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This Day in History: Americans lose Fort Ticonderoga to the British

On this day in 1777, Americans lose Fort Ticonderoga.  Only two years earlier, Patriots led by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold had captured the fort in less than 10 minutes!  Now it was lost, back in British hands again. 


Unfortunately, the fort had proven itself complex and difficult to sufficiently man. Americans tried, but by November 1776, one officer noted: “We shall be hard pushed for time and materials, to put this place in any tolerable state of defence.” 


Maybe he was more correct than he wanted to know.

British Major General John Burgoyne had a plan,  and he hoped it would put an end to the American dream of independence. He planned to enter America from Canada, land at Crown Point,  and move toward Albany. If British troops joined him from New York City, he figured he could separate the New England colonies from the southern ones and put an end to the war. Many in Britain believed in him and his idea, and he was given a command.


As Burgoyne was plotting, American Major General Arthur St. Clair was given command of Fort Ticonderoga. St. Clair had “about 3000 men” to defend Ft. Ticonderoga and “about 1000 unfit for duty, by reason of disorders that are incident to Camp life.” 


In short, he was badly outnumbered! Burgoyne had closer to 8,000 men.


On July 2, Americans decided to abandon a strategic high ground on Mount Hope, near the fort.  Mount Hope could have helped to protect another high point, Sugar Loaf (now Mount Defiance), but Mount Defiance was considered too steep to mount with guns.


Well, the Americans *thought* it was too steep. At least one of Burgoyne’s engineers disagreed with that statement. Reportedly, he told Burgoyne: “Where a goat can go a man can go and where a man can go he can drag a gun.”  On July 5, that engineer was true to his word. He managed to get a battery up on Mount Defiance. 


When St. Clair saw what had happened, he held a Council of War, but the decision was obvious. Americans needed to evacuate the fort.  St. Clair took the decision seriously. He reportedly remarked, at the time, that “he would save his character and lose the army” if he stayed and fought, but a retreat “would save the army and lose his character.” He declared himself ready to sacrifice his character for the cause.


On July 6, the Americans retreated. Fort Ticonderoga was lost.


The fort may have been lost, but more skirmishes would occur over the course of the next few days. Stay tuned for part two of this story in a few days. 


Primary Sources:

  • Letter from Captain James Gray to his father-in-law (June 26, 1777)

  • Letter from Col. Anthony Wayne to General Horatio Gates (November 20, 1776)

  • Letter from James Warren to John Adams (July 11, 1777)

  • Richard M. Ketchum, Saratoga: Turning Point of America’s Revolutionary War (1997)

  • Robert P. Davis, Where a Man Can Go: Major General William Phillips, British Royal Artillery, 1731-1781 (1999)

  • The American Revolution: A Historical Guidebook (Frances H. Kennedy ed. 2014)

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