Sunday, August 16, 2020

ARP162 Raid on Fort Ticonderoga

Last week I talked about the battle of Freeman’s Farm, where the Americans fought General Burgoyne’s army to a draw in upstate New York.  The British were struggling to advance, but their real problem was a lack of good supply lines.

General Horatio Gates had taken command of the northern army, replacing General Philip Schuyler in late August.  He had lobbied for the command in Philadelphia for months before the loss of Ticonderoga convinced Congress that it was time for a new leader.  Once in command, Gates traveled to Albany and contacted General Lincoln and General Stark who were still in what is today Vermont and asked them uh, so what do you guys think we should do?

Fort Ticonderoga (from Wikimedia)

Lincoln and Stark developed a plan to harass Burgoyne’s rear and disrupt his supply lines from Canada.  As I mentioned in an earlier episode, Lincoln originally wanted Stark’s militia army to join up with the Continentals further south.  Stark’s refusal meant that his men were in place to contest the battle of Bennington.  Rather than continue to fight with Stark, Lincoln got on board with the idea of keeping these local militia separate and tried to find another use for them.

In September, before the battle of Freeman’s Farm, Lincoln came up with a plan to create more havoc behind British lines.  General Burgoyne’s forces had captured Fort Ticonderoga in July.  After that, they had then sailed down Lake Champlain to Skenesboro, marched through the forest to force the Americans out of Fort Ann and Fort Edward, and by mid September had crossed the Hudson river and were marching south toward Albany.

General Burgoyne had asked General Carlton in Canada to deploy some of his forces to garrison Fort Ticonderoga.  Carleton pointed out that Ticonderoga was in New York, not Canada, and that it was Burgoyne’s problem, not his.  In fact, Lord Germain had given precise orders on what regiments were to go to New York under Burgoyne and which would remain in Canada under Carlton.  The general would not deviate from those instructions.  So Burgoyne left one regiment of British regulars and one regiment of German Brunswickers to garrison the fort and hold Mount Independence, or what the British still called Rattlesnake Hill. 

Rather than continue to try to maintain a supply line from Skenesborough through the forest to the Hudson River, the British reverted to their original plan to move supplies down Lake George to Fort George.  From there, an existing road allowed easier transport to the army that was now moving down the Hudson River.

The American General Lincoln planned to disrupt the British supply lines by deploying militia against the British outposts that were relatively small and isolated.  Lincoln had accumulated about 2500 soldiers ready for duty.  From this force, he developed a plan to deploy 500 soldiers each under three different commanders.  One division would take and hold Skenesborough.  Another would assault Mount Independence.  It was hoped that these two divisions would distract the British as a third group assaulted Fort Ticonderoga.

John Brown

To lead the assault on the Fort, General Lincoln turned to Colonel John Brown.  Colonel Brown is an interesting character who deserves a little background.  We have already crossed paths with Colonel Brown several times in our story already.

Brown was born in Massachusetts in 1744, no relationship to the famous abolitionist of the same name, He attended Yale College and studied law in Rhode Island under his brother in law, Oliver Arnold, uncle of Benedict Arnold.  He then moved to upstate New York where he took a position as the king’s attorney, essentially what we would call today a government prosecutor.  Shortly before the war began, he moved to Pittsfield in western Massachusetts and won election to the colonial legislature.

Benedict Arnold
(from Wikimedia)
Brown was active in committees of correspondence before the war and even when on a mission to Quebec to see if there was any interest in getting them involved in the revolution.  Brown found the Quebecois unreceptive, but did note that Fort Ticonderoga in early 1775 was a valuable prize that the British had left relatively unguarded.

When fighting broke out at Lexington and Concord, Brown worked with Samuel Parsons to assemble a raiding party to capture Fort Ticonderoga.  As a member of the Pittsfield militia, Brown met with the local militia commander James Easton to combine their forces with the Green Mountain Boys under Ethan Allen to take the fort.  As they were preparing to do so, Colonel Benedict Arnold showed up and tried to take command.  Brown, along with Easton, Allen, and just about everyone else, seemed to take an immediate dislike to Arnold and were among his first haters.  

