Mr. Henry Knox, Esquire, still technically a civilian with his commission not yet in hand, undertook a military expedition in the winter of 1775-1776 that is remembered as one of the epic stories of our nation’s founding. Knox made an overland journey of more than 300 miles from the shores of Lake Champlain through the Berkshires to Boston to deliver nearly sixty cannon and other essential military supplies to Washington’s army. These guns are widely credited with forcing the British to evacuate the city and provided a tremendous boost to patriot morale.
The expedition was a remarkable logistical feat, requiring Knox and his teamsters to cross imperfectly frozen rivers and traverse the rugged terrain of western Massachusetts along the way. They dragged their sleds over tracks that had never seen such a caravan before and would never again see the like. In passing through the Berkshires, Knox recorded that it was “almost a miracle that people with heavy loads should be able to get up and down such hills as are here.” It also demanded that he be a good manager of men as well as war materiel, for most of those who moved the guns were hired teamsters and not subject to military discipline. The success of the expedition is testimony to Knox's considerable organizational skills and unflagging spirit.
Washington’s correspondence shows that he had made previous requests for New York to forward military stores from such places as Ticonderoga and Crown Point before sending Knox to see that it was done. Washington even asked one of his aides, Colonel Joseph Reed, to look into the matter on his way to Philadelphia but had received no further information. Where others had failed to act, Knox delivered.
Washington instructed Knox to first seek the needed supplies in New York, and then proceed to Albany and points north to gather all that was required:
“[Y]ou 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 Expense must be spared to obtain them. “
It is fortunate that Knox was able to find sufficient ordinance at the southern end of Lake Champlain, without having to chase after the invading army in Canada in deep winter for more artillery. As for expenses, it took three years for Congress to reimburse Knox for his personal outlay on the expedition.
Ever the optimist, Knox wrote to General George Washington from the shores of Lake George regarding the prospects for transporting cannon and other essential military supplies from Ticonderoga to Boston:
“The route will be from here to Kinderhook, from thence to Great Barrington, and down to Springfield. I have sent for the sleds and teams to come here, and expect to move them to Saratoga on Wednesday or Thursday next, trusting that between this and then we shall have a fine fall of snow, which will enable us to proceed farther, and make the carriage easy. If that shall be the case, I hope in sixteen or seventeen days time to present your Excellency a noble train of artillery.”
It ultimately took twice as long as he anticipated, for the way was hard and the snows were erratic, but by January 25th the guns had reached Framingham, Massachusetts and were soon with Washington in Cambridge and Roxbury.
In 1927 during the Revolution’s Sesquicentennial , the State of New York and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts placed a large number granite markers with metal plaques along Knox’s probable route, which is suggested in part by the letter quoted above. Now considered one of the earliest Heritage Trails created in the United States, one can still follow the markers from Ticonderoga to Boston. There are seven of these commemorative stones located by roadsides in the Berkshires between Alford and Westfield. The monument on the New York / Massachusetts line is shared by both, with a state plaque on either side.
In 2008, an effort was launched to conserve these plaques and restore the bronze to its original luster. The marker at the state boundary on Rte 71 has now been treated, but this is not the first attention it has received since the trail was established. Along with several other markers on the New York side and another one in Massachusetts, it was moved to its present location in 1975 to reflect new ideas about the route of the Knox expedition after it turned east out of the Hudson Valley toward the Berkshires. Whatever this evidence was must have been fairly convincing, because within a very short period of time both New York and Massachusetts had agreed to move the monuments to reflect an alternate route to Massachusetts.
Unlike other notable expeditions of the Revolution, such as Benedict Arnold’s trek through the wilds of Maine to Quebec , or the Sullivan / Clinton campaign against the Iroquois, we have very few written accounts by actual participants. Aside from Henry Knox’s few letters to his wife and to Washington and his incomplete diary, the only other journal known from the expedition is a reminiscence written in the 1830s by one John Becker, who had accompanied his father as a twelve-year-old teamster as far as Springfield. This accounts for some of the difficulty in establishing the precise route of the guns.
Neither Becker nor Knox had much to say about the Berkshire portion of their journey, but both accounts mention Claverack, New York, as a place where they tarried. Claverack was then part of the “Lower Manor” of the Renssaeler family and was not incorporated as a town until after the Revolution. The new route of the Knox Trail does not extend as far south as Claverack Center, but cuts diagonally below Kinderhook toward modern Rte 71 and the Green River Valley where it then slices through the Taconic Range between New York and Massachusetts. The old route had the guns passing into the Berkshires along Rte 23 in South Egremont, and the New York plaques still record this route in their original design. In addition to moving the marker at the state line up to Rte 71, the next monument was shifted to the village of North Egremont, where it has since been physically incorporated into that community’s 9/11 memorial.
According to Knox’s diary, the divisions of his train passed into Massachusetts on January 10th, 1776 and by nightfall had “Climb’d mountains from which we might have seen all the Kingdoms of the Earth.” This description, if accurate for this stage of the journey, sounds more like the tortuous pass between modern Hillsdale, NY and South Egremont , where the monuments were originally located, than the alternate route that passes through the Green River Valley that slopes through Egremont Plain to Great Barrington.
Be that as it may, there is no controversy considering the next stage of the journey, which follows modern Rte 23 from Great Barrington to Monterrey (then considered a part of Tyringham). The draft teams and cannon at this point passed for a dozen miles through a thick pine forest called Greenwoods. Knox biographer North Callahan describes this part of the journey as among the most difficult of the entire trek, featuring “an ominous confusion of mountains, precipices, chasms and deep valleys, which were interspersed with rivers, lakes and dank swamps.”
The trek continued through the Town of Loudon (now East Otis) and on to Blandford, which Knox says he reached on the 11th of January. Here he found his lead division reluctant to proceed further, citing the lack of snow up ahead where they would have to descend the “tremendous Glasgow or Westfield mountain”. It required several hours of cajoling, and subsequently engaging the services of one Solomon Brown of Blandford along with two additional teams of oxen, to move the cannon eleven more miles through Russell to Westfield.
Successfully descending the east flank of the Berkshires into Westfield on January 13th certainly lifted their spirits. Here, for the first time since leaving Albany, there is evidence that the apparition of so many men and beasts and their caravan of cannon made a memorable impression n the local inhabitants. Teamster Becker recalled;
“Our armament here was a great curiosity. We found that very few, even among the oldest inhabitants, had ever seen a cannon…We were great gainers by this curiosity, for while they were employed in remarking upon our guns, we were, with equal pleasure, discussing the qualities of their cider and whiskey.”
At the urging of the populous, Knox allowed one of the great mortars to be fired several times for their amusement. Knox was a great lover of fireworks, and it would have been hard for him to resist the temptation to crown their revels with a celebratory salute even at the expense of his precious gunpowder.
By the time the expedition reached Springfield, the New York teamsters were ready to depart, and so Massachusetts men conveyed the supplies the remaining distance to Cambridge. Whether the siege guns really forced the British to give up Boston or provided them with a ready excuse to do so is open to conjecture, but there is no doubt that the fact of their arrival gave a boost to patriot arms that they would not enjoy again until the following Christmas, when Washington and Knox crossed the Delaware to surprise the Hessians at Trenton.
(This article was to have appeared in the winter 2009-2010 issue of MA Quarterly but the free magazine appears not to have been published so I reproduce it here in full.)