Henry Knox was an energetic, 300-pound, self-taught soldier who became the chief artillery officer of the Continental Army and a close confidant of George Washington. He was born in Boston to Irish immigrant parents, the seventh of 10 children. When Knox was nine years old, his father died. The boy gave up formal schooling and became a bookstore clerk. By age 21, he operated his own shop and devoted much time to the study of military writings, particularly those devoted to artillery matters.
In 1772, Knox joined a local militia unit, and later, at the outbreak of the War for Independence, volunteered for service at the Battle of Bunker Hill (June 1775), where he served with distinction. Knox caught Washington's eye and received an appointment as an artillery colonel in the Continental Army. In the winter of 1775-76, Knox was sent to recently captured Fort Ticonderoga to remove the cannon and mortar left by the departing British. In a truly remarkable trek, Knox and his men managed to transport 60 pieces of artillery on oxen-drawn sleds over 300 miles of snow and ice to Washington’s waiting army. The artillery pieces were installed on Dorchester Heights, where they commanded the British-occupied city of Boston below. The futility of the situation was not lost on the British, who departed for Halifax on March 17, 1776.
The fortunes of war dimmed for Knox after the triumph at Boston. He and Washington’s forces spent most of the remainder of 1776 in retreat. The badly outnumbered and inexperienced American forces matched up poorly against the Redcoats.
Knox later commanded the American artillery at many of the conflict’s most important encounters, including Trenton, Princeton, Brandywine, Germantown, Monmouth and Yorktown. He also made a major contribution by helping to create a national arsenal at Springfield, Massachusetts, a facility that did much for the war effort by producing new arms and repairing old pieces.
At the end of the war, Knox became the commander at West Point and remained at the post until the British fully withdrew from New York City in late 1783. In December of that year, he was on hand for the emotion-filled farewell dinner that Washington held for his officers at Fraunces Tavern in the reoccupied city.
In 1785, Knox resigned from the army, but was drawn back to public service the following year as secretary of war for the Articles of Confederation government. He continued with the same position in Washington's new government until retiring in 1795. In this role, Knox developed a reputation as a strong law-and-order advocate, urging armed action against Shays’ rebels and other domestic malcontents.
Knox spent his retirement at his home in Maine, dabbling in a number of business ventures. He died in 1806 from an infection caused by a chicken bone that had become lodged in his intestines.