At 5 o’clock on the morning of May 10, 1775, Ethan Allen decided it was time to act. In the storm-tossed hours since midnight, only two waterlogged boatloads bearing some eighty-nine of Allen’s men had made it across the narrow neck of wind-whipped Lake Champlain. Now the protective darkness was quickly fading to a glowing white morning fog. Soon that would burn off, exposing his meager amateur assault force to any British sentinel patrolling Fort Ticonderoga’s towering ramparts. Allen could wait no longer for boats to ferry across the rest of the Green Mountain Boys he’d left less than a mile from the fort, hidden behind a screen of spruces at Hand’s Cove on the Vermont shore.
Some three hundred miles to the south, the Second Continental Congress would convene at 11 that morning in the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia. Delegates from the British colonies up and down the Atlantic Coast were meeting to decide what, if anything, to do about the surprise British attack on Massachusetts militiamen at Lexington and Concord.
The First Continental Congress had adjourned in stalemate six months earlier after sending a humble olive-branch petition off to London, a feeble protest against the increasingly severe British colonial policies. No reply had come back from London. The British secretary of state for North America had put Congress’ grievances, unread, at the bottom of a huge pile.
A majority of the delegates still believed that reconciliation with the mother country was possible, that all grievances could be assuaged without military action. That first Congress had not even agreed to create a committee on defense, let alone prepare for offensive warfare.
This second Congress would open its session on May 10 with a rare speech by Virginia delegate George Washington. To make the point that the time for talking was over, Washington, who had risen to the rank of colonel in the British army during the French and Indian War, was the only delegate who arrived in Philadelphia in uniform.
Washington knew that others in the audience were also ready for firmer measures. Shortly after Lexington and Concord, delegates from New England had stopped their carriages en route to Congress for a secret meeting in Hartford, Connecticut. There, while the Connecticut Assembly was officially adjourned, they supported the decision of the Assembly’s Committee of Safety—meeting in an unauthorized, extralegal session—to commission Ethan Allen and his paramilitary Green Mountain Boys to seize control of Lake Champlain, its forts, and ships. Hoping for a lightning invasion of Canada that would make it part of a new North American union before the British could reinforce its garrisons from faraway England, Samuel Adams and John Hancock of Massachusetts had joined Connecticut’s secret committee in commissioning Allen’s bold assault.
It had been only three weeks since the first shots of the American Revolution were fired on April 19 at Lexington, and the news had spread quickly. Late in the afternoon of April 25, three mud-spattered riders galloped up to the Catamount Tavern in Bennington in present-day Vermont. Inside, they found thirty-seven-year-old Ethan Allen, the towering black-haired colonel commandant of the Green Mountain Boys, huddling with his officers and members of committees of safety from a dozen nearby settlements.
The sudden appearance of Ethan’s younger brother, Connecticut merchant Heman Allen, silenced the tumultuous gathering. Heman had ridden all night with Captains Edward Mott and Noah Phelps, both veterans of the French and Indian War, to bring Ethan two urgent messages from Hartford. First, there had indeed been heavy fighting outside Boston. A brigade of a thousand Redcoats had quick-marched to Lexington, where they killed six militiamen and wounded four others.
As Heman handed Ethan the second message, he explained that he had been passing through Hartford on his way back to his general store in Connecticut from a meeting of Vermont land speculators when the Connecticut committeemen summoned him. How many Green Mountain Boys could Ethan raise? How quickly? And would he be willing to lead them on a dangerous mission to seize the forts and their hundreds of vital cannons before reinforcements from the 26th Regiment of Foot arrived from Montreal?
The committee was asking Ethan Allen and his militia to carry out a treasonous invasion of one British province, New York, on the dubious authority of an illegal assemblage of rebels from another province, Connecticut. Allen needed little time to deliberate. He later wrote in his memoirs that he was “thoroughly electrified” by his selection for the task. The news of the first “systematical and bloody attempt by the British” to “enslave America” made him determined to risk a traitor’s death.
