October 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 6
He was such a man as legend is made of —and when first we see him, in Bennington’s Catamount Tavern on the evening of May i, 1775, his gaudy legend is already so thick and close around him that we can only imperfectly distinguish it from the man himself. Must we do so in order to know him as he “really” was? After all, his legend was no imposed creation of professional image-makers. It emanated from him directly, naturally, for the most part spontaneously—though he was not above adding to it now and then by playing a quite conscious role. In all probability, the legend illuminates more of his essential character than it distorts.
For instance, as he sits now in Landlord Stephen Fay’s taproom he is tossing down his huge gullet a concoction known as a “Stonewall.” It consists of the hardest possible cider liberally laced with rum—a liquid hellfire of a drink—and has derived its name from the fact that it facilitates the building of those hundreds of miles of wall which every year are extended across the settled areas of New England. Not a man on the New Hampshire Grants can down more Stonewalls at a sitting than Ethan Allen.
On one occasion in this very taproom—so the story went—he drank a number unusual even for him before beginning a long journey afoot through the wilderness with his great friend and cousin, Remember Baker. When the drinks began to wear off, the two lay down beside a sun-warmed rock and fell into deep sleep. Some time later, Baker was awakened by an ominous, dry, hissing sound. Turning his head, he saw to his horror a huge rattlesnake coiled on Allen’s chest, striking again and again at the arms, the shoulders, and the neck of the still sleeping giant. Springing to his feet and grabbing his gun, Baker moved cautiously to prod the snake away. Before he could do so, however, the snake slithered onto the grass, its lifted head weaving, its body fantastically writhing. Utterly astounded, Baker saw that the snake was looking at him cross-eyed! Then, incredibly, it emitted a mighty hiccup and hiccuped again as it disappeared into a blueberry thicket. Baker was still staring in frozen astonishment when Ethan Allen awoke and began to curse the “damnable blood-sucking mosquitoes” that had bitten him in his sleep. …
Witness, too, the sign under which Allen drinks on this May evening. It is no ordinary tavern sign. Mounted on a twenty-five-foot pole in the yard, it consists of a huge stuffed catamount with bared fangs snarling toward New York, symbolizing the “war” that has been waged by the Green Mountain Boys against the hated Yorkers these five years past. It may also remind onlookers of another often-repeated story. As Allen strode along a mountain path one day, he was attacked by the largest catamount imaginable. The great cat leaped without warning upon his back, where-upon Ethan calmly reached up over his head, grabbed his attacker by the throat, threw it on the ground before him, and strangled it to death without once relaxing his grip! When he arrived at his destination that evening he complained that the “goddamn Yorkers” had “trained … varmints” to claw him down. On yet another occasion, attacked by a wounded bear, he is reputed to have killed it by ramming his powder horn down its throat.
No doubt about it, this Ethan Allen is the original rough, tough, ring-tailed terror of the mountains, a giant in stature (he stands six-and-a-half feet tall), beautifully proportioned, and immensely strong. He chews up nails and spits them out as buckshot. He seizes bushel bags of salt with his teeth and throws them over his head as fast as two men can bring them to him. Alone in the woods, he encounters two surveyors for New York land claimants; lifting one in each hand, he beats them together until they yell for mercy and promise never again to set foot on the New Hampshire Grants. Alone again, he encounters a New York sheriff with no fewer than six armed deputies, all sent from Albany for the express purpose of arresting him; he lays them all senseless and bleeding on the ground without even getting his wind up.
Nor is his fighting prowess limited to physical encounters. In the war of words he is, if anything, even more effective. Take, for example, his extended comments on the Act of Outlawry passed in 1774 by the legislative assembly of New York. Governor William Tryon in Albany has been empowered to issue a proclamation commanding Ethan Allen and seven others, all named in the act, to surrender to New York authorities within seventy days or be judged “attainted of felony” and, upon capture, to suffer death without trial or benefit of clergy. This law, cries Ethan in print, is “replete with malicious turpitude!” He goes on:
And inasmuch as the malignity of their disposition towards us, hath flamed to an immeasurable and murderous degree, they have, in their new fangled laws, … so calculated them, as to correspond with the depravedness of their minds and morals;—in them laws, they have exhibited their genuine pictures. The emblems of their insatiable, avaricious, overbearing, inhuman, barbarous and blood guiltiness of disposition and intention is therein pourtrayed in that transparent immagery of themselves, which cannot fail to be a blot, and an infamous reproach to them, to posterity.
And what is this quarrel with New York in which Ethan Allen has made his fame? It is a complex and involved dispute over real estate. New Hampshire, once a part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, assumed that its western boundary was a northward extension of Massachusetts’ western line—a line running some twenty miles east of the Hudson and through Lake Champlain into Canada. Its Royal governor, Benning Wentworth, felt he was sustained in this view by the fact that the first land grants in this area had been made by the provincial government of Massachusetts. He therefore ordered surveys and by 1762 had granted some sixty townships, including Bennington, which was named for him, receiving for each of them £20 in cash plus five hundred of the choicest acres reserved as his personal property. Onto these New Hampshire Grants, as the territory came to be called, settlers began to move in significant numbers after the French and Indian War. They had paid for their land; they had secured titles to it under the Crown.
The validity of these titles, however, was challenged by the provincial government of New York. The Royal governor in Albany claimed that on the basis of the original charter granted by Charles II to the Duke of York in 1664 his province extended eastward to the Connecticut River. Moreover, he managed to obtain a ruling to that effect from the Crown. He then divided the disputed territory, or the map of it, into four counties, established (on paper) a court of justice in each, and ordered the settlers to surrender their land titles and repurchase them under grants from New York. If they failed to do so their grants would be sold to New York landlords at prices of from £200 to £250 per township; the money would go into his own pocket, of course.
