On Independence Day, I like to read the story of Col. Henry Knox and his trek to fetch the British munitions from Fort Ticonderoga, from the book, 1776, by the author David McCullough. I love this story because it is a reminder of all those people in our history, just as today, for it weren’t for their great tenacity and determination, we wouldn’t be here today, as Americans without them.
Knox was a clerk in a bookstore in Boston before volunteering to retrieve the abandoned munitions from Fort Ticonderoga, at the North end of Lake George, in the Winter of 1775. The Colonial Militia was nearly out of munitions, relegated to fighting the British forces at <st1:place w:st="on">Boston by rolling barrels of water down hills. Although the militia was nearly out of food, it was a court marshal worthy offense to use their scarce munitions to hunt dinner.
Although Knox had no logistical nor military training, he traveled through upstate <st1:state w:st="on">New York and <st1:country-region w:st="on">Canada, in the worst of winter weather, to retrieve the munitions. </st1:country-region>
There are two main points that intrigue and inspire me about this story. First, we have all heard of Col. Knox, but most of us don’t know exactly why his name is famous. We all know the role of Gen. Washington in the Colonists victory over the British. But every great story has an entire cast on which the details rely.
Secondly, Knox achieved his task, against unthinkable odds. Without Knox’s tireless tenacity, we would likely be citizens of Great Britain today. When you read this story, you will realize that so many of us might be able to overcome ONE of the obstacles that he encountered -- maybe even two. But Knox and his team of people and mules, pulled 120 thousand pounds of munitions, over lakes, through blizzards, out of the bottom of rivers, and over mountains, to arrive just in time to provide relief to the Colonial Militia.
Below, is an excerpt from McCullough’s story of Henry Know from 1776.
Happy Independence Day!
Knox had been gone for two months and he had fulfilled all expectations, despite rough forest roads, freezing lakes, blizzards, thaws, mountain wilderness, and repeated mishaps that would have broken lesser spirits several times over. He had succeeded with his bold, virtually impossible idea and at exactly the right moment, justifying entirely the trust Washington had placed in him. The story of the expedition would be told and retold for weeks within the army and for years to come.
Departing from Cambridge on horseback on November 16, Knox and his brother William had traveled first to New York City, where they made arrangements for military supplies to be sent back to Boston, then pressed northward up the Hudson Valley, at times making 40 miles a day.
They arrived at Fort Ticonderoga on December 5. Built by the French at the start of the French and Indian War in 1755, the limestone fort had been taken by the British in 1759, then by the Americans in May of 1775. It stood at the southern end of Lake Champlain, where Lake Champlain meets the northern end of Lake George.
The guns Knox had come for were mostly French – mortars, 12- and 18- pound cannon (that is, guns that fired cannonballs of 12 and 18 pounds), and one giant brass 24-pounder. Not all were in usable condition. After looking them over, Knox selected 58 mortars and cannon. Three of the mortars weighed a ton each and the 24-pound cannon, more than 5,000 pounds. The whole lot was believed to weigh not less than 120,000 pounds.
The plan was the transport the guns by boat down Lake George, which was not yet completely frozen over. At the lake’s southern end would begin the long haul overland, south as far as <st1:city w:st="on">Albany before turning east toward Boston across the Berkshire Mountains. The distance to be covered was nearly three hundred miles. Knox planned to drag the guns on giant sleds and was counting on snow. But thus far only a light dusting covered the ground.
With the help of local soldiers and hired men, he set immediately to work. Just moving the guns from the fort to the boat landing proved a tremendous task. The passage down Lake George, not quite forty miles, took eight days. Three coats and their immense cargo set sail on December 9, and for the first hour had a fair wind. After that progress came only with “the utmost difficulty.” Indeed, from Knox’s hurried, all-but-illegible diary entries, that first hour on the lake appears to have been the only hour of the entire trek that did not bring “the utmost difficulty”.
One of the boats, a scow, struck a rock and sank, though close enough to shore to be bailed out patched up, and set afloat again. Knox recorded days of heavy rowing against unrelenting headwinds – four hours of “rowing exceedingly hard” one day, six hours of “excessive hard rowing” on another. In places, the boats hard to cut through ice. Knox’s brother William wrote at day’s end, December 14, of “beating all the way against the wind…. God sent us a fair wind.” Nights ashore were bitterly cold.
“It’s not easy to conceive the difficulties we have had,” Knox wrote to Washington at the end of the voyage on the lake, in a letter of December 17 that would reach <st1:place w:st="on">Cambridge only about the time he did.
