Father of the American Artillery: Henry Knox

Henry Knox Courtesy Library of Congress

Henry Knox was born on July 25, 1750 in Boston, Massachusetts to William and Mary (Campbell) Knox. Henry’s parents were fairly well off, with William operating a thriving shipbuilding business. Henry was even able to attend the Boston Latin Grammar School. But that all changed when the Currency Act of 1751 was passed. William’s business was ruined and in 1759 he abandoned his family, fleeing to the West Indies.  He would die there in 1762. With his father gone, Knox had to quit school and go to work in a bookstore. This job did, however, allow Knox to self-educate himself using the many books available.  Knox not only supported his mother but also his younger brother, William. As an adult Knox was tall, over six feet, and later in life would grow wider.

When he was 18 years old, Knox joined an artillery company. With this venture came Knox’s thirst for knowledge of the military. He purchased books on military science and advanced mathematics, teaching himself a great deal.

During the Boston Massacre Knox found himself trying to avert disaster. A group of boys were throwing snow and ice at a redcoat who had knocked one of them in the face with his musket. The boy had insulted a British officer passing by. The boys ignored Knox and the crowd soon grew. More soldiers arrived and Knox warned Captain Thomas Preston not to fire on the crowd. When shots rang out three Colonists were dead and another 8 wounded. Two of the wounded would later die. At the trial for the soldiers, Knox provided his testimony. This helped to acquit all of the soldiers on trial but two, who were branded.

In 1771 Knox’s mother died and William came to work for Knox, who had opened his own bookstore that year. So successful was Knox’s business that he later moved his store to a larger residence. In a hunting accident Knox lost several of his left hand fingers. Throughout his life he would hide the wound with a handkerchief. Around this time he met the daughter of a Tory, Lucy Flucker. Because of Knox’s Patriot leanings Lucy’s father, Thomas, opposed the match. He would finally give in. Henry Knox and Lucy Flucker were married on June 20, 1774.  Thomas Flucker secured Knox a captain’s commission in the British Army, but Knox politely refused it.

When the Boston Port Act went into effect Knox’s business began to fail. He still owed on books he had ordered from Britain for his shop. After the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Knox and Lucy left Boston under the cover of night. William remained behind to tend to the shop. Lucy was also leaving behind her family who would later leave Boston never to return. Knox offered his services to the Patriot forces outside of Boston, putting his knowledge of engineering to the test.

The British Leave Courtesy Wikipedia

In October 1775 Congress wanted to make Knox a lieutenant colonel in the artillery, which Knox refused. He preferred something higher.  In late November Knox and William set out for forts Ticonderoga and Crown Point to transport the forts’ 59 cannons back to Massachusetts. The cannons were moved by sled through the snow and pulled over the frozen Lake George and other tough terrain. After a grueling journey Knox arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts on January 24th. The cannons were placed at Dorchester Heights and when the British ships in the harbor seen it they were forced to retreat. In Boston soldiers and Loyalists evacuated. This is when the Fluckers left.

On January 2, 1777 Knox was made brigadier general in the artillery, which he was still building up. He went on take part in the Battles of Trenton and Princeton. At the Battle of Germantown Knox made a mistake. While advancing on the British, Knox informed Washington that there were still 200 some redcoats holed up in the Benjamin Chew House. Knox proceeded to attack the Chew House. He didn’t inflict much damage and efforts were made to set the home ablaze. One man was attempting to set the home on fire when the British shot him. Knox’s aides, Colonel John Laurens and Major Chevalier Du Plesses even tried. Du Plessis was inside when a redcoat intercepted him. Du Plessis told the soldier he was out on a walk. The man responded by threatening Du Plessis. Something happened though and another redcoat shot a British officer and Du Plessis was able to get away. Both he and Laurens arrives back in one piece, although Laurens was hit. In the end Knox’s decision to attack the chew House proved costly.

Benedict Arnold Courtesy Wikipedia

In September 1780 Knox and other American got the shock of their lives. Benedict Arnold had betrayed America. The capture of Major John Andre had uncovered the plot (Knox had met Andre a few years back when he was setting out for Fort Ticonderoga for the cannons. Andre had been an American prisoner then).  At Arnold’s former quarters Knox found Arnold’s wife, Peggy Shippen, ranting  and raving. She convinced everyone she was innocent of the plot, which she wasn’t. Knox took part in Andre’s trial which led to Andre’s hanging as a spy. Most Americans agreed it was sad ending.

At the Siege of Yorktown a humorous argument ensued between Alexander Hamilton and Henry Knox. Hamilton thought it was un-masculine to scream about a British shell headed their way in the redoubts. At that moment someone yelled a warning and Hamilton hid behind the enormous 31 year old Knox. Knox had to stagger to shelter with Hamilton clinging to him. Knox’s artillery would bombard Yorktown, Virginia where Lord Charles Cornwallis was trapped. On October 19, 1781 Cornwallis surrendered. It was the beginning of the end of the war, the official end coming on April 11, 1783. Knox had been promoted to major general in 1782.

