In the weeks following the battles of Lexington and Concord, a stunned force of nine or so British regiments sat hold up in the town of Boston as a spontaneous army comprised of “country people” began fortifying and entrenching a semi-circle stretching from Roxbury to Chelsea. Centered at Cambridge, the patriot leadership comprised of men from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Rhode Island had the daunting task of trying to organize, direct, and most importantly, feed, the Americans massed around Boston. Luckily the British seemed content to remain bottled up; Lt Gen. Thomas Gage and his subordinates not eager to risk a frontal attack after the hard lesson of April 19 without reinforcement. The Americans, however, could not risk an assault either, so they settled on a siege. “The situation was a stalemate,” writes Christopher Ward, “Boston was blockaded on the land side, but it was not properly besieged.” A key factor hindering the American effort was a serious lack of ordinance – the patriots possessed “no more than a few large iron cannon, two or three mortars and howitzers.”
The situation was concerning, and so desperate were the patriots for cannon, that when a thirty-four year old captain of the Connecticut militia, named Benedict Arnold (yes, that Benedict Arnold), informed the Committee of Safety at Cambridge that the British fort at Ticonderoga, New York, held “eighty pieces of heavy cannon, twenty brass pieces, and a dozen large mortars,” he was instantly given a colonel’s commission and orders to raise a regiment, “not to exceed 400,” to take the fort.
But a funny thing happened while Arnold set out on his recruiting foray into western New England – someone else had also devised a plan to take Ticonderoga and had already set that plan in motion. That someone else was Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys.
In the 1760s and 1770s the region between New York and New Hampshire was claimed by both provinces. Settlers possessing land grants issued by the colonial governor of New Hampshire poured into the contested area, (alternately referred to as Vermont or the Hampshire Grants) only to be challenged by landowners from New York. The result was internecine warfare similar to the Pennsylvania-Maryland border conflict, North Carolina Regulator movement and Wyoming Valley conflict. Self-appointed enforcers of the Hampshire Grants, the Green Mountain Boys used vigilante violence to intimidate and resist New York settlers and officials. The man who emerged as their chieftain was a hulk of both physical presence and personality named Ethan Allen. In 1775, Allen was commissioned a colonel by the New Hampshire militia and ordered to take Ticonderoga.
Upon learning of the expedition being undertaken by the Green Mountain Boys, Arnold, who was disposed to arrogance and ambition, left his recruiting officers in Stockbridge, taking one manservant, and raced off to find his rivals, whom he caught up with just south of Ticonderoga in Castleton. Wearing his colonel’s uniform, complete with a bright scarlet coat, Benedict Arnold, who despite all his faults never lacked for bravery, presented his commission from the Committee of Safety and demanded to take command. The Green Mountain Boys were unimpressed. When the whole group met at the rendezvous point for the assault on Ticonderoga at Hand’s Cove, Allen was also unimpressed.
It must have made a sight, the tall, broad-shouldered Allen and the short, athletic Arnold – conceited hotheads both – arguing in the early morning darkness as to whose commission was superior. In Allen’s favor was the fact that the Green Mountain Boys would be led by none but their own officers, so the compromise that was reached was perhaps the best Arnold could have gotten: he was allowed to march beside Allen at the head of the attack.
In the pre-dawn hours of May 10, the force of two hundred waited for boats to cross Lake Champlain to Ticonderoga. Only two boats had been procured, this meant room for only eighty-three or eighty-five men (depending on the source). Not wanting to lose the element of surprise, Allen decided to proceed with this smaller force, the rest to serve as a rear-guard under Seth Warner, the second-in-command, would ferry over later. On the far shore, Allen formed the men in ranks and addressed them. In his narrative published years later, he related the speech:
Friends and fellow soldiers, you have, for a number of years past, been a scourge and terror to arbitrary power. Your valour has been famed abroad, and acknowledged, as appears by the advice and orders to me (from the General Assembly of Connecticut) to surprise and take the garrison now before us. I now propose to advance before you, and in person conduct you through the wicket gate; for we must this morning either quit our pretensions to valour, or possess ourselves of this fortress in a few minutes; and, in as much as it is a desperate attempt (which none but the bravest of men dare undertake), I do not urge it on any contrary to his will. You that will undertake voluntarily, poise your firelocks.