Naturally those who held New Hampshire titles were outraged. Very few of them complied with the Albany order. The rest promptly found themselves faced with writs of ejection issued in favor of New York landlords , and backed by New York courts. They organized. They sent an emissary to the King, who, sympathizing with settlers who had already paid once for land that had since been improved by their labor, ordered New York to make no more grants pending a further study of the matter—an order New York failed to heed. Thus, as Ethan Allen explained: “[T]he inhabitants … [were] drove to the extremity of either quitting their possessions or resisting the Sheriff and his posse. In this state of desperacy, they put on fortitude and chose the latter expedient.” Thus the legal dispute became a violent quarrel, exacerbated by the great differences in historical background and social organization between New York and New England: New York with its system of vast landholdings, its rigid class distinctions, its Tory politics; New England with its Puritan tradition, its predominance of small farmers and entrepreneurs, its relatively democratic society and growing passion for independence from George Ill’s England.
In Bennington and Rutland counties a convention was formed whose elected delegates ruled that no person in the district could take grants or have them confirmed under the government of New York, forbade inhabitants to hold any office or accept any honor or profit from New York, and required all military and civil officers who acted under the authority of New York to suspend their functions. To enforce these rules and to defend the settlers, a military association was formed, the Green Mountain Boys, a “regiment” of some five “companies” whose colonel commandant was —and on this May evening in 1775 still is—Ethan Allen.
He it is who, with his Boys, has “seized their [ i.e. , the New York] magistrates and emissaries, and in fine, all those their abettors who dared to venture upon the contested lands, and chastised them with the whips of the wilderness, the growth of the land they coveted.” (One Benjamin Hough, who had accepted a New York commission as justice of the peace, received two hundred lashes across his naked back before being banished.) He it is who locked two captured Yorker sheriffs in separate rooms on the same side of a house one night, strung up a realistically stuffed straw man from a tree where both could see it in the morning, and then told each that the other had been hanged and that the same fate awaited him if ever he returned. (They were released to flee in separate terror to Albany, where, with an astonished mingling of relief and humiliation, they met each other on the street.)
But it is a larger quarrel than the one with New York that agitates Ethan Allen’s mind as he sits this night in Catamount’s dimly lit taproom. …
Just twelve days have passed since the bloody events of April 19, 1775, on Lexington Common and at Concord Bridge—and Ethan has assessed their significance. Years later, describing the feelings which now animate him, he would write: “Ever since I arrived to a state of manhood, I have felt a sincere passion for liberty. The history of nations doomed to perpetual slavery, in consequence of yielding up to tyrants their natural born liberties, I read with a sort of philosophical horror; so that the first systematical and bloody attempt at Lexington, to enslave America, thoroughly electrified my mind, and fully determined me to take part with my country.”
And indeed the part he has already determined to take at the earliest possible moment is as dangerously dramatic as it is politically and militarily important. What he contemplates amidst the cheerful fumes and potent furies of the guzzled Stonewalls is nothing less than the capture with his Green Mountain Boys of the most famous British strongpoint in North America —Fort Ticonderoga, situated on the western shore of Lake Champlain at a point commanding the short portage between Champlain and Lake George. Originally a French fort called Carillon, it was completed in 1755, its basic design being that originated by the brilliant French military engineer, the Marquis de Vauban. Built of stone, it has a star-shaped outer wall whose approaches were originally ingeniously prepared for defense and, within the wall, numerous bombproof shelters and firing points so arranged as to be mutually reinforcing. It gained world fame during the French and Indian War when Montcalm held it with 3,600 troops against a well-equipped but poorly led attacking force of 15,000 British and Americans; Montcalm on that occasion inflicted 2,000 casualties while suffering only 300 of his own. Even though Ticonderoga was later captured by Lord Jeffery Amherst, it is still widely regarded as impregnable—the “Gibraltar of America,” as some have called it.
Ethan Allen knows better, for the British, who obtained permanent possession of the fort at the Peace of Paris in 1763, have permitted it to fall into disrepair; it is now occupied by no more than a token force. But he also knows that Ticonderoga and its neighboring fort at Crown Point may well become impregnable when they are repaired and fully manned, as they will surely be very soon. Ticonderoga can then become a springboard for British attacks southward into the very heart of the colonies, aimed at splitting them apart.
Thus Allen has resolved to capture these forts—and for the last two months plans have been pressed forward. The venture can succeed, however, only if complete tactical surprise is achieved. Secrecy must enshroud the fact that an attack is so much as contemplated, and this secrecy must extend not only to the British but also to many leading Americans who continue to hope that ultimately, in spite of everything, a nonviolent solution of the crisis will be reached. Once Allen’s plan is carried out, their hope will be destroyed completely. A politically decisive act-for even in Boston no direct attack on Crown property has yet been made by the Americans-it will make the Revolution irrevocable. It may also be an act of decisive military importance: if it succeeds, it will not only deprive the British of an immense strategic advantage in a crucial area during the crucial opening months of conflict, but may also supply the rebels with war matériel they desperately need-materiel in the absence of which they cannot possibly win the battles that must be fought around and in and for the key city of Boston.
The vital path that has led Ethan Allen to the Catamount Tavern, on the eve of his rendezvous with destiny, began in Litchfield, Connecticut, where he was born on January 21, 1738, the first child of Joseph and Mary Baker Allen. A few months later his parents moved with him from Litchfield to nearby Cornwall, on the banks of the Housatonic—a raw new community hewn out of hilly, rocky, wooded wilderness, isolated, lacking even a mill. The move was natural for the family: the Allens had been a pioneering race—restless, boldly adventurous, physically and mentally independent, seeking the farthest frontier as if by instinct-ever since the first of them landed in Massachusetts in 1632. This first Allen had shortly thereafter removed with the radical Reverend Thomas Hooker, pastor of the Dorchester Company, into the wild lower valley of the Connecticut River, away from the rigorously enforced pieties of the Massachusetts theocracy. In the century since, four generations of Allens (averaging ten children per generation) had lived in eight different localities, each more newly settled than the last.