On his way north to Ticonderoga, Knox had arranged for heavy sleds or sledges to be rounded up or built, forty-two in all, and to be on hand at Fort George at the southern end of Lake George, about thirty-five miles south of Ticonderoga. (“I most earnestly beg you to spare no trouble or necessary expense in getting these,” he had told a local officer.) With the sleds and eighty yoke of oxen, he was now ready to push on. “Trusting that… we shall have a fine fall of snow…. I hope in sixteen or seventeen days to be able to present your Excellency a noble train of artillery.”
To his wife, Knox claimed the most difficult part was over, and speculated, “We shall cut no small figure through the country with our cannon.”
Still there was no snow. Instead, a “cruel thaw” set in, halting progress for several days. The route south to Albany required four crossings of the Hudson. With ice on the river so thin, the heavy caravan could only stand idly by at <st1:place w:st="on">Fort George and wait for a change in the weather. When the change came, it was a blizzard. Three feet of snow fell, beginning Christmas Day. Determined to go ahead to <st1:city w:st="on">Albany on his own, Knox nearly froze to death struggling through the snow on foot, until finding horses and a sleigh to take him the rest of the route.
Eventually, the “precious convoy” pushed off <st1:placetype w:st="on">Fort George. “Our cavalcade was quite imposing,” remembered John Becker, who at age twelve had accompanied his father, one of the drivers on the expedition. They proceeded slowly, laboriously in the heavy snow, passing through the <st1:placetype w:st="on">village of Saratoga, then on to Albany, when Knox was busy cutting holes in the frozen Hudson in order to strengthen the ice. (The idea was that the water coming up through the holes would spread over the surface of the ice and freeze, thus gradually thickening the ice.)
On New Years day, the weather turned warm again. Precious time was wasting, he wrote to Lucy. “The thaw has been so gave that I’ve trembled for the consequences, for without snow my very important charge cannot get along.”
But the temperature plunged again. On January 7, General Schuyler wrote to <st1:state w:st="on">Washington from his Albany headquarters, “This morning I had the satisfaction to see the first division of sleds with cannon cross the river.”
They moved cautiously over the ice, and for several hours it appeared that Knox’s holes had done the trick. Nearly a dozen sleds had crossed without mishap, until suddenly one of the largest cannons, an 18 pounder, broke through and sank not too far from shore, leaving a hole in the ice fourteen feet in diameter. Undaunted, Knox at once set about retrieving the cannon from the bottom of the river, losing a full day in effort, but at last succeeding, as he wrote, “owing to the assistance of the good people of Albany.”
On January 9, the expedition pushed on from the eastern shore of the <st1:city w:st="on">Hudson, with more than a hundred miles still to go. Snow in the Berkshires lay thick, exactly as needed, but the mountains, steep and tumbled and dissected by deep, narrow valleys posed a challenge as formidable as any. Knox, with no prior experience in such terrain, wrote of climbing peaks “from which we might almost have seen all the kingdoms of the earth.”
“It appeared to me almost a miracle that people with heavy loads should be able to get up and down such hills,” reads another of his diary entries.
To slow the descent of the laden sleds down slopes as steep as a roof, check lines were anchored to trees. Brush and drag chains were shoved beneath the runners. When some of his teamsters, fearful of the risks, refused to go any further, pleading until finally they agreed to head on.
News of the advancing procession raced ahead of the lead sleds, and, as Knox had imagined, people begun turning out along the route to see for themselves the procession of guns from Ticonderoga.
“Our armament here was a great curiosity,” wrote John Becker of the reception at the town of Westfield. “We found that very few, even among the oldest inhabitants, had never seen a cannon.” Becker at the age of twelve, had never known such excitement.
We were the great gainers by this curiosity, for while they were employed in remarking upon our guns, we were, with equal pleasure, discussing the qualities of their cider and whiskey. These were generously brought out in great profusion.
At <st1:place w:st="on">Springfield, to quicken the pace, Knoxchanged from oxen to horses, and on the final leg of the journey the number of onlookers grew by the day.
The halt came at last about twenty miles west of <st1:place w:st="on">Boston in Framington. The guns were unloaded, Knox, meantime, having sped on to <st1:place w:st="on">Cambridge.
Knox’s “noble train” had arrived in tact. Not a gun had been lost. Hundreds of men had taken part and their labors and resilience had been exceptional. But it was the daring and detirmination of Knoxhimself that had counted above all. The twenty-five-year-old Boston bookseller had proven himself a leader of remarkable ability, a man not only enterprising ideas, but with the staying power to carry them out. Immediately, <st1:state w:st="on">Washington put him in command of artillery.
To those who rode out from Cambridge to Framington to look over the guns, it was clear that the stalemate at <st1:city w:st="on">Boston was about to change dramatically.