Sunday, April 19, 2020

Episode 145 Retreat from Ticonderoga

Last week, we left the British and German force under General Burgoyne having nearly surrounded the Americans at Fort Ticonderoga.  The British had mounted heavy cannons on Mount Defiance, giving them the ability to fire on the fort and the Americans on Mount Independence without much fear of return fire.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Inside Fort Ticonderoga, General Arthur St. Clair realized his situation was quickly becoming desperate.  Three enemy deserters filled in the Americans on the size of the force threatening them, and other details which made them realize their predicament.

On July 4th, the garrison had held a small celebration for the first anniversary of American independence.  Probably greater cause for celebrations was the arrival of Colonel Seth Warner with 700 militia from the Grants, that is the disputed area that eventually became Vermont.  But even with the new arrivals, the presence of British on the top of Mount Defiance on July 5th meant that the garrison was in serious danger.  The Americans watched more and more enemy soldiers disembark and slowly put a stranglehold on the fort.

St. Clair held a council of war on the afternoon of July 5 to decide what to do next.  At the council was General Mattias de Fermoy, who you may recall was the French officer who turned tail and ran at the first sight of the enemy outside Trenton.

American Batteaux near Ticonderoga
(from British Battles)
Also present was New Hampshire General Enoch Poor, a veteran of the Canada campaign.  Poor had recently been promoted to brigadier general by Congress.

Joining them was General John Paterson.  Paterson had grown up in Connecticut but had moved to Massachusetts shortly before the war.  He served in the Massachusetts militia at the siege of Boston and at Bunker Hill.  He had also served with Poor in the Canada campaign.  After that, he had moved south in time to serve under Washington during the battles of Trenton and Princeton.  Congress promoted Paterson to brigadier general in February, on the same day they promoted Poor, and sent him to Ticonderoga to support its defense.

Rounding out the group was Colonel Pierse (sometimes spelled “Pierce”) Long from New Hampshire.  Long had been an early patriot, participating in the pre-war raid on Fort William and Mary (see Episode 51) and at Ticonderoga commanded a Continental regiment of New Hampshire soldiers.

St. Clair spelled out their predicament.  The garrison in the fort and those atop Mount Independence were both in dire threat.  It appeared that the enemy was moving into position to cut off all avenues of escape.  Once in place, they would attack both the fort itself and Mount Independence, supported by artillery on Mount Defiance and overrun both garrisons.

As St. Clair saw it, they had two options.  One was to hunker down inside the fort and hold out under siege as long as possible.  But with little food and no prospect of a relief force on the way, this made little sense.  The other option was to abandon the fort and combine all forces on top of Mount Independence where they could make a stand, and possibly maintain an avenue of retreat if needed.

The council agreed unanimously that the fort was indefensible, and that any hope of saving the garrison required them to move that night to Mount Independence.

Arthur St Clair
(from Wikimedia)
It would be easy to criticize St. Clair for ordering a retreat of what was supposedly the strongest fort in North America without even a fight.  In fact, St. Clair would later have to defend his actions at a court martial.  He would be exonerated, and I think justifiably so.  He would have needed thousands more soldiers and tons more supplies to mount any sort of realistic defense or even to hold out during a siege.

He had only taken command a few weeks earlier and was not responsible for earlier failures to build defenses on Mount Defiance or improve defenses around the fort itself.  In fact, even his predecessors probably deserve a break on this point, given the lack of manpower and resources needed for anything like this.  The reality was that Ticonderoga was not a primary concern during the period that Washington was fighting for the survival of the Continental Army around New York City and in New Jersey.

Had St. Clair and the garrison remained in the fort for even one or two more days, they would have been captured and marched back to Quebec as prisoners of war.  This would have been a far greater defeat and likely would have made the remainder of the Saratoga campaign much easier for the British.

St. Clair knew he would be criticized.  He said at the time his choice was to lose his character and save his army, or save his character and lose his army.  He reasoned correctly that the garrison was much more important.  Retreating from a superior force was something General Washington had already done on several occasions, and is what should have happened at Fort Washington on Manhattan when the Americans surrendered 3000 prisoners.

Move to Mount Independence

Having made the decision to abandon Ticonderoga, the Continental leaders now had to determine if they were not already too late, and how to get everyone safely away from the fort.  The first step was to move everyone to Mount Independence.

