Book Review: Strong Ground: Mount Independence and the American Revolution by Donald H. Wickman and The Mount Independence Coalition (The Mount Independence Coalition, 2017)
During colonial times, both British and French settlers perceived Fort Ticonderoga as the most strategic fortification protecting the Northern frontier. On the shores of Lake Champlain in upstate New York, Fort Ticonderoga guarded the portage to Lake George and access to the European settled portions of the Hudson Valley. Much vaunted, many observers deemed Fort Ticonderoga as the “Gibraltar of the Americas.”
Just a quarter of a mile across the lake, however, is an equally strategic fortification, which during the American Revolution became known as Mt. Independence. Notably, Mt. Independence developed into the largest fortification built by the rebels and during a brief period in 1776, the fourth most populous city in the colonies. Despite the fortification’s size and prominent role, its contributions became overshadowed and obscured.
Subsequently, Fort Ticonderoga’s fabled reputation further swelled through the publication of hundreds of books. Conversely, there have been very few accounts written on Mt. Independence. Donald Wickman and The Mount Independence Coalition rectify this oversight with the publication of a new volume on the history of this critical site. Ten years in the making, this well-illustrated paperback tells an important story of military ingenuity, sacrifice, intestinal fortitude and courage. In many ways, the magnitude of the harsh conditions and suffering of those who served at Mt. Independence rival those of the main Continental Army at Valley Forge or Morristown.
Overlooked and underappreciated, the fortifications on Mt. Independence played a crucial role as the first line of defense in protecting the colonies from being cut in two by invading British forces. In 1776, when facing British invasion from Canada, rebel military commanders quickly recognized that Ft. Ticonderoga was principally designed to defend against an assault from the south. With northern approaches inadequately defended, rebel commanders ordered the construction of fortifications on a peninsula on the east banks of Lake Champlain across from Ft. Ticonderoga. The focus of the defensive works on Mt. Independence was to deny lake passage by British ships and to protect military roads connecting the area to sources of supplies and food should the Lake George portage be captured.
One of the few American-born military engineers, Lt. Col. Jeduthan Baldwin, first designed and constructed the fortifications on Mt. Independence. On the deforested promontory, Baldwin laid out shore batteries designed to deny ship passage up the lake as well as fortified fighting positions, a large hospital and living quarters. To move soldiers and supplies between the two posts, the rebels constructed a bridge over Lake Champlain. Later, Tadeusz Kościuszko, a Polish-Lithuanian military engineer, assisted in strengthening the fortifications by adding the south batteries to ward off a landside attack.
In the fall of 1776, British general Guy Carleton led an 8000 man army and navy to re-establish British control of Lake Champlain after its capture by the rebels in 1775. The British won a hard-fought naval battle against a rebel fleet commanded by Brig. Gen. Benedict Arnold at Valcour Island, near present day Plattsburgh, New York. This victory cleared the way for the British to move past Crown Point to the outskirts of the Mt. Independence/Ticonderoga complex. However, when encountering the strong fortifications manned by 14,000 men, Carleton retreated to Canada, as it was too late in the season to mount a siege, especially since he lacked sufficient artillery. This rebel victory secured the strategic Lake Champlain/Hudson Valley corridor for a year and gave the rebels a much-needed victory after their major losses in the campaign around New York City.
In 1777, however, it was a different story. A new British general, John Burgoyne, returned with 8000 men and over 130 pieces of artillery. As the rebel forces dwindled to 4000 or less, it was impossible to hold the forts. Wickman argues that the rebels made the best of a bad situation and performed a well-executed a retreat. While highly controversial at the time and not authorized by his superiors, Maj. Gen. Arthur St. Clair’s decision to abandon Forts Ticonderoga and Independence was a good one and one that eventually contributed to the rebel victory at Saratoga. A court martial exonerated St. Clair and acquitted him with the highest honor thirteen months later.
In an effort to further isolate Burgoyne’s army during the Saratoga battles, rebels launched an unsuccessful attack to recapture the Mt. Independence/Ft. Ticonderoga forts. Before retreating, the rebel attack netted over 300 British prisoners, freed over 100 American prisoners and destroyed many boats and supplies. With Burgoyne’s surrender and facing the prospect of the full weight of the rebel army returning, British forces retreated to Canada. The fort’s British commander, Brig. Gen. H. Watson Powell, gave up the post without authorization. It seems that no commanding officer wanted to be tagged with authorizing the surrender of the “Gibraltar of North America”!
After the British abandonment of Mt. Independence, Vermont rangers reported that the fortifications were in complete disrepair and all of the buildings burned. In the last years of the war, raiding parties moved through the area and no efforts were made to rebuild the Mt. Independence complex. Mt. Independence devolved into a no mans land between Rebel controlled Hudson Valley and British controlled Canada.
Wickman enlivens the story of Mt. Independence by quoting numerous primary sources including the daily journal of military engineer Jeduthan Baldwin that describes his efforts to construct the fortifications. Demonstrating rigorous scholarship, he cites numerous other journals, orderly books and memoirs, several of which are quoted or the documents reproduced. In addition to primary source documents, the book contains engaging maps, illustrations and pictures to aid the reader’s understanding. Pictures and descriptions of artifacts found during archeologist investigations on Mt. Independence provide a “museum-like” experience for the reader. In addition, there are sidebars presenting interesting facts on famous and ordinary men and women as well as generals and civilians who figure in the Mt. Independence story.
Unlike many books, Wickman continues with the history of Mt. Independence after the Revolution’s conclusion. Never inhabited or farmed, the peninsula eventually re-forested. While the landscape has changed, the outlines of the impressive fortifications can still be seen. This is in stark contrast to Fort Ticonderoga, which has been completely rebuilt and maintained as a tourist attraction. The relatively pristine Mt. Independence environment has yielded a treasure trove of artifacts and information for archeologists and historians. At the book’s end, the authors invites future scholars and archeologists to further study the area and discover more about what happened in that critical 1776-1777 period in American history.
While improvement opportunities for the book are few, additional description of the design, construction and the significance of the great bridge between Mt. Independence and Ft. Ticonderoga would benefit readers. At sixteen hundred feet long, fourteen feet wide and with twenty-two piers, it is an impressive engineering and construction feat especially in such a remote frontier location. Notably, it was the first bridge over Lake Champlain and was quite possibly the longest Revolutionary era bridge in North America. Lastly, the enormous amount of resources devoted to building the bridge further connotes the bilateral importance of Mt. Independence to the defense of Ft. Ticonderoga.
Overall, the author cogently makes the case that Mt. Independence should be more recognized by historians and the public for its pivotal role in the Revolution. This new book goes a long way to change perceptions and rectify the record. I strongly recommend Strong Ground to both scholars as well as enthusiasts. The book is unique, because it fills an historical gap as well as comprehensively describing a strategic location throughout and beyond the War of Independence.
Excellent review of a terrific book that all students of the Northern Department’s activities in 1776 and 1777 should own. This book was a group effort by several of dedicated historians and state officials. The Mount is certainly worth a visit.
I would agree. The Mount is a different and very interesting historic site. The book looks like a very impressive study of an often forgotten fortification. Gary Zaboly’s art work is first class as always. We plan to carry this book on my website following America’s History Tour at Saratoga and the Fort Ticonderoga Rev War Symposium later this month.