Henry Knox

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Henry Knox
Official U.S. Army portrait by Constantino Brumidi, painted between 1859 and 1880
1st United States Secretary of War
In office
March 8, 1785 – December 31, 1794
President George Washington
Succeeded by Timothy Pickering
Personal details
Born (1750-07-25)July 25, 1750
Boston, Massachusetts, British America
Died October 25, 1806(1806-10-25) (aged 56)
near Thomaston, Maine, U.S.
Nationality British (at birth)
American (at death)
Spouse(s) Lucy Flucker
Profession Bookseller, Soldier
Military service
Allegiance  United States of America
Service/branch Continental Army
United States Army
Years of service 1772-1784
Rank US-O6 insignia.svg Colonel 1775-1776
US-O7 insignia.svg Brigadier General 1776-1781
US-O8 insignia.svg Major General 1781-1784
Commands Chief of Artillery
Battles/wars American Revolutionary War
Battle of Bunker Hill
Siege of Boston
Battle of Long Island
Battle of Trenton
Battle of the Assunpink Creek
Battle of Princeton
Battle of Brandywine
Battle of Germantown
Battle of Monmouth
Siege of Yorktown

Henry Knox (July 25, 1750 – October 25, 1806) was a military officer of the Continental Army and later the United States Army, and also served as the first United States Secretary of War.

Born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, he owned and operated a bookstore there, cultivating an interest in military history and joining a local artillery company. When the American Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, he befriended General George Washington, and quickly rose to become the chief artillery officer of the Continental Army. In this role he accompanied Washington on most of his campaigns, and had some involvement in many major actions of the war. He established training centers for artillerymen and manufacturing facilities for weaponry that were valuable assets to the fledgling nation.

Following the adoption of the United States Constitution, he became President Washington's Secretary of War. In this role he oversaw the development of coastal fortifications, worked to improve the preparedness of local militia, and oversaw the nation's military activity in the Northwest Indian War. He was formally responsible for the nation's relationship with the Indian population in the territories it claimed, at one point arguing that the country could take by force lands that Indian tribes were unwilling to sell.

He retired to what is now Thomaston, Maine in 1795, where he oversaw the rise of a business empire built on borrowed money. He died in 1806 from an infection received after swallowing a chicken bone, leaving an estate that was virtually bankrupt.

Early life and marriage

Henry Knox was born on Long Lane in Boston to parents of Scots-Irish origin, William Knox and Mary (née Campbell).[1] His father was a ship's captain from St Eustatius who died in 1759, in part due to mental stress arising from financial trouble.

1771 advertisement for London Bookstore, Boston

Henry left school at the age of 12 and became a clerk in a bookstore to support his mother. In 1771 he opened his own bookshop, the London Book Store, in Boston "opposite William's Court in Cornhill."[2] Largely self-educated, he began to concentrate on military subjects, particularly artillery. Knox joined a local military company at 18, was present at the Boston Massacre in 1770, and joined the Boston Grenadier Corps in 1772.[3]

Henry married Lucy Flucker (1756–1824), the daughter of Boston Loyalists, on June 16, 1774. In spite of separations due to his military service, they remained a devoted couple for the rest of his life, and carried on an extensive correspondence. Since the couple fled Boston in 1775, she remained essentially homeless throughout the Revolutionary War. Her parents left with the British during their withdrawal from Boston after the Continental Army fortified Dorchester Heights, which ironically hinged upon the delivery of cannons by Knox. She never saw her parents again.

Military career

Knox supported the American rebels, the Sons of Liberty and was present at the Boston Massacre. He volunteered as a member of the Boston Grenadier Corps in 1772 and served under Gen. Artemas Ward at the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775. As a member of the Army of Observation, Knox met and impressed Gen. George Washington when he took command. Knox offered his services to Washington, who had him commissioned a colonel and gave him command of the Continental Regiment of Artillery.[3] Washington and Knox soon became good friends.

