Vermont, Mobilization in

views updated

Vermont, Mobilization in

VERMONT, MOBILIZATION IN. On 21 April 1775, angry settlers living along the west side of the Connecticut River met in convention in the town of Westminster. Their outrage grew from what quickly became known as the Westminster Massacre, an effort by New York to assert its authority to a territory occupied mostly by people whose land grants came from the colony of New Hampshire. New York's officials had been too energetic, killing two men and wounding ten more. These settlers looked for leadership to an imposing figure from the other side of the Green Mountains, Ethan Allen. Allen gave eloquent voice to their claims to the land they worked and to the authority of their traditional New England town structures. What they all feared was ending up like the poor tenant farmers of New York, "peasants" tied to land they could never own in a political system dominated by the great landlords. Even as Allen was writing their public protest against the tyranny of New York, word arrived that galvanized the convention and the region they called the New Hampshire Grants and redirected their energy toward a new enemy.

What the Westminster Convention heard was that just two days earlier, British regulars had fired on American farmers at Lexington. There was little doubt in the minds of those attending the convention that resistance to ministerial authority had now become war. They also shared deep misgivings about their degree of preparation for a conflict with the world's most powerful empire.

Rushing back over the mountains, Allen called together a hasty meeting of militia officers and town leaders who decided to stand with the rest of America against the British "and thereby annihilate the old quarrel with the government of New-York by swallowing it up in the general conflict for liberty." They assumed that once the Grants settlers demonstrated their loyalty to the common cause that Congress would not "in any manner countenance their being deprived of their liberty by subjecting them under the power of a government [New York] which they detest more than that of the British" (Walton, ed., Records, pp.447-448).

Deciding for war required that they confront a number of difficult issues. Allen and his fellow officers understood that they needed four things for war: money, munitions, men, and motivation. In 1775 the New Hampshire Grants possessed the last two of these but had little hope for money and munitions. The Grants had one major advantage over the rest of the American colonies—they had been in open rebellion for five years, but against New York rather than Britain. The Grants had no legal existence. The British king had given the Green Mountains region by colonial charters to New York, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. As a consequence, all three colonies issued land grants in the area, New York to wealthy, politically connected absentee owners, the other two states to anyone willing to pay their low fees. When the British Privy Council decided that New York held the right to all the land west of the Connecticut River and north of the Massachusetts border, the other governments abandoned those living in the Grants to their own devices. New York's officials proceeded to evict the settlers they saw as nothing but squatters.


At this juncture, in 1770, the extended Allen family settled in the Grants. In July 1770 Ethan Allen, the head of this clan, called a meeting at Stephen Fay's Catamount Tavern in Bennington and organized an extralegal militia company, the Green Mountain Boys. Over the next four years, eight companies with some three hundred men organized on the west side of the Green Mountains. Anyone could claim membership in the Green Mountain Boys by sticking a fir twig in his hat or hair. Its loose structure formed the primary strength of the organization, drawing ever more of the community into the resistance movement. Membership was entirely voluntary, as was showing up; but their "colonel commandant," Ethan Allen, had a notable ability to arouse the settlers to turn out for service. Later observers such as Generals Philip Schuyler and Richard Montgomery; Governor Guy Carleton; and even Allen's bitter rival, Benedict Arnold, acknowledged his charismatic skill as a recruiter. Allen excelled at what he called "preaching politics."

Motivation required organization to be effective. In 1774 the region's towns organized committees of correspondence to strengthen their link with the rest of the American colonies. They were quickly followed by a series of conventions of the region's towns, the struggle against British authority thus reinforcing their search for autonomy. On the west side of the Green Mountains, these conventions built upon the preexisting structure of the Green Mountain Boys and committees of correspondence. On the east side, the conventions met as the result of individual initiative. Theirs was a fluid authority, as town meetings simply adjourned in order to reconstitute themselves as committees of safety to oversee a temporary crisis. In 1775 the crisis seemed to become permanent.


