As promised, my daughter has penned a brief history of Fort Ticonderoga, the park we recently visited. You can ride on over to here to read about our enthralling visit, and then come on back for a little history lesson.
In America’s early decades, before the independence of the colonies from the European nations that ruled them, and then from Great Britain, it was a vast and unexplored wilderness, rich with all the resources to make the drooling monarchs of Europe desire to enrich themselves with it. New York was (is, and always has been) one of those colonies replete with abundant natural resources. It is not surprising, then, that the nations of Europe and France, perhaps the two most powerful and influential nations in Europe during the 18th century, would battle over this land, and fight a long war over it.
During the early to mid-eighteenth century, the France had claim to territory in Canada, directly adjutant to the north of New York, which was a bone of contention between the French and the British. Disputes and conflicts over New York territory and the territory of other parts of what is now the United States between England and France (of course with the Indians and the American colonists automatically caught in the crossfire) erupted into the Seven Years War; this war is now more popularly known as the French and Indian War, which lasted from 1754 to 1763.
The struggle for control of the eastern waterways of New York played an enormous part in the Seven Years War, but in order to understand this, we must understand some geography.
New York was directly in the middle of the thirteen colonies, which made up the land that the English and the French were bickering about. New York’s borders did not extend as far west as they do now, but nevertheless, the land which stretched from south of Montreal in Canada to the Atlantic Ocean (and through which land stretched a “rod” of rivers and lakes) was the eastern half of New York. At this time, it was not easy to transport goods, ammunition, and men over land through the dense and hostile wilderness of New York. Not only was travel slow and good shelter rare, but wagons and carts found it nearly impossible to make it through the dense woods and infested swamps. Travel by water, on the other hand, eliminated the disadvantages of land travel. Therefore, whoever controlled the waterways of New York controlled its commerce and military.
The eastern waterway of New York was a perfect place for ships loaded with supplies, men, horses, and cannon to be quickly transported from place to place at little cost (compared to land travel), because out of the south of Hudson Bay (north of what was then French Canada) flowed the St. Lawrence River, which ended directly at the top of northeastern New York. At this place where the St. Lawrence River ends there is (well, guess what!) a short interruption of land. Directly south of that is Lake Champlain. This lake is rather elongated, so it shaped much like a river. To the south of Lake Champlain follows a very long and complicated system of waterways, with rivers sprouting out of the lake into the interior of New York. One of the rivers that flows out of the south of Lake Champlain flows westward, and the other river that flows out of the south of the Lake flows directly south. On the intersection of the west-flowing river and Lake Champlain (this intersection makes a “v” shape) sits Fort Ticonderoga. The location of this fort was very strategically erected, for it would have full control over which ships (make that, WHOSE ships) could continue going into the southern or western interior of New York, and therefore, have access to its natural resources and a traffic way into the rest of the colonies.
It was the French who initially erected this fort (which they called “Fort Carillon” and not “Ticonderoga” — which, if you ask me, sounds Native American), in order to protect their precious possessions in Canada from the boats of the British, as well as to secure (so they thought) conquest of New York. Not surprisingly, the British tried to claim the fort during the war, in 1758, but they lost the siege. Later on during the War, the British General Amherst captured the fort, forcing the French to leave Lake Champlain. Peace was eventually signed in 1763, which secured the colony of New York in British hands (and therefore it continued to be habited by the American colonists and the Iroquois who allied with the British), and not long after, the British claimed the eastern part of Canada.
But then, as we all know, “In 1775, the Revolution came alive,” and the American colonists found themselves fighting with their own former British allies (this time, the Iroquois were caught in the middle, and they split up among themselves, some joining the patriots, and others the British). If the patriots wanted to prevent the British from sending their men and ammunitions down through New York,, and on the the rest of the colonies, than Fort Ticonderoga had to be secured for the patriots. But how?
