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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
Thus, without the loss of a single life, with a casual and even comic air wholly incommensurate with the importance of the event, Ethan Allen’s expedition reduced three key British strongpoints—Ticonderoga, Crown Point, and St. Johns in the north (for the latter was impotent so long as the Americans controlled the lake)—and obtained for the American cause what was, for its time and place, an immense booty: upward of a hundred cannon (the figure is uncertain), several huge mortars and two or three howitzers, 100 stands of small arms, ten tons of musket and cannon balls, three cartloads of flints, a warehouse full of boat-building materials, thirty new carriages, and sundry other war supplies. Next winter, in one of the logistical triumphs of the Revolution, General Henry Knox, on orders from Washington, transported much of the Ticonderoga matériel by sled across the snows to Cambridge; Ticonderoga cannon, at once set up on Dorchester Heights, may well have decided the battle for Boston in favor of the Americans (see “Big Guns for Washington” in the April, 1955, AMERICAN HERITAGE ).
Of at least equal and more immediate importance was the effect of Allen’s feat on American morale. The British were not invincible! Plain Americans were more than a match for them. A thrill of pride, an increased self-confidence spread throughout the colonies, overcoming the vacillating timidity which at first prevented the Continental Congress from operating at all effectively as the ruling body of a country at war.
Witness the first communication Ethan Allen received from the Congress after the news of his conquest had reached it. He was ordered to remove the captured war matériel to the south end of Lake George for safekeeping until such time as it could be “returned to His Majesty” when the “former Harmony” between Great Britain and the Colonies, “so ardently wished for by the latter,” was re-established! Ethan’s response was explosive. He was “God damned” if he would obey such an order. “It is bad policy to fear the resentment of an enemy,” he wrote back, obviously contemptuous, in a letter recommending an immediate attack on Montreal, it being his “humble [sic] opinion, that the more vigorous the Colonies push the war against the King’s troops in Canada the more friends we shall find in that Country.”
Subsequently he decided to go personally before the Congress in an effort to inject into this apparently flabby body some rigidity of courage and initiative. Accompanied by Seth Warner, he headed for Philadelphia by way of Bennington, arriving in the latter place (according to plausible legend) on a Sunday when the Reverend Jedediah Dewey preached a sermon of thanks-giving to God on the capture of Ticonderoga. Ethan, having been told what the sermon subject would be, attended, but grew increasingly restive as the minister in an interminable prayer thanked God over and over again, in the most abject humility, for the great fort’s downfall. At last Ethan could contain himself no longer. He rose in his place, to the astonishment of the congregation, and reminded Parson Dewey in a loud voice that God had not reduced the fort without assistance. “Aren’t you going to mention the fact that I was there?” he demanded. To which Parson Dewey is said to have replied: “Ethan Allen, thou great infidel, sit down and be quiet!”
In Philadelphia, Allen, as the hero of Ticonderoga, managed to inspire the Congress with some of his own optimistic courage. The raising of a regiment from the Grants, to serve under officers of its own choosing, was authorized. A proposed attempt upon Montreal was approved. But so far as his influence upon our national destiny is concerned this was perhaps the high point of Ethan Allen’s career.
There followed for him a period of grave personal misfortune. To the surprise of almost everyone and to his own deep hurt, he was not chosen to command the Grants regiment, nor was he even made a subordinate officer of it. The voting was done not by active Green Mountain Boys but by a meeting of various town committees—older men who had long frowned upon Ethan’s heretical views and riotous ways and who feared his impetuosity. Their choice for colonel of the regiment was the relatively staid, sober-minded Seth Warner. It is a measure of Ethan’s bigness of character that in his disappointment he did not attempt to sabotage the regiment: he did all he could to insure its and Warner’s success. However, there seems no doubt that the rebuffs he had received made him overeager to perform great deeds. He was used as an advance scout and recruiting agent by General Philip Schuyler and General Richard Montgomery, who were mounting the expedition to take Canada, of which Warner and the Green Mountain Boys were also a part. He was without commission or authority when, one day in that autumn of 1775, he rashly attempted to take Montreal with a bare handful of men and was himself captured instead, with such of his men as had not deserted him, after a noisy if remarkably unsanguinary gun fight. His capture was the forerunner of a greater misfortune for the Americans. Though a force commanded by Montgomery managed to take Montreal, it was defeated and Montgomery killed at Quebec that December.
Allen spent the next two and a half years as a British prisoner of war—a year in England, the rest aboard ships at sea and in British-held New York City.