Henry Knox

Portrait by Charles Willson Peale, c. 1784.


25 July 1750 in Boston, Massachusetts
25 October 1806 at Montpelier, his estate in Thomaston, Maine
Buried at Elm Grove Cemetery in Thomaston, Maine

  • Knox attempts to prevent bloodshed but ends up a witness to the Boston Massacre. (5-Mar-1770)
  • This day is opened a new London Bookstore by Henry Knox, opposite William’s Court in Cornhill, Boston ... (29-Jul-1771)
  • Marries Lucy Flucker, the daughter of Loyalists, who disown her. (20-Jun-1774)
  • Without experience, but with book-knowledge of military strategy, appointed a Colonel by Continental Congress following George Washington’s recommendation. (17-Nov-1775)
  • Against enormous odds, delivers heavy artillery from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston (nine eighteen pounders, ten twelves, six to nine pounders, three thirteen-inch mortars). It was a round-trip of some 450 miles in 56 winter days over rivers and rough terrain. (24-Jan-1776)
  • Leads the artillery in every battle led by George Washington during the war. (1776 - 81)
  • Organizes and oversees the crossing of troops from McKonkey’s Ferry, Pennsylvania, across the Delaware River to New Jersey on Christmas Eve, 1776, and leads the artillery in Washington’s victory over the Hessians at Trenton. (25-Dec-1776)
  • Builds first military academy at Pluckemin, New Jersey in 1779; Knox later recommends a military academy at West Point which opens in 1802.
  • Appointed Major General. (22-Mar-1782)
  • Drafts plan for the post-war veterans’ Society of Cincinnati. (Apr-1783)
  • Secretary of War under the Articles of Confederation and then under the first President of the United States, George Washington. (1785 - 89; 1789 - 95)
  • Initiates the creation of the U.S. Navy; Congress approves a plan to build six frigates, including the USS Constitution. (27-Mar-1794)
  • Retires from government to resolve money issues. (2-Jan-1795)

Henry Knox, American general, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, of Scottish-Irish parentage, in 1750. He was prominent in the colonial militia and tried to keep the Boston crowd and the British soldiers from the clash known as the Boston massacre (1770). In 1771 he opened the London Book-Store in Boston.

He had read much of tactics and strategy and joined the Continental Army, as a colonel, at the outbreak of the War of Independence. He fought at Bunker Hill, planned the defenses of the camps of the army before Boston, and brought from Lake George and border forts much-needed artillery.

At Trenton he crossed the river before the main body, and in the attack rendered such good service that he was made Brigadier General and Chief of Artillery the following day. He was present at Princeton; was chiefly responsible for the mistake in attacking the Chew House at Germantown; urged New York as the objective of the campaign of 1778; served with efficiency at Monmouth and at Yorktown; and after the surrender of Cornwallis was promoted to Major General. He also served as a commissioner on the exchange of prisoners.

His services throughout the war were of great value to the American cause; along with Nathanael Greene he was one of General Washington’s most trusted advisers.

From December 1783 until June 1784 he was the senior officer of the United States army. In April 1783 he had drafted a scheme of a society to be formed by the American and French officers who had served in America during the war, to be called the Cincinnati; of this society he was the first secretary-general (1783 – 99) and in 1805 became vice-president-general.

From 1785 to 1794 Knox was Secretary of War, both under the Articles of Confederation and during Washington’s presidency. He was unsuccessful in urging a national militia system to enroll all citizens over 18 and under 60 in the advanced corps, the main corps or the reserve, and for this as well his close friendship with Washington was bitterly assailed by the Republicans.

In 1793 he began to build a house, Montpelier, at Thomaston, Maine, where lived during his retirement beginning 1795. He speculated unsuccessfully in the holdings of the Eastern Land Association; he lived there until his death in 1806.

Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911 ed.

Charles Willson Peale, despite his devotion to the taxonomic and contemplative majesty of the natural world, nevertheless loved novelties and used all sorts of amusements to attract customers to his museum. He eventually resorted to hiring a popular musical performer who played five different instruments simultaneously, using all parts of his body. Following Peale’s death the museum passed into the enterprising hands of P. T. Barnum, becoming part of his traveling circus — a romantic ending for an Enlightenment institution.

Gordon S. Wood
Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815 (2009)