2.Ephraim Williams’ Last Stand

Ephraim Williams (1714-1755) bears the distinction of being more remembered for the results of   his death than what happened in his life.  In this my second installment, I will discuss the latter, the events leading up to, and the battle in which Colonel Williams was killed.[1]

I begin by quickly reviewing the situation in the New England colonies at the turn of the eighteenth century.  The bitter civil wars that enflamed the British Isles during the previous hundred years, the struggle between the royalists and parliamentarians after the death of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell,  had so concentrated  the nation’s  attention,  that interest in the colonies had considerably waned.  By 1700, a bare three thousand soldiers protected the entire American seaboard including growing towns of Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. The thin red line of British civilization extending  to the eastern Alleghenies was dangerously insecure, a fact that did not escape the covetous eyes of the  French whose own colonial enterprise was expanding   in Canada.  Indeed, France had replaced Spain as the reigning power on the European continent.  Her long ruling King Louis XIV decided that now was the time to challenge British hegemony overseas. He had already sent  Jesuit missionaries to Canada to convert the Indians , in particular the Abenaki , who became known as the “St. Francis Indians.” Once inhabitants of eastern Allegheny forests but driven out by the English, they now had an added religious incentive to take revenge against the Protestant settlers who had usurped their  former hunting grounds.

In 1704, the French struck a deadly blow deep in the heart of the English colonies. In February of that year a band of French and Indians sneaked on snow-shoes down the Mohawk Trail as far as Deerfield, Massachusetts, surrounded the town at night, and in the early morning with war whoops and slashing  tomahawks  swept through the small community killing and burning at random. By mid-day, some forty-six citizens including women and children were murdered, and a hundred nine more captured and forced to march for six weeks in snow and freezing cold to Canada  where they were held for ransom.   While many eventually were redeemed and did  return, one woman,  Eunice Williams, daughter of Pastor John Williams and distant relative of Ephraim, famously remained among the Indians, one of whom she married  and by whom she had children. Her father, finally ransomed and returned to Deerfield was bitterly disappointed, not  because his daughter remained  a renegade, but because she had converted to “papism.”

In any case, the Deerfield massacre was a tocsin call for the British to defend their New England colonies against the French threat all along the trails.  More troops were sent, local militias were raised (“papists” were pointedly excluded from enlisting)  and forts were built at strategic locations.  With the rise of a powerful Whig parliament in Britain and the accession of a stronger ruling dynasty, particularly under Hanoverian King  George II who acceded  in 1727, England embarked on an aggressive policy of colonization, urging ever more settlements further to the west.  Wealthy investors like Ephraim Williams and his brothers were encouraged to purchase properties on the far frontier.   To protect those along the extending Mohawk Trail,  Fort Massachusetts was built in a bight  of the  Hoosic River, where the Trail crosses it twice.   The Google Earth photo below shows just how strategic this location was.   It’s now in the parking lot of the Price Chopper Supermarket on route 2 in North Adams where a monument marks the spot.  The red dot  shows where the fort once stood; the blue dots indicate the two river crossings on either side.

Notwithstanding, the fort was too close to a high ridge just to the north, allowing attackers to shoot into it from above, as  French and Indians  did in 1744, easily overpowering  its small garrison.  For a brief period the French fleur de lis then flew over our community until the fort was retaken and rebuilt in 1747, and put under the command of Major Ephraim Williams. The fort withstood another French attack in 1748 but was finally abandoned after the British won total victory over the French in 1763. During the 1930s it was again rebuilt as a tourist attraction, unsuccessfully as it turned out.  The property was deemed  more valuable for commercial exploitation, and so the fort disappeared for the last time.  Below is an old postcard view of  it looked in the 1930s.  A full size reconstruction  of the fort’s original barracks room is currently on display in Heritage State Park, North Adams.

I now return to the year 1755.  The English were building ever more protective forts, two most importantly at either end of the “Great Carrying Place “ in New York, the fifteen or so miles of swampy  land between the northern embarkation point of t he Hudson River, and the southern end  of Lake George.  All travelers including armies moving in either direction would need to portage their boats  over this  difficult stretch, usually requiring two or more marching days depending on how  cumbersome their equipment;  thus dangerously exposing themselves to enemy attack.  Fort Edward commanded the Hudson River entry point and Fort William Henry would do the same for the southern landing  of Lake George. Each was named after the princely progeny of King George II, and each guaranteed English control over this extremely strategic land link. The two maps below, one old the other new , should make this clear.  Today, that once difficult portage distance can be traversed by car in just a few minutes over well paved NY route 9. How many modern travelers, speeding  to enjoy  what’s now a busy summer resort,  give a thought to the blood that was spilled and lives that were lost  along  this incredibly historic  bit of road? What if the other side had won and Lake George became instead a French-speaking Côte d’Azur?

In the late summer of 1755, Commandant Sir William Johnson was commissioned to build Fort William Henry, in preparation for  leading  an army down Lake George and attack the French stronghold at Crown Point on the eastern tip of Lake Champlain. At the same time, however, unbeknownst to him a French army under command of  Marshall Baron Dieskau was heading south to attack Fort Edward (first called Fort Lyman after its then commander).  Meanwhile newly appointed Colonel Ephraim Williams had arrived from Massachusetts with a regiment of militia and a contingent of Indians led by chief King Hendrick to aid in  Johnson’s campaign.  Suddenly the English learned of  Dieskau’s plan, and Williams was quickly ordered to return to reinforce the Fort  Edward garrison. Unfortunately,  Dieskau divined this latter move, and so plotted an ambush of the English army as it passed southward.

On September 8,  Williams’ army marched blindly into the trap, completely surprised by the French and Indians hiding in the thick forest on either side of the crude trail.  Almost with their first volleys, Williams was fatally shot through the head as he stood on a rock still marked at the site.  King Hendrick was also killed and all their troops scattered in confusion. Baron Dieskau and the French seemed to have  won the day. Flush with this initial success,  Dieskau turned to attack Johnson’s force working on the fort at Lake George, realizing that capturing the Lake George beachhead was the  more valuable prize since it would give France control of all the Lake and  thus the Great Carrying Place,  rendering  Fort Edward practically untenable. His initial assault was successful, but then Johnson rallied the English troops and in a series of sharp engagements on September 8 decisively defeated the French, even capturing Baron Dieskau.

Some two hundred dead from both sides were supposedly thrown into a swampy water hole just east of Route 9.  It still exudes the dismal  aftermath of that brutal battle.  A marker appropriately identifies it as “Bloody Pond.” Another monument a few yards away across the same road a identifies where Ephraim Williams fell and his body  first buried.  Years later his remains were removed and re-interred with an appropriate epitaph  in Williams College Thompson Chapel.

