Arthur St. Clair’s Decision to Abandon Fort Ticonderoga and Mount Independence

A view of Fort Ticonderoga from Mount Defiance. (Flickr | Slabcity Gang)
Caption: Fortifications at Ticonderoga and Mount Independence, based on a map by engineer Thaddeus Kosciuszko[1]
Click to enlarge. Fortifications at Ticonderoga and Mount Independence, based on a map by engineer Thaddeus Kosciuszko[1]
On the night of July 5-6, 1777, an American army under the command of Maj. Gen. Arthur St. Clair abruptly withdrew from the twin fortifications of Ticonderoga and Mount Independence, abandoning them (along with a massive quantity of supplies and ordnance) to an advancing British and German force from Canada under the command of L. Gen. John Burgoyne.  News of the loss of the “Gibraltar of the North” was met with shock and dismay by Americans supporting the Revolution.  George Washington expressed the prevailing sentiment in a letter to Philip Schuyler, St. Clair’s superior in command of the Northern Department:

The evacuation of Ticonderoga and Mount Independence is an event of chagrin and surprise not apprehended nor within the compass of my reasoning. I know not upon what principle it was founded …. This stroke is severe indeed, and has distressed us much.[2]

The shock and surprise were not confined to the American side.  A junior officer in the Riedesel Regiment wrote of what he observed as his company reconnoitered the fortifications shortly after the Americans fled:

We were astounded when we caught sight of the place. There was one earthwork after another, each rising above the previous one, eleven to twelve in number. On the beach there was also one trench after another, and [both] shores were studded with cannon … The artillery stretched all the way from the water’s edge right up to both the [stone] citadel and Fort Independence, one gun protruding above the other. The magazines – crammed with flour, meat, coffee, wine, porter beer, sugar, medicines, etc. – held stock in superabundance … If the enemy had made a truly determined effort to defend the post, we could not have taken it considering the fact that our army was too weak for the task of attacking so important a location. [3]

The American fortifications were formidable indeed.  The Ticonderoga Peninsula on the west side of Lake Champlain, and Mount Independence on the east, contained nearly three and a half miles of defensive works, studded with multiple artillery batteries with interlocking fields of fire, covering the landward approaches as well as the lake.  The two posts were connected across the lake by a floating bridge secured by twenty two massive wooden caissons and fronted by a log and chain boom designed to obstruct any attempt to penetrate the fortifications by water.  In short, the place was virtually impregnable.  How St. Clair came to his decision to abandon this strategic outpost, where so much treasure, and no small amount of blood,[4] had been invested, was and is more than a matter of idle curiosity; many have attempted to explain it, from the participants (on both sides) and their contemporaries, to subsequent generations of historians, making  the study of how the history was written a worthy subject for closer examination.  That story is one of competing tales, and of how one such tale came to be the prevailing one, with important consequences for our understanding of one of the Revolution’s critical moments.

THE BRITISH VERSION OF EVENTS

From the British perspective, the events leading to the American retreat were straightforward.[5]  On July 1, Burgoyne’s army of 7,000 men deployed on both shores of Lake Champlain at a point three miles north of Ticonderoga, having travelled there by water from Canada.  The eastern contingent, comprised of Britain’s German allies under the command of Baron von Riedesel, advanced southward with the objective of cutting off the landward approaches to Mount Independence.  At the same time, Burgoyne’s British troops on the western shore moved to seal off the line of communication between the Ticonderoga fortifications and Lake George, the principal conduit to the Hudson River and thence to Albany and beyond.  Over the next three days, the British force accomplished its objectives and began to construct artillery batteries overlooking the “French Lines” covering Ticonderoga, while Riedesel’s men built batteries on the eastern shore to effectively bracket the Ticonderoga peninsula as they slowly advanced through dense marshland towards Mount Independence.

At this point an event occurred which, in Burgoyne’s view, proved decisive:

July 5th  Lt. Twiss the commanding Engineer was ordered to reconnoiter Sugar Hill on the South west side of the Communication from Lake George into Lake Champlain. It had appear’d from the first to be a very advantageous post. And it is now known that the Enemy had a council some time ago upon the expediency of possessing it; but the Idea was rejected upon the Supposition that it was impossible for a Corps to be established there in force. Lt. Twiss reported this Hill to have the entire command of the Works and Buildings both of Ticonderoga and Mount Independence; that the ground might be levelled so as to receive cannon; and that a road to convey them, tho’ difficult, might be made practicable in twenty-four hours. This Hill also entirely commanded in reverse the Bridge of communication, saw the exact situation of the Vessels, nor could the enemy during the day make any material movement or preparation without being discovered, and even having their numbers counted. It was immediately determined that a battery should be raised upon Sugar Hill for light twenty-four Pounders, medium twelve’s, and eight inch Howitzers. This very arduous work was carried on so rapidly that the battery would have been ready the next day …[6]

As events transpired, the new battery never had the opportunity to open fire.  The British preparations on Sugar Hill were observed by the Americans, and in the early afternoon of July 5, 1777, St. Clair convened a council of war with his brigade commanders, who unanimously resolved to retreat that night. In the aftermath of St. Clair’s withdrawal, Burgoyne was convinced that his opponents had simply been outsmarted.  In a letter dated July 11, he observed:

The manner of taking up the ground at Ticonderoga convinces me that they have no men of military science. Without possessing Sugar Hill, from which I was proceeding to attack them, Ticonderoga is only what I once heard Montcalm expressed it to be – ‘une porte por un honnete homme de se deshonorer;’[7] they seem to have expended great treasure and the unwearied labour of more than a year to fortify, upon the supposition that we should only attack them upon the point where they were best prepared to resist.[8]

Thus, in Burgoyne’s view, once his artillerists had occupied Sugar Hill, the “weak link” in the Americans’ entire defensive position, St. Clair had no alternative but to conduct an ignominious retreat.  The Americans’ assessment was quite different, a point which has been obscured both by the passage of time and by subsequent generations of historians.

THE AMERICAN VERSION OF EVENTS

The American side of the story begins, as it necessarily must, with the written conclusions of the council of war called by St. Clair on July 5, attended by Maj.-Gen. St. Clair and his four brigade commanders:

General St. Clair represented to the Council, that there is every reason to believe that the batteries of the enemy are ready to open upon the Ticonderoga side, and that the camp is very much exposed to their fire, and to be enfiladed on all quarters; and as there is also reason to expect an attack upon Ticonderoga and Mount Independence at the same time, in which case neither could draw any support from the other; he desired their opinion, whether it would be most proper to remove the tents to the low ground, where they would be less exposed, and wait the attack at the Ticonderoga lines, or whether the whole of the troops should be drawn over to Mount Independence, the more effectually to provide for the defense of that post. At the same time the General begged leave to inform them that the whole of our force consisted of 2089 effectives, rank and file, including 124 artificers unarmed, besides the corps of artillery, and about 900 militia who have joined us, and cannot stay but a few days.