After they captured the Fort, Brown was given the honor of delivering the news to Congress. His refusal to acknowledge Arnold’s role in his message to Congress put him on Arnold’s personal enemies list.  Brown took a commission as major in the Continental Army and spent the rest of 1775 under the command of General Richard Montgomery, first scouting enemy positions in Canada and also engaging in several skirmishes with the enemy. 

In late 1775, Colonel Arnold made his famous wilderness march to Quebec that I discussed back in Episode 76.  Arnold and Brown, once again, had to work with each other.  During the New Year’s Eve attack on Quebec, Brown was given command of the attack on the main gates, which was designed to divert attention as Mongomery and Arnold launched the real attack on the other side of the city. 

During the retreat, Arnold accused Brown of stealing property from captured British officers.  Brown demanded a court martial to clear his name, but never got one.  Brown, in turn, brought thirteen charges against Arnold, which likewise were never brought to a hearing.  After Arnold’s success and Valcour Bay in late 1776, Arnold’s reputation nationally had made him a hero once again.  A frustrated Brown published his pamphlet where he famously wrote of Arnold "Money is this man's God, and to get enough of it he would sacrifice his country."  

There is a story that shortly after that, Arnold threatened to attack Brown if he ever saw him.  Brown got word of this and went to a dinner party that Arnold was attending and confronted him.  At the party, Brown got right in Arnold’s face and called him a scoundrel, the same sort of language that had led to the MacIntosh-Burnett duel in Georgia.  Arnold, however, did not take the bait, and simply ignored Brown.

Congress promoted Arnold to brigadier general in early 1777, and swept away Brown’s charges without a hearing.   Brown, by this time a Lieutenant Colonel, resigned his commission and returned to Pittsfield.  It is not certain why Brown resigned.  It seems likely that his resignation was related to Congress’ decision to promote Arnold and dismiss Brown’s charges against the new general. Whatever the reason, by spring 1777, Brown was back to practicing law in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

Whatever ill-will Brown harbored, over the military politics, when Burgoyne invaded New York in the summer of 1777, Brown as a Massachusetts militia colonel, made his services available to General Lincoln.

The Mission

General Lincoln tasked Colonel Brown with the attack on Fort Ticonderoga.  On September 13, 1777 Brown departed Pawlet, Vermont with 500 hand-picked men.  Among his men were portions of the Seth Warner’s regiment, the former Green Mountain Boys who had taken Fort Ticonderoga with Brown over two years prior.

Benjamin Lincoln
(from Wikimedia)
Colonel Johnson led another 500 militia for the assault on Mount Independence.  One source for the account identifies him as Colonel Thomas Johnson of the Vermont militia.  Another source identifies him as Colonel Samuel Johnson of the Massachusetts militia.  Since General Lincoln’s account only calls him Colonel Johnson, I’m not sure I have a definitive answer as to who this guy was.  But a guy named Colonel Johnson led the attack on Mount Independence.  

Colonel Benjamin Ruggles Woodbridge of the Massachusetts militia led another 500 men to secure Skenesborough.  After the three colonels departed with their troops, General Lincoln personally took another 600 soldiers on September 17, leaving only about 400 in Pawlet.  Lincoln set out to join up with Colonel Woodbridge near Skenesborough.

The mission required speed.  The men left behind tents and any other heavy baggage.  They carried what food and ammunition they could use, with only a little extra carried in the saddlebags of some of the cavalry that went with them.

Once all the men were in the field, General Lincoln received orders from General Gates to recall all of the soldiers and move south to meet up with the main army, which was about to fight the battle of Freeman’s Farm that I discussed last week.  Lincoln turned around and began to head back to Pawlet.  He also dispatched messengers to the three divisions to do the same.  However, they did not get these messages in time.

Raid on Ticonderoga

Brown marched his men south, crossing Lake Champlain at a narrow area, then marching north to Ticonderoga.  According to Brown’s report.  The men marched all night, launching a dawn attack on the morning of September 18th.  Other reports indicate they were in the area for at least two days observing the British garrison.  It is likely that Brown, a former scout himself, did at least send an advance team to get intelligence on the British defenses before his attack.

Brown deployed Captain Ebenezer Allen and a group of twenty rangers to retake Mount Defiance.  That is where the British had famously deployed cannons to force the American abandonment of Fort Ticonderoga.  The Rangers used knives and tomahawks to kill or capture the enemy company, most of whom were asleep on the mountaintop.  His men retook the mountain without a shot fired and without raising any alarm.

