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This Day in History: Ethan Allen is captured

On this day in 1775, Ethan Allen is captured at Montreal. It had been only four months since he and Benedict Arnold had captured Fort Ticonderoga. (See May 10 history post.) Now sheer obstinacy would land Allen in British captivity.

In the days and weeks after Ticonderoga, Allen pushed for the opportunity to lead an invasion into Canada. He even approached the New York Provincial Congress, but this was much riskier than it sounds. Allen had long been in the middle of a conflict between New York and New Hampshire about certain land grants in modern-day Vermont.

Thus, he was a wanted criminal in New York.

Allen brazenly asked New York to sponsor his expedition anyway. He told that body: “I will lay my life on it, that with fifteen hundred men, and a proper artillery, I will take Montreal.”

He also sought approval from the Continental Congress. In the end, Congress authorized an invasion of Quebec, but Philip Schuyler was chosen to lead the Continental forces. Congress commissioned a regiment of Green Mountain Boys, but local Committees of Safety were to vote on the leader. The vote went handily to Seth Warner, not to Allen.

You can imagine that Allen was pretty unhappy!

Allen was soon given a new task: Recruit sympathetic Canadians to the American cause and bring them back to meet the rest of the army. The account of what occurred next should be taken with a grain of salt. Let’s just say that Allen often gave rather melodramatic accounts of his adventures.

Allen claimed that he was returning to meet the army when he ran into Major John Brown, another American also on a mission to recruit Canadians. At the time, Allen had 80 Canadian volunteers and 30 American rangers with him. Somehow, Brown convinced Allen that it would be a good idea to turn around and attempt an attack on Montreal—with only 110 of Allen’s men, 200 of Brown’s men, and no artillery! Allen would attack from the north. Brown would attack from the South.

The attack was doomed to defeat. The city saw Allen’s men as they were approaching. Roughly 300 British soldiers, militia, and Mohawk warriors were dispatched to take on Allen. Making matters worse, Brown never showed up. Allen was alone and outnumbered. It was not long before his Canadian recruits were fleeing. He was left with about 40 men. They fought for a short time before being taken prisoner.

Allen was a prisoner for much of the next few years. Later, he would regale listeners with tales of his captivity, even publishing a book about the experience. Once again, however, it is hard to know how much is true and how much is exaggerated. It does appear, however, that Allen spent a fair amount of time aboard prison ships in wretched conditions, with limited food and water. His health suffered.

Allen was finally released in a prisoner exchange in May 1778. He immediately went to Valley Forge to thank George Washington for helping to win his release. Washington wrote the President of the Continental Congress about the visit. “There is an original something in him that commands admiration,” Washington wrote, “and his long captivity and sufferings have only served to increase, if possible, his enthusiastic Zeal.”

With such a fighting spirit, perhaps it is no wonder that Ethan Allen has become a folk hero in Vermont!

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