Motivated by a fear of losing all they had built in the Green Mountains, the region's settlers willingly appeared for service in support of their rebellion. But they seriously lacked the material by which they could expect to engage in war against the British Empire. All those who visited the Grants noted their poverty. Noah Phelps, who reconnoitered the area for Connecticut, reported on its destitution to the General Assembly, doubting that the settlers could sustain any military action without external assistance. For munitions the Grants had to rely mostly on what the settlers had brought with them, primarily old muskets from the Seven Years' War or earlier. For gunpowder they needed to turn to the distant markets of Albany or Montreal. There were no local manufacturers of either guns or powder, and only a few of either in the whole of the American colonies. Ironically, the American colonies' prime source for munitions prior to 1775 was exactly the country against which they were now revolting. Not surprisingly, then, the Green Mountain Boys looked to the same source for the arms and ammunition they would need to launch their war against Britain. They looked west, to a fort sitting on a high bluff above Lake Champlain.

Fort Ticonderoga loomed large in the imagination of the American colonists. It was at this stone bastion that Montcalm had inflicted his notorious defeat on Abercrombie's superior force of fifteen thousand British and American troops in 1758. Thefort, which passed into British hands with the Treaty of Paris in 1763, acquired the reputation of being the key to control of the northern colonies. To attack such an imposing fort seemed the height of folly. But in the last days of April, that was exactly what Ethan Allen proposed to do.

Allen ordered the mobilization of the Green Mountain Boys and the stationing of guards on all the roads leading to Fort Ticonderoga, successfully isolating the British and keeping information of Lexington from them. The Grants benefited from having an experienced and organized military force with a clearly established chain of command. Within seventy-two hours of Allen's mobilization order, all eight companies of Green Mountain Boys had appeared for duty.

For money the Grants turned to the other provinces. Allen sent his brothers Heman and Levi to Hartford to seek financial support. They returned with three hundred pounds "borrowed" from the Connecticut treasury. (Connecticut would eventually spend fifteen hundred pounds on the campaign.) Allen sent two men to Albany with this money to purchase gunpowder and other supplies for his troops.

An ad hoc council or war met in Castleton on 8 May and planned the attack on Fort Ticonderoga. Clearly, surprise was essential. The following night two hundred men gathered at Hand's Cove just a mile from the fort. For some reason Canada's governor Carleton did not see fit to inform Captain William Delaplace of the threat he faced, guaranteeing the operation's success; Delaplace surrendered his sword to Allen without any idea that Britain was at war with anyone. The American haul was enormous. In addition to their 50 prisoners, the Americans seized 120 iron and 2 brass cannon, 50 swivel guns, 2 10-inch mortars, 10 barrels of musket balls, 3 cartloads of flints, 30 gun carriages, 10 casks of powder, hundreds of shells, materials for a boat, food stuffs, and a large supply of rum "for the refreshment of the fatigued soldiery" (Allen to Delaplace, 10 May 1775, Stevens Papers).

Allen immediately sent Seth Warner and Levi Allen north to capture Crown Point, where the Americans gained an additional 113 cannon, hundreds of muskets, and numerous casks of powder. While most of the other munitions went to the Continental Army, the Green Mountain Boys armed themselves with sufficient muskets and ammunition to last them for the next two years of war. The material captured on Lake Champlain in those first days of the northern campaign also supplied the Green Mountain Regiment organized in July 1775 under the command of Seth Warner.

The major stumbling block to mobilization was fear. Many hesitated to act, including the Continental Congress. The capture of Ticonderoga had been the first obviously offensive act of the war, and many patriots remained uncertain of its wisdom. Congress apologized to the Canadian people for the unfortunate seizure of the fortress and ordered Allen to move the cannon and other supplies at Ticonderoga to the far end of Lake George to await a peace settlement with England. Allen ignored Congress's order, firing off an angry letter reminding that body that it was at war and needed to act quickly.

