Ticonderoga and Mount Independence

On May 10, 1775, a motley force under Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold surprised and captured the neglected Fort Ticonderoga and its small garrison.  Its cannon were dragged to Dorchester Heights outside of Boston, where they convinced the British to withdraw.  An American force invaded Canada but was sent reeling after a failed assault of Quebec on the last day of the year.  In 1776 a planned British invasion along Lake Champlain required the construction of a fleet.  By the time it defeated an American fleet at Valcour Island, it was too late in the season to tackle the American army at Ticonderoga.  But for 1777, another British invasion was planned, this time with 8,000 men under Sir John Burgoyne.  Ticonderoga and Mount Independence across the lake were defended by 2,500 to 3,000 men under Gen Arthur St. Clair.  St. Clair had only taken command on June 13th.  The previous commander, Col Anthony Wayne, believed that the fort was entrely defensible and said as much to Wahington after he was transfered to his command.  Commander of the Northern Army, Gen. Schyuler, felt very differently; he felt he needed 10,000 men to properly man the defenses.  St Clair said he had only 1,576 healthy soldiers the day that he took command, which rose by 500 at the end of the month.  Exact numbers are unclear, but St Clair later stated that if his men manned all the defenses, they would be stretched so thin that they would be barely within shouting distance of each other.  Further, British light troops and Indian allies so controlled the wilderness around the fort that the Americans could scarely send out patrols.  So, when Burgoyne landed troops three miles to the north of either side of the lake, they were uncontested and undetected but for the sound of their fifes and drums.  

On July 2nd, British forces reached Les Chutes, the water and portage connection with Lake George, cutting off potential American escape via Lake George.

The old French earthworks that the British had assaulted at such cost in the French and Indian War were put back into service.  Quickly, however, they fell to the British - on July 2nd.

The reconstructed earthworks on the right side of the panorama works is one of the works that protected the lower, flatter ground north of the main fort.  Another is near the parking area at the treeline on the left side of the panorama.  The main road leads to the fort itself, which we will see next.

If the British managed to get through the earthworks, they would face the stone fort, a formidable fortification for such a sparsely populated area.  The standard four sided square trace with four bastions was augmented by two outworks called demi-lunes, giving the defenses more depth, and a covered way for the infantry to defend was fronted by a wooden palisade.

Designed and built originally by the French, the fort was built at a narrow point along Lake Champlain where water from Lake George entered after passing waterfalls - so the most impressive defenses faced east and south.  Across the entering waters from Lake George was Sugar Loaf Hill, now caleed Mount Defiance; this was the weak point in the defenses.  Montcalm himself had noted the fort's vulnerability to cannon from the hill.

Huts had been built nearby the stone fort to house the troops.

At the tip of the peninsula, connecting Ticonderoga with Mount Independence across the lake, there was an innovative floating bridge anchored by rock filled cassions.  These cassions may have originally built on ice and allowed to sink with warmer weather.  Just to the north a log and chain boom kept British boats at bay.

Sugar Loaf Hill

On July 4, 1777, a group of forty British troops and several Indian allies climbed Sugar Loaf Hill.  The next day they were joined by Lt William Twiss, the chief engineer of Burgoyne's army acting now as an aide to General Phillips, Maj Griffith Williams commanding Burgoyne's artillery, and Brigadier Simon Fraser.  A mile long road would have to cut, but 12 pounders could be brought to the hill where they would dominate Fort Ticonderoga and Mount Independence.  Phillips, it is said, exclaimed, "Where a goat can go, a man can go, and where a man can go, he can drag a gun."

An American staff officer had suggested to Gen Gates that a fort be built on Sugar Loaf Hill, but the advice was rejected.  This staff officer, John Trumbull, along with Anthony Wayne and Benedict Arnold, studied the hill and concluded that cannon could be hauled to the top and fired into the fort.  Building a fort there wasn't a simple matter, however, as there wasn't enough money or men to build and man a fort, and there was no good water supply.

The British party atop Sugar Loaf Hill had been spotted, and Indians had made campfires, demonstrating a larger presence.  St Clair called a council of war.  He had only 2.089 Continentals and 900 militia, and the British were preparing to open a devastating artillery crossfire on Ticonderoga, including from Sugar Loaf Hill.  Meanwhile, the British/Hessian column on the east side of the lake was having difficulty crossing East Creek.  The decision was unanimous - the army must evacuate stores by boat and retreat across the bridge toward the Hampshire Grants while there was still time.  On July 6th, Burgoyne met with American deserters who said that the American army had evacuated.  They had indeed evacuated, and in their haste and lack of planning, they left behind a wealth of stores and weapons.  There is a story that two American soldiers were left at the Mount Independence side of the bridge to fire a cannon at the advancing British, but were found drunk; this story has only one source, and an unreliable one at that.  The bridge was cut by the retreating Americans, so when the British naval vessels breached the boom, they were free to continue south.

Skenesborough - now Whitehall

The naval part of the evacuation ended here at the south end of Lake Champlain on the afternoon of July 6th.  Without even unloading the them, Col. Pierce Long burned and blew up the boats.

Today, the Champlain Canal connects Lake Champlain and the Hudson River.


What was the cause of the disaster at Ticonderoga?  The American weakness in light troops meant that the defenders were kept in the dark about British movements.  If Ticonderoga had been defended by a smaller force, and designed to be defended by a smaller force, a field army might have been able to contest the British advance and harass a British siege.  But would a field army have been large enough to defeat Burgoyne?  As it was, the American defenses required all of the troops available and more - not enough to occupy Mount Defiance and not even enough to defend existing fortifications.  The effort was doomed to begin with, and the Americans were saved only by the failure of the British/Hessian column on the eastern side of the lake.  

Informed of the fall of Ticonderoga, an elated King George exclaimed to his wife, "I have beat them!"  On the American side, the news was a shock, and a rumor even circulated that Schyuler and St Clair had commited treason, paid for by silver bullets fired into the fort.  St Clair, however, was found not guilty of charges against him in a court martial.  The campaign was far from over, and the American army retreating east was still in danger.  As the British pursued, a rear guard action at Hubbardton could decide the fate of the American Northern Army. 


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