Henry Knox — Hero of the American Revolution

July 25, 1750–October 25, 1806

Henry Knox was a General in the Continental Army and a close friend of George Washington. Knox led the expedition to retrieve cannon and artillery from Fort Ticonderoga in 1775 and served as Chief Artillery Officer of the Continental Army during the American Revolution.

Henry Knox, Secretary of War, Portrait

Henry Knox played a key role throughout the American Revolution and as one of George Washington’s most trusted Generals. Image Source: MFA Boston.

Henry Knox Biography

Henry Knox (1750–1806) was a hero of the American Revolutionary War who rose to prominence as the commander of the artillery units in the Continental Army. Knox was a native of Boston, where he owned a bookstore and associated himself with the Sons of Liberty and the Patriot Cause. An eyewitness to the Boston Massacre, Knox volunteered to join the Army of Occupation during the Siege of Boston and commanded artillery at the Battle of Bunker Hill. He led an expedition to Fort Ticonderoga to retrieve artillery that was used to help drive the British out of Boston. Throughout the war, he became a trusted associate of George Washington. Following the war, Knox became the first Secretary of War for the United States. He died at his home in Maine in 1806.

Henry Knox Personal Facts

  • Born: Henry Knox was born on July 25, 1750, in Boston, Massachusetts.
  • Parents: His parents were William Knox and Mary Campbell Knox, immigrants from Northern Ireland. He was the 7th of 10 children.
  • Spouse: Knox married Lucy Flucker in June 1774. They had 13 children together, but 10 of them died young.
  • Died: He died on October 25, 1806, in Thomaston, Maine, which was part of Massachusetts. He was 56 years old.
  • Place of Burial: Knox is buried in Thomaston Village Cemetery in Thomaston, Maine.
  • Interesting Fact: Knox died from a chicken bone that was lodged in his intestines.
  • Fun Fact: Throughout the war, Lucy, accompanied him as much as possible and camped with him at New Haven, Morristown, and Valley Forge
  • Fun Fact: A Civil War legend says the ghost of Henry Knox visited President Abraham Lincoln during a seance at the White House.
The Bloody Massacre, Engraving, Revere
This engraving by Paul Revere depicts the “Bloody Massacre” where British troops fired into the mob on the night of March 5. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Henry Knox Accomplishments

  • Joined a Boston militia group in 1772.
  • Eventually opened a bookstore in Boston, which he named the London Book Store.
  • Directed the crossing of the Delaware River on December 25, 1776.
  • Played a role in founding the Society of Cincinnati.
  • Named commander-in-chief of the Army in December 1783
  • Elected by Congress as Secretary of War in 1785.
  • Appointed by President Washington as Secretary of War in 1789
  • Played a key role in the design of the United States Navy, which was authorized on January 2, 1794.

The Life and Career of Henry Knox

Henry Knox was born in Boston on July 25, 1750. After his father’s death, he dropped out of school and became an apprentice to a bookseller. 

Knox was interested in military history and theory. At the age of 18, he joined a local artillery company. By then, he was known for his size, being roughly 6 feet tall and weighing approximately 250 pounds.

The London Book Store

In 1771, he opened the London Book Store in Boston, where he read military books that he ordered for British officers stationed in the city. One of his customers was John Adams, who went on to be a Founding Father and 2nd President of the United States.

Sons of Liberty and Boston Massacre

Knox was aligned with the Patriot Cause and is believed to have been a member of the Sons of Liberty. He was an eyewitness to the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770, and tried to stop the British soldiers from firing into the mob. Following the incident, he testified at the Boston Massacre Trials.

Knox Loses Two Fingers

In 1772, he became second in command of the Boston Grenadier Corps, an elite militia company. In July 1773, while on a hunting trip, Knox lost the third and fourth fingers of his left hand due to an explosion. 

Marriage to Lucky Flucker

Despite objections from her family, he married Lucky Flucker on June 16, 1774. She was the daughter of Thomas Flucker, the provincial secretary of Massachusetts. Her family objected to Knox because they were Loyalists. However, Lucy supported the Patriot Cause.