On the produce and terrific labor of a pioneer farm —carving fields out of dense woods and clearing glacial rock from them-the boy Ethan grew remarkably big and strong, wise in the ways of the woods, skilled in the handling of tools and weapons, able to follow a faint trail through the wilderness and live off the land through which he passed. He was also intellectually precocious. He had little opportunity for formal schooling. He was, as he later confessed, “deficient in education and had to acquire the knowledge of grammar and language, as well as the art of reasoning, principally from a studious application to it, which after all, I am sensible, lays me under disadvantages, particularly in matters of composition. …” But he was driven by a rare hunger to know and understand the things expressed in language, by a passion for speculative thought about origins and meanings, and by a poetic need to speak his piece, not just in ways understandable but in ways eloquent, moving, memorable.
Books were not easily come by in Cornwall. The Bible was the only one readily available, and he learned it well—especially the Old Testament, whose people and stories harmonized better with his immediate environment than did those of the New. He read everything else he could get his hands on, too, and asked eager questions of the best educated and most mentally alert of all those he met. Further, as he later said, he formed the habit of committing “to manuscript such sentiments or arguments as appeared most consonant to reason, lest through the debility of memory, my improvement should have been less gradual.” He practiced this “method of scribbling … for many years, from which I experienced great advantages in the progression of learning and knowledge.”
Two men chiefly stimulated and guided the growth of his mind and character. One was Joseph Allen, his father, an honorable and hardworking man who thought for himself in religious and political matters and loved to argue; despite his espousal of religious views that in the opinion of most of his neighbors were dangerously heretical, he was elected a selectman and moderator of the town meeting. Joseph Allen instilled into his eldest son’s character, by precept and example, the strength of his own moral principle, but at the same time he kept the boy’s mind open and flexible. He obviously recognized, too, Ethan’s intellectual superiority, for he sent him to study, in preparation for entrance into Yale, under the Reverend Jonathan Lee in nearby Salisbury.
Unfortunately, the arrangement had barely begun to work when Joseph Allen suddenly died, and Ethan found himself the responsible head of a large and far from affluent family. Yale was, thereafter, an impossibility for him.
He farmed for a time. In the summer of 1757 he enlisted with other men from Cornwall in a company that marched north to Lake George, intending to help defend Fort William Henry, at the head of the Hudson River valley, from the French and their Indian allies; but the fort had been taken before the lake was reached and so the men marched back home again. These two bloodless weeks were Ethan’s sole service in the French and Indian War.
During the next four years, in ways doubtless honorable but unrecorded in history, he managed to accumulate a little capital with which he and one of his cousins purchased the fifty-acre Cream Hill farm in Cornwall. He also invested in a low-grade iron ore operation near Salisbury and in a blast furnace for smelting, enterprises in which he himself both labored and supervised the labor of others. In June of 1762 he married Mary Bronson, daughter of a miller who had ground his grain from the Cornwall farm. She is a woman of whom almost nothing is now known save that she was sickly and pious and illiterate; that she was shamefully neglected by her husband though she bore him several children, three of whom (all daughters) survived him; that she nagged him unmercifully when he was at home (he seldom was); and that she died of consumption before she was fifty.
Ethan brought his bride to Salisbury, to live near his smelting enterprise. And it was in that village and at about this time that he became intimately acquainted with the second of the two men who chiefly influenced him—Dr. Thomas Young, only five years older than he, a graduate of Yale who practiced medicine in and around Salisbury. Doctor Young was a man of advanced ideas on all matters, including medicine. He once “ingrafted” (inoculated) Ethan with smallpox pus, at Ethan’s request but in violation of a local ordinance against such interference with the ways of a wrathful God. Though Ethan escaped smallpox, he was threatened with prosecution; he promptly flew into so profane a rage against the two selectmen who accused him (one was his former tutor, Jonathan Lee) that he was brought into court on a charge of blasphemy and disturbance of the peace. Smallpox virus was, however, the least important of the doctor’s inoculations of the young giant who became, very soon, his disciple as well as his friend.
For Doctor Young was a deist in religion, a skeptical materialist in philosophy, and a champion of the most extreme forms of natural-rights doctrine in political theory. He loaned Ethan his books and his notes on books he had read, and he explored with the younger man the evident absurdities and self-contradictions of the orthodox Calvinist religion. One result was a release from all inhibitions of Ethan’s natural propensity and talent for violent, picturesque profanity. Another was his ambition to write a philosophical work that would free the world of the stultifying myths of Christianity and substitute for them a “System of Natural Religion” based on scientific observation and the strictest logical reasoning. As a matter of fact, he and Young arranged to collaborate on this project, the survivor to publish it if the other died before the treatise was completed; both of them would work at it off and on for years.
Yet another effect of Young on Ethan was to introduce the latter to the legalistic and intellectual aspects of the then-rising conflict between New York and New Hampshire—a controversy of vital concern to the people of Salisbury, many of whom held New Hampshire land titles. Young wrote a pamphlet on the subject wherein, to Ethan’s great edification, “Liberty and Property” were deemed the twin “household gods of Englishmen,” so closely joined as to be inseparable.
Ethan felt himself increasingly cramped in Connecticut. For one thing, he was in rather frequent trouble with the law as a result of his swearing, drinking, and brawling. In the spring of 1765, having sold his interest in the blast furnace to one George Caldwell, he celebrated the deal by getting drunk with Caldwell and ended by fighting with him. Allen was brought before the justice of the peace on the charge that he “did in a tumultuous and offensive manner with threatening words and angry looks strip himself even to his naked body and with force and arms without law or right did assault and actually strike the person of George Caldwell of Salisbury in the presence and to the disturbance of many of His Majesty’s good subjects.” He was fined ten shillings.
