J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, July 21, 2012

“A fine fall of snow which will…make the carriage easy”

As Derek Beck observed at his blog for 1775, most images of Col. Henry Knox’s trek from Fort Ticonderoga to Cambridge show men using ox teams to drag cannon through snow. But, Derek’s recent American Revolution article points out, most of Knox’s teams were horses.

Furthermore, the young artillery colonel wanted snow and cold. A layer of smooth packed snow made dirt roads much better for hauling heavy loads. New England loggers tended to wait for winter to bring big timber to the coast. After snowfalls, farmers loaded their major crops onto sleighs and headed for market towns. On 17 Dec 1775, Knox wrote to Gen. George Washington about his plans for the guns:
I expect to begin to move them to Saratoga on Wednesday or Thursday next trusting that between this and then we shall have a fine fall of snow which will enable us to proceed further and make the carriage easy.
For a while, the weather looked like it was going to cooperate. It was probably Christmas 1775 when Knox described traveling:
on foot about 6 miles in the midst of an exceeding fine Snow. . . . sat off about three o’Clock it still snowing exceeding fast & it being very deep after the utmost efforts of the horses we reach’d Ensign’s about 8 Miles beyond Saratoga where we lodged.

26 [December]. In the morning the snow being nearly two feet deep we with great trouble reach’d about two miles we then procur’d Saddles & went to Stillwater, where we got a Sleigh to go to Albany, but the roads not being broken prevented our getting farther than New City, about 9 miles above Albany, where we lodged.

In the morning we sat out & got about 2 miles, when our horses tir’d and refused to go any farther. I was then oblig’d to undertake a very fatiguing march of about 2 miles in snow three feet deep thro’ the woods, there being no beaten path. Got to Squire Fisher’s who politely gave me a fine breakfast & provided me with horses which served me as far as Col. Schuyler’s, where I got a sleigh to carry me to Albany, which I reach’d about two o’Clock, almost perish’d with the Cold.
As cold as Knox felt, however, the weather didn’t stay cold enough to make it easy for his teams to cross the Hudson River. Knox spent the first four days of 1776 “employ’d in getting holes cut in the different crossing places in the river in order to Strengthen the Ice.”

Despite those efforts, on 4 January one cannon fell into the river at Half Moon Ferry. The next day, Knox found the Mohawk River “very weak Ice indeed for horses.” He had to send bad news to Gen. Washington from Albany:
I was in hopes that we should have been able to have had the cannon at Cambridge by this time. The want of snow detained us some days, and now a cruel thaw hinders from crossing Hudson river which we are obliged to do four times from Lake George to this town. The first severe night will make the ice on the river sufficiently strong; till that happens the cannon and mortars must remain where they are.
Knox started off again on 7 January, but a bigger gun “fell into the River notwithstanding the precautions we took, & in its fall broke all the Ice for 14 feet around it.”

TOMORROW: Losing and recovering those cannon.

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