The best-known scene of Col. Henry Knox’s train of artillery in the winter of 1775-1776 is Tom Lovell’s painting The Noble Train of Artillery. It shows a caravan of ox-drawn artillery that the Continental Army moved from the recently conquered Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York (pictured near the top left of the painting) through the snowy Berkshire Mountains in western Massachusetts to where they were needed most: Gen. George Washington’s siege lines outside of Boston. The painting probably depicts a young and thin Knox on horseback to the right. The guns were necessary for Washington to establish sufficient fields of fire over Boston town, thereby putting the besieged British there in an inferior position and thus forcing the end of a stalemate that had gone on since April 19, 1775. With these guns overlooking Boston, on March 17, 1776, the last of the British evacuated the city, ending a near eleven-month siege.
Knox’s Noble Train became deservedly famous given its instrumental role in ending the British occupation of Boston and giving Washington his first victory of the war. Yet there is one major flaw with this story and the many variations of its depiction: it did not happen. Or, at least, it did not happen as depicted. For in truth, Knox did not have oxen. So then why do many of the sources and pictures say otherwise?
Let’s start at the beginning. . . .
The Need for Artillery
In the spring of 1775, the British attempted to raid a militia weapons cache outside Boston. Shots were fired, the countryside militia swarmed the British, and after a daylong running battle, the British found themselves besieged in Boston.
Boston bookseller Henry Knox managed to escape the siege lines, however, and began serving as a volunteer aide to the top militia commander, Massachusetts Gen. Artemas Ward. Knox had spent many idle hours in his Boston-based The London Book-Store reading up on the art and science of artillery, but when the Battle of Bunker Hill came sixty days into the siege, on June 17, 1775, Knox served as little more than a messenger for the ailing General Ward, who was suffering that day in his Cambridge headquarters from a debilitating fit of “calculus” (probably a bladder stone). The British won the battle, but it served only to extend their lines and the siege continued.
George Washington soon arrived and took command of the militias of the various colonies represented there, and from these he began to form the new Continental Army. Washington quickly realized breaking the siege and forcing the British out of Boston would require heavy artillery. (Thus far, all he had were a few light field pieces, probably mostly 4-pounder cannon.)
Meanwhile, just before the Battle of Bunker Hill, Benedict Arnold of Connecticut (commissioned at time as a colonel in the Massachusetts service) and Ethan Allen of the New Hampshire Land Grants (later Vermont) led a small force in seizing the two ill-defended British forts of Ft. Ticonderoga and Ft. Crown Point, both on Lake Champlain in eastern New York. In taking these forts, the Americans had gained a considerable supply of large artillery, including several cannon and mortars. The trouble was getting these guns back to the siege lines outside Boston. In the end, strife between Arnold and Allen delayed the transportation of the artillery back to Boston indefinitely.
As the Siege of Boston continued for months, Washington at first set his attention on digging in, expanding fortifications, and organizing his new Continental Army. The topmost Massachusetts artillerymen, the elderly Col. Richard Gridley, determined to retire, influenced in part by the courts martial of two of his artillery officer sons because of their lackluster service in the Battle of Bunker Hill.Still, Washington had hoped that Gridley would serve as the Continental Army’s new artillery commander. Those artillery officers next in succession felt themselves too old to take on the burdens of command, and instead wholeheartedly supported the relative unknown Henry Knox. Washington agreed to Knox’s selection, but final authority on this resided with the Continental Congress, away in Philadelphia.
With the end of the year upon him, Washington grew more anxious to take the offensive against the British in Boston, though with so few cannon and so little gunpowder, he hardly had the means to act, even in a defensive posture. So, without waiting for Congress, on November 16, Washington asked Henry Knox to depart for Ticonderoga and fulfill the plan laid out by Benedict Arnold so many months earlier: to collect from Fort Ticonderoga all the artillery pieces he could and transport them back to American lines outside Boston. As Washington implored, “the want of them is so great, that no trouble or expence must be spared to obtain them.”
Knox set off immediately, first to New York City to inventory the artillery supplies there, and then on to Ft. Ticonderoga. Though Knox would not learn of it for some time, on the next day, Congress indeed resolved to commission Knox into the Continentals with the rank of colonel.
