The Battle of Ticonderoga 1777

Battle: Ticonderoga 1777

War: American Revolutionary War

Date: 6th July 1777.

Place: Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain, New York State in the United States of America.

Combatants: British, Hessians and Brunswickers against the American Colonists.

Generals: Major General John Burgoyne commanded the British and Major General Arthur St Clair commanded the American troops.

Size of the armies:
7,213 regular British, Hessian and Brunswick troops, a varying but large contingent of Native Americans and some 150 Canadians against some 3,000 American troops.

Uniforms, arms and equipment:
The British wore red coats and headgear of bearskin caps, leather caps or tricorne hats depending on whether the troops were grenadiers, light infantry or battalion company men. The German infantry wore blue coats and retained the Prussian style grenadier mitre with brass front plate. The Americans dressed as best they could. Increasingly as the war progressed regular infantry regiments of the Continental Army wore blue uniform coats but the militia continued in rough clothing. Both sides were armed with muskets and guns.

Winner: The Americans withdrew precipitately from Ticonderoga leaving it in British hands.

British Regiments:
9th Foot: later the Royal Norfolk Regiment and now the Royal Anglian Regiment.
20th Foot: later the Lancashire Fusiliers and now the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.
21st Royal Scots Fusiliers, now the Royal Highland Fusiliers.
24th Foot: later the South Wales Borderers and now the Royal Regiment of Wales.
47th Foot: later the Loyal Regiment and now the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment.
53rd Foot: later the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and now the Royal Green Jackets.
62nd Foot: later the Wiltshire Regiment, then the Duke of Edinburgh’s Royal Regiment and now the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment.
King’s Loyal Americans.
Queen’s Loyal Rangers.


The British 9th Regiment of Foot

German regiments:
Prinz Ludwig Dragoons
Specht’s Regiment.
Von Rhetz’s Regiment.
Von Riedesel’s Regiment.
Prinz Frederich’s Regiment.
Erbprinz Regiment.
Breyman’s Jaegers.

American Regiments:
Francis’ Massachusetts Regiment.
Marshall’s Massachusetts Regiment.
Hale’s New Hampshire Continentals.
Cilley’s New Hampshire Continentals.
Scammell’s New Hampshire Continentals.
Many other severely undermanned corps.

Account:
Fort Ticonderoga was built by the French as Fort Carillon when they held Canada and the routes to the southern end of Lake Champlain. In 1758 during the French and Indian War Ticonderoga was the scene of a fearsome battle between the British and American colonists and the French under the Marquis de Montcalm. The following year, the fort was captured by the British under Amherst.

With the Treaty of Paris and the end of the French and Indian War (the Seven Years War) all of Canada passed to the British and Ticonderoga lost its previous strategic significance. That is until the American Revolutionary War broke out. By that time the stone fortifications had fallen into ruin and the garrison comprised 70 British pensioners.


Battle for Fort Ticonderoga

In 1775 Fort Ticonderoga was surprised and captured by the Americans under Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold. The Fort provided the heavy artillery that the colonists needed to bombard General Gage out of Boston. Ticonderoga again became an important bastion on the route from the Hudson River to Canada, this time to resist British invasion from North to South.

The end of the 1776 campaigning season saw British forces, under the governor of Canada, Guy Carleton, and Major General “Gentleman Johnnie” Burgoyne, advance south down Lake Champlain and threaten Fort Ticonderoga. But the year was far advanced and Carleton was an old North American hand. He considered it would be too difficult to supply a garrison in Ticonderoga over the winter and withdrew his forces to Canada, in the face of considerable objection from Burgoyne and others who wanted to seize the fort that year.


General St Clair.

Over the winter Lord Germaine, the Secretary of State for the Northern Department, the minister with the direction of the American War, persuaded King George II to appoint General Burgoyne commander of the expedition planned to attack the American colonies by way of the Lake Champlain route during 1777.
On 20th June 1777 the army assembled in the St Lawrence River to begin its advance south.

Over the winter of 1776/7 Major General Arthur St Clair, the officer appointed by Congress to command at Ticonderoga, and his garrison strove to bring the fort to a proper state of defence. St Clair and his men faced considerable difficulties. Ticonderoga, originally Fort Carillon, had been built by the French to keep the British at bay and consequently faced south, the wrong direction to resist the British incursion. In addition, with the end of the French and Indian War Ticonderoga had lost its purpose and been allowed to fall into disrepair.