A curious  addenda to this story is the fact that the famous American revolutionary fife and drum ditty, “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” was actually written for British troops quartered in Fort Craillo, NY in 1755, by an army surgeon named Richard Shuckburgh. It was sung to the tune of a popular song in John Gay’s recent London hit musical, “The Beggar’s Opera,” and soldiers were invited to  add new verses as they marched along singing in rhythm.  One particular doggerel verse still recorded seems to poke fun at Ephraim Williams, whom the soldiers may have regarded as somewhat of a martinet, in any case a blundering military commander, no matter his heroic death in action. It goes like this:

Brother Ephraim sold his cow
To buy him a commission
And then he went to Canada To fight for the nation.
But when Ephraim he came home
He proved an arrant coward,
He wouldn’t fight the Frenchmen there
For fear of being devoured.


1. Wyllis E. Wright, Colonel Ephraim Williams: A Documentary Life,  Pittsfield (Berkshire County Historical Society), 1970

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3. The Founding of Williamstown & Williams College

Item. It is my will & Pleasure & Desire that the remaining part of lands not yet disposed of Shall be Sold at the Discretion of my Executors, within five years after an Established peace, And the interest of the money, and Also the interest of my money Arising by my bonds and notes, Shall be Appropriated towards the Support and maintenance of a free School (in a township west of fort Massachusetts, Commonly Called the west township) for Ever, provided the Said township fall with in the jurisdiction of the Province of Massachusetts bay, and provided, also that the Governour & General Court give the Said township the name of Williamstown, and it is my further will & Desire that if there Should remain any monies of the above Donation for the Said school, it be given towards the Support of a school in the East township where the fort now Stands. But in Case the above provisions are not Complied with, then it is my will & Desire that the Interest of the above mentioned monies, be Appropriated to Some pious & Charitable uses, in manner & form as directed in the former part of this my last will & testament….In Witness whereof I have here unto Sett my hand and Seal the twenty Second Day of July, in the twenty ninth Year of his Majesties Reign, and in the Year of our Lord One thousand Seven hundred and fifty five.

The above is the final item in Ephraim Williams’ lengthy  last will and testament, which, with prescient premonition, he wrote only two months before the battle which cost him his life. As we see, there are a number of conditions that had to be met before his wishes could be implemented. The first was that the war with France had to end, which didn’t happen until 1763. The second was the uncertainty as to whether Williams’ estate even lay within “the Province of   Massachusetts bay,” or rather in New York, and therefore under which probate laws it should be disposed. The third condition was the founding of a “free school,” which aroused opposition unanticipated by Ephraim among some members of his own family, and particularly Harvard College in eastern Massachusetts.

Even before the war had ended Ephraim’s heirs were quarreling about the location of the educational institution he wished to found. While his will seemed to specify endowing a public school and not a private college, some in his family wanted to establish the latter, not in the “West Township,” which might even be in New York, but safely in Hatfield, Massachusetts, and named “Queen’s College” perhaps to rival  “King’s College” (now Columbia University) which had already been founded in New York. “No way!” exclaimed venerable Harvard College in far off Cambridge, Massachusetts, insisting on its ability to educate ALL eligible students in the Commonwealth. No need for a competing institution! The governor bowed to Harvard and squelched the Queen’s College idea. Williams’ bequest returned to the trustees for further discussion.

Meanwhile, the war having ended, the Massachusetts General Court in 1765 accepted the provision in Eph’s will that the West Hoosac  township be re-named “Williamstown.” Still there was a problem. Was “Williamstown” even in the ”Province of Massachusetts bay”?  This was finally resolved in 1773 when careful surveys determined that our town’s location indeed lay just inside Massachusetts western boundary.  However, the Revolutionary War now intervened, stalling any further  implementation of the will for over a decade,  until 1784, when the Continental Congress in Philadelphia officially approved the Massachusetts decision.

Finally the matter of “free school.”  In 1785, the Massachusetts legislature granted a charter to the “free school” in Williamstown according to the provisions of the will, but not the second  which Ephraim had proposed to occupy the Fort Massachusetts site in what is now North Adams – no doubt because there was barely enough money to support just one. Only eleven thousand dollars had accrued in the estate since Ephraim’s death three decades before.[1] During the next five years thirty-five hundred more dollars were raised by means of  public lotteries, just enough to construct a single building. It was eventually completed and furnished in 1793 and called “West College.” As it stands today, the building looks exactly as it did in the old print below. However, it was entirely rebuilt after a fire in 1951. The original façade had earlier been profaned in 1871 when it was painted yellow to symbolize “renewal of youth and freshness.”  Ah, the ancient pranks of students! Plus ça change, plus c’est la měme chose!

Until 1792, West College did house the “free school” that Williams’ will specified, but worries that after grammar-school, many young men were leaving Massachusetts for better matriculating possibilities elsewhere (in spite of Harvard’s assurances otherwise), caused the Williams’ trustees to  petition the Massachusetts General Court to convert it into a degree granting college. Better to serve “the midling and lower class of citizens,” meaning, of course, only male midling and lower class of citizens.  On June 22, 1793, the General Court approved the petition, and on October 9 of the same year, Williams College officially opened its classroom doors to twenty eager “freshmen.”  However, “freshwomen” had to wait until 1975 to do the same.


[1] It’s foot note-worthy that Williams in his will refers to his money in terms of  pounds and shillings, the currency of Britain, but when the will was finally probated after the Revolutionary War ended in 1783,  his bequests were  calculated in dollars. What happened, of course, was that the new US government had freed itself from the English currency system. Instead of pounds, reminding too much of the evil currency regulations Americans were earlier forced to endure, the new monetary standard was  the dollar, called after the Austro-German “Thaler.”  At the same time, the most popular hard coin circulating in the new world was the Spanish silver doubloon, thousands of which were stolen from the Spanish who had in turn stolen the silver from their dominions  in South America and Mexico. The coins were being minted in Mexico and Panama, and then shipped abroad via sea-going galleons which became the prey of English pirates, the notorious Blackbeard and Henry Morgan, for example; hence the circulation of their captured loot throughout  the British Empire.

In fact the doubloon became more or less equivalent to the new dollar. It was itself divisible into eight lesser coins called in Spanish “reales,“ but in English “bits” because people would some time cut the doubloon into eight separate pieces (“Pieces of Eight” in pirate lingo), which could then be equated with the American metric coinage of nickels, dimes, and quarters. Elder SWCA members will recall how in our youth we once called the silver quarter “two bits” – remember  when we chanted “two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar”?

Furthermore, on the back of the Spanish doubloon was always stamped the insignia of the Spanish Hapsburg Empire, consisting of two classic columns with a scroll in an S-shaped swirl around them.