American Revolutionary War Begins

By 1775, his bookstore was thriving, however, the outbreak of war brought his business to an end. After colonial militia forces trapped the British in Boston, Knox and his wife escaped from the city. Before they left, Lucy sewed his sword into her petticoat. They were able to pass through the British lines without it being discovered. He carried the sword with him for the duration of his service in the war.

This illustration depicts the American camp at the Siege of Boston. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Siege of Boston and the Battle of Bunker Hill

Knox volunteered to serve on the staff of General Artemas Ward. He used his engineering skills to design fortifications that were built around the city. During the Battle of Bunker Hill, he commanded the artillery for the Army of Occupation.

Knox first met George Washington on July 5, 1775, and left a favorable impression on the Commander-in-Chief. The two developed a strong relationship, leading Knox to regularly engage with Washington and the other emerging officers in the Continental Army.

Although Knox lacked an official commission in the army, John Adams worked to secure a commission for him from the Continental Congress as the Colonel of the army’s artillery regiment. On November 17, 1775, Washington appointed him as Colonel of the Continental Regiment of Artillery. 

The Knox Expedition

However, it was a regiment with almost no artillery pieces. Knox proposed a plan to General Washington to remedy the situation. He proposed an expedition to transport artillery pieces from Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York to Boston. Ticonderoga was famously captured on May 10 by Ethan Allen, Benedict Arnold, and the Green Mountain Boys. Washington agreed to the plan.

The Knox Expedition left Boston on November 17 and reached Ticonderoga on December 5. Despite delays due to the winter weather the expedition successfully moved 60 tons of cannons and other weapons to the camps of the Continental Army outside of Boston, covering approximately 300 miles. The “Noble Train of Artillery” as it came to be known, returned to Boston in January 1776.

On January 16, 1776, Washington called a council of war and proposed an attack on the British. He wanted to attack before more British reinforcements could arrive in the Spring, however, the Continental Army still lacked the artillery needed to threaten the British warships in Boston Harbor.

Instead of planning an offensive, the council resolved to make preparations to take Dorchester Hill as soon as there was enough firepower. They believed this action would draw the British out of Boston and out into the open.

Less than a week later, on January 25, the Knox Expedition arrived in Framingham, Massachusetts, east of Boston. Knox wrote to Washington, informing him that he had 59 pieces of artillery with him, and all of it was ready to be turned over to the Continental Army. The weapons were moved to Cambridge on January 27. By late February, the artillery, including 35 cannons, had been moved from Cambridge to Roxbury.

Occupation of Dorchester Heights

The Continental Army launched a 3-day bombardment on the British on the morning of March 2, using some of the cannons that had been captured at Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point. The artillery had been placed at Lechmere’s Point, Cobble Hill in Cambridge, and Lamb’s Dam in Roxbury. The batteries in Cambridge also painted logs to make them look like cannons. This gave the British the impression the Continental Army had more firepower than it really did.

On the night of March 3–4, troops under the command of General John Thomas quietly marched to Dorchester Heights, muffling the sound of their wagon wheels with straw. They moved the artillery from Ticonderoga, tools, and pre-fabricated fortifications to the top of the hill. By the next morning, they had built the fortifications and had their cannon pointed at the British ships in Boston Harbor.

The British planned an offensive, but two things prevented them from moving ahead. First, Washington learned of the plan and increased the number of troops on Dorchester Heights. Second, a snowstorm hit Boston on March 5.

Siege of Boston, Fortification of Dorchester Heights, 1776
This painting by Louis S. Glanzman depicts the American position at Dorchester Heights. Image Source: National Park Service.

Evacuation Day

On March 7, Howe decided to evacuate the British troops from Boston. 11,000 British troops were joined by nearly 1,000 Loyalists on the retreat. Although they blew up Castle William in Boston Harbor when they departed, they had agreed not to burn Boston during the retreat, as long as the Americans did not attack. The British contingent marched five miles south of Boston, to Nantucket Roads, where they stayed until March 17.