Others that day, according to Michael Bellesiles, recalled Allen’s words that morning were simply, “Let’s go.”
The plan was simple, storm the main entrance in the south wall. Fort Ticonderoga was a decaying, crumbling ruin as a result of years of neglect. Having featured significantly in the French and Indian War a generation earlier, by 1775 the fort was a backwater post with a skeleton garrison consisting a captain, lieutenant, some sergeants and about forty-four privates – most either old, sick, or both. The match was lopsided from the outset. The Americans rushed in, with Allen and Arnold trying to outpace each other to be first (Allen won). A single sentry tried to fire, but the night had been damp and rainy, and the musket merely flashed in the pan. He turned, running and raising the alarm, but the sleepy garrison was too surprised and gave in without a fight.
During the race into the fort, Allen had struck a second sentry with the flat of his sabre and demanded to be taken to the commanding officer. On a set of stairs leading from “the area of the fort” to the room of the commander, Captain William Delaplace, the patriots were met by the second-in-command, Lieutenant Jocelyn Feltham. The incredulous Feltham demanded to know the nature of “the rioters”, as he referred to them, who were their leaders and upon whose authority they had entered the fort. Allen is purported to have answered that his authority came “In the name of the Great Jehovah, and the Continental Congress” He then named his terms, that the British surrender “immediate possession of the fort and all the effects of George, the Third,” or all men, women, and children in the place would be massacred. Moments later, after realizing that his garrison had been caught sleeping, Captain Delaplace surrendered his sword. The Americans had taken the fort in a swift, and bloodless victory.
Ethan Allen at Ticonderoga, Percy Moran c. 1910
As a strategic site, Fort Ticonderoga had virtually no impact on the War of Independence, for either side. Stylized as the “key to the continent” and North America’s Gibraltar, the importance the fort was psychological. New Englanders, especially, regarded Ticonderoga as the anchor for the invasion route from Canada to New York City, but so too did the British, as evidenced by Burgoyne’s campaign of 1777. In reality, however, possession of Ticonderoga did nothing to aid the Americans in their attempt to conquer Canada in 1775-1776, any more than the subsequent loss of the fort helped the British in 1777.
The importance of Ticonderoga was in the success of the attack by the American militia close on the heels of the battles of Lexington and Concord. The fall of the fort helped fuel the rage militaire sweeping the colonies and emboldened ardent patriots, convincing them of the righteousness of their cause. More significantly, taking Ticonderoga so suddenly and completely, provided the American forces with vital guns and materiel necessary for building their make-shift army. Come the winter of 1775-1776, Henry Knox, who would become Washington’s chief artillerist, would precipitate the British withdrawal from Boston by moving the ordinance from Ticonderoga to Cambridge using sledges pulled by oxen over the snow. The addition of true siege guns to the entrenchments around Boston left the British with no choice but to abandon their position – moving the war into its next phase.
As for Ethan Allen, Ticonderoga would prove to be his finest moment of the war. After the failed attempt to take Quebec, Allen would spend several years in British captivity, about which he would later write. Elevated to the rank of colonel in the Continental Army, he would spend the remainder of the war in Vermont with little action. His co-commander, Benedict Arnold would prove himself as one of the best tactical generals in the Continental Army, earning deserved fame for his actions at the battles of Saratoga. All this, however, was changed on September 25, 1780, when Benedict Arnold became the most infamous man of the American Revolution – his name even now synonymous with the word “traitor.”
 Christopher Ward, The War of the Revolution, vol. I, 55-56
 Ward, 65
 Ethan Allen, A Narrative of Colonel Allen’s Captivity, Online: http://english.byu.edu/facultysyllabi/klawrence/allen.pdf
 Michael A. Bellesiles, Revolutionary Outlaws, 117