American Revolution: Major General Henry Knox

Henry Knox

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A key figure in the American Revolution, Henry Knox was born in Boston on July 25, 1750. He was the seventh child of William and Mary Knox, who had 10 children in total. When Henry was only 9 years old, his merchant captain father passed away after experiencing financial ruin. After only three years at the Boston Latin School, where Henry studied a mix of languages, history, and mathematics, the young Knox was forced to leave in order to support his mother and younger siblings.

Fast Facts: Henry Knox

  • Known For: Knox helped lead the Continental Army during the American Revolution and later served as the U.S. Secretary of War.
  • Born: July 25, 1750 in Boston, British America
  • Parents: William and Mary Knox
  • Died: October 25, 1806 in Thomaston, Massachusetts
  • Education: Boston Latin School
  • Spouse: Lucy Flucker (m. 1774–1806)
  • Children: 13

Early Life

Knox apprenticed himself to a local bookbinder named Nicholas Bowes, who helped Knox learn the trade and encouraged his reading. Bowes permitted Knox to liberally borrow from the store's inventory, and in this manner Knox became proficient in French and effectively completed his education on his own. He remained an avid reader, eventually opening his own shop, the London Book Store, at the age of 21. Knox was especially fascinated by military topics, including artillery, and he read widely on the subject.

Boston Massacre
March 5th, 1770: British soldiers open fire on a crowd of Bostonians, killing five people, in what became known as the Boston massacre. Hulton Archive / Stringer/ Getty Images

The Revolution Nears

A supporter of American colonial rights, Knox became involved in the Sons of Liberty and was present at the Boston Massacre in 1770. He later swore in an affidavit that he had attempted to calm tensions that night by requesting that the British soldiers return to their quarters. Knox also testified at the trials of those involved in the incident. Two years later, he put his military studies to use by founding a militia unit called the Boston Grenadier Corps. Though he knew much about weaponry, Knox accidentally shot two fingers from his left hand while handling a shotgun in 1773.

Marriage

On June 16, 1774, Knox married Lucy Flucker, the daughter of the Royal Secretary of the Province of Massachusetts. The marriage was opposed by her parents, who disapproved of Knox's revolutionary politics and attempted to entice him into joining the British Army. Knox remained a staunch patriot. Following the outbreak of the American Revolution, he volunteered to serve with colonial forces and participated in the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775. His in-laws fled the city after it fell to American forces in 1776.

Fort Ticonderoga, New York
Fort Ticonderoga, New York.  Purestock/Getty Images

Guns of Ticonderoga

Knox served with Massachusetts forces in the state's Army of Observation during the opening days of the Siege of Boston. He soon came to the attention of army commander General George Washington, who was inspecting fortifications designed by Knox near Roxbury. Washington was impressed, and the two men developed a friendly relationship. As the army desperately needed artillery, the commanding general consulted Knox for advice in November 1775.

Knox proposed a plan to transport the cannon captured at Fort Ticonderoga in New York to the siege lines around Boston. Washington was on board with the plan. After making Knox a colonel in the Continental Army, the general immediately sent him north, as winter was rapidly approaching. At Ticonderoga, Knox initially had difficulty acquiring sufficient men in the lightly populated Berkshire Mountains. He finally assembled what he dubbed the "noble train of artillery." Knox began moving 59 guns and mortars down Lake George and the Hudson River to Albany.

It was a difficult trek, and several guns fell through the ice and had to be recovered. In Albany, the guns were transferred to ox-drawn sleds and pulled across Massachusetts. The 300-mile journey took Knox and his men 56 days to complete in the bitter winter weather. In Boston, Washington ordered the guns to be placed atop Dorchester Heights, overlooking the city and harbor. Rather than face bombardment, the British forces, led by General Sir William Howe, evacuated the city on March 17, 1776.

New York and Philadelphia Campaigns

Following the victory at Boston, Knox was sent to oversee the construction of fortifications in Rhode Island and Connecticut. When he returned to the Continental Army, he became Washington's chief of artillery. After the American defeats in New York that fall, Knox retreated across New Jersey with the remaining troops. As Washington devised his daring Christmas attack on Trenton, Knox was given the key role of overseeing the army's crossing of the Delaware River. With the assistance of Colonel John Glover, Knox succeeded in moving the attack force across the river in a timely fashion. He also directed the American withdrawal on December 26.

For his service at Trenton, Knox was promoted to brigadier general. In early January, he saw further action at Assunpink Creek and Princeton before the army moved to winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey. Taking advantage of this break from campaigning, Knox returned to Massachusetts with the goal of improving weapons production. He traveled to Springfield and established the Springfield Armory, which operated for the rest of the war and became a key producer of American weapons for almost two centuries. After he rejoined the army, Knox took part in the American defeats at Brandywine (September 11, 1777) and Germantown (October 4, 1777). At the latter, he made the ill-fated suggestion to Washington that they should capture the British-occupied home of Germantown resident Benjamin Chew, rather than bypass it. The delay gave the British badly needed time to re-establish their lines, and this contributed to the American loss.

Valley Forge to Yorktown

During the winter at Valley Forge, Knox helped secure needed supplies and assisted Baron von Steuben in drilling the troops. Later, the army pursued the British, who were evacuating Philadelphia, and fought them at the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778. In the wake of the fighting, the army moved north to take up positions around New York. Over the next two years, Knox was sent north to help obtain supplies for the army and, in 1780, served on the court-martial of British spy Major John Andre.

In late 1781, Washington withdrew the majority of the army from New York to attack General Lord Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia. Knox's guns played a key role in the siege that ensued. Following the victory, Knox was promoted to major general and assigned to command American forces at West Point. During this time, he formed the Society of the Cincinnati, a fraternal organization consisting of officers who had served in the war. At the war's conclusion in 1783, Knox led his troops into New York City to take possession from the departing British.

Later Life

On December 23, 1783, following Washington's resignation, Knox became the senior officer of the Continental Army. He remained so until retiring in June 1784. Knox's retirement proved short-lived, however, as he was soon appointed Secretary of War by the Continental Congress on March 8, 1785. A staunch supporter of the new Constitution, Knox remained in his post until becoming Secretary of War as part of George Washington's first cabinet in 1789.

As secretary, he oversaw the creation of a permanent navy, a national militia, and coastal fortifications. Knox served as Secretary of War until January 2, 1795, when he resigned to care for his family and business interests. He died on October 25, 1806, of peritonitis, three days after accidentally swallowing a chicken bone.