Henry Knox is best remembered as the man who dragged a "noble train of artillery" through the frozen wilderness from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston, compelling the British to evacuate the City. It is one of the great epic stories of our nation's founding, ranking for sheer audacity alongside the capture of the Hessian garrison at Trenton (in which Knox and his cannons played a significant part) and Benedict Arnold's expedition through the wilds of Maine to assault Quebec.
There is no question that coordinating the successful transport of all that heavy ordinance in the dead of winter was quite an accomplishment, and is testimony to Knox's considerable organizational skills and unflagging spirit. Nevertheless, whatever evidence exists in the historic record does not always accord with the way the story has come down to us, and indeed I have come to question some of our long standing assumptions about Knox's expedition and its significance.
The idea to retrieve the cannons from Fort Ticonderoga is roundly regarded as a bold and brilliant stroke. Historians routinely credit Knox with making the suggestion to Washington, but there is contradictory evidence in Washington's own correspondence that shows he had previously dispatched an aide-de-camp with instructions to forward the much needed ordinance to Boston. That gentleman was Col. Joseph Reed, later the Governor of Pennsylvania. In a letter of November 16th, 1775, Washington writes to the New York Legislature:
Sir: It was determined at a Conference held here in the last Month, that such Military Stores as could be spared from New York, Crown Point, Ticonderoga &c., should be sent here for the use of the Continental Army. As it was not clear to me, whether I was to send for or that they were to be sent to me, I desired Mr. Reed on his way to Philadelphia, to enquire into this matter; as I have not heard from him on the subject, and the Season advancing fast, I have thought it necessary to send Hen: Knox Esqr who will deliver you this. After he forwards what he can get at your Place, he will proceed to Genl Schuyler, on this very important business.
I request the favor of you Sir, and the Gentlemen of your Congress, to give Mr. Knox all the assistance in your power, by so doing you will render infinite service to your Country and vastly oblige Sir, etc.
From this it is clear that Washington had determined the need for supplies from both New York and the captured northern forts some time before he sent Knox to follow up. What he meant by "military stores" is clear from a letter drafted the same day to Maj. General Philip Schuyler; stating: " I am in very great Want of Powder, Lead, Morters, Cannon, indeed of most Sorts of military Stores. For Want of them we really cannot carry on any spirited Operation." In fact, as yet another letter makes clear, Washington had been looking for supplies of this sort, particularly lead, from Albany as far back as that August.The fact is, General Washington was leaving no stone unturned in his search for military supplies, and while no one in Cambridge knew precisely what ordinance and war material was to be had from Ticonderoga and Crown Point, they certainly had not been forgotten since their capture that Spring.
Joseph Reed left Cambridge October 29th, so Washington had not been waiting very long for word about the supplies he was so impatient to secure. Nonetheless, it does not appear that Col. Reed had been able to give it much attention as he was passing through New York, nor that the New York authorities were overly motivated to make the effort to give up what they had on hand. Sending Knox there for the express purpose of forwarding military stores was a sound decision and, as it turns out, an excellent choice by Washington.
Knox was still a civilian volunteer at this time - "a Gentleman of Worcester" - although he had been recommended by Washington for a Colonelcy (and his commission was waiting for him when he returned to Boston). He had impressed Washington with his well laid siege works at Roxbury, and the Boston bookseller's considerable knowledge of artillery and engineering which he had gained largely from reading books.
But was the idea to gain the cannon from Ticonderoga his as well, or should he instead be remembered for his execution of the plan rather than its instigation?
The answer to that may lie in Washington's allusion in his letter to the New York Legislature to a "Conference held here last month". Washington did indeed hold a conference with his general officers on October 8th, at which time he put a number of questions to them regarding the organization and supply of the Continental Army. Henry Knox, as a civilian volunteer, would not have been obligated to attend, nor is it clear that he would have been at liberty to do so. A subsequent commission which met in Cambridge from Oct 18th-22nd included members of Congress and notables from several states, but not Knox. A unanimous decision of the Generals at the October 8th conference, however, was to replace the current commander of the Artillery, and on November 8th Washington would "recommend Henry Knox, Esqr, to the consideration of Congress" for that position. Whether or not Knox ventured the idea unofficially is interesting to speculate, but Washington's correspondence makes no mention of it and it may well be an assumption of his later biographers who took it on faith that the volunteer Mr. Henry Knox "volunteered".
Washington's orders to Knox on November 16th make it clear that his great contribution to this effort would be to do for the authorities in New York what they were unable to do for themselves in forwarding ordinance, and scarce war supplies such as gun flints, to Cambridge:
INSTRUCTIONS TO HENRY KNOX Head Quarters, Cambridge,
November 16, 1775.
You are immediately to examine into the State of the Artillery of this Army, and take an account of the Cannon, Motors, Shells, Lead and Ammunition, that are wanting. When you have done that, you are to proceed in the most expeditious Manner to New York; there apply to the President of the provisional Congress, and learn of him whether Colonel Reed did any Thing, or left any Orders respecting these Articles, and get him to procure such of them as can possibly be had there. The President, if he can, will have them immediately sent hither: If he cannot you must put them in a proper Channel for being transported to this Camp with Dispatch, before you leave New York. After you have procured as many of these Necessaries as you can there, you must go to Major General Schuyler, and get the Remainder from Ticonderoga, Crown Point, or St John's. If it should be necessary, from Quebec; if in our Hands. The Want of them is so great, that no Trouble or Expence must be spared to obtain them. I have wrote to General Schuyler, he will give every necessary assistance that they may be had and forwarded to this Place, with the utmost Dispatch. I have given you a Warrant to the Pay-Master General of the Continental Army, for a Thousand Dollars to defray the Expence attending your Journey, and procuring these Articles; an Account of which you are to keep and render upon your Return. Endeavour to procure what Flints you can.
There can be no doubt that Henry Knox possessed "an enterprising and fertile mind", as one biographer puts it who had access to the vast bulk of Knox's surviving papers. I have yet to find first hand evidence, however, that he deserves the credit for conceiving as well as successfully executing the task of retrieving the guns, and regrettably that same biographer offers no citation for the assertion that he did.
So, as is often the case with historical inquiry, I do not know for certain whether Henry Knox had this bold and brilliant idea, but I have reason to be skeptical. Although I lack many of the resources of those professional historians and biographers whose work precedes my impertinent question, the ability to tap online databases such as Washington's papers and even Google Books opens new lines of inquiry. And this is not the only question I have about the Knox Expedition and its place in history. I'll lob another little mortar shell in a subsequent post.