Fortunately, the Continentals had prepared for this.  They had put a chain across Lake Champlain to prevent the British fleet from sailing south of the fort.  Just south of the chain was the footbridge across the lake that would allow men and supplies to move across and then up Mount Independence.  The garrison would cross to Mount Independence during the night to avoid enemy detection.  From there, the main garrison would march down the Hubbardton Road moving away to the southeast.  The Hubbardton Road was more of a rough footpath that would not be much use for artillery or wagons, even if they had horses to drag them.  Instead, heavy equipment and supplies would be loaded aboard ships and sailed south down Lake Champlain toward Skenesborough.  The sick and wounded, as well as women and children in the fort would also go with the ships.

Map of Mt. Independence, 1777 (from Wikimedia)
St. Clair had at his disposal about 200 batteaux, which were only a little larger than a canoe or rowboat.  They could only carry a few people each, as well as small amounts of supplies. He also still had five galleys: the Enterprise, the Liberty, the Gates, the Trumbull, and the Revenge, which could carry some artillery and large equipment, but not nearly enough.

The army set to work loading as much as they could on the ships.  Lack of planning meant that the midnight loading did not always prioritize the most important equipment.  The wind and a choppy lake also made loading the boats difficult and slow going.  Equipment began to pile up at the docks

After dark, the men began moving everything they could out of the fort and across the lake to Mount Independence.  Almost immediately, everything began to get clogged up on the other side of the bridge where no one was directing people to move.  It turned out that General Fermoy, who was in command of the forces at Mount Independence, decided to go to sleep in his cabin.  Most of his officers followed his example and opted for a good night’s sleep as well.  The result was leaderless chaos in the dark of night.  St. Clair had to order someone to go wake up Fermoy and get the Frenchman to do his job.

Secrecy was an important part of this move.  If the British discovered the garrison in mid-retreat, they could launch an attack and capture them before everyone had time to cross the bridge.  A few of the heavy cannons in the fort continued to fire on the British throughout the night, in hopes of covering some of the noise and to convince the British that they were not going anywhere.

Everyone participating in the fort’s evacuation had to move quietly and without torches or lanterns.  This made the night move even more difficult.  Because orders had to be passed around quietly, some parts of the fort garrison were not even aware of the orders to abandon the fort until after midnight.  The lack of space on the few small ships the army had available meant that many of the cannons simply had to be abandoned and spiked to prevent their use by the enemy.  A great deal of food and supplies had to be abandoned as well.

About 3:00 AM, St. Clair was at the foot of Mount Independence trying to organize the chaos left by General Fermoy’s failure to do anything that night.  Several hundred pickets still manned posts around the fort, mostly to ensure no deserters alerted the British to their night escape.

Then, suddenly, a great fire erupted at the top of Mount Independence.  It seems someone had awoken General Fermoy.  But rather than come down the hill to organize the retreating column, Fermoy had spent a few hours packing his bags.  He violated orders against any candles, lanterns, or campfires that might help the enemy see their escape.  Instead, he managed to set his cabin on fire.  By some accounts, this was an accident.  In others, he deliberately ordered his quarters to be burned.  The massive flames lit up the night sky for miles.  The fire gave everyone, including the enemy, a view of the retreating army on the mountain.

With that realization, the chaos turned to panic.  Militiamen ran down Hubbardton road.  St. Clair rode ahead of them to halt the panicking soldiers and organize the column.  Most soldiers ignored the General and ran past him.  St. Clair did manage to halt and organize some fleeing Continentals.

In the fort, the pickets who were serving as the rear guard also panicked, fearing the British would see the retreat and be on them before they could cross the footbridge across Lake Champlain.  These final companies fled across the lake without destroying the remaining equipment in the fort, or sufficiently damaging the bridge to prevent enemy pursuit.  The panic set in and everyone just wanted to escape.

British Pursuit

Fermoy’s house fire did create problems, but the flames only revealed the escape about an hour before the light of dawn would have anyway.  In the early morning hours, the British attempted to capture the American garrison through a three pronged attacked.  British forces under General Simon Fraser were moving into Fort Ticonderoga’s defenses from the west.  The British fleet moved down Lake Champlain to the chain that was directly to the east of the fort.  General Riedesel’s Germans were moving down the eastern bank of the lake in hopes of taking Mount Independence from the east.  Natives and Canadian militia also marched with both land forces.

