On this day in 1776, George Washington’s Patriot army was in the final stages of pulling off one of the biggest surprises of the Revolutionary War, thanks to a bookseller named Henry Knox.
The opening phase of the war found the British in control of Boston. The Patriots had not been able to break the redcoats’ hold on the port, and George Washington was running out of time since the enlistment terms of many of his men would soon expire.
Henry Knox, who had owned the London Book Store in Boston and read all he could on military subjects, especially artillery, made an unlikely suggestion. Three hundred miles away, at Fort Ticonderoga in New York, lay the answer to the Patriots’ problem: cannons. If the Patriots could somehow get the heavy artillery to Boston – an idea that made several officers shake their heads—they could drive the British out. With Washington’s blessing, Knox hurried to Ticonderoga; chose 59 big guns; loaded them onto sleds pulled by horses, oxen, and men; and headed south.
Day after day, they skidded along snow-covered trails. They lurched through mud and mountainous drifts, heaved up rough hills and down steep valleys. Crossing the frozen Hudson River, the ice cracked and a huge gun broke through. Somehow the men pulled it out. In late February the “noble train of artillery” reached Boston.
During the first few days of March, Washington’s army made a big racket to distract the enemy while they moved the guns into place. Early one morning, a sleepy British sentry blinked in disbelief through the dawn mists toward Dorchester Heights, where Knox’s cannons, as if appearing out of nowhere, aimed straight at him. The British, realizing they could no longer hold the city, soon boarded their fleet and sailed away. Henry Knox’s long haul had saved Boston. It was the first major victory of the Revolutionary War.