American Revolution: Major General Henry Knox

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

Early Life:

Born in Boston on July 25, 1750, Henry Knox was the seventh (of ten) child of William and Mary Knox. A merchant captain, William Knox died in 1759, after experiencing a financial collapse. Receiving his early education at the Boston Latin Grammar School, Henry studied a mix of languages, history, and mathematics. Three years later, Henry was forced to leave school in order to support his mother and younger siblings.

Apprenticing himself to a local bookbinder, Nicholas Bowes, he learned the trade and began reading extensively.  Encouraged by Bowes, who served as an early mentor, the young Knox was permitted to liberally borrow from the store's inventory. In this manner, he became proficient in French and effectively completed his education on his own. Eventually opening his own shop, the London Book Store, at the age of twenty-one, he remained an avid reader.  Fascinated by military topics, he read widely on the subject with a special focus on artillery.

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 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 reading to use when he helped found the Boston Grenadier Corps. A year later, in 1773, Knox accidentally shot two fingers from his left hand while handling a shotgun. 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 his politics and attempted to entice him into joining the British Army. They subsequently fled the city after it fell to American forces in 1776. 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 (June 17, 1775).

Guns of Ticonderoga:

Remaining in the military, Knox served with Massachusetts forces in the 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 when the latter inspected fortifications designed by Knox near Roxbury. Impressed, the two developed a friendly relationship. As the army desperately needed artillery, Washington 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.

Commissioning Knox a colonel in the Continental Army, Washington 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 Rhode Island and Connecticut to oversee the construction of fortifications.

Returning 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 getting 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 an effort should be made to capture the Chew House rather than bypass it.  The subsequent delay gave the British badly needed time to re-establish their lines and contributed to the American loss.

Valley Forge to Yorktown:

During the winter at Valley Forge, Knox aided in securing 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 aid in obtaining supplies for 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 officer 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, he remained in his post until becoming Secretary of War in George Washington's first cabinet in 1789. As secretary, he oversaw the creation 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.