Six feet tall and weighing over 250 pounds, he was a giant of his time with calm gray eyes, keen intellect, and a round face that perpetually beamed with good humor. Henry Knox: jovial, gregarious, quick of wit, fat and very active. John Adams described him as one “of pleasing manners and inquisitive turn of mind.” Favored by patriot and loyalist alike, the British officers who frequented his book store did not place him among the other Bostonian ‘trouble makers’ who they thought of as crude and vulgar rabble.
He was born to William Knox and Mary Campbell Knox at 247 Federal Street, Boston, in a narrow house facing the harbor. Of Scottish heritage, a distant uncle organized the Presbyterian church in that country. Uprooted, the family was forced to abandon its homeland and went to Ireland. Knox’s father emigrated from Derry, Ireland to Boston in 1728 where he became a successful shipbuilder and trader in the Indies, eventually owning a wharf.
William Knox emigrated with John Morehead and helped establish The Church of the Presbyterian Strangers in Boston, which was basically a grimmer sect of Congregationalists. William went bankrupt and left Boston in 1756, traveling to St. Eustatius in the West Indies where he hoped to regain his fortune through trade. He died in 1762 from unknown causes, leaving twelve year old Henry, the eldest, to support the family. Seventh of William Knox’s ten sons, only four lived to adulthood. Two left for the sea, never to return, leaving a younger brother William, who later joined Henry in the Continental Army.
Immediately after his father’s death, Henry left the Boston Latin Grammar School to take a position at Wharton and Bowe’s Book Store as a bookbinder. The position began a lifelong passion for reading for young Henry. During that time, Henry was greatly influenced by Nicholas Bowes. He became a father figure to the young impressionable youth and would instill in him a deep moral sense of duty and attachment to the Protestant work ethic of New England.
As a boy, Henry was genial, bright and obliging. Though fat early on, he took pride in his name, Knox, which means hill in Gaelic and sometimes stout. ‘Town born’ or ‘street smart’, Henry was a member of the south end gang of street brawlers and its toughest fighter. One Pope night, Henry led the chief float in a procession, and one of the wheels fell off. Incredibly strong, Knox lifted and held the axle while urging his gang to continue the procession.
In 1771, the year his mother died, Knox opened his own book shop called the ‘London Book Store’, on Cornhill Street opposite William’s Court. He was just 21 years old. His store was colorful, selling telescopes, patent medicines, wall paper, musical instruments, and of course a “large and very elegant assortment” of the latest books and magazines from London. Interestingly, whenever Knox advertised his shop in the Gazette, his name was always much larger than the title of the store. It soon became very popular among the officer aristocrats of the British army because of his large supply of books on military history, memoirs and strategy.
Henry was a voracious reader prior to opening his own store, having spent long hours reading Greek and Latin classics in translation. His favorite subjects were military history and the science of fortification, including artillery. He would discuss tactics with the British officers who frequented his store. It was through this mutual interest that he met another military enthusiast who became a lasting friend, Nathanael Greene.
At age 23, Henry went hunting on Noddle Island in the harbor. A fowling piece was discharged accidentally and the second and third finger of his left hand was lost. After the accident, Henry wore a handkerchief over that hand whenever he appeared in public.
An impressionable youth, Henry was drawn to the protest movement which blanketed the colonies during the late eighteen sixties and early seventies, identifying with what was known as the rebel group Sons of Liberty. At age 18, he joined an artillery militia company formed in the south end known as “the Train” (for train of artillery). Present at the Boston massacre, Captain Joseph Pierce made the young Knox a lieutenant in the Boston Grenadier Corps (an offshoot of the Train).
During this time Knox remained good acquaintances with many British officers who continued to frequent his store, where henry, ever the enthusiastic artillerist, picked their minds on tactics. As turmoil grew so did Henry’s participation with the Sons of Liberty, serving as guard at the Boston Tea Party.
In 1772, Knox was spotted by his future wife during a parade of militia: Lucy Flucker, daughter of royal secretary Thomas Flucker of the Province of Massachusetts, a devout loyalist. She was thrilled to learn, some time later, that the handsome patriot also ran a book store. She soon became a regular patron. It was during this time, 1774, that General Gage placed Knox on his list of most dangerous persons. Thomas Flucker did not approve of the “patriot firebrand” and thought Knox, a man “in trade”, far below his daughter’s station. Lucy, chubby with a bright quick mind, was determined to marry her “Harry.” Finally, the Fluckers capitulated, allowing the couple to marry on June 17, 1774. Lucy was 18 and Henry was 25.
Thomas Flucker’s son was a Lieutenant in the British Army and he sought to offera similar blessing for his son-in-law, offering him a commission in the British Artillery. Knox immediately refused. Shortly after the Battle of Bunker Hill, Henry and Lucy fled Boston and his failing business for Cambridge. When the British evacuated Boston, Lucy’s family went with them. Staying in America, Lucy was never again to see her family.
