Mounted Soldiers in Brown’s Raid

As early as May of 1775, members of the Connecticut Committee for the Capture of Crown Point and Ticonderoga rode unarmed through western Massachusetts on their way to recruit John Brown in Pittsfield and the Green Mountain Boys in the New Hampshire Grants.

As Fort Ticonderoga prepares to re-create Colonel John Brown’s September 18th, 1777 raid on Fort Ticonderoga, a nagging, or perhaps neighing, question keeps coming up.  Were there mounted men among Colonel John Brown’s force of militia and regular continental soldiers? An answer question would not radically change the exact progress of events, but it certainly would change our understanding of Brown’s force. When picturing military campaigns along the Lake Champlain corridor, horses rarely come to mind. Many campaigns at Fort Ticonderoga have seen armies using draught horses as well as officers’ mounts, but examples of actual mounted soldiers seem to be few and far between. General Benjamin Lincoln, who coordinated three raids, including Brown’s, launched from Pawlet, Vermont, leaves behind correspondence with tantalizing mention of mounted soldiers. Edward A. Hoyt, in his 2003 posthumously published article, The Pawlet Expeditions, September 1777 cites many such orders of General Lincoln.

Militia light horse, equipped themselves as cavalry, with all appropriate saddlery and arms. General Benjamin Lincoln specifically tasked militia light horse in western Massachusetts with carrying ammunition for the three raids he dispatched from Pawlet, Vermont.

Massachusetts’ militia, much like the other New England states maintained militia troops of horse, armed as cavalry at the militia horseman’s expense as per state regulations. Possibly due to the distances between towns, or terrain conducive to mounted transport, some portion of Berskshire County’s militia mustered mounted, equipped as foot soldiers, but with horses for mobility. At the same time General Lincoln was mustering his forces, the State of Connecticut had already forwarded their state corps of light horse to Continental forces amassing near Saratoga, lending some precedent to mounted militia helping operations in wooded country. Lincoln appears to have called upon mounted men of Berkshire County to help gather supplies for his forces. The county was called upon, ““for a body of their militia . . . mounted, each bringing his sack of flour,” who began to arrive with flour by the 12th of September.  John Brown himself was the colonel of this county’s militia regiment, formed from each towns’ companies, both mounted and not.

Colonel John Brown appears to have had his pick of forces, as his expedition was to attack Fort Ticonderoga itself. Among many Vermont regulars and rangers, Brown chose men from the Berkshire county militia, though the proportion of mounted men amongst them is unknown. Brown must have competed for mounted men with the other two expeditions launched from Pawlet, as General Lincoln ordered mounted militia from Berkshire County attached to all three raids. These mounted militia men were to carry bags of flour to help keep supplies moving with these lightly equipped forces. Likewise,Lincoln attached militia light-horse to all three raiding parties to carry extra ammunition.

John Brown’s party traced along the eastern edge of the South Bay of Lake Champlain until fording at a spot known as, “the Narrows.” From there Brown traversed the rugged hills between Lake Champlain and Lake George before descending upon the British garrison at Lake George landing on September 18th. Initial interpretation of this route appeared to make the passage of mounted militia impassible. The South Bay of Lake Champlain is hemmed in by very steep hills, and crossing at the narrows would be harrowing for men, let alone horses. Based on this the initial assumption it was assumed that at the Narrows mounted men distributed their supplies to the rest of Brown’s men and then returned to Pawlet, though no document specifically attested to this.

As research has continued about Brown’s raid, some evidence has challenged this assumption and raised the possibility that at least some of Brown’s men were mounted. Correspondence from the Massachusetts Committee of Safety from September 24, records mounted militia riding supplies of flour to Colonel Johnson’s raid against Mount Independence, which coincided with Brown’s raid directly across Lake Champlain. General Lincoln, dispatching letters from Skenesboro at the southern end of the South Bay, must have expected riders to speed urgent orders to all the way to Colonel Brown, at Ticonderoga. Colonel Brown definitely was in possession of horses while at Ticonderoga, capturing many British draught horses along with cattle, supplies and 330 British soldiers. Brown’s attack ranged over a relatively large area, extending between Lake George landing,Mount Defiance, Mount Hope, and the French lines. Coordinating an attack between these positions may have required mounted men running messages between these various posts.

Perhaps the best piece of evidence that mounted men went with Brown all the way to Ticonderoga, comes from a letter from Brigadier General Jacob Bayley. Writing from Castleton ,Vermont as the Commissary General for the Northern Department, Bayley recounted Brown’s Raid.

The general, before he left (Skenesboro, 21st of September), gave orders to Colonel Brown and Colonel Johnson, who were still at Ticonderoga and Mount Independence respectively, “to return and join me at Stillwater, as soon as they should have succeeded, or all hopes of success should be cut off . . .”

In addition, he seized numerous carriages, cattle, and horses as well as cannon, arms, and ammunition.

 13th. Marched in three Divisions from Pawlet, commanded by Cols. Brown, Johnson and Woodbridge. Col. Brown crossed South Bay to relieve our prisoners at the North of Lake George; Col Johnson at the same time to diver the enemy at Independence; Col. Woodbridge at Skeensborough to cover Col. Brown’s retreat &c.

On Wednesday morning, ye 17th, at day-break Col. Brown began ye attack, set at liberty 100 of our men which were prisoners; took prisoners 293 of the enemy, amongst which were to Capts., 7 Lieuts, & two other officers; took Mount Defiance, Mount Hope, the French lines & the Block house at the Landing, 200 Battaus, one armed sloop, several gun-boats; on Sunday took about 100 prisoners– the prisoners are marched for Connecticut, except ye 100—took a vast quantity of plunder; his [Col. Brown’s] water crafter are with a party set out for the South end of Lake George, where are all their boats, baggage & heavy artillery. I have not the least doubt but they will succeed; The Division consists of 500 men each; Col. Brown is reinforced now to 700. We mean to keep possession of the ground at Ticonderoga; the field is now opened wide, the time is now come the we may intirely cut off Gen. Burgoyne’s whole army if we exert ourselves; our numbers are not sufficient to keep what we have & can get. I think it the Duty of every man to turn out with his horse & one month’s provisions; which will undoubtedly accomplish our design. I must call on all friends to America to turn out & come to our assistance at Ticonderoga.

Jacob Bayley B. D. G.

Castleton, September 21st, 1777

PS: Genl. Lincoln is gone to join Genl. Gates.

Mounted militia appear to have travelled horseback, but were equipped to fight on foot. The mounted militia of Berkshire county Massachusetts provided essential service in supplying General Lincoln’s raiding parties with stockpiles of flour for rations.

Despite being a day early in his account of Brown’s dawn attack, General Bayley clearly had good information about the attack. While he paints a brief, but exciting narrative, his recommendation at the end of his letter is fascinating. Rather than simply calling for reinforcements or another draft of the militia, he specifically states,”I think it the Duty of every man to turn out with his horse & one month’s provisions; which will undoubtedly accomplish our design.” This Vermonter, who had been in communication with General Lincoln, and had inside knowledge of Brown’s Raid specifically called for mounted volunteers to go to Ticonderoga.  The fact that he believed that mounted militia would be useful to the expedition, provides strong but still inconclusive evidence that Brown had mounted men serving with him during his September 18th raid. The fact that a Vermonter called for mounted volunteers may be indication that the Berkshire County mounted militia may be a more common aspect of militia service in western New England.  In any event, the tantalizing possibility of mounted soldiers makes Colonel John Brown’s raid on Ticonderoga fertile ground for further research.

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