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Ethan Allen’s Ill-Fated March on Canada

May 2024
14min read

A new look at a famous Revolutionary figure questions whether history’s long-standing judgment is accurate

AT 9 O’CLOCK ON THE morning of September 25, 1775, a French Canadian habitant banged on the main gate of Montreal. The Americans were coming, he blurted breathlessly to a British officer. As drums began to rattle out the alarm and a panicky crowd filled the Place d’Armes, the farmer told Sir Guy Carleton, governor general of Canada, that an American army had crossed the St. Lawrence during the night and was marching south down the island. The invaders numbered in the hundreds. They had already reached the suburb of Longue-Pointe, less than two miles away, and were taking up positions in barns and houses.

For weeks Carleton had dreaded just such an attack. Fully one-third of the 9,000 citizens of Montreal’s environs were transplanted New England merchants and their employees. Carleton’s spies had told himthat couriers from Boston were urging the expatriates to join the spreading struggle for American independence from Britain.

With only 34 regulars, a handful of Mohawk Indians, and about 30 officials from the Indian Bureau to defend the largest town in Canada, Carleton had threatened to burn Montreal—and its warehouses bulging with furs and wheat—unless the merchants helped defend it. After rounding up suspected American sympathizers and chaining them in ships in the harbor, he had already gathered his papers and was preparing to flee to Quebec, where he would make a last stand.

As word spread like a crown fire that the leader of the invading force was Ethan Allen, conqueror of two key British fortresses on Lake Champlain, Carleton placated the townsmen with hard money: he would pay volunteers half a Portuguese silver Johanna a day to join his militia. He had little alternative but to rely on these “shirtmen” and no other hope for timely relief. Of some 700 regulars in the combined 26th Cameronian Regiment of Foot and the 7th Royal Fusiliers assigned to garrison all of Canada, he had lost 80 men when they were taken prisoner during Allen’s raids on Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point. He had deployed most of his remaining regulars and 300 Mohawks to defend Fort St. John to the southeast, now bombarded by the cannon Allen had seized from the forts.

Carleton knew little about the boldness of Allen’s plan, how many men he could command, or just how he came to lead an invading army. In fact, Allen, instantly acclaimed by some (although not the Continental Congress) as America’s first war hero for his daring predawn attacks on the two Lake Champlain forts, had found himself caught in a crossfire of conflicting ideologies, officers, and orders. Contemporaries and historians alike viewed him as rash and impetuous, a violent frontiersman with an explosive temper. But his Canadian crusade shows that this portrait is too simple. New research reveals that American Gen. Richard Montgomery encouraged Allen to act, and that Allen was something of a victim—of conflicting orders from the Congress, of apparent abandonment by a fellow officer, and of circumstances themselves—in the drama that followed. Moreover, his Canadian adventure was part of a far larger failing on the Americans’ part: the larger invasion was poorly planned and executed.

The chain of events that led to Montreal began earlier, on May 10, 1775, when Allen and 89 Green Mountain Boys from present-day Vermont stormed ashore at Fort Ticonderoga and captured its sleeping garrison of 60 regulars and 50 women and children. Only a handful of delegates from Massachusetts and Connecticut knew of Allen’s raid. Connecticut’s Committee of Correspondence and the Hartford Committee of Safety, aware that Allen had organized the largest paramilitary force in British North America, had authorized himat a secret meeting in Hartford to seize the forts around Lake Champlain and to secure their trove of nearly 200 cannon.

After the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, farmers from Connecticut and Massachusetts had rushed in to purchase land in presentday Vermont at bargain prices fromNew Hampshire, which claimed jurisdiction. Some 800 families had cleared homesteads before New York’s government, also claiming the region, demanded the settlers pay again for the land or leave.

When sheriff’s posses from New York tried to evict them, the farmers refused to move. They appointed Allen, a professional hunter and small-time speculator, as their spokesman. Hiring lawyer Jared Ingersoll, Allen sailed to Albany to appear before the New York Supreme Court of Judicature. But lawyers and judges representing the British Crown, themselves speculators in Vermont lands, upheld the evictions.

At a mass meeting in Bennington, Allen urged the settlers to resist. Committees of Safety from a score of settlements commissioned Allen to form the Green Mountain Boys and to serve as their paid colonel-commandant. In a five-year border war between the settlers and New York authorities, Allen employed an effective mix of propaganda and intimidation to discourage would-be New York settlers. Allen and the Boys pulled down fences, barns, and houses and sometimes flogged foes— acts that would be considered terrorism today. In 1774 the New York Assembly declared them outlaws. With a £100 bounty for his capture, Allen faced summary execution.

Shortly before the April 1775 clash at Lexington, Allen had written to Connecticut patriot leader Oliver Wolcott that he couldmuster 2,000 Boys and seize the undermanned New York forts before the British could reinforce them from Montreal. Then Allen sent a message to Montreal wheat exporter James Morrison by way of John Brown, a Pittsfield, Massachusetts, lawyer, and emissary of Sam Adams. Brown’s mission: to urge Montreal merchants to send a delegation to the Continental Congress representing New Englanders living in Canada.

