|This Week in American History
May 9 15, 1775.
Led by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold, the Americans Capture Fort Ticonderoga
In the late winter of 1775, as the British Army occupied Boston and tensions between the Americans and Great Britain mounted, Samuel Adams took some preventive measures. If war came, he reasoned, the British would most probably send an army down from Canada along the line through Lake Champlain, Lake George, and the Hudson River. This maneuver, if successful, would cut off New England from the rest of the colonies and make the task of coordinating American resistance difficult indeed.
Therefore, Adams dispatched John Brown, a lawyer from western Massachusetts, on a journey to Canada to sound out Canadian attitudes toward possible American independence, and to check on the condition of the northern wilderness forts which had played such an important role in the French and Indian War. Foremost among these was Fort Ticonderoga, dubbed by the British the "Gibraltar of America," a stone star fort originally built by the French at the chokepoint between Lake Champlain and Lake George. It had passed into British hands at the end of the war, and now only a small garrison of British troops was stationed there, while the fort itself had suffered from power magazine explosions and neglect.
Three weeks before the Battles of Lexington and Concord, John Brown returned and reported to Samuel Adams that if the British provoked a battle outside Boston, the Americans should immediately seize Fort Ticonderoga. On his way back to Massachusetts, Brown had arranged with Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys of the New Hampshire Grants that they would seize Ticonderoga if news came from Massachusetts that the British had attacked the Americans.
During the same time period, Captain Benedict Arnold of Connecticut had arrived outside Boston and also proposed, this time to Dr. Joseph Warren and the Committee of Safety, that Ticonderoga be taken. Arnold had served in the British Army at Ticonderoga during the French and Indian War, as had Ethan Allen. Dr. Warren knew that a large number of heavy artillery and other military supplies were stored at Ticonderoga, and so he approved the plan. When Arnold got word that the Green Mountain Boys were already forming, he hurried to Bennington (in present-day Vermont) with his instructions and commission from Connecticut and worked out a joint command with Ethan Allen.
The surprise strike by the combined American force succeeded in capturing the fort and its British garrison in the early morning hours of May 10. The "Pennsylvania Journal" of May 24 carried the following news item: "This evening arrived at Philadelphia, John Brown, Esq., from Ticonderoga, express to the General Congress, from whom we learn that on the beginning of this instant, a company of about fifty men from Connecticut, and the western part of Massachusetts, joined by upwards of one hundred from Bennington, proceeded to the eastern side of Lake Champlain, and on the night before the tenth current, crossed the lake with eighty-five men, not being able to obtain craft to transport the rest, and about day-break invested the fort, whose gate, contrary to expectation, they found shut, but the wicker [sic] open, through which, with the Indian war-whoop, all that could, entered one by one, others scaling the wall on both sides of the gate, and instantly secured and disarmed the sentries, and pressed into the parade, where they formed the hollow square; but immediately quitting that order, they rushed into the several barracks on three sides of the fort, and seized on the garrison, consisting of two officers, and upwards of forty privates, whom they brought out, disarmed, put under guard, and have since sent prisoners to Hartford in Connecticut.
"All this was performed in about ten minutes, without the loss of life, or a drop of blood on our side, and but very little on that of the King's troops. In the fort were found about thirty barrels of flour, a few barrels of pork, seventy odd chests of leaden ball, computed at three hundred tons, about ten barrels of powder in bad condition, near two hundred pieces of ordnances of all sizes, from eighteen-pounders downwards, at Ticonderoga and Crown Point, which last place, being held only by a corporal and eight men, falls of course into our hands.
"By this sudden expedition, planned by some principal persons in the four neighboring colonies, that important pass is now in the hands of the Americans, where, we trust, the wisdom of the grand Continental Congress will take effectual measures to secure it, as it may be depended on, that administration means to form an army in Canada, composed of British Regulars, French [Canadians], and Indians, to attack the colonies on that side."
Ethan Allen himself wrote an account of his capture of Ticonderoga, but it was not published until 1779 because Allen had been captured by the British during the subsequent Canadian campaign, and was imprisoned in London and then New York. His narrative began: "Ever since I arrived at the state of manhood, and acquainted myself with the general history of mankind, I have felt a sincere passion for liberty. The history of nations, doomed to perpetual slavery in consequence of yielding up to tyrants their natural-born liberties, I read with a sort of philosophical horror; so that the first systematical and bloody attempt, at Lexington, to enslave America thoroughly electrified my mind, and fully determined me to take part with my country.