Yet the commanders of these volunteer forces had little or no experience keeping troops in the field. Provisioning alone was a daunting task. After having seized the British garrisons on Lake Champlain, Allen realized that he was not in the least aware how to maintain his troops in their positions there. He wrote the Albany Committee of Safety that his men only had enough food for four days and that most of the cannon were not mounted. Thus, the arrival of Generals Schuyler and Montgomery was an enormous relief to all the officers except Arnold, who first refused to give up his command and then resigned in a huff. The two generals were experienced officers who knew what to do and could take responsibility for organizing the next step of the campaign. The inexperienced Grants officers would learn the necessary skills as they went along.


Despite all the initiative they had demonstrated in the first months of the Revolution, the Grants settlers lacked a preexisting political structure. Whereas the other colonies all had legislatures and court systems upon which they could build their new republican governments, the Grants had to create it all from scratch. It should not be too surprising then that their town meetings served as the building blocks and model for the state they created.

At first the region operated as it had prior to April 1775, relying on local committees of safety to address matters dealing with the Revolutionary struggle. These were supplemented by a number of ad hoc committees and the occasional convention addressing regional issues. But as New York refused to abandon its pre-Revolutionary claims to the territory, the Grants settlers found it necessary to create their own state to secure their revolution.

The war itself mobilized the Grants and crafted the kind of republic it became. In a series of six conventions between April 1775 and January 1777, the Grants moved slowly toward unification and independence. The earliest conventions concentrated almost entirely on military matters, postponing political disputes in the name of a requisite unity. For a time it seemed that the east-side towns would sit out the Revolution, only Townshend sending a representative to any of the first four conventions. Attempting to overcome this coolness, the Dorset Convention of July 1776 produced an "Association" for submission to the people, claiming to act for Congress, which had requested "that every honest Friend to the Liberties of America … should subscribe an Association, binding themselves as Members of some Body or Community" (Walton, ed., Records, 1, pp. 21-22). Signers of the Dorset Association swore to protect the United States, but as inhabitants of the Grants, not as New Yorkers. Emphasizing its jurisdiction, the Dorset Convention appointed a committee of war responsible for military procurement and oversight of the local committees of safety. The convention charged the committees with policing anyone who refused to sign the association as an enemy of the people.

Despite the military disasters of 1776, most of the region's inhabitants chose to identify with the Revolutionary struggle. The Grants leaders took these affirmations as excuse enough to call another convention at Westminster in January 1777. The convention voted unanimously that the Grants become "a new and separate state; and for the future conduct themselves as such," legitimating its action with John Adams's congressional resolution of 10 May 1776 (Proctor, p. 63). This resolution recommended that "where no government sufficient to the exigencies of their affairs has been hitherto established," that the inhabitants should "adopt such government as shall in the opinion of the Representatives of the people best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents"—an exact description of the Grants, the convention asserted (Walton, ed., Records, 1, pp. 40-44). The convention closed its business by applying for admission to Congress and voting to raise more troops for Warner's regiment, which it claimed as its own.

By the time the constitutional convention opened its meeting in Windsor on 2 July 1777, the state had a new name, Vermont. The state also had a spur to act quickly, as the northern defenses crumbled before General John Burgoyne's onslaught. Over the next week, the convention, guided by Ira Allen and Thomas Chittenden, wrote the most democratic constitution of its time. It also launched the structure by which Vermont would meet its enemies on the field of battle, leaving most authority in the towns, though granting strong executive powers to a governor and council elected directly by the people. On 8 July, during the last reading of the constitution, news arrived of Ticonderoga's fall and Warner's defeat at Hubbardton. The enemy had overrun the homes of many delegates and threatened to make the convention's proceedings moot. It passed the constitution unanimously, arranged for a statewide election in December, appointed a Council of Safety to oversee the war effort until the new government was approved by the people. The delegates then scattered to their militia units.


The newly constituted Vermont Council of Safety's first action was to call out the Green Mountain Boys to resist Burgoyne's invasion. They followed this up with an appeal to New Hampshire and Massachusetts for assistance, a step that had not occurred to any of the Continental army's generals. When Burgoyne sent Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Baum to Bennington, the gathered militiamen rejected General Benjamin Lincoln's claim to command and his order that they march to the Hudson. Instead, they turned to Colonel Warner and Colonel John Stark of New Hampshire. The complicated plan devised by these two commanders succeeded beyond their expectations, defeating both Baum's regiment and the relief force under Lieutenant Colonel Henrick von Breymann on 16 August 1777. In addition to seven hundred prisoners, the New Englanders also captured four brass cannon and hundreds of high-quality muskets that would serve the region's militia well in the years ahead.

