In the early morning hours of May 10th, 1775, a guerrilla force from the New Hampshire Grants area (present day Vermont) with a vainglorious co-leader crossed Lake Champlain into New York and took the British garrison at Fort Ticonderoga whilst they slept.
Three weeks after Lexington and Concord and on the very day that the Second Continental Congress was to meet in Philadelphia, Ethan Allen (with his brother, Ira, and his cousin, Seth Warner) led the “Green Mountain Boys” from Hands Cove on the eastern side of Lake Champlain to a landing point near Fort Ticonderoga. They had a fellow traveller who tried to assert his control over the party, but seeing him commanding only his own person at the time, the rough Green Mountain Boys decided to only allow the poppinjay to travel as co-leader. His name was Benedict Arnold.
At the time, Ethan Allen was wanted by the New York authorities for offenses committed in the New Hampshire Grants (Vermont) against New York settlers. The NH Grants area was claimed by three colonies (New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York) and would soon become an independent Republic in 1777 before joining the United States as the fourteenth. Allen and his Boys had responded to an approach from concerned citizens about the safety of the Lake Champlain corridor from British penetration. The fort at Ticonderoga, on the western shore of Lake Champlain, was the obvious place to secure against this type of incursion, so the band of mountaineers set sights on Hands Cove as a jumping off point. Benedict Arnold was from Rhode Island, late of Connecticut, but applied to the Massachusetts Committee of Safety to secure the fort as well. Given permission, but no men, the ever confident Arnold set out for Hands Cove as well.
Benedict Arnold Fort Ticonderoga
After meeting in Hands Cove, Arnold (Mass. Committee of Safety papers in hand) presented himself as the new leader of the New Hampshire grantsmen. One can imagine the chuckles the mountain men suppressed as they listened to the city boy make his claim. Whether Arnold convinced them to let him become co-leader or if they tolerated him like the village idiot who claims to be Napoleon, no one will know (yes, I know Napoleoon was 5 at the time, but the analogy still works). Either way, the future traitor was on the boat to Ticonderoga that morning.
After landing, the force quietly made their way up to the fort and overtook the only sentry. They then proceeded to enter the fort which was really nothing more than a fortified hamlet of 2 officers, 48 men and 24 women and children. Finding all of the fort asleep, Allen announced his presence and his authority and demanded surrender which was quickly forthcoming. Allen sent Warner further north up the lake to take the fort at Crown Point as well. Arnold, not to be outdone, went all the way to Canada to occupy Fort Saint Johns at the intersection of Lake Champlain and the Richelieu River. Perhaps, realising his invitation of a rout by British forces, Arnold thought twice and left the area. Allen took it anyway, but was run off soon thereafter.
As one can easily read, the action on 10 May 1775 was not really all that important tactically and its strategic importance geographically at the time was questionable. However, I have left out one important detail of strategic importance. Fort Ticonderoga, as frail as it was, housed a large cache of reasonably modern artillery consisting of 44 guns, 14 mortars and one howitzer. The infant Continental Army was woefully short of artillery and these pieces would begin to play a decisive role less than a year later at the Dorchester Heights above Boston when used to lay siege to the cooped up British Army and Navy.
As for the main players, Allen was later captured by the British in Quebec and sent to a Cornish prison. The British army were to run into Seth Warner and the Green Mountain Boys again near Bennington, Vermont in 1777 and lose again. Fort Ticonderoga was still to play a major role in the war as British General Burgoyne took it back in 1777 and used it as a base to attack further south in his disastrous New York campaign. As for Benedict Arnold… after a vain, but generally well-regarded stint as an American commander, he became the one name that all American school children learn when being taught about loyalty to the nation.
Benedict Arnold Fort Ticonderoga Ride Recommendation
Lake Champlain is really quite striking and it is easy to travel its length largely in eye-shot of it. Its importance to the founding wars of the USA cannot be understated.
Start at the Hands Cove Road in Vermont to see the launch area and go to the Larrabees Point ferry for a short ride across the lake with Fort Ticonderoga in view. Visit the Fort, then head north on NY Route 9N to Crown Point Historical Park and across the bridge into Vermont and the Chimney Point Historical Park. From there head north following Lake Champlain from the Vermont side and through the Grand Isle and Hero Islands, across the Canadian border into Quebec to Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu (site of the former Fort St Johns). Don’t forget the passport! Google Map of the route.