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First Name: Henry

Last Name: Knox

Birthplace: Boston, MA, USA

Gender: Male

Branch: Continental Army (1775 - 1784)

Date of Birth: 25 July 1750

Date of Death: 25 October 1806

Rank: Major General

Years Served:
Henry Knox

•  Revolutionary War (1775 - 1783)


Henry Knox
Major General, Continental Army

Henry Knox was born on 25 July 1750 on Long Lane in Boston, MA, to parents of Scotch-Irish origin, William and Mary Campbell Knox. His father was a ship builder who, due to financial reverses, left the family for St. Eustatius in the West Indies where he died in 1759 of unknown causes.

Henry was admitted to the Boston Latin School, where he studied Greek, Latin, arithmetic, and European history. Since he was the oldest son still at home when his father died, he left school at the age of 12 and became a clerk in a bookstore to support his mother. The shop's owner, Nicholas Bowes, became a surrogate father figure for the boy. However, Knox was also involved in Boston's street gangs, becoming one of the toughest fighters in his neighborhood. Impressed by a military demonstration, he joined a local artillery company called The Train at 18.

On 5 March 1770 Knox was a witness to the Boston Massacre. According to his affidavit, he attempted to defuse the situation, trying to convince the British soldiers to return to their quarters. He also testified at the trials of the soldiers, in which all but two were acquitted. In 1771 he opened his own bookshop, the London Book Store, in Boston "opposite William's Court in Cornhill." Largely self-educated, he stocked books on military science, and also questioned soldiers who frequented his shop in military matters. In 1772 he cofounded the Boston Grenadier Corps as an offshoot of The Train, and served as its second in command. Shortly before his 23rd birthday Knox accidentally discharged a shotgun, shooting two fingers off his left hand. He managed to bind the wound up and reach a doctor, who sewed the wound up.

Knox supported the Sons of Liberty, an organization of agitators against what they considered repressive British colonial policies. It is unknown if he participated in the 1773 Boston Tea Party, but he did serve on guard duty before the incident to make sure no tea was unloaded from the Dartmouth, one of the ships involved. The next year he refused a consignment of tea sent to him by James Rivington, a Loyalist in New York.

Henry married Lucy Flucker (1756-1824), the daughter of Boston Loyalists, on 16 June 1774, despite opposition from her father that was due to their differing political views. Lucy's brother served in the British Army, and her family attempted to lure Knox to service there. Despite long separations due to his military service, the couple were devoted to one another for the rest of his life, and carried on an extensive correspondence. Since the couple fled Boston in 1775, she remained essentially homeless until the British evacuated the city in March 1776. Even afterward, she often traveled to visit Knox in the field. Her parents left, never to return, with the British during their withdrawal from Boston after the Continental Army fortified Dorchester Heights, a success that ironically hinged upon Knox's Ticonderoga Expedition.

Military Career

When the war broke out with the Battles of Lexington and Concord on 19 April 1775, Knox and Lucy sneaked out of Boston, and Knox joined the Militia Army besieging the city. His abandoned bookshop was looted and all of its stock destroyed or stolen. He served under General Artemas Ward, putting his acquired engineering skills to use developing fortifications around the city. He directed rebel cannon fire at the Battle of Bunker Hill. When General George Washington arrived in July 1775 to take command of the Army, he was impressed by the work Knox had done. The two also immediately developed a like for one another, and Knox began to regularly interact with Washington and the other generals of the developing Continental Army. Knox did not have a commission in the army, but John Adams in particular worked in the Second Continental Congress to acquire for him a commission as Colonel of the Army's Artillery Regiment. Knox bolstered his own case by writing to Adams that Richard Gridley, the older leader of the artillery under Ward, was disliked by his men and in poor health.

As the siege, the idea arose that cannons recently captured at Fort Ticonderoga and at Fort Crown Point (both in upstate New York, about 300 miles from Boston) could have a decisive impact on the siege. Knox is one of several individuals (including Benedict Arnold, who participated in the capture of Ticonderoga but gave up on the idea of transporting the cannons) who may have suggested the idea to Washington. Washington put Knox in charge of an expedition to retrieve them, even though his commission as Colonel of the Artillery had not yet arrived. Arriving at Ticonderoga on 5 December, Knox orchestrated the movement of 60 tons of cannons and other armaments to the siege camps, crossing several ice-covered rivers and traversing the swamps and hills of the lightly-populated Berkshires. The process, which Knox had expected to take just two weeks, actually took more than six, with Knox reporting the arrival of the weapons train to Washington on 25 January 1776. On several occasions cannons crashed through the ice on river crossings, but Knox was always able to recover them, and Knox had some difficulty hiring personnel and draft animals to move the equipment. Historian Victor Brooks has called Knox's feat "one of the most stupendous feats of logistics" of the entire war. The feat is commemorated by a series of plaques marking the Henry Knox Trail in New York and Massachusetts.