A little later he had another violent row with Caldwell and the latter’s friend Robert Branthwaite, during which he struck Branthwaite and then “in an angry and violent manner stripped off his cloaths to his naked body and with a club struck … Caldwell on the head,” according to the official charge made by the constable who arrested all three. Hours later he again “stripped off his cloaths to his naked body and in a threatening manner with his fist lifted up repeated … three times [to Caldwell]: ‘You lie you dog’ and also did with a loud voice say that he would spill the blood of any that opposed him.”
All this happened on the day before his departure for Northampton, Massachusetts, to oversee a lead mine in which he was financially interested. He moved his family with him, but his stay in Northampton was brief. The selectmen ordered him to leave after the local minister had complained of his loud, persistent, fearsome profanity.
He returned to Salisbury in disgust, and there he was soon actively enlisted in the dispute centered on the New Hampshire Grants—enlisted on the side of the Connecticut men whose titles had been first granted by Benning Wentworth. Salisbury may have become too civilized by then for Ethan’s taste, but it was still a new and raw pioneering community which attached to his drunken brawling no such opprobrium as had been his lot in staid and settled Northampton. Indeed, this propensity of his may actually have recommended him, in a way, to the holders of contested titles. He was rough and tough; but such a man was needed to serve their interests in the north. He was also, they clearly realized, highly intelligent and essentially trustworthy, else they would not have entrusted him with the management of their defense in an Albany law court in the summer of 1770. The test case involved one John Small, who had received a New York grant to land in the town of Shaftsbury, and Josiah Carpenter, who had a New Hampshire title to the same land. Carpenter lost, of course (the presiding judge, Robert Livingston, was himself one of the largest holders of New York titles to the disputed land). “War” was then begun. …
The land grants issue gave Ethan Allen his opportunity. Here was space enough, freedom enough for a giant’s full self-expression.
With three of his brothers—Ira, Heman, and Zimri—and his cousin Remember Baker, he became a partner in the so-called Onion River Company, a loosely organized speculative enterprise which purchased some 77,000 acres along Lake Champlain north and south of the mouth of the Onion River (later renamed the Winooski). Ira operated as the principal business manager, stationed at Onion River; Heman as the Connecticut representative, in Salisbury; and Ethan as salesman, promotion man, and political lobbyist (the cost of printing his political pamphlets was charged to the company). Ethan was also the company’s chief armed guard, having built two forts on Onion River land and several times driven off “trespassers”—New York titleholders—with parties of Green Mountain Boys. Thus no one on the Grants had now a greater material interest in the defeat of New York’s claims—for none stood to make a greater money profit from it—than Ethan Allen.
But the essential motivation for his public activities was not economic, and no one who knew him really well ever assumed that it was. Indeed the Onion River Company had been Ira’s idea originally; he had had to talk his oldest brother into it. In essence, Ethan was the very opposite of acquisitive. He may consciously have longed for a kind of mystically undefined Glory and perhaps, though this is less certain, for a coercive Power over other men; but he was no coldly calculating machine that must run wholly on energies supplied from the outside. On the contrary, he was himself an energy that must spend itself—an electric energy that radiated an aura felt by all those around him on the Grants; it entered into them, inspired them, became a means of communication between them—became, so to speak, the vital substance and texture of human community.
His sense of justice was acute. Once he visited with his Boys the town of Durham, whose residents held their titles from New York. With a little violence and many threats, he forced them to give up the New York titles and agree to buy New Hampshire ones. But when he found out a little later that the sellers of the New Hampshire titles were asking outrageous prices—as outrageous as those of the “thieving Yorker land-jobbers” —he was furious. In an open letter he told the Durham men that they “in justice ought to have [the titles] at a reasonable rate, as new lands were valued at the time you purchased them.” If the New Hampshire title-holders demanded “an exorbitant price …, we scorn it, and will assist you in mobbing such avaricious persons, for we mean to use force against oppression, and that only.”
He had a distaste amounting to loathing for all that was devious, dishonest, and underhanded in personal relationships. On one occasion a note for $150 which he had signed fell due at a time when he could not conveniently pay it. He asked for an extension, but was refused. The matter was taken into court, where Allen’s lawyer sought to gain the needed time by denying that the signature on the note was genuine. Allen, sitting in a far corner of the room, listened in astonishment, then sprang to his feet and cried to his lawyer: “I didn’t hire you to come here and lie! That’s a true note. I signed it. I’ll pay it. … What I employed you for was to get this business put over to the next court—not come here and lie and juggle about it!” The postponement was granted. …
And indeed as he slept into the dark morning hours of May 2, 1775, he had just given a further proof that selfish economic motives were subordinate in him to other, disinterested ones. When the news from Lexington and Concord first reached the Grants, many who lived there were in a quandary. They had by that time reason to believe that the Crown was on their side in the quarrel with New York and would ultimately uphold their land claims if the colonies remained colonial. The Crown would certainly do so if, at this critical juncture, they declared their loyalty to it. On the other hand, if they declared for independence and Britain won the war that must follow, New York’s claims would as certainly be upheld. Hence there was at once an anxious policy meeting at Bennington—first gathered in Landlord Fay’s Catamount taproom, no doubt, but soon adjourned to the meetinghouse—attended by the leaders of the Green Mountain Boys, the Council of Safety, and other principal inhabitants. At this meeting, some urged the economic advantages of adhering to the Crown. Others counselled a policy of wait-and-see. Both of these groups had in mind and doubtless stressed, some of them on the basis of bitter experience, the vulnerability of the Grants to attacks by British troops with Indian allies coming down Lake Champlain from Canada.
But Ethan Allen scorned such prudent considerations. Since “futurity,” as he called it, was “unfathomable,” such decisions as faced them now must be made in terms of right versus wrong, of freedom versus tyranny. He called for bold, forthright action on the side of colonial independence—and the majority was with him. …
Soon after daylight on May 2, 1775, Heman Allen dismounted from a winded horse in the yard of the Catamount, having ridden hard through the night from Pittsfield. He brought exciting news, and just the news that brother Ethan wanted most to hear.
