Sunday, April 12, 2020

Episode 144 Defense of Fort Ticonderoga

Last week I introduced the British Army that was tasked with moving from Canada down to Albany New York. General Burgoyne’s first goal was to conquer Fort Ticonderoga, the Gibraltar of North America.  Both sides seemed to think it was the key to the region.  It had been where French General Montcalm had defeated a massive British force under General Abercromby during the French and Indian War.  In 1776, General Guy Carleton took one look at the fort and turned around, thinking it would take too long to besiege the fort that year.

Schuyler and Gates

The Americans in charge of the fort, however, had a very different view.  For starters there was no united chain of command.

Phillip Schuyler was the senior general in command of the northern army.  In fact following the retirement of Artemas Ward and the capture of Charles Lee, he was the most senior ranking major general, second only to George Washington himself in the chain of command.  As you may recall from earlier episodes, Congress had promoted Horatio Gates to major general in May 1776 and sent him to take command of the Continental Army in Canada.  Gates arrived just as the British were chasing the last of the Americans back into New York where the senior general Schuyler remained in command.  Gates spent most of his time over the rest of the year trying to undercut Schuyler and take full command of the northern army.

Fort Ticonderoga (from Wikimedia)
In December 1776, Gates left Fort Ticonderoga with part of his army to join Washington in Pennsylvania.  Gates had been corresponding with General Lee about what a dumpster fire they thought Washington’s command was and felt out each other about a possible replacement for the commander.  After the British captured Lee, Gates continued down to Washington’s headquarters.  When Washington begged him to assist with the attack on Trenton, Gates begged off, claiming he was too sick, and instead rode down to Baltimore to badmouth Washington to Congress.

After Washington’s great victory, Gates decided badmouthing Washington was not going to work at the moment, so we went back to badmouthing General Schuyler.  In March, Congress agreed to give command of the northern army to Gates, supported primarily by the New England delegation, which distrusted the New York General Schuyler.  The blow back from this change caused Congress to reverse itself a month later and return command to Schuyler in April.  Rather than sucking it up and working with Schuyler, Gates left New York again and went back to Philadelphia to complain more to Congress.  He was still in Philadelphia in June when the British began to move down toward Fort Ticonderoga.

Schuyler did not spend much time at Ticonderoga either.  For most of this time Schuyler was in Albany, working on logistical support and other matters.  General Benedict Arnold had also left after the 1776 fighting season ended and headed back to Connecticut.  That left Colonel Anthony Wayne in charge of the fort.  Wayne, as you may recall, was a Pennsylvania officer who had led a regiment to Canada as reinforcements after most of the army had been captured at Quebec.  He had played a leading role at the Battle of Three Rivers (see Episode 95) before retreating with the rest of the army back to Fort Ticonderoga.

Wayne and St. Clair
As other officers moved south, Wayne remained in command over the miserable winter.  Out of desperation, he refused to release soldiers when their enlistments were over.  He personally punched a few soldiers who went on strike.  Over the winter, there was no food or clothes for the men.  They did what they could to survive, and little more.  The fort, which was already in terrible condition, fell into even worse disrepair.  In commenting on the region Wayne wrote“it appears to be the last part of the world that God made & I have some ground to believe it was finished in the dark-that it was never Intended that man shou’d live in it is clear”
He noted that men simply were not meant to live in such land, made worse by the dead bodies still littering the forest from the French and Indian War.  Some of the soldiers used the skulls for drinking cups, and shin bones as tent pegs.

Anthony Wayne
(from Wikimedia)
The command structure in the fort itself remained a mess.  General Schuyler had attempted to impose discipline, but the New England soldiers resented the New York general’s attempts to impose rules on them.  The internal rivalries came out several times over the winter.  Massachusetts Colonel Asa Whitcomb’s son was a cobbler by trade and attempted to address the shortage of shoes at the fort by setting up a cobbler’s bench in the colonel’s quarters.

The Pennsylvania officers took offense at a fellow officer working at a trade, which was considered demeaning.  Pennsylvania Colonel Thomas Craig and others broke into Whitcomb’s quarters, destroyed the cobbler’s bench and physically attacked Colonel Whitcomb.  The fight attracted a crowd and soon Pennsylvania and New England troops were in a full scale brawl.  The Pennsylvania soldiers escalated the fight by picking up their arms and firing on the New England soldiers, wounding several.  Despite the behavior, there were apparently no courts martial over the event.  Colonel Craig and his Pennsylvania men apologized by killing a deer and presenting a feast to the New England men.