Capture of Ticonderoga (from Wikimedia)
If Riedesel had been able to get his army into position a little faster, the main American force would have had its escape route cut off and would either have had to fight the Germans to break out, or surrender.  Riedesel's army had to march through heavily forested land with swamps and streams that made movement very slow.  As a result, he would not reach Mount Independence until the Americans had fled.  British troops from Fort Ticonderoga would be the first to reach Mount Independence, or what the British still called Rattlesnake Hill.

The British marched into Fort Ticonderoga without any resistance that morning.  They only found a few American stragglers who either had slept through the retreat or who had remained behind in hopes of looting some of the fort’s supplies.  They quickly discovered that gunpowder had been poured around much of the fort, with the apparent intent of blowing it up and setting everything on fire before leaving.  However, the last minute panic in abandoning the fort meant that no one had bothered to start the fire.  The main thing that slowed up the British forces after taking the fort, was that some of the British soldiers did a little looting of their own when they saw equipment and supplies scattered around the fort.

The Americans had pulled up some of the planks on the bridge from the fort to Mount Independence.  But the British quickly replaced these and made their way across Lake Champlain.  On the other side, a British officer reported finding a loaded cannon pointed at the bridge with four Americans manning the gun.  A single shot could have been a disaster to the British soldiers crossing the bridge.  Fortunately for the British, they found the four Americans passed out with an empty cask of Madeira wine.  The men had gotten drunk and fallen asleep before the British got to the bridge.

To top it off, a Native American warrior who was part of the British auxiliary was curious about the cannon.  He picked up the still lit ignition stick and managed to fire the cannon anyway.  The British soldiers still crossing the bridge, were fortunate that the cannon was not pointed at the bridge by that time and the grapeshot landed harmlessly in the lake.

Skeffington Lutwidge
(from Wikimedia)
By noon on July 6, with the fort secure, General Burgoyne entered the fort himself and surveyed his victory.  The Americans had left behind British and loyalist prisoners now released from the fort’s prison.  They had abandoned at least eighty cannon, many of which had not even been spiked.  The British also found over 10,000 pounds of flour, large amounts of salted meat and other food, about 200 oxen and plenty of other baggage abandoned by the fleeing Americans.  Burgoyne congratulated his men on a job well done and ordered the pursuit of the fleeing Americans.

By the time Burgoyne entered the Fort, General Fraser’s forces had already crossed over to Mount Independence and were marching down Hubbardton road after the American column.  I will pick up that part of the story next week.

Once the British moved a small occupying force to Mount Independence using the American’s bridge, Burgoyne ordered the bridge destroyed so that the British warships could pursue the Americans down Lake Champlain.  Commander of the British fleet, Skeffington Lutwidge ordered the British cannons to blast away the chain blocking the lake.  After that they blew through the bridge and sailed after the American fleet.


The Americans had several hours head start on the British.  The American fleet sailed down to Skenesboro, which was the southernmost point to which the larger ships could sail.  Colonel Pierse Long planned to unload the men and equipment, then march inland to connect up with the main force under General St. Clair, which was marching overland.

Before the Continentals could unload their ships, the British fleet was on top of them.  Unlike the fighting in prior battles under generals like Howe and Carleton, the British did not simply seize the fort and then take days to regroup and plan.  Burgoyne was intent on capturing the retreating Americans and using speed to do it.  Commodore Lutwidge had sailed his ships down the Lake, transporting several regiments of regulars to a few miles above Skenesborough, then continuing on with his fleet to attack the American ships.  The British had been wary as there were several points along the lake where the Americans could have set up an effective ambush.  However, the speed of the assault, left the Americans with no time to plan any defensive action.

Battle of Fort Ann (from Battlefields)
By late afternoon, British cannons were firing on the American fleet still docked at Skenesborough.  They had set three ships on fire within minutes.  The Enterprise, Gates, and Liberty were destroyed.  The other two ships, Trumbull and Revenge raised white flags in hopes of avoiding destruction.  Most of the hundreds of American soldiers with the fleet fled into the woods to avoid capture.  A few batteaux escaped up Wood Creek, but most were destroyed.  Colonel Long tried to evacuate the men who had not already fled, moving south toward Fort Anne, about ten miles away.  The sick and wounded were abandoned to become prisoners.  The supplies were destroyed in the fire started by British artillery.

