Ticonderoga, New York, British Capture of
Ticonderoga, New York, British Capture of
TICONDEROGA, NEW YORK, BRITISH CAPTURE OF. 2-5 July 1777. Captured by the British during Burgoyne's offensive. After the Americans evacuated Crown Point in July 1776, they accelerated efforts to strengthen Fort Ticonderoga. Much of the work was planned by young John Trumbull, and the professional engineering talent was furnished by Thaddeus Kosciuszko. The old fort was partially repaired and blockhouses were erected, the old French earthworks that barred an approach from the northwest were improved, and a new barbette battery was constructed on Mount Hope. Mount Independence was fortified and a bridge of boats spanned the quarter-mile water gap between it and Ticonderoga, while a barrier of log booms and iron chains was constructed north of the bridge. Trumbull pointed out to his skeptical commander that artillery from a hill known as Mount Defiance would threaten the main defenses, and with Wayne and Arnold he climbed the eight-hundred-foot hill to prove that the crest was accessible. The American General Arthur St. Clair, the commander, had only one-fifth of the troop strength needed to man existing works properly, and he left Mount Defiance undefended.
It was apparent to Trumbull and most of the other officers that there was little hope of defending Ticonderoga with such a small force against Burgoyne's army. Schuyler's suggestion that only Mount Independence be occupied was twice approved by Congress. But the popular image of Ticonderoga as impregnable and a symbol of security precluded its immediate abandonment. As General Gates pointed out, the boom was an essential feature of the defenses, and unless it was defended at both ends, the enemy could break through and turn Mount Independence. On 20 June, Schuyler and the four generals on the spot decided to hold Ticonderoga as long as possible and then defend Mount Independence.
St. Clair had taken command at Ticonderoga on 12 June, less than a month before the attack. His three senior subordinates, Brigadier Generals Matthias Fermoy, John Paterson, and Enoch Poo, failed to gain distinction during the war. St. Clair's 2,500 troops included 10 Continental and 2 militia regiments, 250 artillerymen, 124 artificers, and some scouts; however, they were an ill-disciplined group.
British forces totaled about seven thousand regulars and another twenty-five hundred or so white and Indian auxiliaries. The troops were well equipped, well disciplined, and well led, excepting Burgoyne.
British General Simon Fraser's Advance Corps left Crown Point on 26 June and was two miles from Ticonderoga when the rest of Burgoyne's force landed behind him. The German Wing debarked on the east shore, and the British Wing landed on the other. On 2 July, Fraser cautiously took possession of Mount Hope, cutting off the American route to Lake George. St. Clair's outpost set fire to its works at 9 a.m. and then retreated, the enemy arriving four hours later. The British moved cautiously along the peninsula, making contact with the main defenses at about 3 p.m. American officers watched this advance while their men, on St. Clair's orders, held their fire. When Colonel James Wilkinson saw an enemy skirmisher stop a mere forty paces away, he ordered a sergeant to pick him off, touching off an unauthorized fire from the rest of the waiting rebels. As U.S. officers ran around trying to stop the firing, the enemy dropped back out of range, leaving the prostrate form of the man Wilkinson had ordered shot—a drunken member of the Forty-Seventh Regiment, who was unscathed. In addition to eight cannon, the Americans had fired an estimated three thousand rounds from one thousand muskets at less than one hundred yards, demonstrating their marksmanship by hitting just three of their targets.
The Germans on the other side of the lake had meanwhile pushed forward to East Creek. There, the advance elements under Breymann drew artillery fire from Mount Independence.
From a prisoner, St. Clair learned the extent of Burgoyne's numbers. The Americans' situation was not yet critical, however, since their line of communication by water to Skenesboro was still open and the threat of a German envelopment of the Mount Independence position was considerably reduced by the obstacle of East Creek and its swamps. St. Clair hoped that Burgoyne would make the error of a frontal attack against Ticonderoga from the northwest
On 3 July, Burgoyne occupied Mount Hope in force, and a relatively harmless artillery exchange ensued. Gall's brigade was taken from Riedesel to reinforce the right wing, and some Canadians and Indians, along with Captain Fraser's light infantry company, were shifted across the lake to Riedesel. The latter was given the mission of turning the Mount Independence position and cutting the line of communication to Skenesboro.