The iconographic meaning of these columns and of the Latin inscription on the scroll, “ PLUS ULTRA” merits another fascinating story, but for another time.  Note here for now the simple design: two vertical parallel lines united by an S-shaped curve.  Americans in the eighteenth century were quite familiar with this doubloon logo, whether or not they were aware of its meaning.  Thus the designers of a new  American currency, seeking to replace the disfavored  English pound sign with a special icon, one easily recognizable in association with money,  adapted  and simplified the old doubloon logo, as  $, which  ever since has represented and symbolized  the  all-American dollar.

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4. The Fort WIlliamHenry Massacre &The Last of the Mohicans

See the movie. Don’t bother with the book. James Fenimore Cooper’s classic 1826 novel may tell one of the most romantic tales in American literature, but its writing style is hopelessly turgid (as Mark Twain attested). Nonetheless, the book has inspired no less than four American movies, an opera, a Marvel Comic, and a half a dozen more foreign versions. The latest film in 1992, starring heart-throb Daniel Day Lewis as hero Hawkeye, beautiful Madeleine Stowe as the heroine Cora, and sinister Wes Studi as villainous Magua, is well worth a Netflix review since it has so much to do with what will be here related.  It’s likewise a wonderful flick. However hyped and  mythicized it is based on a true and terrible historical event.

The setting is 1756. It’s a year after the battle in which Ephraim Williams gave his life, and at the same Lake George location. Currently all was quiet on this front as the English put the last touches on new Fort William Henry. Commandant Sir William Johnson had just renamed the lake after the English king, thus claiming all of it for the crown.  Wounded in the previous battle, he now passed the command of the fort to Lieutenant Colonel George Munro and left him with a garrison of two thousand troops, half red-coat British regulars, half blue-coat colonials.

All this, however,  was an utterly insulting blow to the French who for over a hundred years had considered  the lake irrevocably theirs, calling it by their own name, Lac du Saint Sacrement.  In response to the English aggression, the French began building another fort at the north end of the lake, Fort Carillon (later to be renamed Fort Ticonderoga). For the moment, however, these two bastions confronted each other inertly, even if defiantly, thirty three miles of disputed water apart.

Meanwhile back in Massachusetts, English settlements along the Mohawk Trail were also pushing further in the face of the French. After much argument among the villagers as to whether Fort Massachusetts was sufficient to protect the community, another was built some four miles to the west called Fort Hoosac consisting mostly of a log blockhouse where now stands Williams Inn at the crossroads of routes 2 and 7. The village of West Hoosac itself was expanding along Hemlock Brook. In 1756, several West Hoosac residents were killed and scalped, their houses burned and live stock slaughtered by Indian marauders, ever more inflaming the local population’s hatred of the French and their swarthy cronies. In Northeast America  particularly, the employment of Indians  by the French, and later by the British in the Revolutionary War, had the effect of turning white settlers against whoever was letting “blood-thirsty savages” loose in their neighborhoods.  Two common English words, “savage” and “civilized,” which in their original Latin roots simply meant “of the forest” and “of the city,” had become  polarized adjectives, the one conveying primitive barbarity, the  other white supremacy.

Things began to ramp up on Lake George in the summer and fall of 1756. Both sides were carrying out raids, but mostly to annoy and test each other. The most effective of these were led by Captain Robert Rogers on the English side. He had converted a militia company of New Hampshire woodsmen into an band of guerrilla fighters. They dressed in buckskin britches and green jackets to blend with the forest, and were capable of sudden surprise attacks from behind trees in Indian fashion, over-running enemy positions and then fading back into the woods. “Rogers Rangers,” as they were known, bivouacked on an island in the Hudson River adjacent to Fort Edward, now a state historical park. Their exploits grew legendary; in 1940, a popular novel was written about them called “Northwest Passage” by Kenneth Roberts, followed by a movie (not recommended) of the same name starring Spencer Tracy.

Finally the French decided to strike back in full force. A new commander appeared on the scene, Marquis Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, himself a legendary soldier in France. Collecting a large force of some six-thousand regulars and militia  especially armed with heavy artillery plus sixteen hundred Indians, he planned a frontal assault and siege of Fort William Henry.  On August 1, 1757, Montcalm’s army began to ascend the lake in more than two-hundred long boats. When scouts reported this large force about to fall upon Fort William Henry, Colonel Munro  sent a message to Fort Edward, begging for immediate reinforcements, Three thousand troops  had just arrived there under command of Colonel Daniel Webb.  Webb’s dithering, and then refusal to reinforce, was one of the several “betrayals” that led to the tragedy about to happen.

On August 3, Montcalm landed his army before the fort and deployed his heavy artillery. His plan was to bombard the fort day and night until the earthworks and log palisades were shredded, and then pour his infantry in through the breaches. The English responded, perhaps too soon, with their own limited artillery. Trying to knock out Montcalm’s well-protected cannon,   many of their mortars burst from too rapid firing. For the next six days, the unrelenting French edged their batteries ever closer, constantly pouring heavy cannon fire on the slowly deteriorating fortifications. Meanwhile, Colonel Monro sent desperate messages for help from Fort Edward, but Colonel Webb  continued to demur. Fearing that he too was about to be attacked, he claimed that all his troops were needed to defend his own fort. Moreover, Webb’s final message of refusal was actually intercepted by the French who now knew the English had no chance of holding out. On August 9, a white flag was indeed raised above the broken parapets of Fort William Henry, inviting the French commander to meet Colonel Monro.  Montcalm’s offer was amazingly generous. The French general was  a gentleman of  honor in the old-school chivalric tradition. His terms were simply that if the English peaceably surrendered the fort, they could march free back to Fort Edward “with all the honors of war.”  Furthermore, they could take with them all their personal belongings and even their weapons. They need only promise not to re-engage in the conflict again for eighteen months. The defeated English thankfully accepted

On the other hand, the Indian allies of the French, mostly Iroquois, Ottawa and Abenaki from Canada, were decidedly not pleased with these terms. They had come from far away to join in this attack with the promise of much booty and scalps. From their cultural point of view, they too felt betrayed.  That afternoon, as the defeated English marched away, the disappointed Indians held a war council. Montcalm, addressing them as “mes enfants,” tried to assuage their anger, but to no avail. The Indians began to sack the just captured fort, taking for themselves as much loot as they could find. They then broke into the cellar hospital and brutally scalped  the  English wounded  still in bed.  Some even began digging in the fort’s fresh new cemetery and scalped the corpses. But the worst was yet to come. The still walking soldiers with their  many women and children had assembled below the fort just to the east  in preparation for the march to Fort Edward.

