It is often a habit for Americans to place our Revolutionary triumphs on a pedestal while ignoring or belittling our stinging defeats in the War for Independence. While we can hardly claim that our side was as victorious as we like to make it seem, there is truth to the declaration that American militias served the British professionals quite a few surprises. One such surprise occurred early in the Revolution, before America’s independence was declared. The capture of Fort Ticonderoga was as decisive as it was dramatic and it secured for the American patriots the capture of Boston by providing artillery for the infant Colonial army.
After the battles of Lexington and Concord, the British were bottled up in Boston. The Colonists put General Gage and his army under siege but without artillery, their victory would remain incomplete. Due to the strategic location of Fort Ticonderoga and the presence of artillery there, it was decided by the Colonists, upon the suggestion of Benedict Arnold, to send an expedition to take the fort and to seize its artillery. The Green Mountain Boys under Ethan Allen of what is now Vermont, would comprise the majority of the expedition.
In early May, the Green Mountain Boys set out on their campaign with Arnold and Allen leading the expeditionary force together. Hearing that the fort was expecting reinforcements, the Colonists decided to raid the fort at night. This attack went stunningly well without any dead on either side. The Colonists caught the British garrison by complete surprise and forced the surrender of the fort. When asked by whose authority he came, Allen reportedly replied, “By the authority of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress!” In reality, the victory at Ticonderoga and the subsequent successful raids in southern Quebec benefitted the Congress and its cause beyond the capture of a fort in the New England wilderness. Henry Knox would be commissioned by George Washington to trek up to Ticonderoga, and haul the cannons from the fort to Dorchester Heights, outside Boston. This audacious escapade secured the capture of Boston from the British and afforded the Colonies their first major victory in the Revolutionary War.
While the victory at Ticonderoga became shrouded in apocryphal legends, thanks in great part to Allen himself, the story remains an important part of our Revolutionary heritage. The aura of legend still shines around the Green Mountain Boys and the ambitious character of Arnold was foreshadowed by his glory-seeking role in the capture of the fort. The bold expedition to retrieve the cannons, lead by Knox, would put the humble Boston bookseller on the forefront of the Revolution. Henry Knox would later serve as Washington’s first secreatary of war.