In February 1777, when a militia company demanded to go home at the end of their enlistment, Wayne responded by punching one of the men in the face, and telling him he would not leave until his replacements arrived.  And if they did not arrive he would be there forever.  He held the rest of the company at pistol point until they accepted his orders to remain.

Despite these problems, that same month, Wayne was one of a record ten men promoted to brigadier general in February.  In April, after receiving word of his promotion and orders to move south, Wayne happily left the fort behind and marched his men to join Washington’s army in New Jersey.

The same week that Wayne got his promotion to brigadier general, Congress also promoted Arthur St. Clair from brigadier to major general.  St. Clair had had a meteoric rise since joining the Continental Army as a Pennsylvania Colonel in January 1776.  He received promotion to brigadier general in August, and then major general in February 1777.

St. Clair, had been born and raised in Scotland.  He served as a lieutenant in the regular army during the French and Indian War, where he saw action at the Siege of Louisbourg and the Battle of Quebec.

After the war, he settled in Pennsylvania. There, he became the largest landholder in the western part of the state.  He was able to purchase some of the land after marrying the daughter of a wealthy Boston family at the end of the French and Indian war.  He also received land grants from the king for his service in the war.  St. Clair was an early supporter of the patriot cause, and was one of the few Pennsylvanians with real military experience when the war began.  His first mission after raising a regiment was to go with General Gates to Canada, arriving just in time to help with the retreat back into New York.
Arthur St. Clair
(from Wikimedia)

St. Clair spent the summer of 1776 where, after Gates commended his actions during the retreat, received his promotion to brigadier general.  General St. Clair then headed south to join with Washington’s army in New Jersey, arriving in time to play a key role in the Battles of Trenton and Princeton.  This helped to secure his promotion to major general in February 1777.  With that promotion came the responsibility to return to Fort Ticonderoga and prepare for a possible British attack.

When St. Clair arrived in June 1777, he immediately began writing that the fort was a mess, undermanned, lacking entrenchments, and generally in no condition to defend against an invasion.  Because there were no communities of any size in the hundreds of miles of surrounding wilderness, it was difficult to obtain any supplies or get much help in putting the fort back in defensible condition.  General Gates had been confident that the British force in Montreal would not invade, but instead would ship out for New York City in the spring so that they could supplement General Howe’s advance on Philadelphia.  Gates himself spent most of his time in Albany where he could keep his rival General Schuyler in check.

St. Clair arrived in mid-June after the British fleet had already left St. John’s.  He didn’t know it yet, but he only had days to prepare for the attack.  Far from being impregnable, the fort had many problems even if it had been well maintained and fully garrisoned.  For starters, the main defenses were on the south side.  The fort had been built originally by the French to defend against a British attack from the south.  More importantly, there were two large hills near the fort which an enemy could occupy and fire into the fort.  During the French and Indian War, when the French defeated the British Army led by General Abercromby, they did so from those hills, not from the fort itself.

Forces around Fort Ticonderoga (from British Battles)
A year earlier Continental engineers had identified Rattlesnake Hill as a more defensible position.  They also identified Sugar Hill as a key height that would, if occupied, threaten the fort itself.  These weaknesses had been identified in the summer of 1776, even before Gates and St. Clair had left the area to join Washington’s army. Leaders had decided to rename Rattlesnake Hill "Mount Independence" and rename Sugar Hill "Mount Defiance," but they did little to secure these potential dangers.

Over the winter, General Schuyler had issued orders to occupy Mount Independence and to build a bridge from the fort to the mountain.  Continental Colonel Jeduthan Baldwin built an impressive bridge between the fort and Mount Independence.  Although not fully complete by spring, it did serve as a footbridge over the water to move men and light equipment back and forth.  At some point, another engineer, Thaddeus Kosciuszko from Poland arrived on the scene.  However, Kosciuszko seemed more interested in criticizing Baldwin’s work and kissing up to General Gates than contributing much to the defenses.

By the time St. Clair arrived in June, the Continentals had occupied Mount Independence including placing several cannons there and were using the footbridge to move back and forth.  They had not occupied Mount Defiance at all, believing it too steep to allow the British to mount cannons there.

British Advance on Ticonderoga

On June 13, the Continentals captured two British prisoners who said that General Burgoyne was already on his way with thousands of soldiers and would be at Fort Ticonderoga in about two weeks.  They also informed the Continentals about St. Leger’s move from the west toward Albany.

An unnerved General St. Clair was not sure whether to believe them.  There was a good chance they were British spies sent to spread misinformation.  He sent them on to Albany under guard for further interrogation.  A few days later, two soldiers walking to the saw mill were jumped by about thirty Indians.  The attackers shot, stabbed, and then scalped the two men.  The only reason we have a record of the number of Indians is because one of the men survived by pretending to be dead as the Indians scalped and stripped him.  He then crawled back to camp.  When a lieutenant took about a dozen men to track down the Indians, they hit another ambush where several were killed or wounded on both sides before withdrawing.

