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Learn about Henry Knox, who was a leading general in the Continental Army during the American Revolution and America’s first Secretary of War. Then you can test your knowledge with a quiz.


When it comes to the Revolutionary War, one of the only generals that most Americans can name today is George Washington, who went on to become our nation’s first president. Washington commanded the Continental Army for the entire war and led that army and the nation to victory. However, that victory would not have been possible if not for contributing efforts from other generals. Of those contributing generals, few, if any, were more important than Henry Knox.

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Knox was a man who played a pivotal role in the American Revolution. A Massachusetts native, Knox was born in 1750, not long before the American Revolution began. He attended a few years of formal schooling and worked in a Boston store during his early years. At the age of 18, Knox joined a Boston-area artillery company, serving as a militia unit at that time. He soon put his experience as a clerk in a bookstore to good use when he opened his own bookstore in 1771.

Having an interest in the military, Knox sold many books on military history and military tactics.During the early 1770s, Knox was a strong supporter of the growing patriot movement. He witnessed the Boston Massacre in 1770 and supported the Sons of Liberty patriot group in Boston. He married Lucy Flucker in 1774, and despite her loyalist parents, Knox continued his support of patriot groups and his resistance to British colonial policy.


In 1775, when bloodshed began between the British and colonial forces and the former laid siege to Boston, Knox and his wife fled the city and Knox joined the colonial forces. He played a key role in establishing artillery positions around Boston, using engineering and military skills which he had learned through his book trade to assist colonial forces.In the summer of 1775, George Washington took notice of young Knox, then only 25 years old, and a strong friendship began.

Knox was commissioned as a colonel in an artillery regiment. He led an important expedition to garner cannons from Fort Ticonderoga in northern New York. Leading a team of men and oxen through the snow in December 1775, Knox got the cannon to Boston by January 1776 in one of the most remarkable accomplishments of the Revolutionary War. The guns were instrumental in the colonial forces breaking the British grip on Boston that spring.

General Knox

Throughout 1776, Knox played an important role as Washington and the Continental Army survived several losing campaigns.

In December 1776, Knox participated in Washington’s Crossing of the Delaware and subsequent victories at Trenton and Princeton. Following the victory at Trenton, Knox became a Brigadier General. He used his new rank to improve the artillery capabilities of the Continental Army and in 1777 fought with the army in the field.Throughout the rest of the war, Knox was a vital part of the leadership of the Continental Army. As the army grew and became more experienced, so did Knox, who was in his late 20s at the time.

Knox can be credited with the development of the army’s artillery during the war, a key contribution to the army’s ultimate victory at the Siege of Yorktown in 1781. At Yorktown, the field artillery which Knox placed and supervised was indispensable; it helped to keep the British in their fortifications and eventually forced the British surrender, along with the presence of French artillery and the French navy.

Portrait of Henry Knox by Charles Wilson Peale

Secretary Knox

In 1782, Knox became a Major General in the army. In 1783, when Washington resigned and returned to private life (for only a short time), Knox was given command of what remained of the standing Continental Army. He organized the Society of the Cincinnati, a group of Revolutionary War officers who banded together after the war as a fraternal organization.

In 1785, Henry Knox became the Secretary at War for the United States. In this post, he oversaw a small peace-time standing army. Knox kept this role when George Washington became the nation’s first president.

Under Washington, he became a member of the president’s cabinet and his role was titled as Secretary of War.In the Washington Administration, Knox continued to oversee the nation’s military affairs. He attempted to maintain the nation’s militia by surveying its readiness. Finding a shortage of muskets, Knox implemented measures to increase the arms supply, which included establishing a Federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Knox also oversaw many aspects of the nation’s dealings with Native Americans, especially when it came to armed conflicts with them. These included many wars with various tribes and efforts to drive native peoples from their lands.

Knox remained in this post until 1795 when he returned to a life of private business and family affairs. Knox lived until 1806 when he died in Massachusetts.

Importance of Henry Knox

Henry Knox was a vital part of the American Revolution, especially when it came to the Revolutionary War. While John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were political leaders who helped to establish the nation’s independence, Henry Knox was a young military leader who rose to the occasion numerous times to assist George Washington in leading the Continental Army to victory.

Without Knox, the army would not have had a strong and organized artillery arm. While Washington was an indispensable man for the American Revolution and founding period, Knox was likewise indispensable for the formative years of the United States military, especially in the Continental Army, without which the American colonies would not have won their independence.

Lesson at a Glance

Henry Knox was instrumental during the American Revolution because he helped provide military guidance and strength to George Washington’s army. In subsequent years, he supported military causes for American freedom and even served as Secretary at War under the Washington Administration, overseeing the nation’s military affairs and ensuring the United States had a strong military arm.

Learning Outcomes

This lesson serves as a resource you can use to:

  • Recount Henry Knox’s role in the American Revolution and the Revolutionary War
  • Follow Knox’s road to becoming a Brigadier General and Major General in the Continental Army
  • Discuss Henry Knox’s service under the George Washington Administration

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