"And, while I was wishing for an opportunity to signalize myself in its behalf, directions were privately sent to me from the then colony (now state) of Connecticut to raise the Green Mountain Boys, and, if possible, with them to surprise and take the fortress of Ticonderoga. This enterprise I cheerfully undertook; and, after first guarding all the several passes that led thither, to cut off all intelligence between the garrison and the country, made a forced march from Bennington, and arrived at the lake opposite to Ticonderoga on the evening of the ninth day of May, 1775, with two hundred and thirty valiant Green Mountain Boys, and it was with the utmost difficulty that I procured boats to cross the lake.
"However, I landed eighty-three men near the garrison, and sent the boats back for the rear guard, commanded by Colonel Seth Warner, but the day began to dawn, and I found myself under a necessity to attack the fort before the rear could cross the lake; and, as it was viewed hazardous, I harangued the officers and soldiers in the manner following: 'Friends and fellow-soldiers: You have, for a number of years past, been a scourge and terror to arbitrary power. Your valor has been famed abroad, and acknowledged, as appears by the advice and orders to me, from the General Assembly of Connecticut, to surprise and take the garrison now before us.'
"'I now propose to advance before you and, in person, conduct you through the wicket-gate; for we must this morning either quit our pretensions to valor or possess ourselves of this fortress in a few minutes; and, inasmuch as it is a desperate attempt, which none but the bravest of men dare undertake, I do not urge it on any contrary to his will. You that will undertake voluntarily, poise your firelocks.'
"The men being, at this time, drawn up in three ranks, each poised his firelock. I ordered them to face to the right, and at the head of the center file marched them immediately to the wicket-gate aforesaid, where I found a sentry posted, who instantly snapped his fusee at me. I ran immediately towards him, and he retreated through the covered way into the parade within the garrison, gave a halloo, and ran under a bomb-proof. My party, who followed me into the fort, I formed on the parade in such a manner as to face the two barracks which faced each other.
"The garrison being asleep, except the sentries, we gave three huzzas which greatly surprised them. One of the sentries made a pass at one of my officers with a charged bayonet, and slightly wounded him. My first thought was to kill him with my sword; but, in an instant, I altered the design and fury of the blow to a slight cut on the side of the head; upon which he dropped his gun and asked quarter, which I readily granted him, and demanded of him the place where the commanding officer kept.
"He showed me a pair of stairs in the front of a barrack, on the west part of the garrison, which led up to a second story in said barrack, to which I immediately repaired, and ordered the commander, Captain De la Place, to come forth instantly, or I would sacrifice the whole garrison; at which the Captain came immediately to the door, with his breeches in his hand, when I ordered him to deliver me the fort instantly.
"He asked me by what authority I demanded it. I answered him, 'In the name of the great Jehovah, and the Continental Congress.' The authority of the Congress being very little known at that time, he began to speak again. But I interrupted him and, with my drawn sword over his head, again demanded an immediate surrender of the garrison; with which he then complied, and ordered his men to be forthwith paraded without arms, as he had given up the garrison. This surprise was carried into execution in the gray of the morning of the tenth day of May, 1775.
"The sun seemed to rise that morning with a superior luster, and Ticonderoga and its dependencies smiled on its conquerors, who tossed about the flowing bowl, and wished success to Congress and the liberty and freedom of America. Happy it was for me, at that time, that the then future pages of the book of fate, which afterwards unfolded a miserable scene of two years and eight months' imprisonment, were hid from view."
While Ethan Allen was imprisoned, Samuel Adams' conjecture about future British military moves came true, and British General John Burgoyne moved down the Champlain Valley from Canada with a large army of British soldiers, Canadians, Indians, and Hessians. Allen's second-in-command, Colonel Seth Warner, teamed up with Colonel John Stark in August, 1777 and fought a stubborn three-day battle outside Bennington against Burgoyne's Hessian divisions and defeated them. Weakened, Burgoyne moved down the Hudson to Saratoga, where Benedict Arnold, not yet a traitor, led charge after charge against the British forces, and finally, in October, 1777, Burgoyne was forced to surrender his entire army.