The Council were unanimously of opinion, that it is impossible with our force to defend Ticonderoga and Mount Independence, and that the troops, cannon and stores, should be removed this night, if possible, to Mount Independence.

Second. Whether, after the division of the army at Ticonderoga have retreated to Mount Independence, we shall be in a situation to defend that post; or, in case it cannot be defended, if a retreat into the country will be practicable.

The Council are unanimously of opinion, that, as the enemy have already nearly surrounded us, and there remains nothing more to invest us compleately but their occupying the neck of land betwixt the Lake and the East Creek, which is not more than three quarters of a mile over, and possessing themselves of the Narrows betwixt and Skeensborough, and thereby cutting off all communication with the country, a retreat ought to be undertaken as soon as possible, and that we shall be very fortunate to effect it.[9]

Although the questions put to the council were formulated by St. Clair, their structure was dictated by a council of war convened at Ticonderoga by Philip Schuyler, Commandant of the Northern Department and St. Clair’s immediate superior, just fifteen days earlier.  In that council, at which St. Clair and his general officers were all present, it had been determined that the available manpower was greatly insufficient to defend both Ticonderoga and Mount Independence, and that if the enemy arrived in force and it became necessary to evacuate one of the posts, the army was to withdraw from Ticonderoga and concentrate at Mount Independence.[10]  Significantly, St. Clair was only authorized to retreat from Mount Independence in the event there were insufficient provisions to feed the army until relief could arrive.[11]

Painting of Mount Independence and Ticonderoga by Ernie Haas. Used by permission of the Mount Independence Coalition. All rights reserved.
Painting of Mount Independence and Ticonderoga by Ernie Haas. Used by permission of the Mount Independence Coalition. All rights reserved.

Given the plan of action laid out by Schuyler, which expressly took into account the numerical inferiority of the garrison, the council’s decision to evacuate Ticonderoga is unsurprising and bound to have been made regardless of any particular actions taken by Burgoyne, other than that of making his appearance in the first place.  Therefore, the critical question relating to the decision to retreat is the second one posed by St. Clair: could Mount Independence be defended on its own under siege until relief could arrive?   St. Clair’s council did not address that question at all, in glaring contrast to the specific determination the council made to abandon Ticonderoga.  Applying Occam’s razor, we could infer that the most likely reason for the omission was that while the members of the council were in agreement on the necessity of abandoning Mount Independence, there was a lack of unanimity concerning the reasons for doing so.  The available evidence supports this conclusion.  Correspondence written in the immediate aftermath of the retreat reveals two independent rationales for taking the decision to retreat, neither of which was grounded upon the threat presented by the British battery on Sugar Hill.

In the weeks following the retreat, an anonymous letter by a “General Officer of the Northern Army” was submitted to The New York Gazette, offering an “apology” (e.g., explanation) for the abandonment of Ticonderoga.  The author, after pointing out that Burgoyne’s force outnumbered the American troops by more than two to one, described the situation that the Northern Army was in:

… two batteries were erected in front of our lines, on higher ground than ours, within half a mile; on our left, they had taken post on a very high hill overlooking all our works [Sugar Hill]; our right would have been commanded by their shipping and batteries they had erected on the other side of the lake, that our lines at Ticonderoga would have been of no service, and we must have inevitably abandoned them in a few days after their batteries opened, which would have been the next morning. We then should have been necessitated to retire to Fort Independence … we might have stayed at the Mount as long as our provisions would have supported us; we had flour for thirty days, and meat sufficient only for a week ….[12]

Similarly, a letter by Lt. Col. George Reid, written to his brother a few weeks after the retreat, asserted that due to the “battries on all quarters,” “in all probability we could not live on [the Ticonderoga] side any time, whether or not we might have stood a siege some time on the Mount I’m not alone to determine … it is very probable if we had Continued any considerable time longer without assistance we must have been made prisoners.”[13]

To summarize, the foregoing narrative, while expressly acknowledging the threat to Ticonderoga presented by the Sugar Hill battery, justified the abandonment of Mount Independence based upon a lack of provisions necessary to withstand a siege, in stark contrast to Burgoyne’s contention that his battery made the Mount Independence defenses as untenable as those at Ticonderoga.  Burgoyne’s contention is further undermined by the testimony at St. Clair’s court martial, reinforcing the conclusion that the Sugar Hill battery did not impact the Americans’ assessment of the viability of the Mount Independence defenses.[14]

Interestingly, St. Clair initially chose not to advance the central proposition of the foregoing account (the lack of provisions), thus muddying the waters considerably.  St. Clair claimed that he did not guide the council in its deliberations,[15] and while he agreed with its conclusions, he pointedly refused to adopt its rationale with respect to abandoning Mount Independence.  At his court martial, St. Clair asserted: “I have never pretended, for all this, that the want of provision obliged me to evacuate the posts ….”[16]  The fact was that St. Clair had concluded weeks earlier that Mount Independence could not be held on its own, putting himself on a collision course with his superior, Philip Schuyler.  On June 18, 1777, two days before Schuyler held his council of war, St. Clair addressed a letter to him, saying:

I am making some improvement upon the Mount, but that and the Ticonderoga side have such dependence upon, and connection with, each other, that in my opinion it will be very dangerous to give up either, and yet it is certain we cannot with our present numbers hold both.[17]

Schuyler acknowledged, while testifying at St. Clair’s court martial, that St. Clair had flatly told him that it would be impossible to hold Mount Independence if Ticonderoga were abandoned.[18]   Nevertheless, Schuyler refused to authorize a retreat (provided that adequate provision could be laid in before the British arrived), saying that the Continental Congress expected the post to be held.[19]

St. Clair defended his admitted disregard of Schuyler’s orders by addressing lengthy letters to Congress and General Washington in the immediate aftermath of the retreat, making the case that he had insufficient men and equipment to properly defend the extensive fortifications on both sides of the lake,[20] and he later called a parade of witnesses at his court martial to testify that a minimum of 10,000 men were required to hold the posts.[21]   That testimony, combined with a belated adoption by St. Clair of the “lack of provisions” argument (albeit based on rather dubious factual grounds),[22] ultimately resulted in St. Clair’s full acquittal by the court.