The Revolutionary Committee of Correspondence in Hartford, which Allen had asked for help, wanted Ticonderoga taken at once . To finance the expedition £300 had been drawn from the Connecticut Colony treasury; Noah Phelps and Bernard Romans were on their way with it, using part of it to obtain men and supplies as they proceeded. Connecticut men had been and were being recruited, and so were men from Massachusetts; they would arrive in Bennington within a day or two to join with the Green Mountain Boys. A couple of representatives were being dispatched to Albany to consult with the leading independence man there, Dr. Joseph Young, and “ascertain” from him “the temper of the people.” It was assumed that Ethan Allen, colonel commandant of the Green Mountain Boys, would lead the expedition.
Fourteen Connecticut men, including Phelps and Romans with the money, and Ethan’s brother Levi, arrived in Bennington on Wednesday, May 3; they were led by Captain Edward Mott of Hartford. On the following day Colonel James Easton of Pittsfield arrived with thirty-nine men he had raised. Meanwhile Ethan had sent out calls to his Boys, asking them to assemble at Shoreham, near the southeastern end of Champlain and almost directly opposite Ticonderoga; they were to take all necessary precautions on the way to insure that word of the impending action did not reach the enemy. Anyone found on the road leading from Ticonderoga was to be seized and interrogated by Green Mountain Boys; anyone found moving toward Ticonderoga was to be forced to turn back.
On Monday morning, May 8, Ethan and the others arrived at Castleton, some twenty miles south of the final rendezvous point, Hand’s Cove in Shoreham. The nerve center for the enterprise became, for the moment, Richard Bentley’s house, where the leaders met to give the expedition, for the first time, a definite if loose organization. A war committee was established for overall planning and direction of the enterprise. Captain Mott was elected chairman. Ethan Allen was named to command the actual assault. This was in accordance with the promise to the Mountain Boys that they would serve under officers of their choice; Ethan was always their unanimous choice. Seth Warner, habitually Ethan’s second-in-command, was continued in that post.
From Castleton, Ethan dispatched a messenger to tell all the Boys he could find in the countryside to assemble at the Cove at the earliest possible moment for an impending great “wolf hunt.” This messenger was one Gershom Beach, a blacksmith whose name might now eclipse Paul Revere’s if Longfellow had been a Vermonter—for Beach, according to the generally accepted story, travelled on foot from Castleton through Rutland, Pittsford, Brandon, Leicester, Salisbury, Middlebury, and Whitting to Shoreham, a total of some sixty miles, in just twenty-four hours!
At Castleton, Ethan also made arrangements for military intelligence. Noah Phelps was to enter the fort as a spy: he went in the guise of a farmer seeking a barber and actually did obtain a haircut. Phelps returned on the eve of the attack to tell Allen that no more than fifty troops were in the place, that they were entirely without suspicion of the impending attack, and that there was a gap, which he precisely located, in the fort’s south wall. There was every chance, said Phelps, that a surprise attack would succeed.
Meanwhile the war committee had taken steps to solve the most pressing immediate problem, that of obtaining boats in which to transport the attacking force across the lake. A fifteen-year-old Castleton boy named Noah Lee had come forward with a suggestion. There were boats and even a schooner at the landing of Tory Philip Skene’s nearby baronial estate, Skenesboro. Why not capture them, along with Skene and his retainers and family? Thirty men under Captain Sam Herrick were sent to do so, young Lee among them. Simultaneously, for double insurance, Asa Douglas was sent north on a boat-stealing expedition.
As things turned out, Douglas’s activities were crucially important. He stopped sometime after nightfall on May 9 at the home of a Mr. Stone of Bridport. Two teen-aged boys, Joseph Tyler and James Wilcox, were asleep in Stone’s house when Douglas’s knock and talk of boats awakened them. They knew where a boat was. One of Skene’s large scows was tied up at a Bridport landing that very moment, watched over by a Negro of Skene’s whose love for liquor was notorious. The boys armed themselves with a jug of rum and a plausible tale about wanting the boat to take them to join a hunting party at Shoreham, went down to the landing, and were soon on their way to Hand’s Cove. Douglas, a little later, managed to steal another boat for himself, a large one, and head for the Cove with it. Both boats arrived in the early morning darkness of May 10.
By that time, however, the situation at Hand’s Cove had grown unexpectedly tense.
The rendezvous point was a deep hollow, a quarter of a mile wide in places, between heavily wooded hills. A considerable body of men could gather there without being observed from the opposite shore, and by midnight a considerable number—some 150—had done so. Huddled against the night’s chill around shielded fires, they talked and laughed rather nervously together, checked and rechecked their firearms, and watched the dark, huge, striding figure of Ethan Allen. He was not a notably patient man; he sent again and again to the sentinels he had posted on shore to watch for the boats; and one may imagine the fearful oaths which poured from him as hours passed beyond the time he had set for the embarkation of his increasingly restless “army.”
Nor was he in the slightest soothed when, around two o’clock in the morning, there appeared in his camp a very splendid martial figure, mounted and accompanied by a valet de chambre (the first ever seen, probably, in all the Grants). The stranger announced that he was Colonel Benedict Arnold and had come to take command of the assault! He had a handsome uniform, with scarlet coat and gold epaulettes that glinted in the light of a quarter moon. He had a document, a commission from the Committee of Safety in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He had, too, an imperious manner, the kind of egotistic effrontery that is sometimes characterized as the “habit of command” —and there is some evidence that, surprisingly, he was able to overawe Ethan Allen in that moment of acute anxiety.
But if Ethan wavered for a moment, his Boys did not, and they promptly made him realize that any yielding on his part would mean the end in failure of the whole enterprise. They would take their guns and go home if they were not permitted to serve, as they had been promised, under officers of their choice.
