Knox, Henry

views updated Jun 27 2018

Henry Knox

Born July 25, 1750 (Boston, Massachusetts)

Died October 25, 1806 (Thomaston, Maine)

General, U.S. secretary of war

Known as the father of American army artillery, Henry Knox played a prominent role in most major battles during the American Revolution (1775–83) and became a close adviser and friend to General George Washington (1732–1799; see entry in volume 2) through the war years and during the following early period of the republic. Knox served as secretary of war from 1785 to 1794. He was the only government official to serve in the same capacity in the national government under both the Articles of Confederation and the U.S. Constitution.

"Seek the enemy and endeavor by all possible means to strike them with great severity."

Early interest in the military

Henry Knox was born on July 25, 1750, the seventh of ten boys of William Knox and Mary Campbell. His parents had emigrated from Ireland to Boston in 1729. William was a shipbuilder but suffered financial setbacks and deserted the family. He went to the West Indies and died in 1762 at fifty years of age. To help support his mother and brothers, twelve-year-old Henry left school and began work as an apprentice in bookbinding at a bookstore in Boston. Nine years later, at age twenty-one, he opened his own bookstore, known as the London Bookstore, in Boston. The store did well financially. Knox stocked plenty of military books, and his store became a favorite of British soldiers stationed in Boston. He also avidly read the books himself, gaining knowledge of military matters including engineering and artillery.

Knox had enlisted in a colonial militia in 1768 at the age of eighteen. A militia is an organized military force, made up of citizens, that serves in times of emergency. By 1772, Knox had risen to second in command of an elite Boston artillery corps. During this period, he continued studying military science and engineering. In July 1773, Knox lost two fingers on his left hand when a gun misfired during a hunting trip. However, he continued undeterred in his military interests.

In June 1774, Knox married Lucy Flucker, a young woman who had frequented his bookstore. She was the daughter of a high British official in the Boston region. Her family was strongly opposed to the marriage because Knox had no real wealth and was not associated with a staunch Loyalist (one who supported the King of Britain in opposition to independence) family. As the clamor for American independence grew in Boston, the Fluckers encouraged Knox to join the Loyalist cause. However, when fighting broke out in nearby Lexington, Massachusetts, in 1775, Henry and Lucy fled Boston, slipping through an area held by British forces.

A valuable officer

Knox immediately volunteered to serve in the Continental Army, and army officials were eager to have his artillery knowledge. Though he had no battle experience, Knox was commissioned a colonel in November 1775 and put in charge of the army's artillery, called the Continental Regiment of Artillery. Knox was invaluable throughout the war and became one of General George Washington's closest friends and advisors.

Knox made an immediate impression on his fellow officers and commanders. Having no artillery to command, Knox and a brother hastily journeyed 300 miles from Boston to Fort Ticonderoga, New York, in December 1775 to acquire some. The fort had been captured earlier that year by Ethan Allen (1738–1789), leader of the Vermont militia, and it held a large amount of British supplies, including artillery. In a remarkable feat using oxen and horses, Knox brought some 40 tons of artillery to Boston. He also brought more than 59 large cannons, 7,000 rounds of cannon shot, 2,000 muskets, and 31 tons of musket shot. The animals pulled this load through the winter snow, across frozen rivers, and over the Berkshire Hills, arriving in the Boston area in late January 1776. Knox placed the artillery on Dorchester Heights, overlooking Boston and the harbor. The British troops occupying Boston were forced to evacuate the town and harbor, along with eleven hundred Loyalists. Knox's wife's family was among the evacuees.

Following the dazzling victory in Boston, Knox established defensive positions in Connecticut and Rhode Island before joining General Washington for battles in the New York area. In June 1776, he noted he had 120 cannons but only 520 soldiers, fewer than what was ideal to handle and operate the artillery. Washington appreciated having Knox around at this time; Knox was always in good spirits and got things done. And back at Mount Vernon, Washington's home, Martha Washington (1732–1802; see entry in volume 2) entertained Mrs. Knox at Mount Vernon. The two wives had also become good friends.

