The American Revolution on Lake Champlain
The Lake Champlain and Upper Hudson River valley corridor from Albany, New York and throughout the Lake Champlain watershed to Canada played a major role in the 1776-77 Northern Campaign of the American Revolution. Many of the places where history was made have been preserved for the public to visit and enjoy.
In Vermont, Historic Sites not to be Missed
• Mount Independence in Orwell -one of the largest American defenses built during the Revolution and the best preserved Revolutionary War archaeological site today;
• Hubbardton Battlefield in Hubbardton -site of only Revolutionary War battle fought in Vermont and one of America’s best preserved battlefield in its original setting;
• Bennington Battle Monument in Bennington -on the location of the American supply arsenal that inspired the Battle of Bennington and also the tallest structure in Vermont,
• Old Constitution House in Windsor -site of the ratification of the 1777 constitution for the Republic of Vermont the day after the Battle of Hubbardton; and
• Chimney Point in Addison -where Americans, British, and Germans camped or had supply depots during the war.
History can be found not only on and below land, but also beneath the waters of Lake Champlain. For the war’s Lake Champlain maritime history, visit the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Ferrisburgh, Vermont, and the Skenesborough Museum and Heritage Area Visitor Center in Whitehall, NY.
War Arrives to Lake Champlain
The chain of Lake Champlain, Lake George, and the Hudson River, valued for its natural resources, has been a major north-south traffic and trade corridor since the first inhabitants arrived over 9,000 years ago. Lake Champlain, which flows north from Skenesborough (renamed Whitehall in1786), New York to the Province of Quebec, Canada had enormous strategic value, and providing easy travel with ample visibility as it was contained by heights of land at each end.
1775 -The Revolutionary War between American colonists and the British arrived to the Champlain Valley. On May 10th Americans, led by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold, captured Fort Ticonderoga (built in 1755 by the French) on the New York side of the lake Col. Seth Warner captured the British fort at Crown Point, New York. These efforts temporarily eliminated the British presence on Lake Champlain.
In August the Continental Congress authorized an American army attack on British-held Canada, hoping to make it the fourteenth colony. That campaign failed. In June and July 1776, the demoralized American Army of the Northern Department retreated southward on Lake Champlain, stopping first at Crown Point. Those people sick with small pox were sent over to Chimney Point immediately across the lake.
1776 - At a Council of War on July 7, 1776, the American generals resolved to “retire immediately to the strong ground on the east side of the Lake, opposite to Ticonderoga.” Col. John Trumbull of Connecticut praised the site’s attributes: “At the northern point, it ran low into the lake, offering a good landing place; from thence the land rose to an almost level plateau, elevated from fifty to seventy-five feet above the lake, and surrounded, on three sides, by a natural wall of rock, every where steep, and sometimes an absolute precipice sinking to the lake. On the fourth and eastern side of the position ran a morass and deep creek at the foot of the rock.”
Nine days later on July 16, 1776, Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates wrote that “the possession of every thing here depends upon keeping the Command of the Water.” The Americans could accomplish this stand by repairing Fort Ticonderoga and building a new defense on what would be the Vermont side of the lake. Lt. Col. Jeduthan Baldwin of Massachusetts, later promoted to Colonel, was the chief engineer of the new defenses. In July 1776, 4,000 to 5,000 soldiers began work. A copy of the new Declaration of Independence was sent to the Americans, and on July 28th it was read to the assembled troops. After that, Rattlesnake Hill, in what would become Vermont, was renamed Mount Independence.
A New Military Road
On September 7, 1776, Gen. Horatio Gates ordered the construction of a new military road to connect Mount Independence to Hubbardton, Rutland, and Fort No. 4 in New Hampshire. Gates called the road “Essential to the Interest of the United States” and “the safety and protection of the inhabitants of all the Middle States of this Union.” The road was very rough and narrow, and was used by soldiers traveling to the Mount and suppliers sending military stores for the new fort.
