At the confluence of Lake Champlain and Lake George, Fort Ticonderoga controlled access north and south between Albany and Montreal. This made a critical battlefield of the French and Indian War. Begun by the French as Fort Carillon in 1755 it was the launching point for the Marquis de Montcalm’s famous siege of Fort William Henry in 1757. The British attacked Montcalm’s French troops outside Fort Carillon on July 8, 1758 and the resulting battle was one of the largest of the war, and the bloodiest battle fought in North America until the Civil War. The fort was finally captured by the British in 1759.
By 1775, Fort Ticonderoga had become a minor garrison for the British military and had fallen into disrepair. During the American War for Independence, however, the fort was well known to Americans and would find new importance as the site of several key events.
The first of these occurred on May 10, 1775, when Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys, accompanied by Benedict Arnold, silently rowed across Lake Champlain from present-day Vermont and captured the fort in a swift, late-night surprise attack. The capture was the first offensive victory for American forces and secured the strategic passageway north and opening the way for the American invasion of Canada later that year.
In addition to the fort itself, was the vast amount of artillery that fell into American hands after Allen’s and Arnold’s victory. In late 1775, George Washington sent one of his officers, Colonel Henry Knox, to gather that artillery and bring it to Boston. Knox organized the transfer of the heavy guns over frozen rivers and the snow-covered Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts. Mounted on Dorchester Heights, the guns from Ticonderoga compelled the British to evacuate the city of Boston in March of 1776. The future of the American cause looked bright.
The American army invasion of Canada that began in late 1775 was collapsing and the American forces ultimately retreated to Ticonderoga, digging in and preparing for a British counter attack. Under the command of Horatio Gates, they dug miles of new earthworks and defenses to house the nearly 13,000 men stationed at Ticonderoga and the newly constructed works on Mount Independence, across Lake Champlain. In addition, the ships of Benedict Arnold’s lake fleet were armed and outfitted here before sailing north to face the British. The Battle of Valcour Island in October, 1776 was an American defeat, but slowed the British who advanced to Ticonderoga and found the American army strongly entrenched, with the winter closing in. They returned to Canada, leaving the Americans in control of the strategic position.
In the summer of 1777, a British army under the command of General John Burgoyne planned a siege on his drive towards Albany, New York. Burgoyne split his Anglo-German forces attempting to encircle the American positions at Ticonderoga and Mount Independence. Despite withdrawing most of their men and equipment to Mount Independence, Continental forces decided to abandon the position as Burgoyne’s men began to prepare an artillery battery atop the unoccupied high ground of the nearby Mount Defiance. In the early morning of July 6, 1777, the American garrison evacuated Ticonderoga with the British advanced guard nipping at their heels.
The fort remained a joint British and Brunswick garrison and resisted an American surprise attack in September. Following Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga in October 1777, the British made the decision to withdraw to Canada and destroyed much of the artillery and fortifications. American forces never reoccupied Ticonderoga, although the British returned and even rebuilt some parts of the fort in late 1781. By 1783 the theater was inactive enough that George Washington toured the ruins while waiting for the official declaration of peace and the end of the Revolutionary War.