Note: With this post begins a long series of posts I will call “Myths of the Revolution”.1
In late 1775, Gen. George Washington was maintaining the Siege of Boston, which had become a long stalemate, the siege having begun back in April. Part of the reason for the stalemate: Washington had no serious artillery by which to threaten the besieged British. There were indeed guns to be had, just none nearby: the weakly defended Ft. Ticonderoga and its neighboring Ft. Crown Point (both in upstate New York) had already been taken by Americans Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold back in May 1775, but their vast supply of artillery guns had yet to be brought to the siege lines surrounding Boston. Thus, in December 1775, Washington turned to the previously unknown Boston bookseller Henry Knox, newly appointed colonel and commander of the Continental Army’s Regiment of Artillery. Knox’s mission: to bring in the guns from Ft. Ticonderoga and Crown Point. But being December 1775, New England was in the thick of winter, so this was not going to be easy mission.
Knox got to upstate New York quickly, finding the choice guns from Ft. Crown Point apparently already brought down to Ft. Ticonderoga. Before setting out from Ft. Ticonderoga on December 6, 1775, Knox optimistically wrote to Washington, “I hope in 16 or 17 days to be able to present to your Excellency a Noble train of Artillery”. In fact, the journey would take much longer.
The first step of this arduous expedition was to transport the artillery by gondola (a small boat) a short distance on Lake Champlain, where they were then dragged by cattle over land and over a bridge to nearby Lake George. There the guns were loaded onto three vessels: a scow, a large batteau, and a boat that Knox called a “Pettianger”. Despite some troubles overloading the scows, the three vessels were soon after sailed or rowed southward to the decommissioned Fort George at lake’s end. There, they waited. Weather caused one delay, but delays also came as Knox tried to plan for the next mode of transportation.
On 17 December, Knox predicted in a letter to his wife, “We shall cut no small figure in going through the Country with our Cannon, Mortars, etc., drawn by eighty yoke of oxen”—an image now deeply rooted in American memory. Knox wrote the same day to Washington that he had “provided [for?] eighty yoke of Oxen to drag them [artillery-laden sleighs] as far as Springfield [Mass.]”.
America’s collective consciousness now remembers the words of these letters, as they have been often repeated in many history books since. They are even memorialized in two famous pictures (only one is shown here, see next post for the other). Each of these pictures depict Knox’s Noble Train dragging by ox-drawn sleighs their artillery through upstate New York and Western Massachusetts.
And each of these pictures is false!
See the next blog post for the evidence and conclusion, next week!
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This and the next post summarizes a longer article I wrote for the July/Aug issue of American Revolution magazine (which has sadly announced it will cease publication). You can still buy a copy of this issue with my article for $4 online or by calling 1−800−767−5828.2
- I will occasionally jump to other subjects amid this long series, however.
- I previously mentioned this article in a previous post. J. L. Bell at his Boston 1775 blog has also recently published on the subject.
Derek — I can hardly wait for your next post. Knox in general is one of the most interesting men from that time period in my opinion. I have long thought that in NY they used horses and Massachusetts they used oxen — in part because my limited research shows that during the period — NY farmers and teamsters had more horses than oxen. It is reversed in MA. If you ever get to a horse/oxen pull you will know why oxen are much preferred.
In my neck of NY — Saratoga — I find the Knox trail very interesting in part because Knox/Schuyler and a local Stillwater man — Saules (I think) had a disagreement on the building of sleds. I think some of this was local disagreements but Schuyler got very rich as the British Deputy Quartermaster during the FIW. So I think he might have seen the building of sleds a good way to make money. But the disagreement between General Schuyler and Colonel Knox is interesting in part because they both become part of the extended friends of Washington.
The other thing that most people do not see — is the issue of the weather — it needs to be warm enough for a boat trip down Lake George, then there is the need for snow for the sleds to work. Then the Hudson River needs to be frozen to support (how many were there?) the crossing of the Hudson.
It is an amazing study to look at.
Hi Sean, thanks for letting me post your email here. I will reply to you after the next post, which comes out in about a week (Friday). I think it will answer most of your questions. Thanks again for your interest!
Hi Sean, I think I’ve addressed all of your questions in my addendum post (which you helped prompt, so thank you!)
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