Revolutionary War Battles
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State War Records
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The Second Battle of Ticonderoga was more a battle of maneuver than a direct conflict in the war. The British , led by Maj. Gen. John Burgoyne, occupied the fort after forcing Gen. Arthur St. Clair to withdraw the Americans.
The end of the 1776 campaigning season saw British forces, under the governor of Canada, Guy Carleton, and Maj. Gen. John 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.
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 Burgoyne commander of the expedition planned to attack the American colonies by way of the Lake Champlain route during 1777. On June 20, the British army assembled in the St Lawrence River to begin its advance south.
Over the winter of 1776-77, Maj. Gen. 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.
By July, 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.
The British and Hessian advance of the previous summer was halted at the Battle of Valcour Island, but everyone knew they would return, as Fort Ticonderoga was a key strongpoint controlling the southern extent of Lake Champlain and thus entry to the Hudson River Valley, making it a key location in the British strategy to divide the rebellious colonies in two by linking British forces moving south from Quebec with those moving northward along the Hudson from New York City.
Since the British withdrawal of the previous winter, American forces had worked for months in defensive preparations to repair the old fort, and had built several new blockhouses. They also strengthened Fort Independence across Lake Champlain and had constructed a pontoon bridge where the La Chute River entered to support communication between the two. The fort was manned by several understrength regiments of the Continental Army and militia units from several states. In all, St. Clair had about 2,500 men in the area.
A height called Sugar Loaf overlooked both forts, and large cannon on that height would make their positions impossible to defend; a tactical problem that John Trumbull had pointed out earlier in the year when Gen. Horatio Gates had been in command. He felt it was impossible for the British to place cannon on the heights, and after he left to lobby the Congress, his successor, Maj. Gen. Philip Schuyler, also declared that the concern was pointless.
With Gates and Schuyler locked in a political struggle for command of the Northern Department, and St. Clair was left in command, he refused to override Schuyler's orders, holding to his position even after Tadeusz Kosciuszko repeated Trumbull's warning and Col. Benedict Arnold, with his bad leg, climbed to the top of Sugar Loaf to confirm the reality of the threat. Since Gates now endorsed Kosciusko's advice, Schuyler and St. Clair ignored it.
Burgoyne's force of around 8,000 men with artillery and naval support was enough to overwhelm St. Clair's position, manned by about 3,500 includeing newly-arrived militia. Schuyler ordered St. Clair to hold out as long as he could before withdrawing, while additional forces were gathered for the defense of Albany. By early July, the Burgoyne expedition arrived in the area.
British reconnaissance also discovered the strategic position of Sugar Loaf. Starting on July 2, they cleared and fortified gun emplacements on top of that height. They also spent several days drawing some of their larger guns up the slope, using winches to move from tree to tree.
On July 4, the Americans held a quiet celebration with some toasts to commemorate the previous year's Declaration of Independence.
On July 5, the American force awoke to discover the completed British position, with more guns arriving throughout the day. Trumbull had already demonstrated that fire from the American guns couldn't reach the summit, and aware that devastating fire from the heights would reduce the fortress to rubble, St. Clair withdrew his force under cover of darkness. The guns at Ticonderoga, most remaining supplies, and some men too ill and wounded to move were left to the British. A handful of men were left at Fort Independence with loaded cannon and lit matches to fire on the pontoon bridge after the withdrawal, but after indulging in some of the remaining supplies, notably, a barrel of wine, they were incapable of military action.
On July 6, during the morning, the British troops captured them and occupied the forts without firing a shot. Gen. Simon Fraser set out in pursuit of the retreating Americans.
The withdrawal from Ticonderoga was hurried, but was a part of the American defensive strategy adopted by Schuyler in response to the British Saratoga Campaign. Fraser's pursuit resulted in the Battle of Hubbardton as they caught up with the rear guard. St. Clair, meanwhile, brought most of his men to join forces with Schuyler at Fort Edward, and prepare for the Battle of Saratoga. Ticonderoga did not substantially delay Burgoyne's advance, but he did leave several regiments and much of his Canadian force as a garrison.
Fort 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.
The political impact of the surrender was much stronger. Congress was appalled, and they censured both Schuyler and St. Clair for the loss. Schuyler was removed as commander of the Northern Department and replaced with Gates.
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. He 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.
In the absence of a direct order from 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.
Eventually, after Burgoyne's surrender at the Battle of Saratoga, the British Forces in withdrew to St. John's, and the Americans re-occuped Fort Ticonderoga with no major incidents.