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The School of Hard Knox

As we prepare for our Noble Train Begins living history event on December 7, we reflect on a figure whose accomplishments and bulk loom over the legacy of Fort Ticonderoga. Henry Knox’s ascent to the inner circle of the early American military and state is an astounding story, even in an era of remarkable achievements. Alexander Hamilton similarly, and now famously, rose from little, but Knox had even less formal education; he did not even complete grammar school. Yet he climbed the ranks with astonishing speed to command the Continental Army’s artillery and ultimately as the Secretary of War in the first cabinet.

Humphrey Bland’s Treatise of Military Discipline
Humphrey Bland’s Treatise of Military Discipline was one of the most important military books for Americans. George Washington ordered a copy from England in 1755, and General James Wolfe kept a heavily annotated edition. The first American edition of the book, in abstract form, was printed in Boston in 1743. This 1755 edition was printed for Daniel Henchman. In 1761, Henry Knox trained in the bookselling trade in Henchman’s former store in Boston.

Much has been made of Knox’s pre-war career as a bookseller, which presumably provided him with time and material to read the military works he carried in his shop. However, the reality is quite different. Knox’s London Bookstore only operated for about four years from 1771 through 1775. A printed catalog of Knox’s shop survives from 1773, which provides a unique opportunity to see what he carried. Knox advertised 793 titles (not including a range of bibles) as well as a varied selection of stationery items.

Of this, just four volumes were works related to military science. Of them, Pringle’s Diseases of the Army is arguably only tangentially related to the art of war itself. The three remaining were “Military Instructions to Young Officers by the King of Prussia,” “Mullers system of the Mathematicks Fortification Artillery &c.” in seven volumes and the “Plan of the discipline of the Norfolk Militia.” Knox purchased a copy of Humphrey Bland’s Abstract of Military Discipline from Newport in 1772, although he does not appear to have carried the work.

Rather than having an impressive shelf of military books, Knox’s stock mirrored broader colonial patterns of reading on the subject. Through the Revolutionary period, manuals of arms dominate the history of American military reading and printing. The first American printing of an engineering volume did not appear until 1776 and artillery in 1779. Bland and the Norfolk Militia discipline remained the most important works in training Americans leading up to the War of Independence. These works were primarily geared towards the infantry, which was most commonly employed in North America, and where the management of a company, or at best a battalion, was the extent of the training required. John Adams neatly summed up American military education in 1775, writing that, “we are told here that there were none in our camp who understood the business of an engineer or anything more than the manual exercise of the gun…”

John Adams' Field Engineer book
The French led the field in books on military science in the 18th century. Many, like this work on field engineering, were translated into English making them accessible to British and American officers. Knox recommended this book to John Adams, but this particular Dublin edition bears the bookplate of Simon Fraser, the commander of the Advanced Corps of General John Burgoyne’s army that captured Ticonderoga in 1777. He was later killed at the Battle of Bemis Heights and this volume was reputedly taken from the army’s baggage in the British retreat. Photo credit: Gavin Ashworth.

This is where the evidence of Knox’s own reading clearly shows a deeper interest in military topics beyond the stock of his own store. In response to a query from Adams regarding the works that American soldiers ought to be familiar with, Knox (after an apology for the delay in his correspondence due to the small matter of hauling 60 tons of iron and bronze from Ticonderoga to Boston) rattled off a list of titles and authors that he felt were important for aspiring officers. Knox’s list showed his erudition, easily eclipsing the typical American military education of the pre-Revolutionary era.

Knox’s foremost recommendation was Marshal Saxe’s Reveries, or Memoires Concerning the Art of War, the product of perhaps the most successful French officer of the century and among the most thoughtful, a man Knox claimed, “stalks a god in war.” He suggested practical works for entrenching such as Pleydell’s Field Fortification and the Chevalier de Clariac’s Field Engineer.  Fortifications go hand-in-hand with artillery and so John Muller’s Treatise on Artillery and Hollidays Principles of Gunnery rounded out a practical shelf. These were joined by more abstract works by the eminent minds of military science: Count Pagan, Belidor, Blondel, Coehorn, and of course the inimitable Vauban.

Knox’s suggestions, based certainly on his own reading, stand out against other American military readers of the time. He never went to college, and even if he was able to use the library at Harvard, which some sources suggest, it shows the lengths to which he went to develop his military mind. Knox fostered a cosmopolitan military understanding that was informed by books and reading not commonly consumed by Americans and not sold in his shop before the Revolution.

The sobriquet of Artilleryman hardly does him justice. The books he read allowed him to consider the close relationship between engineering, fortifications, and artillery. As well as other branches of service; the necessity to plan the movement of bulky commodities and massive quantities of materiel by harnessing human, animal, and chemical energy; and the requirement to consider interconnected weapon systems at long ranges. This prepared Knox to think broadly about military and political topics that no doubt underpinned his professional success during and after the Revolution.

Copies of almost all of the titles on Knox’s suggested reading list are held in the Fort Ticonderoga library. These works are available to researchers to better understand the military education of one of early America’s most important and well-read soldiers. To schedule a research session, contact Curator Matthew Keagle at 518-585-2821 or