- 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
On the morning of September 24, at Longueuil, half a mile from Montreal across the St. Lawrence, Allen decided to return for further orders from Montgomery. “[I] had not advanced two miles,” he later wrote, before he met Brown, who asked him to halt. The two officers went into a house at La Prairie. The major persuasively argued that Allen should go back to Longueuil and prepare for a joint attack across the river without waiting
for further orders or reinforcements. Allen was to “procure some canoes so as to cross the St. Lawrence a little north of Montreal,” Allen later wrote;
Brown would cross “a little south of the town with near 200 men.” The latter assured Allen he already had enough boats for the crossing.
In his memoirs, Allen’s youngest brother, Ira, would insist that Brown told Ethan that Seth Warner would join them with 500 Green Mountain Boys.
Ethan Allen remembered Brown declaring that the next day “we would make ourselves masters of Montreal.” Allen agreed. He believed that a show of force at the gates of Montreal would throw its 9,000 inhabitants into a panic and induce the Yankee merchants to support the Americans. After the two officers parted, Allen retraced his steps to Longueuil, “collected a few canoes and added about thirty English-Americans to my party.”
Could Allen have reasonably expected the merchants to join him? Carleton certainly thought so. He had considered abandoning the town and
concentrating on saving Quebec City, which was far more defensible and strategically important. Prudently, when he received word of Lexington and
Concord, he appealed to the Iroquois for support and called for help from landless veterans of the French and Indian War. After he threatened to
burnMontreal if the merchants did not help defend it, Carleton moved quickly to wipe out organized resistance, striking first at John Walker, the leading member of the Montreal Committee of Correspondence.
WITH WALKER IN CHAINS aboard the Gaspee schooner in the harbor, and without the support of his adherents, Allen and Brown’s attack faced steep odds. According to their plan, as Allen later described it, once Brown crossed the St. Lawrence at Montreal’s south end, his men were to give three “huzzahs,” a salute Allen’s force was to return, and together they would attack the town. If he ever tried, Brown couldn’t round up enough dugouts to get his supposed 200-man force across the river. The kindest interpretation is that he lost his nerve and abandoned Allen when he encountered the strong current.
What followed was a replay of Allen’s attack on Ticonderoga—with opposite results. Before dawn on September 25, Allen shuttled his force of 130 across the river in three crossings. “Soon after daybreak, I set a guard between me and the town with special orders to let no one whatever pass or repass and another guard in the other end of the road,” he wrote three years later. “In the meantime I reconnoitered the best ground to make a defense, expecting Brown’s party was landed on the other side of the town.”
Two hours passed: no Brown, no huzzahs, no legion of merchants. Allen was in trouble. “I had no chance to flee [because of the shortage of dugouts]. This I could not reconcile to my feelings as a man much less as an officer. I therefore concluded to maintain the ground, if possible, and all to fare alike.” He took up a defensive position two miles north of the town’s walls, posting his men in barns and houses as well as behind trees and an embankment of Longue Pointe Creek. He dispatched scouts to look for Brown.
Inside Montreal, Carleton was expecting a cannonade and was on the verge of boarding the Gaspee. When no attack came, he opened the gates in