BOOK REVIEW: Fort Ticonderoga, The Last Campaigns, War in the North 1777-1783 by Mark Edward Lender (Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2022)
Mark Edward Lender’s recent book on Fort Ticonderoga provides a well-written and well-researched narrative that addresses the final campaigns and operations involving the fort and its surrounding environs. During the initial phases of the American Revolution, the Continental Army placed strategic importance on retaining control of Fort Ticonderoga, often called the Gibraltar of America. Political and military leaders placed significant military and informational value on Fort Ticonderoga, constituting what contemporary United States Army doctrine defines as “key terrain,” and what contemporary joint military doctrine outlines as a decisive point. Today, the 370-mile trip between New York City and Montreal, Quebec, Canada, via U.S. Interstate 87 and Canada Autoroute 15, takes about seven hours. During the colonial period, the waterways provided the highway and Ticonderoga occupied a critical passage between Lakes Champlain and George, making it essential to controlling any large-scale military movement in this strategic corridor. At the time, this route was sometimes referred to as the “Warpath of Nations,” highlighting its military importance.
The terrain around Fort Ticonderoga was not only “key,” it was tactically complex, in addition to being relatively isolated and rugged. Maintaining the fort and its outer works required controlling three pieces of high ground near the fort. Water bisected the defensive perimeter; defending the fort against a determined and well-resourced attacker required thousands of troops, and a substantial maritime capacity, all supported by skilled engineering and logistics. Perhaps the legacy of the French and Indian War associated with the fort led revolutionary era leaders to overestimate its strategic significance or ease of defense. Lender points out, during the revolution, once taken, neither the Patriots nor British had sufficient forces to hold the position against a well-resourced and determined attacker.
The author packs a significant amount of detail into each of the book’s eight chapters focused on the years 1777-83. He organized his text chronologically, addressing both Patriot and British activities, making it easy for the reader follow the evolving situation. His active writing style retains the reader’s attention making it an enjoyable and insightful read.
Lender uses a nice mixture of primary and secondary sources and fills the narrative with thoughtful analysis; he builds on the work of previous authors, yet introduces his own insightful perspectives on people and events. He introduces the reader to numerous commanders, providing concise biographies that provide insight into their minds, decisions and actions. He professionally outlines the challenges faced by both Patriot and British leaders who commanded or conducted campaigns and operations in or around the fort. This approach allows the reader to better understand the decision-making process, conditions they faced and hard choices facing commanders and their soldiers. As a result, readers gain an appreciation of and can better relate to the complex operating environment faced by both Patriot and British forces.
Lender highlights the logistical challenges with manning and improving the defenses of Fort Ticonderoga and credits Philip Schuyler’s 1775-77 efforts to man and resource this initiative. However, Ticonderoga presented not only logistical and manpower challenges; duty there was remote and difficult, necessitating all hands work to improve the defenses. Soldiers and leaders were not enthused to serve there. Enhancing the defenses required improvements involving maritime assets, watercraft and sailors, bridges, and booms; this in addition to traditional land defenses and construction of adequate quarters for the large numbers of soldiers required to mount an effective defense. While Ticonderoga was key military terrain, building defenses to hold the fort required significant resources and manpower that were simply unavailable to most commanders throughout the revolution.
As the revolution evolved and took on a different military and political character, major forces moved to different regions or theaters and the geographic area transitioned to an economy of force theater. Ticonderoga continued to garner attention, but was eventually abandoned, no longer a decisive point or the Gibraltar of America. Edward Lender elucidates this transition and the strategic decisions that accompanied it in an engaging and thoroughly researched narrative. Readers with an interest in the American Revolution and military history of the United States will not be disappointed.
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I think Pat Hannum does justice to Mark Lender’s new book on Fort Ticonderoga in his review, but he omitted mentioning a major character in the book for the year 1777: Colonel John Brown. To Lender’s credit, he gives high marks to Brown’s leadership in his attack on the fort during Burgoyne’s campaign and in his attempt to capture a British supply depot on Diamond Island. Brown was also present when the fort was taken by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold on May 10,1775 which is not part of Lender’s story. Brown is a largely unknown patriot who died for the cause at Stone Arabia on October 10, 1780. Another important contribution of Brown was his recognition of the nefarious character of Arnold. Earlier in 1777, Brown published a handbill saying of Arnold that “Money is this man’s God, and to get enough of it he would sacrifice his country.” Kudos to Mark Lender for recognizing John Brown in his new study of Fort Ticonderoga.
Being a “superfan” of the Northern theater of the Revolution, I approached Mark Lender’s book with a high level of anticipation. On the one hand, I hoped to see some new information. On the other, I feared just another book on the Burgoyne campaign that repeated many of the same old stories.
With regard to the former expectation, I did not find much new information but that’s probably a function of my researching the Burgoyne campaign for decades. Professor Lender includes material from sources not usually found in writings about the campaign so much of that may well be new to most readers. And, his writing is rather well documented.
The book did meet my expectations with regard to old stories. That includes cannons on Mt. Defiance forcing the Americans to retreat—guns actually put up there after the retreat; La Rochefermoy burning his house alerting the British to the retreat—the house went up in flames about daylight and Fraser alerted Burgoyne to the retreat after two deserters told him about it around 3:00 a.m.; the Americans blundered by not destroying the bridge—the last ones across tore up planks and cut the Mount Independence end loose (blowing it up would have been a rather loud and bright signal alerting the enemy to the retreat); and Vermont calling itself a republic—that never happened (quite minor point but a pet peeve of mine).
Perhaps the book’s greatest failure is the claim that Brown’s Raid sealed Burgoyne’s fate. While that’s the traditional interpretation, it is completely erroneous. Burgoyne decided to move the critical supplies south and sever his tenuous connection with the north in August before Gates and Lincoln even organized the raid. In the end, Brown’s men seized or destroyed mostly clothing and baggage. Certainly, the raid prevented reinforcements from moving south but a few hundred troops would not have made a difference. The raid did not harm Burgoyne.
The book provided me with one other disappointment. Of 180 pages of text, 140 deal with the Burgoyne campaign. With a subtitle of The Last Campaigns, I had hoped for more on the post-Burgoyne story of Ticonderoga.
All that being said, Professor Lender’s book is still quite valuable. It’s an easy read and will provide most people with loads of information and sources to explore for additional details. And, I suspect the post-Burgoyne material will be new to most readers. Hopefully, the book will motivate folks to delve deeper into the story.