The 1777 Siege of Fort Ticonderoga occurred between July 2 and 6, 1777 near the southern end of Lake Champlain in New York.
In September 1775, the American Continental Army invaded Quebec. In July 1776 the army was sent back to Fort Ticonderoga by the British army. A small Continental Navy fleet on Lake Champlain was defeated October 1776 on Valcour Island. The British wanted to build their fleet on Lake Champlain which caused General Guy Carleton to wait on an assault on Fort Ti in 1776. The coming of winter and maintaining supply lines along the lake in winter caused him to pull his forces back into Quebec.
General John Burgoyne prepared to lead the British forces south to gain control of Ticonderoga and the Hudson River from Quebec in May 1777. Brigadier General Simon Fraser commanded the light infantry and flank companies forming the army’s advance force. British Army troops consisted of the 9th, 20th, 21st, 24th, 47th, 53rd and 62nd regiments, along with the flank companies of other regiments left as a garrison in Quebec. The remaining regulars, under the leadership of Major General William Phillips, formed the right wing of the army, while the left was composed of Hessian Allies under the command of Baron Riedesel. His forces consisted of many Hessian regiments, along with one regiment of grenadiers and another of horseless dragoons from the Brunswick Army, and a Jäger Corps Regiment from the Hesse-Hanau Army. Most of these forces had arrived in 1776, and many participated in the campaign that drove the American army out of Quebec.
The total size of Burgoyne’s regular army was about 7,000.In addition to the regulars, there were about 800 Native Americans, and a relatively small number of Canadiens and Loyalists, who acted primarily as scouts and screening reconnaissance. The army was also accompanied by more than 1,000 civilians, including a pregnant woman, and a Baroness with three small children. Including these non-military personnel, the total number of people in Burgoyne’s army was more than 10,000.
Burgoyne and General Carlton moved the troops to Fort Saint-Jean, near the northern end of Lake Champlain, on June 14. By June 21, the armada of the army was on the lake, and they had arrived at the unoccupied Fort Crown Point by June 30. Natives and other elements of the advance force laid down such an effective screen that the American defenders at Ti were not sure of the exact strength of the force or location on the lake. Burgoyne, while en route, wrote a proclamation to the Americans, written in his well-known pompous style for which he was often criticized and parodied.
American forces had occupied the forts at Ticonderoga and Crown Point since they captured them in May 1775 from a small garrison. In 1776 and 1777, they undertook significant efforts to improve the defenses surrounding Ticonderoga. A quarter-mile long floating bridge was constructed across the lake to facilitate communication between Ticonderoga and Mount Independence. A peninsula on the east side of the lake, renamed Mount Independence, was heavily fortified. North of Fort Ti, the Americans built several redoubts, and a fort on Mount Hope.
Until 1777, General Philip Schuyler had headed the Continental Army’s Northern Department, with General Horatio Gates in charge of Ti. In March 1777 the Continental Congress gave command of the whole department to Gates. Schuyler protested this action, which Congress reversed in May, at which point Gates left for Philadelphia. Command of the fort was then given to General Arthur St. Clair three weeks ahead of Burgoyne’s arrival.
Continental Army and militia units from New York and nearby states guarded Ti. Following a war council, Generals St. Clair and Schuyler on June 20, 1777 stated that “the number of troops now at this post, which are under 2,500 effectives, rank and file, are greatly inadequate to the defense”, and that “it is prudent to provide for a retreat”. Consequently, plans were made for retreat along two routes. The first was by water to Skenesboro, the southernmost navigable point on the lake. The second was overland by a rough road leading east toward Hubbardton in present-day Vermont.
Sugar Loaf (now called Mount Defiance) overlooked both Ticonderoga and Independence, and large cannons there would make the fort impossible to defend. This tactical problem had been pointed out by John Trumbull when Gates was in command.Trumbull, Anthony Wayne, and Benedict Arnold climbed to the top and felt it was possible.
The defense, or lack thereof, of Sugar Loaf was complicated by the widespread perception that Fort Ticonderoga, with a reputation as the “Gibraltar of the North”, had to be held. Neither abandoning the fort nor garrisoning it with a small force (sufficient to respond to a feint but not to an attack in strength) was viewed as a politically viable option. Defending the fort and the associated outer works would require all the troops currently there, leaving none to defend Sugar Loaf. Furthermore, George Washington and the Congress were of the opinion that Burgoyne, who was known to be in Quebec, was more likely to strike from the south, moving his troops by sea to New York City.
Following the war council of June 20, Schuyler ordered St. Clair to hold out as long as he could, and to avoid having his avenues of retreat cut off. Schuyler took command of a reserve force of 700 at Albany, and Washington ordered four regiments to be held in readiness at Peekskill, further down the Hudson River.
On 1 July, General St. Clair was still unaware of the full strength of Burgoyne’s army, which lay just 4 miles (6.4 km) away. Burgoyne had deployed Fraser’s advance force and right column on the west side of the lake, hoping to cut off the defenses at Mount Hope. Riedesel and the German column were deployed on the east side of the lake, where their objective was Mount Independence and the road to Hubbardton. Burgoyne gave the order to advance on July 2.
