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“in The Name Of The Great Jehovah And The Continental Congress!”
So bellowed Ethan Allen as he took Fort Ticonderoga without a shot. Once again the brawling giant of the Green Mountains had lived up to a myth that was indeed mighty—but no greater, perhaps, than the actual man
October 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 6
And indeed the part he has already determined to take at the earliest possible moment is as dangerously dramatic as it is politically and militarily important. What he contemplates amidst the cheerful fumes and potent furies of the guzzled Stonewalls is nothing less than the capture with his Green Mountain Boys of the most famous British strongpoint in North America —Fort Ticonderoga, situated on the western shore of Lake Champlain at a point commanding the short portage between Champlain and Lake George. Originally a French fort called Carillon, it was completed in 1755, its basic design being that originated by the brilliant French military engineer, the Marquis de Vauban. Built of stone, it has a star-shaped outer wall whose approaches were originally ingeniously prepared for defense and, within the wall, numerous bombproof shelters and firing points so arranged as to be mutually reinforcing. It gained world fame during the French and Indian War when Montcalm held it with 3,600 troops against a well-equipped but poorly led attacking force of 15,000 British and Americans; Montcalm on that occasion inflicted 2,000 casualties while suffering only 300 of his own. Even though Ticonderoga was later captured by Lord Jeffery Amherst, it is still widely regarded as impregnable—the “Gibraltar of America,” as some have called it.
Ethan Allen knows better, for the British, who obtained permanent possession of the fort at the Peace of Paris in 1763, have permitted it to fall into disrepair; it is now occupied by no more than a token force. But he also knows that Ticonderoga and its neighboring fort at Crown Point may well become impregnable when they are repaired and fully manned, as they will surely be very soon. Ticonderoga can then become a springboard for British attacks southward into the very heart of the colonies, aimed at splitting them apart.
Thus Allen has resolved to capture these forts—and for the last two months plans have been pressed forward. The venture can succeed, however, only if complete tactical surprise is achieved. Secrecy must enshroud the fact that an attack is so much as contemplated, and this secrecy must extend not only to the British but also to many leading Americans who continue to hope that ultimately, in spite of everything, a nonviolent solution of the crisis will be reached. Once Allen’s plan is carried out, their hope will be destroyed completely. A politically decisive act-for even in Boston no direct attack on Crown property has yet been made by the Americans-it will make the Revolution irrevocable. It may also be an act of decisive military importance: if it succeeds, it will not only deprive the British of an immense strategic advantage in a crucial area during the crucial opening months of conflict, but may also supply the rebels with war matériel they desperately need-materiel in the absence of which they cannot possibly win the battles that must be fought around and in and for the key city of Boston.
The vital path that has led Ethan Allen to the Catamount Tavern, on the eve of his rendezvous with destiny, began in Litchfield, Connecticut, where he was born on January 21, 1738, the first child of Joseph and Mary Baker Allen. A few months later his parents moved with him from Litchfield to nearby Cornwall, on the banks of the Housatonic—a raw new community hewn out of hilly, rocky, wooded wilderness, isolated, lacking even a mill. The move was natural for the family: the Allens had been a pioneering race—restless, boldly adventurous, physically and mentally independent, seeking the farthest frontier as if by instinct-ever since the first of them landed in Massachusetts in 1632. This first Allen had shortly thereafter removed with the radical Reverend Thomas Hooker, pastor of the Dorchester Company, into the wild lower valley of the Connecticut River, away from the rigorously enforced pieties of the Massachusetts theocracy. In the century since, four generations of Allens (averaging ten children per generation) had lived in eight different localities, each more newly settled than the last.
On the produce and terrific labor of a pioneer farm —carving fields out of dense woods and clearing glacial rock from them-the boy Ethan grew remarkably big and strong, wise in the ways of the woods, skilled in the handling of tools and weapons, able to follow a faint trail through the wilderness and live off the land through which he passed. He was also intellectually precocious. He had little opportunity for formal schooling. He was, as he later confessed, “deficient in education and had to acquire the knowledge of grammar and language, as well as the art of reasoning, principally from a studious application to it, which after all, I am sensible, lays me under disadvantages, particularly in matters of composition. …” But he was driven by a rare hunger to know and understand the things expressed in language, by a passion for speculative thought about origins and meanings, and by a poetic need to speak his piece, not just in ways understandable but in ways eloquent, moving, memorable.