During the siege of Boston in 1775, Knox was stationed at Roxbury and helped to design and build the fortifications there. Knox first met George Washington while the general was inspecting the defenses at Roxbury on July 5, only three days after the tall Virginian had taken command of the army. Knox was impressed with the new commander, writing: “General Washington fills his place with vast ease and dignity, and dispenses happiness around him.” Washington was also impressed with the stout artilleryman. Knox and his friend Greene were invited to dine with the general and his guests on several occasions. Soon after, Knox was made Colonel of the Continental Artillery. Henry actually helped the appointment along by writing to Samuel Adams that Colonel Gridley, the incumbent Artillery Commander under General Ward, was old, in poor health, and was disliked by his men. Washington, when approached by Adams, immediately agreed to a change in leadership.
Like most people, Washington enjoyed Knox’s company. There may have been similarities in himself that Washington appreciated: confident, self-educated, good manners, lost his father as a boy, learned to do much on his own, and a keen desire to read everything military.
Benedict Arnold, prior to his command of an American force to aide General Montgomery in the attack on Quebec, had suggested delivering cannon from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston, this to advance the seige of Boston. It was a trip of about 300 miles. The delivery was to be made in the dead of winter. The idea was so fraught with difficulties, many people thought it impossible. Nevertheless, Washington agreed, and immediately put Knox in charge.
With a $1,000 in his pocket for expenses, Knox set out for Ticonderoga, arriving at the Limestone Fort on December 5, 1775. He discovered mortars, 12 and 18 pound canon, (not all in usable condition), and a massive 24 pound brass cannon. Fifty-eight pieces in all were selected, with mortars weighing over a ton each to start and more cannons up to the 24 pounder at 5,000 pounds for a total of 120,000 pounds of artillary to transport. Boated to Lake George, the guns were eventually hauled to Albany using 42 sleds and 80 oxen and turned west through the Berkshires. Frozen rivers, sinking boats, lack of snow for sleds, and intense blizzards made for an arduous journey.
The three month ordeal ended on March 4, 1776 when 2,000 men and 400 oxen hauled the cannon up Dorchester Heights. The next day the British forces “saw the writing on the wall” and soon evacuated the city. A point to note that during this trip to retrieve the cannon, Knox made an acquaintance with Captain John Andre, British officer stationed at Fort Ticonderoga. Andre was pardoned after the capture of the fort by Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys and was heading south to Lancaster PA to await exchange. They spent an evening in conversation and struck up a lasting friendship. Ironically, Knox served on the court that eventually convicted Andre for treason concerning Benedict Arnold’s attempt to turn over the fort at West Point and Knox’s friend was later hung.
After the army moved to New York City to confront the invading British forces, Knox, along with General Putnam, supervised the fortifications and batteries defending the city. Here he developed a lifelong friendship with Alexander Hamilton, Captain of New York Artillery. By December, 1776, Knox was made a Brigadier General at age 26 while General Washington desperately moved his dwindling forces across New Jersey.
After the battle of Trenton, Knox distinguished himself in several more battles: Princeton, Brandywine and Germantown in 1777, and Monmouth in 1778. He placed the American artillery at the Yorktown siege in 1781. He also commanded the West Point post in 1782 after Arnold’s defection.
Knox’s military interests continued after the war: he organized the Society of the Cincinnati for Revolutionary War officers; served as Secretary of War under the Confederation; under the Constitution (where he was third in line for the presidency), he prepared plans for a national militia; helped to establish a regular Navy; organized a chain of coastal defenses; supervised Indian policy; and helped to establish a military school at West Point.
Retiring to Thomaston, Maine, on land grants from patents previously owned by Lucy’s family, he engaged in lumber, shipbuilding, stock raising (having imported several different varieties from Europe), and brick manufacturing. All his endeavors in business eventually failed resulting in huge losses financially and he gradually sold off vast tracks of his land. He died in debt on October 25, 1806 from an infection arising from a chicken bone lodged in his throat.
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Brooks, Noah, Henry Knox, a Soldier of the Revolution. 1900 G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, NY and London.
Gratz, Simon, The Generals of the Continental Line of the Revolutionary War. Penn. Mag. of History and Biography. Vol.27 No. 4 (1903) pp. 385-403.
Leckie, Robert, George Washington’s War. 1992 HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY.
Porter, Joseph Whitcomb, Memoir of General Henry Knox of Thomaston Maine, 1890 Benjamin A Burr Printer, Bangor Maine.
Puls, Mark, Henry Knox: Visionary General of the American Revolution. 2008 Palgrave Macmillan, New York, NY