Whenever I’m feeling discouraged, I’m reminded of a true story from the American Revolutionary War. To me, this story is a testament of the power of persistence in the most difficult of circumstances.
In January of 1776, the American cause was on the brink of ruin. In fact, things were so bad that General Washington (who rarely ever allowed himself to show signs of discouragement) sent a letter to Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Reed saying “Few people know the predicament we are in.” He went on to say that if he had known what he was getting himself into, he might not have accepted the command as General (Source: The Writings of George Washington).
And yet, two months later (almost exactly) General Washington’s forces surrounded Boston with heavy cannons, forcing 11,000 British troops and 1,000 loyalists to evacuate the city. In a bloodless maneuver, Washington had managed to revive the American cause and change the fortunes of the war.
But how? How did Washington accomplish such a feat? What happened during those two months that renewed Washington’s will to move forward? Three words: The Knox Expedition.
Henry Knox was a 25-year-old bookseller who enlisted to serve in the Continental Army. He was promoted to Colonel and soon became good friends with George Washington. In November 1775, General Washington asked Colonel Knox to retrieve heavy artillery (cannons) from the recently captured Fort Ticonderoga in New York and bring them to Boston.
The assignment was no easy task: Knox and his men had to move 60 tons of artillery—across hundreds of miles of bad roads—in the middle of winter. While crossing the frozen Hudson River, several of the cannons broke through the ice and sank to the bottom. And yet each cannon that fell was faithfully retrieved. Initially, Knox believed that the expedition would take him only two weeks, when in reality it took him ten weeks.
But his late arrival proved to be “just in time,” giving General Washington the confidence (and cannons) to move forward and take Boston. Of Knox’s expedition, historian David McCullough wrote:
Knox’s “noble train” had arrived intact. Not a gun had been lost. 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. The twenty-five-year-old Boston bookseller had proven himself a leader of remarkable ability, a man not only of enterprising ideas, but with the staying power to carry them out. (Source: 1776)
I think this story has a lot of parallels in our own lives. Perhaps we sometimes feel like Henry Knox—that our road is cold and harsh or that our task is more difficult than we had anticipated. If you’re struggling on the road that leads to a brighter day, don’t give up. Someone believes in you and is counting on you.
At other times, we may feel as discouraged as General Washington. We might be tempted to think that our cause is collapsing—that we can’t move forward. But if you’re engaged in a good cause, don’t give up. The cannons are coming.
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