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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
To Allen, this small force looked like “500.” He exhorted his men to “bravely defend themselves, that we should soon have help and that we should be able to hold the ground.” Carleton later wrote that Allen’s men were so well hidden that the British discovered them only when the regulars came under fire.
If only slightly outnumbered, Allen was certainly outgeneraled. He seemed helpless as the Mohawks and loyalists methodically outflanked his position, while the regulars, covered by the gabled end of a house 60 yards from Allen’s lines, delivered a steady fire. The Americans clumsily fired back. Allen lamented that his men “were not the best of marksmen. It is rare that so much ammunition was expended and so little execution done by it.” With the fighting raging for nearly two hours, it seemed to Allen that the enemy was attacking from all directions, “from woodpiles, ditches, buildings.” Outflanked on his right, he detached Duggan with 50 men to a ditch on his left. Instead of advancing, however, Duggan escaped with his men as fast as he could. Richard Young, posted by Allen to his right, also fled with another nine men. From 130 men, Allen was down to 35, 10 of them wounded, two mortally.
Allen retreated almost a mile, “but the Indians kept closing ‘round me.’” Determining to “sell my life as dear” as he could, he engaged in a running duel with the Mohawk leader, Guy Johnson. Both men were out of breath when Allen finally shouted that “I would surrender provided I could be treated with honor and be assured good quarter for myself and my men.” The British officer in charge, Captain Crawford, “answered I should.” Allen surrendered, handing Crawford his sword. The first Battle of Montreal was over. Allen had lost five men. William Stewart, one of the Green Mountain Boys, was tomahawked in the head after he surrendered but recovered. On the British side, one of Allen’s long-range shots had killed the portly Major Carden; five others were wounded.
Held for a month in a stone house on Montreal’s waterfront, Allen and his men were shackled, unable to stand up or lie down, until they were shifted to even worse conditions aboard the Gaspee, where they were kept chained in a cage in the ship’s bilges. They could hear the sound of cannon fire grow louder each day as Montgomery’s army, only 20 miles away, bombarded Fort St. John. In late October, Brown and a force of 300 habitants and 50 New England militia captured the thin-walled fort at the rapids of Chambly.
Attempting to break the siege of Fort St. John, Carleton was routed by Seth Warner and 170 Green Mountain Boys and 100 New Hampshire rangers. After 53 days, Montgomery accepted the surrender of Fort St. John and its 725 defenders. But, despite a more than 20-to-1 advantage in troops, the invasion had lost the possibility of the quick offensive that not only Allen but George Washington had believed would bring Canada into the Continental Union.
As Montgomery’s army closed in on Montreal in mid-November, Allen and his men were transferred to the Adamant to sail to England for trial. Carleton slipped away to Quebec in a rowboat, disguised as a peasant. There, heavily reinforced by loyalists from New York and Newfoundland, he easily repulsed the American attack on the last day of the first year of the Revolution; Montgomery was killed, and Benedict Arnold was grievously wounded.
Allen’s attempt to bypass the forts at St. John and Chambly and seize Montreal could have accelerated the invasion by a critical two months, making it possible to capture Quebec before a northern winter ruined Washington’s pincer and gave Carleton and an English relief armada time to reinforce
Canada and drive the Americans out. Montgomery, bogged down in a European-style siege he had inherited, knew and endorsed Allen’s plan. In fact, Montgomery encouraged bold officers to strike swiftly and asymmetrically.
In letters to Washington and the Congress, Schuyler accused Allen of acting recklessly and impetuously, as well as refusing to act as a subordinate.
He conveniently ignored the fact that he was no longer in command and that Allen, as a field commander of a detached force, had actually been
following Montgomery’s orders.
Indeed, Allen mirrored the boldness and sense of timing that Washington would exhibit a year later at Trenton and Princeton, turning the tide of war.
Washington went on to become the “Father of His Country.” Allen, had he triumphed at Montreal, would also have ranked as one of the Revolution’s greatest heroes—a founding father of an even vaster and richer nation.