The Indians suddenly charged among them, ripping away their clothing and other belongings while killing, scalping, and capturing at random. Chaos reigned. It was every man for himself as those who could ran off into the woods in all directions with the Indians in pursuit.  The exhausted survivors, including Colonel Monro who finally made it to Fort Edward, claimed that some fifteen hundred of their company had been slaughtered or kidnapped. Scholars ever since have disagreed as to the exact number, but the latest evidence discounts such a high figure, understandably and emotionally exaggerated by those who had just escaped the horror. It’s now agreed that no more than one-hundred seventy were actually killed, and as many captured and held for ransom. Montcalm himself tried to intervene and halt the massacre, but was never forgiven by Colonel Monro. This was the final “betrayal” of Fort William Henry, whether or not the Frenchman was truly guilty.[i]

In 1965 while excavating for the Holly Tree Motel on Birch Street  just off route 9 about a mile below the fort, a makeshift grave site was uncovered including twenty-eight skeletons almost all of which had simply been interred in the raw earth without coffins. Buttons and other artifacts indicated that the remains were all of eighteenth-century persons, mostly soldiers. One male skeleton in particular showed grim evidence of the ferocity of his death. It was headless, and cuts on the cervical vertebrae showed that he had been decapitated.

Cooper’s 1826 novel certainly impressed the tragedy ever more graphically in the American imagination. However, a single euphuistic detail in the story especially aroused the melancholy sentiment remarkable at that time.  It was the scene where lovely Cora, fictional daughter of Colonel Munro, having been taken prisoner by the venomous Huron chief, Magua, is almost rescued by Hawkeye and his good Mohican companions, Chingachgook and  Uncas (supposedly the last of their tribe which in reality had nothing to do with this event, but which Cooper confused with the Mahicans, another  tribe that had allied with the English, and whose early hunting grounds were actually around West Hoosac). Nevertheless, in Cooper’s fictional account,  Cora is brutally stabbed and slain.[ii] Indeed, nothing so touched the hearts of sentimental Americans at that time as the image of a beautiful woman meeting violent death.

No one realized the larger symbolic implications of  Cooper’s narration more than did the  Hudson River painter Thomas Cole. In fact, he painted several versions of  the scene in the late 1820s, always depicting a tiny figure of Cora dressed in pure white, either imploring her swarthy captor whose knife is raised to kill her, or already lying mortally struck  at his feet.  As Cooper described, this occurred on a rocky Adirondack plateau. The artist then melodramatically magnified the mountain setting so that it completely overwhelms the murder itself which is barely visible, only as a white speck in a vast and gloomy geological landscape. Teetering bluffs and giant boulders from which droop shattered trees appear to menace the diminutive dot. Yet the fact that it’s white seems to indicate that  a spark of innocence and purity, a seed waiting to be resurrected has been planted in this chaotic desolation. It’s as if Cora’s sacrifice is an appeal to America’s destiny, ever to oppose adverse savagery, and finally bring the full light of civilization into this dark primordial wilderness.

Next installment: 1758 & 1759: ENGLAND’S TRIUMPHANT YEARS

[i] Ian K. Steele, Betrayals: Fort William Henry & the Massacre (Oxford U. Press, NewYork) 1990.  Another person implicated in Montcalm’s “betrayal” was the French Canadian “General of the Indians,” St. Luc de la Carne, who, after 1763,  decided to serve the English similarly as “General of the Indians.” Once more he was implicated in a “betrayal,” this time by General John Burgoyne who accused him of desertion during the Battle of Saratoga – as will be noted in Installment 14.


[ii] The most dramatic scene in the last two film versions of the story has the women, first Cora in the 1936 movie, and then her sister Alice in the 1991 remake, leaping to their deaths over the edge of a mountain precipice rather than succumbing to the vile Magua.  This was not the way either dies in the book. The dramatic cliff leap was a pure Hollywood invention, much more gripping however than Cooper’s  conventional knife murder. One wonders why that otherwise imaginative author didn’t think of it.

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5. 1758 & 1759: England’s Triumphant Years

After his brutal victory, General Montcalm burned to the ground the already pillaged  Fort William Henry.  His former Indian allies, surfeited with their ill-gotten booty and scalps,  returned to Canada.  Unable to move his heavy artillery through the swampy trails of the Great Carrying Place, he was in no condition to march on to Fort Edward, and so decided to retire to Fort Carillon (not yet called Ticonderoga) at the foot of Lake George. Perhaps Montcalm should have advanced further south, and by not doing so he lost what might have been a decisive opportunity. In any case, by the following year, the tide would turn dramatically against the French. Fort William Henry in recent years, by the way, has been rebuilt as a tourist attraction in Battleground Park along the beautiful southern Lake George beachfront.

But back to Great Britain in the year 1758.  King George II and his able new prime minister, William Pitt, did act decisively. Some twenty-thousand more troops were dispatched to the Colonies, new commanders  named, and a precise plan prepared.  The strategy was to open a three-pronged attack against the strongest forts that anchored the major access routes to New France: from the west, Fort Duquesne at the juncture of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers where now is the city of Pittsburgh, PA, from the south Fort Carillon at the north tip of Lake George, and from the east Fort Louisbourg at the mouth of the Saint Lawrence Waterway above Quebec. Amazingly, by the end of 1758, Fort Duquesne (renamed Fort Pitt) and Fortress Louisbourg had both fallen to the English, but the assault on Fort Carillon was a humiliating failure. Captain Rogers himself was almost captured when his Rangers were ambushed on the west bank of Lake Champlain in snowy March of that year.  Nonetheless, with his usual derring-do, he made his escape (it is said) by donning snow- shoes and slaloming down a steep slope from where he was able to swim to safety. That bare stone bluff  has ever since been called “Rogers’ Rock.”

After the setback at Fort Carillon, Pitt appointed Lord Jeffery Amherst as commander of the attacking forces on Lake George. The latter was a well-tested and popular leader, responsible for the great victory at Fort Louisbourg the year before. Unfortunately he is remembered unfavorably today for his early attempt at “germ warfare” by deliberately giving to the Indians blankets from the beds of small pox victims.  In any case, in the summer of 1759, Amherst assembled a large army at newly built Fort George near the ruins of old Fort William Henry, and carefully planned his transport by boats down the lake again to assault the French bastion. Rogers’ Rangers should go before and break through the log boom the French had erected across the water to halt the English flotilla. That the Rangers did with stunning success. The outnumbered French quickly fell back in face of the oncoming red-coats. Fort Carillon was abandoned and the French retreated northward, trying to burn everything left behind. This too was aborted by Rogers’ Rangers who captured much of their stores intact. Meanwhile, Amherst continued attacking north. By early August he took Crown Point at the lower end of  Lake Champlain, thus finally closing off that avenue by which for years the French and their Indian allies had threatened the settlements in New York and New England.