Rearmed and invigorated by its triumph, Vermont's militia was sent by the Council of Safety on a campaign of harassment, breaking Burgoyne's lines of communication and retreat, driving the British into their defenses at Ticonderoga and Mount Independence, seizing Skenesboro and Mount Defiance, and capturing hundreds of prisoners and most of the supplies bound for the dispirited British army. General Horatio Gates finally persuaded the Council of Safety to send its troops beyond its borders. In early October the Vermont militia settled on the heights above Fort Edward. When Burgoyne finally attempted his retreat in mid-October he found his way blocked and his army completely encircled. Vermont had demonstrated an ability to overcome its many shortfalls to field an effective military force.

The war brought the Vermont towns together in battle, intensifying each participant's identification with the new state and nation. Town militia acted as coherent units, and battles were often family affairs with sons and fathers, brothers and cousins standing side by side. Unlike in other states where the poorest were generally sent to serve, sparsely populated Vermont called on most of its citizens to participate in the war effort. The loss of a family member or neighbor further personalized the conflict. Militia companies thus served as what the historian John Shy has called "the infrastructure of revolutionary government" and also as sources of political education (A People Numerous and Armed, p. 177). Risking one's life for a cause made political goals all the more personal.


Even while the Council of Safety worked to maintain its security against external threats, it turned on internal enemies. In July 1777, Ira Allen oversaw the creation of a commission of confiscation to seize the property of Loyalists, finding precedent in New York's commissioners of sequestration. Identifying and punishing the enemies of the people not only removed a potential threat to the state's security, it also increased the state's wealth from the auction of seized property. The state used the funds raised from the rent or sale of confiscated property to pay for its military. As Allen honestly admitted, "In consequence of internal divisions, and to make government popular, it was thought good policy not to lay any taxes on the people but to raise a sufficient revenue out of the property confiscated" (Allen, Natural and Political History, p. 111). The assembly supplemented these funds by authorizing itself to sell off all unappropriated lands in northern Vermont, tens of thousands of acres with which to meet government expenses while attracting new settlers. Most of Vermont's income between 1777 and 1786 came from land sales: £190,433 from confiscated lands, £66,815 from land grants, and £44,948 from taxes. Comparing this with the tax burden common in the other states, it is clear that Vermont's citizens had a solid financial incentive to support their government.

Thomas Chittenden, governor throughout the Revolutionary period, and his council oversaw the daily operation of the state and its war effort. No detail appeared too trivial for the council, from determining the ownership of a specific firearm to locating American prisoners of war held in Canada to providing aid during the winter to the families of those manning the state's forts. The state felt free to deal with these matters in practically any way it saw fit. As Governor Chittenden wrote, the Constitution "placed no embarrassing restrictions on the power of the legislature respecting the finances" of Vermont. Towns held a similar authority. In 1780 the legislature declared that town meetings might impose whatever taxes they felt necessary.


Despite the boon gained from selling confiscated lands, the Revolution proved a significant drain on Vermont's limited resources. Bordering Canada, facing persistent invasion threats, uncertain of its own legitimacy, Vermont spent most of the war in a state of war readiness. The state's Board of War, which overlapped with the governor's council, proclaimed a defensive line across the center of the state in 1779, relocating women and children to homes in the safer southern districts. Ethan Allen, who chaired the board, oversaw the construction and manning of a series of garrisons across the state. The militia was kept in constant readiness, being called out several times in 1780 in response to British probes. The only help Vermont got from the rest of the United States was orders of Congress in 1779 and 1780 that it cease to exist.