The British set sail for Halifax, Nova Scotia on March 17, now known as Evacuation Day in Boston.  That same day, Artemas Ward and 500 of his men entered Boston, ending the siege. The next day, General Washington visited Boston, and the main forces of the Continental Army moved into the city on March 20. The British had left 69 cannons behind that the Continental Army was able to salvage and make use of.

Battle of Long Island

After fortifying vulnerable positions along the coast of Connecticut and Rhode Island, Knox joined Washington in New York City. He and his artillerymen made significant contributions at the Battle of Long Island on August 27, 1776.

The Continental Army Retreats Across New Jersey

Knox was with Washington for the New York-New Jersey Campaign and commanded artillery in many of the battles that saw the British force the Americans out of New York. Washington was forced to retreat across New Jersey and crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania.

Washington and others believed the war was close to being over. Congress fled Philadelphia and many people in New Jersey pledged loyalty to the Crown.

In late December, the American reinforcements finally arrived. John Sullivan, Horatio Gates, and others joined Washington in Pennsylvania, which gave Washington confidence he had enough men to launch an attack against British military outposts along the Delaware River on the New Jersey side, which were primarily garrisoned by Hessian mercenaries. In order to carry out such a plan, Washington would have to re-cross the river.

Washington Prepared to Attack Trenton

On December 22, Washington met with his officers at his headquarters near Newtown, Pennsylvania. Knox was one of the officers in the meeting. Together, the group devised a plan to attack Trenton, however, crossing the Delaware River was a concern. Colonel John Glover of Massachusetts said that his men would be able to move the boats across.

On December 25, Washington issued orders to his brigade commanders and provided the details on how the army was to be organized.

  • Washington divided his army into two columns, led by General Nathanael Greene and General John Sullivan. Washington accompanied Greene.
  • Greene’s column was the left wing of the army, and Sullivan’s the right.
  • Greene’s column was four brigades while Sullivan’s was three. Green’s column was four brigades because one of them, under the command of General Adam Stephen, acted as the advance guard, moving ahead of the entire force.
  • Two scouts — local men from New Jersey — were assigned to each brigade. 
  • Each column had four pieces of artillery in front of the first brigade.
  • There were to be three pieces of artillery at the front of the first brigade.
  • The reserve force for each column had two pieces of artillery.
  • Knox was in command of the artillery batteries.

Knox Directs the Crossing of the Delaware River

On Christmas Day, the Continental Army marched to McConkey’s Ferry on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River and prepared to embark on boats they found waiting for them.

Washington intended to cross over with one of the first groups, so he put Knox in charge of loading the men onto the boats. Knox was a big man with a loud, deep voice, and the expectation was that the men would be able to hear him — even if the weather was bad.

Washington’s men loaded onto Durham Boats, which were special boats that were designed to move heavy loads of iron ore on the Delaware River. The regular ferry was used to move horses and artillery across.

After the crossing was complete, Washington rested the men for an hour, even though the operation was four hours behind schedule. It was 4:00 in the morning of December 26 when Washington’s army started the march down to Trenton — in a snowstorm. Due to the delay, Washington would not march into Trenton until after daylight. It was a huge risk because the Hessians might see them coming, but there was no turning back. 

Passage of the Delaware, Painting, Sully
This painting by Thomas Sully depicts Washington watching his men cross the Delaware River. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Battle of Trenton

Although the sun was up, the army’s movements were still hidden by the snowstorm. Around 8:00 a.m., the first shots were fired on the outskirts of Trenton and American forces poured into the town. 

The Hessians quickly assembled in the streets, but Knox set his cannons north of town, at the point where the Pennington Road and the Princeton Road came together. Knox started firing down the two main streets, forcing the Hessian forces to move off the roads and to fields east of town.

The Hessians tried to escape, but they were cut off on the north end of town by the division of General Nathanael Greene and on the south end by the division of General John Sullivan. The Hessians were forced to surrender, and more than 900 of them were taken as prisoners. Their commanding officer, Colonel Rall, was mortally wounded. Two Americans were wounded — Captain William Washington and Captain James Monroe.

In the aftermath of the battle, Washington considered pushing on and attacking British outposts at Princeton and Brunswick. However, due to the inability of the other columns to cross the Delaware River, he decided it was best to return to the camp in Pennsylvania. Once again, Knox directed the crossing of the river.

Battle of Trenton, Painting, McBarron
This painting by Hugh Charles McBarron depicts American forces storming Trenton. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Second Battle of Trenton and Princeton

Knox commanded the artillery at the Second Battle of Trenton and again at the American victory at the Battle of Princeton. Washington’s stunning victories at Trenton and Princeton reinvigorated American morale and the belief the war could be won. Knox played a significant role in helping make it happen.

General Henry Knox

On December 27, 1776, Knox was rewarded for his performance with a promotion to the rank of Brigadier General, and his artillery corps was expanded to five regiments. He spent the rest of the winter in Springfield, Massachusetts, setting up an armory to manufacture artillery. He also recruited men to join the artillery regiments

Conflict with du Courdray 

Knox rejoined Washington and the Continental Army for the 1777 campaign. However, in June, Congress appointed Philippe Charles Tronson du Coudray, a French soldier, as the commander of the artillery. 

The appointment upset Knox and was protested by John Sullivan and Nathanael Greene. Washington himself expressed his support for Knox in a letter to Congress on May 31, 1777.

Congress responded by reassigning du Coudray to the role of inspector general. Unfortunately, he died in a fall from his horse while crossing the Schuylkill River in September 1777.

Philadelphia Campaign of 1777

Knox commanded artillery units at the Battle of Brandywine (September 11, 1777), and the Battle of Germantown (October 4, 1777).

Valley Forge and the Conway Cabal

Knox was with Washington during the Winter at Valley Forge (1777–1778). He designed and oversaw the construction of artillery defenses and helped Baron von Steuben train the troops.

At Valley Forge, Washington came under criticism from some of his officers and members of Congress. General Thomas Conway and others suggested Washington should be replaced by General Horatio Gates. During the incident, which is known as the “Conway Cabal,” Knox supported Washington, who remained in command.

Battle of Monmouth

By the spring of 1778, Knox had molded the Continental Artillery into a powerful combat unit. At the Battle of Monmouth, he placed artillery on both flanks. On the right flank, the artillery was able to fire on the British line from a long distance, which gave the Americans an advantage because the British could not easily fire back at them. This contributed to the British withdrawal from the battlefield. Washington commended Knox for his actions during the battle.

America’s First Military School

During the winter of 1778–1779, Knox set up the first school for the purpose of training men to use artillery and to be officers in the artillery regiment. The school was located in Pluckemin, New Jersey, and was the precursor to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Benedict Arnold’s Treason and the Trial of Major John André

In the fall of 1780, the Treason of Benedict Arnold was uncovered. Arnold was conspiring with the British with the intent of turning the fort at West Point over to them. Arnold communicated with General Henry Clinton through Major John André.

On September 21, 1780, André received confidential documents from Arnold, including a map of West Point. André intended to return to General Clinton and give him the documents. 

However, as André, in disguise, tried to return to the British lines, he was stopped by three men from the New York Militia. They searched him, found the documents, and arrested him. 

General Washington was notified, and André was put on trial for spying. The court, which was made up of 14 officers from the Continental Army, including Knox, recommended André be hanged. 

Washington offered him to the British in a prisoner exchange, but the British refused. André was hanged on the morning of October 2, 1780, at Tappan, New York.

Arnold's Treason, Arnold Giving Letters to Andre
This illustration depicts Arnold giving documents to André. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Siege of Yorktown and the Surrender of Cornwallis

By August 1781, British forces in the South, under the command of General Charles Cornwallis, were located at Yorktown, Virginia. Washington, along with French commanders, devised a plan to march South and lay siege to Yorktown, hoping to force Cornwallis to surrender. Knox was involved in planning the attack and coordinating with French officers.

The Siege of Yorktown took place from September 28, 1781, to October 19, 1781, in and around Yorktown, Virginia. It was the last major battle of the American Revolutionary War. Knox commanded the American artillery batteries, which bombarded the British for nearly three weeks.

Battle of Yorktown, 1781, French Artillery, NPS
French artillery at Yorktown. Image Source: National Park Service.

American and French ground forces under the commands of General George Washington and General Jean Comte de Rochambeau, in concert with French naval forces under the command of Admiral François-Joseph, Comte de Grasse, surrounded and entrapped the British army commanded by General Charles Cornwallis. 

On October 16, the British attempted to escape Yorktown by crossing the York River, but a storm blew in and ruined the plan. They were forced to halt the operation. Cornwallis met with his officers, and they agreed they had no option but to surrender.

The Americans, French, and British negotiated the terms of surrender on August 18 and the Articles of Capitulation were signed on August 19. With the Surrender of Cornwallis complete, the major fighting in the American Revolutionary War ended.

Battle of Yorktown, 1781, British Troops Stack Arms, NPS
This painting depicts the British troops stacking their weapons during the surrender. Image Source: National Park Service.

After Yorktown

Following Yorktown, Knox was promoted to Major General. In 1782, he was appointed commander of West Point. 

Post-War Career

In 1783, he oversaw the withdrawal of British troops from New York City and proposed the founding of the Society of the Cincinnati, a fraternal organization for men who served during the war. Knox served as the first secretary.

Knox was with Washington at Frances Tavern on December 4, 1783, when the Commander-in-Chief announced his retirement. Knox was named Commander-in-Chief on December 23 but resigned from the Army on June 20, 1784.

Secretary of War for the Confederation

After a brief return to private life in Boston, Knox accepted the position of Secretary of War under the Confederation Congress on March 8, 1785. During his tenure, the Army had only 1,000 men. He tried to convince Congress to set up training academies for the Army and Navy and establish a national militia system. However, Congress was wary of anything that resembled the maintenance of a standing army and rejected his suggestions. However, many of his suggestions were eventually adopted for the organization and administration of the U.S. Army.

Shays’ Rebellion

In 1786, the necessity for a more organized national military became apparent with the outbreak of Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts, which posed a threat to the Springfield Armory. Knox responded by personally traveling to Springfield to oversee its defense. 

Shays’ Rebellion reached its climax on January 25, 1787, when the Massachusetts militia, led by General Benjamin Lincoln, defeated Shays and his followers at Springfield. 

The insurgency ended for the most part on February 3, 1787, when the remainder of Shays’ followers were surprised by militia forces and took advantage of an offer of a general amnesty.

The Rebellion underscored the position of those who argued that the federal government established by the Articles of Confederation was weak and ineffective, and played an important role in the organization of the Philadelphia Convention of 1787.

Knox Calls Washington the Father of Your Country

Knox supported the Philadelphia Convention, which was intended to make changes to the Articles of Confederation to make the national government stronger. 

George Washington asked Knox if he should attend the convention. Knox responded, “It would be circumstance highly honorable to your fame, in the judgment of the present and future ages, and double entitle you to the glorious epithet — Father of Your Country.”

Support for the United States Constitution and the First U.S. Secretary of War

Knox supported the adoption of the U.S. Constitution and aligned himself with the Federalist Party.

Following its ratification and the Election of 1788, Knox was appointed Secretary of War by President Washington. Knox was the only official to retain his position in the new government.

Revenue-Marine

The government needed income and the way it tried to raise money was through tariffs — or taxes — on imports. However, merchants turned to smuggling to avoid paying tariffs — exactly what they had done in opposition to the Navigation Acts, Sugar Act, and other British policies.

Congress responded to smuggling by setting up the Revenue-Marine on August 4, 1790, which was the first version of the United States Coast Guard. The department was responsible for patrolling the coast and enforcing tariffs and other maritime laws. The Revenue-Marine consisted of 10 cutters, which are small, narrow, ships with a single mast that are built for speed.

Militia Act of 1782

Knox was responsible for implementing the Militia Act of 1792, which included an evaluation of the arms and preparedness of the militia. His assessment revealed there was a significant shortage of arms among members of the state militias. Knox made suggestions to Congress to help reduce the shortage, including buying and stockpiling arms, which were stored in Federal armories in Springfield and Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

Legion of the United States and the Northwest Indian War

Following Arthur St. Clair’s defeat at the Battle of the Wabash (November 4, 1791), Knox suggested the formation of a professional army that could be used to deal with the Northwest Indian Confederacy.

The Legion of the United States was established. Washington and Knox chose Anthony Wayne to lead it. Wayne led the Legion into the Northwest Territory, where he fought the Northwest Indian Confederacy. Wayne and the Legion defeated the Confederacy at the Battle of Fallen Timbers on August 20, 1794, securing U.S. control of the Northwest Territory.

General Anthony Wayne, Portrait
Anthony Wayne. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Treaty of New York

In 1790, Knox participated in negotiations with Alexander McGillivray and leaders of the Creek Nation, resulting in the Treaty of York. Creek leaders agreed to relinquish a substantial portion of their hunting grounds in Georgia to the United States. They also committed to delivering escaped American slaves to federal authorities. The Treaty of New York was the first treaty made between the U.S. government and a Native American Nation, under the U.S. Constitution.

Naval Act of 1794

In 1793, the Barbary Pirates started attacking American merchant ships sailing across the Atlantic Ocean. Congress responded by passing the Naval Act of 1794, which was signed by President George Washington on March 27, 1794. 

The provisions of the act provided for the construction of six frigates. At that time, frigates were warships with guns on the decks. The American frigates were large for the time, and very powerful. Each of them had more than 36 guns and they were a formidable presence on the open seas.

The original six frigates of the United States Navy were:

  1. United States
  2. Constellation
  3. Constitution
  4. Chesapeake
  5. Congress
  6. President

The first three that were completed and put into service were:

  • United States
  • Constitution
  • Constellation

Later Years

Knox resigned as Secretary of War on December 28, 1794. He was succeeded by Timothy Pickering on January 2, 1795.

Knox returned to his estate in Thomaston, Maine, which was a district under the jurisdiction of Massachusetts at the time. He built a mansion he called “Montpelier,” and spent his time farming, speculating in land, and other activities. 

Unfortunately, he gained a reputation as a ruthless, heavy-handed landowner, who was quick to evict tenants who refused to pay their rent.

Quasi-War with France

When the prospect of war with France arose in 1798, Knox was offended when President John Adams appointed George Washington to command the Army and nominated Knox as the third Major General, after Alexander Hamilton and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. Knox declined the nomination.

John Adams, Portrait, Stuart
President John Adams. Image Source: National Gallery of Art.

Death of Henry Knox

Unfortunately, Knox died on October 25, 1806, at his home, after he swallowed a chicken bone that became lodged in his intestines.

Henry Knox’s Timeline in the American Revolutionary War

Knox participated in these events during the American Revolutionary War.

Henry Knox APUSH Review

Use the following links and videos to study Henry Knox, the Continental Army, and the American Revolutionary War for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Henry Knox Definition APUSH

Henry Knox for APUSH is defined as an American military leader and Secretary of War during the American Revolutionary War and the early years of the United States. Knox began his military career as a bookseller but later became a trusted aide to General George Washington. He played a critical role in the transportation of artillery from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston, helping secure the American victory at the Siege of Boston. His organizational skills and leadership contributed to American success in the Revolutionary War. He also served as the nation’s first Secretary of War under President Washington, overseeing the establishment of the U.S. Army and early U.S. military policy.

Henry Knox Video for APUSH Notes

This video from Americana Corner discusses Henry Knox and his “Noble Train of Artillery.”