In the end, a compromise was reached. Quite possibly it was at this moment that one of the sentinels posted on the lakeshore rushed up to tell Ethan that, at long last, a boat was approaching, whereupon Ethan, anxious to avoid any further waste of time, permitted an ambiguous solution that would save Arnold’s face and keep him quiet until the task was done. Arnold, he said, could march at his side as the assault was made. Arnold himself later claimed that he had agreed to share the command equally with Allen—an unlikely arrangement which was certainly not accepted by the Boys at the time.
The boat whose prow now nosed into the shore was the large scow stolen by Joe Tyler and Jim Wilcox at Bridport, and scarcely had it been beached when the second boat appeared, the one Asa Douglas had commandeered. Ethan Allen made a swift decision. He had 150 men, two boats, and two miles of open water to cross in a darkness that would be yielding to the gray light of dawn within an hour or so. By loading the boats to absolute capacity, he could get little more than half his men across in one trip; there was not sufficient time for two. Accordingly, he divided his forces. He left Seth Warner in command at Hand’s Cove, to cross when the two boats returned, or immediately if Herrick’s men should happen to show up with the boats from Skenesboro. He himself led the assault force—85 men, including Benedict Arnold-loading the boats so heavily their gunwales were awash.
The landing was made just north of a projection into the lake known as Willow Point. At once Allen lined up his men in three ranks, seeing them in silhouette against a horizon that was just beginning to pale with dawn, and made a little speech. According to his own account, he reminded them that they had been for years “a scourge and terror to arbitrary power,” whose “valour has been famed abroad,” but that “we must this morning either quit our pretensions to valour, or possess ourselves of this fortress in a few minutes.” He urged none of his men to go contrary to their will and asked those who would go voluntarily to “poise your firelocks.” Every gun was lifted.
The column, headed by Allen with Arnold beside him, moved swiftly and silently into a road that led past a charcoal oven, a redoubt, a well, and around the eastern outer wall of the fort to the broken gate in the southern face. Through this sprang Ethan Allen, waving his sword. A British sentry, posted inside, sprang up, aimed his cocked musket pointblank at the charging giant, and pulled the trigger. There was a flash in the pan; the gun had misfired. The sentry then very sensibly fled, yelling at the top of his lungs to rouse his comrades, though this seemed unnecessary since Ethan and his men, pursuing him through an archway into the center of the fort, now emitted terrifying Indian war whoops. The sentry took refuge in a bombproof across the way while Ethan, briefly, formed his men in a hollow square.
Then, abruptly, all pretense of military discipline gave way, to the shocked outrage of Benedict Arnold. The men rushed with fearsome yells of “No Quarter” toward the barracks whence emerged at that moment a soldier with fixed bayonet. He made a thrust toward the nearest man but Ethan rushed him from the side and knocked him down with the flat of his sword, sparing his life on condition he point out the commandant’s room. Toward this, up a stairway, rushed Ethan, yelling “Come out of there, you damned old rat!” and demanding with a string of oaths the fort’s immediate surrender.
A bewildered half-naked officer (he was a lieutenant, the second-in-command) appeared at the head of the stairs, trousers in hand. What was this all about? he wanted to know. In whose name was this “surrender” demanded?
“In the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress!” cried Ethan Allen. He also roared that he would kill every man, woman, and child in the place if he did not obtain “immediate possession of the Fort and all the effects of George the Third.”
Then the door of the commandant’s room opened, and Captain William Delaplace, who had had time to don his full uniform, appeared. There being nothing else he could do, he surrendered his sword to Ethan Allen and ordered his men paraded without arms.
And then, for the conquerors of Ticonderoga, including Seth Warner’s rear guard which soon arrived, there followed one of the gayest, most riotous binges in all American history. For “the Refreshment of the Fatigued Soldiary,” Ethan appropriated some ninety gallons of rum from Delaplace’s private stock (he gave the Captain a receipt for it, later paid by Connecticut), and soon all the Americans save the highly disapproving, very military Benedict Arnold were glowingly alcoholic. Arnold, indeed, provided the only discordant note in the otherwise joyous harmony of the occasion by reasserting his claim to command on the grounds that he had an official written commission whereas Ethan Allen did not. This caused Chairman Mott of the war committee to give Ethan a written commission. It also placed Arnold in considerably more personal danger than he had been in during the assault, for the drunken Green Mountain Boys derided him, threatened him, even took pot shots at him. His scarlet coat was such a splendid target.
Ethan himself stayed sober enough to write and dispatch several letters to official bodies announcing his triumph, but their language testifies to an uncommon exhilaration, even for him. Here, for instance, is his message to the “Massachusetts Provential Congress”:
I have to inform You with Pleasure Unfelt Before that on breake of Day on the 10th of may 1775 by the Order of the General Assembly of the Colony of Connecticut took the Fortress of Ticonderoga by Storm the soldiary was Composed of about one Hundred Green Mountain Boys and Near Fifty Veteran Soldiers from the Province of Massachusetts Bay the Latter was under the Command of Col. James Easton who behaved with Great Zeal and fortitude. Not only in Council but in the Assault the Soldiary behaved with such resisless fury that they so terrified the Kings Troops that They Durst not Fire on their Assailants and our Soldiary was Agreeably Disappointed the Soldiary behaved with uncommon ranker when they leaped into the fourt.
Two days later, Seth Warner took Crown Point without firing a shot (his captives were a sergeant, eight privates, ten women and children). A few days after that, Benedict Arnold was given command of the schooner that Herrick had captured at Skenesboro. He rechristened it the Liberty and set out for the northern end of the lake, where, without bloodshed, he captured a British sloop, the only warship on Champlain.
