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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
At Castleton, Ethan also made arrangements for military intelligence. Noah Phelps was to enter the fort as a spy: he went in the guise of a farmer seeking a barber and actually did obtain a haircut. Phelps returned on the eve of the attack to tell Allen that no more than fifty troops were in the place, that they were entirely without suspicion of the impending attack, and that there was a gap, which he precisely located, in the fort’s south wall. There was every chance, said Phelps, that a surprise attack would succeed.
Meanwhile the war committee had taken steps to solve the most pressing immediate problem, that of obtaining boats in which to transport the attacking force across the lake. A fifteen-year-old Castleton boy named Noah Lee had come forward with a suggestion. There were boats and even a schooner at the landing of Tory Philip Skene’s nearby baronial estate, Skenesboro. Why not capture them, along with Skene and his retainers and family? Thirty men under Captain Sam Herrick were sent to do so, young Lee among them. Simultaneously, for double insurance, Asa Douglas was sent north on a boat-stealing expedition.
As things turned out, Douglas’s activities were crucially important. He stopped sometime after nightfall on May 9 at the home of a Mr. Stone of Bridport. Two teen-aged boys, Joseph Tyler and James Wilcox, were asleep in Stone’s house when Douglas’s knock and talk of boats awakened them. They knew where a boat was. One of Skene’s large scows was tied up at a Bridport landing that very moment, watched over by a Negro of Skene’s whose love for liquor was notorious. The boys armed themselves with a jug of rum and a plausible tale about wanting the boat to take them to join a hunting party at Shoreham, went down to the landing, and were soon on their way to Hand’s Cove. Douglas, a little later, managed to steal another boat for himself, a large one, and head for the Cove with it. Both boats arrived in the early morning darkness of May 10.
By that time, however, the situation at Hand’s Cove had grown unexpectedly tense.
The rendezvous point was a deep hollow, a quarter of a mile wide in places, between heavily wooded hills. A considerable body of men could gather there without being observed from the opposite shore, and by midnight a considerable number—some 150—had done so. Huddled against the night’s chill around shielded fires, they talked and laughed rather nervously together, checked and rechecked their firearms, and watched the dark, huge, striding figure of Ethan Allen. He was not a notably patient man; he sent again and again to the sentinels he had posted on shore to watch for the boats; and one may imagine the fearful oaths which poured from him as hours passed beyond the time he had set for the embarkation of his increasingly restless “army.”
Nor was he in the slightest soothed when, around two o’clock in the morning, there appeared in his camp a very splendid martial figure, mounted and accompanied by a valet de chambre (the first ever seen, probably, in all the Grants). The stranger announced that he was Colonel Benedict Arnold and had come to take command of the assault! He had a handsome uniform, with scarlet coat and gold epaulettes that glinted in the light of a quarter moon. He had a document, a commission from the Committee of Safety in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He had, too, an imperious manner, the kind of egotistic effrontery that is sometimes characterized as the “habit of command” —and there is some evidence that, surprisingly, he was able to overawe Ethan Allen in that moment of acute anxiety.
But if Ethan wavered for a moment, his Boys did not, and they promptly made him realize that any yielding on his part would mean the end in failure of the whole enterprise. They would take their guns and go home if they were not permitted to serve, as they had been promised, under officers of their choice.
In the end, a compromise was reached. Quite possibly it was at this moment that one of the sentinels posted on the lakeshore rushed up to tell Ethan that, at long last, a boat was approaching, whereupon Ethan, anxious to avoid any further waste of time, permitted an ambiguous solution that would save Arnold’s face and keep him quiet until the task was done. Arnold, he said, could march at his side as the assault was made. Arnold himself later claimed that he had agreed to share the command equally with Allen—an unlikely arrangement which was certainly not accepted by the Boys at the time.
The boat whose prow now nosed into the shore was the large scow stolen by Joe Tyler and Jim Wilcox at Bridport, and scarcely had it been beached when the second boat appeared, the one Asa Douglas had commandeered. Ethan Allen made a swift decision. He had 150 men, two boats, and two miles of open water to cross in a darkness that would be yielding to the gray light of dawn within an hour or so. By loading the boats to absolute capacity, he could get little more than half his men across in one trip; there was not sufficient time for two. Accordingly, he divided his forces. He left Seth Warner in command at Hand’s Cove, to cross when the two boats returned, or immediately if Herrick’s men should happen to show up with the boats from Skenesboro. He himself led the assault force—85 men, including Benedict Arnold-loading the boats so heavily their gunwales were awash.