This Day in History: An American retreat paves the way for victory
On this day in 1777, a group of retreating Americans arrives at Fort Edward. The prior two days had been tough! They’d fought multiple battles and skirmishes. They achieved a few successes—and also suffered a few defeats.
The flight of these Americans came in the wake of an unfortunate retreat from Fort Ticonderoga. (See July 6 history post.) The British had managed to fortify a strategic high ground overlooking the fort, leaving American Major General Arthur St. Clair with limited options. He decided to order the fort’s evacuation in two parts: One group of men took a route over Lake Champlain towards Skenesborough. A second group took a route toward Hubbardton.
The Lake Champlain group had a rough time of it at first. Probably unsurprising! This group included many women and invalids, along with the Fort’s baggage and supplies. The first leg of their journey was in boats, but you can imagine that the group was still slow-moving, The British caught up with them at Skenesborough. A scuffle ensued. Baggage was abandoned and a fire was set as the Americans retreated toward nearby Fort Anne.
Fortunately, reinforcements met the retreating soldiers at Fort Anne. Surely the American leader, Colonel Pierce Long, breathed a huge sigh of relief when he saw the New York militia had come to help!
On the 7th, an American scouting party left the fort and ran into some British regulars. Fire was exchanged in a skirmish that lasted several hours before the two sides retired for the night. Americans received welcome news from a spy the next morning: They outnumbered the British.
Americans decided to go on the offensive!
The battle that ensued was going well for the Patriots. In fact, Americans might have won but for the fact that they got tricked. A few hours into the battle, a single British officer let out a war whoop. Americans thought that Indian reinforcements had shown up to help the other side. They were running low on ammunition anyway. In the end, Americans set fire to Fort Anne and retreated again, this time to Fort Edward, which was a little more than a dozen miles away.
American Captain James Gray later wrote that they “arrived at Fort Edward at 10 in the Evening; no Barracks nor Tents to go into; therefore laid down in the rain and slept upon the ground; the fatigue of this day I believe I shall always remember.”
These were just the adventures of the first group of Americans! Don’t forget that General St. Clair also led a second, larger party away from Fort Ticonderoga.
St. Clair and the main army moved ahead quickly, while a rear guard trailed behind. The rear guard ended up in a pitched battle with the British. This battle on July 7, the Battle of Hubbardton, is its own story! For many hours, the two sides fought. Americans suffered a defeat, but they succeeded in stopping the British pursuit of St. Clair and the main army.
St. Clair eventually got his men to Fort Edward. By then, American Major General Philip Schuyler had instituted a plan to delay the British at every turn. He had his men destroy bridges. They pulled fallen trees and branches across roads. They stripped the countryside of resources. According to legend, Schuyler’s wife even set fire to their own wheat fields (see attached painting).
The efforts worked. Burgoyne’s army was delayed by weeks as it began its trek to Saratoga. Americans would ultimately win an important victory at Saratoga! Naturally, that is a story for another day.
History of Merrimack and Belknap Counties New Hampshire (D. Hamilton Hurd ed., 1885)
James Parillo, Saratoga: The Tide Turns on the Frontier (NPS publication)
John Luzader, Saratoga: A Military History of the Decisive Campaign of the American Revolution (2008)
Richard M. Ketchum, Saratoga: Turning Point of America’s Revolutionary War (1997)