From St. Clair’s point of view, the critical point was that his army had been preserved to fight another day.  As he reported to Congress on July 14, 1777:

…I have made good a retreat from under the nose of an army at least four times their numbers, and have them now betwixt the enemy and the country, ready to act against them… [23]

St. Clair was vindicated when Burgoyne was eventually forced to surrender at Saratoga, at the hands of many of the same troops who had escaped three months earlier.  But historians have given St. Clair scant credit for executing a successful retreat, focusing instead on the disputed question of why he had felt compelled to do so.

HISTORIANS WEIGH IN

St. Clair’s acquittal brought an official end to the inquiry into the circumstances of the retreat, but the controversy continued as historians struggled to reconcile the conflicting narratives that it had spawned.  The stark differences between the British and American accounts presented significant challenges; in particular, Burgoyne’s assertion that the Americans were forced to abandon one of their most important posts due to the gross incompetence of their leaders was highly embarrassing, resulting in a temptation to alter the historical record which, as we shall see, some American historians eventually found themselves unable to resist.

The earliest accounts of the Revolution, from the American point of view, reflected the divergent opinions which had arisen in the aftermath of the retreat and at St. Clair’s court martial.   The viewpoint of the New Englanders is well represented in Mercy Otis Warren’s History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution, published in 1805.[24]  A redoubtable propagandist of the Revolution, Warren was an ardent detractor of St. Clair, whom she and her fellow New Englanders despised for his shameful action in abandoning the “Gibraltar of the North,” leaving New England exposed to Burgoyne’s depredations.  Describing him as “an officer always unfortunate, and in no instance ever distinguished for bravery or judgment,” Warren excoriated St. Clair for, on the one hand, hastily retreating with great loss of supplies and equipment when he had a healthy, recently reinforced and well supplied garrison, and on the other hand, for not retreating soon enough to minimize his losses.[25]

A far more charitable view of St. Clair can be found in Rev. William Gordon’s History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment, of the Independence of the United States of America, a four volume work published in 1788.[26]  Gordon closely followed the evidence adduced at St. Clair’s court martial,[27] but he deviated from the historical record in two significant (and not merely coincidental) ways.  First, Gordon dodged the question of whether there were sufficient provisions to withstand a siege, which had been the subject of extensive testimony and argument at the court martial.  Instead, he simply noted that St. Clair had determined to evacuate as a result of “Schuyler not having force sufficient at fort Edward to relieve him.”[28]  Second, Gordon claimed that St. Clair was well aware of the Sugar Hill vulnerability, which “had been discovered months before upon trial, when a cannon had been drawn up and fired from the top of it,” but due to the smallness of the garrison, he was unable to occupy it. [29]  Thus, without further elaboration, Gordon deftly disposed of two of the more troublesome issues with respect to St. Clair’s actions, taking the first steps to revise the American narrative concerning the retreat.

THE FOCUS SHIFTS

As Warren’s work demonstrated, long after the war’s end many, particularly in New England, were unwilling to accept St. Clair’s exoneration at his court martial, and the controversy lingered.  In 1817, James Wilkinson, St. Clair’s adjutant general at the time of the retreat, published a memoir of the Saratoga campaign containing a vigorous defense of St. Clair’s actions.[30]  Using his personal recollections, supplemented by direct quotations from primary sources, Wilkinson contended that it was obvious weeks before Burgoyne appeared on the scene that the situation of the garrison was hopeless if it had to face an enemy of any substantial force.[31]  Wilkinson’s arguments closely tracked those made by St. Clair at his court martial, but then he went further, citing British authorities to support his contention that the posts were indefensible.  After quoting directly from Burgoyne’s account concerning the decisive effect of artillery on Sugar Hill, Wilkinson opined:

Yet from the indolence natural to man, and his disposition to trust to appearances, this height had been previously neglected by the French, British, and American commanders … indeed such appears to have been the common error of the engineers in the early settlements of this continent, from Canada to Florida, from Michilimackinac to Natchez, and hence the principle, that a military commander should determine, never to trust to appearances or the judgment of any man, where it is practicable for him to examine and judge for himself.[32]

Wilkinson did not explicitly state that St. Clair decided to retreat as a direct result of the Sugar Hill debacle, but his critique opened the door to that conclusion, thus taking a crucial step towards adopting the British narrative and supplanting the original American one set forth in painstaking detail in correspondence and court martial testimony nearly forty years earlier.  This seismic shift in focus was reinforced in a memoir published in 1823[33] by James Thacher, a surgeon at Ticonderoga at the time of the retreat, who observed:

It must be universally conceded, that when the enemy had effected their great object by hoisting cannon from tree to tree, till they reached the summit of Sugar-loaf Hill, the situation of our garrison had become perilous in the extreme.[34] 

Thus, by the 1820’s, the temptation to accept Burgoyne’s superficially compelling and dramatic account of the reason for the retreat had proven to be irresistible to historians.  This prompted the emergence of remarkable new narratives from two people who were only tangentially connected to the event.

A MYTH EVOLVES

Once American historians began to accept the assertion that the failure to fortify Sugar Hill (by this time called Mount Defiance) was a grievous error that had made an ignominious retreat unavoidable, it was impossible to escape the question it begged: who was responsible for this egregious oversight?  That question undoubtedly put the spotlight on Schuyler, who was commander of the Northern Department for most of the year preceding the retreat, but it shown especially brightly on Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates, who had been in direct command of Ticonderoga and Mount Independence during most of the non-winter months of that period, and who would have been in the best position to recognize and to address the problem.  In the 1830’s, John Armstrong, Gates’ aide de camp at that time, felt compelled to come to Gates’ defense.

