Special to the Caldwell Journal (By Dan Rundquist – 02/01/2017)…One of the hallmarks of American exceptionalism is not that our outstanding citizens perform magnificent things, but rather the extraordinary acts of ordinary Americans. Across our relatively short history, we seem to have been blessed with the ingenuity and significant contributions of these individuals time and again across all areas of our culture. If the names of some of these people do not immediately come to mind, that’s ok, you can start a fine list with the men who signed the Declaration of Independence if you like; or the framers of your state’s constitution, and so on. Beyond those we have seen incredible men and women of leadership, of industry, of science, of medicine, of arts and literature and other areas all contribute to the improvement of the American and global condition over the past 250 years.
One young man in particular tends to get a bit lost in this long list of American contributors. In 1759, Henry was only nine years old when he arrived for his first day of work at a Boston bookstore. The economic times were very hard then, and his father’s business had failed to the point he could no longer support his family. Henry was taken out of school to begin work to help support the family while his father left Boston to seek work in the West Indies, never to be seen or heard from again.
Even in this pitiful financial condition, Henry had one glimmer of hope. The bookstore owners understood his lot in life, and were supportive to allow Henry access to the shop’s books in order to help him self-educate. Henry continued to learn to read and write and It was during this time that Henry developed an interest (and later an obsession) with military history and military science, that is the entire business of organizing and executing war craft. At this time there was no military academy in North America even if he could aspire to attend one. Henry fervently studied during his free time as he also borrowed books from the Harvard library to study the famous generals of history in Julius Caesar’s Commentaries and other classical sources.
Books, however, were not the only resource he used to educate himself. While the British soldiers stationed in Boston went through their many drills on Boston Common, Henry was there to pay careful attention and make his notes. At a young age learned how to design effective battlefield fortifications, entrenchments, and how to transport military equipment to and from the battlefield. He soon developed into a sort of local expert in this line of knowledge, creating plans of his own for improvements on the old systems of battlefield technology—so he became a young innovator in this field–although still working in the bookstore.
At 21 years old, Henry opened his own bookstore in Boston which became very popular with British Officers and Tories. His business grew rapidly and eventually moved to a new, larger location. He expanded his services from only selling books and stationary to binding and repairing books. All during this period, he continued his own military training. Much was learned by merely talking with the British soldiers and officers who daily frequented his shop.
In 1772, Henry cofounded the Boston Grenadier Corps, a citizen militia outfit to be better prepared to defend Boston in an anticipated attack from France or Indian incursion. Henry served as second in command, a Lieutenant in rank. They had custom uniforms made for their outfit and Henry and his sergeant would have the men drill with musket, sword, bayonet, and all manner of military movements. They say that everyone has to have a hobby and all things military was it for Henry.
Soon, in 1774, times were changing and things began to get complicated. Henry had married a young Tory lady, her family all British loyalists. In retaliation for the events of the Boston Tea Party, residents approved a boycott of English goods, which would effectively bring ruin to Henry’s bookstore trade. Henry soon became known as a rebel sympathizer and British General Gage decided to keep Henry from leaving Boston as he came to understand that Henry was not only a jovial and mild-mannered bookstore owner, but at heart a trained military engineer. Henry advised his own company of grenadiers to leave town as soon as they might while he himself soon became part of a network of rebel spies, passing information.
In April, 1775 war broke out at Lexington between the patriot militia and British soldiers under the command of Major Pitcairn. Henry’s days as a bookseller had come to an end now. With the help of his young wife, they both slipped out of Boston in the night to join the Continentals. Henry’s wife, Lucy, would never see her own parents again as they left for England. Henry left Lucy in the care of friends in Worcester while he then walked to Cambridge to stay in “the camp of liberty.” There he met Artemas Ward, who was named as commander-in-chief over all the various militia elements gathered there. Henry began to apply his knowledge in designing fortifications and started training artillery gunners.
On July 3rd, General George Washington arrived at the camp to relieve Ward, who was simply unable to organize and prepare the men for battle. On November 8th, Washington wrote to Congress to say that he was recommending that Henry Knox be appointed as a colonel in the army, and now the fatherless former bookseller was to realize his own passion. He was to be in charge of the artillery—artillery that at the present did not even exist. The Americans indeed had no artillery at Cambridge and no foundries to construct any. A week later, Washington accepted Henry’s advice and issued orders for him to secure artillery from Fort Ticonderoga and St. John’s in Quebec and carry it all somehow—with ammunitions, to Cambridge.
The roads between Fort Ticonderoga and Cambridge were very poor in condition and Henry relied upon skids and sleds to move the nearly 120,000 pounds of armament with each sled holding up to 5,000 pounds, pulled by oxen. Then the loads would have to be transported across Lake George on boats and skiffs—all of this in the cold of December.
The entire mission extended just fifty-six days with the last of the artillery arriving in Framington on January 25th, 1776. Washington’s army now had both the leadership and the muscle needed to engage the British on more even terms. Henry Knox continued to serve the American army and achieved the rank of general, eventually founding a sort of military training academy before West point was established.
When we think about the American Revolutionary period we don’t always think of Henry Knox. He was an ordinary man, born of the most humble beginnings he grew to become indispensable to the cause of American liberty, like so many otherwise “ordinary” Americans of the time and since. It is certainly worth the time and effort as an American citizen to explore the lives and personalities of the men and women who have so richly contributed to our cause across our history; learning from them as we should to engage in our own efforts to restore and maintain the American fabric.
Dan Rundquist is a Caldwell Journal Contributor.
Copyright 2017 Caldwell Journal on behalf of Dan Rundquist. All rights reserved.