January 14, 1776. George Washington had another sleepless night. Encamped on the rolling green hills of Boston, he looked out over the harbor and saw British ships in control of the seas. King George III had declared all-out war on the colonies and ordered more ships to the continental shore. In the New England army, food supplies dwindled, gunpowder was in short supply, and "camp disease" killed hundreds of soldiers. The two armies were in a stand-off with no end in sight.
Washington had one hope. That hope relied on an impossible scheme proposed by a young book-seller turned junior officer named Henry Knox. A handful of Green Mountain boys from Vermont had captured British-held Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain in upper state New York. Inside the abandoned fort were cannons, mortars, and cannon balls; total tonnage was estimated to be 120,000 pounds. Henry's idea was to haul the artillery from upper state New York to the hills of Boston, a distance of 300 miles. He hoped to accomplish this by floating the weapons 40 miles over lakes and then drag them by giant sleds over a cover of snow, cross the ice-covered Hudson River, and trek through the Berkshire Mountains and onto Boston. It could be some indication how desperate General Washington had become when he agreed to the plan.
Knox described the journey as one of "utmost difficulty." Immediately, one boat hit a rock close to shore and sank. The industrious crew was able to haul it up from the bottom, patch it, and restart their expedition. Men rowed the boats against strong headwinds. On December 17th they arrived at the southernmost tip of Lake George, a body of water connected to Lake Champlain. Awaiting them were 42 heavy sledges and eighty yoke of oxen. All they needed was snow. None came. Finally, on Christmas day, three feet of snow fell. They slogged through the drifts and arrived at the shores of the Hudson River. To their dismay, it had only a skim of ice on the surface. Time was wasting, but all they could do was wait. In early January, the temperatures plummeted. Cautiously, they moved onto the river. The ice broke and one large cannon sank to the bottom of the river bed. Undaunted, Knox and his men managed to haul the cargo up onto a sled. Now they encountered the steep slopes of the Berkshire and precipitous valleys.
News spread of the remarkable parade of sleds snaking through the countryside. Knox and his crew arrived in Boston without the loss of one cannon. Pulitzer-prize winning author David McCullough wrote, "hundreds of men had taken part and their labors and resilience had been exceptional. But it was the daring and determination of Knox himself that had counted above all."
As I read McCullough's book 1776, I came to realize how easily history could have changed. Without Henry Knox's daring initiative, the British could have taken Boston and marched on through the colonies. Thomas Jefferson might never have written the Declaration of Independence and this land would have remained a British colony.