In August 1776, Knox fought under Washington in the Battle of Long Island. Although they were defeated, they managed a successful retreat to New Jersey. Later that year, Knox engineered the famous crossing of the Delaware River by Washington and his troops. After navigating through floating ice chunks on Christmas night of 1776, Washington's army marched to Trenton, New Jersey, where they surprised and captured twelve hundred Hessian (German) soldiers fighting for the British. Knox's artillery played a key role in catching the sleeping Hessian soldiers off guard. This much-needed success raised the morale of the Continental Army and brought Knox a rank of brigadier general. Again, Knox was a major factor in the Battle of Princeton in January 1777, and then, while the army established a winter camp, Knox journeyed back to Massachusetts to establish an arsenal at Springfield.

Knox continued playing a leading role in just about every major battle through the remainder of the American Revolution. He helped General Washington maintain an effective force despite shortages of soldiers and supplies. When the army laid siege to the British troops at Yorktown in the fall of 1781, Knox's artillery played a critical role with its deadly accuracy against the trapped British force. Upon the surrender of the British at Yorktown, Knox rose again in rank, becoming Major General Knox on November 15, 1781. At thirty-one years of age, he was the youngest major general in the army.

Replacing General Washington

As the war came to a close, Knox served on a board in charge of arranging the transfer of prisoners. He also began plans to establish a military academy at West Point, New York, an army post placed under his command in August 1782. In May 1783, Knox founded the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization for veteran officers of the American Revolution (see box).

By the fall of 1783, the Continental Army began to disband. General Washington gave his farewell address upon resigning as commander on December 4. Knox briefly succeeded Washington as commander before resigning early the following year. Knox returned to private life in Boston.

Society of the Cincinnati

A number of the nation's Founding Fathers also were officers in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. Many of them, along with other officers, became original members of the Society of the Cincinnati. General Henry Knox was the originator of the organization. It had its first meeting in Fishkill, New York, in May 1783. The purpose of the organization was to provide fellowship for those who had served as officers and financial support for its members in need. In the early days of the nation, under the Articles of Confederation, the national government was broke. Therefore, no benefits (such as a pension or insurance) were available to war veterans. The Society of the Cincinnati was also open to French officers who had helped fight for American independence, such as General Marquis de Lafayette (1757–1834).

The organization was named after a fabled Roman farmer, Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. According to legend, Cincinnatus was called from his fields in the sixth century BCE to lead the country's army in battle. After guiding the troops to victory, Cincinnatus resigned his post and returned to private life, much as General George Washington and other Continental Army officers had done.

Washington was elected as the society's first president; when Washington died in 1799, former treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton succeeded him. Knox was the society's first secretary and became its vice president in 1805. Out of 5,500 officers who were eligible, over 2,100 joined the organization. Besides providing assistance to its members, the organization also led in the fight to establish a military pension program, which Congress established in 1832.

The Society of the Cincinnati is a hereditary society; membership is passed through the first sons of each generation's descendants of an original member. The society still exists in the twenty-first century with a branch in each of the original thirteen states and in France. The organization's guidelines, written by Knox, remain in effect more than two centuries after they were first established.

Secretary of war

Staying involved in public matters, Knox was soon appointed to serve on a commission that negotiated a treaty with the Penobscot tribe of Native Americans to acquire lands for settlement. The following spring, in March 1785, the Continental Congress appointed Knox as secretary of war, a position recently vacated by General Benjamin Lincoln(1733–1810). Knox greatly detested the weak national government under the Articles of Confederation. He even submitted to General Washington an outline for a new central government in January 1787, only months before the Constitutional Convention began in Philadelphia. With Washington presiding as president of the convention, delegates from twelve states developed a new, much stronger federal government.

While serving as secretary of war in the Confederation, Knox continued promoting the establishment of military academies to train future officers and proposed a plan requiring military service for all men. Also in charge of Native American affairs, Knox signed treaties with the Iroquois and Ohio Valley tribes, opening up more lands for American settlers. In January 1787, farmers in Massachusetts rebelled against stiff taxes imposed on them to pay for war expenses. The insurrection was called Shays's Rebellion, named after Daniel Shays (c. 1747–1825), one of the leaders of the group. Knox directed the military response by calling on the Massachusetts militia from the Springfield post he had earlier established to end the uprising.