As the Siege of Boston continued, he suggested that the cannons recently captured at Fort Ticonderoga and at Fort Crown Point could have a decisive impact. Washington put him in charge of an expedition to retrieve them.[3] His force brought them by ox-drawn sled south along the west bank of the Hudson River from Fort Ticonderoga to Albany where he crossed the Hudson, continued east through the Berkshires and finally to Boston. There are 56 plaques on the Henry Knox Trail from Fort Ticonderoga to Cambridge, Massachusetts, roughly marking each day of the journey. Knox and his men averaged approximately 5⅜ miles per day, completing the 300-mile (480 km) trip in 56 days, between December 5, 1775, and January 24, 1776. The cannon train was composed of fifty-nine cannon and mortars, 29 from Crown Point and 30 from Fort Ticonderoga, and weighed 60 tons. Upon their arrival in Cambridge, when Washington's army took the Heights of Dorchester, the cannons were placed in a heavily-fortified position overlooking Boston from which they threatened the British fleet in the harbor. As a result, the British withdrew to Halifax on March 17, 1776.[3] After the siege was lifted, Knox undertook the construction and improvement of defenses in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York City to prepare for an anticipated British attack there. Knox was with Washington's army during the New York and New Jersey campaign.

Before the Battle of Trenton, Colonel Knox was in charge of Washington's crossing of the Delaware River.[3] Though hampered by ice and cold, with John Glover's Marbleheaders (14th Continental Regiment) manning the boats, he got the attack force of men, horses and artillery across the river without loss. Following the battle he returned the same force, along with hundreds of prisoners, captured supplies and all the boats back across the river by the afternoon of December 26. Knox was promoted to brigadier general for this accomplishment and made chief of artillery.[3]

Knox stayed with the main army throughout most of the war, and saw further action at Princeton, Brandywine, Germantown, Monmouth and Yorktown.[3] In 1777 while the Army was in winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey, he returned to Massachusetts to improve the Army's artillery capability. He raised an additional battalion of artillerymen and established the Springfield Armory before his return in the spring. The armory remained a valuable source of ammunition and gun carriages for the rest of the war. In early 1780 he was a member of the court-martial of Maj. John André.[3] Knox made several other trips to the northern states as Washington's representative to increase the flow of men and supplies to the army.

In Pluckemin (a hamlet of Bedminster, New Jersey), in the winter of 1778-1779, Knox formed the Continental Army's first facility for artillery and officer training in what has been named the Pluckemin Artillery Cantonment or simply the Pluckemin Artillery Park. The Pluckemin artillery training academy is noted as the precursor to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. While there, through the summer of 1779, Gen. Knox spent most of his time training more than 1,000 soldiers in the face of low morale and scarce supplies.

After Yorktown, Knox was promoted to major general. In 1782 he was given command of West Point.[3] In 1783 he was one of the founders of the Society of the Cincinnati,[3] and led the American forces into New York City as the British withdrew. He stood next to Washington during his farewell address on December 4 at Fraunces Tavern. After Washington retired, Knox served as the senior officer of the Continental Army from December 1783 until he left it in June 1784.[3]

Secretary of War

The Continental Congress made Knox Secretary of War under the Articles of Confederation on March 8, 1785. He held that position without interruption until September 12, 1789, when he assumed the same duties as the Secretary of War in Washington's first cabinet.

As secretary, Knox urged and presided over the creation of a regular United States Navy and created a series of coastal fortifications. In 1792 Congress, acting on a detailed proposal from Knox, created the short-lived Legion of the United States.[4]

As part of his duties as Secretary of War, Knox attempted the implementation of the Militia Act of 1792. This included his evaluation of the arms and readiness of the militia finding that only 20% of the 450,000 members of the militia were capable of arming themselves at their own expense for militia service as required by the act. To resolve this arms shortage, Knox recommended to Congress that the federal government increase the purchase of imported weapons, ban the export of domestically produced weapons and establish domestic government-run weapons manufacturing (arsenals) and armories, including the Springfield Armory and the Harpers Ferry Armory.[5]

Secretary of War Knox was responsible for managing the U.S.'s relations with the Native Americans resident in lands it claimed, following a 1789 act of U.S. Congress. For the previous three years he had had similar responsibilities under the Congress of the Confederation, although the previous position had little actual authority.[6] Knox wrote that the U.S. had not honored the Native Americans' rights. Usual U.S. government policy involved signing treaties with Native American nations that were not intended to be kept, with the goal of seizing as much Indian land as possible.

On January 2, 1795, Knox left the government and returned to his home at Thomaston (now in Maine, but then still a part of Massachusetts), to devote himself to caring for his growing family. He was succeeded in the post of Secretary of War by Timothy Pickering.