American Shipbuilding & Battle of Valcour Island
At the same time the New Military Road was in construction, Gen. Benedict Arnold directed an American shipbuilding program 25 miles to the south, at the head of Lake Champlain in Skenesborough (Whitehall), New York to defend the lake against British warships. Between June and September, ship carpenters launched 12 vessels to engage the British under Gen. Guy Carleton to the north at the Battle of Valcour on October 11th. Although the Americans were defeated, many soldiers made a daring escape, slipping away from the British fleet.
Guy Carleton Turns Back
On October 28, 1776, Carleton and his British fleet of five major vessels and 28 gunboats approached Mount Independence and Fort Ticonderoga, after having struggled with three weeks of strong headwinds. The narrows were protected on each side by nearly 14,000 soldiers and bristling cannon batteries, a formidable sight. Carleton, feeling winter drawing near and not prepared with the appropriate supplies, decided to turn back to Canada. British invasion was delayed for another year.
1777 - The British Are Coming
Roughly 3,000 soldiers remained over the difficult winter of 1776-77. In the spring of 1777 the Americans began building up their numbers and supplies, as they knew the British would try again. On February 28th the soldiers began hauling logs for a substantial new bridge and boom between “Independent point” and Ticonderoga.
British Lt. Gen. John Burgoyne sailed south on Lake Champlain in June. This was part of his three-prong attack to split off New England from the rest of the American states, deploying other British to move east on the Mohawk River Valley and north up the Hudson River, with everyone meeting in Albany, New York.
Mount Independence and Fort Ticonderoga were seriously undermanned. The now 4,000 Americans worked feverishly, strengthening their vast defenses and recruiting more reinforcements. The Polish military engineer, and later a great patriot, Thaddeus Kosciusko, arrived to assist Baldwin. Kosciusko worked with a large contingent of men to build the three southern defenses on Mount Independence.
In late June the British had made it to Crown Point, with their German allies camping across the lake at Chimney Point at the site of a guarded supply depot established by Burgoyne. On June 30th, a large British detachment landed at Three Mile Point. With nearly 8,000 highly trained British and German soldiers ready to attack, the Americans were outnumbered two to one. St. Clair wrote, “The Scene thickens fast.”
On July 3rd the Americans repelled the British attempt at a minor attack on lines west of Ticonderoga. As the Americans celebrated the one-year anniversary of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, British engineer William Twiss discovered the flaw in the American defenses. Rugged Mount Defiance, immediately south of Fort Ticonderoga and across from Mount Independence, was undefended. “It was very commanding ground.” The British cut a road, hauled up two cannons, and placed troops atop the summit.
The Americans Withdraw
The next morning the Americans spotted the British artillerymen atop Mount Defiance. Col. Alexander Scammell of the 3rd New Hampshire Regiment called the predicament “a perfect mousetrap.” St. Clair convened his officers. They decided under the cover of darkness to evacuate Ticonderoga, cross the bridge, and then abandon Mount Independence.
The sick and weak went by boats loaded with supplies to the south end of the lake at Skenesborough, New York. The rest of the troops abandoned many supplies and marched southeast 30 miles to Castleton. By 4:00 a.m., as the British entered Fort Ticonderoga, most of the Americans moved out the south gate of Mount Independence protected by a small rear guard led by Col. Ebenezer Francis, while others boarded vessels to head southwards.
The main army marched southwest along the rough and narrow Mount Independence-Hubbardton Military Road.
The Battle of Hubbardton
On July 6th General St. Clair and his exhausted men marched over 20 miles to reach the hills of Hubbardton. There, St. Clair created a larger rear guard of 1,000 to 1,200 men under the overall leadership of Col. Seth Warner to protect the main army as they continued their withdrawal.
Col. Warner had recently traveled the military road to get to Mount Independence, and had immediate knowledge of the strategic attributes of the Hubbardton landscape. He was assisted by Col. Ebenezer Francis of Massachusetts and Col. Nathan Hale from New Hampshire. The rear guard included men from the Green Mountain Boy Continental regiment, some militia, some men from the Massachusetts Continental regiment, some of the 2nd New Hampshire Continental Regiments, stragglers that had gotten separated from other regiments, and some soldiers suffering illness. The advancing British were seasoned Regulars, well-trained and well-equipped.
