Henry Knox moved cannons from New York to Boston. Image: Gilbert Stuart's 1820 painting of Knox. Photo: StudyHall.Rocks.
Henry Knox moved cannons from New York to Boston. Image: Gilbert Stuart's 1820 painting of Knox. Photo: StudyHall.Rocks.
Before the American Revolution, Henry Knox owned a bookstore. But in November 1775, as the Colonies rebelled against England, the newly minted military man set off to retrieve artillery George Washington needed to drive the British from Boston.

     It wasn’t likely that Knox would succeed. The cannons he wanted were nearly 300 miles away at Fort Ticonderoga in New York. But Knox’s undertaking, 240 years ago, ultimately ended with the British evacuating Boston -- handing the Colonists a victory.
    This is how it happened.

    First, the background: The National Archives website describes Fort Ticonderoga asa major control point overlooking a strategic lake that could be used to transport goods.” But it also had artillery the Americans needed.  
    In the spring of 1775, the Green Mountain Boys, under the command of Ethan Allen, headed into mountainous New York with the intention of capturing Fort Ticonderoga and its artillery. Along the way, they met Benedict Arnold, in command of 400 men with the same mission. The two forces joined and captured the fort on May 10, 1775.  [See: Ethan Allen profile, Architect of the Capitol website.]

    A logistical problem: Washington was in Boston. The artillery he needed was in New York. In 1775,  with winter approaching, Washington wanted to push the British out of Boston. The Americans occupied high ground above the city but lacked the artillery to take advantage of that position, according to, a website of the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities.

   Knox's idea: The bookish Knox had impressed John Adams, according to North Callahan in the book, George Washington's Generals and Opponents, edited by George Athan Billias (DaCapo Press; 1994).
   Although lacking formal education, Knox was a reader. One of his passions happened to be military strategy, according to the website for the General Henry Knox Museum in Maine. Knox read extensively about artillery.
   Adams "suggested that Knox be given the rank of colonel and made chief of the Continental army artillery," Callahan wrote. The only problem: The American army had very little artillery.
   Knox pitched the idea of traveling to Fort Ticonderoga, where the British had left artillery behind. Some doubted he could pull it off. The operation involved moving the artillery on a flotilla of flat-bottomed boats for one part of the journey, and, for another part, using sleds and oxen over hilly terrain.
   In his book, 1776 (2006; Simon & Schuster), historian David McCullough points out that Knox, a junior officer just 25 years old, managed to sell the idea and get the assignment. This marked a significant difference between England’s well-trained soldiers and the ragtag Americans: “In an army where nearly everyone was new to the tasks of soldiering and fighting a war, almost anyone’s ideas deserved a hearing," McCullough wrote.  

    Knox embarks on the journey: The determined Knox, in the company of his 19-year-old brother, left Boston in November, according to the Fort Ticonderoga website. He arrived Dec. 4, 1775, and the next day wrote Washington a letter describing the task ahead:
   “The garrison at Ticonderoga is so weak, the conveyance from the fort to the landing is so difficult, the passage across the lake so precarious, that I am afraid it will be ten days at least before I can get them on this side. When they are here, the conveyance from hence will depend entirely on the sledding; if that is wood, they shall immediately move forward; without sledding, the roads are so much gullied that it will be impossible to move a step.”  
    But Knox kept at it. He would be hauling 58 mortars and cannon, weighing at least 120,000 pounds, according to McCullough’s book.

    The first leg: The first leg of the trip was across Lake George. The weather had been good -- up until then. Shortly after the journey began, Knox and his men found themselves rowing against a New York wind. One of the scows ran aground and had to be dug up. (See the account on the Knox Trail website). The group made it to the southern end of the lake as it was beginning to freeze.

     The next leg: By mid-December, the guns were on the southern end of the lake. Focused immediately on the next leg of the journey, Knox went about the business of getting oxen and sleds to pull the artillery over land. On Dec. 17, he again wrote Washington, spelling out the difficulties but staying upbeat:
    “I have made forty-two exceeding strong sleds & have provided eighty yoke of Oxen to drag them as far as Springfield where I shall get fresh cattle to carry them to camp.”
    He would need a “fine fall of snow,” Knox noted, and “if that should be the case I hope in 16 or 17 days to be able to present to your Excellency a Noble train of Artillery.”

     The uncooperative weather: Knox had been counting on snow. The plan was to use sleds and oxen to pull all that weight across the Hudson River and then east, crossing the Berkshire Mountains to Boston. At first, the weather wasn’t cooperating. On Jan. 5, 1776, Knox wrote this from Albany:

"I was in hopes that we should have been able to have had the cannon at Cambridge by this time. The want of snow detained us some days, and now a cruel thaw hinders from crossing Hudson River, which we are obliged to do four times from Lake George to this town. The first severe night will make the ice on the river sufficiently strong; till that happens the cannon and mortars must remain where they are. These inevitable delays pain me exceedingly, as my mind is fully sensible of the importance of the greatest expedition in this case.”

       They crossed the Hudson, but not without incident. "As an early January thaw set in, some of the big guns broke through the ice on the rivers and lakes. But the 'drowned cannon' were laboriously recovered in almost every case," wrote Callahan in George Washington's Generals and Opponents.
       Indeed, on Jan. 8, 1776, Knox wrote: "Went on the ice about 8 O'clock in the morning & proceeded so carefully that before night we got over 23 sleds & were so lucky as to get the Cannon out of the River, owing to the assistance the good people of the City of Albany gave."
       There was more trouble as they started over the mountains. In his book, 1776, McCullough notes that at one point, Knox pleaded with teamsters, who were concerned about the conditions and did not want to go on.

     Knox arrives: The noble train arrived in Cambridge, outside Boston, on Jan 24, 1776. In early March, Washington ordered cannon from Ticonderoga placed on Dorchester Heights. By the middle of the month, the British, along with Loyalists, evacuated the city.



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