The British garrison inside Fort Ticonderoga at the southern tip of Lake Champlain had no reason to expect Vermonters to assault a Crown fortress on New York soil, in part because the province’s royal government had officially and expressly forbidden any such raid. Unlike New Englanders, the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers were still loyal to the Crown. In addition, in its initial session in Philadelphia, the Continental Congress had also resolved that on no account should revolutionaries molest the garrisons of New York’s forts. As long as the British did not construct any new fortifications or impede the free passage of citizens, they should be allowed to occupy their barracks peaceably.
In fact, Congress had resolved that the American colonists would resort to force of arms only if British troops violated the people’s rights. The revolutionary leaders of New York had interpreted this to mean that the people should not confiscate any military property belonging to the British Crown. Furthermore, there had been no formal declaration of war. As late as May 16, 1775, six days after Allen and his Green Mountain Boys launched their predawn attack on Fort Ticonderoga, the delegates in Philadelphia would still be declaring that “Congress had nothing else in mind but the defense of the colonies.”
The view from New England was quite different. To Allen and other incipient New England revolutionaries, it appeared that the old British forts in upstate New York, each held by no more than a corporal’s guard of a few score men, were ripe for the plucking. Allen, Hancock, Adams, and Connecticut’s radical leaders believed the forts on Lake Champlain must be seized before they could be reinforced by British Redcoats or by militia loyal to the British, who could be called up any day by New York’s royal governor.
One leading Loyalist, Colonel Philip Skene, a Scottish veteran of the recent French and Indian War, had already built blockhouses at Skenesboro (present-day Whitehall) on his thirty-thousand-acre forest plantation just south of Lake Champlain. There, his family, his servants, and the workers in his sawmills and shipyard were prepared to defend his manor with cannons and his own armed schooner, Betsey. On May 10, Colonel Skene, a New York justice of the peace and longtime friend of Allen’s, was on the high seas, returning from England with instructions to raise a regiment of Loyalist troops to hold the Lake Champlain forts until the British could reinforce them.
To Allen, seizing the key Champlain forts at Ticonderoga and Crown Point was a necessary preemptive act. He later wrote that he could not stand still and wait for the British and their Indian auxiliaries to attack settlements around the mountain lake and in the Green Mountains after he had labored for years to create a new and independent British province, the New Hampshire Grants. Sending couriers north and south, Allen had in less than two weeks recruited an armed force of three hundred frontiersmen from the hills of western Massachusetts, Connecticut, and present-day Vermont. Hundreds more were rushing to join him.
Allen, a commanding figure at well over six feet—nearly a head taller than most of his men—for five years had been the green-uniformed, elected colonel-commandant of the Green Mountain Boys he had formed to prevent New York from evicting as squatters some seven thousand settlers in the Green Mountains. After years of successful clashes with New York sheriffs and posses, Allen believed he could count on as many as two thousand armed men to follow him.
Within only a few days, 230 Boys had arrived, as well as seventy volunteers from Connecticut and Massachusetts, and more were coming in every hour. Farmers and hunters, lawyers, bartenders, tavern owners, town clerks, a poet, even the odd Yale College graduate and a future congressman had arrived on the Champlain shore in their work clothes or in buckskin hunting shirts made by their wives, sisters, or mothers. They pelted down from their hill farms and from river towns to Hand’s Cove, where Allen had set up his headquarters in Paul Moore’s farmhouse. Allen was not only the leader of a clan that spanned Vermont and Connecticut but also the head at that moment of the largest armed force in North America.
Only hours before the attack was scheduled to begin, Allen’s plans were almost wrecked by the arrival of Colonel Benedict Arnold of Connecticut, bearing a commission from the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. Arnold, all spit and polish, arrived in the scarlet uniform he had designed for the 2nd Company of Connecticut Footguards, which he had founded, armed, and bankrolled. He was a wealthy New Haven shipowner, ship’s captain, and smuggler of luxury goods.
Marching his militiamen to aid the Bostonians, Arnold had met Colonel Samuel Holden Parsons, head of Connecticut’s militia, on the road. Parsons, returning from Massachusetts, bemoaned the lack of artillery. Arnold, who had frequently visited the Champlain Valley as a horse trader and merchant, told Parsons about the hundreds of French cannons in the Champlain forts before marching on with his company toward Boston. A member of Connecticut’s Committee of Safety, Parsons had dashed to Hartford with this intelligence, triggering Allen’s expedition.
