George Washington's Chief of Artillery: Major General Henry Knox

From Chief of Artillery to Secretary of War

Henry Knox
Major General Henry Knox. Photograph Source: Public Domain

A key figure in the American Revolution, Major General Henry Knox distinguished himself as both the chief of artillery in the War of Independence and, later, as the Continental Army's senior officer after the retirement of General George Washington. After the revolution, Knox was appointed the country's first Secretary of War under President George Washington. 

Early Life

Born in Boston on July 25, 1750, Henry Knox was the seventh child of William and Mary Knox, who had ten children in total. When Henry was only 9 years old, his merchant captain father passed away after experiencing a financial collapse. After only three years at the Boston Latin Grammar 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. Apprenticing himself to a local bookbinder named Nicholas Bowes, Knox learned the trade and began reading extensively. Bowes permitted Knox to liberally borrow from the store's inventory. In this manner, he became proficient in French and effectively completed his education on his own. Knox remained an avid reader, eventually opening his own shop, the London Book Store, at the age of 21. Fascinated by military topics, with a special focus on artillery, he read widely on the subject.

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. As such, he swore in an affidavit that he attempted to calm tensions that night by requesting that the British soldiers return to their quarters. Knox later testified at the trials of those involved in the incident. Two years later he put his military studies to use when he helped found a militia unit called the Boston Grenadier Corps. In spite of his knowledge of weaponry, in 1773, Knox accidentally shot two fingers from his left hand while handling a shotgun.

Personal Life

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

Guns of Ticonderoga

Remaining in the military, Knox served with Massachusetts forces in its Army of Observation during the opening days of the Siege of Boston. He soon came to the attention of new 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. In response, 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. Commissioning Knox a colonel in the Continental Army, the general immediately sent him north, as winter was rapidly approaching. Arriving at Ticonderoga, Knox initially had difficulty acquiring sufficient men and animals in the lightly populated Berkshire Mountains. Finally assembling what he dubbed the "noble train of artillery," Knox commenced moving 59 guns and mortars down Lake George and the Hudson River to Albany. A difficult trek, several guns fell through the ice and had to be recovered. Upon reaching Albany, the guns were then 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. Arriving in Boston, Washington ordered the guns emplaced atop Dorchester Heights, which commanded 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 & Philadelphia Campaigns

Following the victory at Boston, Knox was sent to oversee the construction of fortifications in Rhode Island and Connecticut. Returning to the Continental Army, Knox became Washington's chief of artillery. Present during the American defeats around New York that fall, Knox retreated across New Jersey in December with the remnants of the army. 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 back across the river 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, NJ. Taking advantage of this break from campaigning, Knox returned to Massachusetts with the goal of improving weapons production. Traveling to Springfield, he established the Springfield Armory, which operated for the rest of the war and became a key producer of American weapons for almost two centuries. Rejoining the army, Knox took part in the defeats at Brandywine (September 11, 1777) and Germantown (October 4). 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 subsequent delay gave the British badly needed time to re-establish their lines, and it 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. Marching out from winter quarters, 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, VA. Arriving outside the town, 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 led the formation of 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, as he was 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 in George Washington's first cabinet in 1789. As secretary, he oversaw the creation of a permanent navy, a national militia, and the construction of coastal fortifications.

Knox served as Secretary of War until January 2, 1795, when he resigned to care for his family and business interests. Retiring to his mansion, Montpelier, at Thomaston, Maine, he engaged in a variety of businesses and later represented the town in the Massachusetts General Assembly. Knox died on October 25, 1806, of peritonitis, three days after accidentally swallowing a chicken bone.