Saturday, July 25, 2020

Cannon out of the River

‘Went on the Ice about 8 o’clock in the morning & proceeded so cautiously that before night we got over three sleds & were so lucky as to get the Cannon out of the River. . .’ This is from a short diary kept by Henry Knox, born 270 years ago today and the youngest major general in the Continental Army under George Washington. He kept the journal while trekking 300 miles to Fort Ticonderoga and then back to Boston dragging captured cannon - artillery which gave the revolutionaries a decisive advantage over the British.
Knox was born on 25 July 1750 in Boston, Massachusetts, into a large family of pioneers from Northern Ireland. His father was a shipbuilder who ran into financial difficulties and died young. Knox was obliged to leave school aged nine to become a clerk in a bookstore to help support the family. He profited from access to books by teaching himself French, maths and philosophy. In 1770, he was a witness to the Boston Massacre, and testified at the trials of the accused soldiers. The following year he opened his own bookshop, which allowed him to pursue his interests in history, military matters and especially artillery. In 1772, he became a member of the Boston Grenadier Corps, a local militia group opposing British authority. In 1774, he married Lucy Flucker, against the wishes of her father, a Boston loyalist. They would have 13 children, although only one son survived to adulthood.
In 1775, Knox served under General Artemas Ward during the siege of Boston. During the winter, he trekked from Fort Ticonderoga to bring captured British artillery back to Boston - arms which proved crucial in controlling the city. When Washington arrived to take command of the Continental Army, Knox was commissioned a colonel and placed in charge of artillery. In 1777, while the army was in winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey, he returned to Massachusetts to improve the Army’s artillery manufacturing capability. He raised an additional battalion of artillerymen and established an arsenal at Springfield, Massachusetts, before returning to the main army in the spring.
In the Philadelphia campaign, Knox, by then a brigadier general, distinguished himself in commanding the artillery at Monmouth, New Jersey, and later at the decisive Siege of Yorktown in 1781. He was made a major general; and at the end of the war, he succeeded Washington as commander of the army. Knox resigned his command early in 1784 and returned to Boston. The following year he was made secretary of war in the government under the Articles of Confederation and retained the position in President Washington’s first cabinet. As such, he was responsible for implementing early policies toward Native Americans, and managing the conflicts with them. He believed that Indian nations were sovereign and possessed the land they occupied, though his views had little impact on future government policy.
Knox retired to a large estate at Thomaston, Maine, in 1795, where he involved himself in all kinds of business, including cattle farming, ship building, and real estate speculation. He was made a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1805. He died the following year, aged only 56, and was buried with full military honours. Many towns and counties as well as two forts are named after him. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, Historic Valley Force, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Knox Museum or New World Encyclopaedia.
Knox’s grandson, rear-admiral Henry Knox, presented, in the 19th century, a collection of his grandfather’s manuscripts to the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Within this collection is a short diary kept by Knox during his expedition to and from Ticonderoga. The edited text of this diary can found in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Volume 30 (see Googlebooks). Images of all 30 pages of the original manuscript with exact transcriptions can also be found at the Online Collections website of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Here are a few extracts.
8 January 1776 
‘Went on the Ice about 8 o’clock in the morning & proceeded so cautiously that before night we got over three 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, in return for which we christen’d her - The Albany.’
9 January 1776
‘Got several spare slays also some spare string of horses, in case of any accident. After taking my leave of General Schuyler & some other of my friends in Albany, I sat out from there about twelve o’clock & went as far as Claverac, about 9 Miles beyond Kinderhook. I first saw all the Cannon set out from the ferry opposite Albany.’
10 January 1776
‘Reach’d No. 1, after having climb’d mountains from which we might almost have seen all the Kingdoms of the Earth.’
11 January 1776
‘Went 12 miles thro’ the Green Woods to Blanford. It appear’d to me almost a miracle that people with heavy loads should be able to get up & down such Hills as are here, with any thing of heavy loads. 
At Blanford we overtook the first division who had tarried here untill we came up, and refus’d going any further, on acco[unt] that there was no snow beyond five or six miles further in which space there was the tremendous Glasgow or Westfield mountain to go down. But after about three hours persuasion, I hiring two teams of oxen, they agreed to go.’

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