After the U.S. Constitution was officially adopted, President Washington appointed Knox secretary of war on September 12, 1789. Knox was the only high-ranking official who remained in the same position when the United States made the transition from the Confederation government to the new federal government under the Constitution.

In 1790, the U.S. Army included only seven hundred men at six posts; the navy had been disbanded. As secretary of war, Knox made it one of his first priorities to prepare a plan for creating a national militia. In addition, Knox proposed a string of coastal fortifications for future defense purposes. Congress rejected his plan. Knox also had disputes with Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804; see entry in volume 1) over control of the purchase of military supplies. Hamilton, who always sought as much control as possible over national finances, was able to keep control of military spending in the Treasury. However, Knox did have some success in obtaining funds from Congress for the construction of six frigates (large warships with cannons). The first to be constructed was the famous U.S.S. Constitution, later referred to as "Old Ironsides."

Native American negotiations

Knox also continued pursuing negotiations with Native American tribes who were causing considerable problems for white settlers in the Ohio River valley and in the Deep South. The first treaty between the new federal government and the Native Americans was the Treaty of New York, negotiated solely by Knox and signed by Alexander McGillivray (c. 1759–1793; see entry in volume 2) and twenty-nine other Creek leaders on August 7, 1790. Knox was able to obtain Senate ratification of the treaty while McGillivray was present in the Senate chamber.

Knox saw much less success in the Ohio River area, where a Native American alliance defeated General Josiah Harmar (1753–1813) in October 1790 and General Arthur St. Clair (1736–1818) in November 1791. Native American forces killed 647 American soldiers in St. Clair's defeat, the worst military defeat suffered by the United States against Native American forces. Under President Washington's orders, Knox then oversaw the buildup, training, and deployment of a sizable force under General Anthony Wayne (1745–1796; see entry in volume 2). Wayne's troops crushed Native American resistance at the Battle of Fallen Timbers on August 20, 1794. The successful manner in which Knox organized the force remained a model for the U.S. Army for many years.

The high life, then retirement

While he was serving in the federal government, Knox enjoyed a lavish social life in New York and Philadelphia. Each city served as the center of government for a time, before Washington, D.C., was established as the nation's capital. Knox and his wife, known as Madam Knox, threw elaborate parties to entertain their friends. They were noted for their generosity as well as their domineering and blunt nature. When the government moved from New York to Philadelphia in 1790, Madam Knox greatly enjoyed the Philadelphia social scene and was a standout at parties. However, the Knoxes also had great sorrow in their private life: They had twelve children, but nine died young. Two died the same day in 1796.

During President Washington's second term of office, Knox had grown weary of clashes with Hamilton and others, and his friendship with President Washington had suddenly grown cold. He resigned from his post as secretary of war on December 28, 1794. His wife had inherited a huge estate near Thomaston, Maine. In June 1796, they settled there, and Knox became a gentleman farmer. The estate included an impressive nineteen-room mansion called "Montpelier." Knox, industrious as ever, began a number of enterprises including brick making, shipbuilding, and raising cattle. He also had a lime quarry and a lumber mill. Knox engaged in considerable land speculation, which led to a large debt. Land speculators take financial risks by buying land at a low price with the hope that its value will rise and a profit can be made by reselling. Knox held more land in Maine than he could manage, and as a result, squatters settled on much of it. Meanwhile the Knoxes continued to enjoy entertaining. Many guests came to their estate, including distinguished foreign guests such as France's foreign minister Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754–1838).

Knox also started two local militia units after his retirement to Maine. One was the Thomaston Cavalry, formally organized about 1800. In addition, Knox kept active on various commissions, including one to resolve a boundary dispute. As prospects of war with France escalated in 1798, President John Adams (1735–1826; served 1797–1801; see entry in volume 1) offered Knox a commission as major general. Adams had also offered Alexander Hamilton a high-ranking military position, and Knox was not pleased with the prospect of serving under Hamilton. However, that possibility disappeared when negotiations with France averted war.

