Henry Knox: the “Noble Train of Artillery” Markers
by Carl Licence
Have you ever seen one of these? There is a good chance that if you’ve traveled north on Malcolm X Boulevard in Roxbury, Massachusetts you’ll spot this one in a small corner of the Roxbury Heritage State Park located at the junction of Roxbury Street. The Roxbury marker is but the first of 60 markers placed along the route of old colonial roads and paths between Boston and Ticonderoga, New York. The initial installation of these markers along the Henry Knox Trail, began in 1926 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Henry Knox’s march which he referred to as the “Noble Train of Artillery” in his correspondence with George Washington. The effort of placing these markers was a collaboration between the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the State of New York.
So, what was the “Noble Train of Artillery” and who was Henry Knox?
Henry Knox was born in Boston in 1750 and attended the Boston Latin School. At age 12 Knox was forced to withdraw from Boston Latin when his father died and had to help support his family. To help, Knox secured a position as a clerk at Nicholas Bowes’s bookstore on Cornhill Street. At Bowes’s shop, Knox had free access to books and was allowed to take them home to read. This access allowed Knox to independently continue his education in a number of fields focused primarily on military matters.
Knox eventually opens his own bookstore on Cornhill Street across from Pi Alley which he called the London Book Store. This new shop attracted a wide variety of elite clientele that consisted of British officers and Ladies. However, after the battles of Lexington and Concord Knox abandoned his store to join the local militia where he involved himself in artillery work and building fortifications.
The battles in Lexington and Concord prompted the other New England colonies to send militia units to assist in the resistance to the British Siege of Boston. During this time information was presented to the Massachusetts Committee of Safety on the small, lightly guarded garrisons maintained by the British in northern New York. These garrisons contained much-needed artillery; it was proposed to the committee that these garrisons should be taken. The committee approved this plan and granted a commission in the Massachusetts militia to Benedict Arnold, the leader of the Connecticut militia. Arnold was sent to secure the British fort in Ticonderoga, New York and along the way he was to join forces with Ethan Allen and the militia of the New Hampshire Grants (Vermont). The expedition was a success. Not only was Allen able to take Fort Ticonderoga but he was able to secure Fort Crown Point, both without a fight. However, Benedict Arnold deemed that the transporting of the artillery back to Boston would be too difficult and abandoned the idea of transporting the artillery and resigned his commission in the Massachusetts Militia.
In July of 1775, George Washington arrived in Massachusetts to take control of the local militia units that had assembled in Cambridge to form the new Continental Army. One of the first evaluations Washington made concerning the situation in Boston was that if he were to initiate and attack upon the British besieging Boston, it would be impossible to do this without heavy artillery. Washington knew how effective the British naval artillery had been during the Battle of Bunker Hill and he knew there would be no way to secure Boston without artillery support for his new army.
When Washington heard of the existence of artillery captured at the northern New York forts he elected Knox, at the time only 25 years old, to lead an expedition charged to recover the artillery and the much-needed ammunition from the New York colony. Plans were drawn, orders were given, and letters of introduction were provided to Knox for his expedition. Knox at this time was not a commissioned officer in the Continental Army; his commission would not come until the expedition was well underway. Knox was instructed to travel to New York City and coordinate with General Schuyler on the acquisition of artillery and supplies. For his assignment, Knox was allotted a budget of £1,000 with Washington’s instructions that “no trouble or expense must be spared in obtaining them.”
Knox left Boston, accompanied by his 19-year-old younger brother William, on November 17 and reached New York City on November 25. In New York, Knox was greeted by Colonel Alexander McDougal. Though New York could not provide heavy artillery, they were able to assemble smaller field pieces and supplies to provision Washington’s army. During his stay in New York, Knox discovered there was a newly completed foundry for casting cannon and forwarded this good news to General Washington in Cambridge.
Knox left New York City on November 28 and headed north along the Hudson River meeting General Schuyler in Albany, reaching Lake George on December 4, and Fort Ticonderoga the following day. At Fort Ticonderoga, situated between Lake Champlain and Lake George, Knox inventoried the artillery to be transported back to Boston and had the cannon and cargo moved to the shore of Lake George in preparation for transport to Fort George at the southern end of the lake. Once the provisioning of sledges, oxen, and horses was made, the Train departed for Albany where they planned to cross the Hudson River and move east towards Massachusetts.
