This Day in History: Benedict Arnold & Ethan Allen’s mission to take Fort Ticonderoga

On this day in 1775, Benedict Arnold sets out to capture Fort Ticonderoga. You might think of Arnold as a traitor, but he was then still an aspiring hero! Unfortunately, the ambitious colonel would soon discover that Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys were also headed to Ticonderoga.

How awkward?! Nevertheless, the two men joined forces. They would ultimately capture the fort in a mere 10 minutes.

The victory was more important than most Americans know—and it occurred just two weeks after the “shot heard round the world” at Lexington and Concord. That conflict, you may remember, ended with Americans chasing the British back to Boston. The British were soon trapped in the city.

When Arnold heard that the British were under siege, he knew he had to help. By the time he arrived outside Boston, he’d had an idea. Fort Ticonderoga was only lightly guarded—and it had plenty of cannon. What if the fort were captured and the cannon were dragged across the country to Cambridge? The artillery might help Americans to gain an advantage over the besieged British.

Arnold presented his idea to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. By May 2, he had a commission. On May 3, his orders were signed. Colonel Arnold and his men departed for Ticonderoga.

Arnold couldn’t know that a similar effort was already underway in Connecticut. Ethan Allen was also leading his Green Mountain Boys toward Ticonderoga. You can imagine that Arnold was pretty unhappy when he discovered Allen! The ambitious Arnold wanted to be the hero who captured the Fort. He caught up with Allen’s Green Mountain Boys and demanded his rightful place as commander of the mission! The Boys were unimpressed, to say the least. They seemed ready to mutiny if Arnold were put in charge. Arnold and Allen finally decided to continue together. Arnold retained his rank and would march at the head of the attack with Allen, but he was not really in command.

On the morning of May 10, Allen led a small contingent of men across Lake Champlain to Fort Ticonderoga. “The garrison being asleep,” he later described, “except the sentries, we gave three huzzas, which greatly surprised them. One of the sentries made a pass at one of my officers with a charged bayonet, and slightly wounded him. 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, upon which he dropped his gun, and asked quarter, which I readily granted him . . . . [T]he Captain came immediately to the door, with his breeches in his hand, when I ordered him to deliver me the fort instantly; he asked me by what authority I demanded it: I answered him, ‘In the name of the great Jehovah and the Continental Congress.’”

The Americans took forty-four British soldiers prisoner that day. The conflict was small, but it was also the first American victory in the Revolution.

Several months later, Henry Knox would retrieve the cannon that had been captured. Do you remember how he dragged those cannon across snow and ice to reach George Washington? (See March 17 history post.) Washington’s army finally had tools with which to drive the British out of Boston.

The victory at Ticonderoga may have been small, but it led to a much larger victory in Boston nearly a year later.

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