Knox died suddenly at age fifty-six in October 1806. He swallowed a chicken bone fragment that punctured his intestines, and the puncture led to an internal infection. He was buried at Thomaston with military honors; the Thomaston Cavalry and other units marched in the funeral procession. Two forts were later named for him: Fort Knox in Bucksport, Maine, built in 1844, and Fort Knox in Kentucky, built in 1862 during the American Civil War (1861–65). In 1936, the Kentucky installation became a permanent storage location for the nation's gold supply.

For More Information


Bowne, Wm. L. Ye Cohorn Caravan: The Knox Expedition in the Winter of 1775–76. Schuylerville, NY: NaPaul Publishers, 1975.

Callahan, North. Henry Knox: General Washington's General. New York: Rinehart, 1958.

Lonergan, Thomas. Henry Knox: George Washington's Confidant, General of Artillery, and America's First Secretary of War. Rockport, ME: Picton Press, 2003.

Web Sites

"History of the Society of the Cincinnati." The Hereditary Society Community of the United States of America. (accessed on August 14, 2005).

"The Knox Trail—Introduction." New York State Museum. (accessed on August 14, 2005).

Montpelier: The General Henry Knox Museum. (accessed on August 14, 2005).

"Who Served Here? General Henry Knox." Historic Valley Forge. (accessed on August 14, 2005).

Knox, Henry

views updated Jun 27 2018

Knox, Henry

KNOX, HENRY. (1750–1806). Continental general and chief of artillery. Massachusetts. Born at Boston on 25 July 1750 and apprenticed to a bookseller after the death of his father, Knox showed an interest in military matters from an early age. He joined the elite local artillery company at the age of eighteen; opened the London Book-Store in 1771, where he read the military books he stocked for the British officers of the Boston garrison, and became second in command of another elite militia company, the Boston Grenadier Corps, in 1772. In July 1773 he lost the third and fourth fingers of his left hand when a fowling piece burst during a hunting trip. On 16 June 1774, despite her parents' objections, he married Lucy Flucker, the daughter of Thomas Flucker, the provincial secretary of Massachusetts. By 1775 he was a beefy young man with a maimed hand earning a good living as the proprietor of a popular bookstore in Boston. He was also a devoted defender of colonial rights, starting from the time he had witnessed the Boston Massacre (5 March 1770) and tried to restrain the British guard commander from firing into the mob.


Henry and Lucy Knox fled Boston in June 1775, leaving behind his livelihood and her family; Lucy carried through the British lines sewn into her petticoat the sword Henry would carry throughout the war. Knox served as a volunteer on the staff of Artemas Ward during the Battle of Bunker Hill and the start of the Boston siege. He favorably impressed Washington at their first meeting on 5 July 1775. Five months later, on 17 November, Washington appointed the "portly, genial, and enterprising" twenty-five-year-old military amateur as colonel of the (virtually nonexistent) Continental Regiment of Artillery and assigned him the task of bringing to Boston the artillery pieces that lay at Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York. Knox's achievement gave Washington the means to force the British to evacuate Boston in March 1776.

After laying out the defenses for vulnerable points along the coast in Connecticut and Rhode Island, Knox joined Washington at New York City. He and his gunners rendered valuable service at the Battle of Long Island (27 August 1776), in the subsequent retreat through New York and New Jersey, and at Trenton and Princeton. The ability of Knox's gunners to bring their pieces into action at Trenton on the morning of 26 December 1776, in the midst of heavy rain and sleet, was a notable achievement. On 27 December 1776 Knox was appointed brigadier general. Aware of the need to begin creating an armaments infrastructure to support the armed struggle, Knox spent the winter of 1776–1777 at Springfield, Massachusetts, establishing workshops and an arsenal while the main army was in winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey. The arrival of Tronson de Coudray in May 1777 threatened Knox's position as chief of artillery, but Congress found an interim solution until the arrogant foreigner drowned in the Schyulkill River, mourned by no one. Knox's gunners performed well at Brandywine (11 September 1777) and Germantown (4 October), although Knox's advice at Germantown to reduce the Chew House before continuing the advance may have lost Washington a fleeting opportunity for greater success. During the Conway Cabal, Knox was unwaveringly loyal to Washington.