Noble Train of Artillery

Upon their arrival in Cambridge, when Washington's Army took the Heights of Dorchester, the cannons were placed in a heavily fortified position overlooking Boston from which they threatened the British Fleet in the harbor. As a result, the British withdrew to Halifax on 17 March 1776. With the siege ended, Knox undertook the construction and improvement of defenses in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York City to prepare for the possibility of British attack there. In New York he met Alexander Hamilton, commander of the local artillery. The two men formed a close friendship that lasted until Hamilton's death in 1804. During his military service he also established a close friendship with fellow Massachusetts native Benjamin Lincoln.

Knox was with Washington's Army during the New York and New Jersey Campaign, including most of the major engagements resulting in the loss of New York City. He narrowly escaped capture following the British invasion of Manhattan, only making it back to the main Continental Army lines through the offices of Aaron Burr. He was in charge of logistics in the critical crossing of the Delaware River that preceded the 26 December 1776 Battle of Trenton. Though hampered by ice and cold, with John Glover's Marbleheaders (14th Continental Regiment) manning the boats, he got the attack force of men, horses and artillery across the river without loss. Following the battle he returned the same force, along with hundreds of prisoners, captured supplies and all the boats back across the river by the afternoon of 26 December. Knox was promoted to Brigadier General for this accomplishment, and given command of an artillery corps expanded to five regiments. The Army again crossed the river a few days later after the decision to make a stand at Trenton. Knox was with the army at the 2 January 1777 Battle of the Assunpink Creek, and again the next day at Princeton.

In 1777 while the Army was in winter quarters at Morristown, NJ, Knox returned to Massachusetts to improve the Army's artillery manufacturing capability. He raised an additional battalion of artillerymen and established an armory at Springfield, MA, before returning to the main Army in the spring. That armory, and a second at Yorktown, PA, established by one of his subordinates, remained valuable sources of war materiel for the rest of the war.

Philadelphia Campaign

Knox returned to the main Army for the 1777 campaign. In June he learned that Congress had appointed Philippe Charles Tronson du Coudray, a French soldier of fortune, to command the artillery. Du Coudray's appointment upset not only Knox, who immediately threatened his resignation to Congress, but also John Sullivan and Nathanael Greene, who also protested the politically-motivated appointment. Du Coudray was subsequently reassigned to the post of Inspector General, and died in a fall from his horse while crossing the Schuylkill River in September 1777.

Knox was present at Brandywine, the first major battle of the Philadelphia Campaign, and at Germantown. At Germantown he made the critical suggestion, approved by Washington, to capture rather than bypass the Chew House, a stone mansion that the British had occupied as a strong defensive position. This turned out to significantly delay the Army's advance and gave the British an opportunity to reform their lines. Knox afterward wrote to Lucy, "To [morning fog and] the enemy's taking possession of some stone buildings in Germantown, is to be ascribed the loss of the victory." Knox was also present at the Battle of Monmouth in July 1778, where Washington commended him for the artillery's performance. The Army saw no further action that year, but privateers that Knox and fellow Massachusetts native Henry Jackson invested in were not as successful as they hoped; many of them were captured by the British.

Artillery Training School and Yorktown

Knox and the artillery established a winter cantonment at Pluckemin (a hamlet of Bedminster, NJ). There Knox established the Continental Army's first school for artillery and officer training. This facility is considered the precursor to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, NY. While there, through the summer of 1779, General Knox spent most of his time training more than 1,000 soldiers in conditions of low morale and scarce supplies. Conditions were exceptionally harsh in the winter of 1779-80, and Washington's Army was again largely inactive in 1780 while the main action in the war moved south.

