Rebels And Redcoats

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By the time Arnold reached Cambridge, he was ready to propose the capture of Fort Ticonderoga to the Committee of Safety. Because the fort was in New York territory, the committee sent Arnold’s information to the New York committee, rather than launch an armed expedition into New York’s jurisdiction. But impulsive Dr. Warren could not wait. On the third of May, he persuaded his committee to appoint Arnold a colonel for “a secret service,” for which he was to enlist not over 400 men in western Massachusetts and neighboring colonies. Arnold’s instructions were to take the fort, leave a garrison, and bring away the cannon and stores.

The energetic Arnold set out at once. When he reached Stockbridge, he learned to his angry astonishment that another expedition was on the march against the fort. Colonel Parsons, after his meeting with Arnold, had conferred with several prominent Hartford citizens, who had decided to commission capture of the fort by the giant outlaw chief of the New Hampshire Grants, Ethan Allen, and his Green Mountain Boys, a powerful vigilante force that had been battling for five years against New York authority to uphold land rights of Hampshire citizens.

Colonel Arnold, fearing a rival might outrace him to glory, did not wait for the men he had recruited to join him, but galloped north with a single servant on the trail of the Green Mountain Boys.

At Castleton, twenty miles below Ticonderoga, in a smoky taproom, he found the Boys and the Connecticut men and their followers, and about midnight he and they joined Ethan Allen at a rendezvous point a few miles north, on the east shore of Lake Champlain.

After a bitter argument between the rival leaders, Arnold reluctantly agreed to a compromise—to march with Allen at the head of the column, but to issue no orders.

The problem now was to get across the dark, squall-ruffled waters of Lake Champlain to the western shore. Allen had sent men to commandeer boats from the head of the lake, but hours passed and they did not come. Finally, accompanied by Arnold, Allen started across with two boats that were at hand. It was nearly three o’clock in the morning of May 10 when he landed his first contingent of 83 men north of the fort. The eastern sky was beginning to pale. Reluctant to lose the element of surprise, he dared not wait for the rest of the men to ferry across, and left them on the eastern shore. He led his 83 down a road through thick forest skirting the lake and the east wall of the fort, to an open wicket gate on the south side.

Allen and Arnold stormed through the gate, each trying to outpace the other. A drowsing sentry jerked to life, and aimed his musket. When it flashed in the pan, he flung it away and fled through the covered way into the fort. The Green Mountain Boys crowded through the gate and formed, back to back, on the parade ground, whooping like red men.

Only 45 redcoats garrisoned the fort, five described by their own officers as “old, wore out, & unserviceable,” others sick. Twenty-four of their women and children lived in the barracks, and all were fast asleep. There were a few moments of turmoil, as the officers roused themselves to learn what was happening; then, yielding to the inevitable, the British commander, Captain Delaplace, surrendered the fort and all it contained.

“I Beat to ‘Yankee Doodle’”
Bunker Hill June 17, 1775

Allen’s and Arnold’s roistering exploits at Ticonderoga did not immediately change the situation before Boston. For lack of transport the cannon and stores could not be moved, and although the capture of the strategic point on the lake had the very important effect of discouraging for some time an English thrust from Canada, this advantage was to be lost through American lack of foresight.

At Cambridge every energy was consumed in making an army of the force gathered there. The men who had come on the alarm of the nineteenth of April were militia and minutemen from sixteen to sixty, married and single, strong and feeble. Many of them were impossible soldier material, without regimental organization, serving under elected local captains, and feeling no obligation to remain but that of moral suasion. They could not be expected to linger long. Many went home for additional clothing, or to settle personal affairs, or to sow crops. The Committee of Safety called for substitutes from the towns, and a few came. Probably 20,000 men traveled to Cambridge, but only part of them stayed after the first few days. Those who did remain were not an army but rather small detachments from every quarter.

A new army had to be created, and within three days the Provincial Congress authorized the enlistment of troops for the rest of the year, to be paid by the Congress, and promised to issue commissions to officers who raised regiments. Indecision and red tape slowed down the development of a firm plan of organization, but by June about 7,500 men, not only from Massachusetts, but also from New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, were enlisted and settled in a ring west of Boston from Charlestown on the north to Roxbury on the south, and the force was growing steadily.