May 10: Connecticans Ethan Allen & Benedict Arnold Capture Fort Ticonderoga

 

Today in 1775, two Connecticut-born patriots — Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold — forced the surrender of British-held Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York in one of the most significant strategic victories in the early years of the American Revolution.

Fort Ticonderoga was first built by French forces in 1755 at a critical location between New York’s Hudson River Valley and the Canadian border.  During the French and Indian War, the French and British fiercely battled over the fort, which controlled access to strategic waterways and trade routes.

Aerial view of a fully-restored Fort Ticonderoga as it appears today.

However, after the Treaty of Paris in 1763 led to the complete withdrawal of French forces from North America, the British Army focused its efforts elsewhere.  Since it was not believed to be a vulnerable target, the fort was severely understaffed, with less than fifty British troops stationed there in May 1775. The soldiers and officers garrisoned at Fort Ticonderoga never dreamed they would be on the receiving end of any kind of organized military attack, even as tensions erupted into gunfire between American colonists and the British government in April at Lexington and Concord.

In the early morning hours of May 10, Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold — acting on the authority of Vermont settlers and the Massachusetts General Assembly, respectively — stormed the fort with a small force of 80 – 90 men, mostly volunteers from Vermont and Connecticut.  The fort was reportedly guarded by a single sentry.  The British commander, taken by surprise and clearly outnumbered, surrendered the fort to Allen without a single shot being fired.  There was plenty of commotion, however — not between the British and American forces, but between Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen, whose headstrong personalities and competing claims of seniority clashed from the moment they decided to undertake the joint operation against Ticonderoga.  After the fort’s capture, each commander scrambled to claim credit for the success.  Allen’s account — which barely mentioned Arnold at all — was more widely circulated, and to this day, the famous Vermonter is the man mostly closely associated with the American takeover of Fort Ticonderoga in 1775.

A heavily dramatized depiction of Ethan Allen demanding the surrender of Fort Ticonderoga, circa 1875.

The takeover of “Fort Ti” was, by all accounts, a small and simple operation, but one that proved highly advantageous for the for the American rebels in the long term.  With Fort Ti in the hands of American forces, communication between British troops in Canada and New York were instantly severed, and the fort provided a crucial staging ground for the attempted American invasion of Canada later in 1775.  During the winter of 1775-1776, Henry Knox executed up an audacious plan to transport over 60 tons of cannon and supplies from Fort Ticonderoga to the munitions-starved Continental Army in eastern Massachusetts, which was a decisive factor in forcing the British to evacuate Boston.  The British would eventually recapture the fort in July 1777, but not before the Americans had used it to bolster their offensive campaign against the British army in the early years of the Revolutionary War.

 

Further Reading

Drew Middleton, “Capture of Ticonderoga Led to Saratoga Victory,New York Times