Writing to the renowned early American historian Jared Sparks,[35] Armstrong asserted that Gates, prior to being relieved of command in May, 1777, had  determined that Sugar Hill was the key to the entire defensive position at Ticonderoga and Mount Independence, and he had warned St. Clair and others of this fact.  Armstrong’s “documentation” of these facts consisted of two lengthy letters that he wrote to Sparks in 1831 and 1837.[36]

Charles Willson Peale's 1782 portrait of Gen. Arthur St. Clair. (Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia)
Charles Willson Peale’s 1782 portrait of Arthur St. Clair. (Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia)

In 1831, Armstrong described a letter written by Gates to St. Clair, specifically to inform him of “a certain high mound of earth [called] the Sugar Loaf the occupation of which decides the fate of your campaign ….”  In this letter, Gates allegedly states that he had thought of taking possession of the height when he commanded the garrison in 1776, but saw no necessity, because he had been advised that it would be impossible to carry heavy cannon up the sides.  Then (in what was evidently a forehead-slapping moment), Gates confessed to St. Clair his realization that lighter howitzers “could easily be carried up [and] would completely answer the purpose of driving off an enemy from either Ti or the Mount ….”  The letter was ostensibly written after Gates had arrived in Philadelphia following his relief from command of the Northern Department.  This would place it in mid-June, 1777, when Gates was haranguing the Continental Congress about its decision to replace him with Schuyler.[37] Interestingly, Gates’s written notes of his speech to Congress specifically make reference to the critical importance of maintaining the defense of a height of land covering the portage between Ticonderoga and Lake George – but Gates was referring to Mount Hope, not Sugar Hill.[38]

Six years later Armstrong  wrote another letter to Sparks, revealing that in the early spring of 1777 – prior to writing the June letter to St. Clair – Gates had ordered his engineer, Thaddeus Kosciuszko, to determine “whether Sugar Loaf hill could be made practicable to the ascent of guns of large caliber,” and that the latter found the hill “may, by the labor of strong fatigue parties, be so shaped as to permit the ascent of the heaviest cannon” and that “a battery so placed, from elevation and proximity, would completely cover the two forts, the bridge of communication and the adjoining boat harbor.”  Apparently, we are to believe that Gates chose not to convey this critical information to St. Clair in his June letter (favoring a discussion of howitzers instead), nor did he see fit to suggest that St. Clair discuss the matter with Kosciuszko, who was still at the posts and was now under St. Clair’s command.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kosciuszko’s detailed report to Gates dated May 1777 is silent on the question of Sugar Hill,[39] and in his testimony at St. Clair’s court martial, Kosciuszko said nothing about plans to fortify the hill or about any threat it might have posed to the Mount Independence defenses.[40]  To put it bluntly, in the absence of direct evidence in the form of original correspondence from Gates or Kosciuszko with respect to these matters, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Armstrong’s narrative was fabricated, years after the fact, to defend the reputation of his former boss.

In 1841, a new claimant to prescience concerning the Sugar Hill debacle emerged when John Trumbull, the noted Revolutionary era artist, published his autobiography.  Trumbull had served for a brief period as General Gates’ deputy adjutant-general in the summer and fall of 1776, as the ragged remains of an American army gathered at Ticonderoga and Mount Independence to make a stand after a disastrous retreat from Canada.  Trumbull had accompanied various officers as they inspected the terrain and determined the placement of defensive works, and he drew several maps of the fortifications in July and August as work progressed.  Trumbull claimed to have become very concerned about “a lofty eminence, called Mount Defiance” which he regarded “as completely overruling our entire position.”[41]  In a colorful account, Trumbull described his insistence on conducting experiments involving firing cannon from the northern end of Mount Independence and from a spot near Fort Ticonderoga, both aimed towards Mount Defiance, which demonstrated that artillery placed at the summit would be within range of the American fortifications.  When some officers insisted that the height was inaccessible to an enemy, he formed a party, consisting of himself, Gen. Benedict Arnold, Col. Anthony Wayne, and other officers, who climbed to the summit, where “it was obvious to all, that there could be no difficulty in driving up a loaded carriage.”[42]

Trumbull’s account states that, following these experiments, he devised a detailed plan to build a “small but strong post” at the top of Mount Defiance to be held by 500 men and 25 heavy guns, which “would be a more effectual and essentially a less expensive defense of this pass, than all our present extended lines.”[43]  Trumbull claimed that he sent his proposal to Gates, Schuyler, and Congress, but he was unable to produce a copy for his autobiography, having vainly searched for one among Gates’s and Schuyler’s papers.  Fortunately, according to Trumbull, he found among the papers of his father a drawing of the post that he had made in August, which “sufficiently explains and confirms all that has been said upon this subject.”[44]

The drawing to which Trumbull refers, a print of which is included in his autobiography,[45] depicts the Ticonderoga and Mount Independence fortification complex and immediately surrounding area, including Sugar Hill, to which is annotated:  “Mount Defiance, a very high Hill – supposed inaccessible for carriages,” followed by the words “Proposed Work” and a small fortification symbol.  The evidentiary value of this document as support for Trumbull’s claims is, however, substantially undermined (if not utterly demolished) by previous scholarship which has shown that the original version of the map used in Trumbull’s autobiography contained only the words “Very high Hill.  Inaccessible to Carriages.”[46]  Moreover, it does not appear that the term “Mount Defiance” was in use prior to the retreat.

Testimony at St. Clair’s court martial acknowledged that the issue of a Sugar Hill vulnerability was “in agitation” at the time Trumbull was at the posts,[47] and it is entirely possible that Trumbull was involved in, if not at the center of, those discussions.[48]  Nevertheless, the known evidence makes it highly unlikely that he had convinced other senior officers that placing artillery on Sugar Hill was feasible, as he claimed, or that he even believed so himself at the time.

Ultimately, regardless of their questionable veracity, the Armstrong and Trumbull accounts are non-sequiturs as far as the decision to retreat is concerned; they both presuppose a fact that has never been in evidence: that St. Clair’s decision to abandon Mount Independence was compelled by the Sugar Hill/Mount Defiance battery.  Nevertheless, the belief that St. Clair had no option but to retreat once he saw the British guns looming above him has become firmly embedded in American historiography.   In his magnum opus, the Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution, published in 1850, Benson J. Lossing drew upon the transcript of St. Clair’s court martial to describe the circumstances surrounding the retreat, but he made the Sugar Hill battery the centerpiece of his narrative,[49] and so it has been for historians ever since, with varying degrees of emphasis.

CONCLUSION

At this point, it is fair to ask: “why does any of this matter?” If St. Clair didn’t need Burgoyne’s Sugar Hill maneuver to convince him to retreat, the remainder of the historical record obviously demonstrates that St. Clair made the right decision, particularly in light of the subsequent surrender of Burgoyne’s army.  What else is there to discuss?  The “what else?”, as it happens, is a point that was emphatically made by St. Clair and many of his contemporaries in the aftermath of Burgoyne’s defeat, but which has been almost completely obscured by the controversy surrounding the decision to retreat and historians’ obsessive focus on Sugar Hill.  The point was that St. Clair’s army had escaped, against nearly impossible odds, thereby preserving the vital core of Continental troops that would make a decisive stand against Burgoyne at Saratoga three months later.