On 4 July, Burgoyne's chief engineer, Lieutenant Twiss, reconnoitered Mount Defiance, reporting that the hill was within effective artillery range of Ticonderoga and Mount Independence and that the necessary roadwork to get guns into position could be done within twenty-four hours. The energetic Major General William Phillips took command of the operation with the comment, "Where a goat can go, a man can go; and where a man can go he can haul up a gun." Four twelve-pounders were in position, ready to open fire at noon of 6 July.
The significance of these guns was not that they could deliver a fire of sufficient intensity and accuracy to make the American positions untenable; the range, about twenty-two hundred yards, was too great for precision fire with the guns of the day, and the improvised road up the northwest slopes of Mount Defiance would not permit the ammunition supply needed for sustained fire. On the other hand, the guns could threaten the bridge and wreak havoc among boats brought up to evacuate the garrison. Perhaps the most significant threat was to the morale of the defenders. The British made the mistake of letting the Americans see their preparations on 5 July. St. Clair called a council of war at 3 p.m., which ended with a unanimous decision to pull out.
The heavy American cannonade at dusk on 5 July should have tipped Burgoyne off to American plans but did not. After carrying as much matériel down to the boats as possible, some four hundred to five hundred troops commanded by Colonel Pierce Long left Ticonderoga with the artillery, supplies, and wounded shortly after midnight and headed for Skenesboro. The rest of the garrison headed across the bridge of boats about two hours later. Since there was no road south along the lake, St. Clair planned to lead the main body by way of Castleton to join Long at Skenesboro.
A well-planned retreat was marred by a series of mishaps. First, General Fermoy went to sleep without giving the withdrawal orders to all his troops on Mount Independence. Then, when he got ready to leave at about 3 a.m., he set fire to his quarters, contrary to St. Clair's orders, illuminating the scene for Riedesel, who sent troops by boat to harass the withdrawal. Finally, the four gunners posted to deliver enfilade fire along the bridge got drunk and went to sleep; an Indian with the party that captured them almost did their duty for them when he accidentally touched off one of the cannon with a slow match, but the shot passed harmlessly over the heads of the British troops on the bridge.
Burgoyne himself did not learn until dawn that St. Clair had slipped away, but he then reacted with exceptional vigor. Ordering General Fraser to march quickly to overtake the main body that was moving overland, he personally led the pursuit by water. Burgoyne caught up with Long at Skenesboro on 6 July and pushed his pursuit to Fort Anne on 8 July. Fraser surprised the rear guard of St. Clair's column at Hubbardton on 7 July, where he won a costly victory with Riedesel's timely support.
The fall of Ticonderoga depressed the spirits of Americans and sent those of their enemy soaring. King George rushed into the queen's dressing room shouting, "I have beat them! I have beat all the Americans!" A court-martial acquitted St. Clair with honor; forced by political considerations to bait the Ticonderoga trap, he saved his army.
Burgoyne, on the other hand, revealed his mediocrity. He had opened the attic door of the American colonies, but by failing to annihilate its defenders had won what Napoleon called an ordinary victory.
SEE ALSO Burgoyne's Offensive; Fermoy, Matthias Alexis de Roche; Fort Anne, New York; Hubbardton, Vermont; Kosciuszko, Thaddeus Andrzej Bonawentura; Marksmanship; Paterson, John; Poor, Enoch; Skenesboro, New York; Trumbull, John.
Bobrick, Benson. Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution. New York: Penguin, 1997.
Ketchum, Richard M. Saratoga: Turning Point of America's Revolutionary War. New York: Holt, 1997.
revised by Michael Bellesiles