In late September 1780, Knox was a member of the court martial that convicted Major John André, the British officer whose arrest exposed the treachery of Benedict Arnold. (Knox had, in an interesting twist, briefly shared accommodations with André while en route to Ticonderoga in 1775, when the latter was traveling south on parole after being captured near Montreal.) During these years of relative inaction, Knox made several trips to the northern states as Washington's representative to increase the flow of men and supplies to the Army. In 1781 Knox accompanied Washington's Army south and participated in the decisive Siege of Yorktown. He was personally active in the field, directing the placement and aiming of the artillery. The Marquis de Chastellux, with whom Knox established a good friendship, wrote of Knox, "We cannot sufficiently admire the intelligence and activity with which he collected from different places and transported to the batteries more than thirty pieces ...", and "one-half has been said in commending his military genius. Washington specifically called out both Knox and the French artillery chief for their roles in the siege, and recommended to Congress that Knox be promoted.


Knox was promoted to Major General on 22 March 1782 and became the Army's youngest major general. He and Congressman Gouverneur Morris were assigned to negotiate prisoner exchanges with the British. These negotiations failed because the sides could not agree on processes and terms for matching various classes of captives. He joined the main Army at Newburgh, NY, and inspected the facilities at West Point, considered a crucial defensive position. After enumerating its defects and needs, Washington appointed him its Commander in August 1782. The next month he was devastated by the death of his nine-month-old son, and fell into a depression. He soldiered on, however, becoming involved in negotiations with the Confederation Congress and Secretary at War Benjamin Lincoln over the issue of pensions and overdue compensation for the military. Knox wrote a memorial, signed by a number of high-profile officers, suggesting that Congress pay all back pay immediately and offer a lump-sum pension rather than providing half-pay for life. The unwillingness of Congress to deal with the issue prompted Knox to write a warning letter, in which he wrote "I consider the reputation of the American Army as one of the most immaculate things on earth, and that we should even suffer wrongs and injuries to the utmost verge of toleration rather than sully it in the least degree. But there is a point beyond which there is no sufferance. I pray we will sincerely not pass it." When rumors of mutiny in the higher rank circulated in March 1783, Washington held a meeting in which he made an impassioned plea for restraint. In the meeting, Knox introduced motions reaffirming the officers' attachment to Washington and Congress, helping to defuse the crisis. Because of the unresolved issues, however, Knox and others became vigorous proponents of a stronger national government, something which leading political leaders (including Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock, and Samuel Adams) opposed at the time.

With the arrival of news of a preliminary peace in April 1783, Congress began to order the demobilization of the Army, and Washington gave Knox day-to-day command of what remained of the Army. During this time Knox organized the Society of the Cincinnati, a hereditary fraternity of Revolutionary War officers that survives to this day. The hereditary nature of its membership raised some eyebrows, but it was generally well received. He also drafted plans for the establishment of a peacetime army, many of whose provisions were eventually implemented. These plans included two military academies (one naval and one army, the latter occupying the critical base at West Point), and bodies of troops to maintain the nation's borders.

When the British withdrew the last of their troops from New York on 21 November 1783, Knox was at the head of the American forces that took over. He stood next to Washington during the latter's farewell address on 4 December at Fraunces Tavern. After Washington retired, Knox became the senior officer of the Army.

The post of Secretary at War became available when Benjamin Lincoln resigned in November 1783, and Lincoln had recommended Knox to follow him. Although the Confederation Congress had been aware of Lincoln's intent to resign when the formal peace arrived, it had not named a successor. Knox had been considered for the job when it was given to Lincoln in 1781, and expressed his interest in succeeding Lincoln. However, in the absence of a guiding hand in the War Department, Congress attempted to implement an idea for a standing militia force as a peacetime army. Knox resigned his Army commission in early 1784, "well satisfied to be excluded from any responsibility in arrangements which it is impossible to execute," and Congress' idea failed.

Knox returned to Massachusetts, where the family established a home in Dorchester. Knox worked to reassemble a large parcel of land in Maine (parts of what are sometimes called the Waldo Patent and the Bingham Purchase) that had been confiscated from his Loyalist in-laws. He was able to assemble a vast multi-million acre real estate empire Maine, including almost all of the old Flucker holdings, in part by getting appointed the state's official for disposing of seized lands, and then rigging the sale of his in-laws' lands to a straw buyer acting on his behalf. He was also appointed to a state commission responsible for negotiating treaty provisions with the Penobscot Indians of central Maine. This commission also became involved in investigating issues surrounding the eastern border with Nova Scotia (now New Brunswick), a matter that would not be resolved until the 1842 Webster-Ashburton Treaty.

Secretary of War

Congress finally appointed Knox the nation's second Secretary at War on 8 March 1785, after considering a number of other candidates. The Army was by then a fraction of its former size, and the new nation's westward expansion was exacerbating frontier conflicts with Indian tribes. The War Department Knox took over had two civilian employees and a single small regiment. Congress in 1785 authorized the establishment of a 700-man Army. Knox was only able to recruit six of the authorized ten companies, which were stationed on the western frontier.