The Vermonters learned that they could not rely on the rest of America for aid; they had to find their own way. For example, in 1779 Chittenden requested ammunition for the state militia from Isaac Tichenor, commissary general of the Continental army's Bennington arsenal. Backed by Congress, Tichenor refused this request, leaving Allen to rush to Connecticut and purchase munitions with his personal credit.


Allen understood that if the British again invaded from Canada that the Continental army would do nothing until the enemy troops entered New York. The Royalton raid of October 1780 clarified Vermont's isolation, as Indians and Loyalists burned the town, killed two people, and took thirty-two captives. Under these circumstances, Allen felt justified in concocting a separate peace.

When Major Charles Carleton descended Lake Champlain with one thousand British troops in the fall of 1780, Governor Chittenden responded to the appeal of New York's Governor Clinton for help by calling out the state's militia. As the British burned Fort Edward, the New York militia refused to march. Allen shadowed the British, waiting for assistance that never came. Allen never admitted it in public, but he and his Board of War knew that a British attack would be a losing proposition for Vermont. For this reason, and to avoid bankruptcy from the state's being on a constant war footing, Allen sought the alternative path of negotiation. His discussions with the British, in which he hinted that Vermont might be interested in becoming a British province if Congress continued to ignore it, led to a truce in December 1780 that held on the Champlain frontier through the rest of the Revolution. In an ironic twist, Allen refused to agree to a ceasefire unless New York was included. Even Governor Clinton had to admit in an angry letter to Washington that Allen had saved New York from invasion.


Congress might continue to deny the existence of Vermont, but the state was an established fact by 1781. The state's solidity was clearly demonstrated in the last military encounter of the Revolution on the northern frontier, though in the "Battle" of Walloomsac, Vermont's troops defended their state against an invasion from New York rather than Canada. As 1781 drew to a close and the Lake Champlain truce held, Governor Clinton decided it was time to move against his breakaway northeastern counties. Clinton ordered General Peter Gansevoort to call out the northern militia of New York and march on Bennington, expecting that this show of force would be sufficient to put an end to the so-called state of Vermont. Though only two hundred militia turned out for service, Gansevoort followed his orders and led them east. Governor Chittenden ordered out the Bennington militia, which also numbered two hundred men. On 20 December 1781 the two miniature armies met at the Walloomsac. After exchanging insults and threats, the two sides settled in, each claiming to lay siege to the other. General Allen, who had been in Castleton, mobilized more state forces and rushed south with these reinforcements and an old cannon taken from Ticonderoga back in 1775. The New York militia took one look at the superior forces arriving on the other side of the meandering creek and went home. Vermont won its final victory of the war without firing a shot. The state's ability to call out its troops and their actually showing up proved sufficient to sustain its independence until Congress finally acknowledged reality and welcomed Vermont into the union as the fourteenth state in 1791.

SEE ALSO Allen, Ethan; Allen, Ira; Hubbardton, Vermont; Warner, Seth.


Allen, Ethan. A Vindication of the Opposition of the Inhabitants of Vermont to the Government of New-York. Bennington, Vt.: Alden Spooner, 1779.

Allen, Ira. The Natural and Political History of the State of Vermont. London: J. W. Meyers, 1798.

Arnold, Benedict. "Benedict Arnold's Regimental Memorandum Book." Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 8 (1884): 363-376.

Bellesiles, Michael A. Revolutionary Outlaws: Ethan Allen and the Struggle for Independence on the Early American Frontier. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993.

Buel, Richard, Jr. Dear Liberty: Connecticut's Mobilization for the Revolutionary War. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1980.

Force, Peter, ed. American Archives. 9 vols. Washington, D.C.: n.p., 1837–1853.

Proctor, Redfield, ed. Records of the Conventions of the New Hampshire Grants for the Independence of Vermont, 1776–1777. Washington, D.C.: n.p., 1904.

Shy, John. A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Stevens Papers. Vermont State Archives, Montpelier, Vt.

Walton, E. P., ed. Records of the Governor and Council of the State of Vermont. 8 vols. Montpelier: J. & J. M. Poland, 1873–1880.

About this article

Vermont, Mobilization in

Updated About content Print Article