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A Picture from History: Henry Knox & the Noble Train

For months the British laid siege in Boston.

The supreme military force fought against a ragtag band of farmers, merchants, and trappers, and things looked grim.

Washington at the Battle of Trenton

Americans were running out of gunpowder, they had no artillery, and smallpox ravaged the men. 

Fort Ticonderoga had recently been captured by Ethan Allen and later traitor Benedict Arnold. Several artillery pieces were present at the fort.

If these munitions could be transported to Boston, the Americans would have a fighting chance. 

Ethan Allen's Capture of Fort Ticonderoga
Ethan Allen’s Capture of Fort Ticonderoga

The only problem? 

Transporting thousands of pounds of artillery pieces, mortars, and cannonballs over 300 miles through incredibly inhospitable terrain in the dead of winter wasn’t an easy task.

The American navy was non-existent, and any attempt to transport this weaponry by sea was bound to result in those pieces resting at the bottom of the Atlantic. 

Fort Ticonderoga from nearby Mount Defiance
Fort Ticonderoga from nearby Mount Defiance (Photo: Mwanner)

So, Americans had to get creative, and one man had a solution.

An Unlikely Candidate

Henry Knox was a bookshop owner with no prior military experience.

Everything he knew about military theory he learned from pouring over old books – particularly Julius Ceasar’s Commentaries and Sharpe’s Military Guide

Henry Knox
Portrait of Henry Knox (1750-1806) by Charles Willson Peale

He was the unlikeliest of candidates, and on paper, sending him to retrieve the artillery was laughable at best. 

Yet he was chosen.

Knox arrived at Fort Ticonderoga on December 5, 1775, with his men. The weather was atrocious, but he had no choice – he had to succeed.

Henry Knox by Gilbert Stuart
Henry Knox by Gilbert Stuart

The Noble Train

Loading 58 artillery pieces onto boats, Knox took the artillery down the ironically named Lake George. The wind was fierce and the weather cold, but he made it across. 

Now came the hard part…they must travel overland with hundreds of miles to trek.

Knox entering camp with Artillery
Knox entering camp with artillery (William H. van Ingen)

Knox loaded the cannons aboard oxen-towed sleds and set out.

After months of travel, Knox’s “Noble Train” arrived outside of Boston on March 17, 1776. Things looked dark within the city of Boston but hope arrived with Knox.

The Noble Train
The Noble Train (M.A. Wageman)

Freeing Boston

George Washington placed Knox’s artillery on Dorchester Heights – the key to taking Boston – and the impending threat of bombardment caused the British to realize that they could no longer hold the city. 

The most powerful military in the world had just been pushed back.

Spirit of '76
Spirit of ’76 by Archibald Willard

Against impossible odds, a severely overweight, self-taught military theoretician and former bookseller just played an indispensable role in defeating a Goliath of a force. 

This is a new style of article for Pew Pew Tactical, if you liked it — let us know in the comments! If you didn’t enjoy it…well phooey. To catch up on previous Pictures from History, click on over to our History Category.

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