By whom Fort Carillon came to be called Fort Ticonderoga is still something of a mystery. At the time, apocryphally or not, it was believed that the renaming had to do with the mysterious appearance of a ghost.  A certain Major Duncan Campbell back in Scotland claimed that a stranger had come to him one day begging to be protected from arrest for having just killed a man. Campbell felt sympathy for the pitiful fugitive and granted him sanctuary, only to discover that the man who was murdered was his own cousin.  As he tossed and turned  in bed that night,  torn between his promise of sanctuary and loyalty to his family, he was suddenly visited by the ghost of his murdered cousin who demanded revenge and that the culprit not be shielded. Campbell remonstrated: he could not go back on an oath once given, no matter the crime of him whom he sheltered.  The angered ghost appeared twice more, each time with the same message, and which each time was rejected. On the third and last visit, the spirit departed with this curious farewell, “‘Till we meet again at Ticonderoga!”

Campbell had no idea what that message meant, and had never before heard the word “Ticonderoga.” Within a few days, his regiment was ordered to America to join the other British troops in the assault against Fort Carillon. On the eve of the battle, Campbell was again confronted once more by his cousin’s ghost who whispered these words, “This is Ticonderoga,” and, more ominously, “ You shall fall with the first.” The next day, Campbell was mortally wounded in the initial attack.

Robert Louis Stevenson later immortalized the tale in a long ballad. For poetic reasons, he changed Campbell’s family name to Cameron, “Painted face” refers to the Indian interlocutor, and “Saulte-Marie” to Fort Carillon.

Here are some sample verses:

Thrice in the time of midnight,
When the fox barked in the den,
And the plaids were over the faces
In all the houses of men,
Thrice as the living Cameron
Lay sleepless on his bed,
Out of the night and the other world
Came in to him the dead,
And cried to him for vengeance
On the man that laid him low;
And thrice the living Cameron
Told the dead Cameron, no.
“Thrice have you seen me, brother,
But now shall see me no more,
Till you meet your angry fathers
Upon the farther shore.
Thrice have I spoken, and now,
Before the cock be heard,
I take my leave for ever
With the naming of a word.

It shall sing in your sleeping ears,
It shall hum in your waking head,

The name –Ticonderoga

And the warning of the dead.”

This is  my weird,” he said,

And now I ken the  worst

For many shall fall the morn,
But I shall fall with the first.
O, you of the outland tongue,
You of the painted face,
This is the place of my death;
Can you tell me the name of the place?”
“Since the Frenchmen have been here
They have called it Sault-Marie;
But that is a name for priests,
And not for you and me.
It went by another word,”
Quoth he of the shaven head:
“It was called Ticonderoga

In the days of the great dead.”
And it fell on the morrow’s morning,
In the fiercest of the fight,
That the Cameron bit the dust
As he foretold at night;
And far from the hills of heather,
Far from the isles of the sea,
He sleeps in the place of the name
As it was doomed to be.

Whether you believe this story or not, Campbell was a real person and a real casualty of the battle at Fort Ticonderoga. His remains are actually buried in a cemetery near Fort Edward, the same where is also the grave of Jane McCrea whose similar tragic death-and equally dramatic story- will be revealed in Installment 12.

Next installment: 1753: BIRTH OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE

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6. 1763: Birth of the British Empire

During the spring of 1759 as Amherst was taking command on Lake George, British Major General James Wolfe  with a another large army at Fort Louisbourg, now under the Union Jack, planned an assault on the French city of Quebec. Assisted by the royal navy, Wolfe’s force moved slowly up the Saint Lawrence River. By June, the fleet managed to slip upstream from the city, threatening to cut it off from supply routes to Montreal. French resistance grew strong at this point and casualties were heavy. By September, however, Wolfe’s army was deployed just below the steep cliffs rising on the north side of the river some three miles west of  Quebec. Above these cliffs a broad plateau extended known as the Plains of Abraham.

The French believed the cliffs too high for any enemy to approach the city from this side, thus they posted only a light defense there. Wolfe decided to take advantage and boldly declared that here was the place from which to launch his attack. He ordered his troops to scale the steep river bank. Remarkably they succeeded, and began advancing toward the city.  Quebec commander General Montcalm – he of former Fort William Henry fame (or infamy?)- was suddenly faced with hard choices. Should he remain with his sizeable force within the fortified city, or should he move his army out to the Plains and confront the enemy head-on before they should land artillery and lay siege?   He chose the latter option, which many historians have since regarded as a tactical mistake.

Montcalm’s army advanced  in somewhat loose order toward the formidable British line which stretched a mile long, three ranks deep in classic European battle formation. While the French opened fire indiscriminately from two-hundred yards, the disciplined English held their fire until the French had approached within thirty five yards, then opened with “ a deafening crash, the most perfect volley ever fired on a battlefield burst forth as if from a single monstrous weapon, from end to end of the British line,” as one historian excitedly recorded.  Such ferocious fire power continued for just six minutes, the French line broke, and the British rushed with fixed bayonets after the blue-coats fleeing back to Quebec. General Montcalm himself was mortally wounded. Within two hours Quebec fell to the British. The day was September 13, 1759,  remembered ever after as the moment of Britain’s  most decisive victory of the French and Indian War.

A year later, General Amherst would capture Montreal, giving British control of the entire Saint Lawrence River. Meanwhile Rogers’ Rangers, after a difficult trek through the forests and swamps northeast of Lake Champlain attacked and destroyed the Abenaki village at Saint Francis, thus quelling for good the murderous raids that had so long emanated from there against the frontier settlements in New York and New England.  Henceforth the farmers in West Hoosac  could tend their fields without fear of  being scalped.   All trails from Long Island Sound through Massachusetts and New York,  and all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to the midland Great Lakes via the Saint Lawrence River were now open to further English settlement.  Canada, as well as the entire disputed area of northeast America, were at last in full British possession.[1]

The European aspect of the Seven Years War dragged on for three more years, until February 10, 1763, when Britain, France, Spain and Portugal officially ratified the Treaty of Paris. While the war had ended as somewhat of a draw in Europe,  the most important consequence of the Treaty of Paris was what it imposed on the rest of the world. As of  this date the modern age of imperial colonialism began in earnest. All of the signing powers received chunks of  the New World to maintain as their separate colonies, but Great Britain gained the lion’s share, not only in America but also in the far east where she was ceded the right to exploit the great sub-continent of India.  Indeed, 1763  marks the moment when Englishmen could truly boast that the “sun never sets on the British Empire.”