Now Arnold was insisting that Massachusetts had authorized him to seize the cannons and arrange to haul them to the makeshift lines taking shape around Boston. Without cannons, it would be impossible to stave off the expected British onslaught. Arnold demanded that Allen turn over command of the Green Mountain Boys and all other recruits to him.
The two men faced off in front of the Boys in a field at Shoreham on May 9. At first Allen, nearly a head taller than Arnold, seemed to cave in before Arnold’s ramrod-straight physical presence, but it was only an act. Allen knew that he had no more and no less legal authority than Arnold, but he also knew that the Green Mountain Boys around him, clutching their guns, would only follow his orders. He had successfully wielded de facto authority in the forests for five years, and he did not intend to relinquish it now.
In a loud, mocking voice, Allen announced that Colonel Arnold would henceforth command the Boys. If they followed Arnold, their pay would be the same $2 a day. His unusual tone sent a signal to his men. Without a word, they silently drifted to the edges of the clearing and stacked their guns. To a man, they refused to fight under anyone but the officers they had already elected. If they could not have Allen as their leader, they would club their muskets over their shoulders and march home. Arnold had no choice but to back down.
Allen’s demeanor suddenly changed. He now proposed a joint command, with Allen leading the Boys and any Connecticut troops, and Arnold commanding any soldiers who showed up from Massachusetts. As a token of reconciliation, Allen lent Arnold a short brass blunderbuss. The hair-triggered Arnold had ridden off to war without a gun.
By 5 a.m. the next morning, scabbards clanging against each other’s, Allen and Arnold had jumped out of the crowded boats onto the New York shore just north of Willow Point, scarcely a quarter mile from Fort Ticonderoga. Years later, in his best-selling memoir A Narrative of the Captivity of Colonel Allen, Allen would claim that just after coming ashore he had halted long enough to inspire his men with a speech. The plan “concerted at Hartford,” he told them, was an “important expedition…to provide us a key to all Canada.” But Allen would have had little chance to deliver an oration at that point. Any speech loud enough to be heard by his strung-out column would have alerted a British sentry just a musket shot away.
His men later recalled Allen making three owl hoots, his signal for them to follow him. Allen and the Boys slipped silently past the outer works of the fort. The ghostly line of frontiersmen hugged the crumbling granite south wall of the main, star-shaped fortress until they reached a breach where, after years of peacetime neglect, the stones had parted.
When they arrived on the Vermont shore early the day before, Allen and his militia had been confident that it would be possible to enter and seize the strongest British fortress in North America by surprise. Allen had dispatched two of his subordinates, Captains Noah Phelps and Ezra Hickok, to stroll inside the fort and pass themselves off as a pair of fur trappers coming down from the hills to have their long, unkempt beards and matted hair trimmed by the fort’s barber. Once inside, they’d had time to note the laxity of the sentinels, the poor condition of the walls, and the fort’s strengths and weak spots.
Because he had so often been among them, Allen was aware that all sorts of people on the New York–Vermont frontier—hunters, trappers and fur traders, merchants, farmers and Indians—wandered in and out of the fort. Phelps and Hickok had been able to learn that the fort’s main gates were no longer locked at night. Somebody even said that the keys had long ago been lost. Even better, Allen’s two spies had discovered that the British garrison was made up of just forty-six regulars with their wives and children and two officers.
Ticonderoga’s Redcoats had not yet heard that fighting had broken out far to the east, outside Boston, that hundreds of British regulars had been killed or wounded, and that a state of rebellion existed. Military dispatches or mail of any type did not travel quickly from Boston west to Lake Champlain. News that fighting had broken out nearly a month earlier had to be sent by Royal Navy courier aboard a man-of-war, first from Boston north to Halifax, Nova Scotia, then forwarded around eastern Canada and up the St. Lawrence River to Quebec. There, it had to be transferred to a supply ship that sailed only periodically from Quebec to Montreal, where the British officer in charge had to read it and write his own orders, to be put aboard another vessel that carried it south along the Richelieu River to St. Jean, in southern Quebec province.
After receiving a written warning two months earlier from the British commander in chief, Sir Thomas Gage in Boston, Ticonderoga’s commander, Captain William Delaplace, had asked Sir Guy Carleton, governor-general of Quebec, for reinforcements. The first of those left Canada on April 12. A second group of ten, under Lieutenant Jocelyn Getham, arrived on April 29, but those troops did not know about Lexington and Concord.