There were nearly 1000 British and German defenders at the fort.  Brown was attacking with only 500 men.  So even ignoring the fort walls and artillery, the British had a numerical advantage.  Brown, however, had surprise on his side.  Nearly half of the garrison was outside the fort walls, not expecting any sort of attack.  When the Americans approached, the pickets mistook them for returning Canadian militia.  The Americans captured the guards without a shot fired.  

The Americans rounded up over 300 prisoners as the stunned garrison could not react to the attack before the Americans had them.  Most of the prisoners were taken at the Lake George landing where the British maintained a fleet of batteaux and small ships for transporting men and supplies.  

The British did manage to close the doors of the fort and keep the attackers at bay from behind the fort walls.  Colonel Brown sent an officer to demand the fort’s surrender.  The commander Brigadier General Henry Watson Powell refused to surrender.  I think his response was something like this.  Actually, Powell responded much more professionally, and not nearly as funny saying: "The Garrison invested to my charge, I shall defend to the last."

The Americans fired on the fort with some of the field cannons they had captured, but did not have nearly enough firepower to knock down any walls.  Even if they did, they did not have the overwhelming numbers to storm the defensive artillery and take the fort from the garrison.  With enemy forces still occupying artillery on top of Mount Independence, even taking the fort could lead to the attackers putting themselves in a vulnerable position. Brown had orders from Lincoln only to harass and not to attempt to recapture the fort unless an easy opportunity presented itself.  

Instead, Brown’s attackers satisfied themselves by destroying or carrying away everything around the fort, all the outbuildings, ships, food, supplies, and prisoners.  The men ran off all the horses and cattle, denying transport and provisions to the enemy.  British General Powell could only watch with frustration from behind the fort walls.

In addition to taking over 300 enemy prisoners, the Americans also recaptured more than 100 American prisoners held by the British, most of whom were being held after their capture at the Battle of Hubbardton.  Brown reported he had two or three men killed during the attack and less than five wounded.  The British also suffered two or three dead and a few wounded.

Across the river, Colonel Johnson’s attack on Mount Independence did not catch the defenders by surprise.  The German defenders were ready for him and Johnson opted to call off the attack.  Brown’s force remained in the area for four days before they withdrew.  Brown turned over most of his prisoners to Colonel Johnson, who marched the unlucky British and German soldiers back to Pawlet.

Diamond Island

After he had completed his work at the fort, Brown boarded a fleet of captured ships and sailed south down Lake George.  He hoped to seize a British supply depot on Diamond Island.  Brown’s men left late in the day on September 22.  Although the island was only 25 miles away, poor weather and adverse winds prevented them from reaching the island the next day.  

Brown had with him several suspected loyalists who his men had collected during the raid.  Several of these men were held aboard ship.  However, one officer allowed a loyalist parole to sail his own ship behind the fleet.  This man made his escape on the night of September 23, and sailed to shore.  He walked down to the bank across from Diamond Island.  There, he shouted until he got the attention of guards on the island and was transported across.  He warned the garrison commander, Captain Thomas Aubrey, of the imminent attack.  

When Brown’s fleet arrived the next morning, the 24th, the two or three companies of German and British soldiers were ready to contest the attack.  They had canons and were in position behind entrenchments.

Thomas Aubrey
(from 47th Regiment)
Brown fired on the defenders from his small ships, which had mounted cannons of their own. He attempted to find a place to land his troops where they would not be under enemy fire, but found the defenders had covered the whole island.  After a brief firefight, it became clear that he could not mount a successful attack against the defenders.  Brown reported two men mortally wounded and a few more with lesser wounds.

Brown also reported that there were about 300 defenders at Diamond Island, although 100-150 seems to be a more probable number.  He reported another 40 men still at a garrison at Fort George further to the south.

Brown then sailed away, found a landing point, burned his ships and all the supplies that the men could not carry, and marched to overland to Skenesborough.  The original plan had been to meet up with Colonel Woodbridge and five hundred reinforcements there. However, General Lincoln had already recalled Woodbridge back to Pawlet.  The Americans had expected to encounter more enemy soldiers in the area.  Instead, General Burgoyne had ordered almost all units to join his main army, leaving almost no one in his rear.  Brown was able to return to Pawlet and rejoin Lincoln's main army.


