8. Williamstown at War: Benedict Arnold’s Nervous Night

In February, 1775, Pittsfield delegate to the Massachusetts Committee of Safety, John Brown, was sent to Canada to sound out sentiment there for taking action against the British. On the way he passed by Fort Ticonderoga at the northern end of Lake George, and noticed how lightly garrisoned it was. Indeed, since the defeat of the French a dozen years before, the old fort had become an anachronism, barely maintained by a few bored and lazy British regulars.

Returning by way of  Williamstown, Brown reported on what he had observed. One person whose ears pricked up at the news was Ethan Allen, a Yale College drop-out from Salisbury, Connecticut who also was passing through Williamstown (who knows but they might have had a drink together at Simonds’ Tavern!), on route to Bennington where he had headquarters in the Catamount Inn (photo of its original site above).  During the 1750s Allen had become heavily involved in land speculation in the “New Hampshire Grants” and its bitter dispute with New York.  Allen had even organized a paramilitary force of local landholders of like persuasion to enforce their own claims and drive out any New York counter-claimants. They took the nickname “Green Mountain Boys” and bivouacked around Bennington,  flying their own green flag ” and demanded  that “New Connecticut” ( as they called what was soon to be renamed “Vermont”) become a free and independent republic (which in fact it ipso facto remained until 1791 when it became an official state in the US).

With the electrifying news of Lexington and Concord that April, however, Allen, with encouragement and a commission from the Connecticut Committee of Safety, decided to strike at the English, the real head of the snake since the present British king, George III, was backing New York’s case. Word got out of Allen’s new enterprise, and some forty-one excited recruits from Hancock and Williamstown joined his band. Two hundred volunteers strong, Allen began to plan his bold attack.

Meanwhile, another ambitious and equally audacious patriot from Connecticut had similarly learned of Ticonderoga’s weakness, and was likewise planning the same adventure. His name was Benedict Arnold, sometime sailor and apothecary currently commanding the Connecticut governor’s Foot Guards in New Haven. Immediately Arnold  rushed to Boston, confronted the Massachusetts Committee of Safety, eloquently explained his plan which included the intriguing offer to sequester  the heavy ordnance from the fort and deliver it to the army of minute men now re-forming in Cambridge. On the spot Arnold was appointed colonel with the power and money to raise four-hundred more local militia and advance with them on Ticonderoga.

On May 3, Arnold set out to western Massachusetts. Arriving in Williamstown on May 6, he lodged that night at Nehemiah Smedley’s Tavern on Main Street, spending 4 shilling 6 pence for room and board, and depositing  £5 more with Nehemiah, apparently to raise more troops and carry a message to Albany, New York in order to make further arrangements.  Meanwhile to his dismay Arnold  learned about  Ethan Allen’s similar plan.  Suddenly he had to rush to Bennington and head off Allen lest the whole enterprise be risked before there was enough logistical support for a well thought out military assault.  Arnold had only time to address a letter to the Committee of Safety in Albany ordering the necessary supplies be sent ahead to Fort George at the bottom of the lake, the staging area from which he planned to  launch his own attack. [i]

Or so he hoped, but only to learn that  Allen and the Green Mountain Boys were already  in Castleton (Castle Town on the map). Onward Arnold  pushed his tired horse some sixty- two more miles up the east side of Lake George to where Allen was already making last minute  preparations for the assault on the fort at the top of the lake twenty miles to the west.  In high dudgeon, Arnold arrived in Castleton on the evening of May 8. In full military dress, he confronted Allen and demanded that he, Arnold, had the superseding authority. Needless to say, Allen was in no mood to submit. “What shall we do with this rascal?,” he is said to have asked  his raucous  lieutenants, who all agreed that Arnold was a “damned impertinent rooster.” If Arnold insisted, however,  he might be allowed to accompany the expedition but only as an advisor. Arnold, still furious, reluctantly agreed. No doubt he believed his own superior military experience would save the day, sure to be bungled by these  undisciplined Green Mountain Boys.

