You might guess Lexington? Or Concord? Actually, the first outright victory of the American Revolution was the capture of Fort Ticonderoga.
Over the weekend, my father, brother and I visited this fort, tucked away on a well-protected ridge of the Adirondack Mountains between the key waterways of Lake George, Lake Champlain, and the Hudson River. Fort Ticonderoga sits at the natural crossroads between Canada to the north, New England to the east, and the Hudson River and lower New York to the south. Here you see (via my low-tech cell phone footage) the same view that the American patriots who seized this fort would have looked out on centuries ago.
Because of its unique position, Fort Ticonderoga initially served as a crucial French stronghold in the earlier conflict of the French and Indian War. After several attempts and some clever strategizing, the British eventually won this outpost from their French foes and they still held this land in 1775, when it looked like tensions between the colonies and Great Britain were heading in the direction of armed conflict.
The Revolutionary War battle fought on this land holds specific interest for me for several reasons. First, it’s in my beloved upstate New York, where my siblings and I grew up visiting and pretending that we were characters out of a James Fennimore Cooper novel. But the second reason, and the reason why I wanted to return to this fort as an adult, is that this happens to be the first place where Benedict Arnold fought and won as an American patriot.
After the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Benedict Arnold became convinced of the absolute necessity of seizing Fort Ticonderoga – with its tactical location, its access to key waterways, and its large mass of cannons and artillery. The government of the Massachusetts Bay Colony agreed, and gave Arnold a commission of Colonel and the funds and permission to take a force of fighters to seize the fort. Unfortunately for Benedict Arnold, Ethan Allen and his militiamen from Vermont, the rough band of informal fighters known as the Green Mountain Boys, had already made their own plans to seize Ticonderoga. Allen and Arnold – both intending to lead the campaign to capture the fort – forged an uneasy alliance that began to fray almost as soon as it started.
At dawn on May 10, 1775, Arnold, Allen, and a band of just over 80 men sailed across Lake Champlain and descended on Fort Ticonderoga, forcing their way past a startled sentry and surprising the British troops in their beds. No one was killed, and the British commander surrendered the fort and – perhaps most importantly – the fort’s ample supplies of cannons. It was with this heavy artillery that the colonials were eventually able to break the siege of Boston and drive the British from that city.
Of note during the Battle of Fort Ticonderoga: Benedict Arnold played one of the (if not the) pivotal roles in this early campaign, yet most people do not know that. Additionally, after the fort changed hands to the colonials, Ethan Allen’s men plundered and raided the fort like a band of rowdy fraternity brothers – getting drunk on the British liquor and shirking their primary mission, which was to transfer the fort’s artillery to Boston. Benedict Arnold alone tried to stop this looting and keep the men focused. So vehemently did he try to restore order, in fact, that several of Allen’s drunken men actually pulled their weapons and threatened to shoot the outraged Arnold.
And finally – following this campaign, Arnold kept this region free of the British, defending Lake Champlain from an attempted invasion sent down from Canada to end the nascent American Revolution.
This is the first in many instances in which you see Benedict Arnold serving the colonies nobly, with very little recognition to show for it.