On May 10, the communiqué describing the bloody battle outside Boston was aboard a sloop-of-war tied up at a dock in Canada, at Lake Champlain’s northern tip, nearly 125 miles away from Fort Ticonderoga. However, that ship would sail for Ticonderoga any day now. With it would undoubtedly come British reinforcements and skillful resistance.
Allen knew the strategic importance of the mission. His targets were two of colonial America’s most strategic strongholds, midway in a line of fortified lakes and rivers that ran from Quebec through Montreal to New York City. The keys to this chain of forts were Ticonderoga and, twelve miles to the north, Fort Amherst at Crown Point. To the south was another pair of forts at either end of Lake George, just to the north of the Hudson River, which was navigable all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. Unless they took Ticonderoga and Crown Point and controlled the 116-mile-long Lake Champlain, American revolutionaries to the south and east would be exposed to invasion from British bases in southern Canada. If the British kept control of Lake Champlain, they and their Indian allies could harass the Vermont and New York settlements, eventually splitting off rebellious New England from the more moderate Middle States.
Moreover, a successful attack on Ticonderoga would be a great psychological victory. Three thousand British soldiers had fallen in an abortive attack on the French-built Fort Carillon, as it was then known, in 1758, when four thousand Frenchmen held out against five times their number. Now only forty-six British soldiers under two officers were sleeping peacefully less than a mile from Allen’s growing force.
Even without reinforcements from Montreal, if Allen’s surprise attack failed, the veteran British detachment inside the heavily armed fort could be expected to put up a fight. If they could hold out until several hundred more regulars arrived from Montreal, capturing Fort Ticonderoga and its heavy guns would be virtually impossible. It was these weapons, scores of fine brass cannons on the fortress’ ramparts and even more reputedly buried at Crown Point by the retreating French at the end of the French and Indian War, that made Ticonderoga such a prize.
Seizing this arsenal could make a key difference in the American confrontation with the British forces in Boston. If Allen and his backwoods Boys succeeded, they would be renowned for turning the tide against the British. If they failed, they would likely be shipped off to England in irons to be tried for treason, hanged, and drawn and quartered.
For Allen, crossing Lake Champlain into New York was an especially bold move. Master of New England’s first successful iron foundry, which would produce cannons for the Americans throughout the Revolution, Allen had become legendary as a professional hunter. He was also the senior partner in the Onion River Land Company, which owned and was developing thousands of acres of rich hardwood forests. Allen would eventually be known as the founding father of the fourteenth state, Vermont, the first independent republic in the New World.
When he crossed Lake Champlain, however, Allen was crossing his own personal Rubicon. For a dozen years, he had worked hard to organize the settlers who had flocked into the Green Mountains from the south. Their claim was that the recently vacated French territory existed in a state of nature. It was they, and not New York’s absentee landlords, who really owned all the land in present-day Vermont, having bought the land patents from New Hampshire. Because of his armed defiance, Allen carried a price on his head in New York. When he arrived on the New York shore, Allen was risking arrest and punishment by the province’s royal government. Anyone who captured him would receive a fortune in gold. If he was captured inside New York, he faced summary execution by hanging, without a trial.
But when Allen heard the news from Lexington and Concord, he shrewdly calculated that a dozen years of claims, counterclaims, and armed clashes between neighboring colonies over land ownership would, at this exciting moment, be subsumed into a general American rebellion against every colony’s common oppressor, the mother country. Old rivals would become allies; old friends, enemies.
By sunset on May 9, three hundred men chafed at Hand’s Cove, anxiously waiting for boats to be rounded up by detachments Allen had sent north along the lake toward Crown Point and south to Skene’s plantation. But six hours later, as the wind whipped the lake into whitecaps, there still were no boats. A fierce storm lashed the lake half the night, nearly wrecking the expedition. When it died down there was barely enough time to ferry a fraction of the force over to the New York shore before daybreak.