Perhaps because the evacuation was largely successful – despite some notable setbacks at Skenesborough and Hubbardton – historians have largely overlooked the circumstances surrounding the conduct of the retreat itself, and Burgoyne’s energetic attempts to prevent it.  The facts were that on the night of July 5 – 6, 1777, an American army of more than 4,000 men marched out from under the noses of a better trained and equipped enemy force nearly twice their number, a force determined to prevent their escape, much of which was encamped within a few hundred yards of the American lines, and which had a wonderful view from the top of Sugar Hill of the Americans activities on a moonlit night.  To accomplish this feat, St. Clair had to evacuate the bulk of his force, including a substantial contingent of poorly disciplined militia, via a rugged wilderness track so narrow that the men were obliged to march single file for the first several miles of it, a wilderness in which Burgoyne had more than 500 Indian allies available to harry them and a large German contingent capable of joining in the pursuit in short order.  The survival of St. Clair’s army under these circumstances was, as one might say, “a neat trick”.  And therein lies a story.

 

[1] The map of the fortifications at Ticonderoga and Mount Independence, edited by the author to reflect the movements of American and British/German forces from July 2 to 6, 1777, was prepared by engineer Thaddeus Kosciuszko and was used as an exhibit at the court martial of Arthur St. Clair in August 1778. The author is indebted to Ennis Duling, whose tireless efforts to dredge up primary source documents and early historical accounts of the retreat have made this analysis far more complete than it would otherwise have been.

[2] George Washington to Phillip Schuyler, July 15, 1777, The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741 – 1799.

[3] Thomas M. Barker, “The Battles of Saratoga and the Kinderhook Tea Party: The Campaign Diary of a Junior Officer in Baron Riedesel’s Musketeer Regiment in the 1777 British Invasion of New York,” The Hessians: Journal of the Johannes Schwalm Historical Association, 9:31.

[4] It has been estimated that casualties from disease and exposure as the fortifications were being built in 1776 and early 1777 numbered in the dozens, if not hundreds.

[5] See generally Douglas R. Cubbison, Burgoyne and the Saratoga Campaign, His Papers (The Arthur H. Clark Company, 2012), 51-64.

[6] Ibid., 59-60.

[7] “A means for an honest man to dishonor himself.”

[8]  Edward Barrington De Fonblanque, Political and Military Episodes in the Latter Half of the Eighteenth Century, Derived from the Life and Correspondence of the Right Hon. John Burgoyne, General, Statesman, Dramatist (London: MacMillan & Co., 1876), 247.

[9] “Proceedings of a General Court Martial, &c.”, Collections of the New-York Historical Society for the year 1880, the John Watts De Peyster Publication Fund Series, Volume  XIII (New York, Printed for the Society, 1881), 33-34.  Hereinafter cited as “St. Clair Court Martial.”

[10] Ibid., 24-25

[11] Ibid., 25.

[12] The Remembrancer; or, Impartial Repository of Public Events for the year 1777 (London: printed for J. Almon, 1778), 360.  The most likely author of this document is General Enoch Poor, brigade commander, who had been making written reports to General Gates concerning the state of the posts prior to St. Clair’s arrival.  At St. Clair’s court martial, Poor was asked no questions concerning the specifics of the deliberations of the council.

[13] “Letter from George Reid to Mr. Jn. Neysmith, From Moses Creek about 5 miles below Fort Edward 22nd July, 1777,” from the collection of Dr. Gary Milan.

[14] Lt. Col. James Livingston, an Aide de Camp to St. Clair, testified that the Sugar Hill battery “caused the greatest alarm to the garrison” because it had “an entire command of Ticonderoga” but with respect to Mount Independence, Livingston simply noted that it was soon to be cut off from supply.  St. Clair Court Martial, 116-117.  Colonel Kosciuszko, the esteemed military engineer who supervised the construction of a portion of the works at Ticonderoga and Mount Independence, acknowledged the establishment of the Sugar Hill battery immediately prior to the retreat, but then responded to a series of questions from St. Clair regarding the viability of the Mount Independence defenses without mentioning the battery at all.  Ibid., 59-61.  St. Clair only made reference to Sugar Hill once in his closing argument, in passing, remarking that the enemy’s possession of a “high hill on the opposite side of the Lake [from Mount Independence], from hence they could see our every movement” necessitated that the retreat be conducted at night.  Ibid., 151.

[15] “Letter from General St. Clair to John Hancock, President of Congress, Fort Edward, 14th July, 1777”, ibid., 74-75:  Inclosed you will find a copy of the council of war, in which is contained the principles upon which the retreat was undertaken.  As I found all the general officers so fully of opinion that it should be undertaken immediately, I forbore to mention to them many circumstances which might have influenced them, and which I should have laid before them had they been of different sentiments; for I was, and still am, so firmly convinced of the necessity as well as the propriety of it, that I believe I should have ventured upon it had they been every one against it. 

[16] St. Clair Court Martial, 162.  For a detailed analysis of St. Clair’s court martial, see Ron R. Morgan, “ ‘Shamefully abandoning the posts of Ticonderoga and Mount Independence, in his charge’ The Court Martial of Major General Arthur St. Clair and the Verdict of History”, http://035a6a2.netsolhost.com/wordpress1/historical-articles/reconsidering-the-retreat-from-mount-independence/ , accessed February 25, 2016.

[17] Ibid., 19.

[18] Ibid., 108.

[19] Ibid., 106.

[20] “General St. Clair to John Hancock, President of Congress, Fort Edward, 14th July, 1777”, ibid., 74-75; “General St. Clair to General Washington, Fort Edward, 17th July, 1777”, The St. Clair Papers (Cincinnati, Robert Clarke & Co., 1882),  1:429-433.

[21] Testimony of Major General Gates, 49-50; Testimony of Brigadier General Poor, 79; Testimony of Major General Schuyler, 103-106 (including an intriguingly  muddled retraction of his previous representations to Congress that a force of 2,000 to 3,000 men would be sufficient to hold Mount Independence); St. Clair Court Martial.  See also, Testimony of Colonel Kosciuszko, 58-61 (reflecting St. Clair’s efforts, with limited success, to establish via his engineer’s testimony that the Mount Independence defenses would be seriously compromised if the Ticonderoga peninsula was not held).

[22] The provisions situation was not as dire as portrayed in the “apology” published in The New York Gazette, or as St. Clair argued at his Court Martial.  Based upon the evidence, the supply of meat should have lasted at least thirty days, not merely a week to ten days, and there was sufficient flour for sixty days.  See Ron R. Morgan, supra., 36-41.

[23] St. Clair Court Martial, 75.

[24] Mercy Otis Warren, History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution, Vol. II (Boston, 1805),  https://archive.org/details/historyofrisepro01warr , accessed March 25, 2016.

[25] Ibid., 6-7. This was one of the specific charges brought against St. Clair at the court martial.

