How A Nerd Captured Boston Without Firing A Shot


Henry Knox — Portrait of Henry Knox (1750–1806) by Charles Willson Peale — wikipedia commons

The year was 1776 and the Continental Army of the future United States was laying siege to the British occupied city of Boston. The siege effort was in a total stalemate. Both sides fired ineffective cannon barrages at each other and made small raids.

Time was on the British side. General Washington, commander of the Continental army, had to resolve the stalemate. But how could he do it?

This is when a bookish soldier, named Henry Knox, came to Washington with an idea. There was a series of hills called Dorchester Heights to the south of Boston. If this area could be fortified with cannons, it would spell doom for the British.

Knox had a firm understanding of mathematics, calculated angles and saw that the Continentals would be able to fire on the city and British fleet. The British would not be able to return fire on the patriots due to the high angle of the heights. It was a perfect plan. There was just one problem.

Washington’s army didn’t have the cannons to do it!

Knox had an answer for this as well. There was a captured fort in upstate New York that was rumored to have several cannons sitting idle. What if the Continentals could get them and bring them to their camp in Cambridge?

This was another awesome plan…if you had trucks and paved roads back then.

In 1776, a vast snow-covered wilderness separated Cambridge and upstate New York. This would be an over 300-mile trek, mainly by horse and on foot through the dead of winter. Many of Washington’s officers said it was impossible and a waste of resources.

Did I mention that Knox would also have to move extremely large cannons all this way as well. According to Brad Meltzer’s book “The First Conspiracy”, the weight of this cargo would be 120,000 lbs. This load would need to be pulled by sled or ox cart!

However, there was something about this bookish, round soldier that won Washington over. The plans Knox described for using the cannons seemed so perfect — it was worth the gamble. He sent Henry and his brother along with money to grab the cannons.

Who’s Henry Knox?

Knox was a Boston native, whose father died early. At the age of 12, he needed to work to help support his family and left school. He was given a job by a kindly book seller, who acted as a surrogate father. The bookseller allowed Henry to take home any book he wanted to read.

Knox took him up on this proposal big time.

Knox read nonstop. He read about philosophy, advanced mathematics, and taught himself French. His favorite books were about ancient warriors and famous battles. This would lead young Henry into an interest in the military.

While other kids his age were playing the 1700s version of Candy Crush, Henry had his face in a book.

At the age of 18, Knox saw a demonstration of cannons and he was in love. He’d go on to devour whatever books he could find about the subject. He’d also join a local artillery company and fired cannons firsthand.

Engraving Made By Nathaniel Hurd — wikipedia commons [Public domain]

Knox’s love of books never left him. He eventually opened his own bookstore so he could always be surrounded by his beloved books. The bookstore became a popular spot for the local aristocrats and was relatively successful.

Knox also stocked many books on military subjects and history, which he of course read himself. Any military officer that walked in his store was instantly an object of Knox’s attention. He’d ask them countless questions so he could learn more.

Although the term ‘nerd’ didn’t exist in the 1700s, it appears Knox might have easily fit into that category in modern times. More than likely, he probably would have revered the title and may have even read a book on the topic if it were available.

Although Knox had never fought in a battle previously, the well of knowledge he built up about artillery became invaluable. He engineered defenses for the Continentals and directed cannon fire at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Much of what he knew came from his face being in a book.

An Incredible Journey

Hauling guns by ox teams from Fort Ticonderoga for the siege of Boston, 1775. Illustration. 111-SC-100815 — no artist listed

Knox traveled to Fort Ticonderoga on December 1st and hired abled body men along the way. When he arrived at the fort, they got to the business of taking the cannons apart. The cache included over 40 heavy brass and iron cannons, 6 cohorns, 8 mortars, and 2 howitzers.

Brad Meltzer’s book mentions how systems of pulleys and ropes were used to lift these extremely heavy cannons on to carts. Fortunately, when other kids were playing the 1700s equivalent of hopscotch, Henry had his face in a book studying mathematics. Pulleys were no problem.

However, getting to the fort and taking apart the guns was the easy part — they had to get them back now. They dragged the heavy load by ox cart and then by boat to Lake George.

Luckily, it wasn’t frozen, and the guns were then loaded onto flat bottom boats and taken across the lake. The weather did change on their trip across the lake, however, the guns made it across just before the lake did freeze over.

Now Knox had to take the cannons over land. He had to find 40 sleds that could pull 5400 lbs. each and the oxen to pull them. Knox managed to put together this living freight train in less than a week.

