Intelligence Throughout History: The Capture of Fort Ticonderoga, 1775
The Intelligence Community today draws wisdom and inspiration from the past. The following article is the second in a series showcasing exceptional intelligence stories from history. This article focuses on the capture of Fort Ticonderoga.
* * * * *
The capture of Fort Ticonderoga, New York, was an early example of how skillful initial use of intelligence could contribute to successful military campaigns for months and years afterward. In this instance, good scouting and bold steps by the Americans, together with poor situational awareness on the part of the British, combined in a tactical victory with great strategic implications.
Fort Ticonderoga’s Importance
Fort Ticonderoga formed a major French strongpoint during the French and Indian War (1756-1763). While it never fell to British forces, it was surrendered upon the French defeat. From then on, Fort Ticonderoga was manned by a skeleton British garrison and soon fell into disrepair. By the time of the outbreak of the Revolutionary War in 1775, Ticonderoga was all but forgotten.
Ticonderoga sat astride the inland water route linking New York City and Canada, making it a vital strategic supply and communications link. Patriot forces had clashed with British regulars at Concord and Lexington, Massachusetts, in April 1775, and had considerable interest in the fort's armaments and location. In addition, according to intelligence gathered by Patriot sympathizers, the fort still contained munitions and artillery badly need by the fledgling American Continental Army.
Mission to Capture the Fort
An expedition of 400 men under Benedict Arnold was soon mounted to capture the fort. Arnold, given a colonel's commission by the Massachusetts Committee of Safety, soon rendezvoused with Ethan Allen, who commanded a Vermont militia force known as the Green Mountain Boys. Allen, also elected a colonel, entered into a shared command agreement with Arnold after his Green Mountain Boys protested serving under a man who hailed from outside Vermont.
By 2 a.m. on May 10, 1775, the American force had assembled on the shores of Lake Champlain opposite Fort Ticonderoga. Scouting units had gathered sufficient intelligence to determine that the garrison consisted of only 42 men, wholly unaware of the approaching Patriot force.
The same scouts had also noted, however, that only two boats were available to transport the attacking force across the lake. With so few boats available, Arnold and Allen divided their men and decided to cross in turn. They piled 83 men into the two boats and successfully crossed the lake unheard or observed. Yet as dawn approached, concerns arose to the possibility of alarming the sleeping garrison as the Patriot forces continued to shuttle across Lake Champlain. Fearful of losing the element of surprise, the Americans attacked Ticonderoga's south gate, manned by a single British sentry. The attackers roused the fort commander from his bed, and Arnold reputedly demanded the fort's surrender "in the name of the great Jehovah and the Continental Congress." The fort fell without casualties and without a shot being fired.
Immediate and Future Impact
The victory at Fort Ticonderoga emboldened Patriot spirits as news spread throughout the 13 colonies. In addition, the fort served as a base for the subsequent capture of Fort Crown Point further to the north and as a bridgehead for Arnold's army then preparing to invade British Canada.
Most important, however, the artillery and munitions alleviated the Continental Army's immediate need for heavier weapons. Indeed, its 43 cannons and 16 mortars were soon dragged over the Adirondack Mountains and delivered to Gen. Henry Knox who used them against British forces in Boston. Positioned on Dorchester Heights, then outside the city, the Ticonderoga artillery in Patriot hands soon made a continued British presence in Boston impossible, forcing their retreat in March 1776 to Halifax, Nova Scotia.
The early capture of this strategic fort had an impact years later. Due to the loss of Ticonderoga, the route between the British forces in Canada and those in New York City was severed, forcing the British to reform their command structure by splitting Canadian and American commands. Later, the difficulties and failures of these separated commands to coordinate their efforts proved crucial to the American victory at Saratoga in 1777.
Related Links and Stories: