Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Knox Expedition

The noble train of artillery, also known as the Knox Expedition, was an expedition led by Continental Army Colonel Henry Knox to transport heavy weaponry that had been captured at Fort Ticonderoga to the Continental Army camps outside Boston, Massachusetts during the winter of 1775–1776.

Knox went to Ticonderoga in November 1775, and, over the course of 3 winter months, moved 60 tons of cannons and other armaments by boat, horse and ox-drawn sledges, and manpower, along poor-quality roads, across two semi-frozen rivers, and through the forests and swamps of the lightly inhabited Berkshires to the Boston area. Historian Victor Brooks has called Knox's feat "one of the most stupendous feats of logistics" of the entire American Revolutionary War.

The route by which Knox moved the weaponry is now known as the Henry Knox Trail, and the states of New York and Massachusetts have erected markers along the route.

Shortly after the American Revolutionary War broke out with the Battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775, Benedict Arnold, a militia leader from Connecticut who arrived with his unit in support of the Siege of Boston, proposed to the Massachusetts Committee of Safety that Fort Ticonderoga, on Lake Champlain in the Province of New York, be captured from its small British garrison. One reason he gave to justify the move was the presence at Ticonderoga of heavy weaponry. On May 3, the committee gave Arnold a Massachusetts colonel's commission and authorized the operation.

The idea to capture Ticonderoga had also been raised to Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys in the disputed New Hampshire Grants territory (present-day Vermont). Allen and Arnold joined forces, and on May 10 a force of 83 men captured the fort without a fight. The next day a detachment of men captured the nearby Fort Crown Point, again without combat.

Arnold began to inventory the two forts for usable military equipment. Hampered by a lack of resources and conflict over command of the forts first with Allen, and later with a Connecticut militia company sent to hold the fort in June, Arnold eventually abandoned the idea of transporting the armaments to Boston and resigned his commission.

Knox arrived at Ticonderoga on December 5, and immediately set about identifying the equipment to take, and organize its transport. He selected 59 pieces of equipment include cannons ranging in size from four to twenty-four pound, mortars, and howitzers. He estimated the total weight to be transported at 119,000 pounds (about 60 tons, or 54 metric tons). The largest pieces, the twenty-four pound "Big Berthas", were 11 feet (3.4 m) long and estimated to weigh over 5,000 pounds (2,300 kg).

The equipment was first carried overland from Ticonderoga to the northern end of Lake George, where most of the train was loaded onto a scow-like ship called a gundalow. On December 6, the gundalow set sail for the southern end of the lake, with Knox sailing ahead in a small boat. Ice was already beginning to cover the lake, but the gundalow, after grounding once on a submerged rock, reached Sabbath Day Point. The next day they sailed on, again with Knox sailing ahead. While he reached Fort George in good time, the gundalow did not appear when expected. A boat sent to check on its progress reported that the gundalow had foundered and sunk not far from Sabbath Day Point. While this at first appeared to be a serious setback, Knox's brother William, captain of the gundalow, reported that she had foundered, but that her gunnels were above the water line, and that she could be bailed out. This was done, the ship was refloated, and two days later the gundalow arrived at the southern end of the lake.

On December 17 Knox wrote to Washington that he had built "42 exceeding strong sleds, and have provided 80 yoke of oxen to drag them as far as Springfield", and that he hoped "in 16 or 17 days to be able to present your Excellency a noble train of artillery".
General Philip Schuyler

Knox then set out toward Albany ahead of the train. At Glens Falls, he crossed the frozen Hudson River, and proceeded on through Saratoga, reaching New City (present-day Lansingburg), just north of Albany, on Christmas Day. Two feet (0.6 m) of snow fell that day, slowing his progress as the snow-covered route needed to be broken open. The next day, again slowed by significant snow in the ground, he finally reached Albany. There he met with General Philip Schuyler, and the two of them worked over the next few days to locate and send north equipment and personnel to assist in moving the train south from Lake George. While the snowfall was sufficient for the use of sleds to move the train overland, the river ice was still too thin to move it over the Hudson. Knox and his men tried to accelerate the process of thickening the river ice by pouring additional water on top of existing ice. By January 4, the first of the cannon had arrived at Albany. On the route toward Albany, and again on crossing the Hudson heading east from there toward Massachusetts, cannons crashed through the ice and fell into the river. In every instance the cannon was recovered. On January 9 the last of cannons had crossed the Hudson, and Knox rode ahead to oversee the next stage of the journey.

Details of the remaining journey are sketchy, as Knox's journal ends on January 12. He reached the vicinity of Claverack, New York on January 9, and proceeded through the Berkshires, reaching Blandford, Massachusetts two days later. There the lead crew refused to continue owing to a lack of snow and the upcoming steep descent to the Connecticut River valley. Knox hired additional oxen and persuaded the recalcitrant crew to continue. As the train moved further east, news of its travel spread, and people from area towns came out to watch it pass. In Westfield, Knox loaded one of the big guns with powder and fired it to the applause of the assembled crowd.

At Springfield Knox had to hire new work crews, as his New York-based crews wanted to return home. John Adams reported seeing the artillery train pass through Framingham on January 25. Two days later, Knox arrived in Cambridge and personally reported to Washington that the artillery train had arrived. According to Knox's accounting he spent £521 on an operation he had hoped would take two weeks, that instead took ten weeks to complete.

When the equipment began to arrive in the Boston area, Washington, seeking to end the siege, formulated a plan to draw at least some of the British out of Boston, at which point he would launch an invasion of the city across the Charles River. Pursuing this plan, he placed cannon from Ticonderoga at Lechmere's Point and Cobble Hill in Cambridge, and on Lamb's Dam in Roxbury. These batteries opened fire on Boston on the night of March 2, while preparations were made to fortify the Dorchester Heights, from which cannon could threaten both the city and the British fleet in the harbor. On the night of March 4 Continental Army troops occupied this high ground.
A black and white engraving, with horsemen on the left and workmen on the right. Behind them are the waters of a harbor with sailing ships at anchor.
An engraving depicting the evacuation of British troops from Boston

British General William Howe first planned to contest this move by assaulting the position, but a snowstorm prevented its execution. After further consideration, he decided instead to withdraw from the city. On March 17, British troops and Loyalist colonists boarded ships and sailed for Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Henry Knox went on to become the chief artillery officer of the Continental Army, and later served as the first United States Secretary of War

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