Some members of the Confederation Congress opposed the establishment of a peacetime army, and also opposed the establishment of a military academy (one of Knox's key proposals) on the basis that it would establish an egalitarian military class capable of dominating society. Knox first proposed an army mainly composed of state militia, specifically seeking to change attitudes in Congress about a democratically managed military. Although the plan was initially rejected, many of its details were eventually adopted in the formation and administration of the United States Army. The need for an enhanced military role took on some urgency in 1786 when Shays' Rebellion broke out in Massachusetts, threatening the Springfield Armory. Knox personally went to Springfield to see to its defense. Although Benjamin Lincoln raised a militia force and put down the rebellion, it highlighted the weakness of both the military and defects in the Articles of Confederation that hampered Congressional ability to act on the matter. In the rebellion's aftermath, Congress called what became known as the Constitutional Convention, in which the current U.S. Constitution was drafted. Knox in early 1787 sent George Washington a draft proposal for a government that bears significant resemblance to what was eventually adopted. When Washington asked Knox if he should attend the convention, Knox urged him to do so: "It would be circumstance highly honorable to your fame, in the judgment of the present and future ages, and double entitle you to the glorious epithet - Father of Your Country." This is possibly the earliest documented application of the phrase "Father of His Country" to Washington. Knox actively promoted the adoption of the new constitution, engaging correspondents in many colonies on the subject, but especially concentrating on achieving its adoption by Massachusetts, where its support was seen as weak. After its adoption he was considered by some to be a viable candidate for vice president, but he preferred to remain the war office, and the office went to John Adams. With the adoption of the new constitution and the establishment of the War Department, Knox's title changed to Secretary of War.

As part of his duties as Secretary of War, Knox was responsible for implementation of the Militia Act of 1792. This included his evaluation of the arms and readiness of the militia finding that only 20% of the 450,000 members of the militia were capable of arming themselves at their own expense for militia service as required by the act. To resolve this arms shortage, Knox recommended to Congress that the federal government increase the purchase of imported weapons, ban the export of domestically produced weapons and establish facilities for the domestic production and stockpiling of weapons. These facilities included the existing Springfield Armory and another at Harpers Ferry, VA. In 1792 Congress, acting on a detailed proposal from Knox, created the short-lived Legion of the United States.

When the French Revolutionary Wars broke out in 1793, American merchant shipping began to be affected after Washington formally declared neutrality in the conflict. Both France and Britain began interfering with American shipping. Most of the Continental Navy's few ships were sold off at the end of the Revolutionary War, leaving the nation's merchant fleet without any defenses against piracy or seizure on the high seas. Knox urged and presided over the creation of a regular United States Navy and the establishment of a series of coastal fortifications.]

Indian Diplomacy and War

Knox was responsible for managing the nation's relations with the Native Americans resident in lands it claimed, following a 1789 act of U.S. Congress. Knox, in several documents drafted for Washington and Congress, articulated the nation's early Indian policy. He stated that Indian nations were sovereign and possessed the land they occupied, and that the federal government (and not the states) should therefore be responsible for dealings with them. These policies were implemented in part by the passage of the Indian Trade and Intercourse Act of 1790, which forbade the sale of Indian lands except in connection with a treaty with the federal government.

Henry Knox on Indian land rights: "The Indians, being the prior occupants, possess the right to the soil. It cannot be taken from them except by their consent, or by rights of conquest in case of a just war. To dispossess them on any other principle would be a great violation of the fundamental laws of nature."

Indian wars, including the Chickamauga Wars (1776-1794) and the Northwest Indian War, would occupy much of his tenure. During the years of the Confederation, there had been insufficient Congressional support for any significant action against the tribes on the western frontier. The British supported the northwestern tribes from frontier bases that they continued to occupy after the Revolutionary War ended (in violation of the Treaty of Paris), and the Cherokee and Creek continued to contest illegal encroachment of colonial settlers on their lands. In October 1790 Knox organized a campaign led by General Josiah Harmar into the Northwest Territory in retaliation for Indian raids against colonial settlers in that territory and that of present-day Kentucky. That campaign, and a second one in 1791 led by territorial Governor Arthur St. Clair, both failed in the objective of pacifying the Indians, and Knox was widely blamed for the failure to protect the frontier. Seeking to close the issue before he left office, he organized an expedition led by Anthony Wayne that brought the conflict to a meaningful end with the 1794 Battle of Fallen Timbers.