Knox’s Ticonderoga Expedition
On December 5, Colonel Knox arrived at the former British Ft. Ticonderoga and took inventory of the artillery pieces. Those guns from neighboring Ft. Crown Point were apparently brought to Ticonderoga before his arrival. Of the mortars, Knox selected fourteen of various sizes, most of which were average, though he must have been elated to find the three iron 13-inch mortars, short but massive, perhaps a ton each. For cannon, he could only find one large brass 24-pounder, but he was able to find thirteen 18-pounders plus ten 12-pounders. These plus other smaller cannon gave him forty-three pieces total, some brass, some iron. He also collected two howitzers, both of 8-inch caliber. There were many artillery rounds available, though Knox did not collect these. Instead, most would come from a different route, cast or otherwise stolen from the King’s store in New York.(Gunpowder would in time be made by the colonies, but a large supply came from the seizure of British stores in New York.)
To get this “Noble train of Artillery,” as he called it, to Boston, Knox first had to transport the pieces by gondola a short distance on Lake Champlain and then by land to nearby Lake George.There the guns were loaded onto three vessels: a scow, a large batteau, and a periauger (that Knox called a “Pettianger”). The scow was at first overloaded and sank in the low water, but Knox’s hired men managed to “bail her out and tow her to the leward shore . . . and by halling the cannon aft ballanc’d her, and now she stands ready for sail.”The three vessels were then sailed or rowed southward to the decommissioned Fort George at lake’s end. From there, Mother Nature came to his aid. A storm poured on them an “exceeding fine Snow” some two feet deep, which allowed his hired New York crews to mount the artillery onto sleighs. However, the snow proved too deep at first, and there was trouble securing oxen at a fair price.
Before departing from Fort George to go ahead of his Noble Train to Albany, Knox wrote to Washington on December 17, 1775, claiming he had “provided [for?] eighty yoke of Oxen to drag them [the sleighs of artillery] as far as Springfield.” On the same day, he wrote a similar sentiment to his wife Lucy Flucker Knox: “We shall cut no small figure in going through the Country with our Cannon, Mortars, etc., drawn by eighty yoke of oxen.”
This image is now deeply rooted in American memory, captured in paintings, but it is far from reality. It seems Knox wrote of this plan too soon.
Once in Albany, where he visited at the home of Maj. Gen. Philip Schuyler, Knox began negotiating in earnest for those oxen he had written about. The oxen were necessary to bring the artillery sleighs down from Fort George to Albany and then eastward back toward Boston.
26th. Sent off for Mr. [George] Palmer to Come immediately down to Albany.
28th. Mr Palmer Came Down. & after a considerable degree of conversationbetween him & General Schuyler about the price the Genl offering 18s. 9d. & Palmer asking 24s. prday for 2 Yoke of Oxen. The treaty broke off abruptly & Mr Palmer was dismiss’d. By reports from all parts the snow is too deep for the Cannon to set out, even if the Sleds were ready. [Which they were not, as they had no beasts to pull them.] 29th. General Schuyler agree’d with [me]. Sent out his Waggon Master & other people to all parts of the Country to immediately send up their slays [sleighs] with horses suitable, we allowing them 12s. prday for each pair of horses or £7 prTon for 62 miles.
The 31st, the Waggon master return’d the Names of persons in different parts of the Country who had gone up to the lake [George] with their horses in the whole amounting to near 124 pairs with Slays, which I’m afraid are not strong enough for the heavy Cannon, if I can Judge from the same shown me by Genl Schuyler.
In careful reading, we find that, after a negotiation for oxen failed based on price, Colonel Knox relented to using horses instead, of which he acquired at least 124 pairs.In fact, there is evidence that Knox originally intended to use horses, until the oxen deal became an option, and so he merely fell back on his original plan.
And so, contrary to tradition, it seems Knox had few oxen on his journey. The famous paintings and illustrations are both quite wrong.
Meanwhile, the artillery remained near Ft. George, delayed not just because of a lack of beasts, but also because of weather. The land route southward from the fort was an exceedingly slow one that followed the Hudson River, and once the crews were finally underway, they were forced to cross the frozen Hudson four times before reaching Albany.
Here Knox’s diary tells of another misconception of his Noble Train of Artillery. Not only was the artillery transported mostly by horses for the remainder of its journey, but also it was not one long caravan as commonly pictured. Rather, it was a fragmented set of companies, sometimes miles apart, conducting their respective sleighs with teams of two or sometimes up to eight horses (only occasionally employing oxen, whenever they could be had), and at times augmenting these with additional beasts as necessary to surpass particularly high snow drifts or difficult terrain.
