Today, the Massachusetts State Quarter Coin remembers when Henry Knox arrived at Fort Ticonderoga in his quest to obtain ordnance for his town of Boston beleaguered by the British.
From the book by Noah Brooks titled Henry Knox, a Soldier of the Revolution, published in 1900:
The siege of Boston had now (November, 1775) begun in earnest. But the need of siege-guns was severely felt by the patriot army, and men began to cast about in their minds for some means to procure guns of sufficient weight and range to throw shot into the beleaguered town.
The fertile and inventive mind of Knox conceived the daring enterprise of sending to Fort Ticonderoga, on Lake Champlain, not far from the Canadian frontier, to drag thence the supply of ordnance captured by Ethan Allen and then lying there unused.
Knox’s plan was submitted to Washington, who, after careful scrutiny, gave his approval to the difficult and hazardous undertaking. Cannon must be had or the siege would be indefinitely prolonged, if not ultimately abandoned.
Knox’s plan was to make the journey to Fort Ticonderoga while the snow and ice combined to render streams passable and roads feasible for sleds and sleighs. In open water, he urged, boats could be employed, and the total expense of the expedition on which so much depended, and which could be successfully carried out, need not be more than one thousand dollars.
This sum was fixed as the limit of immediate and needful expenditure; but in one of Knox’s account-books we find this brief and comprehensive entry: “For expenditures in a journey from the camp round Boston to New York, Albany, and Ticonderoga, and from thence, with 55 pieces of iron and brass ordnance, 1 barrel of flints, and 23 boxes of lead, back to camp (including expenses of self, brother, and servant), .£520. 15.8 3/4.”
In his final instructions to Knox, Washington said that the want of cannon was so great that “no trouble or expense must be spared to obtain them.”
Knox was accompanied on his long and difficult journey by his brother William, then about nineteen years old. The lad, who had been left in charge of his brother’s business in Boston, had made his escape to the insurgent lines, the shop and stock in trade of the bookseller on Cornhill having been looted by the British and Tory residents.
He was to return to the wreck sooner than he probably thought.
Gen. Philip Schuyler, of New York, had been instructed by Washington to render to Knox every possible assistance in his expedition to Ticonderoga; and when Knox, after securing sundry small stores of ordnance in the city of New York, wrote to his wife that he was thankful to leave so “expensive” a city, he made his way to Albany, where Schuyler was then living.
From New York Knox wrote to Washington recommending that an establishment for the casting of brass and iron cannon be fixed there, “where it could be expeditiously and cheaply done.”
He reached Albany December 1, and was cheered on his way by General Schuyler, who rendered great assistance then and afterwards in the way of securing transportation. The winter was severe, the roads unbroken, and the snows deep.
Oxen in large numbers were necessary for the hauling of the cannon and these animals were secured at considerable trouble in the thinly inhabited regions through which Knox travelled.
He reached Ticonderoga on the 5th of December, and, at once collecting the coveted ordnance, began his homeward journey.
His inventory of the arms shows that he took away eight brass mortars, six iron mortars, one howitzer, thirteen brass cannon, thirty iron cannon, a barrel of flints, and a quantity of lead. The heaviest of the artillery were brass 18- and 24-pounders, and iron 12- and 18- pounders; truly a noble acquisition for the expectant besiegers of Boston.
A letter from Knox to Washington, dated at Fort George, December 17th, gives us a vivid picture of some of the difficulties encountered on the homeward trip. He says:
“I returned to this place on the 15th, and brought with me the cannon, it being nearly the time I computed it would take us to transport them here. It is not easy to conceive the difficulties we have had in transporting them across the lake, owing to the advanced season of the year and contrary winds; but the danger is now past.
“Three days ago it was very uncertain whether we should have gotten them until next spring, but now, please God, they must go. I have had made 42 exceeding strong sleds, and have provided 80 yoke of oxen to drag them as far as Springfield, where I shall get fresh cattle to carry them to camp. The route will be from here to Kinderhook [New York], from thence to Great Barrington [Mass.], 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 be able to present to your Excellency a noble train of artillery.”