[26] William Gordon, The History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment, of the Independence of the United States of America: Including an Account of the Late War; and of the Thirteen Colonies, from Their Origin to That Period (London, 1788), https://archive.org/details/historyofrisepro03gordrich , accessed March 25, 2016.

[27] Ibid., Vol. II, 476-482.

[28]Ibid., 480.

[29] Ibid., 479 – 480.  Testimony given at St. Clair’s court martial contradicts this claim.  See note 47 infra.

[30] James Wilkinson, Memoirs of My Own Times, (Philadelphia, 1815), https://archive.org/details/memoirsofmyownti01wilk , accessed March 27, 2016.

[31] Ibid., Vol. I, 168 – 179. Wilkinson maintained that Schuyler and St. Clair both knew that a withdrawal was advisable when they convened the June 20 council of war, but that “they were governed more by respect for public opinion than their own understanding.”  Ibid., 176.

[32] Ibid., 192.

[33] Although Thacher structured his work as a military journal, it is generally accepted that the published version contains substantial post hoc material grafted on to a less detailed contemporaneous journal.  See, e.g., J.L. Bell, “The Harrison-Gerry Anecdote”, Boston 1775, February 29, 2012, http://boston1775.blogspot.com/search/label/Dr.%20James%20Thacher , accessed March 27, 2016.

[34] James Thacher, Military Journal of the American Revolution, 1775 – 1783 (an unabridged reprint)(Corner House Historical Publications, 1998), 85.

[35] Owner and editor of the highly regarded The North American Review and author of several multi-volume histories (including The Writings of George Washington), Sparks was a pioneer in collecting historical manuscript material and he corresponded extensively with Armstrong in the 1830’s.

[36] Papers of Jared Sparks, 1820 – 1861, 1866, Call No. UAI 15.886, Armstrong, John, 1758 – 1843, “A.L.s to Jared Sparks [Red Hook, December 4, 1831] (8 p.)”, Harvard University Archives at 2-4; Ibid. “A.L.s. to Jared Sparks [Red Hook, September 2, 1837] (7 p.) enclosing an account of Kosciuszko”.

[37] William Duer to Philip Schuyler, June 19, 1777 (relating that Gates had arrived in Philadelphia the day before) Letters of Delegates to Congress: Volume 7 May 1, 1777 – September 18, 1777, Library of Congress, American Memory, https://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/hlaw:@field(DOCID+@lit(dg007T000)):(4/7/2016).

[38] Ibid., Horatio Gates’ Notes for a Speech to Congress.

[39] Kosciuszko to Gates, May 18, 1777, Gates Papers, New York Historical Society (original in French).

[40] St. Clair Court Martial, 59-61.

[41] John Trumbull, Autobiography, Reminiscences and Letters, 1756 – 1841 (New York & London: Wiley & Putnam. New Haven: B.L. Hamlen, 1841), 2-16, 30-31, https://archive.org/details/autobiographyre00trumgoog , accessed April 17.

[42] Ibid., 31-32.

[43] Ibid., 32-33.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Online copies of Trumbull’s autobiography do not contain a complete copy of the map.  For copies of it and related maps drawn by Trumbull, see Joseph R. Frese, “A Trumbull Map of Fort Ticonderoga Rediscovered,” The Bulletin of the Fort Ticonderoga Museum, Vol. XIII June 1971, 129-136.

[46] Ibid., 135.

[47] Testimony of Lt. Col. Livingston, St. Clair Court Martial, 116: “to occupy that height with artillery … was judged to be impracticable.”

[48] An appendix to Trumbull’s autobiography contains the text of a letter to Trumbull dated November 13, 1837, from General Ebenezer Mattoon, former adjutant general of the Massachusetts militia, describing Mattoon’s recollection of personally observing Trumbull conducting the artillery experiment at Mount Independence, concluding:  “From this experiment, and subsequent facts, it was fully demonstrated that your opinion was correct and the posts untenable, for, when the enemy at length gained this height, we were actually driven from our encampment.”  Ibid., 306-307.  Mattoon’s analysis involves the same post hoc, ergo propter hoc reasoning employed by Burgoyne.

[49] Benjamin Lossing, Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution, Volume I, Chapter VI, (1850), at notes 16-25, https://archive.org/details/pictorialfieldb00lossgoog , accessed April 17, 2016.

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Arthur St. Clair’s Decision to Abandon Fort Ticonderoga and Mount Independence

On the night of July 5-6, 1777, an American army under the...
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14 Comments

  • Well done, Ron!

    Some comments to add as embellishment to your work: (1) On Sugar Hill, the Trumbull map in possession of Fordham University has the comment, “Very high Hill, Inaccessible to Carriages.”

    (2) There is a maxim of eighteenth-century military engineering that says for a proper defense one needs a man every four feet of perimeter. Mount Independence has a perimeter of around three miles (nearly 17,000 feet) so applying that maxim gives a figure of four thousand men. That figure is the maximum number of men estimated to have been at those two posts at the time of the retreat. Under the best of circumstances, St. Clair barely had enough men for the Mount let alone all the works at Ti. Putting a defensible post on Sugar Hill would have been a forlorn hope and likely only have delayed the inevitable.

    (3) My opinion here: Even if St. Clair had decided to remain and attempt to hold until relief arrived, the question remains as to how long it would have been before an army could get there. Although cries of agony came out of New England and New York brought on by Burgoyne’s threat to the region, it still took those states several weeks to reinforce the army on their retreat towards Albany. In fact, the relief did not appear until Gates took over at the end of August. I question whether significant numbers (remember, they are going after an army of several thousand professional soldiers) could have been formed and moved to the relief of Mount Independence at all let alone in a timely manner.

    • Thanks for those observations, Mike. Regarding the question of when a relief column might have arrived, Schuyler gave a considerable amount of testimony on the subject at St. Clair’s Court Martial, but St. Clair’s questioning of him was limited to whether relief could have arrived by mid-July (which dovetailed with St. Clair’s assertion that provisions were only sufficient for roughly two weeks). In my opinion, even if supplies were sufficient for roughly 30 days (which the evidence does appear to show), that gets the garrison to early August, but it is extremely unlikely that a sufficient force could have been organized to march to its relief by that time. As I recall, there were 3 or 4 Continental regiments at Peekskill being held in reserve, which were released north, but the militia were coming in from multiple directions, and logistical problems, as usual, bedeviled the effort. Schuyler was an excellent logistician, but I don’t think even he could have pulled it off in time. As things turned out, the Americans had to make enormous efforts to assemble an army at Stillwater, which was centrally located and on a major waterway (the Hudson); getting a substantial force to the Mount Independence area would have been far more difficult . The fact that Schuyler deliberately covered for St. Clair even though the latter had disobeyed his express orders speaks volumes, in my opinion.