Everything was ready to go, but the ground was too bare to pull the sleds. They needed a good layer of snow. Christmas day they got their wish, but unfortunately, they received several feet of it. The group would reach Albany, NY by January 5th.

“Went on the ice about 8 O’clock in the morning & proceeded so carefully that before night we got over 23 sleds & were so lucky as to get the Cannon out of the River, owing to the assistance the good people of the City of Albany gave.”
Diary entry from Henry Knox

Now Knox and his group had to cross the Hudson river, but the ice was too thin. The first few attempts met disaster with cannons falling into the river. They managed to recover them and eventually cross a few days later.

The slow progress continued, eventually the “noble train of artillery” reached Cambridge on January 24th. It was an 8-week journey, carrying 60 tons of cargo, over mountains, lakes, and through blizzards. Historian Victor Brooks called this trek “one of the most stupendous feats of logistics” of the American Revolution.

It’s a good thing Henry couldn’t see the modern map below; his skull might explode. Just to show you how times have changed and the difficulty of their trek, look at this recent Google Map. This trip by car today would only take you four hours, not 8 weeks.

For Modern Comparison, Fort Ticonderoga to Cambridge — Google Maps

The Cannons Get Put To Use

Map Of The Battlefield, Dorchester Heights At Very Bottom Right — Wikipedia Commons (J. DeCosta )

After weeks of preparation a plan was ready. On March 2nd, The Continental Army began exchanging nightly cannon fire with the British from positions west of the city. This was just a diversion and the British figured it was just more of the same and returned fire concentrating on the area west of Boston.

While the diversion was underway, the next night Continental soldiers began advancing towards Dorchester Heights pulling the cannons with ox carts. Weeks before, hay bales were strategically laid on the path to block the line of sight.

About 3,000 men in all made the mile-long march to the heights led by George Washington. Pre-made fortifications were also brought up to the hills and assembled. In the span of about 10 hours, cannons were placed, fortifications assembled, parapets raised, and other traps laid. They did all this without being noticed from across the water.

In the morning, the British were awakened by a stunning sight. The Continental Army had massively fortified Dorchester Heights in one night! Cannons aimed down at the city and the fleet in the harbor; the Brits wouldn’t be able to return fire from their position.

General Howe is rumored to have commented the Continental Army did more work in a night than his could do in three months. Likely he had a few four-letter comments in addition to the one above.

Howe was in a bind, he had to do something about the cannons. But if he raided the heights, he’d need a large raiding force. This would leave the city virtually undefended and the Continentals could invade Boston.

In fact, this was Washington’s main plan. A landing party was ready to go the minute the British advanced towards Dorchester Heights.

Howe began to assemble a raiding force, but a snowstorm hit, and they paused. On March 8th, Howe realized it was hopeless. His next action would have been unthinkable a month previously.

Howe sent a letter to the poorly equipped and led Continentals. If they didn’t fire on the British, Howe would leave Boston and not burn it to the ground. Washington immediately accepted. The newly created army of farmers, book sellers, and tradesman just chased the British out of Boston without losing a life or firing a shot.

According to Meltzer’s book, the British sat in the harbor for a week after the acceptance. This wasn’t to try a secret attack; it was because the British were in such shock they didn’t know where to take their fleet.

The Power Of A Nerd

What do we learn from this strategic victory? I’m sure you can learn many things. What did I learn from it? Don’t underestimate the power of a nerd!

Henry Knox was instrumental to this victory. His avid reading gave him a firm knowledge of mathematics and angles, which pointed out the value of Dorchester Heights. His reading also gave him the skills to manage the transport of the cannons.

He may not have had Fortnite in his times, but he had the next best thing — real cannons. He may not have had comic books, but he had the stories of ancient armies and heroes in battle. This made an impression on him and carried through into his adult years, where he lived out these adventures on a real battlefield.

If Knox lived today, he might have been teased by other children for having his face in a book constantly. I’m sure leisurely reading a book about trigonometry would have gotten you laughed at by teenagers. But when his nation needed him, his brain was filled with useful information that saved those around him.

Henry Knox might have been a nerd in modern ages, but he was a hero in the Revolutionary War. Many nerds in modern times follow suit. Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Nikola Tesla are a few quick names that pop in my mind.

So, if you get the urge to tease somebody for pursuing knowledge instead of leisure, think of Henry Knox. This nerd you’re teasing may use this knowledge in the future to save your life, or at least make it dramatically better.

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Work out fanatic, martial artist, student, MBA, and connoisseur of useless information. I try and work a combination of history and philosophy into modern day life. I can be interesting and awful at the same, but you'll generally learn something worthwhile when you donate some of your time to read my work.

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