Summary History of the Battle Involving Mount Indepencence
In the middle of 1776, General Philip Schuyler ordered his American soldiers, many of whom had recently fought in the ill-fated invasion of Canada at the end of 1775, to reoccupy and better fortify the former French Fort Carillon (Ticonderoga) on what is now the New York side of Lake Champlain. He also directed the building of a large defended encampment on the “wooded hill” on the east side of Lake Champlain. In a letter to General George Washington sent on July 12, 1776, Schuyler wrote that:
On the 8th we returned to Ticonderoga [sic] and on the 9th we went over the Ground for the intended post on the East Side, which we found so remarkably strong as to require little Labor to make it tenable against a vast Superiority of Force, and fully to answer the purpose of preventing the Enemy from penetrating into the Country to the South of it.
In October 1776, the American Engineer Colonel Jeduthan Baldwin began construction of a star-shaped, wooden picket fort on the highest portion of Mount Independence. The following month he began the construction of eight barrack buildings within the boundaries of the wooden stockade. At around that time, the population on the Mount swelled to between 12,000 and 13,000 soldiers, rivaling the population of Boston.
Meanwhile, in mid-October, Guy Carlton’s British fleet engaged with Benedict Arnold’s small American fleet farther north at the Battle of Valcour Island. Although Arnold and the Americans staged an historic escape, the vast majority of their ships, equipment, and munitions were destroyed, leaving Carlton with complete naval dominance of Lake Champlain. Hoping to take advantage, on October 28, Carlton sailed down the lake with approximately 8,000 men with the aim of clearing the way for the English through to Albany.
Arriving within three miles of the defensive positions at Ticonderoga and Mount Independence, however, Carlton witnessed thousands of soldiers encamped behind established fortifications and cannon emplacements. Understanding that winter would soon be upon them, he chose to retreat to Canada rather than engage in a protracted battle against a well-defended enemy. This easy success bolstered American morale and delayed the British advance for nearly a year.
To further fortify their defensive position, obstruct travel, and connect the two sides of the narrows, Jeduthan Baldwin ordered the construction of a chain boom and bridge across Lake Champlain between Mount Independence and Fort Ticonderoga. Although it was functionally destroyed on December 14 by wind-driven waves, the bridge was ordered to be rebuilt by Baldwin and was being continual repaired through the summer of 1777.
With the onset of winter in 1776, many men stationed on the Mount were sent home to their farms. For the 3,000 or so that remained, conditions were extremely difficult. Common soldiers were crowded into rows of thin tents or makeshift cabins, while officers lived in rough planked houses, only some of which apparently contained windows. The temperatures were often extremely cold, and the wind blew unabated across the Mount due to the clearcutting of the trees for construction timber and firewood. Research reports that during the coldest months, an average of seven or eight soldiers froze to death every night. One scholar relays the lamentations of a soldier from Pennsylvania stationed on the Mount:
Of all this Army at this Place, which did consist of twelve or thirteen thousand Men, Sick and Well, no more than nine hundred Pair of Shoes have been sent. One-third at least of the poor Wretches is now barefoot, and in this Condition obliged to do Duty. This is shocking to Humanity. It cannot be viewed in any milder Light than black Murder. The poor Creatures is now (what's left alive) laying on the cold Ground, in poor thin Tents, and some none at all, and many down with the Pleurisy. No Barracks, no Hospitals to go in. ... If you was here, your Heart would melt.
Despite these hardships, Baldwin, later assisted by Thaddeus Kosciuszko, continued to order additional fortifications and infrastructure to be built. Researchers estimate that several hundred cabins, artificer’s shops, lookout posts and cannon emplacements were built over the period of the American occupation. Unfortunately, there are few extant details about these works, apart from a hospital and boat crane that were ordered constructed over the winter.
As Spring 1777 arrived, it became clear to the new commander, Major General Arthur St. Clair, that there were insufficient militia returning to the area to effectively garrison the Ticonderoga and Mount Independence forts. Meanwhile, a refreshed army consisting of approximately 8,000 British, German (Hessian), Canadian, and Indian troops under the command of Lieutenant General John Burgoyne left Canada for Lake Champlain.