At a secret meeting, the merchants balked when Brown told them they would have to join the Congress’s trade embargo of English goods. Some also feared that Massachusetts would invade Canada, as it had done in past intercolonial wars. The merchants did agree to form a committee of correspondence with John Walker, Quebec Province’s wealthiest merchant, as chairman. Walker told Brown to assure Adams that many Canadians were eager to make common cause—if only to alleviate a far greater threat. A lightning military thrust into Quebec Province would thwart enforcement of the Quebec Act, passed by Parliament after the Boston Tea Party.
ONLY DAYS AFTER Allen and his Boys stormed Fort Ticonderoga, Brown, returning from Montreal, agreed to carry Allen’s dispatches to Philadelphia, where Secretary Charles Thomson read them aloud to a stunned Congress. Not reacting for another week, the delegates passed a resolution to put the colonies “into a state of defense.” Reversing itself on June 1, the divided delegates voted against supporting any “expedition or excursion” into Canada. 
Allen’s first communication from the Continental Congress, far from congratulatory, ordered him to haul the captured cannon to the southern tip of
Lake George and there prepare to make a stand if the British counterattacked. Slapping Allen’s wrist hard, the Congress insisted he not seize any more of the king’s forts.
Baffled and infuriated, Allen wrote back that to follow the Congress’s instructions would endanger nearly 9,000 settlers who lived along a 100-mile corridor west of the Green Mountains and north of the Congress’s arbitrary defensive line. “If the King’s troops should be again in possession of Ticonderoga and Crown Point and command the lake,” Allen warned, “the Indians and Canadians will be much more inclined to join with them and
make incursions into the heart of our country.” A vigorous advance into Canada and an attack on Montreal with “an army of two or three thousand men” would “easily make a conquest of that place.”
Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold agreed that it would be insane to abandon the forts and retreat to Lake George. Together, Arnold wrote the Congress,
he and Allen had decided to advance to the Canadian border to “make a stand,” hastening to add that they would only “act on the defensive.” In Arnold’s absence, Allen convened a council of war at Crown Point. Rejecting the Congress’s instructions to pull back, Allen outlined an invasion plan. The officers unanimously voted to send Allen and his cousin, Capt. Seth Warner, as delegates to seek the Congress’s endorsement.
TO STAND BEFORE the 60 members of the Continental Congress at the Pennsylvania State House on June 25, 1775, was exhilarating for the 37-year-old Allen. Brought up in a genteel Congregational family, one of eight children of a frontier town founder, Allen was largely self-educated. His only formal schooling had consisted of eight months of classics and mathematics to prepare him for entry to Yale College, a plan that ended with his father’s death.
He cut an impressive figure nevertheless. Well over six feet tall, dark-miened, and rugged from years of grueling work as a farmer supporting
his mother and younger brothers and sisters, Allen had become wealthy in his 20s as a working partner in Connecticut’s first successful iron foundry (before losing his money in his 30s in a mining speculation). Outspoken in the face of New England’s rigid Puritan culture, he had been “read out” of towns in Massachusetts and Connecticut. His use of profanity in the workplace made laborers love him, clergy and magistrates prosecute him. Refusing to tolerate corrupt business practices, he used a bullwhip and bare knuckles when he felt exploited. To support his large family, he hunted
alone during winters in the Green Mountains, exploring the land evacuated by the French. Forming a land company, he purchased large tracts on
credit and sold small parcels for modest sums to hundreds of impecunious families, who became his loyal followers and willing recruits for the Green Mountain Boys.
Speaking in his slow, confident, country-preacher voice, Allen told the Congress that, unless itmoved quickly, it could expect massive retaliation from the British in Canada. Carleton was raising militia, had reinforced Fort St. John, and was building assault craft to retake Lake Champlain. Congress had to invade Quebec Province before the British sent reinforcements from England.
As Allen pressed for an immediate advance, his listeners included the patriots who had authorized the Champlain campaign. But his audience also
included James Duane of New York, the king’s counsel at the 1770 eviction trials, who sat with Hudson River land baron Philip Livingston. Allen, who
remained under sentence of death in New York, had last seen Livingston scowling down at him from the bench in Albany. Moreover, the New Yorkers
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.
Dressed in the buckskin vest and toque of the habitant, Allen left the siege lines forming around Fort St. John on September 17 at the head of an 81-man detachment. Made up of Sgt. Jeremy Duggan, eight Connecticut militia, two interpreters, and 70 habitants, the reconnaissance followed the east bank of the Richelieu, then passed “through all of the parishes on the river Sorel” to its junction with the St. Lawrence, then north to Longueuil, opposite Montreal, “preaching politics.”Allen reported by messenger to Montgomery that he had 250 habitants under arms: “As I march, they gather fast. You may rely on it that I shall join you in about three days with five hundred or more Canadian volunteers. I could raise one or two thousand in a week’s time.”
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
mid-afternoon and sent out 194 troops, plus eight Mohawk warriors and the “extremely corpulent” Maj. John Carden, a half-pay pensioner of the
60th Regiment.
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.

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