During the French and Indian Wars, control of Lake George could determine control of the North American continent.
During the War of Independence, not so much. The lake was a relatively placid place as veterans who had won land grants for service during the war with France took up residence and began to cultivate the hillsides. Barges rather than bateaux passed down the lake, winning barely a glance from the grazing cattle.
September, 1777 was the exception. For a few weeks at least, the sounds of guns, cannon and war cries disrupted the pastoral calm.
When the Americans evacuated Fort Ticonderoga in July, 1777, King George III is reported to have exclaimed, “I have beat them! I have beat all the Americans!”
Great Britain’s Northern Army would, of course, be defeated at Saratoga later that year in perhaps the single most decisive battle on North American soil before the Civil War, but at the time, King George’s assessment of events must have appeared sound, or at least not unreasonable.
After a miserable, pox-ridden winter at Fort Ticonderoga and Mount Independence, the Americans were out-numbered, ill-provisioned and out-matched by General John Burgoyne’s Germans and British regulars (including the 53rd Regiment of Foot, some of whose muskets have been recently acquired by Fort Ticonderoga).
Having decided not to fortify Mount Defiance, Fort Ticonderoga’s American commander awoke to find the Royal Artillery’s cannon trained on the peninsula below, and, it goes without saying, with his options considerably narrowed. Arthur St. Clair had little choice but to retreat.
By mid-September, Burgoyne was well on his way to Saratoga – and the troops and supplies he had left behind at Fort Ticonderoga were being threatened by Colonel John Brown.
According to Fort Ticonderoga’s curator, Matthew Keagle, Brown’s September raid on the fort and the surrounding area was part of a concerted effort “divide, divert, and harass” General Burgoyne’s supply lines from Canada.
“Brown’s raid was actually just one part of a three-pronged campaign; Brown was ordered by General Benjamin Lincoln of the Continental Army to lead one column to attack Ticonderoga, while another column under Colonel Samuel Johnson was to attack Mount Independence and a third, Whitehall, or Skenesbrough, as it was known at the time,” said Keagle.
According to Russell Bellico (author of several maritime and military histories of the region) “Lincoln’s objective was to provide a diversion at the rear of Burgoyne’s overextended supply lines, which ‘would oblige him to make heavy detachments… [to] cover his rear.’”
Brown was no stranger to Fort Ticonderoga, having helped Ethan Allen, Nathaniel Powers and others to engineer the first capture of Ticonderoga in 1775.
This time, he was joined by Continental regulars from Colonel Seth Warner’s Regiment, Vermont State Rangers and members of militia.
The raid began on September 18 with a pre-dawn attack on a British outpost at the foot of Lake George, which caught the garrison that occupied the lands surrounding the LaChute River totally by surprise.
Rushing down from Lake George, Brown’s men captured 330 British prisoners (including twelve officers) 150 bateaux (including below 17 gun boats and an armed sloop) and freed 118 American prisoners of war.
At roughly the same time, Bellico notes, Captain Ebenezer Allen and 40 Vermont State Rangers climbed Mount Defiance, overwhelmed a British unit stationed there and began firing cannon balls at the British.
“It was not Brown’s objective to seize and capture Fort Ticonderoga, although, because of his early successes, he did call on the Garrison to surrender, probably as a bluff. It was promptly rejected by the commander there, Brigadier General Powell. Powell stated, ‘The Garrison intrusted to my charge I shall defend to the last,’” said Matthew Keagle.
After four days of fighting, and upon the arrival of German re-enforcements, the Americans withdrew toward Lake George, leaving the fort in British hands but destroying supplies, livestock and boats along the way.
At the foot of the lake, Brown and his men boarded twenty boats, three of which were armed, and sailed toward Diamond Island, where Burgoyne had reportedly stashed supplies, baggage, artillery and, it was believed, gold.
After spending the night at Sabbath Day Point, writes Bellico, “The Americans rowed ‘as far as 12 Mile Island [perhaps Dome Island],’ landing in the evening.”
The Battle of Diamond Island, the only battle on Lake George during the War of Independence, took place on September 24.
According to Bellico, the island was fortified with six cannons and two gunboats and guarded by two companies of the 47th Regiment under Captain Thomas Aubrey, along with 90 German troops.
At nine o’clock on the morning of September 24, Brown “advanced with 3 armed Boats in front” and directed troops in 17 bateaux “to wing to the Right [west] and left [east] of [Diamond] Island to attempt a landing.”
Bellico continues, “Lemuel Roberts, attached to the Vermont Rangers, wrote that the armed vessels were deployed to cover the landing of the party on one side, while the bateaux were sent round to attempt a landing on the other part of the island.
“Forewarned by a sutler, Captain Aubrey’s troops were ready behind newly-constructed breastworks. The booming cannons from the island batteries dashed Brown’s hopes of victory.
“With longer-range artillery, more skilled gunners in a stationary position and the protection of the breastworks, Aubrey’s forces overwhelmed Brown’s little navy in less than two hours. The sloop, hit between ‘wind and water,’ had to be towed away and with ‘one of the Gun Boats also being Wounded and many other Boats shattered to Pieces,’ Brown decided to retreat.”
In what is now Warner Bay, Brown burned his boats, sunk the cannon and with his remaining forces, made his way to Skenesborough.
Fort Ticonderoga, 1780s
After Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga in October 1777, the British burned Fort Ticonderoga and its outlying defences and withdrew to the Canadian frontier, where many remained until 1789.
After 1777, according to Matthew Keagle, “Fort Ticonderoga served as a point of departure for refugees fleeing the United States; they were frequently picked up here by British vessels. In 1781, the fort itself was re-occupied for nearly two weeks by a force of roughly 1,000 British, German, and Loyalist soldiers, who began rebuilding part of the soldiers’ barracks and scouted as far south as the southern end of Lake George.”
Keagle will discuss events at Fort Ticonderoga in the 1780s this coming winter as part of the Fort’s annual off-season lecture series.
This article relied upon the research and writing of Matthew Keagle, Stuart Lilie and Russell Bellico.