Secretary of Massachusetts. Despite her Loyalist parents’ objections, the two were married in June 1774 and remained devoted to each other throughout their lives. A year later the battles at Lexington and Concord erupted in April 1775, and Knox joined the newly constituted Continental Army.
Knox’s first months of service centered around the American siege of British-occupied Boston. He fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775 and oversaw the construction of American siege lines around Boston. It was this activity that first brought him to the attention of General George Washington. The two men struck up an instant friendship, and Washington even asked Knox’s advice on the military situation. After giving due consideration, Knox determined that the Americans must have artillery to force a British evacuation. The problem was, they had none. He proposed to Washington that he travel to the newly captured Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain in upstate New York. He would inventory and secure the best of the fort’s cannons before transporting those cannons over the Berkshire Mountains back to Boston. Many officers considered the proposal impractical, even impossible. General Washington, however, agreed to the proposal. Not only that, but he immediately promoted the twenty-five year old Knox to the rank of colonel and named him as the American artillery commander. Leaving Lucy behind, Knox and his younger brother William set off on the mission alone.
Knox left the American army on November 16th and, after travelling through New York City to arrange for military supplies, arrived at Fort Ticonderoga on December 5th. He inspected the fort and found a variety of cannons and mortars. He selected fifty-eight pieces and made preparations for the long trip back to Boston. He hired local men to help him move the cannons down Lake George from Fort Ticonderoga to Fort George and also arranged for forty-two sleds and eighty oxen to pull the cannons overland. In mid-December the boat crews left Ticonderoga for Fort George.
The expedition would be plagued with enormous challenges from the start. The first set of problems impacted the part of the expedition that should have been one of the easiest, the trip down Lake George. Knox and the oarsmen had expected the wind to be with them and allow them a fast trip down the lake to Fort George. Instead, the oarsmen had to battle against the wind the entire way. It was not just the wind that proved a danger but the river itself. At one point, one of the boats hit a rock and sank. Fortunately, the boat was just offshore and was quickly set afloat again. Each man knew that every piece of artillery was precious. Finally, the boats reached Fort George. The team wasted no time in speedily loading the cannons onto the sleds. Knox then wrote a letter to Washington informing him that the expedition would soon be under way. He wanted to wait until a heavy snowfall had occurred in order to quicken the journey.
Knox’s hopes faded as an unexpected winter thaw set in. Without a covering of snow, the sleds could not move easily across the countryside. Knox and his teamsters prayed for a change in the weather. Several days later they were blessed with a blizzard that dropped three feet of snow on the ground. Knox knew he could not waste any more time. He ordered the expedition to set out for Boston. The column moved slowly through the heavy snowdrifts that covered the road. At one point, Knox rode ahead to scout the area in front of the caravan. For his efforts, he almost froze to death from the drop in temperature at night. Still he pressed on and finally reached the state capital at Albany. He was beginning to despair of success, but he determined to press on as best as he could. Finally the sleds joined him in Albany, and he prepared to cross the frozen Hudson River before moving on to Boston.
No doubt Knox and his team thought their myriad tribulations had ended, but they were soon disabused of that notion. At Albany he cut holes in the icy river in hopes that the cold temperatures would freeze the exposed water and strengthen the existing ice. When he was done, he ordered the expedition to move rapidly across the river. As the cannons were ferried across the frozen river, one of them crashed through the ice. Knox’s crew and nearby townsfolk had to spend an entire day dragging it up from the riverbed. Within a few days, the column reached the base of the Berkshire Mountains. The column was pushing through the rugged terrain when Knox suddenly had to confront an unexpected threat. A number of teamsters refused to go any farther because they were afraid of the risks involved in crossing the mountain passes. After much pleading, Knox convinced them to continue on in the spirit of patriotism. Once that threat had been removed, the final leg of the expedition passed without incident. The column soon entered Massachusetts. As they passed through each town, Knox and the entire column were greeted with cheers from the crowds that lined the roadside for a glimpse of the cannons. In one town, he even provided a demonstration of the cannons’ firepower for the inhabitants. A few days later, on January 24, 1776, Henry Knox presented his “noble train of artillery” to George Washington.
Knox’s feat forever endeared him to the commander-in-chief and to the American public. Many Americans were amazed that it had only taken Knox fifty-six days to travel three hundred miles from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston. Washington was equally impressed and proved it by giving Knox command of many important assignments over the next eight years. His first order of business, however, was to utilize the artillery he had just delivered. He was asked to place his cannons along Dorchester Heights in March 1776, whereby he helped drive the British out of Boston. Later that December he led the crossing of the Delaware River and commanded the artillery in the Battle of Trenton. Perhaps most important of all, it was his bombardment that ultimately forced Lord Cornwallis to surrender at Yorktown. After the war, he briefly served as the commander of the Continental Army and as the Secretary of War in the government created by the Articles of Confederation. He also served as the first Secretary of War under President Washington and the new Constitution. He left government service in 1795 and settled in Maine. He lived there until his death in 1806 of an infection resulting from a chicken bone that was caught in his throat. Today, there are awards and an artillery school named in honor of America’s first artillery commander, and Fort Knox, Kentucky, is the U.S. Gold Bullion Depository.
Henry Knox was a man who saw what was possible, not impossible. He accomplished something many would never even have considered. Amidst all the obstacles, he delivered on his word to General Washington and turned the Redcoats’ own cannon on them and drove them from New England. Throughout the long and difficult struggle of the American Revolution, it would be the determination and perseverance shown by men like Henry Knox that would eventually result in victory for the Americans.