Thus, without the loss of a single life, with a casual and even comic air wholly incommensurate with the importance of the event, Ethan Allen’s expedition reduced three key British strongpoints—Ticonderoga, Crown Point, and St. Johns in the north (for the latter was impotent so long as the Americans controlled the lake)—and obtained for the American cause what was, for its time and place, an immense booty: upward of a hundred cannon (the figure is uncertain), several huge mortars and two or three howitzers, 100 stands of small arms, ten tons of musket and cannon balls, three cartloads of flints, a warehouse full of boat-building materials, thirty new carriages, and sundry other war supplies. Next winter, in one of the logistical triumphs of the Revolution, General Henry Knox, on orders from Washington, transported much of the Ticonderoga matériel by sled across the snows to Cambridge; Ticonderoga cannon, at once set up on Dorchester Heights, may well have decided the battle for Boston in favor of the Americans (see “Big Guns for Washington” in the April, 1955, AMERICAN HERITAGE ).
Of at least equal and more immediate importance was the effect of Allen’s feat on American morale. The British were not invincible! Plain Americans were more than a match for them. A thrill of pride, an increased self-confidence spread throughout the colonies, overcoming the vacillating timidity which at first prevented the Continental Congress from operating at all effectively as the ruling body of a country at war.
Witness the first communication Ethan Allen received from the Congress after the news of his conquest had reached it. He was ordered to remove the captured war matériel to the south end of Lake George for safekeeping until such time as it could be “returned to His Majesty” when the “former Harmony” between Great Britain and the Colonies, “so ardently wished for by the latter,” was re-established! Ethan’s response was explosive. He was “God damned” if he would obey such an order. “It is bad policy to fear the resentment of an enemy,” he wrote back, obviously contemptuous, in a letter recommending an immediate attack on Montreal, it being his “humble [sic] opinion, that the more vigorous the Colonies push the war against the King’s troops in Canada the more friends we shall find in that Country.”
Subsequently he decided to go personally before the Congress in an effort to inject into this apparently flabby body some rigidity of courage and initiative. Accompanied by Seth Warner, he headed for Philadelphia by way of Bennington, arriving in the latter place (according to plausible legend) on a Sunday when the Reverend Jedediah Dewey preached a sermon of thanks-giving to God on the capture of Ticonderoga. Ethan, having been told what the sermon subject would be, attended, but grew increasingly restive as the minister in an interminable prayer thanked God over and over again, in the most abject humility, for the great fort’s downfall. At last Ethan could contain himself no longer. He rose in his place, to the astonishment of the congregation, and reminded Parson Dewey in a loud voice that God had not reduced the fort without assistance. “Aren’t you going to mention the fact that I was there?” he demanded. To which Parson Dewey is said to have replied: “Ethan Allen, thou great infidel, sit down and be quiet!”
In Philadelphia, Allen, as the hero of Ticonderoga, managed to inspire the Congress with some of his own optimistic courage. The raising of a regiment from the Grants, to serve under officers of its own choosing, was authorized. A proposed attempt upon Montreal was approved. But so far as his influence upon our national destiny is concerned this was perhaps the high point of Ethan Allen’s career.
There followed for him a period of grave personal misfortune. To the surprise of almost everyone and to his own deep hurt, he was not chosen to command the Grants regiment, nor was he even made a subordinate officer of it. The voting was done not by active Green Mountain Boys but by a meeting of various town committees—older men who had long frowned upon Ethan’s heretical views and riotous ways and who feared his impetuosity. Their choice for colonel of the regiment was the relatively staid, sober-minded Seth Warner. It is a measure of Ethan’s bigness of character that in his disappointment he did not attempt to sabotage the regiment: he did all he could to insure its and Warner’s success. However, there seems no doubt that the rebuffs he had received made him overeager to perform great deeds. He was used as an advance scout and recruiting agent by General Philip Schuyler and General Richard Montgomery, who were mounting the expedition to take Canada, of which Warner and the Green Mountain Boys were also a part. He was without commission or authority when, one day in that autumn of 1775, he rashly attempted to take Montreal with a bare handful of men and was himself captured instead, with such of his men as had not deserted him, after a noisy if remarkably unsanguinary gun fight. His capture was the forerunner of a greater misfortune for the Americans. Though a force commanded by Montgomery managed to take Montreal, it was defeated and Montgomery killed at Quebec that December.
Allen spent the next two and a half years as a British prisoner of war—a year in England, the rest aboard ships at sea and in British-held New York City.
Upon his release in an exchange in May of 1778, he visited General Washington at Valley Forge. The latter immediately wrote to the President of the Congress about him, praising his “fortitude and firmness” which seemed “to have placed him out of the reach of misfortune.” Washington went on: “There is an original something in him that commands admiration; and his long captivity and sufferings have only served to increase if possible, his enthusiastic zeal. He appears very desirous of rendering his services to the States, and of being employed; and at the same time he does not discover any ambition for high rank. Congress will herewith receive a letter from him; and I doubt not they will make such provision for him, as they may think proper and suitable.”
But Ethan never actively served under the commission which the Congress gave him. His personal fame was augmented and the national interest served by his publication, in the spring of ’79, of a personal narrative wherein he told of taking Ticonderoga and of his “Captivity and Treatment by the British.” It was an exciting adventure story which went through eight editions in two years, and its account of his mistreatment by his captors (he had indeed been cruelly handled) was effective in fanning popular hatred of the enemy. His subsequent career, however, was identified not with the emergent United States but with the emergent state of Vermont, to whose interests, as a matter of fact, he soon sacrificed much of his reputation as national patriot.
