by John F. Di Leo
In April of 1775, one of America’s most promising young officers had an idea.
A Connecticut merchant who joined up as soon as shots were fired at Lexington and Concord, Arnold was a sharp idea man and a fine strategist, and he approached General Washington with a proposal to lead a mission to Fort Ticonderoga, up at Lake Champlain, to take it from the British. Oh, it was a decent enough prize on its own, sure, but its major value, said Arnold, was the opportunity to acquire all the artillery sitting in the fort. They moved forward and accomplished the operation, winning control of the fort without a fight. But Arnold clashed on tactics with fellow rebel Ethan Allen (not his only such clash), and their respective units left the fort without the precious artillery, which would, after all, have been quite a logistics challenge to transport.
Young Arnold, by the way, was indeed the infamous Benedict Arnold, the brilliant strategist who was so easily offended that he turned coat and joined the British, in one of the most famous acts of treason in history. But with the victory at Fort Ticonderoga, after a brief accounting of the artillery available for the taking, Arnold leaves this tale.
The challenge of recovering the artillery would fall to a young Massachusetts bookseller named Henry Knox. With the voracious appetite for knowledge that one expects to find in a librarian, Knox appears to have spent every minute between customers reading the books in his shop. Entirely self-educated in military strategy, Knox rose to a prominence in Washington’s estimation equaled by very few; fourteen years later, Washington was to select Knox as the nation’s first Secretary of War under the Constitution.
But that was all in the future. In the fall of 1775, Knox was just a 25-year-old volunteer in the nascent Continental Army, ready to raise arms against a distant king and the most powerful military on earth, ready to propose a wild plan for transporting heavy artillery in the worst of conditions. Where to? To a place where the army could put them to better use: sunny Boston, Massachusetts, a cradle of liberty (or hotbed of revolution, depending on who was speaking), which the British forces had placed under siege, fully expecting to hold it for the full duration of the war.
Washington approved Knox’s plan, and sent him on his way with a small unit. Henry Knox departed on this journey on November 17, 1775, an expedition forever remembered in the history books as the Noble Train of Artillery.
The trip to Fort Ticonderoga was the easy part. Knox and his team decided to take 59 pieces, including cannons, mortars and howitzers, weighing a total of 119,000 lbs. Two big pieces were known as Big Berthas, eleven feet long and weighing about 5000 lbs each. How on earth would they get this heavy equipment out of there and on its way?
Remember that these were untamed wilds. The distance between Fort Ticonderoga and Boston in winter was without road or rail. They had no gantry cranes or flatbed trucks in those days, no police escorts to clear the way for oversize and overweight vehicles waving red flags and brightly striped “warning, wide load” signs. But somehow a young bookseller was bound to bring this equipment to Boston. And so he did.
His crew built sleds that might double as rafts, if they were lucky, and they loaded the guns and started to push. With oxen and horse helping with the tugging, they started on their way, and it was slow going for awhile.
On a cold November day in 2011, we might load up a wheelbarrow with leaves to bring to the other end of the yard, or load it up with brush from the final hedge-pruning of the season, or perhaps use that wheelbarrow to lug fertilizer or mulch around for the lawn or farm’s winter feeding. Our lawns are reasonably flat, and recently mown, and the wheelbarrow with all its contents is just a couple hundred pounds, if that. Still, we’re glad to be done with the project.
Now imagine traveling miles rather than yards, with thousands of pounds rather than tens or hundreds on each sled. And imagine the sled has no wheels, just runners. And the ground isn’t recently mown and flat, but rocky and covered with brush, and hilly or even mountainous – up and then down, up again and then down. And the trip is in the dead of winter with feet of snow on the ground. And part of the trip has to include crossing icy rivers, even using an icy river as a road for part of the route.
Makes our current grumbling about lugging that 40 lb bag of mulch or winter weed-and-feed around the yard seem rather petty, doesn’t it?