British Landing near Ticonderoga (from British Battles)
The presence of hostile Indians made clear that the British invasion force was probably not far behind.  The Indians in the woods also made it nearly impossible to send out scouting parties to look for the enemy without the fear that they would be ambushed, killed, and scalped.  Even so, some daring men did do some scouting.  In June 23, Sergeant Heath reported British ships and an enemy encampment about 40 miles north of Ticonderoga.  He also noted that Indians in the woods were “as thick as mosquitoes”

For the next week or so, poor winds and a driving rain prevented the British fleet from advancing.  But everyone knew it was just a matter of time.  The Americans sent out several more scouts but they all failed to return, presumably killed or captured.

General St. Clair knew that the fort was woefully understaffed to withstand a full assault.  He had between 2000 and 2500 men fit for duty, but thought he would need 10,000 to hold the fort against an attack.

He had begged for reinforcements earlier, but was refused.  General Washington had responded that he believed that the British and Germans in Canada would be removed in the spring and taken by ship to New York City to support General Howe’s offensive.  Even after it became clear that the British in Canada would attack Ticonderoga, St. Clair remained reluctant to call out the local militia.  He had such little food stores on hand that bringing militia to the fort would cause them to run out of food.

By June 30, the British force was at the ruins of Crown Point, about eleven miles from Ticonderoga.  St. Clair finally sent out a last minute call for militia, but doubted they could arrive in sufficient numbers to be of any assistance.

The British and German Army under Burgoyne advanced from three different routes.  General Friedrich Riedesel and his Germans moved down the east shore of Lake Champlain toward Mount Independence. General Simon Fraser led an advance force, followed by General William Phillips and the larger force of British Regulars moving down the lake's western shore.  General Burgoyne commanded from an armada of ships on the lake,with a battery of large cannon ready to reduce the fort’s walls.

British Assault on Fort Ticonderoga (from Wikimedia)
Even with such a large force at his disposal, Burgoyne could not completely surround the fort without leaving weak spots where the Americans might break through and retreat.  At a council of war, Burgoyne suggested they should at least send troops around the fort to cut off the major roads available for an American retreat, and rely on the Indians to prevent any attempted retreat through the woods.  Fraser thought this was folly as the Germans on that side of the engagement would not be good at moving through the woods and swamp necessary to reach their objective.  Instead, he recommended moving the British forces down to the west, and attempt to take the high ground on Mount Defiance, or what the British were still calling Sugar Hill.  From there, the British could fire on the fort without much danger to themselves.  Burgoyne rejected this option because it allowed the Americans line of retreat.  He wanted to capture not only the fort, but the Continental’s entire northern army.

The Germans would march on a circuitous route to the east of the fort, moving to cut off any American retreat.  Meanwhile, the British on the west side would take some time to cut out roads to move their cannons down toward the west of the fort.  They would start by capturing Mount Hope, just northwest of the fort.  The Americans had sawmills there and controlled a bridge on the portage road leading to Mount Defiance.

On July 2, Fraser sent an advance corps of about 600 regulars, with more Canadians and Indians in the front of the force, to capture Mount Hope.  The Americans saw them coming, set fire to the buildings, and retreated back behind the fort’s picket lines.  The advance force was only supposed to take the hill and await more support.  However, Fraser's Indians had gotten a little drunk and decided on their own to rush the American picket lines.  This led to a skirmish.  The Americans held their lines against this rather small force, and used cannons loaded with grapeshot to force the attackers to withdraw.  The skirmish lasted about an hour before Fraser was able to get his troops pulled back to Mount Hope.

While Fraser was writing up a report on the incident, General Phillips arrived on the scene to berate him and express his annoyance that he had ruined the element of surprise now that the Americans were well aware of their position.  Fraser, however, convinced Phillips that they had taken defensible high ground and now threatened the fort itself.  The position also prevented any American retreat toward Lake George.  Phillips agreed and supported holding the hill now that it was taken.

View of Ticonderoga from Mount Independence
(from Wikimedia)
Over the next couple of days, Phillips and Fraser looked up at Mount Defiance, thinking that if they could place a few large cannons up there, they could control a field of fire over both Fort Ticonderoga and Mount Independence.  In their current position on Mount Hope the British were still in range of American cannons, and took several casualties as a result.  On Mount Defiance, they could fire without the enemy being able to return fire to that elevation.

