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This Day in History: The British surrender Fort St. John

On this day in 1775, British forces surrender to American Brigadier General Richard Montgomery. They’d been under siege at Fort St. John for nearly 7 weeks.

It was an early success in the American fight for independence!

Did you know Americans attempted to invade Canada during the early months of the war? There were two prongs to this attack: Benedict Arnold led one group of men towards Quebec on a roundabout route through Maine. (See October 29 post.) A second force was dispatched towards Montreal. This second force was initially led by Major General Philip Schuyler.

Fort St. John stood in the way of Montreal.

That fort had already been attacked once, during the summer of 1775. Benedict Arnold’s effort to take the fort ended when he stole a British warship from a nearby river. The British soon dispatched Major Charles Preston to improve defenses at the fort, in case it was attacked again.

They would be better prepared if and when the Americans returned.

Naturally, Americans weren’t giving up. Schuyler soon headed up Lake Champlain toward Fort. St. John. Things were not going well at first. Americans made two attempts to attack the fort, but these efforts fell flat on their face. It didn’t help that the soldiers were undisciplined and kept disobeying orders. Making matters worse, Schuyler fell ill and had to pass his command to Montgomery.

The brigadier general decided that a direct attack would not work. He began a siege of Fort St. John instead.

Not that a siege was easy, either. The ground was swampy, and it was hard to build stable siege works. The place was infested with malaria and many Americans fell ill, just as Schuyler had done. Depressingly, Americans received word during this time that Ethan Allen had been captured in an ill-advised attempt to take Montreal.

Allen was only supposed to recruit new volunteers, not attack Montreal.

Montgomery was frustrated. He wrote his wife: “I have been dragged from obscurity much against my inclination . . . the instant I can with decency slip my neck out of the yoke, I will return to my family and farm, and that peace of mind which I can’t have in my present situation.”

The entire effort was on the brink of failure.

Fortunately, the tide turned. Large cannon began arriving to reinforce the Americans. It had been recently captured at Fort Ticonderoga. Soon, Americans received word that a small British force at nearby Fort Chambly had surrendered. More captured supplies were brought in, reinforcing the Americans at Fort St. John still more.

Perhaps even better, British reinforcements from Montreal were repulsed and never made it to the fort.

British Major Preston saw the writing on the wall. He still had plenty of ammunition left, but he was running out of food. Finally, the British surrendered, marching out of the fort on November 3 and stacking their muskets in front of the Americans.

Preston was apparently ashamed and embarrassed to find himself in such a spot. “The tears run down his cheeks,” one Connecticut soldier described, “and he cried like a child.”

Little did Preston know it, but it was just the beginning of the end for the British. Their army was strong, of course, but the American thirst for freedom would prove even stronger!

There is more to the Canadian campaign, of course, but that is a story for another day.

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