One of the difficulties encountered on the way to Albany from Fort Ticonderoga was the necessity of ferrying the heavy cannon across pieces of open water. This was accomplished by means of ” gondolas,” as the flat-bottomed scows then in use were called.
Knox’s hindrances are further hinted at in a letter which he wrote to Washington from Albany, January 5, 1776, as follows:
“I was in hopes that we should have been able to have the cannon at Cambridge by this time. The want of snow detained us for some days, and now a cruel thaw hinders from crossing the Hudson River, which we are obliged to do four times from Lake George to this town.
“The first severe night will make the ice sufficiently strong; till that happens, the cannon and mortars must remain where they are. These inevitable delays pain me exceedingly, as my mind is fully sensible of the importance of the greatest expedition in this case.”
The route of this novel expedition, it will be seen, lay over the Green Mountains and the wild passes of that range and down through the hill country of New England, by “roads that never bore a cannon before and have never borne one since.”
We may be sure that the arrival of Knox in camp, with the “noble train of artillery” which he had promised to Washington, was hailed with prodigious acclaim. From that moment the speedy end of the British occupation of Boston was determined.
Gage had been recalled to England in August of the previous year, virtually in disgrace, and his departure from Boston in the following October was regarded by the patriots in the light of a victory over a man whom they most cordially hated.
General Howe was now in command, and the British army of occupation was harassed by sea and land.
A little navy had been improvised by the New England colonies, and a series of reprisals had taken place between the American privateers-men and the British men-of-war.
The burning of the open and unprotected town of Falmouth (now Portland), Maine, by the infamous Captain Mowatt, had convinced the patriots of other parts of the colonies that although contumacious Boston was to be severely punished for its stubborn resistance to the royal mandates, war was to be carried into every part of the colonies on the continent.
The first naval battle of the war, as it is usually called, took place near Machias, Maine, in the summer of 1775, when John Knight, afterwards an admiral in the British navy, and several other officers, were taken prisoners and sent to Washington’s headquarters at Cambridge.
While Knox was on his memorable expedition to Fort Ticonderoga, the patriots captured the British brigantine Nancy, bound to Boston from London, with military stores, among which were two thousand muskets, one hundred and five thousand flints, thirty-one tons of musket-shot, three thousand round shot for 12-pounders and four thousand for 6-pounders.
Guns of this caliber were in the train brought to camp by Knox.
General Ward was placed in command of a movement upon Dorchester Heights, commanding the harbor of Boston, which was determined upon now that the supply of artillery was so amply reinforced that the line of circumvallation around the doomed town was well-nigh complete.
The immediate charge of details was entrusted to General Thomas, and, a formidable breastwork having been thrown up, a vigorous cannonading opened from the American works to the north of the town, on the night of March 2, 1776, and was continued during the next two ensuing days.
The ground was frozen, and four hundred yoke of oxen, under cover of the night, drew the ordnance and stores needed for the new batteries, passing unheeded amidst the din, with the British sentries on Boston Neck, scarcely a mile away.
The British were utterly confounded when, by the light of early morning, they found the harbor and all of the southern part of Boston lying under the “rebel” guns on the heights of Dorchester.
Evacuation was forced upon Howe, and, after using indirect and irregular means of communicating to his besiegers his intention to leave the place which had been made too hot to hold him, he embarked his troops, nearly nine thousand, all told, and sailed away to Halifax.
He took with him eleven hundred loyalists, or Tories, who had been subjected to persecutions from their neighbors and who fled from the greater wrath to come.
Howe’s evacuation of Boston took place on the morning of Sunday, March 17, 1776.
The Massachusetts State Quarter Coin shows with an artist’s portrayal of the ox teams and sleds moving the ordnance.