A standard military security strategy, the role of rear guards is to engage the enemy, delay their pursuit, and force them to deploy all their troops and efforts in action with the rear guard. Close combat is to be avoided, if possible, and a withdrawal to safety as soon as possible is top priority.
The American rear guard made some preparations, including cutting down trees to delay the enemy at the top of what would be called Monument Hill, but being too exhausted to keep moving they camped for the night in the area of that hill.
At 5:00 a.m. July 7th, a day hot and humid in the extreme, American pickets spotted approaching British scouts and fired. By 6:30 a.m., the first British soldiers were on the scene; the Americans fired and the battle began. This was the first time Burgoyne’s men had met the resistance and bravery of Americans in battle. As the Americans consolidated their position, the British realized they needed reinforcements and sent word back to Major General Baron von Riedesel and his German Brunswick troops to join them.
By 8:30 a.m. von Riedesel arrived and attacked the American northern flank, which was about to trap the British. It was reported that the iron-nerved Warner was momentarily overcome by this turn of events. “He dropped down upon a log by which he stood and poured out a torrent of execrations upon the flying troops, but he instantly arose and in a most collected manner ordered his regiment to Manchester.” Fighting continued up the slopes of Pittsford Ridge mountain, over which much of the American rear guard withdrew as best they could.
The American rear guard had succeeded in their mission of delaying the British and allowing the main American army to continue their retreat. The British held the field, but their losses were so heavy they gave up chasing St. Clair. They concentrated on their wounded, bringing them and the American prisoners back to Mount Independence and Fort Ticonderoga.
Republic of Vermont
"A grand convention . . . to form a constitution for the state of Vermont" had convened on July 2nd in Elijah West’s Tavern (now Old Constitution House) in Windsor, Vermont. News of the alarming events of the American withdrawal from Mount Independence and Fort Ticonderoga, and the Battle of Hubbardton, reached the delegates on July 8th, likely from soldiers heading home. Delegates immediately wanted to head for their homes. A violent thunderstorm broke out, delaying them long enough so that the Constitution could be voted on and accepted amidst a "baptism of thunder, lightning and rain." (Vermont existed as a Republic for fourteen years until 1791 when it was admitted to the Union as the fourteenth state, the first after the original thirteen.)
Beginning of the End
The Battle of Hubbardton was the beginning of the end for Burgoyne and his great military plan. Burgoyne slowly made his way southward down the Lake Champlain-Hudson River corridor towards Albany, New York, hacking through the woods and obstacles set up by the Americans, and getting further and further away from his supplies that had come from Canada.
Battle of Bennington
In August Burgoyne found himself in desperate need of provisions, wagons, cattle, and horses. He decided to send an expeditionary force to an American arsenal in Bennington, Vermont, to capture much needed supplies. Brigadier General John Stark led American forces to meet the British army and its Canadian, Native American, and Loyalist supporters. On August 16th, the British suffered a stunning loss.
Shortly after Burgoyne wrote about the people of Vermont as “the most active and most rebellious race on the continent” and that they were hanging “like a gathering storm” on his left.
On October 17, 1777, Burgoyne surrendered with his entire army after the battles of Saratoga, in New York, a major turning point in the American Revolution. The British and Germans left at Mount Independence and Fort Ticonderoga realized they were at risk and had to decide whether to stay or return to Canada. After packing up everything of use, on November 8th they evacuated, first setting fire to all the buildings, and making useless the rest of the defensive works. There continued to be unrest, British-led Indian raids, scouting parties, and conflicts along Lake Champlain and across Vermont for the rest of the war. On September 3, 1783, the Treaty of Paris was signed, and the Revolutionary War was over. Vermont was at peace, and settlement began anew.
|1775||Americans capture Crown Point and Fort Ticonderoga from British.|
Americans begin construction of Mount Independence in Orwell.
British Gen. John Burgoyne invades Lake Champlain, takes Crown.
|1783||American Revolution ends.|
|1784||American settlement of Vermont resumes.|