The names ring familiar even for those who haven’t studied their history since their school days.
But the names involved in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga at the outset of the Revolutionary War can trigger echoes of lessons long ago.
Green Mountain Boys
And yes, Benedict Arnold.
While the echoes of the battle remain, along with some idea that the capture was of some important to the revolutionary cause, the way the puzzle pieces fit together is lost to many.
Maybe it’s because the capture was so easily performed by a loose coalition of men and leaders whose ultimate connection to the cause proved to be more of an opportunistic endeavor than a matter of ideals that Ticonderoga’s place in history remains relatively forgotten. Or maybe it’s because Ticonderoga was overshadowed by bigger and more fateful battles.
But this is a history worth examining. The Fort, located in the Adirondacks of northeastern New York, served as the gateway to the western frontier, to Lake Champlain and on to Canada, an important supply route to the 13 colonies from the north. It played a major role in the two founding conflicts of the American colonies, the French and Indian War as well as the Revolution.
By the time the fighting broke out in Concord and Lexington, the Fort was a shell of itself, more of a ramshackle village housing infirm British soldiers, women and children. Built by the French in 1755, following the Battle of Lake George, the fort was designed to control the southern end of Lake Champlain and prevent the British from gaining military access to the lake.
In July of 1758, in a maneuver of questionable tactics, the British eschewed a cannon assault and tried to rush the hastily assembled works with 16,000 men but were repelled by the 4,000 Frenchmen within, earning the fort a perhaps undeserved reputation for impregnability.
The following year, the British used cannon and 11,000 men to take the fort, now manned by a mere 400 French who, in retreat, blew up and destroyed what they could.
The British took ownership of the fort but it was not a factor in the furtherance of the war.
Though the British maintained the fort in the years following the war, it was allowed to fall into further disrepair. By the time shots were fired in Lexington and Concord, the fort was an afterthought for the mighty British Army.
However, when war broke out, the fort was important in two ways, one being reputation. It was a name known throughout the colonies for its strategic location, even in disrepair. Second, and more importantly, the fort’s cache of heavy weaponry was vital to the Revolutionary cause. After the fort fell, Col. Henry Knox organized the Knox Expedition, a three month long expedition to move 60 tons of cannon and other armaments across Massachusetts to break the siege of Boston.
When the fighting broke out, three men had the basically the same idea: If the Continental Army targeted the fort, it could be an easy, early dramatic win that would garner honor and reputation for the man who led the expedition and invaluable weapons for the Continentals. British General Thomas Gage wrote a letter to the Governor of Quebec to rehabilitate and refortify the fort, but by the time the letter arrived, it was too late.
The opportunistic Arnold had travelled the area extensively, was well aware of the condition of the fort as well as its armaments. He sought permission of the Massachusetts Committee of Safety to lead a mission to capture the fort. He was granted a colonel’s commission and given funding, gunpowder and horses to raise a force to take Ticonderoga.
Little did he know he was coming in second in a three-man race.
Ethan Allen, leader of the Green Mountain Boys, had the same idea as Arnold. However, thanks to the ongoing land grant conflict between New Hampshire and New York, he also had a fighting force with little loyalty to a King who had sided against them. Allen’s men had been harassing New York settlers off the land – for which they had competing grants from New Hampshire – in a conflict that had been ongoing for years prior to the Revolution.
After the fighting at Lexington, Allen was approached by irregulars from Connecticut Militia planning to capture the fort. Eventually, Allen was elected to lead a force of about 60 men from Massachusetts and Connecticut as well as 130 Green Mountain Boys in taking the Fort.
The plan was conduct the raid on May 10, 1775, less than a month after the fighting in Lexington and Concord.
Arnold, who’d caught wind that Allen was ahead of him, rode a horse to death in an effort to catch up, arriving on the evening of May 9. Arnold argued that he should lead the charge as he was the more officially sanctioned commander. But the Green Mountain Boys were not about to follow Arnold into battle.
Eventually an accord was struck and the two men, Allen and Arnold, led the way capturing the fort, overpowering a single-sentry whose gun misfired and surprising the Captain who was in his bedchambers.
When asked on what authority Allen had entered the fort, he told the man “in the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress.”
Arnold reportedly set about cataloguing the weaponry while Allen’s men seized the rather substantial store of liquor. The truce between the two leaders was uneasy at best with Allen’s men reportedly drawing weapons during disputes.
From Ticonderoga, Arnold’s men captured a schooner and sailed north to Crown Point to raid Fort Saint Jean. Allen’s men secured their own vessel and rowed 100 miles to attempt the same. Arnold and 35 of his men took the fort and a warship. Warned that British troops were on the way, they raided supplies and returned south where they met Allen’s men and shared a celebration and rations. Arnold continued South. Allen continued his way to the Fort, but also warned of the impending arrival of British troops also returned to Ticonderoga.
The Americans used the fort to stage Gen. Philip Schuyler’s invasion of Quebec and for Knox to mount his expedition. The British briefly recaptured the fort in July of 1777 but surrendered it again in November of that year.
Today, the Fort remains a living historical document where you can visit, explore the beautiful Adirondacks and learn about role it played in the founding of America. As organizers prepare for the 250th anniversary of the capture of the fort in 2025, there are several exhibits and events that will take place including a Fourth of July celebration unlike any other as well as specialty boat tours, living history events and more.
For more, go online to https://www.fortticonderoga.org/.