Later life

Knox settled at Montpelier, the estate he built in Thomaston. He spent the rest of his life engaged in cattle farming, ship building, brick making and real estate speculation. He had assembled a vast 1,000,000-acre (4,000 km2) real estate empire in Maine through graft and corruption. This triggered an armed insurrection by local settlers who, at one point, threatened to burn Montpelier to the ground.[7] Although Knox represented Thomaston in the Massachusetts General Court, he eventually became so unpopular that he lost the seat to a local blacksmith. One of the people Knox took land from was Joseph Plumb Martin, a soldier during the Revolutionary War, who settled in Maine and wrote a memoir of his war experiences.

He also was industrious in lumbering, ship building, stock raising and brick manufacturing, although all of these businesses failed, building up staggering debts that would ultimately bankrupt his heirs.[3][8] In 1806 while visiting a friend in Union, Maine, he swallowed a chicken bone which punctured his intestine. He died of an infection (peritonitis) three days later on October 25, 1806, and was buried in Thomaston. His house was later torn down to make way for the Brunswick-Rockland railroad line. The only surviving structure is an outbuilding that currently houses the Thomaston Historical Society. (The current Montpelier Museum is a mid-20th century cinderblock reconstruction at a different location.)

Newspaper advertisement for Knox's bookshop, Boston, 1771

Many incidents in Knox's career attest to his character, both good and bad. As one example, when he and Lucy were forced to leave Boston in 1775, his home was used to house British officers who looted his bookstore. In spite of personal financial hardships, he managed to make the last payment of 1,000 pounds to Longman Printers in London to cover the price of a shipment of books that he never received. In Maine, however, he would be remembered as a grasping tyrant and was forever immortalized in Nathanial Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables, for which he served as the model for Col. Pynchon.[9]


Two separate American forts, Fort Knox (Kentucky), and Fort Knox (Maine) were named after him. Knox Hall [1] at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, home of the Field Artillery Center and Field Artillery School, is also named after him. Knoxville, Tennessee, is named in his honor. There are counties named for Knox in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Tennessee and Texas.

Knox has been honored by the United States Postal Service with an 8¢ Great Americans series postage stamp.

The Major General Nathanael Greene class large coastal tug USAV Major General Henry Knox (LT-802) is named in honor of Knox.


  1. ^ Stark's antiqve views of ye towne of Boston. 1901.
  2. ^ Boston News Letter, August 15, 1771
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Bell, William Gardner; COMMANDING GENERALS AND CHIEFS OF STAFF: 1775-2005; Portraits & Biographical Sketches of the United States Army's Senior Officer: 1983, CENTER OF MILITARY HISTORY; UNITED STATES ARMY; WASHINGTON, D.C.:p. 54
    ISBN 0–16–072376–0
  4. ^ Kochan, James (2001). United States Army 1783-1811 (Men-at-Arms Series). Osprey Military. pp. 13–15. ISBN 1-84176-087-0. 
  5. ^ DeConde, Alexander (2003). Gun Violence in America: The Struggle for Control. Northeastern. p. 40. ISBN 1-55553-592-5. 
  6. ^ Ellis, Joseph J. "The Treaty." American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic. New York: Knopf, 2007, pp. 136-137.
  7. ^ Taylor, Alan, Liberty Men and Great Proprietors: The Revolutionary Settlement on the Maine Frontier Chapel Hill: UNC Press, pp. 37-59
  8. ^ Taylor, Allen, Ibid.
  9. ^ Griffiths, Thomas, Maine Sources in The House of the Seven Gables (Waterville, Maine, 1945). (Hawthorne visited Thomaston prior to writing the book.)


  • David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World, New York: Oxford University Press, 1992 pg 120.
  • Henry Knox, Secretary of War to Congress on October 27, 1787, Journals of the Continental Congress, Volume 34 pg 124, 125.
  • North Callahan, Henry Knox: General Washington's General. NewYork: A. S. Barnes and Co., 1958. ISBN 0-15-216435-9.
  • Mark Puls, Henry Knox: Visonary General of the American Revolution, Palgrave Macmillan (May 11, 2010) ISBN 978-0230623880

External links

Military offices
Preceded by
George Washington
Senior Officer of the United States Army
Succeeded by
Joseph Doughty
Political offices

Template:U.S. Secretary box