by Stephen Zeoli
I want to thank Mike Barbieri and Ennis Duling, my colleagues on the board of the Mount Independence Coalition, for their assistance in getting this account accurate.
A common theme for people with some knowledge of the history of Mount Independence is that American commanders negligently failed to fortify the summit of Mount Defiance,* the high promontory just south of Fort Ticonderoga. When Burgoyne’s British forces dragged cannon to the top on July 5, 1777, they forced the Americans at Ti and the Mount to retreat, giving Burgoyne an easy victory on Lake Champlain. Or so the story goes.
There are three aspects of this narrative that I want to examine:
- Were American commanders negligent in not fortifying Mount Defiance?
- Who ultimately was responsible for this situation?
- Was British ascension of Mount Defiance the main cause of the American withdrawal?
Fort Ticonderoga was originally built by the French in 1755 at the start of the French and Indian War, while Britain and France were vying for control of North America. The French called the fort Carillon after the ringing sound of the nearby waterfalls of the LaChute River. They built Carillon to block a British invasion north into Canada. They could have chosen to fortify Mount Defiance but did not. French military engineers were among the best in the world. A French engineer had literally written the book on military fortifications. That the French commander, Montcalm, decided it wasn’t worth the effort to fortify the summit of Mount Defiance should carry some weight in assessing the decision-making of the American commanders two decades later.
In 1776, the Americans retreated to Ticonderoga after the failed invasion of Canada, begun in the fall of the preceding year. The American army was in tatters due in large part to a smallpox epidemic that ripped through the ranks, reducing the force to just over 2000 healthy men. They had to put those men to good purpose and chose not to spend effort on Defiance. Their priority was shoring up the existing fortifications at Ticonderoga, and placing new, formidable ones on the point across the lake, which would become known as Mount Independence. Clearly, cannon batteries at the points where British ships would engage the American forces were more important than ones that would be built behind the lines.
Once reinforcements and supplies began rolling into the American camps, extending the defenses became possible. The Americans built a formidable fort on Mount Hope, on their left flank. If this fort held, the British would not be able to skirt the American lines to get up Defiance and the fort on Mount Hope would protect more than just the American rear. Clearly, building and manning Mount Hope was more important than Defiance.
After repelling the British thrust south in the fall of 1776, American forces at the twin forts shrank. Militia companies went home and a solid chunk of the Continental troops were shifted south to reinforce Washington in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Where the Americans had had as many as 12,000 troops, they now had somewhat less than 3,000, a force that would suffice through the winter, but insufficient when the British next came calling.
That winter, Congress issued orders to further develop the northern fortifications. It fell to Chief Engineer Jeduthan Baldwin to implement these orders:
- Build a general hospital on Mount Independence
- Build a new fort on Mount Independence
- Construct a substantial bridge to connect Ti with Independence and to block shipping on the lake
Baldwin has been ridiculed as an incompetent engineer. This has mostly been by those who are especially fond of Thaddeus Kosciusko. One of the charges against Baldwin is that as Chief Engineer he should have fortified Mount Defiance. This criticism misses the mark. First, Baldwin had his orders for what needed to be done in the spring of 1777. He didn’t have the men or oxen to achieve those major undertakings. He was never going to make the decision unilaterally to shift resources from those major projects and direct them to something outside the scope of his orders.
Secondly, Baldwin did, in fact, recommend building “a Block-house on the southwest Hill across the Lake” the previous fall in a report he submitted to a Congressional delegation that had visited Lake Champlain in November of 1776.
Kosciusko was on site in the spring of 1777 and apparently tried to garner support for fortifying Defiance.** It is asserted by Kosiusko’s biographers that he wrote to General Gates, who was temporarily in command of the Northern Department at the time, recommending a fortification atop Defiance. Gates ignored him. When General Philip Schuyler was reinstated as commander of the Northern Department, he asked Gates to command the forces on Lake Champlain. When Gates declined the offer, Schuyler turned the job over to Arthur St. Clair, who arrived at the twin forts on June 12.
In 1831 an attempt was made to credit Gates with wanting to put a fort on Defiance. This was in the form of a letter Gates is purported to have sent to St. Clair. It is claimed that Gates wrote, “The principal object” of the letter “is to invite your attention to… Sugar Loaf [Mount Defiance] the occupation of which decides the fate of your campaign…”
The letter then claims Gates had wanted to fortify Defiance the previous year but was talked out of it by Schuyler.
The key problem with this chain of reasoning is that Gates had had his opportunity to fortify Defiance while he was temporarily in charge. He had possibly been advised to do so by his protegee Kosciusko. But he did nothing. Clearly “the occupation” of Defiance was not a priority for Gates the general in charge.
