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Sunday, July 05, 2015

Henry Knox before he was a fort

General Washington took over as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in Boston in July 1775. Whilst the Patriots had done well against the British in Lexington and Concord, as well as Bunker Hill, the appointment of Washington showed the Continental Army was serious. Quickly Washington worked to improve the Patriot situation and within months, the American army positioned itself to drive the British from Boston. He had the advantage of the high ground at Dorchester Heights but without artillery, the British had little to fear.

Enter Henry Knox, a young bookseller with no military experience. But he had street smarts and an ambitious, if seemingly improbable plan.

Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys had taken Fort Ticonderoga in May. Why not move the 59 pieces of artillery from Ticonderoga to Boston?

Three reasons: Mountains, winter and distance. The fort was 300 miles away.

But Washington had taken a liking to Knox. Washington knew the key to his success in the revolution would be a new generation of leaders and daring. Knox was both. Born on July 25, 1750, as the eldest son he had to go to work at 12 when his father died. Bookseller Nicholas Bowes took Knox under his wing. While Knox was a street brawler in his teens, he read extensively, particularly books on the military. He settled down and opened his own shop, specializing in military reading material.

However, Knox fell in love with and married Lucy Flucker, the daughter of a prominent Loyalist, on June 16, 1774, despite her family's objection. The occupation of Boston by the British left her homeless, and his shop looted. But they persevered. Divorce and desertion existed in the 18th century, and surely she had ample opportunity and reason to leave, but she stayed. The two made a portly couple. Each weighed 250 pounds, and 10 of their 13 children failed to achieve adulthood.

Knox's plan to bring the 59 pieces of artillery from Ticonderoga was brilliant on paper: disassemble the pieces, and then use flatboats and heavy sleds to bring the artillery to Springfield, Massachusetts, where workers could move them to Dorchester. But everyone knew this would need a mixture of good weather and bad, properly timed. Washington had faith in Knox, made him a colonel, and sent him and a band of teamsters to haul the artillery away.

The doubters had a good point and on December 17, 1775, Knox and his crew found themselves stuck in the middle of no place with sleds stuck in mud. He needed snow. On December 25, providence intervened and deigned a  few feet of snow blanket Knox's path to Springfield, courtesy of a New England Nor'easter. On March 4, 1776, he and the artillery arrived in Boston, and Washington knew he had a logistical genius, who could get things done.

On March 17,1776, the British awoke to 59 pieces of artillery staring down at them from Dorchester Heights. British General Howe looked up and said, General Howe looked up at Dorchester Heights and said, "The rebels did more in one night than my whole army would have done in one month."

Howe decided to relocate his army.

Knox spent the next Christmas ferrying 2,500 troops across the Delaware River, without the loss of a man (two soldiers died of exposure) for the Battle of Trenton. The next night found him ferrying back 2,500 American troops, 1,000 Hessian prisoners of war, and supplies back across the Delaware. That was what victory tasted like.

Washington and Knox were lifelong friends. In 1777, Knox left Washington's command briefly to set up the Springfield Armory which for two centuries supplied the nation with military hardware. Knox rejoined Washington later, and conducted the Siege of Yorktown, which essentially ended the war. He had learned a lot under fire. Knox later served as Washington's secretary of war.

Fort Knox, Kentucky, bears his trustworthy name, which is why it stores America's gold.

My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here. And the Kindle version is here.