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This Week in History

July 22-28, 1750:
Celebrating the Birthday of Henry Knox

July 2012

Henry Knox, portrait by Charles Wilson Peale, 1784.

A Most Extraordinary Revolutionary War General Who Became America's First Secretary of War

Henry Knox loved solving a problem, and when he found the solution, he would go out and implement it. Always optimistic in the service of the American cause, his unremitting efforts left a vital legacy for the Americans of today. His story began in Boston on July 25, 1750 when he was born the seventh son in a family eventually of ten sons. When Henry was 12, his shipmaster father died in the West Indies, and Henry became the sole support of his mother and younger brothers. He had to leave his studies, and was able to find work in a Boston bookstore. The store was a popular gathering place for officers of the British Army, and many became friendly with Knox, especially since he was interested in military affairs and read all the books he could find on the subject, in particular those dealing with artillery.

1771 advertisement for the "London Book Store", by Nathaniel Hurd, 1730-1777, engraver..

By the age of 21, Knox was able, perhaps with the aid of patriot friends, to go out on his own and open "The London Book-Store," which also carried musical instruments, telescopes, patent medicine, and tobacco. He built up contacts with other bookstores in the colonies, especially with James Rivington in New York, who often sent him large orders for books of plays. At that time, bookstores were often centers of intelligence operations, and Knox's bookstore became a gathering place for the American patriot leadership.

While he was still a bookstore apprentice, Knox enlisted in a Boston military company, and in 1772 he joined the crack Boston Grenadier Corps as second in command. As he continued his artillery and engineering studies, he became more and more involved in the patriot cause. At the scene of the "Boston Massacre" in 1770, he grabbed the coat of British Capt. Thomas Preston and told him, "for God's sake to take his men back again, for if they fired, his life must answer for the consequences." Then, in December 1773, when Americans were protesting the tax on tea, Henry Knox was one of the committee of 25, chosen from the grenadier company of the Boston Regiment, who guarded the three East India Company ships to make sure their cargo could not be unloaded.

During the growing conflict with Britain, Knox wooed and won the hand of Lucy Flucker, the well-read daughter of the royal secretary of the province. Her parents strongly opposed the marriage, but Lucy persisted and she and Henry were married in June, 1774. Like everyone else in Boston after the East India Company had reacted to the Tea Party with repressive decrees, the Knoxes were prisoners in the city, forced to live under British military rule. Henry was under heavy pressure from his in-laws and his British officer friends to support the Crown, but once the Battles of Lexington and Concord had been fought, the Knoxes left almost everything behind and told the sentries they were going on a short picnic. They kept going, however, until they reached the Continental Army in Cambridge. The one thing Henry would not leave behind was his sword, which Lucy quilted into his cloak, and since he was six-foot-three and 280 pounds, the British did not detect it.

After the Battle of Bunker Hill, the British remained in Boston, waiting for supplies and the troop reinforcements which would enable them to attack the American Army in Cambridge. Washington and the Continental Army could not attack Boston, because of the perilous shortage of gunpowder and the fact that the Army possessed less than a handful of cannons. In this situation, Henry Knox went to the War Council in Cambridge and proposed that he go to the old French and Indian War Fort of Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain and bring back the French and British cannons that were mounted on the fort's walls. Most members of the War Council felt that it was an impossible task to drag heavy cannons through the wilderness in the middle of the winter, but George Washington told Knox to go ahead and try it.

Taking his 19-year-old brother Will with him, Knox rode to Albany, where an Army messenger had alerted Gen. Philip Schuyler that men would be needed to build boats and sleds. Once they reached Ticonderoga, Knox picked out the cannons that were still functional and hired carpenters to build heavy boats. Against strong headwinds and through dense fog, the cannons were floated down Lake Champlain to the portage to Lake George. There, they were loaded on sleds and dragged by teams of oxen. A snowfall made progress easier, but when it reached three feet deep, Knox had to leave the men and teams in a grove and push forward for miles to a town where he could obtain help.

National Archives
Hauling guns by ox teams from Fort Ticonderoga for the siege of Boston, 1775.

When the long caravan reached the Mohawk River, the ice would not hold the heavier cannons, and the men had to drill holes in the ice to allow water to come up over the top of the ice and form a new, thicker layer. Even so, a man with an axe had to walk beside each cannon's sled, ready to cut the rope if the ice broke, in order to save the ox team. This did happen with Will Knox's cannon, but Henry had it raised out of the Mohawk and it survived to do service in Boston. After an incredibly arduous passage through the Berkshire Mountains, using block and tackle to raise and lower the cannons, the expedition at last reached actual roads, and the cannons were secreted in various locations while Henry Knox reported to Washington.

The existence of the cannons was kept secret, because of the Americans' fear that the British might burn Boston if they realized they would be forced to evacuate it. So a diversion was set up on the north shore facing the town, while Henry Knox directed the emplacement of all the cannon in one night on Dorchester Heights, which overlooked the city and the British fleet. Early the next morning the cannons boomed, but were not aimed at the ships, because Washington wanted only to warn the British, not force a tragedy wherein the occupying force, in revenge and terror, would fire the town. After an abortive attempt to attack Dorchester Heights, the British agreed to withdraw and not burn Boston, if they were allowed to retreat unmolested. They took with them about a thousand Tories, among which were Henry Knox's in-laws, the Fluckers.

Knox served for the rest of the war, setting up and commanding the American artillery and becoming the close friend and confidant of George Washington. He was entrusted with organizing the crossing of the Delaware to Trenton, and for his planning ability was commissioned a brigadier general. Through the "times that try men's souls" he was unfailingly optimistic, and wrote that "We want great men who, when fortune frowns, will not be discouraged." In 1779, he proposed the establishment of a military academy at West Point to train officers and to provide technical proficiency in engineering. After Yorktown, during the difficult days when the Army received no pay and the Newburgh Letters suggested a military coup, Knox was instrumental in backing Washington's successful attempt to let cooler heads prevail.

When Washington resigned his commission, Knox became commander of the Army, and was soon appointed Secretary of War for the Confederation Government. When Washington was inaugurated as first President of the United States, and Congress set up the War Department, Knox continued as Secretary into Washington's second term. His attempt to bring some Federal standards into the state militias was blocked by Congress, and he had only temporary success in stopping the privatizing of Army supplies and food. But Knox, resolving that the terrible frontier defeats of Generals Harmar and St. Clair should not be repeated, did succeed in reorganizing the Army's structure into what was called a Legion, a composite organization of infantry, riflemen, dragoons, and artillery that would be more effective in wilderness fighting. Two years after Knox had left the Federal government, Gen. Anthony Wayne used that structure in his American Legion to finally drive the British out of the American frontier posts.

Finally, before he left office, Secretary Knox reported to Congress, that although military arms could be purchased more cheaply from Europe, the lower price was of little value "compared with the solid advantages which would result from extending and perfecting the means upon which our safety may ultimately depend." Congress responded by expanding the number of magazines for stockpiling weapons, and by establishing national armories for arms manufacture. The first was established at Springfield, Massachusetts in 1794, where Knox had created an arms depot during the Revolution, and later that same year the second armory was begun at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. As George Washington said of Henry Knox after the Battle of Yorktown, "The resources of his genius supplied the deficit of means."


The original article was published in the EIR Online’s Electronic Intelligence Weekly, as part of an ongoing series on history, with a special emphasis on American history. We are reprinting and updating these articles now to assist our readers in understanding of the American System of Economy.

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