The artillery train that left Fort George included 43 heavy brass and iron cannon, six cohorns, eight mortars, and two howitzers for a total of 60 tons of artillery. Moving 60 tons was not an easy task, and many hardships were encountered along the way that slowed down the Noble Train. The expedition faced cold weather, snow, icing of the lakes, a lack of ice on the Hudson, mild weather that melted ice where it was needed which made the trails thick with mud, all over a network of narrow, little-used roads and paths that were difficult to move heavy loads over. However, on January 9, 1776, the last of the artillery had reached the eastern shore of the Hudson River. With each successful trip over the river, each carrying artillery and men, the crowd that had gathered greeted each of the river crossings with a cheer.
The next obstacle was moving the heavy artillery over the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts through a 12 miles stretch of mountain passes and pine forests called Greenwoods. The trek through the mountains took two days and proved difficult, forcing Knox to urge the artillery crews on by appealing to their patriotism. Once over the mountains, the route became a bit easier, passing on trails created by natives which were wider and better traveled. When Knox and the Train reached Westfield a large crowd was on hand to greet the expedition. Feeling the energy of the crowd, Knox entertained them by firing an 11 foot, 24-pound cannon to everyone’s delight.
At the Connecticut River in Springfield, Knox was forced to hire a totally new crew. The New Yorkers he had hired at the beginning of the trek were exhausted and started to return home. As the Train progressed, it reached Framingham on January 25 where the captured artillery was inspected by John Adams and Elbridge Gerry.
Knox reached his destination on January 27, 1776, presenting the captured artillery he had hauled over 250 miles to General Washington on Cambridge common.
(Knox entering camp)
The return trip had taken 40 days to complete, 25 days longer than Knox had expected, but the total cost of the trip came in under budget by £479!
Once the artillery had arrived, it was quickly placed at various locations around Boston including Lechmere’s Point, Cobble Hill (then in Cambridge), and at the Roxbury Low Fort at Lamb’s dam (roughly Northampton Street today). Lamb’s dam was the location where the Boston Neck reached Roxbury, the only land route in and out of Boston.
(1775 map of Boston
On the night of March 4 General John Thomas, along with 2,000 men and 400 oxen, moved the heaviest of the guns captured from Fort Ticonderoga up Dorchester Heights. Thomas and his men dug fortifications and placed the guns into a commanding location overlooking Boston and the harbor. The fortifying of Dorchester Heights and the mission to Ticonderoga had been completely missed by the British.
After days of bad weather and upon seeing the newly constructed fortifications, fearing that any attack by them on Dorchester Heights could result in a repeat of the battle of Bunker Hill, the British evacuated Boston at eight o’clock on the morning of March 17, 1776. The evacuation ended the siege of Boston and gave General Washington his first victory of the American Revolution. This victory is largely attributed to Henry Knox’s expedition and his “Noble Train of Artillery.”
The exact 250-mile route the artillery train followed was difficult to map in 1926. Knox’s letters and journals lacked entries for most of the route taken in Massachusetts with some pages of his journal missing altogether. However, historians used colonial maps to extract the probable route by researching the roads and paths in use during the winter of 1775/1776. The route they plotted has been adjusted over time, once in 1972 in the area around Albany, and again in 1975 after new research produced a correction to the route in Claverack, New York. The latest addition to the route markers is at Roxbury Heritage State Park, placed there in 2009.
The markers are located along the Henry Knox Trail and appear below in the order of progression from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston:
New York: Fort Ticonderoga (5), Sabbath Day Point, Bolton Landing, Lake George, Halfway Brook, Glens Falls, Hudson Falls, Fort Edward, Fort Miller, Northumberland, Schuylerville (2), Bemis Heights, Stillwater, Mechanicville, Waterford, Crescent, Latham, Albany, Riverside Park Albany, Rensselaer, East Greenbush, Schodack, Kinderhook, West Ghent, Claverack, Hillsdale, and the State Line of NY/MA. (32 sites)
Massachusetts: Afford, Egremont, Great Barrington, Monterey, Otis, Russell, Westfield, West Springfield, Springfield, Wilbraham, Palmer, Warren, Brookfield, Spencer, Leicester, Worcester, Shrewsbury, Northborough, Marlborough, Southborough, Framingham, Wayland (2), Weston, Waltham, Watertown, Cambridge, and Roxbury. (28 sites)