As a few artillery pieces finally came into Albany, one at a time, the snow at first continued to fall, but then Mother Nature forsook them. A “cruel thaw” for several days delayed the Noble Train as it tried to make its way into town.But snow soon fell again, and with it, Knox’s train was again on the move.
From Albany, Knox’s train passed eastward over the Berkshires, from “which we might almost have seen all the Kingdoms of the Earth,” and so into Massachusetts. This was the most difficult part of the journey, and here the horses at times proved insufficient for pulling the heavier pieces over the mountains. Knox continued to seek out oxen to augment his horses, but only occasionally did he find any to hire. At least he did hire “two teams of oxen” on January 11, 1776.
Once over the Berkshires, the rest of the Noble Train’s journey continued without much difficulty. The artillery began to arrive in Framingham, some twenty miles outside Boston, on about January 25. With the exception of some of the lighter pieces which were immediately sent to the lines and mounted in the American entrenchments, most of the pieces were probably kept in Framingham until Washington called them up in early March in what would result in a bloodless American show of force that ultimately led to the British Evacuation of Boston on March 17, 1776.
So why are the stories wrong? As we have seen, the Noble Train of Artillery was primarily dragged by horses. The many history books that report oxen likely only researched the subject in the papers of George Washington, citing the letter there from Knox that gives his intentions to use oxen to drag the train. But in truth, after local teamsters tried to price-gouge Knox for use of their oxen, Knox decided to use horses instead, yet apparently never wrote of this change to Washington. And since the correction does not appear in the papers of George Washington (and historians did not utilize Knox’s incomplete diary), historians therefore never identified the change of Knox’s plan. Thus, the wrong story of Knox’s oxen spread. In truth, Knox’s expedition was pulled by horses.
The instructions are a bit more complicated than given here. Instructions to Knox, November 16, 1775, in Papers of George Washington (PGW), rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/founders/GEWN.html.
Gridley’s official departure and Knox’s selection in Journals of the Continental Congress, ed. Worthington Chauncey Ford (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1904),November 17, 1775, 3: 358-59, books.google.com/books?id=OTQSAAAAYAAJ.
Enclosure to Knox to Washington, December 17, 1775, which gives just thirty-nine cannon including six 12-pounders. The other four 12s were obtained at the last minute, and Knox to Washington, January 5, 1776, describes them. Both are in PGW. Some of the pieces selected were originally from Crown Point (cf. Enclosure to Arnold to Mass. Comm. of Safety, May 19, in Peter Force’s American Archives (Washington, DC: M. St. Clair Clarke and Peter Force, 1837-1846), 4: 2: 645-46). However, Knox’s diary, December 5-9, 1775, gives no mention of him going to Crown Point, so they must have been brought down before his arrival. “Knox’s Diary during his Ticonderoga Expedition,” New England Historical and Genealogical Register (1876), 30: 323, books.google.com/books?id=97IUAAAAYAAJ.
Knox to Washington, December 17, 1775, in PGW; “Knox’s Diary,” December 5-9, 1775, 323. By land: the narrow and overly shallow waterway connecting the two lakes would have been frozen by this time. Knox’s diaryreferences a bridge.
“Knox’s Diary,” December 9, 1775, 323. Scow sinks: Knox to his brother William, December 14, 1775, in Alexander C. Flick, “General Henry Knox’s Ticonderoga Expedition,” New York State Historical Association Quarterly Journal 9 (Apr 1928), 119-35.
Knox’s diary also reports that the artillery was not transported from Ft. George to Albany until after this negotiation (due to a heavy snow, not just a lack of transportation), and thus was indeed brought by horse-drawn sleighs. Sadly, a few pertinent pages of Knox’s diary are lost. Interestingly, George Palmer also connived his way into a contract to produce for Knox a number of carriages or sleighs, which Knox later realized he had no need of because there were plenty existing sleighs available for hire. Yet Palmer firmly pressed Knox to honor the contract. It is unclear whether those sleighs Knox ultimately employed were indeed those built under Palmer’s contract. On this, see George Palmer to Knox, December 25, 1775, in Flick, “General Henry Knox’s Ticonderoga Expedition.”
General source for this essay: “Knox’s Diary,” 321-26. On the date of Knox’s arrival, not recorded in his diary, instead: Flick, “General Henry Knox’s Ticonderoga Expedition.” The overall story is given extensive discussion in Beck, War Before Independence, 301ff.