What Allen wouldn’t learn for several days was that Captain Samuel Herick and the thirty men he’d sent to seize Skenesboro couldn’t find the schooner Allen was relying on because it was cruising a hundred miles farther up the lake, delivering grain and iron from the manor to the British garrison at St. John’s in Quebec province. Another detachment he’d dispatched to the north could only locate a single thirty-three-foot scow sailed by a terrified young black slave along the shore near Crown Point. Warner told the slave he wanted to pay him to take him and his men hunting.
The lumbering workboat finally tacked into Hand’s Cove at 3 p.m. on May 10. As Allen and his first chosen men clambered aboard, the sky to the east was already turning gray against the black silhouettes of the mountains. The scow wallowed in the choppy water under the weight of so many men and their guns, nearly sinking into the heaving lake. Water sloshed over the gunwales. At that time of year, the water temperature rarely reaches forty-five degrees. The lugsail was useless: In the high wind, it could capsize the unwieldy, overloaded boat. Squall-whipped water drenched the novice oarsmen, blinding them.
It took a nerve-wracking hour and a half for the scow to make the one-mile crossing and return for more men. After a second slow crossing, only eighty-three shivering men had been deposited on the New York shore, a quarter mile east of Fort Ticonderoga. They headed up the slope just north of a jutting piece of shoreline known as Willow Point.
At 5 a.m., with the sun about to rise and only a third of his scratch army—and none of their supplies—on the right side of the lake, Allen made the prearranged three owl hoots. Raising his cutlass over his head and swinging it toward the main guard post at Fort Ticonderoga, he launched the first offensive military action in the history of the United States. For once in his life, he had very little to say, only a hoarse whisper: “Let’s go!”
Despite intelligence to the contrary from spies Phelps and Hickok, they found the main gate closed. Had a Loyalist neighbor, suspicious of all the men and activity on the Vermont shore, warned the British? Cut out of the main gate was a narrow doorway, a wicket with a sentry box just inside. A single Redcoat stood sentry duty, and he had dozed off.
Both Allen, on the right, the traditional position of honor, and Benedict Arnold, on the left, would later claim that they had rushed the guard simultaneously, but eyewitnesses said only one man, the smaller, faster Arnold, squeezed through the narrow gate. The startled guard aimed his musket and pulled the trigger. But it had been a damp night and it misfired, the hammer snapping harmlessly in the pan. The terrified soldier threw down his gun and ran toward the barracks, yelling.
A second sentry appeared. This time Allen reached him first. The Redcoat fired high, missing, then rushed Allen with his bayonet. Sidestepping, Allen swung at the soldier’s head with his heavy cutlass. The blow, enough to behead a man, struck a wooden comb in the Englishman’s carefully coiffed and powdered hair, sending him sprawling. Allen later wrote that he deliberately spared the man’s life by deflecting the sword’s arc: “My first thought was to kill him with my sword but, in an instant I altered the design and fury of the blow to a slight cut on the side of the head.”
Allen demanded that the stunned guard get up and lead him to the commandant’s quarters. Despite reconnaissance, no one knew the fort’s exact layout. Arnold, meanwhile, had run toward the main barracks, found the garrison’s muskets neatly stacked out front and led his men upstairs to wake the Redcoats at gunpoint and take them prisoner.
With a half dozen of the Green Mountain Boys, Allen prodded the wounded sentry before him, crossing the parade ground to the west wall and hurrying up a stone stairway toward what obviously was the officers’ quarters, yelling, “No quarter! No quarter!” In his room, Lieutenant Feltham, a young artillerist posted to Ticonderoga only a week earlier, jumped up and ran in his underwear to the door of Captain William Delaplace, the commandant.
The subaltern banged on the door and—as he later reported—waited, his trousers in his hand, “to receive orders.” Delaplace didn’t answer. Feltham ran back to his room, pulled on his red coat, and ran toward the din on the stairs, hoping that his few visible symbols of authority would help him rally the garrison.
As more of the Boys raced upstairs, yelling at him, Feltham fled. He later reported, “With great difficulty, I got into Delaplace’s room.” The commandant was coolly dressing, putting on his sword. Feltham opened a side door and started toward Allen, who was running up the stairs. Trying to stall him, Feltham loudly asked, “By what authority [had] they entered His Majesty’s fort?”