You may ask yourself, why did the Americans leave this hill unoccupied? Several officers have looked at it months earlier and mentioned it as a possible weakness in the American defenses.  But the hill was so high and incline so steep, that the commanders did not think it would be possible to drag cannons to the top.  The British believed otherwise.  General Phillips famously said, “where a goat can go, a man can go, and where a man can go, he can drag a gun with him.”  The British removed two twelve-pounder cannons from the Thunderer and by the morning of July 5, had both of the guns, weighing a couple of tons each, mounted on the top of Mount Defiance.

They only had to await the slow moving Germans on the other side of Lake Champlain to cut off the final escape routes for the garrison at Ticonderoga.  Once the Germans were in place, they could open fire.  The Americans would have nowhere to go and would have no option but to surrender.  Sure enough, on the morning of July 5, Americans noticed smoke coming from campfires on Mount Defiance.  A closer examination revealed redcoats moving about on top of the hill.  The defenders knew they were in serious trouble.

Inside the Fort, General St. Clair held a council of war to decide what to do next.  The Commanders decided that the invincible Fort Ticonderoga was, in fact, lost.  Their next steps would be to do what they could to save the garrison.

Next week: The Americans take heed of the old adage, he who looks and runs away, lives to fight another day.
- - -

Next Episode 145 Retreat from Ticonderoga

Previous Episode 143 Burgoyne's Northern Army

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Further Reading


Philip Schuyler:

Horatio Gates:

Anthony Wayne:

Arthur St. Clair:

Christmas Riot at Fort Ticonderoga

The Battle of Fort Ticonderoga (Second):

Schenawolf, Harry “Fort Ticonderoga: Americans Abandoned The Gibraltar of the North Without a Fight” Revolutionary War Journal December 7, 2018:

Battle of Ticonderoga

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Anbury, Thomas Travel through Various Parts of North America, Vol. 1, William Lane, 1789.

Bird, Harrison March To Saratoga General Burgoyne And The American Campaign 1777,
Oxford Univ. Press, 1963

Brandow, John H. The story of old Saratoga; the Burgoyne campaign, to which is added New York's share in the revolution, Brandow Printing, 1919.

Burgoyne, John Orderly book of Lieut. Gen. John Burgoyne : from his entry into the state of New York until his surrender at Saratoga, 16th Oct., 1777: from the original manuscript deposited at Washington's headquarters, Newburgh, N.Y. J. Munsell, 1860.

Burgoyne, John A Brief examination of the plan and conduct of the northern expedition in America, in 1777, T. Hookham, 1779.

Clay, Steven E. Staff Ride Handbook for the Saratoga Campaign, 13 June to 8 November 1777, Combat Studies Institute Press, 2018 (US Army Website):.

Digby, William The British Invasion from the North: The Campaigns of Generals Carleton and Burgoyne from Canada, Joel Munsell’s Sons, 1887.

Duncan, Francis History of the Royal Regiment of Artillery, Vol 1, J. Murray 1879.

Eelking, Max von, (translated by Stone, William L.) Memoirs of Major General Riedesel, Vol. 1, J. Munsell, 1868.

Hadden, James Hadden's Journal and Orderly Books, Joel Munsell’s Sons, 1884.

Hudleston, Francis J. Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne : misadventures of an English general in the Revolution, Bobbs-Merrill Co. 1927.

Luzader, John Decision on the Hudson, National Park Service, 1975.

Nickerson, Hoffman The Turning Point of the Revolution; or, Burgoyne in America, (Houghton-Mifflin Co. 1928 (

Riedesel, Friederike Charlotte Luise, Freifrau von Letters and journals relating to the war of the American Revolution, and the capture of the German troops at Saratoga, Joel Munsell, 1867.

Smith, William Henry (ed) The St. Clair Papers: The Life and Public Services of Arthur St. Clair, Vol. 1, Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co, 1882.

Walworth, Ellen H. Battles of Saratoga, 1777, Joel Munsell’s Sons, 1891.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Davis, Robert P. Where a Man Can Go: Major General William Phillips, British Royal Artillery, 1731-1781, Greenwood Press, 1999.

Furneaux, Rupert The Battle of Saratoga, Stein and Day 1971.

Ketchum, Richard M. Saratoga, Turning Point of America’s Revolutionary War, Henry Holt & Co, 1997.

Logusz, Michael O. With Musket and Tomahawk, The Saratoga Campaign and the Wilderness War of 1777, Casemate Publishing, 2010

Luzader, John F. Saratoga: A Military History of the Decisive Campaign of the American Revolution, Casemate Publishers, 2008

Mintz, Max M. The Generals of Saratoga: John Burgoyne and Horatio Gates, Yale Univ. Press, 1990.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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