Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Guns of Ticonderoga

  The capture of the guns at Fort Ticonderoga was of little military value to the Patriots unless they could be transported, in the dead of winter, from upstate New York to Boston where the rebels were besieging the British regulars - a distance of some 280 miles using available rivers and roads. George Washington dispatched the 25 year old Henry Knox, a Boston bookseller, to retrieve the cannon and other supplies and transport them back to Boston. Knox owned "The London Book Store", located opposite Williams Court in Boston, and was married to the daughter of Thomas Flucker, Royal Secretary of the Province, and as ardent a Loyalist as there was in Boston. To think of Knox's establishment merely as a "bookstore" does not give it its full due. In addition to the finest books, Knox also sold stationery and a whole variety of items to include flutes, breadbaskets, telescopes, protractors, and paper hangings, among other things. It was, in fact, an establishment described as "...a great store of display and attraction for young and old, and a fashionable morning lounge....Knox's store was a great resort for the British officers and Tory ladies who were the ton of the period."  Knox had been an eye witness to the Boston Massacre and later testified at the trials of the soldiers involved. In 1773, while hunting, Knox lost the third and fourth fingers of his left hand when a fowling piece exploded. He went through life wrapping a silk handkerchief around his hand to disguise the injury. He was fascinated with military matters and strategy, spent a great deal of time acquiring and reading books on the subject, and was a member of an artillery company at the outbreak of war.

Henry Knox
   Washington issued orders on Thursday, November 16, 1775 to Knox to proceed to Fort Ticonderoga via New York City and Albany and procure as much cannon and supplies as he could and transport them to Boston. Knox set out, accompanied by his nineteen year old brother, and arrived on December 4th, 1775. At Fort Ticonderoga, Knox found guns ranging from 12 inch howitzers to 11 foot cannon weighing 5,000 pounds apiece.The total weight of the load that he was to drag to Boston was approximately 120,000 pounds. Knox's immediate problem was to load the cannon and supplies aboard ships so that they could be transported down the lake to Fort George for loading onto sleds. The cannon were loaded onto low draught lake vessels called gundalows. After loading the cannon aboard, Knox went on ahead to Fort George and, on 11 December, 1775, contracted for  a local militia captain to round up 42 sleds that could carry 5,400 pounds apiece, 160 oxen to pull them, and 500 fathoms of sturdy three inch rope to ferry the 43 cannon and 16 mortars as far as Springfield, Massachusetts where he planned to get fresh animals for the rest of the journey.
a gundalow
      But Knox had one insurmountable problem - the weather, which was too good. Given the state of the rutted roads he had to traverse, Knox needed a good base of snow and/or ice on which to drag the sleds. It was impossible to drag the sleds over snow free roads. Knox, too optimistically, wrote Washington that he would cover twenty miles a day and that he should arrive in Cambridge by New Year's Day. But snow refused to fall. On Christmas day, Knox awoke to find a very welcome Christmas present - a two foot blanket of pristine snow. But the Christmas bounty was not to last as a warm front rapidly moved into the area, temperatures rose, and rivers began to thaw. Finally, on January 8th, 1776 a cold front moved in, lingered and Knox could get on his way.

   After clearing the rivers in New York, Knox had to haul his artillery chain through the Berkshires and a dense pine forest called Greenwoods. Many of his crew became discouraged and Knox spent a great deal of his time cajoling them to continue the journey. After trekking through the mountains and the forest, the trip became easier since they moved on an old Indian trail. As the caravan approached Springfield, Knox rode ahead to Cambridge where he reported to Washington on January 24th that the artillery would arrive in the next few days. Knox was then informed that his appointment as a Colonel had been approved by Congress and he would head the army's artillery corps of approximately 650 men.

   Knox's mission had taken twenty-four days longer than he had predicted and his entire mission stretched to fifty-six days. Knox immediately went into putting the artillery to use but decided that the Ticonderoga cannon and mortars were insufficient for his task. He wrote to General Charles Lee, on his way to New York, with a requisition for more guns. But all the artillery in the world was useless without powder and ammunition, of which the Patriots were always short. Knox was pleased to learn that shortly after he had departed on his mission that the Americans had captured a British sloop laden with military supplies to include 3,000 shells for twelve pound guns and 4,000 shells for the six pounders. But Knox was still desperately short of powder for his guns.  On February 18th, Washington informed Knox that Connecticut was going to send them 3,000 pounds of powder.