This letter is found amidst a report by John Armstrong (1758 to 1843) to Jared Sparks. It is a reclamation project to restore Horatio Gates’ reputation. Too much of Gates’ letter seems informed by hindsight for us to take it as genuine. But even supposing it is genuine, it begs the question raised before, why hadn’t Gates acted on his conviction when he’d had the chance. Or was Gates only trying to cover his own ass while at the same time making Schuyler look bad?
But was leaving Mount Defiance undefended really the wrong decision?
In June 1777, General Philip Schuyler travelled north to learn for himself the conditions at Ticonderoga and Mount Independence. St. Clair had written to Schuyler informing him the two forts on the lake were in no condition to meet the enemy. He listed a host of supplies the army lacked… including not enough cartridge paper. Schuyler was invested in holding Mount Independence, which he’d assured Congress the army would do. When he met with St. Clair, he instructed that, if necessary, St. Clair could evacuate the New York side and concentrate his army on Mount Independence, but that he was to hold the latter fortifications no matter what… with the exception that if St. Clair felt he didn’t have enough supplies for a long siege, he could retreat from there as well.
A few weeks later, when British forces swarmed over both sides of the lake, it was clear St. Clair’s command would soon be surrounded. By July 5th, the British were busy at the top of Defiance, though they had not yet brought cannon to the summit. Spying the red coats across the way was the catalyst that caused St. Clair to begin the process of justifying breaking his orders and removing his army from the trap that was soon to ensnare it. He called a Council of War with his subordinate officers. This group first determined they did not have enough men to hold both sides of the lake… they had already withdrawn troops from Mount Hope, so they would evacuate all the soldiers from the New York side to Mount Independence. Once they’d decided on that step, they then agreed that the best course of action was to retreat from the Mount as well. The evacuation began after dark.
The purpose of this article isn’t to determine if St. Clair was right in ordering the withdrawal.*** I just want to explore what factor the American decision not to fortify the top of Mount Defiance played in this decision. I believe it played only the part of initiating a decision that was inevitable. St. Clair had already determined his position was untenable. A subordinate officer recalled St. Clair as saying of the decision to evacuate, “If he remained there, he would save his character and lose the army; if he went off, he would save the army and lose his character; the last of which he was determined to sacrifice to the cause….”
The most significant factor in the decision to retreat was that St. Clair did not have nearly enough men to hold even the very defensible Mount Independence. I believe St. Clair would have ordered the retreat even if the British never summited Defiance, though that is purely speculation on my part.
Even if the Americans had built fortifications on top of Defiance, it is highly doubtful St. Clair would have left any forces there, when he didn’t have enough to hold Ticonderoga, nor, in his view, Mount Independence. All they would have done is saved the British the trouble of hauling their own guns up the steep slopes.
The summit of Defiance was hardly impregnable. Three months after the evacuation, American forces had no trouble overwhelming the British fortification there. Brown’s raid was a three-pronged attack on British positions on the lake intended to disrupt enemy supply lines and–if possible — dislodge the British from the area. Ebeneezer Allen led the assault on Mount Defiance, on “which was a Block House about half finished… and drove them [the British] in 6 Minutes killing a Number and took 21 Prisoners Cannon &c &c the remainder got headlong down the mountain.” (From a report by Col. John Brown writing to Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, Sept. 20, 1777.)
The Americans fired a few pot shots at Ticonderoga from Defiance. But this did nothing to force the British from the confines of the fort, though they did miraculously kill one unlucky soldier.
The British put guns (or were close to putting guns) atop Mount Defiance and the Americans almost immediately retreated. That is a sequence of events, but it is not necessarily cause and effect. It was very likely British eyeballs, not British cannon balls that concerned St. Clair. From the summit of Defiance, the British could see everything the Americans were doing. As my colleague Mike Barbieri put it, the British had the 18th century version of aerial reconnaissance. That prospect made an already uneasy situation worse, and could possibly have prodded St. Clair into setting the evacuation decision in motion, but it was hardly the main cause. Regardless, there was virtually nothing that could have been done to prevent the British from ascending Defiance, short of tripling the number of soldiers at St. Clair’s command.
*The mountain was known as Sugar Loaf before being rechristened Mount Defiance. For clarity, I am going to use the name Defiance, even if that is anachronistic to the moment in time I’m discussing.
**I use the word “apparently” in this statement because we have no direct proof that Kosciusko did make this recommendation. It seems inferred by Kosciusko’s biographers. For the sake of this article I am going to assume that he did recommend fortifying Defiance.
***My opinion is that St. Clair made the right choice. No good purpose would have been served if he’d had to surrender his army to Burgoyne. In the best-case scenario the Americans would hold out for months and cause Burgoyne to withdraw back to Canada. In which case, the Americans would not have had the decisive victory that came in October at Saratoga. But it is interesting to contemplate the result if St. Clair had stayed and slugged it out with Burgoyne. Would Mount Independence have earned a place in American history alongside the Alamo or Bunker Hill?