- Historic Sites
Ethan Allen’s Ill-Fated March on Canada
A new look at a famous Revolutionary figure questions whether history’s long-standing judgment is accurate
Fall 2011 | Volume 61, Issue 2
AT 9 O’CLOCK ON THE morning of September 25, 1775, a French Canadian habitant banged on the main gate of Montreal. The Americans were coming, he blurted breathlessly to a British officer. As drums began to rattle out the alarm and a panicky crowd filled the Place d’Armes, the farmer told Sir Guy Carleton, governor general of Canada, that an American army had crossed the St. Lawrence during the night and was marching south down the island. The invaders numbered in the hundreds. They had already reached the suburb of Longue-Pointe, less than two miles away, and were taking up positions in barns and houses.
For weeks Carleton had dreaded just such an attack. Fully one-third of the 9,000 citizens of Montreal’s environs were transplanted New England merchants and their employees. Carleton’s spies had told himthat couriers from Boston were urging the expatriates to join the spreading struggle for American independence from Britain.
With only 34 regulars, a handful of Mohawk Indians, and about 30 officials from the Indian Bureau to defend the largest town in Canada, Carleton had threatened to burn Montreal—and its warehouses bulging with furs and wheat—unless the merchants helped defend it. After rounding up suspected American sympathizers and chaining them in ships in the harbor, he had already gathered his papers and was preparing to flee to Quebec, where he would make a last stand.
As word spread like a crown fire that the leader of the invading force was Ethan Allen, conqueror of two key British fortresses on Lake Champlain, Carleton placated the townsmen with hard money: he would pay volunteers half a Portuguese silver Johanna a day to join his militia. He had little alternative but to rely on these “shirtmen” and no other hope for timely relief. Of some 700 regulars in the combined 26th Cameronian Regiment of Foot and the 7th Royal Fusiliers assigned to garrison all of Canada, he had lost 80 men when they were taken prisoner during Allen’s raids on Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point. He had deployed most of his remaining regulars and 300 Mohawks to defend Fort St. John to the southeast, now bombarded by the cannon Allen had seized from the forts.
Carleton knew little about the boldness of Allen’s plan, how many men he could command, or just how he came to lead an invading army. In fact, Allen, instantly acclaimed by some (although not the Continental Congress) as America’s first war hero for his daring predawn attacks on the two Lake Champlain forts, had found himself caught in a crossfire of conflicting ideologies, officers, and orders. Contemporaries and historians alike viewed him as rash and impetuous, a violent frontiersman with an explosive temper. But his Canadian crusade shows that this portrait is too simple. New research reveals that American Gen. Richard Montgomery encouraged Allen to act, and that Allen was something of a victim—of conflicting orders from the Congress, of apparent abandonment by a fellow officer, and of circumstances themselves—in the drama that followed. Moreover, his Canadian adventure was part of a far larger failing on the Americans’ part: the larger invasion was poorly planned and executed.
The chain of events that led to Montreal began earlier, on May 10, 1775, when Allen and 89 Green Mountain Boys from present-day Vermont stormed ashore at Fort Ticonderoga and captured its sleeping garrison of 60 regulars and 50 women and children. Only a handful of delegates from Massachusetts and Connecticut knew of Allen’s raid. Connecticut’s Committee of Correspondence and the Hartford Committee of Safety, aware that Allen had organized the largest paramilitary force in British North America, had authorized himat a secret meeting in Hartford to seize the forts around Lake Champlain and to secure their trove of nearly 200 cannon.
After the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, farmers from Connecticut and Massachusetts had rushed in to purchase land in presentday Vermont at bargain prices fromNew Hampshire, which claimed jurisdiction. Some 800 families had cleared homesteads before New York’s government, also claiming the region, demanded the settlers pay again for the land or leave.
When sheriff’s posses from New York tried to evict them, the farmers refused to move. They appointed Allen, a professional hunter and small-time speculator, as their spokesman. Hiring lawyer Jared Ingersoll, Allen sailed to Albany to appear before the New York Supreme Court of Judicature. But lawyers and judges representing the British Crown, themselves speculators in Vermont lands, upheld the evictions.
At a mass meeting in Bennington, Allen urged the settlers to resist. Committees of Safety from a score of settlements commissioned Allen to form the Green Mountain Boys and to serve as their paid colonel-commandant. In a five-year border war between the settlers and New York authorities, Allen employed an effective mix of propaganda and intimidation to discourage would-be New York settlers. Allen and the Boys pulled down fences, barns, and houses and sometimes flogged foes— acts that would be considered terrorism today. In 1774 the New York Assembly declared them outlaws. With a £100 bounty for his capture, Allen faced summary execution.
Shortly before the April 1775 clash at Lexington, Allen had written to Connecticut patriot leader Oliver Wolcott that he couldmuster 2,000 Boys and seize the undermanned New York forts before the British could reinforce them from Montreal. Then Allen sent a message to Montreal wheat exporter James Morrison by way of John Brown, a Pittsfield, Massachusetts, lawyer, and emissary of Sam Adams. Brown’s mission: to urge Montreal merchants to send a delegation to the Continental Congress representing New Englanders living in Canada.