      • There are a number of problems for the Americans raising a large relief force for the army in the Champlain valley. Perhaps the most significant is the huge army Howe had sitting in and around New York. Washington did not relish the thought of releasing any troops to march north as he already lacked adequate numbers to resist any significant moves Howe might make. Howe’s army also kept the southern New England militia at home for fear he might move into that region. A large number of the militia also had to be concerned with operating their farms and could not afford to leave home for an indefinite period. Failing to plant, mow, and/or harvest at the right time might well mean a very lean winter at the least. There is also the dislike the New Englanders had for Yorker Schuyler and Pennsylvanian St. Clair. Finally, St. Leger’s push from the west into the Mohawk River valley kept the New York troops occupied. Washington eventually sent two understrength regiments north but St. Clair still had to send men from his small force to support the few troops opposing St. Leger. The situation did not change until late August when St. Leger turned back, Howe sailed for Philadelphia, and Gates took over command. Only then did men start to move to reinforce the northern army and even then it took some weeks before significant numbers gathered around Saratoga. I suspect any effort to relieve St. Claire’s army in July would not have been very successful and the chances are quite high the result would have been the loss of several thousand men in addition to the “Gibraltar of the North.”

        Readers are sure getting a snootful of the war in the Champlain valley.

    • Interestingly, the Congressional Committee of Inquiry determined that supplies were sufficient for 30+ days, and their calculations were read into evidence at the court martial. One has to wonder why St. Clair didn’t ask Schuyler if he could have mounted a credible relief effort by that time, since if the answer was no, that would have brought an end to that issue and St. Clair wouldn’t have had to spend a lot of time in his closing argument addressing it (and not all that well, I might add). This at least suggests the possibility that Schuyler was unwilling to testify that a credible relief force couldn’t have arrived in 30 days, but the more likely possibility to me is that St. Clair was trying to bolster the view set forth in the “anonymous letter from a General officer” that there was only sufficient meat provision for 10 days. If St. Clair hadn’t endorsed that argument, he would have been essentially admitting that he had allowed his subordinates to be misled about the supply situation. This is a lot of “inside baseball”; anyone interested in the details should take a look at my article on the court martial.

    • “Under the best of circumstances, St. Clair barely had enough men for the Mount let alone all the works at Ti. Putting a defensible post on Sugar Hill would have been a forlorn hope and likely only have delayed the inevitable.”
      Perhaps…I would hazard a guess that the manpower to put a defensible post on Sugar Hill would be worth 2:1; meaning that yes, you feel you can’t spare troops, but in this case, each you spare is worth two anywhere else; taking into account the bounding over watch of well placed artillery there (which in fact, the British did just exactly that – “where a goat can go, a man can go”, to paraphrase) Secondly had that been looked into EARLY ENOUGH in the game, enough troops might have been procured to do it. It appears that early on, it wasn’t deemed important enough. Otherwise I’m guessing they would have done it. If the Americans had done it first, from the very beginning – just maybe the British couldn’t have gotten to it at all. “Firstest with the mostest”. Superior position in the field often outweighs numbers. Another way of looking at it: what happens IF YOU DONT FORTIFY Sugar Hill? Well…….

      • Available numbers aside, a problem with any position on Sugar Hill is its remoteness. Without constructing additional works to defend/limit access and connect it with the rest of the fortifications (requiring more troops), it stands alone and is unsupportable. In the case of July, 1777, the Americans had a major position on Mount Hope which sat about two miles from the summit of Sugar Hill and on the other side of the LaChute River. How do you provide aid to Sugar Hill if attacked?

        In actuality, even though closer to the rest of the army, the Americans abandoned Mount Hope once the British threatened encirclement. Any position on Sugar Hill would either have been abandoned at the same time or left to fare for itself. Two or three dozen men from Warner’s Regt. (I believe) easily captured the British position during Brown’s Raid.

        Further, developing Sugar Hill positions and access would have required considerable man-hours of work. The American army didn’t have enough men to complete constructing the works on Mount Independence and Ti let alone take on additional positions somewhere else.

        Lastly, neither the French nor the British put any works up there during the French & Indian War. They clearly didn’t think it worth the effort. I’d bet that if the Brits didn’t do it in 1777, this discussion would never have come up at any time in history let alone on this site.

  • Ron, great article and interesting comments and views by Mike.

    Theoretically, St. Clair’s other option would have been to hold out as long as possible and if no relief, then execute a breakout and fighting retreat. I suspect St. Clair considered this alternative and quickly dismissed it. The lack of good roads and stringing out his forces would have led to the disintegration of his forces.

    As you have corrected record, St Clair made the best of a bad situation!

    • Thanks Gene. I agree that a “break out” strategy would have been disastrous. As it was, the retreat option St. Clair actually chose had very low odds of success for the same reasons. If the British had been on their toes, the fact that the Germans hadn’t interdicted the Hubbardton road would have been irrelevant, since there is no way 4,000 men jammed into a miles long single file could have avoided being destroyed piecemeal by a pursuing force that hadn’t given them nearly a two hour head start.

      • I think you guys are being generous. Describing a break-out as disastrous is probably an understatement–it most likely would have been fatal. With the waterway controlled by Brit shipping, a force on the Mount has only one way out–the Hubbardton road across a relatively narrow neck of land. Burgoyne certainly would not have had his herd sitting idly by for however many weeks it took before the Americans made any move. Not having to worry about the Ti side, he would have had the majority of his force ensconced across that neck behind a deep line of fortifications that featured lots of artillery not of the little battalion-size 3- and 6-pounders but of 12s, 18s, and 24s. Any break-out attempt would have been butchered and damned.

        With regard to any American relief attempt, Burgoyne would have had the advantage of interior lines. He would have had a line of fortifications on the neck facing the other way and would have easily been able to move troops from one line to the other. Even a coordinated attack on both lines would have been dangerous at best.

        Assuming the Americans did break out, here are a couple points from the Brit perspective. For one, they viewed news of the actual retreat on night of July 5-6 as a potential trap and similarly would have had to be conscious of a potential ambush on the pursuit following a break-out. More importantly, any pursuit also had to follow the same cowpath and would not be able to bring any significant numbers into an action unless the Americans gave them the time to deploy as at Hubbardton. Lastly, most of the Americans didn’t exactly dawdle and set a quick pace on the retreat. It’s a safe assumption the same would be true for a break-out. The best the Brits could hope for would be to pick off stragglers at the end of the column.