On July 1, Burgoyne’s army disembarked on both sides of the lake at a point just three miles north of Ticonderoga with the aim of bracketing the Americans. Noting a prominent hill (Sugar Hill, now Mount Defiance) with a vantage of the entirety of both forts and bridge, Burgoyne ordered his men to construct a road, haul up cannons, and prepare emplacements. The Americans had earlier noted their vulnerability from the hilltop but surmised that it would be too difficult for the enemy to ascend with heavy munitions. Nevertheless, by July 5, British cannons were being readied at the summit.
Outnumbered more than two to one, and seeing their position now indefensible from cannon fire, St. Clair ordered a covert retreat from both forts on the night of July 5-6, 1777. This retreat set the stage for the famous rear-guard action at the Battle of Hubbardton on July 7. British forces and their Hessian mercenaries thereafter took over the fortifications on Mount Independence and Ticonderoga, which remained largely intact due to the Americans’ desire to leave silently and without destructive fires. A junior officer in the Reidesel Hessian regimen wrote that:
We were astounded when we caught sight of the place. There was one earthwork after another, each rising above the previous one, eleven to twelve in number. On the beach there was also one trench after another, and [both] shores were studded with cannon … The artillery stretched all the way from the water’s edge right up to both the [stone] citadel and Fort Independence, one gun protruding above the other. The magazines – crammed with flour, meat, coffee, wine, porter beer, sugar, medicines, etc. – held stock in superabundance.
Henry Watson Powell, a general in Burgoyne’s army, was given charge of the contingent. They soon set about building additional block houses on the landward side of the Mount, surmising that an American attack would likely come from land. On September 10, Powell heard word that all communication lines between Burgoyne’s command and the Mount had been severed by the Americans. As such, Powell had to assume an independent command. He intuited that this action presaged an attack of some kind on the Mount, and he stood his soldiers at alert and ready for action.
Powell was right to fear an attack. American Sergeant James Warner, who had recently escaped a make-shift prison near Lake George, provided to the American command detailed intelligence about the strength and position of the British around Mount Independence and Ticonderoga. It was determined that their overall situation was weak and undermanned. Nevertheless, Colonel John Brown noted that “…the Enemy have fortifyed [sic] Independence in such a Manner that by the block Houses and Redoubts which they have erected, together with their Shipping, they can cover and defend the whole of the Ground on Independence. The Enemy have about 700 Men in the Mount 500 of which they can turn out on an Emergency….” Indeed, the natural cliffs facing the southern (landward) portion of the Mount, combined with a three-tiered defense of lower-tier abatis, middle-tier batteries, and top-tier blockhouses provided a formidable defense. As such, the Americans chose to avoid a direct attack on the Mount with the objective of taking it over.
Instead, Colonel Samuel Johnson was ordered to take a detachment of troops to the Mount to attack its works if the opportunity presented itself, but otherwise to keep the soldiers engaged and in place as part of a larger series of actions in the Ticonderoga – Lake George area. On the morning of September 18, Johnson’s detachment attacked a British picket approximately 2500 feet south of Mount Independence on the Hubbardton Road. Afterward, they quickly moved through the woods toward Mount Independence. They attempted to overtake the second and third batteries (manned by Hessian mercenaries and the 53rd British regiment respectively), but heavy cannon fire from the batteries and grapeshot fired by the frigates Maria and Carlton moored just south of the Mount in the lake eventually repelled them.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the lake, Colonel Brown had several quick successes achieved through the element of surprise. These included the capture of the defenses on Sugar Hill (Mount Defiance), the capture of 293 soldiers and their arms, a total of 150 bateau between Lake George and Champlain, one armed sloop, seventeen gunboats, several cannons and ammunition, and provisions. In addition, they released 100 American prisoners. After this initial surprise attack, the Americans on both sides of Lake Champlain stalemated with their British and Hessian adversaries for five days. On several evenings, Johnson’s detachment engaged primarily with the second and third batteries on the Mount, causing them to expel a great deal of rifle and cannon fire, but no ground was won. Finally, late in the evening of September 23, the Americans on both sides of the lake slipped away.
Although these later engagements were considered by earlier generations of researchers to be largely ineffectual, a review of the available documents and other recent research indicates that they were very successful indeed. They harried the British significantly, destroyed important equipment, cannons, infrastructure, and released many prisoners. Perhaps most notably, however, they released all the livestock in the area and otherwise appropriated stores of provisions from the British. In the subsequent months, the lack of provisions on the Mount and Ticonderoga would be a prove to be a significant impediment to the fighting ability of the British.
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