Colonel, Brigadier General, Major General (was known as the "Father of Artillery")
Knox was born to Scots-Irish immigrants. His father was a ship's captain who died in 1759. His parents were pioneers from North Ireland. Henry was the seventh of 10 children. William Knox was a shipmaster, carrying on trade with the West Indies. Suffering from financial difficulties and all the mental stress and burdens that go with money woes, William died at the age of 50. Upon his father’s death, heleft school at the age of 12 and became a clerk in a bookstore to support his mother. He later opened his own bookshop, the London Book Store, in Boston. Largely self-educated as a slow reader, he began to concentrate on military subjects, particularly artillery.
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 success of George Washington’s army on Dorchester Heights, which ironically hinged upon Knox’s cannons. She would never see them again.
Knox supported the American cause. He joined a local military company at the age of 18, married Lucy Flucker in 1774, and was commissioned a colonel of the Continental Regiment of Artillery. He was present during the infamous Boston Massacre in 1770 and as early as 1772, he became a member of the Boston Grenadier Corps. He was a volunteer in June 1775 at the Battle of Bunker Hill and served under Maj. Gen. Artemas Ward, in charge of the colonials around Boston. In 1775, Gen. George Washington arrived in Boston, taking command of the army.
There, he met and developed a friendship with Knox, a friendship that would last a lifetime. Washington realized the need of artillery in the American forces and found him to be well versed on the subject. Washington asked his opinion on what the army should do. The thought of Knox was to use the cannon from the captured Fort Ticonderoga. Thus, he was commissioned a colonel, placed in charge of artillery, and given the task to bring cannon from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston. By way of ox sleds, he successfully brought 50 cannon to the city.
In March 1776, Washington seized Dorchester Heights and Knox placed the cannon in position there. British Gen. William Howe, realizing the danger of an impending American bombardment, withdrew his troops from the city. On March 17, he embarked his troops for Halifax. The Continental Army entered Boston the following day.
After the capture of Boston, Knox helped place Connecticut and Rhode Island in proper defense, in preparation for the return of the British Army. Washington took his forces to defend New York. Knox joined the army there, as the British fleet arrived in New York, with 30,000 men. The American forces numbered about 18,000 with very little experience. Knox had 520 officers and soldiers to handle his 120 cannon. The American forces were so outnumbered, they were forced to retreat which did not end until the crossing of the Delaware River at Trenton on December 8, 1776. The Americans had seized all the boats along the Delaware, so the British were unable to follow.
With severly reduced forces, who were scantily clothed and poorly armed, the American troops were depressed. Washington did not give up hope, and Knox followed his lead. It was on December 25 that Washington made his famous trip across the Delaware River, directed by Knox, to surprise the Hessian forces at Trenton, capturing 1,000 men as well as supplies. The American army of 2,500 men, the captives and stores were all carried back across the Delaware River. This event gave a much needed boost to the American morale. Knox, himself, was promoted to brigadier-general as a result of his service. He was promoted to Chief of Artillery of the Continental Army in December.
At the same time, Washington was under the threat of losing his army to the expiration of enlistments. The troops had not been paid, so Washington wrote to his friend Robert Morris, a Philadelphia banker, for aid. $50,000 was sent to Washington and a massive departure of the troops was averted.
On January 3, 1777, Washington attacked the British Army, led by Gen. Charles Cornwallis, at Princeton, but they were driven back. Washington rallied the troops and the British in turn, were driven back and defeated. Knox and his men rendered aggressive service, earning him a commendation from the Washington. The American army went into winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey.
Knox had a commission while the army was in winter quarters at Morristown. Next, he was sent to Massachusettes to raise a battalion for the artillery. He was also given the task of creating an arsenal, and did so at Springfield. It became a valuable source in the production and repair of arms for the remaining years of the Revolutionary War.