Brandishing his cutlass, Allen, as he later wrote, bellowed, “In the name of the great Jehovah and the Continental Congress!”—or that is what he later claimed he said. According to Lieutenant Feltham’s official British account, however, Allen invoked neither the deity nor Congress. Instead, he said, “Come out of there, you damned old rat!”
As Allen waved his sword over Feltham, his men leveled their flintlocks at him. Allen warned him “that if there was a single gun fired, neither man, woman or child would be left alive in this fort.” (There were approximately forty women and children, the soldiers’ families.) Captain Delaplace, in full dress uniform, came out and surrendered his sword, his pistols, and Fort Ticonderoga to Allen. Allen had taken the mightiest fortress in America, complete with all its artillery and munitions, without firing a shot or suffering a single casualty.
As Allen ordered the captured officers and men placed under guard, four hundred more of the Boys poured into the fort. They quickly discovered a cellar under the officers’ quarters housing ninety gallons of rum, Captain Delaplace’s private stock. Some of them were roaring drunk by the time Arnold tried to get them to help him strip the fort of its cannons, but Allen sympathized with his troops: After years of confrontations with the New York authorities, he wanted them to take the time to celebrate. Allen wrote a few days later to the treasurer of Connecticut to reimburse Captain Delaplace, by then a prisoner, for the rum, which Allen said had “been greatly wanted for the refreshment of the fatigued soldiery.”
When some of the Boys began to loot the fort, Arnold repeatedly recited military law. Arnold’s interference with the Green Mountain Boys infuriated Allen, who felt it was abrogating their agreement about a joint command. After two Boys unsteadily fired at Arnold and missed him, Allen stripped him of his command at gunpoint. A disgusted Arnold confined himself to officers’ quarters.
By this time, Allen had organized and led militia for five years. Arnold, an apothecary merchant and ship’s captain, had no combat experience, but he refused to resign. To Massachusetts officials Arnold wrote, “Colonel Allen is a proper man to head his own wild people but entirely unacquainted with military service.”
While Arnold scratched out angry salvos, Allen was also busy writing. At first he did not even mention Arnold in his dispatches—“I took the fortress at Ticonderoga by storm.” The next day, writing to Albany, he revised himself: “Colonel Arnold entered the fortress with me side by side.” All day on the 11th, an exultant Allen fired off ever-more-detailed reports to Boston, Albany, and the Continental Congress. In the former commandant’s quarters, the new commandant of Fort Ticonderoga was busy writing some of the happiest sentences of his life. To the governor of Connecticut he wrote: “I make you a present of a major, a captain and two lieutenants in the regular establishment of George the Third….I hope they may serve as ransoms for some of our friends of Boston.”
In his letters, Allen laid out an unfolding grand plan. At Skenesboro, the Boys had seized a newly built schooner. He wrote, “I expect in ten days time to have it rigged and manned and armed with six or eight pieces of cannon.” Then Allen said he would attack the British sloop-of-war, twice its size and the largest vessel on the lake, allowing, “I expect lives may be lost in the attack.” Moreover, he was sure there would be a British counterattack from Quebec. With perspicacity, Allen signed himself, “At Present Commander of Ticonderoga.”
One day after taking Ticonderoga, Allen dispatched Captain Seth Warner with forty men to seize Crown Point, strategically located twelve miles up Lake Champlain on the New York shore. Lightly garrisoned by a sergeant, nine enlisted men and ten women and children, Fort Amherst fell without resistance. Only a few cannons were visible, but back at Ticonderoga Allen was excitedly cataloguing an inventory of captured artillery that he could send off toward Boston.
At first count, he found a hundred cannons. A later count sent off to Congress detailed eighty-seven: seventy-eight serviceable cannons, six large mortars, and three howitzers plus a number of swivel guns, eighteen thousand pounds of musket balls, and thirty thousand flints. At Crown Point they eventually retrieved more cannons, buried by the French. The fieldpieces, ranging from three-pounders to forty-two-pounders, were an unbelievable treasure, state-of-the-art weaponry that would enable the Americans to fight the British on more even terms.