As early as March i, 1775, Ethan in a letter to Oliver Wolcott had boldly proposed that the Grants be transformed into a distinct and independent state—a state free alike of New York and New Hampshire. When he returned as a hero from his long captivity he found his dream becoming a reality. Shortly after Ethan’s capture, General Montgomery had been killed, and the Canadian expedition had been abandoned, leaving the Grants’ frontier to the north and northwest unprotected against the enemy. Rather than call for protection from the New York militia, thus tacitly admitting Yorker sovereignty over them and endangering their land titles, the men of the Grants determined to defend themselves. Early in 1777, in a convention assembled at Westminster, they declared the Grants to be a free and independent state—at first called New Connecticut—petitioning the Congress for admission to what was then known as the Association of States. (It was Ethan’s old friend and mentor of Salisbury, Dr. Thomas Young, who first suggested the name Vermont—French for Green Mountain—a suggestion that had happily been accepted.) Since the Congress had thus far refused to recognize the new state’s existence, even though it had established a constitution (the first in America specifically to prohibit slavery) and had elected a governor, a legislature, and other officers, Vermont considered itself to be, and Ethan certainly considered it to be, an independent republic. To it he now gave his whole allegiance; of it he promptly became, as he had been on the Grants of old, the leading man.
It was in this role that he entered upon the most dubious phase of his career. During the closing years of the Revolutionary War he secretly intrigued with the British in Canada in order to prevent an invasion of his republic from the north, at the same time roaring his defiance of every order of the Congress which did not recognize Vermont’s independence or which seemed to threaten the legal title of Vermonters to the land they occupied. Such military activity as he engaged in during this period was aimed not at the British but at the suppression of “treason” within his republic and at Yorker (and congressional) threats from without. When the actual fighting of the Revolution had ended, Vermont was still an independent republic. She remained so until March 4, 1791, when, in the third session of the Congress, under the Constitution of the United States, she was admitted to the Union as the fourteenth state—an event for which Ethan Allen was more responsible than any other man.
But by the time it occurred he had been dead more than two years, and even in the state he had done so much to create, his name was under something of a cloud.
In part this was due to his British intrigues: there were many even in Vermont who looked upon these mysterious activities as treasonable. But mostly it was due to his publication in 1784 of the philosophical and religious work which he and Dr. Thomas Young, who died in 1777, had projected when they were young men together in Salisbury long before. The work’s full title indicates its scope and nature: Reason, The Only Oracle of Man; Or, A Compenduous System of Natural Religion, to which is Added Critical Remarks on the Truth and Harmony of the Four Gospels with Observations on the Instructions Given by Jesus Christ and on the Doctrines of Christianity.
It is a work of some importance in American intellectual history, though now almost forgotten, for it helped to relax the strong hold of orthodox Calvinism on the New England mind and conscience. “As far as we understand nature, we are become acquainted with the character of God,” wrote Ethan, “for the knowledge of nature is the revelation of God.” He attacked the central dogma of Calvinism by arguing that “Human liberty, agency and accountability, cannot be attended with eternal consequences, either good or evil.” The book was denounced and its author abused in print and from a hundred pulpits; even to own a copy was to be suspected, by the pious, of infidelism.
Consistent with the view of Ethan as an “awful Infidel, one of ye wickedest men yt ever walked this guilty globe” (so said one Reverend Nathan Perkins, who looked upon Allen’s grave with “pious horror”), was the widely told and evidently true story of Ethan’s second marriage. His first wife having died in Sunderland in 1783 while Ethan, typically, was not at home, he was available and vulnerable to the very real charms of a young widow named Fanny Montresor Buchanan, whom he met early in 1784. She was the stepdaughter of a notorious Tory named Crean Bush, who had committed suicide in disgrace in 1778, and the widow of a British officer killed in an early action of the Revolution. She was as widely different in all respects from poor Mary Allen as one woman may be from another.
She was beautiful, imperious, vivacious, and impious. When Allen first met her and promptly let it be known that he desired her, she was told by someone that if she married him she would “be queen of a new state.” “Yes,” she replied, “and if I married the Devil I would be queen of hell.” But marry him she did, after a scandalously brief courtship. The ceremony was performed by Judge Moses Robinson, chief justice of the Republic of Vermont, and was shockingly interrupted by Ethan when the Judge asked him if he promised “to live with Fanny Buchanan agreeable to the laws of God.” Allen refused to answer until the Judge agreed that the God referred to was the God of Nature, and the laws those “written in the great book of Nature.” He then made the necessary promise and left for Sunderland with his bride a few minutes later.
A daughter and son were soon born to them, the latter in 1787 shortly after they had moved (retired, as Ethan put it) to a farm near Burlington.
It was on this farm, two years later, during one of the hardest winters in all Vermont history, that he died. The manner of his departure was of a piece with the manner of his living. He had driven with his Negro hired hand across the thick ice of Lake Champlain to South Hero Island, to borrow a load of hay from his cousin Ebenezer Allen. Ebenezer had sent out word that Ethan was coming, so there was soon assembled a large party abundantly supplied with Stonewalls and punch and flip—many of them old Green Mountain Boys—for a carouse that lasted most of the night. Shortly after daylight—and after a final stiff drink—Ethan was deposited atop the sled-load of hay and there he lay in seeming peace as the Negro drove the team homeward. On the way he suffered what the newspapers of the time called an “epileptic fit.” A few hours later, on February 12, 1789, he was dead.
When news of the event reached New Haven, the Reverend Doctor Ezra Stiles, president of Yale, known as an “inveterate chronicler” of things which might interest posterity, noted in his diary: “General Ethan Allen of Vermont died and went to Hell this day.”
Ethan himself, without undue seriousness, had anticipated a different otherworldly fate. He was fond of telling about a dream he had had in which he was among several men standing in line at heaven’s gate. One by one the men were questioned by the gate-keeper; then each of those admitted was asked to sit in a specifically designated seat inside, there to await further disposition. Not so Ethan Allen. The gate-keeper looked at him sharply when he gave his name.
“You’re the man who took Ticonderoga?” the gate-keeper asked.
“The very same.”
The gatekeeper’s stern visage broke into a warm smile.
“Come in,” said he. “Come in, Ethan! Sit down wherever you please!”