By the spring of 1778 the Continental field artillery had developed from a makeshift organization of inadequate weapons and inexperienced men into a combat arm that very nearly met Washington's needs. Of Knox's achievement, Douglas S. Freeman has written: "if he acquired slowly the fine points of the employment of artillery, he quickly developed high skill in dealing with men. His administration of his arm of the service was quiet and was marred by few jealousies on the part of his subordinates" (Washington, 4, p. 131).

Knox continued to merit Washington's high opinion of him throughout the rest of the war. Knox performed particularly well at the Battle of Monmouth (28 June 1778) and the siege of Yorktown (October 1781), where he placed the cannon that forced Cornwallis to surrender. Knox was appointed major general on 22 March 1782, with rank from 15 November 1781. He took command of West Point on 29 August 1782 and took the lead in creating the Society of the Cincinnati in May 1783 at Newburgh; he served as the society's first secretary-general. He succeeded Washington as commander in chief of the rump Continental army on 23 December 1783 and remained in command of its small successor force until 20 June 1784.


Returning for a short time to private life in Boston, he became secretary of war under the Confederation on 8 March 1785, where his duties were mainly clerical in an army that numbered less than one thousand men. He advocated national academies to train officers for the army and navy and the establishment of a national militia system, but Congress approved neither proposal. He retained his post until 28 December 1794, from 12 September 1789 as head of an executive department under the federal Constitution. Knox was the only high officeholder under the Confederation to be continued in office. Initially an ally of secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who had been one of his artillery captains at Trenton, he was angered by his former subordinate's arrogance and high-handedness. His own efforts as secretary bore fruit in the authorization of six frigates to defend American commerce against the Barbary pirates and in the victory Anthony Wayne won over a Native American coalition at Fallen Timbers on 20 August 1794. Knox's luxurious habits and extravagant entertaining earned him the title "Philadelphia nabob," and along with some unfortunate land speculations in Maine with William Duer, starting in 1791, brought him money problems. When war loomed with France in 1798, he was deeply hurt when Washington, appointed by President John Adams to command the provisional army, nominated him to be the third major general, after Alexander Hamilton and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney; Knox refused and never wrote to Washington again. Knox died prematurely on 25 October 1806 at the age of fifty-six at Thomaston, Maine, when a chicken bone lodged in his intestines.

Knox possessed significant administrative abilities, loyalty to his chief and the cause, and a sanguine outlook that made him a major figure in the winning of American independence. His service in the Continental army was crucial: he "rendered to Washington the most valuable assistance of any of the general officers of the revolutionary war" (Harry M. Ward in ANB). Washington's close friend and confidant for nearly a quarter century, Knox had a deserved pride in his extensive public service, but he also displayed human shortcomings and faults. He could storm and threaten resignation like any brigadier general when Congress promoted other officers over his head. He was a large man—he weighed 280 pounds by 1783—and lived a contented married life with the "lively and meddlesome but amiable" Mrs. Knox, who weighed 250 pounds and bore him twelve children (only three of whom lived to adulthood).

SEE ALSO Conway Cabal; Germantown, Pennsylvania, Battle of; Knox's "Noble Train of Artillery"; Tronson du Coudray, Philippe Charles Jean Baptiste.


Brooks, Noah. Henry Knox: A Soldier of the Revolution. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1900.

Callahan, North. Henry Knox: General Washington's General. New York: Rinehart, 1958.

――――――. "Henry Knox: American Artillerist." In George Washington's Generals. Edited by George A. Billias. New York: Morrow, 1964.

Freeman, Douglas S. George Washington: A Biography. Vol. 4: Leader of the Revolution. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1951.

Knox, Henry. Papers. Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston.

Ward, Harry M. The Department of War, 1781–1795. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1962.

                           revised by Harold E. Selesky

Henry Knox

views updated Jun 11 2018

Henry Knox

Henry Knox (1750-1806) was a Revolutionary War general, famed as the father of American army artillery.

Henry Knox was born in Boston, Mass., on July 25, 1750. He had to leave school at an early age to support his mother, who had been deserted by his father. In 1772 Knox joined the Boston Grenadier Corps, a crack regiment, as second in command. Two years later he married Lucy Flucker, whose loyalist father opposed the marriage.