At their next council of war, Allen and Arnold agreed that they had to turn their attention to the lake itself by taking the seventy-ton armed sloop George the Third, now anchored 125 miles away to the north, a mile above Fort St. John, on the Richelieu River inside Quebec province. Arnold and fifty of his Massachusetts men boarded Colonel Skene’s captured schooner, fitted it out with swivel guns, renamed it Liberty, and set sail north toward Canada. Allen and a contingent of the Boys followed in slow bateaux, the sail- and oar-powered workboats of the lake.
Arnold, a skilled mariner, arrived first and took the fort’s thirteen-man garrison by surprise. He was already sailing back toward Ticonderoga at the helm of the captured British sloop, which he renamed Enterprise, when Allen arrived.
“He saluted me with a discharge of cannon,” Allen wrote, “which I returned with a volley of small arms. This being repeated three times, I went on board the sloop with my party, where several loyal toasts were drunk, wishing Congress health. We were now masters of the lake, and the garrisons depending thereon.”
As Arnold headed back to his new base at Crown Point, Allen and the Green Mountain Boys rowed on into Canada. Arnold later depicted Allen’s invasion of Canada as “a wild, impractical, expensive scheme” carried out by “a hundred mad fellows.” Arnold didn’t know that Allen was carrying out secret orders from the revolutionary leaders of Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Allen’s first brief foray into Canada ended unceremoniously on May 19. He had camped across the river from the captured fort at St. Johns while he sent an emissary to Montreal to seek support from English merchants there for an attack. The British intercepted the courier, and Allen awoke the next morning to “a cannonading of grape shot,” he wrote. “The music was both terrible and delightful.” Taken by surprise by a large force of Redcoats, Allen and his troops hastily retreated toward Crown Point to await further orders.
News of the conquest of Lake Champlain and its forts at once exhilarated and horrified many members of the Continental Congress. Delighted at the newfound stock of weaponry, many delegates nevertheless considered the invasion of one colony by militias from two others on their own initiative a threat to any prospect of continental union. One direct result of Allen, Arnold, and the Green Mountain Boys’ series of fearless assaults was, within weeks, the creation of the Continental Army. Congress appointed George Washington as the first Continental soldier, and its commander in chief.
At the end of May 1775, Allen received his first direct communication from the Continental Congress. It shocked him. Congress ordered him to remove all cannons from the forts on Lake Champlain and retreat with them to the southern tip of Lake George and there make a stand when and if the British counterattacked from Canada. Writing back angrily, he argued that such a maneuver would “ruin the settlements,” including all of Vermont. Didn’t Congress know that several thousand families in settlements extend-ing a hundred miles north of this arbitrary defensive position would be exposed to British retribution? Didn’t Congress own a map?
After seizing the lake forts to protect themselves, Allen and his neighbors were now supposed to dig up and haul the heavy guns away. If they gave up the forts, he wrote, “We may as well give up the whole region.” After re-occupying the forts, the British could “make incursions into the heart of our country.”
For the first time Allen pleaded that, if only he had five hundred troops, he could take Montreal before the British could reinforce it. But Congress was badly split between hawks and doves; it would be another year before members even began to debate independence. Meanwhile, Congress ordered Allen to take “an exact inventory” of “all such cannon and stores,” the British sloop-of-war, Colonel Skene’s schooner, and the nine bateaux taken at St. John’s. They could be “safely returned when the restoration of former harmony between Great Britain and these colonies, so ardently wished for, rendered their return prudent and consistent with the overruling law of self-preservation.”
Disgusted by such a prime piece of back-bending political compromise couched in lawyer’s language, Allen headed south. On Friday, June 23, he and his cousin, Captain Seth Warner, marched into Pennsylvania’s State House with their own Declaration of Independence, signed at Crown Point by five hundred soldiers and citizens of the Lake Champlain region.
For Allen, it was both an exhilarating and desperate moment. He was known as the hero of Ticonderoga, the only hero of the Revolution so far. Six days earlier, the New England army besieging Boston, devoid of artillery and running out of gunpowder, had been driven from Breed’s Hill. Washington, the newly elected commander in chief, was rushing north.
The tall, self-assured Colonel Allen impressed most of the delegates. As he argued for invading Canada, men such as John Hancock, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson all listened intently. When he was finished, Congress voted unanimously to “procure a list of the men employed in taking and garrisoning Crown Point and Ticonderoga” so that they could be given Continental Army pay.
