The Ballad of Henry Knox

Wednesday, 18 March 2009 07:37 By William Rivers Pitt, t r u t h o u t | Columnist | name.

The Ballad of Henry Knox
Battle of Bunker Hill. (Illustration: Engraving from painting by John Trumbull)

    I've spent the last several weeks trying to come up with some pithy metaphor or analogy to frame everything that's going on in some optimistic or courageous light, but it's been nothing doing. Everybody's all up in arms over the million-dollar bonuses about to be collected by A.I.G. executives, and for good reason, but all the shouting over those millions has obscured questions about where the hundreds of billions in bailout money is going. The looming multi-trillion dollar credit default swap crisis could wipe the entire banking industry off the map if it isn't dealt with. Nuclear-armed Pakistan is trembling on the brink of collapse, and very large bombs are still going off all over the place in Iraq and Afghanistan. No, I don't think anyone's ever written a folk song about this kind of thing.

    But then along came Tuesday, which was St. Patrick's Day, which for most of the country was a day of wearing green and eating corned beef and cabbage and listening to the Pogues and getting really, really, really, really drunk. In Boston, however, we do things a little differently. Don't get me wrong, it's still St. Patrick's Day here. Every single one of the 900,000 college students who live here was mumbling, stumbling, barfing-down-their-Flogging-Molly-shirt wrecked by the time Tuesday flipped over to Wednesday, and there were more scally caps per square inch than anywhere in the world outside of Dublin.

    But St. Patrick's Day is also called Evacuation Day in Boston, and that's a really good story.

    It begins a few miles down Route 2, on the green in Lexington on April 19, 1775, where the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired. The American militiamen chased the British Regulars all the way back to Boston, where they dug in and laid siege to the city for the next eleven months. The British had total control of the city, and the British fleet had fully invested the harbor. The desire by both sides to occupy the heights above the city led to the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, but the engagement proved indecisive, though more costly to the British on balance, and the combatants lapsed into a stalemate that would last through the winter.

    The American militias were faced with a dilemma. Within the city, the British were heavily enforced with both men and heavy weapons, and the fleet in the harbor had enough firepower to annihilate the city. The Americans, on the other hand, barely had an army at all. The militias were so light on weaponry, in fact, that they were issued spears at one point to fend off a potential British attack. But then a young bookseller named Henry Knox had an idea. Earlier that spring, Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen had led a successful attack on Fort Ticonderoga, 300 miles northwest near the southern tip of Lake Champlain in the province of New York. The lightly defended fort had fallen, delivering to Arnold and Allen a large number of British cannons.

    Knox put the question to Gen. George Washington: What if we brought those cannons to Boston?

    Washington signed off on the plan, and dispatched Knox and a large force of men to Ticonderoga on December 1. Knox arrived four days later and immediately began disassembling the guns - 43 heavy cannons, six coehorns, eight mortars and two howitzers - to be loaded onto specially-made flat-bottomed boats. They had to make the 30-mile trip across the lake before it froze, and rowing into a howling gale, barely made it before ice took hold. By Christmas, several feet of snow lay over the hundreds of miles standing between the guns and the city. Using 80 oxen, Knox and his men dragged 42 sleds weighing more than 5,000 pounds each past Albany, across the frozen Hudson and across Massachusetts, finally arriving in Boston on January 24, 1776.

    Six weeks later, British General Howe looked up at Dorchester Heights above the harbor and was flabbergasted to discover American gun batteries trained down on the precious British fleet. The militias had distracted British forces with a skirmish in Cambridge the night before, and had quietly sneaked the cannons onto the heights, constructing emplacements right under the British force's nose. They had even piled logs in next to the actual cannons in order to make it seem as if they were even more heavily armed. "The rebels did more in one night," Howe said, "than my whole army would have done in one month."

    For a while, the British tried to clear the rebels off the heights with tremendous barrages fired from the fleet. Exactly four Americans were killed, and the rebels happily collected more than 700 cannonballs that had fallen harmlessly around them. Finally, the British sent word to Washington that they would not destroy the city if they were allowed to withdraw unmolested. Boston was emptied of British forces as the troops were loaded onto the ships in the harbor. On March 17, 1776, the winds became favorable, and the fleet put to sea.

    The British were gone, never to return. It was, and has been ever since, Evacuation Day in Boston.

    So, what does this have to do with A.I.G., the banks, the economy, the wars and the troubles? Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. Henry Knox dragged more than 200,000 pounds of gunmetal across a frigid lake, a frozen river and 300 snowy miles of New York and Massachusetts. With this one unimaginable act of leadership, Knox freed the city of Boston from British control, and began the downhill run towards the Declaration of Independence and national liberation. The entire enterprise proved to be a long and grueling slog, but nothing better represents the ordeals of that age than Henry Knox, his oxen, his sleds, his men and his journey.

    The moral? Hard times require hard patriots, audacity, courage, strength and endurance ... one step at a time. This country was forged by men and women daunted by the seeming impossibility of their situation, but who never wavered, and who eventually prevailed. I think there are ten zillion folk songs written about this kind of thing, and before we're done overcoming all that confronts us now, they will have written even more.

    Happy Evacuation Day.

Last modified on Wednesday, 18 March 2009 14:59