There was also a moment of tragedy during the conquest of Canada,  when General Wolfe was killed during the Battle of  Quebec. Yet even this was hyped as a martyr’s sacrifice for the sacred pursuit of empire. In 1771, the Anglo-American artist, Benjamin West painted a picture of the sad event that had already become enshrined in the hearts of every patriotic citizen of  Britain. It’s worth examining in detail just how West composed this image.  I compare it to another, a fifteenth-century altarpiece by the Flemish artist Roger van der Weyden depicting “The Deposition of Jesus from the Cross.”

I have reversed the latter in order to sharpen its obvious similarity to the former.  There can be no doubt that Benjamin West had this Biblical event in mind just as Rogier van der Weyden painted it. During the European Renaissance the above composition was the standard iconographical representation of Jesus’s removal from the cross.  In other words,  Benjamin West thought to image the dying Wolfe just like Jesus, limp as he is laid to rest, his arm drooping and pronated in the same way as the Savior’s. Note also the other figures in Benjamin West’s heavily symbolic painting.  Excluding the contemplating Indian, there are exactly twelve – Caucasian “apostles” (including one of Rogers’ Rangers) – surrounding and despairing the martyred Wolfe.

In sum, West’s extremely popular painting of the “death of General Wolfe” quite mirrored the sublime, almost sacral exhilaration Great Britain felt in regard to the whole extraordinary conquest, as if General Wolfe’s sacrifice was an apotheosis, divinely ordained to save the American colonies from the “scoundrel French” (as Wolfe himself characterized the foe). Nevertheless it would not be long before this British sense of providential imperialism began to grate on the American colonists, especially when the London government insisted that the colonists assume the full financial burden for their presumed salvation.


[1] Except for two small barren islands off the coast of Labrador, Ste.Pierre & Miquelon, where the French flag still flies proudly, and pure French, not gritty Quebecoise, is deliberately spoken.

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7. Williamstown and the Seeds of Revolution

By 1763, the community of West Hoosac was already taking advantage of the  optimism that comes with the sense of physical safety. Between 1753 and the year the town was renamed, the  population grew from twenty-five persons in thirteen houses, to two-hundred eighty five persons in fifty-four houses. By 1770 those numbers had nearly doubled, and by 1776 over a thousand persons lived in nearly one hundred fifty houses.[i] Many of the new settlers had come from Connecticut and Rhode Island,  purchasing lots west of what is now Field Park, and five miles further south, at the end of  a road along Stone Hill ridge joining a juncture of four other old river trails  now known as Five Corners. Two-fifths of the town’s total population had settled in “South Part,” as was then called the present Community of South Williamstown.

Something of a housing boom also occurred around 1770. Residents no longer wished to live in the squalid “Regulation” houses, such as the one reconstructed in Field Park and  required of the first settlers in their original deeds. Here below is Benjamin Simonds’ house built in that year just north of Williamstown on the west side of route 7, now  named Simonds’ Road in his memory. He ran a tavern there, and it still operates as a comfortable B & B, lovingly restored to its eighteenth-century condition by David and Judy Loomis.

Isaac Stratton also built a handsome house in similar style in “South Part” with a particularly attractive Connecticut Valley Style doorway. It once stood south of the road that is now route 7, catty-corner across the street from the Little Red School House. Unfortunately, in 1983, after a dispute with the Williamstown Sign Commission, the house was dismantled and rebuilt in Litchfield, CT, a foolish and tragic loss to the historic heritage of Williamstown.

One handsome eighteenth-century dwelling that does still stand in South Williamstown is shown below, a two-story salt-box house on Sloan Road just above Five Corners built by Captain Samuel Clark in the 1760’s and purchased by William Young in 1790. It’s now owned and occupied by SWCA board member Carolyn Umlauf.[ii]

Three prosperous taverns operated in Williamstown in those years, their locations likewise expressing something about the town’s increasing attractiveness. Samuel Sloan ran a busy tavern  in South Williamstown where now stands the Store at Five Corners.  Simonds’ Tavern stood on the road just north of town;  Nehemiah Smedley’s, below, on Main Street, route 2 just east of town center on the north-west corner of the Colonial Avenue intersection (now the home of Mrs. Lisa Kurpaska). The cellar still contains the brick ovens in which bread was baked for the Williamstown militiamen fighting in Bennington, and, as we shall see, Benedict Arnold tarried there one night on the way to begin an historic career of incredible heroism and patriotism  before his infamous treason. Each of these taverns was directionally positioned to serve drinks and offer lodging to the ever more frequent travelers and homesteaders passing through our cross-roads community from the south, east and north respectively.

Besides farming, land speculation was good business. From his early tavern in South Williamstown, Samuel Sloan went into real estate and made a fortune. He became a general in the Continental Army and was rich enough in his old age to build a mansion uptown,  a beautiful Federal-style building on Main Street in 1802, now the President’s House of  Williams College. It was  the grandest residence in the region until the rambling Victorian palaces appeared in south county, built by New York barons after the Civil War.

Yet all was not peaceful in our prospering community. No sooner had the Massachusetts General Court incorporated West Hoosac as an official town bearing the new and proud name of its distinguished benefactor, than the overseas British government began to impose burdensome restrictions, especially taxes, intended to compensate the Crown for having saved the colonies from the French. Among the most detested  was the Stamp Act of 1765, demanding that every legal and printed document, such as deeds, wills, bills of any kind and even newspapers bear an official British stamp and seal indicating payment of a certain amount to the Crown.

Above is an example. They were issued in several variations, each with a dye number (here  “79”) indicating the type of document to which it should be affixed, and each at a different price which had to paid in British currency and not the provincial tender and Spanish coinage which mostly circulated in the Colonies.  The tax especially effected merchants and lawyers, and every up-and- coming business man like Samuel Sloan whose transactions required paper records. Actually, the tax was opposed more for ideological than pecuniary reasons. Not so much because men like Sloan couldn’t afford to pay it, but rather because it seemed a pernicious attempt to hinder their entrepreneurship, to weaken American competition with British business interests.

This is an important distinction. The oncoming American Revolution was not an uprising of the oppressed  lower classes against an ancien régime of privileged aristocrats such as was the French Revolution, but rather a reaction of an increasingly entrepreneurial middle class who feared their prosperity and upward mobility were being stifled by a narrow minded  mother country too distant to appreciate the opportunities the recent war had unleashed here, and too blind to allow them to be exploited without excessive interference.