Knox’s team took about seven weeks, total, from leaving the fort to their arrival at Cambridge in late January, ready for the Battle of Dorchester Heights in March. The guns were to make the difference, as Washington knew he couldn’t move against the Redcoats in Boston without a strong artillery component. The battle succeeded, ending the siege in March and giving the Colonials a splendid victory to trumpet as the Continental Congress debated Independence that spring and summer.
The Noble Train of Artillery became the stuff of legend, as people learned of the harrowing near-misses of the trip, with one sled sinking in the river and being dredged back up again… with snow a help in some parts of the route, and a hindrance in others… with the crew having to be replaced halfway through… with clever tricks like watering the surface of an icy river to thicken and strengthen the ice to be usable as a road. The iron resolve of Henry Knox, the hard work of his patriotic crew, and the support of Philip Schuyler and others along the way, all made it possible for this precious cargo to arrive in time. And Henry Knox earned his reputation as both a planner and a leader of men.
Modern parents of school-age children may wonder whether their children learn this story in school. They certainly should. The study of history benefits from memorable and exciting tales of heroism and conquest, not just of armies and navies, but conquest of rough terrain and hostile elements as well. Are today’s children exposed to the story of the Knox Expedition? Could today’s children even conceive of a time when trucks and trains and roads were unknown, when cargo like this had to be transported over mountain and river by ox-drawn sled and sheer force of will?
There’s no question what they would know today, if confronted with such a problem as this. Today’s children know that if anyone attempted such a project today:
- They would need the approval of the federal and state Departments of the Interior to travel through those forests, and it wouldn’t be granted, because of course, those are guns, and you can’t have guns in a forest outside of hunting season.
- They would need the approval of the private landowners, and it wouldn’t be granted, or at least not enough would be, because at least a third of the population opposes the war effort as unnecessary, or our fault anyway, so some sizeable percentage of farmers would say “No way; go around!”
- The animal rights crowd would raise a squawk about the lowland upland midland spotted and striped owl, or the large-crested snail darter or small-winged condor or snoozing hyena, one or two each of which live in forests or meadows or rivers along the route, and which would certainly be frightened or confused or displaced or traumatized by the sight of dozens of sleds with cannons going by… because the animal rights crowd thinks that birds and fish and wild dogs can tell what a cannon is for, and totally believes those fauna are therefore, naturally, vegetarian and anti-gun, just like their champions in the movement.
- The conservationists would be furious at the prospect of felling trees to build the sleds, and would be equally furious at the prospect of building the sleds out of plastics derived from petroleum, or metals gained by mining, or any other way to make them that involves natural resources, human interaction, and actual jobs for the people producing them.
- State and national capitols would be rampant with speechmakers - leftists denouncing everything from guns in general, to these guns in particular, to the possibly illegal acquisition of these guns in the first place (is this “revolution” of ours even legal, after all? Can any uprising against the leviathan ever be legal, in the eyes of those who live only to serve that leviathan as it expands exponentially?)
Oh yes, today’s children would know the impediments that modern society has raised up against such ingenuity as was practiced in the Knox Expedition. They may never have been told the history, but they’ve been told what the Modern American Left believes in, as their version of a gospel: the sovereignty of countercultural interest groups, the loss of respect for the military, the loss of appreciation for the presence of artillery as a tool of warcraft.
Today’s children would be told, by their schools, their classmates, their pop culture heroes, perhaps even their parents, to leave those guns where they are; they’re not ours to move. On top of that, they’d probably say we should return the fort to the British; it’s really theirs, after all. Or maybe go farther: return the fort to the American Indians who were there first. Or to the Vikings who might have been there before that!
Too many of today’s children simply wouldn’t have any frame of reference for the sense of patriotism that drove Henry Knox and his team.
So let us thank Heaven that such aggressive bureaucratic regulations and convoluted pop culture prioritization didn’t yet exist on November 17, 1775… when a small team of patriots embarked on a challenging mission, and, in a mastery of logistics, helped deliver the Revolution one of its earliest and most impressive victories.
Copyright 2011 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade compliance lecturer, who has managed to rise above his college degree in political science and history, to actually appreciate and respect American politics and history.
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