Not quite a month after the “shot heard ’round the world” was fired, Colonel Ethan Allen, an American patriot and commander of the Green Mountain Boys sneaked up on Fort Ticonderoga before daylight on May 10, 1775. The British guards (the British were always so darn sure about themselves) outside the fort were caught by surprise, and were immediately apprehended by the Americans. Then Col Allen and his men made their silent way into the labyrinth of the fort. Ethan Allen in his Memoirs would later relate that as they were creeping through the fort that suddenly a British soldier charged at one of his officers with a bayonet. Allen, quick as a flash, drew his sword and gave the British soldier a slash on the forehead, and would have killed him, but the man begged for quarter (that is, allowance to live in exchange for being captured), which Allen granted him. “Besides,” Allen must have thought to himself, “this rascally Brit may come in handy.” Allen demanded that his new captive lead him to the quarter of the British commander of the fort. When they reached the door, Allen banged on the door, and called the commander to come out of bed (it was still dark, and the British weren’t planning on a bunch of rag-a-muffin Yankee Doodles capturing their fort). The commander came out, still in his night-gown, holding his bed robe, and perhaps rubbing the slumber out of his eyes, and wondered what this fiery Yank wanted. Allen demanded that he surrender possession of the fort immediately. “Of all the nerve!” the commander thought to himself. “Who does this rambunctious, country bumpkin Yankee think he is? I am a respectable British officer who has just been so rudely awakened from his beauty sleep and this fellow thinks he can simply knock on my door and make me surrender this fine and well-equipped fortress!” The officer wanted to know what authority this young rapscallion made his claim, to which Allen added, drawing his sword to illustrate his point, “In the name of the Great Jehovah, and of the Continental Congress!”
Maybe that “Continental Congress” part didn’t impress the officer very much, but a bathrobe in the hand (against a sword) is not nearly worth hiding in three bushes. Fort Ticonderoga was now in possession of the American patriots! For a while …
In the year 1777, the British, knowing (er, thinking) that they knew a way to end this war in their favor and end it quickly, proposed a strategy which would again utilize the geographical importance of New York, and rely upon which side owned Fort Ticonderoga. British General John Burgoyne (who was knows as “Gentleman Johnny by his soldiers) proposed a three-pronged attack on New York. He needed the assistance of General Barry St. Ledger (in Canada) and General William Howe (in New York City) to meet him (who would start from Montreal, Canada and march south) in Albany, in which city was the headquarters of the American head of the North Department, and HHIC of the Patriot forces in New York, Major-General Philip Schuyler. The adventures (and mishaps) of British Generals St. Ledger and Howe are a story of themselves. Gentleman Johnny’s, um, New York travel, shall we say, proved to be quite an adventure. He started his march southward into New York, taking full advantage of New York’s eastern waterways. His boats, loaded with his sub-officers, their wives, champagne, fine clothing, and necessities, as well as the troops and their wives and children luxuries from England, traversed over Lake Champlain, and then came to Fort Ticonderoga. This fort was nearly invincible, and the only way to take it without losing such a great amount of men and ammunition (which needed to be saved for the big siege at Albany and the rest of the conquest of America) was to find dome way to get to the top of Mount Defiance, which was the only place were the ground rose above Fort Ticonderoga. Right there, however, was a problem. Mount Defiance was called so because no one had been able to climb it, much less to mount cannon on top of it and force the Americans out of it without a fight. But that is what Burgoyne and his forces managed to do – and all in one night. The next morning, the Americans in the fort noticed the British cannons over their heads, and the American commanders decided to retreat from the fort, rather than fight to keep it, knowing that they would all be terribly killed. Burgoyne got the fort.
The capture of Fort Ticonderoga was a big point in Burgoyne’s favor in the eyes of the British, but it was also a big demerit of General Schuyler in the eyes of the Continental Congress, who were already planning on replacing him and/or General Washington with the New-Englander Horatio Gates. It would soon be too late before the Congress would realize their big mistake. But in the meantime, Burgoyne continued his triumphant march toward Albany. Little did he know that Fort Ticonderoga would benefit his cause very little out in the strange and hostile wilderness of New York. The British occupation may have caused a greater sense of urgency among the patriots in the northeastern colonies (as Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Hamilton said would benefit the Americans and not the British), it would not aid Burgoyne and his troops against the legions of mosquitoes, hauling wagons through dense woods, starvation, disease, and cold. But, Burgoyne’s eventual failure will be discussed in its own good time — when we visit Saratoga Battlefield!