Equally pleasing to Allen was that the newly created Green Mountain Regiment was to serve under the officers its troops elected. He had entered the Congressional chamber as an outlaw, the traitor who had seized the king’s forts, and emerged as the first Continental Army colonel of the Green Mountain Regiment. The Boys were to be folded into the Continental Army.
When he returned to Ticonderoga, Allen found mixed news awaiting him. That same day, under investigation by auditors for the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, Benedict Arnold had resigned his commission. Allen’s old enemies in New York had been busy in his absence, however. At the urging of General Philip Schuyler of Albany, a convention of the committees of safety from towns west of the Green Mountains had met in Allen’s absence and elected officers for the new regiment. Most of the town elders, more conservative than the men Allen had led for many years, were alarmed by his confrontational tactics and worried that he would bring down the wrath of the British and their Indian allies on their farms.
The village elders rebelled. By a lopsided 25-to-5 vote in a secret ballot, they elected Seth Warner, not Allen, colonel in command of the Green Mountain Regiment. Of the twenty-three officers they elected, Allen was not even chosen as a lieutenant.
Stunned, Allen wrote to Governor Trumbull of Connecticut that “the old farmers” who “do not incline to go to war” had “completely omitted me. How the old men came to reject me I cannot conceive inasmuch as I saved them.” Less than three months after his greatest achievement, Allen was out. But even though he was without a command, Allen joined the American army about to invade Canada, to act as a scout.
Three months later he organized a force of about 130 New England militia and French Canadians and, assured of support by its English merchants, attempted to capture Montreal. His force became divided, however, and after a three-hour firefight in which all but thirty-two of his men ran away, Allen was forced to surrender.
He would spend the next thirty-two months in British captivity, shunted first in irons to England, then to Ireland, the Carolinas, Halifax, and New York City, where he was finally exchanged for the colonel of a British regiment in May 1778. His refusal to try to escape (all the men captured with him managed to get away) forced the British to establish protocols for exchanging American officers for captured Britons.
Allen’s greatest contribution to the American Revolution came in the winter of 1775-76, while he shivered in the dank hold of a ship taking him to almost certain execution in England. Desperate for artillery to bombard the British inside Boston, General Washington dispatched a twenty-five-year-old bookseller, Henry Knox, his first artillery commander, to bring the cannons Allen had so daringly seized to the heights overlooking Boston.
In the snows of a New England winter, Colonel Knox sorted through the weapons, selecting sixty-five guns weighing about sixty tons, including thirty-nine fieldpieces, two short-barreled howitzers with a thousand-yard range, and fourteen mortars with a range of up to thirteen hundred yards. Hauling the guns and hundreds of heavy barrels of lead and flints onto bateaux, Knox and three hundred soldiers and civilians shoved out onto Lake George.
At its southern tip, Knox collected 160 oxen, several teams of horses, forty heavy-duty sleds, and a herd of cattle. Fifty miles farther south, they crossed the frozen Hudson, the sleds spaced two hundred yards apart. Traveling over frozen ground and through deep snow, they crossed the Berkshires in mid-January, the teamsters using block and tackle to keep from losing a single gun as the unwieldy sleds slid down the steep slopes. After they reached Springfield by January 20, Knox rode ahead to Cambridge to supervise construction of gun carriages.
Allen was on the high seas, a forty-pound iron bar between his ankles chained to his manacled wrists so tightly that he could not lie down or stand up. It would be months before he learned that the guns he had dragged from Fort Ticonderoga had forced the British to evacuate Boston or face devastating cannonades from the Heights of Dorchester. Allen had given George Washington what he needed to clear all of New England of Redcoats by Evacuation Day in April 1776.
When an emaciated Ethan Allen finally was released, he rode to Valley Forge, where Washington gave him a hero’s welcome. Writing to Henry Laurens, the president of Congress, Washington wrote his impressions after meeting the legendary Green Mountain colonel-commandant: “His fortitude and firmness seemed to have placed him out of the reach of misfortune. There is an original something in him that commands admiration, and his long captivity and sufferings have only served to increase, if possible, his enthusiastic zeal.”
This article was written by William J. Astore and originally published in the Autumn 2007 issue of MHQ Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to MHQ magazine today!