Although he idealistically sought to "civilize" the Cherokee and Creek, he was enough of a realist to recognize that this was unlikely to happen. He instead at first recommended a continuation of British policies, furnishing the Indians with livestock, farming implements, and missionaries, in order to pacify them. After failing to appease the Cherokee and Creek with large cache of gifts in 1789, Knox eventually signed the Treaty of New York on behalf of the nation in 1790, ending conflict with some, but not all, Cherokee tribal units. Knox wrote that the United States had not treated its Indians fairly, noting that "[i]t was unfortunate that the United States did not treat the murderers of Indians with the same severity as the murderers of whites." Of the virtual elimination of Indian populations in the nation's most heavily populated areas, Knox wrote, "A future historian may mark the causes of this destruction of the human race in sable colors."

On 2 January 1795, Knox left the government and returned to his home at Thomaston (now in Maine, but then still a part of Massachusetts), to devote himself to caring for his growing family. He was succeeded in the post of Secretary of War by Timothy Pickering.

Business Ventures and Land Speculation

Knox settled at Montpelier, the estate he built in Thomaston. He spent the rest of his life engaged in cattle farming, ship building, brick making and real estate speculation. Connections formed during the war years served Knox well, as he invested widely in frontier real estate, from the Ohio valley to Maine (although his largest holdings by far were those in Maine). Although he claimed to treat settlers on his Maine lands fairly, he used intermediaries to evict those who did not pay their rents or squatted on the land. These tactics upset those settlers to the point where they once threatened to burn Montpelier down. One of the people Knox took land from was Joseph Plumb Martin, a soldier who settled in Maine and wrote a memoir of his war experiences. Knox briefly represented Thomaston in the Massachusetts General Court, but he eventually became so unpopular that he lost the seat to a local blacksmith.

Knox was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1805.

As well as building a landed estate, Knox attempted to enlarge his fortune through industrial craft enterprises. He had interests in lumbering, ship building, stock raising and brick manufacturing. Unfortunately for him, these businesses failed (due in part to a lack of focused investment), and Knox built up significant debts. Knox was forced to sell large tracts of land in Maine to satisfy some of his creditors. The purchaser of his Maine lands was a Pennsylvania banker named William Bingham, leading those tracts to become known locally as the Bingham Purchase.


Towns and cities in Maine, Indiana, Iowa, and Tennessee are named in his honor.

Counties are named for Knox in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Tennessee and Texas.

The house he used as a headquarters in New Windsor, NY, during the Revolution has been preserved as Knox's Headquarters State Historic Site, and has been declared a National Historic Landmark.

Knox has been honored by the U.S. Postal Service with an 8¢ Great Americans series postage stamp.

Two forts, one in Kentucky and another in Maine were named after him.

Knox Hall at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, home of the U.S. Army Field Artillery School, is named in his honor, as is an annual award recognizing the performance of U.S. artillery batteries.

The Major General Nathanael Greene-class large coastal tug USAV Major General Henry Knox (LT-802) is named in honor of Knox.

Knox' papers have been preserved at the Massachusetts Historical Society.


Many incidents in Knox's career attest to his character, both good and bad. As one example, when he and Lucy were forced to leave Boston in 1775, his home was used to house British officers who looted his bookstore. In spite of personal financial hardships, he managed to make the last payment of £1,000 to Longman Printers in London to cover the price of a shipment of books that he never received. In Maine, however, he would be remembered as a grasping tyrant and was forever immortalized in Nathanial Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables, for which he served as the model for Col. Pynchon.

Death and Burial

While visiting a friend in 1806, Knox swallowed a chicken bone that lodged in his throat and became infected. Henry Knox died at home three days later, on 25 October 1806. He is buried at Elm Grove Cemetery on his estate in Thomaston, ME.

Lucy died in 1824, having sold off more portions of the family properties to pay the creditors of Knox's insolvent estate. The couple had 13 children although only one son, Henry Jackson Knox, survived to adulthood, and he was known for his drinking and scandalous behavior. Montpelier remained in the family until it was demolished in 1871 to make way for the Brunswick-Rockland Railroad line. The only surviving structure is an outbuilding that currently houses the Thomaston Historical Society. The current Montpelier Museum is a 20th century reconstruction not far from the original's site.

Honoree ID: 2719   Created by: MHOH




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