After the war Knox became Secretary of War in 1789 during George Washington’s administration. With this position Knox was able to accomplish much to further develop the young country. Knox sought to give his family a higher standard of living. On Maine land inherited by Lucy, their home Montpelier, was built and completed in 1795. Knox struggled to make ends meet to accommodate the family’s expensive living, but never made it big. He died on October 25, 1806 when he swallowed a chicken bone. The bone had gotten stuck in his throat. The doctor couldn’t save him. After his death Lucy withdrew from public life. She followed “Harry” on June 20, 1824. Out of the Knoxs many children only three outlived them.

Source: Puls, Mark. Henry Knox: Visionary General of the American Revolution.

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22 thoughts on “Father of the American Artillery: Henry Knox

  1. I am acquainted with Montpelier in Thomaston, ME, and, of course Fort Knox in Bucksport, ME, but did not know the background of Henry Knox. Thanks for the lesson.

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  2. I had it in the back of my mind to write about Knox because he is a bit unknown to most Americans. But, you did a fine job and I can eliminate one thing from my cluttered brain. I especially enjoyed the part about the Boston Massacre. It was not as cut and dried as many think.

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    • Thanks, Bruce. He does seem to be one of the lesser known Revolutionary War figures, which is a shame. The Boston Massacre was a very unfortunate event, but Knox performed very well in that episode. Thanks for your comment.

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  3. Very good framework about good, old, Harry. That is what his good friends called him. As a part-time actor who portrays both Henry as the General and as the Secretary of War in Philadelphia, I am always delighted when I read his story. It is good that you are helping to spread the word about Henry because he does not get the due respect that he deserves. May I recommend a superior book about Knox, in great part because there are many minor errors in Puls’ book, and some aspects of Henry’s life are sidelined and not given the proper emphasis in his book. I refer all to North Callahan’s, General Washington’s General, published originally in 1959. It seems that a major biography about Knox and all of his accomplishments, both during the war and afterwards, when he was the 2nd Sec. of War under the Articles of Confederation, and a key player behind the scenes responsible for convincing Washington to attend the Constitutional Convention is published about once every 50 years. Curiously, It was Knox who coined the sobriquet about Washington as “The Father of His Country” which helped Washington to decide to attend the convention. I could go on and on about Henry, but I will not. As you can tell, I am very supportive and protective of my character and a true hero, Henry Knox.

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    • Hi, Bob, thanks for your comment.

      I had read on another blog that there were errors in Puls’ book, which bothered me as I wouldn’t be able to spot them in the book myself. I’ll try to get a copy of Callahan’s book. Thanks for the recommendation.

      “about once every 50 years”. Pity, Knox was such an interesting figure.

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    • Thanks for your comment!

      Yes, when reading of important (and some people considered non-important) I enjoy reading more about the person’s personal lives. Glad you liked the post.

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  4. As others have commented, many players in our history get lost behind the few names that we can remember.

    I put a link to your blog in a recent post. The post is about a different topic, but I mentioned a couple of blogs that emphasize history topics. Keep finding interesting folks for us to learn about.
    Oscar

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    • Thanks much for linking to my blog.

      Those people who aren’t as well known in history many time tend to be extremely interesting. Which leads me to wonder how they are/were became forgotten in the first place. “Light Horse Harry” Lee doesn’t seem to be getting much attention either, despite being Robert E. Lee’s father. I may do a post on him in the coming weeks.

      Thanks for your comment!

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    • Speaking of Light Horse, his summer cabin is a historic site about a half hour drive from us in WV. It is now in Lost River State Partk. We visited his home on the Northern Neck of VA… Strafford Hall, I believe.

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  5. Wow, all kinds of interesting information in this post – thanks J. G. I didn’t know that Knox (ME) and James Madison (VA) lived on estates with the same name. I didn’t realize until I read this post that the Boston Massacre preceded the Boston Tea Party by 3.5 years. In case you haven’t read it, “Benedict Arnold’s Navy” by James Nelson does an outstanding job documenting Knox’s role in the amazing cannon transport from Fort Ticonderoga back to Massachusetts.

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    • I didn’t know Madison and Knox both had homes by the same name either, until I read Knox’s biography.

      My library has that book and I’ll be sure to borrow it. Plus if it is also about Arnold, it will be a double good read for me. I’ve had an interest in Arnold for awhile now.

      Thanks for your comment, glad you liked the post!

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  6. Thank you for another terrific post J.G. You have an excellent gift for synthesizing subjects, whether it’s something large and complex like the Irish potato famine, or a biographical subject like Henry Knox, and summing up & presenting the main facts in accessible form, but responsibly, without undue simplifications. Always a great & informing read. Thank you, & I look forward to the next post. – Arran.

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  7. General Knox’s “Noble Train of Artillery” was one of the most important, yet most unheralded, accomplishments of the War for Independence.

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    • It was definitely an amazing feat. I believe Seymour Reit wrote a fictional account of the story called “Guns for General Washington”.

      Thanks for your comment.

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  8. Pingback: Dinner is Served [part one] | tiaras and trianon

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