Fort Ann

The British, having taken Skenesborough, continued in pursuit.  On the morning of July 7, Colonel John Hill led about 200 regulars in pursuit of the Americans at Fort Anne.  By this time, Colonel Long had reached Fort Ann with several hundred Continentals.  He was soon joined by about 400 local militia under Colonel Henry Van Rensselaer, who had marched up from Fort Edward to provide support.

At this point though, it was unclear if those reinforcements would be enough.  The Americans set up a perimeter guard about a mile and a half north of Fort Ann to warn them about any approaching British.  Colonel Hill’s British regulars probed the American defenses, leading to about four hours of skirmishing.  As night fell, the British opted to camp and await reinforcements.

The Americans were uncertain how large an enemy force confronted them.  Long got a volunteer to pose as a deserter who entered the British lines the next morning.  The deserter told the British leader that the Americans had at least 1000 men at the fort, almost double the actual number.  At the same time, the deserter confirmed that the British had only about 200 men.  With that, he slipped out of camp and returned to Fort Ann with his intelligence.

The Americans opted to attack the advance force before more British reinforcements could arrive.  By late morning, the patriots attempted to flank the enemy camp, using the woods as cover.  The attack took the British by surprise.  As the Americans had greater numbers, the Colonel Hill was forced to retreat, abandoning their wounded and taking the British to the top of a nearby hill where they formed a defensive perimeter.

As ammunition ran low, Colonel Hill had to consider the possibility of surrendering to the Americans.  As he considered his options, a small British relief force arrived with a party of Indian auxiliaries.  The screams of Indian warriors rushing into battle was enough to induce an American withdrawal. By some accounts, the Indians did not even attack at all.  A British officer with them ran at the Americans and gave an Indian war whoop to instill fear in the American troops, and it worked.  In any case, the Americans pulled out and ended the engagement.   A few hours later, General William Phillips arrived on the scene with a much larger advance force of 520 soldiers and two cannons.

Philip Skene (From
Bennington Battlefield)
With the arrival of more British reinforcements, the Americans had to reevaluate their situation.  They were running out of ammunition and the majority of the forces there, local militia, wanted to leave.  The Americans also learned that General Phillips would soon have about 2000 soldiers to attack the fort.

Colonel Long opted to burn the fort and move his men further south to Fort Edward.  Along the way, they destroyed bridges and blocked trails to make a British pursuit more difficult.  With the American retreat and the destruction of Fort Anne, the British pulled back to Skenesborough to regroup.

There is a story from a British officer who claims to have captured an American flag in this battle, that continued thirteen stripes and thirteen stars on a blue field.  Although this story is disputed, if true, it is the first reference to the use of the American flag in battle.

General Burgoyne had joined his army at Skenesborough on July 7.  He was accompanied by Major Philip Skene, the loyalist who had lived there before the war, and for whom the town was named. He had been forced to flee to Canada.  Skene was pleased to find his mansion looted but at least not burned to the ground.  He offered it to Burgoyne as his headquarters.

On July 8, as Burgoyne received reports of the battle at Fort Anne, and that the Americans had fled south, he was pleased to learn of the victory but disappointed about the American escape.  That evening, a soldier brought him a letter that they said had been nailed to a tree by the Americans and which was addressed to him.  When he opened it, the letter simply said “To General Burgoyne! It ain’t over yet!

Next week: British and American forces clash at the Battle of Hubbardton.

- - -

Next Episode 146 Battle of Hubbardton

Previous Episode 144 Defending Fort Ticonderoga

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Further Reading


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

Barbieri, Michael “Ti’s Evacuation and the Battle of Hubbardton” Journal of the American Revolution, July 24, 2014:

Skenesborough: Today’s Whitehall, New York:

The Battle of Fort Ann:

The Battle of Fort Anne:

Jacobson, Michael “Fort Anne: Remembering the Continental Army’s First Stand Against Burgoyne” Journal of the American Revolution, March 22, 2017:

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 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.

Stone, William Leete, The Campaign of Lieut. Gen. John Burgoyne  and the expedition of Lieut. Col. Barry St. Leger, Albany, NY: Joel Munsell, 1877.

Walworth, Ellen H. Battles of Saratoga, 1777; the Saratoga Monument Association, 1856-1891, 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, Praeger, 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 (book recommendation of the week).

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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