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American Revolutionary War Battles

The Battle of Fort Ticonderago (Second)

July 2-6, 1777 at Fort Ticonderago, New York

Battle Summary

Fort Ticonderoga map

Fort Ticonderoga map

Lieutenant General John Burgoyne's 8,000-man British army occupied high ground above Fort Ticonderoga, and nearly surrounded the defenses. These movements precipitated the occupying Continental Army, an under-strength force of 3,000 men, under the command of Major General Arthur St. Clair. They were forced to withdraw from Fort Ticonderoga and the surrounding defenses. Some gunfire was exchanged, and there were some casualties, but there was no formal siege and no pitched battle.

On July 6, Burgoyne's army occupied Fort Ticonderoga and Mount Independence, the extensive fortifications on the Vermont side of the lake, without opposition. Advance units pursued the retreating Americans.

The uncontested surrender of Fort 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. St. Clair and his superior, Major 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 Major General Horatio Gates by the time of the court martial, and St. Clair held no more field commands for the remainder of the war.

Facts about the Battle of Fort Ticonderago (Second)

  • Armies - American Forces was commanded by Gen. Authur St. Clair and consisted of about 3,000 Soldiers. British Forces was commanded by Lt. Gen. John Burgoyne and consisted of about 7,000 Soldiers and about 800 Indians and Canadian militia..
  • Casualties - American casualties were estimated to be 7 killed and 11 wounded. British casualties was approximately 5 killed or wounded.
  • Outcome - The result of the battle was a British victory. The battle was part of the Saratoga Campaign 1777.
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Prelude

A height called Sugar Loaf (now known as Mount Defiance) overlooked both Ticonderoga and Mount Independence. It was known that if  large cannons were to be placed on that height, it would make the fort impossible to defend. This tactical problem had been pointed out by Gen. John Trumbull when Gates was in command.

It was believed to be impossible for the British to place cannons on the heights. Trumbull, Colonel Anthony Wayne, and an injured Major General Benedict Arnold all climbed to the top of Sugar Loaf and noted that gun carriages could probably be dragged up.

The lack of defense of Sugar Loaf was complicated by the widespread perception that Fort Ticonderoga, with a reputation as the "Gibraltar of the North", had to be held. Neither abandoning the fort nor garrisoning it with a small force (sufficient to respond to a feint but not to an attack in strength) was viewed as a politically viable option.

Defending the fort and the associated outer works would require all the troops currently there, leaving none to defend Sugar Loaf. Furthermore, General George Washington and the Congress were of the opinion that Burgoyne, who was known to be in Quebec, was more likely to strike from the south, moving his troops by sea to New York City.

On June 20, following the war council, Schuyler ordered St. Clair to hold out as long as he could, and to avoid having his avenues of retreat cut off. Schuyler took command of a reserve force of 700 at Albany, and Washington ordered four regiments to be held in readiness at Peekskill, further down the Hudson River.

Battle Begins

Map of the Battle of Fort Ticonderoga

Map of the Battle of Fort Ticonderoga

On July 1, St. Clair was still unaware of the full strength of Burgoyne's army, which lay just 4 miles away. Burgoyne had deployed Fraser's advance force and right column on the west side of the lake, hoping to cut off the defenses at Mount Hope. Riedesel and the German column were deployed on the east side of the lake, where their objective was Mount Independence and the road to Hubbardton. Burgoyne gave the order to advance on July 2.

On July 2, in the morning, St. Clair decided to withdraw the men occupying the post at Mount Hope, which was exposed and subject to capture. The detachment there set fire to the works and retreated, getting away not long before the arrival of Burgoyne's advance guard.

That afternoon, a company of British soldiers and Indians came toward those lines, and opened fire. St. Clair ordered his men to hold their fire until the enemy was closer, but James Wilkinson fired at a British soldier, spurring the untrained defenders to follow suit.

The British began to start clearing and building gun emplacements on top of Sugar Loaf working carefully to avoid notice by the Americans. They spent several days drawing some of their larger guns up the slope. Burgoyne's objective was to spring the trap only when Riedesel's Germans were in position to cut off the American retreat.

On July 3, Brigadier General Simon Fraser's advance forces occupied Mount Hope. Burgoyne ordered some of the scouts and Indians over to the east side of the lake for reconnaissance ahead of the German column, and brought some of the Germans over to the west side. Some of the British camp was placed close enough to the American lines that they were harassed by gunfire. This did not prevent the British from making repairs to the bridges on the portage road between Ticonderoga and Lake George. British engineers discovered the strategic position of Sugar Loaf, and realized that the American withdrawal from Mount Hope gave them access to it.

On July 4, the Americans held a quiet celebration with some toasts to commemorate the previous year's Declaration of Independence. That night the British lost their element of surprise when some Indians lit fires on Sugar Loaf, alerting the Americans to their presence there.

Capture of Fort Ticonderoga

Capture of Fort Ticonderoga

On July 5, St. Clair held a war council that morning in which the decision was made to retreat. Since their position was completely exposed, they delayed departure until nightfall, when their movements would be concealed. In a conversation with one of his quartermasters, St. Clair observed that he could "save his character and lose the army" by holding the fort, or "save the army and lose his character" if he retreated, giving a clear indication of the political reaction he was expecting to his decision.

All possible armaments, as well as invalids, camp followers, and supplies were loaded onto a fleet of more than 200 boats that began to move up the lake toward Skenesboro, accompanied by Colonel Pierse Long's regiment. Owing to a shortage of boats, four invalids were left behind, as were the very largest cannons and a variety of supplies, everything from tents to cattle.

The rest of the army crossed to Mount Independence and headed down the Hubbardton road, which Riedesel's forces had not yet reached. 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, the British occupied the Fort Ticonderoga without firing a single shot. Detachments from Fraser's and Riedesel's troops set out in pursuit of the retreating American troops on the Hubbardton road, while Burgoyne hurried some of his troops up the lake toward Skenesboro.

Aftermath

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 overstrained 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.