In any case , that very evening, Allen’s men began to move toward the lake. Unfortunately,  only a single scow was found to ferry them across. Allen was forced to leave half his army on the Vermont shore, and consign only some eighty- seven men,  including Arnold who was now deemed useful since he knew about navigating boats, to crowd enough men into into the scow and make just two hour-long crossings over frigid and choppy waters. By the grace of providence they made it, landing below the fort  just before dawn on the 10th of May. Silently the small force  deployed around its bastion. At a signal of two owl hoots from Allen,  the Green Mountain Boys  rushed forward  with shouts and war whoops, pushing aside a few startled sentries and clambered into the fort. Then Allen with Arnold now at his side strode up the narrow path to the main entrance, knocked on the door and demanded the immediate presence of the British commander. The latter, just aroused from  his bed,  staggered to the door with his trousers still in his hands. “Who are you?, “ he mumbled, “And by whose authority…?”

“In the name of the great Jehovah and the Continental Congress,” Allen famously responded, and made a threatening flourish with his sword. Utterly confused, but having no other choice when he saw what confronted him, the English captain surrendered.

It was an extraordinary victory. Allen and Arnold  had captured, without losing a man, one of the most famed citadels of the late war with France, and which had cost the British so dearly to capture it in the first place.  Following the great news of Lexington and Concord less than a month before, word of Ethan Allen’s achievement thrilled the nation once again. One might say that the remarkable taking of Fort Ticonderoga gave many wavering colonists just  the added confidence they needed to face down the mighty British Empire and join the fight for an independent United States of America.  Unfortunately for Arnold however impertinent he was during his first meeting with Allen, he did not receive the credit he truly deserved for his own heroic involvement. [2]

Finally, we should give a thought to Arnold’s  state of mind  between the dates of May 3, when he left Boston, and May 6 when he spent the night at  Smedley’s Tavern.  The distance from Boston to Williamstown is one-hundred-eighty mile more or less as the crow flies but  not counting the twists and turns of an eighteenth century New England trail through forests and over mountains in the still muddy spring. Yet  Arnold must have covered it in less than four days, which means that he drove his horse, which needed re-shoeing three times,  at least fifty miles per day.  Surely, Arnold (and certainly his exhausted horse) deserved a comfortable rest in Smedley’s Inn, yet  it’s fair to believe that he had little sleep that night as he lay tossing in bed, mulling over his  impending confrontation with Ethan Allen, a man who would rob him of his first chance to gain military honors.  As we shall see, nothing so thrilled Benedict Arnold as the thought of engaging in a glorious battle in which he would earn  eternal fame.

It’s fair to say that on this night of May 6, 1775  in Williamstown, the seed was sown of what he was to achieve so brilliantly, and suffer so  psychologically,   at Saratoga two and one-half years later.

Next installment:  THE WAR GOES ON: WILLIAMSTOWN WATCHES WARILY


[i] Here is an easier-to-read transcription of Arnold’s letter:

Williamstown  7th May 1775

Gentlemen

Being  Appointed by the Congress of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, Commander of a Number of Troops, Now on the March, for the Reduction of the Fort at Ticonderoga, & having Directions, & Authority from the Committee of Safety to supply the Troops with Provisions &c, I now take the Liberty to Request you to forward [to] Lake George, Twenty Barrells Pork, Forty Hundred Good Bisquet. If not to be procured immediately Flower in Lieu thereof. also, One Hogshead Rum -& that you will give Directions  in Case we Succeed in the Reduction of the Place, to have a sufficient Number of Carriages ready at Fort George, to Transport Thirty Pieces of Cannon of 18 lbs  & 24 lbs to Albany, which will be of the utmost Consequence to the Army at Cambridge, & for which I have [the] General’s Particular Authority.

I have the Honour to be

Gentlemen

Your most (?)

Benedict Arnold Coll

[2] For a full account of the Fort Ticonderoga affair, see Richard B. Smith, Ethan Allen & the Capture of Fort Ticonderoga (History Press) London, 2010,

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