When the Revolution broke out in 1775, Knox volunteered his services to Gen. George Washington. Knox knew something about artillery, so he was appointed colonel in command of the Continental Regiment of Artillery. There was, however, no artillery in the army assembled at Cambridge, Mass.; it was in enemy hands 300 miles away at Ticonderoga, N.Y. In late December 1775 Knox went to fetch the 59 big guns and in a daring operation hauled them to Boston through snow and ice. He arrived just in time to help Washington fortify Dorchester Heights, overlooking Boston. This caused the British general to evacuate the city. Thereafter, Knox and his artillery figured prominently in almost every major engagement of the war.

Knox took part in the Battle of Long Island in August 1776. He joined Washington in the retreat into New Jersey and in the stunning surprise attack and victory against the Hessian garrison at Trenton in December. It was Knox who directed the famous crossing of the Delaware by Washington's army on Christmas night, 1776, and it was his artillery that cut down the Hessians as they emerged sleepily from their quarters. Meanwhile, Congress had promoted him to brigadier general. In the next key encounter with the British (at Princeton, N.J., in January 1777) Knox's part in the victory was equally important.

In the campaigns of 1777 and 1778, Knox was, as always, at Washington's side—in the failures at Brandywine and Germantown, Pa., and in the success at Monmouth, N.J. In the Monmouth battle he performed so skillfully that Washington could say, "No artillery could have been better served than ours." But it was the final battle of the war, at Yorktown, Va., in October 1781, that showed Knox's genius. The murderous accuracy of his guns devastated the British forces penned up on the narrow Yorktown peninsula, and 8 days after Knox opened fire, the British general, Charles Cornwallis, surrendered. Knox's reward was the second star, making him, at 31, the youngest major general in the army.

With the fighting over, Knox was put in command of the military reservation at West Point, N.Y. After Washington retired in December 1783, Knox was appointed to replace him as commander in chief until the army was disbanded 6 months later. In March 1785 he was made secretary of war in the Confederation government, and he retained that post in Washington's first presidential cabinet. In 1794 he retired to a lavish life on the large estate his wife inherited in Maine. He died there on Oct. 6, 1806.

Further Reading

The best biography is North Callahan, Henry Knox: General Washington's General (1958). A briefer account by Callahan is in George A. Billias, ed., George Washington's Generals (1964). Useful chiefly for Knox's letters are Francis S. Drake, Life and Correspondence of Henry Knox (1873), and Noah Brooks, Henry Knox: A Soldier of the Revolution (1900).

Additional Sources

Brooks, Noah, Henry Knox, a soldier of the Revolution, New York, Da Capo Press, 1974.

Griffiths, Thomas Morgan, Major General Henry Knox and the last heirs to Montpelier, Monmouth, Me.: Monmouth Press, 1991. □

Knox, Henry

views updated May 17 2018

Knox, Henry (1750–1806), Revolutionary War general, secretary of war.As a twenty‐five‐year‐old Boston bookseller, Knox became a colonel and head of the Continental army's artillery regiment in November 1775. In the prewar period he had served in a local militia unit, observed British regulars, and read extensively in military works. Thirteen months later, Congress made him a brigadier general and the chief of a growing artillery corps.

Knox's corps distinguished itself in sieges, most notably at Boston and Yorktown, and also in open field engagements, like those at Trenton and Monmouth, where he made mobile and effective use of his cannon.

In the postwar period, Knox headed the War Department (1874–94). During his tenure as secretary of war, he oversaw an extensive coast artillery construction program. He also faced the difficult task of reconciling the country's security needs with an anti–standing army bias, financial limitations, and embryonic political structure. A strong nationalist, Knox proposed a small regular army, an academy to train officers, and a nationalized militia of adult male citizens. Though not fully accepted before his retirement in 1794, Knox's ideas helped lay the foundations of American military policy for the next century.
[See also Coast Guard, U.S.; Citizen‐Soldier; Fortifications; Monmouth, Battle of; Yorktown, Battle of.]


North Callahan , Henry Knox: General Washington's General, 1958.
Richard H. Kohn , Eagle and Sword: The Federalists and the Creation of the Military Establishment in America, 1783–1802, 1975.

J. Mark Thompson

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