Map of the Siege of Boston with positions prior to the seizure of Dorchester Heights
(Click on the map to enlarge it.)

   The key to driving the British from Boston was the seizure of Dorchester Heights. Knox had positiioned his cannon on three heights -  Roxbury from the South, Cobble Hill from the West, and Lechmere Point on the North. On  March 2, 1776, Knox commenced his bombardment of his home town. On March 4th, as the cannonade boomed uninterurpted, General John Thomas seized Dorchester Heights with 2000 men. Under Knox's direction, and with the help of 400 oxen, the heaviest guns seized from Ticonderoga were hauled up the hill and positioned to strike the city and the British fleet in the harbor. A British Admiral spotted the guns and notified General Howe who immediately made plans to attack the position but an unfavorable wind would not allow him to mount an amphibious assault and gave Washington time to send in additional troops to secure this position and Knox time to augment and dig in his artillery. Howe soon realized his position in Boston was hopeless and on St Patrick's Day, 1776 the British commenced to evacuate Boston.
   The lifting of the siege not only gave a much needed boost to the flagging spirits of New Englanders, it helped to bolster a national mood that believed that Independence was inevitable.

  The irony of history: While travelling to Fort Ticonderoga, Knox encountered a snowstorm and took refuge at Fort George on December 4, 1775. He was given lodging in a one room cabin which, for lack of space, he shared with a captured British officer who, along with others, was being escorted to Lancaster, Pennsylvania where a prisoner exchange would occur. Knox was dressed in civilian clothes and revealed nothing of his mission. As they sat before the fire, the two men engaged in conversation and found an attraction for each other since both loved literature and shared many passions. The officer's intelligence and personality left a lasting impression on Knox. The officer was Lt John Andre, a member of the British Army stationed in Canada.

Westminster Abbey



  1. Just found your blog - it's terrific! Loved the posts on Benedict Arnold and guns from Ticonderoga! Illustrations, maps and diagrams are great. Always wondered what a gundalow looked like.

    Over the summer, went to London and visited grave of Benedict Arnold. He's buried in a crypt in the basement of a church where they now have a preschool. The staff had to push the toys away for me to see the plaque!


  2. Great story about the Guns of Ticonderoga. Every American should read this and apply the priciples to the world of today. Look to the Founding Fathers for inspiration.

  3. Where are Knox's Cannon(s) today? A Boston Museum...or returned back to Fort T.?

  4. No one knows. The Continental Army desperately needed artillery so Henry Knox probably took all of the Ticonderoga cannon with the rest of the artillery when the Continental Army moved to New York after the siege of Boston. The Continental Army didn't keep close records of these cannon so, unless some new record is discovered in some archive someplace, their disposition will remain unknown.

    1. I would like to know too? I bet the national arcive would have something on them ?

    2. Unfortunately no. This is from the National Archives website.

      "Most records in War Department custody were destroyed by fire, November 8, 1800. Many of the remaining Revolutionary War records were lost during the War of 1812. As a result there were, until 1873, few records for the period before 1789 in War Department custody. In 1873 Secretary of War William Belknap purchased for the Federal Government the papers of Timothy Pickering, who between 1777 and 1785 had been a member of the Board of War, Adjutant General of the Continental Army, and Quartermaster General; the papers of Samuel Hodgdon, Commissary General of Military Stores for several years during the war; miscellaneous contemporary papers; and some minor groups of records and single record items. In 1888 these records were transferred to the Department of State. By acts of July 27, 1892 (27 Stat. 275) and August 18, 1894 (28 Stat. 403), Congress authorized the transfer to the War Department of all military records for the Revolutionary War period then in the custody of other Executive branch departments. These military records were transferred between 1894 and 1913 from the Departments of State, the Interior, and the Treasury. In 1914 and 1915, under authority of an act of March 2, 1913 (37 Stat. 723), the War Department made photographic copies of Revolutionary War records in the custody of public and private institutions in VA, NC, and MA. The entire collection was transferred to the National Archives in 1938. Although its contents span the period 1629-1915, the bulk of the information deals with the period 1775-83. "

  5. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.