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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Thursday, January 26, 2017

How Many Cannon Did Henry Knox Transport?

Another question about Col. Henry Knox’s mission to northern New York to collect artillery for the siege of Boston is how many pieces he brought. And how many did he leave behind?

We have a couple of counts of artillery-pieces in the region from Gen. Philip Schuyler:
Schuyler first counted 54 cannon at Fort Ti with sizes ranging from four-pounders to eighteen-pounders, but 29 of those were in a category called “Bad cannon.” By December Schuyler was counting 53 cannon in all. There were other artillery pieces as well, including swivel guns and mortars. The general sent some weapons north into Quebec with Gen. Richard Montgomery.

Henry Knox left at least three different listings of the artillery pieces he decided to transport back. The first, dated 10 Dec 1775, was transcribed in his earliest biography, by Francis S. Drake. It includes 59 pieces of artillery, including 43 cannon and 16 mortars of different sorts. Knox also determined that one brass cannon Schuyler had labeled an eighteen-pounder was instead a twenty-four-pounder; the difference in bore appears to have been less than half an inch.

On 17 December, Knox sent Gen. Washington a list of the guns he planned to bring east, probably so that Massachusetts blacksmiths could start making shot for them. That list contained only 55 guns—he left off 4 twelve-pounders from his earlier list.

Drake also transcribed the heading of Knox’s expense report for this trip:
For expenditures in a journey from the camp round Boston to New York, Albany, and Ticonderoga, and from thence, with 55 pieces of iron and brass ordnance, 1 barrel of flints, and 23 boxes of lead, back to camp (including expenses of self, brother, and servant), £520.15.8¾.
So we might think the colonel transported 55 cannon to Boston, including 43 cannon. But on 5 January he told Gen. Washington, “We got over 4 more dble fortified 12 pounders after my last to your excellency.” So his count was back to 59. Why Knox mentioned only 55 on his expense report is a mystery, but presumably his expenses were the same.

Yet another Knox document was transcribed in the first volume of the Harvard Illustrated Magazine, published in 1900.
Knox evidently made these notes during his journey, recording what ordnance went on a scow and what on a periauger. There are overlapping listings here, but at that point the freight included “42 Cannon of different Sizes” and “16 Mortars.”

Those numbers match the inventory that I quoted yesterday from John Adams, who viewed the train of artillery in Framingham in January 1776. (Of course, an editorial note indicates that the editors of the Adams papers used the Knox papers as a reference, so we should expect them to match.)

We also have Knox’s diary for the first part of his trip, and that tells us that he lost one cannon along the way. On the afternoon of 4 January, he wrote, he was “much alarm'd by hearing that one of the heaviest Cannon had fallen in to the [Mohawk] River at Half Moon Ferry.”

Three days later, near Albany, another cannon went “fell into the River notwithstanding the precautions we took.” Knox and the locals managed to get that gun out of the water the next day, but he’d had to leave the first sunken gun behind. That explains why he set out with one more iron eighteen-pounder than Adams saw.

Thus, Col. Knox set out from Lake Champlain with 59 artillery pieces, including 43 cannon; lost one eighteen-pounder; and arrived in eastern Massachusetts with the rest.

I’ve seen a report that the 59 artillery pieces Knox selected came almost evenly from Crown Point and Fort Ticonderoga. However, I haven’t found a source for that statement.

There’s also the story told in an article in the Bulletin of the Fort Ticonderoga Museum titled “History of a Wandering Cannon.” During work on a dam across the Mohawk River in the 1850s, an iron six-pounder with the royal monogram was dredged up. It was eventually displayed at the restored Fort Ti as the cannon Knox had lost back in 1776. But I’m not sure how it shrank from being an eighteen-pounder.


kate59 said...

I'm not sure why but Knox consistently calls the "periauger" a "pettiauger" in his diary which I have transcribed from the original for the MHS. Do you know why that would be? Are they the same type of boat?

J. L. Bell said...

It's possible that what I call Knox's "earlier list," dated 10 Dec 1775, was corrected after he obtained the "4 more dble fortified 12 pounders" he wrote about on 5 Jan 1776. In which case, that list has the earliest date but reflects later data. I hope to examine the manuscripts sometime.

RodFleck said...

"We also have Knox’s diary for the first part of his trip, and that tells us that he lost one cannon along the way. On the afternoon of 4 January, he wrote, he was “much alarm'd by hearing that one of the heaviest Cannon had fallen in to the [Mohawk] River at Half Moon Ferry.”

Anyone ever retrieve this one?

Charles Bahne said...

I seem to recall reading a news item a few years ago, saying that one of Knox's cannon had been retrieved from a river bed in New York where it had been submerged for two centuries. Unfortunately, my search for anything related to that in Google News has yielded no results.

Anonymous said...

So, was the cannon lost in the Mohawk river ever recovered? If not, could it still exist buried in sediment?

J. L. Bell said...

Knox wasn’t alone in using “pettiauger” to refer to the type of boat more often called a periauger or pirogue. Philip Schuyler, George Washington, and Timothy Pickering used the same spelling, and Nathanael Greene wrote about “Petty Augres.” In the late 1800s, reference books about the American language noted the variant spellings/pronunciations.

J. L. Bell said...

I also remember reading how one of the cannons Knox’s train lost in a river was brought up. I think that refers to the six-pounder eventually displayed at Fort Ticonderoga, which was a part of the Bicentennial recreation of Knox’s trip. I haven’t found more recent references to that cannon, however. So that made me think that the Fort Ti curators recognized the discrepancy in size and quietly stopped telling that story.

That suggests two mysteries. First, is an iron eighteen-pounder still submerged near Half Moon Ferry, rusting away? Second, where did that six-pounder marked with King George’s monogram come from?

Revolutionary-era cannon still turn up in surprising places. One was found in the Detroit River in 2001. A swivel gun turned up in upstate New York in the 1970s. And a cannon was unearthed in Burlington, South Carolina, two years ago.

Anonymous said...

What did General Knox name the two cannons they captured from Fort Ticonderoga?

J. L. Bell said...

Many more than two cannon were captured at Fort Ticonderoga, as this article discusses.

One of those guns, a large one, was reportedly nicknamed the “Old Sow” during its trip to the siege lines around Boston.

As Secretary of War in the 1780s Knox dubbed two other cannon the "Hancock" and the "Adams." You can read all about them in my book, The Road to Concord: How Four Stolen Cannon Ignited the Revolutionary War. Those two didn’t come from Fort Ti, but from redcoat-occupied Boston.