        Bottom line in my mind: the Americans would have been destroyed in the break-out attempt, not later.

        • Excellent description of what a “breakout” scenario would have looked like, Mike. Regarding pursuit scenarios,I think much would have depended upon when the pursuit was initiated. The Hubbardton road, at the point it issues from the Mount and for the next several miles, is analogous to a single doorway to a crowded theater–no problem to go through while everyone is taking their time, but an effective barrier if everyone tries to leave at once. This is the classic “hemmed in” ground described by Sun Tzu. Had the British initiated an assault from the Ti side and advanced their gunboats and larger vessels* after the retreat maneuver was initiated, but before the bulk of the American forces had gotten off the Mount, that would have been the end of St. Clair’s army, as they would have either been overwhelmed in the panic to get off the Mount, or they would have scattered into the woods to be picked off by Burgoyne’s Indian allies. It would have been Paoli writ large. What made this scenario more likely the night of July 5 was Col. Fermoy’s ill-timed bonfire just as the retreat was getting under way, which illuminated the entire scene perfectly for the British, and presented them with a splendid opportunity to strike at the precise moment when much of the American militia was in the process of conducting a panicked rout. Instead, Brig. Gen. Fraser temporized and gave St. Clair a 2 hour head start, thus presenting the delayed pursuit problems you describe.

          *Burgoyne’s German allies had boats available, having just used them to embark most of the von Specht Brigade on the afternoon/evening of July 5, and could presumably have embarked for the Mount as well, as soon as the alarm went out. The wind was out of the north that night, so lake movement would have been relatively easy for the British.

  • I’ve done a bit of looking at the activities around and Mount and Ti from the Brit side which gives a bit of a different perspective then we are used to seeing.

    Regarding the Americans getting cut to pieces by the Indians, General Fraser had sent most of the Indians with Captain Fraser’s marksmen and some Canadians “round by the left.” This is the party that caused some consternation in Castleton and Hubbardton on the 6th and 7th. Very few Indians remained with Burgoyne at the time of the retreat.

    As for the delay in pursuing, Fraser writes that when he received word of the retreat, “at first I conceived it to be a Ruse to bring a corps of men within reach of Grape Shot.” He ordered his corps to form in their camp about 1700 yards from the French Lines but wait for orders while he took a few men and slowly moved into Ti. Once he verified the retreat, he sent word back for his corps to move forward. It would have taken a while for them to get to the bridge and then, once there, they had to get planks to repair the damage the Americans had done by cutting it loose on the Mount side. Fraser also writes that he had a difficult time getting his men organized for the pursuit due to quite a bit of looting going on.

    Brit shipping on the lake south of the Mount probably would have been a problem for the retreating Americans although they don’t seem to have had too much effect during Brown’s raid later in the fall. The fleet would have been delayed, however, by breaking through the boom and the bridge (as actually happened) which, in turn, would have cut off any Brit troops on the Mount from support and reinforcement. Not a good thing under normal circumstances but the Americans most likely would not have counter-attacked.

    On the east side, the Germans had landed on the 3d and most of them moved east and south in an attempt to cut the Hubbardton road. Only a few remained on the shore of Champlain and East Creek–probably not enough to be effectual in an assault.

    One last comment: the Brits do not mention Fermoy’s fire as an element in their discovery of the retreat. Deserters actually told Fraser about the move and that’s when he did his thing described earlier. Burgoyne learned of it from a messenger Fraser sent. Being built in the area of the 2d brigade camp on the south end of the Mount, I suspect the burning house would have been difficult for the Brits to see except for any men on Sugar Hill (it would take a long time for someone to get from there to Burgoyne on a ship where he spent the night). At best, most would have seen a glow in the sky and would not have been able to see men moving away. In addition, I seem to remember Fermoy torched his abode around 3:00 a.m. In July, that’s around the time of first light (remember, no daylight savings time in 1777).

    I’m having to dig deep into the foggy recesses of my mind for this discussion.

  • Without descending into a micro discussion here, there are British and German accounts that put the fire at sometime before 2 AM; there were discussions on the British side at that time about whether the Americans were leaving, but Fraser was unconvinced until deserters arrived a little over an hour later. As for visibility, Poor testified that by the light of the fire he could clearly see tents being taken down and troops assembling to march on the Mount from his viewpoint on the Ti side, which caused him to order the rear guard to retreat sooner than he had intended, which was when the deserters took off. German accounts report that the entire Specht brigade embarked on bateaux on the afternoon of July 5 to conduct a feint against the Mount, so they were definitely available for an assault. If the British had acted promptly, their shipping would not have had to pass the bridge to disrupt the proceedings, and an assault on the rear guard would have overwhelmed them before they could have torn up any of the bridge. The Americans had already spiked their artillery, and the militia were panicking and disrupting the entire order of march on the Mount. I’m pretty sure Fraser blew the call.

  • I don’t remember any Crown folks saying much about the fire, Ron. I’d love to see any source(s) you have that indicate otherwise. A couple American sources I can remember regarding the time of the fire are a comment by an American with the boats who says he saw it go up about daylight and an aide to St. Clair saying Fermoy torched it around 3:00. I did some checking and sunrise would have been shortly after 4:00 with first light around 2:00.

    Actually, I don’t think the time of the fire really matters here: the question in my mind is whether or not it had any influence on British decisions. They certainly considered a retreat as an American option but I am convinced the information and motivation to do something that morning came from the deserters, not the fire.

    As an aside, I try to visualize myself in the British positions a mile or better out in front of the American lines. You can’t even see the Mount from most of them.

    Activated by your comment, my synapses do recall Riedesel writing of a feint towards the Mount. As for an assault, with all the brigades almost constantly moving in an attempt to cut off retreat routes, planning and implementing a major infantry attack—let alone a coordinated land and naval assault—would have been nigh onto impossible without letting up on the pressure on the Americans.

    With regard to the rear guard leaving their posts early, lieut. col. George Reid wrote that they retired a little after daybreak. He goes on to say that they worked on tearing up and cutting free the Mount end of the bridge until Fraser’s men began their move. St. Clair’s aide says that the rear of the main body began to move off the Mount around 4:00 and only then did the rear guard march off following the column.

    Last thought: many of the things said about Fermoy by St. Clair, Poor, and others smack of an effort to place the blame for the confused retreat on foreigner Fermoy.

  • Mike, as this discussion is now taking us into ongoing research I am working on, I will take it up with you via e-mail. Thanks so much for these astute and thoughtful comments.

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