On this day in 1775, American forces led by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold capture Fort Ticonderoga in New York, along with its cannon and other military supplies.
They did it in less than 10 minutes.
It had been just a few short weeks since the “shot heard round the world” at Lexington and Concord. That conflict ended with a quick British retreat back to Boston. Determined Americans had pursued the British the whole way! When the dust settled, the British found themselves under siege, trapped in the city.
You might think of Benedict Arnold as a traitor, but he was then still a Patriot. He responded to the events in Boston quickly, rounding up his company of foot guards and demanding the keys to the New Haven powder house. Arnold’s men needed ammunition so they could join the fight outside Boston. (See April 22 post.)
By the time Arnold arrived in Cambridge, he’d had an idea. He’d been told that Fort Ticonderoga was in disrepair and not well-guarded. Plus, the fort had plenty of cannon. What if it were captured and some of the cannons were dragged across the country to Cambridge? The cannons would help Americans gain an advantage over the besieged British.
Arnold presented his idea to Dr. Joseph Warren, President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. The idea was endorsed, and the Massachusetts Committee of Safety voted to commission Arnold as a colonel on May 2. His orders were soon signed, and Arnold departed for Ticonderoga.
Arnold had no idea that a similar effort was already underway in Connecticut. Ethan Allen was leading his group of Green Mountain Boys toward Fort Ticonderoga with the same objective in mind.
Needless to say, Arnold was really unhappy when he figured out what was going on.
Arnold caught up with Allen’s Green Mountain Boys and demanded his rightful place as commander of the mission. Allen’s Boys were unimpressed, to say the least. In fact, they seemed ready to mutiny if Arnold was put in charge. Eventually, Arnold and Allen decided to go on 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 relatively small contingent of his men across Lake Champlain to Fort Ticonderoga. He later described, in his own words, what happened next:
“The garrison being asleep, 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, and demanded of him the place where the commanding officer kept. . . . [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. It was a small conflict, but it was also the first American victory in the Revolution.
Several months later, Henry Knox would head up toward Ticonderoga to retrieve the cannons. Do you remember how he dragged those cannons across snow and ice to reach George Washington? (See March 17 history post.) With the help of the cannon, Washington’s army was finally able 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.
A. J. Langguth, Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution (1988)
Arthur S. Lefkowitz, Benedict Arnold’s Army: The 1775 American Invasion of Canada During the Revolutionary War (2008)
Ethan Allen’s eyewitness account (reprinted HERE)
James K. Martin, Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero: An American Warrior Reconsidered (1997)
Jared Sparks, Benedict Arnold (1902) (Vol. 3)
Letter from Benedict Arnold to the Committee of Safety (April 30, 1775) (reprinted HERE)
Orders issued to Benedict Arnold by the Massachusetts Committee of Safety (May 3, 1775) (reprinted HERE)
Samuel A. Forman, Dr. Joseph Warren: The Boston Tea Party, Bunker Hill, and the Birth of American Liberty (2011)