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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
still advocated reconciliation over an invasion that could see their colony face retaliatory attacks.
Despite New York’s opposition, the Congress voted Allen a Continental Army commission as the lieutenant colonel of a newly constituted Green
Mountain Regiment. His first assignment was to carry amessage to the New York Provincial Congress: “Employing the Green Mountain Boys in the American Army would be advantageous to the common cause.” New York’s congress was to consult with Maj. Gen. Philip Schuyler, the New York land
baron put in command of the Northern Department, which included New York and the Vermont lands it still claimed.
ON THE ROAD Allen learned that, after a bloody American defeat at Breed’s Hill overlooking Boston, the Continental Congress was finally convinced that the British intended to crush the rebellion and had decided to reinforce the Champlain forts with 1,000 Connecticut troops and prepare a
preemptive invasion of Canada. Schuyler was to take overall command of the invasion. Allen also learned that an emissary he had sent to the Caughnawaga Mohawks had brought back word that any Indian who took up arms against the English would be put to death and that Carleton had been able to raise a force of only 20 French Canadian noblesse to defend Montreal.
For his part, Schuyler, who as a New York assemblyman had voted to declare Allen an outlaw, was shocked to learn that Allen had been rewarded with the command of a Continental regiment and was to serve under him. Schuyler simply didn’t like Allen. A masterful logician in the French and Indian War, the methodical Schuyler opposed a precipitate invasion of Canada, unlike Allen, who considered it essential to strike quickly before the Canadian winter set in and spring reinforcements from England dashed the revolutionaries’ chances.
Urged on by Schuyler, Vermont’s Committees of Safety elected Seth Warner as colonel of the Green Mountain Regiment. Allen was not even elected a lieutenant. Despite this humiliating repudiation, Allen offered to serve under Schuyler in any capacity, with or without pay. Schuyler refused. He rebuffed a second offer a few days later, but this time members of Schuyler’s staff spoke up for Allen, and he was made a scout. Allen then hurried north to the Quebec border where, three months after he had taken Ticonderoga, the American army was finally preparing to invade Canada.
Schuyler’s orders from the Congress were to mount a full-scale invasion of Quebec up the Richelieu River, taking the forts at St. John and Chambly, then seizing Montreal and Quebec. What was intended to be the main campaign of the first year of the American Revolution was to begin immediately.
But Schuyler—claiming he was incapacitated by arthritis—had not appeared outside his quarters at Ticonderoga by August 27. Another 10 days passed before the American vanguard, still waiting for Schuyler, tiptoed onto Canadian soil. A frigid wind foreshadowed a dire northern winter by the time slow-moving bateaux laden with cannon, 500 Connecticut militia, and 300 soldiers from New York reached the Quebec frontier on September 6. Meanwhile, Schuyler had dispatched Allen and Brown on an intelligence-gathering mission. Allen returned quickly to report that Carleton was preparing to counterattack with the support of Mohawks.
WITH SCHUYLER still sidelined, a frustrated George Washington decided to turn the Canadian campaign’s command over to Richard Montgomery, a former British officer. Within six days of the command change, Montgomery was ferrying 800 troops north from Ticonderoga. Montgomery confirmed Allen’s commission and authorized him to lead detached forces. Allen was to take Brown, five men, and interpreters into the forest and spread the
word among the habitants “that a vast American army was coming and invite them to join the side that was sure to win the fight against British tyranny.”
Operating behind British lines, Allen was, Montgomery attested, “very serviceable in bringing in the Canadians and Indians.” Reporting to Montgomery at St. John after an eight-day mission, Allen chafed to lead a charge into the fort. Montgomery countered that it would be far more valuable to him if Allen returned to enemy territory. “I was to let [the habitants and the Indians] know that the design of the army was only against the English garrisons and not the country, their liberties or their religion.”Montgomery ordered Allen to observe their “disposition, designs and
movements. This reconnoiter I took with reluctance.” But he also tacitly gave Allen the flexibility to do more if the opportunity arose.