On the morning of July 2, St. Clair decided to withdraw the men occupying the defense post at Mount Hope, which was exposed and subject to capture. The detachment there set fire to the works and retreated to the old French lines (so called because they were the site of the French defense in the 1758 Battle of Carillon), getting away not long before the arrival of Burgoyne’s advance guard. That afternoon, a company of British soldiers and Natives came toward those lines, but not near enough to do significant damage, and opened fire. St. Clair ordered his men to hold their fire until the enemy was closer, but James Wilkinson fired at a British soldier, causing the untrained defenders to open fire. One man fell. The British troops fled. When the man was captured, it turned out he was uninjured, and that he had fallen down because he was drunk.
Fraser’s advance forces occupied Mount Hope on July 3. Burgoyne ordered some of the scouts and Natives over to the east side of the lake for reconnaissance ahead of the Hessian column, and brought some of them over to the west side. Some of the British camp was placed close enough to the American lines that they were harassed by gunfire. This did not prevent the British from making repairs to the bridges on the portage road between Ticonderoga and Lake George.
British engineers discovered the strategic position of Sugar Loaf, and realized that the American withdrawal from Mount Hope gave them access to it. Starting on July 2, they began clearing and building gun emplacements on top, working carefully to avoid notice by the Americans. They spent several days pulling some of their larger guns up the slope. Burgoyne’s objective was to spring the trap only when Riedesel’s troops were in position to cut off the American retreat.
On July 4, the Americans held a quiet celebration with some toasts to commemorate the previous year’s Declaration of Independence. That night the British lost their element of surprise when some natives lit fires on Sugar Loaf, alerting the Americans to their presence there. On the morning of July 5, St. Clair held a war council in which the decision was made to retreat. Since their position was completely exposed, they delayed departure until nightfall, when their movements would be concealed.
All possible armaments, as well as invalids, camp followers, and supplies were loaded onto a fleet of more than 200 boats that began to move up the lake toward Skenesboro, accompanied by Colonel Pierse Long’s regiment. Owing to a shortage of boats, four invalids were left behind, as were the very largest cannons and a variety of supplies—everything from tents to cattle. The rest of the army crossed to Mount Independence and headed down the Hubbardton road, which Riedesel’s forces had not yet reached. A handful of men were left at the pontoon bridge with loaded cannons to fire on British attempts to cross it, but they were drunk when the British arrived the next morning.
The British occupied the forts without firing a single shot, and detachments from Fraser’s and Riedesel’s troops set out in pursuit of the retreating Americans on the Hubbardton road, while Burgoyne hurried some of his troops up the lake toward Skenesboro.
At least seven Americans were killed and 11 wounded in skirmishing prior to the American retreat. British casualties were not tallied, but at least five were killed in skirmishes.
The Americans made good time on the Hubbardton road. Most of the force reached Castleton—a march of 30 miles (50 km)—on the evening of July 6. The British pursuit resulted in the Battle of Hubbardton when they caught up with the rear guard on the morning of July 7, but this enabled the main American body to escape, eventually joining forces with Schuyler at Fort Edward. The smaller American force that had fled by boat to Skenesboro fought off Burgoyne’s advance force in the Battle of Fort Anne, but was forced to abandon equipment and many sick and wounded in skirmishing at Skenesboro.
The confrontation at Ticonderoga did not substantially slow Burgoyne’s advance, but he was forced to leave a garrison of more than 900 men in the Ticonderoga area, and wait until July 11 for the dispersed elements of his army to regroup at Skenesboro. He then encountered delays in traveling the heavily wooded road between Skenesboro and Fort Edward, which General Schuyler’s forces had effectively ruined by felling trees across it and destroying all its bridges in the swampy terrain. Burgoyne’s campaign ultimately failed and he was forced to surrender after the Battles of Saratoga. General Gates reported to Governor George Clinton on 20 November that Ticonderoga and Independence had been abandoned and burned by the retreating British.
The political and public outcry after the withdrawal was significant. The Congress was appalled, and criticized both Schuyler and St. Clair for the loss. John Adams wrote, “I think we shall never be able to defend a post until we shoot a general”, and George Washington said it was “an event of chagrin and surprise, not apprehended nor within the compass of my reasoning”. Rumors circulated that St. Clair and Schuyler were traitors who had taken bribes in exchange for the retreat.
Schuyler was eventually removed as commander of the Northern Department, replaced by General Gates; the fall of Ticonderoga was among the reasons cited. St. Clair was removed from his command and sent to headquarters for an inquiry. He maintained that his conduct had been honorable, and demanded a review by court martial. The court martial was not held until September 1778 due to political intrigues against Washington; St. Clair was completely exonerated, although he was never given another field command. Schuyler was also cleared of any wrongdoing by a court martial.
The news made headlines in Europe. King George is reported to have burst into the chambers of the scantily clad Queen, exclaiming, “I have beat them! I have beat all the Americans!” The French and Spanish courts were less happy with the news, as they had been supporting the Americans, allowing them to use their ports, and engaging in trade with them. The action emboldened the British to demand that France and Spain close their ports to the Americans; this demand was rejected, heightening tensions between the European powers.
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