Monday, January 6, 2020


Good news, very good news, reached Washington’s headquarters on Thursday, January 18, [1776] when a bulky, bowlegged man with brilliant gray eyes rode into Cambridge after a two-month absence. Only twenty-five, he habitually wrapped his left hand in a silk handkerchief to conceal the stumps of two fingers amputated after the barrel of his fowling piece exploded in a hunting mishap on Noddle’s Island two years earlier. Even as a boy working in a Boston book bindery, he had impressed John Adams with “his pleasing manners and inquisitive turn of mind.” He was, the writer Washington Irving would observe, “one of those providential characters which spring up in emergencies as if formed by and for the occasion.”

This surely was an emergency, and here was young Henry Knox to announce that against stiff odds he had transported, in midwinter by boat and by sled, fifty-eight fine guns from Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point—cannons and mortars, brass and iron. Those guns, momentarily parked twenty miles to the west on a muddy roadside in Framingham, were now his, and he was ready and eager to blow the British out of his hometown. But first he had to have a uniform tailored—no simple task for a man who eventually weighed almost three hundred pounds—since he had just learned of his new commission as a colonel in command of all Continental artillery.

In an era of improbable ascents, Henry Knox’s rise was among the least likely. At age nine, he had been forced to drop out of Boston Latin Grammar School when his father abandoned the family for the West Indies after his shipbuilding business collapsed. The boy went to work, both in the bindery and as an autodidact, teaching himself passable French and studying Plutarch’s Lives and Caesar’s Commentaries. At eighteen he joined a militia artillery company, training on brass 3-pounders under British tutelage and firing salutes for the king’s birthday. As a witness to the Boston Massacre, he testified at the subsequent trials and soon after opened his London Book-Store, peddling Bibles, law books, and almanacs in an effort, as he advertised, “to exterminate ignorance and darkness.” Knox himself was an attraction. “He was affable without familiarity, dignified without parade, imposing without arrogance,” one admirer wrote.

Within three years the shop had become “a fashionable morning lounge” for browsing British officers and well-heeled Bostonians alike, an emporium offering stationery, wallpaper, quills, flutes, Keyser’s pills, telescopes, “cordial cephalic snuff,” reading glasses, and Hill’s “never-failing cure for the bite of a mad dog.” And books: twenty volumes of Voltaire, ecclesiastical histories, the eleven-volume Complete History of England, treatises on shoeing horses and how to treat venereal disease with mercury, Tom Jones, Tristram Shandy, and various pirated Irish editions, which were cheaper than books published in England. A few weeks before the British marched to Lexington, Knox offered a shilling pamphlet on “the dispute between Great Britain and the colonies” by a precocious New York college student named Alexander Hamilton….

…Knox had covered more than seven hundred miles since leaving Cambridge, nearly half of it lugging 120,000 pounds of dead metal. The return trip from Ticonderoga had taken forty days, rather than the fifteen he’d anticipated. The journey was a feat of endurance and pluck comparable to Arnold’s anabasis through Maine, and his was a hero’s welcome at Vassall House. As he prepared for a uniform fitting and to take command of the six hundred gunners in his regiment, he tallied his expedition expenses in an account book: £521, 15 shillings, and a few pence. One day Washington would say of Harry Knox: there was “no one whom I have loved more sincerely.”

Rick Atkinson, The British Are Coming (234-237). Henry Holt and Co.. [2019] Kindle Edition.

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