John Brown’s raids on Ticonderoga and Diamond Island did not get much attention at the time since the much larger armies under General Gates and General Burgoyne were already engaged further to the south.

However, the raids ensured that Burgoyne’s army was cut off from any supplies, not only from Canada, but even from the stores he had left at Fort Ticonderoga.  Many regiments had left much of their baggage at Diamond Island so that they would not have to carry it on their march.  Even though the American raids did not capture the island, the British were afraid to transport anything from there, fearing additional raids on transports.

Such fears were well-founded. After Colonel Brown rejoined General Lincoln at Pawlet, Lincoln redeployed him with several hundred men to patrol the area between Fort Edward and Fort George and to attack any enemy parties on the move that he could find.  Meanwhile, General Lincoln took the bulk of his army south to join up with General Gates and the main Continental army near Saratoga.  On September 29th Lincoln took command of the right wing of Gates’ army and prepared for Burgoyne’s attack.  

General Stark also moved south, although he still refused to put himself and his militia under Gates’ command.  He continued to operate as an independent entity.  He and Gates did communicate regularly.  Stark’s militia continued to be an obstruction to any attempt Burgoyne might make to retreat north, or make a move east toward New England in order to get away from Gates’ Continentals.

Brown sent a report to General Gates indicating that he believed that Burgoyne’s army only had enough food for the next four weeks, and was cut off from any more supplies.  This may have encouraged Gates in his belief that all he had to do was keep the British contained until the army ran out of food.  Burgoyne would either have to surrender or make a desperate attack against the American entrenchments.

In Canada, General Carlton was alerted to the new danger against Fort Ticonderoga.  He finally relented and sent several regiments of regulars to reinforce the fort’s garrison.  Also by this time, Barry St. Leger’s army, which had retreated from Fort Stanwix and had returned to Canada, was making its way south toward Ticonderoga in an effort to join up with General Burgoyne’s army. His forces finally arrived at the fort on September 27, a few days after Brown had completed his raid.  

St. Leger, however, was reluctant to continue his journey to link up with Burgoyne.  He was concerned that Fort Ticonderoga would fall under attack again.  There was also the danger that his army would suffer an ambush in an area that a week or two earlier the British had considered perfectly secure.  As a result, Burgoyne would find himself without St. Leger’s reinforcements as he prepared to make his final stand.

Brown’s raid proved a great success in helping to isolate General Burgoyne’s army and keep critical supplies from reaching his men at this critical time.

Next week, while Burgoyne and Gates take a pause before their final showdown, we head south again as General Washington threatens General Howe’s control of Philadelphia with his attack at Germantown.

- - -

Next Episode 163 Battle of Germantown 

Previous Episode 161 Battle of Freeman's Farm 

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Further Reading


Mounted Soldiers in John Brown’s Raid: 

Hoyte, Edward A. “The Pawlet Expedition, September 1777” Vermont History, Vol. 75, No. 2 (Summer/Fall 2007): 69–100.

Nelson, Peter. “The Battle of Diamond Island” The Quarterly Journal of the New York State Historical Association, vol. 3, no. 1, 1922, pp. 36–53. JSTOR,

Ventner, Bruce, “The Forgotten Battle of Diamond Island on Lake George” Adirondack Almanack, June 17, 2015:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

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

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.

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

DeCosta, B. F. The fight at Diamond Island, Lake George, New York, J. Sabin & Sons, 1872.

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.

Howe, Archibald Murray, Colonel John Brown of Pittsfield Massachusetts, Boston: W. B. Clarke company, 1908.

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

Peck, John Mason Lives of Daniel Boone and Benjamin Lincoln, Boston: C.C. Little and J. Brown, 1847.

Roof, Garret L. Colonel John Brown: his services in the Revolutionary War, Battle of Stone Arabia, Utica, NY: Ellis H. Roberts & Co. 1884.

Smith, Joseph E.A. The History of Pittsfield, (Berkshire County,) Massachusetts, Boston: Lea and Shepard, 1869.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

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.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

1 comment:

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