After the battles of Lexington and Concord, 20,000 American minutemen descended upon Boston and laid siege to it. But the siege quickly fell into an impasse. General Gage couldn’t force his way out, because there were too many Americans. And the Americans couldn’t storm the city, because the guns of the British Navy would break up any assault. The Americans needed cannon and powder to dislodge the British. Furthermore there were rumors that a British army was forming in Canada and the Americans would be caught in the middle if it marched to relieve Boston. The Americans needed time to train, organize and equip their army before the British descended upon them from the north.
Two hundred miles away, the massive Ft Ticonderoga fulfilled both of these needs. It dominated the traditional invasion route from Canada into New England along Lake Champlain and was stocked with cannon and powder. The fort was vital to the defense of the colonies in the French and Indian War, but after Canada was ceded to the British, it no longer had much military value. Its walls fell into disrepair, and in 1775 had a garrison of just forty men.
The Americans actually launched two small, but unconnected expeditions to capture the fort. The first, from the army besieging Boston, was led by the aristocratic, ambitious, and very competent former merchant, then colonial colonel, Benedict Arnold. The second expedition was led by Arnold’s polar opposite: the hard drinking, hard living, and hard fighting frontiersman Ethan Allen and the notorious Green Mountain Boys, his personal militia from The New Hampshire Grants. They had been fighting their own war of independence from New York since 1770 (They eventually won, we call their land Vermont today). They temporarily put aside their differences with their cousins to the south to fight the British. On 9 May, the two expeditions joined forces, and Arnold attempted to take over command of both due to his commission from Massachusetts. But the Green Mountain Boys were going to be led by Ethan Allen, and no fancy pants colonel was just going to try and take over. They refused to fight for anyone else and Benedict Arnold was relegated to second in command: a slight that infuriated the proud Arnold.
The next morning, Allen, with Arnold at his side, launched a joint surprise attack on Fort Ticonderoga. They met almost no resistance and literally caught the garrison commander with his pants down. Allen banged on his door, and yelled, “Come on out, ya rat!” Hundreds of French, Indians, Americans, and British were killed or wounded trying to take and retake Fort Ticonderoga during the last war. In 1775 the “Gibraltar of America” fell before breakfast. As the Green Mountain Boys got drunk on the rum stores and the garrison commander’s personal booze stash, then tore the joint apart, Arnold and his men continued on and seized Crown Point, Fort St Jean, and the ships at anchor up the coast.
On 19 May, a letter from Gage arrived instructing the garrison to prepare for a rebel attack.
Ethan Allen wrote a dispatch to the Massachusetts Congress detailing the success of the expedition. He purposely never mentioned his rival’s name.
Benedict Arnold never forgave him.