9. The War Goes On: Williamstown Watches Warily

During the summer and fall of 1775, Allen’s and Arnold’s escapades continued in the north, including a grandiose plan to conquer Canada, but more on that below.

Meanwhile, on July 3, 1775, George Washington was appointed by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia to be commander in chief of all the American armies. After Lexington and Concord, and lately the capture of Fort Ticonderoga, open warfare had been declared. The  English now responded  in kind. Under their new commander General William Howe, who arrived in Boston on May 25, 1775, the British occupied the sullen city and, after a bloody battle that June in which they lost heavily, managed to drive out the last of the hard-core colonial militia assembled on Breed’s Hill (the Battle of Bunker Hill).

However, the zeal and tenacity of the Boston defenders so impressed General Washington that he intended to retake the city, but had not yet the appropriate ordnance to do so.  Where to get it?   His artillery officer, Colonel Henry Knox, former book-seller from Boston, reminded Washington of Benedict Arnold’s original but unrealized intention, to retrieve for the Anerican side  the heavy weapons from Fort Ticonderoga, now in American hands. All that was needed was to transport this remarkable bounty of unused fire power to Washington’s army..  But how to move such massive material, over three hundred miles of wilderness, lakes, rivers, and mountains?  Furthermore, it was already November. Winter was fast approaching, and the trails would soon be covered with thick layers of ice and snow.

Notwithstanding,  Colonel Knox with a small company of able bodied men, was quickly dispatched to Fort Ticonderoga to solve the problem. Arriving in another amazingly fast four days  (and probably passing through Williamstown), he was able in just as short a  time and with incredible skill to dismantle and package fifty-nine pieces of heavy artillery, then, just before Lake George froze, to find  boats enough on which to ship them up-stream. At the Great Carrying Place he was able to procure sleds and ox teams and drag his massive load over the freshly snow-covered trails to the now frozen Hudson River.  Taking full advantage of “general winter,” he skidded his thousand-pound sleds over the ice down as far as Albany. Back onto land again, he wisely chose  not to follow the Mohawk Trail with its high mountain pass east of Williamstown, but along the longer but more level trail through the southern Berkshires (more or less the same route as the present Mass Turnpike). At last, on January 24, 1776, with his prizes remarkably intact, he arrived in Cambridge where Washington was encamped. It had taken him just fifty-six days, during which he averaged an incredible five and a half miles a day.

Washington had just what he needed. He advanced his army to Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston harbor. With his heavy guns, he now threatened the anchored Royal navy  on which Howe depended for supplies and passage home. The British commander quickly realized his peril and on March 17, 1776, evacuated the city. A triumph for the Americans but   a lonely victory nonetheless in a year that so far had mostly witnessed failures.

Indeed, while Washington was waiting for his cannon, military matters elsewhere were going poorly, especially in the north.  After their victory at Ticonderoga,  Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold schemed an overly ambitious plan to invade and conquer Canada, It failed dismally. Attempting to sieze Montreal the following September, Ethan Allen was captured and sent to a British prison  in chains.[i] In the same month,  Arnold led an army three hundred miles through the wilds of Maine where he joined General Richard Montgomery in a vain attempt to take Quebec. Twenty-seven volunteers from Williamstown, known as the “Musket Boys” under Captain Samuel Sloan accompanied this expedition. Several were the ancestors of families whose names are still well known in Williamstown: Sabin, Flynt, Young, Sherwood, Clark, Cook, Blair  and  more. This time however our anointed heroes, even on the sacred Plains of Abraham, met ignominious defeat. Moreover, the death of General Montgomery on December 31, 1775 deprived the American cause of one its most promising young officers.

Meanwhile Arnold retreated to Crown Point on Lake Champlain where, during the  next year he was engaged in constructing a flotilla of ships with which he  hoped to maintain American control of that important north-south route, if not by land at least by sea.  Unfortunately his small fleet was quite overwhelmed by the fire power of the larger  British frigates even as he quite out-maneuvered them during their confrontation of Valcour Island on October 11, 1776.  After an heroic fight,  Arnold was forced to retreat and scuttle his ships, but his impressive action nonetheless had the effect of holding the British back from advancing immediately southward on Lake Champlain, giving the Americans valuable lead time to build up their own military presence in the region. Meanwhile the British,  unable to push their advantage again until the following summer, went into winter quarters in Canada.[ii]

In spite of such military bad luck in 1776, the day July 4th that summer will always be enshrined in the hearts of Americans because of the inspiring event depicted below, where words triumphed when bullets failed.

Those famous words so eloquently inscribed, and subscribed to in Congress on  July 4th would elevate the spirit  the Revolution as no action on the battlefield could. The document was  published in print that very night, and copies circulated ASAP to all thirteen ex-colonies, proclaiming them henceforth free from British rule. This was the chosen medium to spread the message of the Declaration of Independence to all the people of America, not the unique parchment in the Library of Congress, actually handwritten later to be preserved for posterity. The printed paper handbills, like the example above, were meant to be read on the spot, then discarded. Fortunately some twenty-eight were saved, and Williams College owns one of them. It is currently on display in the Williams College Museum of Art.

Next installment: WILY WASHINGTON & BUNGLING BRITS


[i] Ethan Allen was eventually exchanged and released from British prison in 1777. He rejoined Washington’s army at Valley Forge, but saw little more action during the war. After 1783, he returned to Vermont, spent much time engaged in the political struggle to create a Vermont republic. He lived in Bennington and later Burlington where he died and was buried in 1789.

[ii] For the full story of Arnold’s Lake Champlain escapade, see James L. Nelson, Benedict Arnold’s Navy: The Ragtag Fleet That Lost the Battle for Lake Champlain but Won the American Revolution, New York (McGraw Hill), 2006

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