Particularly galling to the people of northwestern New England was the Crown’s attempt to control the expansion of settlements in the new areas opened up after 1763. The colony of New York, for example, under its very pro-British governors insisted that its eastern boundary extended all the way to the Connecticut River. This flew in the face of New Hampshire’s claim that its western boundary  extended to the eastern shore of Lake Champlain. The territory in between, known at the time as the “ New Hampshire Grants”  (now the state of Vermont), fell into bitter dispute as each side assumed its own authority to award land, and often forcefully tried to evict the claimants of the other.[i]

Bennington, the very first town founded (1748) in the so-called Grants, was the hot-bed center of New Hampshire’s claim, and neighboring Williamstown, which funneled many would be settlers coming north mostly from Connecticut (often attempting to escape the harsh Puritan communities in the latter), became Bennington’s strong ally, not only against New York but against Great Britain herself for supporting New York’s claim.     So strong did this sentiment grow that in 1774 the men of Williamstown formed Committees of Correspondence and Safety,  just as elsewhere in the Colonies. A local militia was also raised with Samuel Sloan as captain. Finally in “April of ‘75”, when that climactic “shot heard round the world” resounded in the Berkshires, Captain Sloan and his men  marched off to join with other fellow Massachusetts  militias in Cambridge. On June 17,  his sixty volunteers from Williamstown and vicinity stood with Colonel Prescott on Bunker Hill, about to fire on British soldiers (but not  until they saw the “whites of their eyes” as the colonel supposedly ordered) thus committing irrevocable treason against the English Crown, a capital crime for which they could all be hanged.

Next  installment: WILLIAMSTOWN AT WAR:


[i] Robert R.R. Brooks, ed. Williamstown, the First 250 Years (Williamstown House of Local History) 2005, pp. 1-26

[ii] During the ownership of William Young, the house was the  meeting place for the local chapter of  the  Masonic Order.  Captain Young even built a special meeting room still extant in the house with a vaulted ceiling decorated with a Masonic insignia. Since the early eighteenth century, Freemasonry had gained widespread popularity in England and her colonies, since its revived doctrine stressed the new Protestant trust in science and technology .  as opposed to medieval (papist?) superstition. Also included among its members elsewhere in America  were George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.

[i] The chief instigator of the Grants’ demands was, of course, Ethan Allen with his “Green Mountain Boys” whom we shall meet again in the following Installment. By 1777, Allen and his followers actually declared the independence of the Grants from both New Hampshire and the budding United States, calling his territory the “Republic of New Connecticut.” In the same year, however,  the name was changed to “Vermont,” but finally became the fourteenth  state in the new Union in 1791.

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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.


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

Williamstown  7th May 1775


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


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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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.


[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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10. Wily Washington & Bungling Brits

By November, 1776, Washington’s army, defeated in the Battles of Long Island and White Plains, was finally compelled to abandon New York, which the British then occupied with a heavy concentration of forces. As the Americans  retreated south across New Jersey into Pennsylvania, Howe decided to follow. He positioned his troops around Princeton, New Jersey, hoping to lure Washington’s smaller force  into making a frontal European-style assault which he was confident he could defeat.  Washington, however, had another, cleverer plan. On Christmas night, he made that legendary boat ride across the icy Delaware River, surprised Howe’s unsuspecting Hessian mercenaries indulging themselves in holiday reverie, and routed them.

The Americans then advanced a few miles further south to Trenton. General Howe, alarmed but still confident,  thought to trap Washington by pinning him against the Delaware River, and so began to move his army also to Trenton. But once again Howe was foxed by wily Washington. As the first units of Howe’s force were deploying before him, Washington with his army sneaked out of Trenton that night, circled behind Howe, and on January 4, caught the other British brigade just leaving Princeton to join Howe, and routed it in a short, sharp fight. With half his force so dispersed, Howe had no choice but to hightail back to New York.

Frederick the Great of Prussia, no stranger to the arts of war, is said to have claimed in admiration, that Washington’s feats between December 25, 1776, and January 4, 1777 were the most brilliant of any recorded in military history. It’s also worth noting that the New England regiments in Washington’s army, though their term of service had officially expired in December,  elected to extend their enlistments and stick with Washington for another six months.

With that, Washington retired with his army to winter quarters in Morristown, New Jersey. Meanwhile, General Howe, much chastened by his embarrassment at Princeton,  contrived a bold plan of his own, to capture Philadelphia, the head if not the heart of the American rebellion. In his haste to restore his  personal glory, he left some unfinished business in New York that would forever consign him among the great losers of history – as we shall see. Notwithstanding, he  secretly moved his own army by ship from Sandy Hook, NJ on July 23, 1777, and sailed south toward Delaware Bay, disembarked his troops and advanced upon the City of Brotherly Love.  Washington hurriedly tried to stop him.  On September 13,  he confronted Howe’s army along Brandywine Creek south west of the city, and was defeated. Philadelphia was lost and Congress was forced to flee west to Lancaster, and then York, Pennsylvania. In early October, Washington attempted once more to drive the British out, attacking Howe at Germantown, but was again repulsed.

With the winter of 1777-1778 approaching, Washington moved his dispirited army across the Schuylkill River to spend the season at Valley Forge, twenty miles north of the Philadelphia. Here as we know, his soldiers suffered miserably, from hunger and disease as well as bitter cold.

Nonetheless, during those chilly months of 1777 and 1778, the troops were kept from idleness by a harsh Junker drill-master whom Washington had invited to help shape up his soldiers. His name was Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus Von Steuben, who managed to instill a measure of Prussian-style discipline in the American army that would pay off dramatically during the next five years.

On the other hand, back in warm and cozy Philadelphia, General William Howe was quite enjoying himself in the social swirl that continued to function even under British occupation. He was often entertained in the elegant home of wealthy Edward Shippen,  becoming friendly with his attractive but vain daughter, Peggy. Another frequenter of the Shippen manor, perhaps with a crush on pretty Peggy was a young British major named John Andre.  General Howe meanwhile was pursuing his own affair with a mistress he had imported from New York, Mrs. Betsy Loring, the wife of a New York loyalist and commissioner in Howe’s army. It has often been said, but with no solid proof, that Howe was so smitten by her charms, that he squandered his opportunity to crush Washington’s weakened army at Valley Forge – as a cynical poet rimed at the time.

Sir William he, snug as a flea,
Lay all this time a snoring,
Nor dreamed of harm as he lay warm,
In bed with Mrs. Loring.

While in New York that summer, Howe had been privy to a grand scheme concocted by General John (“Gentleman Johnnie”) Burgoyne (handsomely portrayed below by Sir Joshua Reynolds) who was currently operating in Canada, tightening up the defenses after Benedict Arnold’s defeat on Lake Champlain. Since Washington’s army was wandering west of the Hudson River, and the head of the great water routes south was now back in British hands, Burgoyne thought the opportunity ripe to split the colonies apart. He would ferry a large force of ten thousand men south on Lake Champlain, attack and retake Fort Ticonderoga, and then move down to Albany – and there join another large British army which, according to the plan, would have moved up the  the Hudson River from New York. It would be a neat replay of the old French strategy: gain control all three-hundred thirty miles of the north-south lake and river route from Canada to Manhattan,  and you create a cordon sanitaire that quite isolates and renders indefensible the whole of hotbed New England–  what a fitting end to their damnable revolution!


