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This Day in History: The British attempt to recruit a traitor

On this day in 1777, the British begin an attempt to turn an American officer, Major General John Sullivan, into a spy. They hoped to use him to recapture Fort Ticonderoga, near the southern tip of Lake Champlain.


That fort had been in American hands ever since Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen captured it in May 1775. They’d managed to take the fort from the British in only 10 minutes!

Ethan Allen confronting the commander of Fort Ticonderoga in May 1775. The commander asks “by what authority” Allen demanded the fort. Allen answered: “In the name of the great Jehovah and the Continental Congress.”

At this point, though, the British felt sure that Sullivan was about to be put in charge of Fort Ticonderoga. Thus, on June 2, a letter was dispatched to him. It encouraged Sullivan to turn over the Fort to the British, without a fight. If Sullivan did this, his treason against the King would be pardoned and he would receive other rewards to boot. The letter was to be conveyed to Sullivan in a secret compartment in a canteen.


Unfortunately for the British, their plan was destined for failure. Sullivan had not been put in charge of Fort Ticonderoga—a fact that made him very unhappy! He wrote George Washington that “[I have not had] the Honor of Commanding posts Separated from the Main Army.” He wanted to know what he was doing wrong. He concluded: “I know that Ticondaroga will become an Important object with the Enemy. They must Try for it & therefore he that has the Command there will have the Post of Honor—I do therefore Humbly claim it as my Right & as the first Seperate post Entrusted to my care.”


Can you imagine writing such a brazen letter to General Washington?!


Needless to say, Washington didn’t think too much of it. He responded: “No other officer of rank, in the whole army has so often conceived himself neglected—slighted, and ill-treated, as you have done.” Hmm. Little did Washington know that Benedict Arnold would soon far outstrip Sullivan’s milder discontent?


Sullivan was likely sensitive because of something that had happened a year earlier. In 1776, following the Battle of Long Island, he’d been captured and taken aboard British General William Howe’s flagship for a time. Howe had spent some time trying to turn Sullivan. When Sullivan was eventually released, it had been on the condition that he carry a verbal message to Congress. The message that Sullivan delivered put Congress in a difficult situation for a variety of reasons.


Taken altogether, the British had plenty of reason to think that Sullivan was discontent and could be persuaded to turn over the Fort. They had to have been upset when they discovered that he was never given command of the fort in the first place. Instead, when the British messenger arrived at the Fort, he found Major General Arthur St. Clair in charge. St. Clair suspected that something was amiss. The messenger at first claimed innocent causes for his presence in the area, but he eventually admitted that he was on a secret mission. The plot was foiled.


Despite this temporary success, Americans unfortunately lost Fort Ticonderoga later that year anyway.

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