Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Fort-itude

Located in upstate New York on the shores of Lake Champlain, Fort Ticonderoga was built in 1755 by the French, captured by the British in 1759, and then captured by colonial militias in 1775.

Wait!

Colonial militias? 1775? That can mean only one thing, dear readers.

American Revolutionary War history!

But first, a bit of “pre” history. Whenever France and Great Britain went to war in Europe (which was frequently), there was very often a corresponding war in their respective North American colonies. Four of them, in fact. Five, if you count the American Revolution (but in that war, the French were mainly helping us fight the British).

The story of Fort Ticonderoga begins during the fourth war: the French and Indian War (called the Seven Years War in Europe). In the early 1750s, the North American colonies of both the French and the British were expanding and looking to expand even further. One special area that each country coveted was Lake Champlain (which today forms part of the border between New York and Vermont). The lake (along with neighboring Lake George) was a vital travel route in colonial times as the two lakes provided a passage between the French-controlled Saint Lawrence River Valley and the British-controlled Hudson River Valley. Whoever controlled Lake Champlain would control the trade routes between the two valleys. Definitely something worth fighting for.

France and Great Britain had been contesting this area as early as the 1690s, but the conflict escalated with the French and Indian War. So in 1755, France built a fort at the narrows at the southern end of Lake Champlain and called it Fort Carillon. Today, we know it as Fort Ticonderoga.

Fort Ticonderoga

Lake Champlain from one of Fort Ticonderoga's Ramparts

In 1758, the French - with only 3,500 soldiers – successfully defended the fort from a British army numbering 16,000 (this would be the greatest victory for France during the French and Indian War).

But the following year, the British returned, drove the French from the fort and renamed it Fort Ticonderoga (which is derived from an Iroquois word meaning “at the junction of two waterways”).

Fast forward 16 years to early May of 1775. It’s now been just a couple of weeks since the “shot heard ‘round the world” was fired at the North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts.

The famous Siege of Boston is well under way. The British soldiers who had retreated from Concord with enraged New England militias right on their heels are now trapped in Boston as the militias surround the town and prevent any more movement by the British troops.

Meanwhile, in upstate New York, Fort Ticonderoga is still in British hands. But, since the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, has been garrisoned by only a small number of British soldiers. It is well known to the colonial militias that the fort has large stores of munitions. Just what all those militias need, now that they’re fighting a war against the British.

Lots of cannon...

...and lots of mortars. Just what a fledgling rebel army needs!

A close-up of one of the French mortars.
How ironic that a thing of war can also be a thing of beauty.

So there is Fort Ticonderoga with all its artillery. Enter Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys of Vermont.

And enter Colonel Benedict Arnold and some of his Massachusetts militia. Yes, THAT Benedict Arnold. Prior to his decision to switch sides, Arnold was an earnest supporter of the colonial rebellion against Britain and a very respected military officer.

So Allen and Arnold set out – completely independently of each other - to capture Fort Ticonderoga and claim all the fort’s armaments for colonial use. They meet up, join forces, and on May 10, 1775, basically knock on the front door of the fort and capture it.

“Capture of Fort Ticonderoga” by Alozo Chappel

It really must be mentioned here that the ease with which Allen and Arnold captured Fort Ticonderoga was due in part to the fact that they arrived at the fort at dawn, while much of the garrison was still sleeping. It also didn’t hurt that none of the inhabitants of the fort was aware of what had occurred in Lexington and Concord several weeks earlier and had no idea that their counterparts in Boston were under siege. In short, the British at Fort Ticonderoga had no idea that Britain was now at war with its North American colonies.

Much has been written about all that happened after the fort was captured and you can find some great books, if you’re interested, that read like thrilling adventure novels. And much has been written about the widely different paths Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold took after their capture of Fort Ticonderoga. Benedict Arnold’s story, especially, is very compelling.

But back to the fort. With the capture of the fort, the colonial forces did, indeed, acquire a large supply of munitions, including lots of cannon. Six months later, in November of 1775 (and I still don’t understand why it took so long), George Washington (who was by this time Commander of the Continental Army) realized his troops simply didn’t have the munitions necessary to successfully continue the Siege of Boston. So he sent Henry Knox, a 25 year old bookseller-turned-soldier, to Fort Ticonderoga to retrieve some of the heavy artillery that was there.

I pause here to ask you to consider the following: it’s roughly 300 miles from Boston to Fort Ticonderoga. It’s November. It’s cold and it’s snowy. And it’s 1775. This young man has just been asked by the Commander of the Continental Army to go to upstate New York and bring back to Boston roughly 60 tons of artillery. In the snow. In 1775. There are no cargo planes. There are no trucks. How do you do something like that?

Here's how...

“The Nobel Train of Artillery” by Tom Lovell

With oxen and sledges across frozen lakes and rivers, through ice and snow. Now that’s impressive!

It took 56 days to bring the cannon back to Boston. But once they were placed on a hill overlooking the city and pointing right at the British fleet in Boston Harbor, it took only 10 days for the British to decide to withdraw from the city.

In what is now known as Evacuation Day, the British left Boston on March 17th, 1776. And I bet you thought it was St. Patrick’s Day that Bostonians celebrate on March 17th!

Unfortunately, the colonial occupation of Fort Ticonderoga did not last long. British troops recaptured it in July of 1777. But by then, Fort Ticonderoga had given the colonial rebels what they wanted, what they most needed.

The British abandoned the fort in November of 1777, almost completely destroying it before they left. It was eventually reoccupied by the British, but then abandoned again in 1781.

The fort subsequently and sadly fell into ruins. It eventually became the property of the state of New York, changed hands a number of times and finally was sold to a man named William Pell in 1820.

"The Ruins of Fort Ticonderoga" by the historian Benson John Lossing from his "Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution" published in 1853.

William Pell’s descendants began restoring the grand old fort in 1908 and it was opened to the public the following year. In addition to the fort itself, the buildings are full of amazing collections pertaining to the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. There are books, maps, military manuals, 18th century British and American newspapers, letters, diaries, paintings, photographs, military uniforms, weapons (nearly 1,800 muskets, bayonets, pistols and swords, along with cannon and mortars) and a truly unique collection of engraved powder horns from the late 1700s.

Used to safely carry gun powder, powder horns were generally created from cow or bison horns.

If made correctly, a powder horn is both airtight and waterproof. Engraved powder horns from the 18th century are classified as a unique colonial American art form.

Fort Ticonderoga is a remarkable place and brings alive a remarkable time in the history of our country. Art and I really enjoyed our time there and highly recommend it to anyone.

And if you happen to be one of those folks who is a bit nuts about early American history (do we know any of those?), then all you’ll need to do is read the plaque that greets you as you enter the fort.


Knowing you are walking in the footsteps of George Washington and Ben Franklin and Ethan Allen and Henry Knox (among others) is both thrilling and humbling.

Not a bad way to spend a day.

--- Barbara (back home in Solvang)

1 comment:

Paula Scott said...

What an incredible post! What fort too! Great history and images. Thanks!