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11. Benedict Arnold: Hero or Villain?

The engraving above depicts Colonel Benedict Arnold before the city of Quebec in 1776. Even though that campaign and the whole Canadian venture ended in failure, it did not tarnish his on-going career. Indeed, his battlefield bravery was already legendary.  In the heat of the fight  he was  all over the place, fearlessly charging, rallying, never wavering, and always cajoling his men to push harder.  One might even compare him to impetuous General Patton in World War II, whose dash and daring were respected even by the enemy. But also like Patton, Arnold was arrogant and petulant, hungry for recognition, and bitter when he felt denied.

Actually, one could say that his meteoric career began in early May, 1775, when he lodged in Williamstown. His first big test was to come the next day when he expected to take command of the expedition against Fort Ticonderoga.  What dreams of glory passed through his head as he tossed on his bed at Smedley’s Tavern that night! And also what latent demons were also lurking there, ready to taunt him into taking reprisal whenever he (as he so often believed) was being slighted by inferior rivals?

However, before consigning him to his demons, let us observe Benedict Arnold during his most glorious hour, at the zenith of his brilliant career as a soldier and, for that moment at least  a legitimate American hero.  That moment, of course, was the Battle of Saratoga, which would not have been won were it not for the above mentioned good qualities of this quondam patriot. Furthermore, had that battle not been victorious, there’s a good chance that the Americans would never have won the final battle that ended the war and established our independence.

In spite of the futile Canadian adventure but during which he was heroically wounded,  Arnold was promoted to brigadier general. However, there were quarrels with associates and charges of misuse of his authority which, while dismissed in court, raised suspicions in Congress. In their list of promotions to major general in February of 1777 he was not mentioned. Angry or not, he briefly returned to his home in Connecticut,  remarkably just in time to thwart a sudden attempt by the British to intimidate the local citizenry and frighten them from joining the rebel cause. During April, 1777, a British raiding party landed on the Connecticut shore of Long Island Sound near Westport, and drove north along the old Housatonic River trail (now Route 7) toward Danbury, burning properties and terrorizing householders along the way. Arnold gathered as much militia as he could and though quite outnumbered attacked and harassed the British troops inflicting heavy casualties upon them, especially as they retired through the town of Ridgefield. Militarily speaking, it was not an American victory, but Arnold’s dramatic resistance and personal heroism galvanized public favor in Connecticut in support of the American rebellion.

It should be remembered that a huge reason that Americans emerged victorious in the war with Britain, was the gradual winning of the hearts and minds of the people by events such as this. Many if not most of American citizens were reluctant at first to join such a dangerous and seemingly impossible effort, but were finally inspired, precisely because of the actions of valiant soldiers like Benedict Arnold who risked their own lives to protect the lives and property of ordinary folk .

In any case, George Washington remained one of Arnold’s most fervid admirers, urging him to be patient concerning promotion, and wanted to post him to the northern New York theater where British General Burgoyne was threatening American control of Lake George. Arnold agreed, even though he would be serving with superior officers he believed to be his inferior in ability. Arnold would be especially annoyed with his subsequent commander, Major General Horatio Gates, a difficult leader who was overly cautious in battle, tended to make enemies of  his subordinates, and was openly conspiring with Congress to take over Washington’s position as commander in chief.

Let us leave Brigadier Arnold for the moment, and turn our attention to the British, and pick up on what Burgoyne was planning, and what Arnold would soon be opposing; also what Burgoyne’s fellow British generals, Howe in Philadelphia, and Henry Clinton, the commander Howe had left in charge of New York city, were doing in the spring of 1777. As mentioned in the previous installment, Burgoyne intended to put together a large army of  nearly ten thousand regulars, including six thousand British and  thirty-six hundred Germans plus a thousand Indians and a number of  loyalist militias, and move it south along the lake chain, retake Fort Ticonderoga, proceed to Albany where another large army, either that of Howe, or Clinton, arriving simultaneously north along the Hudson, would meet him. Another smaller army coming from the west by way of the Mohawk River valley under General Barry St. Leger would also join Burgoyne, putting key in the lock, so to speak.  The result would close off the entire north-south route, leaving New England fatally isolated from the rest of the western and southern colonies. A brilliant concept in theory, if only it would work in practice.

Burgoyne’s ambitious plan had been approved in London by Lord Germain, the British Secretary of State for the Americas. Unfortunately, the Secretary had little knowledge of the geography of the land nor the temper of its people, yet he insisted on monitoring the entire strategy  from his London office,  three-months of communication time away. Instructions were sent to Howe, but he was already preoccupied with his own plan to occupy Philadelphia. Clinton in New York was also addressed, but considered the orders unspecific and so advised that he dared not leave the city so soon for fear of an American attack.  As Burgoyne arrived in Canada to launch his grand scheme that April of 1777, he had not yet been informed of all these equivocations. In sum, he was thoroughly unaware that the other crucial half of the plan was still quite unsettled. .

When Burgoyne arrived in Montreal, he found several of the preparations he had expected still wanting, including an extra contingent of a thousand men. Furthermore, everyone seemed to know what Burgoyne was intending even though it was supposed to be a military secret. Still, the army eventually assembled  numbered over nine thousand regulars, roughly half British and  half mercenary Germans. Also included were about five hundred Indians, less than he had asked for. Indians were necessary to act as scouts as the army moved through much untracked wilderness. They came from several Canadian tribes now loyal to the British after the French defeat. Many belonged to the Iroquois nation including the Mohawks (“People of the Flint”). In fact, the word “Mohawk” had become a generic word for all the Indians attached to the British army. As they arrived at Burgoyne’s camp, he made a  welcoming speech  which naively seemed to invite the Indians to kill and scalp anyone opposing the British advance – except women and children. By the Indians’ interpretation, however “anyone” meant no exceptions. As we shall see, Burgoyne’s deployment of Indians  was to prove one of his most serious mistakes.

Finally on June 20, 1777, Burgoyne’s armada set off south on Lake Champlain. Because of the large amounts of  baggage including artillery, going was slow. The boats could cover only about five to six miles per day.  Two weeks later, the army landed just above Fort Ticonderoga. Interestingly, the old fort had been built by the French so that its most formidable bastions faced south against their then enemies. The north side was relatively unfortified, which made the taking of Ticonderoga from that direction easier. In the next installment, I shall not discuss how the British re-captured the fort, nor its valiant defense by the Americans, but move on to the next episode in Burgoyne’s advance, where he really ran into trouble trying to push south down the east side of Lake George and march his heavily burdened army as far as Fort Edward at the lower end of the Great Carrying Place.

Next installment: THE MURDER OF JANE McCREA

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