In the summer of 1776 an American officer, Lieutenant Colonel John Trumbull, had prepared a report on the defences of Ticonderoga. Trumbull recommended that the axis of defence be moved from the existing fort to a mountain on the opposite side of the lake, then known locally as Mount Rattlesnake. The recommendation was accepted and, in keeping with the spirit of the times, Mount Rattlesnake became Mount Independence. Unfortunately Trumbull’s further recommendation that a prominence called Sugar Hill which overlooked the whole area also be fortified was ignored. It seemed sufficient to change its name to Mount Defiance.

St Clair’s engineering officer, Colonel Jeduthan Baldwin, worked tirelessly in the face of shortages and disease to prepare Ticonderoga for attack by the British. By July 1777 Baldwin had built batteries, stockades and block houses and, to link the old Fort Ticonderoga with the fortifications on Mount Independence, a bridge and boom. On Mount Independence the Polish military engineer, Thaddeus Kosciuszko, built batteries and fortifications. The spirit of the American garrison was good. There were too few troops but they were ready to fight. Parties of New England militia came to the encampment, stayed long enough to deplete the garrison’s stores, and returned home.

On 1st July 1777 Burgoyne’s army, carried by flotilla and marching down the lake side, arrived just north of Ticonderoga. Light Infantry under Brigadier Simon Fraser infiltrated around the western side of the fort over Hope Hill. Fraser’s troops crossed the river leading to Lake George and circled around the southern side of Ticonderoga. They climbed Sugar Hill and saw, as Trumbull had, that the heights dominated the American positions in both Ticonderoga and Mount Independence. The British dragged guns to the summit and opened fire.

St Clair thereupon, after notionally consulting a council of war, resolved to abandon Ticonderoga and retreat south. During the night of 5th/6th July 1777 the American troops left the fort with such supplies as they could move in the time and rowed across to the landings beneath Mount Independence. The secrecy of the move was destroyed by a French officer, Colonel Roche de Fermoy, who set fire to his house on the summit of the hill lighting up the bay beneath, with its flotilla of boats carrying the American troops across the water.

Alerted to the withdrawal, the British troops pursued, crossing by boat and across the boom from the old French fort, but the Americans made good their escape, marching away into the woods or rowing down the South Bay towards Skenesborough to the South.

An American rear party remained to contest the British advance and cover St Clair’s withdrawal. That party fell back, leaving a forlorn hope of 4 men posted at a heavy gun with the duty of firing into the British as they crossed on the boom. The redcoats found the 4 men lying around the gun, incapably drunk, an empty Madeira barrel lying nearby. An inquisitive Iroquois discharged the gun by accident, but caused no injuries, the round howling off into the sky. Ticonderoga was again in British hands and available as a base for their operations south towards Albany.

Casualties: Casualties were only a few dozen on each side.

Follow-up:
Ticonderoga was an important symbol for the Americans, who expected that the fort would keep the redcoats out of the northern colonies, particularly in view of the winter spent improving the fortifications. St Clair’s abrupt retreat caused alarm and outrage. A militant Protestant chaplain in the garrison, the Reverend Thomas Allen, wrote “Our men are eager for the battle, our magazines filled, our camp crowded with provisions, flags flying. The shameful abandonment of Ticonderoga has not been equaled in the history of the world.” This sentiment was repeated with fury across the colonies.

St Clair justified his actions, claiming to have saved valuable troops for the American cause. In the light of the heavy criticism to which he was subjected he demanded a court martial, at which he was acquitted.

St Clair may have been right. It may be that Burgoyne would have captured a defended Ticonderoga and that many valuable American troops would have become casualties. There is no doubt that Burgoyne’s further march south overstrained the British supply system and contributed directly to his surrender at Saratoga.

Was the fact that the British battery established on Sugar Hill overlooked the American fortifications in Ticonderoga and on Mount Independence an adequate reason for the precipitate and headlong retreat and the abandonment of a major American defence on which such effort and expectation had been lavished?

In the absence of a direct order from General Schuyler or the Congress to abandon Ticonderoga, perhaps St Clair should have fought it out. Probably, whatever the outcome, St Clair would have emerged from the war a national hero instead of spending the rest of his life attempting to justify his actions and fending off allegations of cowardice.

References:

  • History of the British Army by Sir John Fortescue
  • The War of the Revolution by Christopher Ward
  • Saratoga by Richard Ketchum