Battle of Ticonderoga

The 1777 Battle of Ticonderoga occurred between 2 and 6 July 1777 at Fort Ticonderoga, near the southern end of Lake Champlain in the state of New York.

In military maneuvers that more closely resembled troop movements with minor skirmishes than actual battle, General John Burgoyne's 8,000-man army occupied high ground above the fort, and nearly surrounded the defenses. These movements precipitated the occupying Continental Army, an under-strength force of 3,000 under the command of General Arthur St. Clair, to withdraw from Ticonderoga and the surrounding defenses. Some gunfire was exchanged, and there were some casualties, but there was no formal siege and no pitched battle. Burgoyne's army occupied Fort Ticonderoga and Fort Independence without opposition on 6 July, and advance units pursued the retreating Americans.

The uncontested surrender of Ticonderoga caused an uproar in the American public and in its military circles, as Ticonderoga was widely believed to be virtually impregnable, and a vital point of defense. General St. Clair and his superior, General Philip Schuyler, were vilified by Congress. Both were eventually exonerated in courts martial, but their careers were adversely affected. Schuyler had already lost his command to Horatio Gates by the time of the court martial, and St. Clair held no more field commands for the remainder of the war.

Fort Ticonderoga had fallen into American hands at the beginning of the War for Independence and was regarded by many as an unassailable guardian of the rebels’ northern frontier. The British had tried an invasion from Canada in 1776, but had been thwarted on Lake Champlain by the heroic efforts of Benedict Arnold and his men.

The Americans blithely allowed Ticonderoga to become vulnerable; its manpower and store of arms and supplies were low. The prevailing opinion was that any movement of British troops from Canada would be in the direction of Philadelphia by way of the St. Lawrence River, the Atlantic Ocean and, most likely, Chesapeake Bay.

Major General Arthur St. Clair (pronounced Sinclair) had replaced Horatio Gates at the fort in June. His ability to gather intelligence about John Burgoyne’s movements was restricted by the interference of Indians with American scouts. When word did reach Ticonderoga that the British were approaching, St. Clair believed that a show of force was likely, but that no real attempt would be made to take the fort.

Burgoyne had left St. John’s on June 17 and arrived in the waters near Ticonderoga at the end of the month. St. Clair slowly began to realize his predicament; he knew his reputation would never survive a surrender and pinned his hope on holding the fort against a direct British assault. Burgoyne, however, refused to cooperate and began preparations for a static siege. In a decisive stroke, the British installed cannon atop Mount Defiance, a hill south of the fort that had not been defended by the Americans. From that position, the British easily dominated Fort Ticonderoga.

During the dark hours of July 5, St. Clair and his forces evacuated the fort, heading south at breakneck speed by boat and over land. A handful of troops left behind had been instructed to put up a brief show of force against the British in the morning, then join their comrades in retreat. Those soldiers were found drunk and asleep the next morning when the British occupied Fort Ticonderoga without opposition.

Burgoyne left about 1,000 troops at the fort and quickly began to pursue the fleeing Americans.

Burgoyne's force of around 8,000 men with artillery and naval support was enough to overwhelm St. Clair's position, manned by about 3,500 including newly-arrived militia. Schuyler ordered St. Clair to hold out as long as he could before withdrawing, while additional forces were gathered for the defense of Albany. By early July, the Burgoyne expedition arrived in the area. British reconnaissance also discovered the strategic position of Sugar Loaf. Starting on July 2, they cleared and fortified gun emplacements on top of that height. They also spent several days drawing some of their larger guns up the slope, using winches to move from tree to tree.

On July 4, the Americans held a quiet celebration with some toasts to commemorate the previous year's Declaration of Independence.

On July 5, the American force awoke to discover the completed British position, with more guns arriving throughout the day. Trumbull had already demonstrated that fire from the American guns couldn't reach the summit, and aware that devastating fire from the heights would reduce the fortress to rubble, St. Clair withdrew his force under cover of darkness. The guns at Ticonderoga, most remaining supplies, and some men too ill and wounded to move were left to the British. A handful of men were left at Fort Independence with loaded cannon and lit matches to fire on the pontoon bridge after the withdrawal, but after indulging in some of the remaining supplies, notably, a barrel of wine, they were incapable of military action.

On July 6, during the morning, the British troops captured them and occupied the forts without firing a shot. Gen. Simon Fraser set out in pursuit of the retreating Americans.

The withdrawal from Ticonderoga was hurried, but was a part of the American defensive strategy adopted by Schuyler in response to the British Saratoga Campaign. Fraser's pursuit resulted in the Battle of Hubbardton as they caught up with the rear guard. St. Clair, meanwhile, brought most of his men to join forces with Schuyler at Fort Edward, and prepare for the Battle of Saratoga. Ticonderoga did not substantially delay Burgoyne's advance, but he did leave several regiments and much of his Canadian force as a garrison.

Fort Ticonderoga was an important symbol for the Americans, who expected that the fort would keep the redcoats out of the northern colonies, particularly in view of the winter spent improving the fortifications. St Clair’s abrupt retreat caused alarm and outrage. A militant Protestant chaplain in the garrison, the Reverend Thomas Allen, wrote “Our men are eager for the battle, our magazines filled, our camp crowded with provisions, flags flying. The shameful abandonment of Ticonderoga has not been equaled in the history of the world.” This sentiment was repeated with fury across the colonies.

The political impact of the surrender was much stronger. Congress was appalled, and they censured both Schuyler and St. Clair for the loss. Schuyler was removed as commander of the Northern Department and replaced with Gates.

St Clair justified his actions, claiming to have saved valuable troops for the American cause. In the light of the heavy criticism to which he was subjected, he demanded a court martial, at which he was acquitted. He may have been right.
It may be that Burgoyne would have captured a defended Ticonderoga and that many valuable American troops would have become casualties. There is no doubt that Burgoyne’s further march south over-strained the British supply system and contributed directly to his surrender at Saratoga.

In the absence of a direct order from Schuyler or the Congress to abandon Ticonderoga, perhaps St Clair should have fought it out. Probably, whatever the outcome, St Clair would have emerged from the war a national hero instead of spending the rest of his life attempting to justify his actions and fending off allegations of cowardice.
Eventually, after Burgoyne's surrender at the Battle of Saratoga, the British Forces in withdrew to St. John's, and the Americans re-occupied Fort Ticonderoga with no major incidents.