Knox was almost displaced of his position in charge of artillery by a Frenchman named Ducondray, secured by Silas Deane, the American Minister to France. Ducondray interviewed with Washington and then headed to lay his credentials before Congress. Washington wrote Congress on behalf of Knox on May 31, 1777:
"General Knox, who has deservedly acquired the character of one of the most valuable officers in the service, and who combating almost innumerable difficulties in the department he fills has placed the artillery upon a footing that does him the greatest honor; he, I am persuaded, would consider himself injured by an appointment superseding his command, and would not think himself at liberty to continue in the service. Should such an event take place in the present state of things, there would be too much reason to apprehend a train of ills, such as might confuse and unhinge this important department."
Maj. Gen. Nathanael Green and Maj. Gen. John Sullivan supported Washington, and Ducondray was permitted to join the troops under Washington as a volunteer. He was to prove his ability as an engineer, but not given any preference over Knox.
Knox was involved in fighting at both the Battles of Brandywine and the Battle of Germantown. He had a limited number of cannon. At Brandywine he placed them well near Chadds Ford, but the British forced a retreat. The Americans held them in check at Birmingham Meeting House and were able to retreat to Chester. At Valley Forge, he was invaluable in organizing and erecting forts to safeguard the winter encampment from British attack.
Knox was given permission to leave Valley Forge for a time to visit his family in Massachusettes, but particularly to speed supplies for the army from the New England states. Knox returned and immediately began to assist Steuben in his drilling of the troops, particulary the artillery men. The troops left Valley Forge on June 19 and headed for Battle at Monmouth. In 1780, he sat in on the court-martial of Maj. John Andre, who was Brig. Gen. Benedict Arnold's British contact with whom he gave away Continental Army information.
Much later, Knox was sent as a representative of Washington to secure aid from the northern states in what Washington hoped would be the last campaign of the war. January 1, 1781, from New Windsor, Washington wrote Knox:
"...You will generally represent to the supreme executive powers of the States, through which you pass, and to gentlemen of influence in them, the alarming crisis to which our affairs have arrived, by a too long neglect of measures essential to the existence of the army, and you may assure them, that, if a total alteration of system does not take place in paying, clothing and feeding the troops, it will be in vain to expect a continuance of their service in another campaign. "
Knox was successful.
Eventually, the British army was forced in seige at Yorktown. Knox had placed the artillery in fine strategic position. After the surrender of Cornwallis on October 19, 1781, he was advanced to major-general, an honor well earned.
In 1782, Knox was stationed at West Point and remained there with the troops until the agreement was made for the British to evacuate New York. In the fall of 1783, he was able to leave as they followed the British out of New York. On December 4, the officers assembled at Fraunces Tavern to take final leave of Washington. Knox stood by him. Washington withdrew and Knox returned to Boston where he was well-received. He organized the Society of the Cincinnati in 1783 and was Commander-in-Chief of the Army from December 23, 1783–June 20, 1784.
Knox was elected to become the very first Secretary of War by Congress in 1785, and on September 12, 1789, he was appointed Secretary of War in President George Washington's new cabinet. Knox found his service as Secretary of War to deal with growing unrest in the western frontier of the little country. He prepared a plan for a national militia, advocated and presided over initial moves to establish a regular Navy, urged and initiated the establishment of a chain of coastal fortifications, and supervised Indian policy. When a treaty was finally reached, his leadership was manifested in his aid in promoting law and order.
Knox officially offered his resignation to the President on December 28, 1794. Washington accepted his resignation with regret. Timothy Pickering, who was Postmaster General at this time, was appointed the successor to Knox as Secretary of War.
Knox and his family settled on an estate at Thomaston, Maine in 1796, which he called "Montpelier." He was engaged in various types of businesses during the latter part of his life such as: brick-making, cattle-raising and ship-building. He entertained numerous guests and gave some time in service to his state in General Court and Governor's Council. Washington desired to appoint Knox as a Commissioner to St. Croix, but Knox declined. He died unexpectedly in 1806. He was buried in Thomaston.