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Combat in the North Woods

Soldier kneeling in scrub brush aiming gun
The scrub brush along Lake Champlain presented both a challange and opportunity.

In discussing firelocks, cannons, or mortars with visitors, the question that logically comes up is the use of these weapons in a battle. Unfortunately, mentioning “A Battle” leads to images conjured out of the movies. Despite the rugged, wooded hills surrounding Fort Ticonderoga, as well as Lake Champlain, the hypothetical battle in which these weapons fire is a large open pastoral landscape on a bright sunny day, as in any blockbuster movie. Beyond the exciting May 10th 1775 capture ofFort Ticonderoga that helped make the reputation of both the Green Mountain Boys and this remote Fortress, the summer of 1775 was filled with fatigue and preparations, poor fodder to describe combat in the north woods. However, as the Continental Army’s Northern Department coalesced enough to begin the siege of Saint Johns, we have enough accounts to characterize combat for the soldiers that served here.

The siege of Saint Johns began with landings to the south of this Fort on September sixth and did not end until the British Regular and Canadian garrison surrendered on November first.  In this way the skirmishes and artillery duels that made up the siege represent the longest period of military engagement until the siege of Quebec at the very end of the year. One could potentially dismiss the siege of Saint Johns as merely a siege, and therefore unrepresentative of a typical battle. However, the waterways and land that make up theLake Chaplain corridor into Canada makes the events of this siege the norm for the North.

For the New England and New York soldiers advancing into Canada, marching really meant rowing. Travel by bateaux, just as in the French & Indian war, was the only efficient mode. With hundreds of soldiers moving in a flotilla of bateaux, protection of these soldiers and fire support took the form of small but substantial schooners and row galleys built to transport and use cannons and mortars. Much in the manner of the tall ships on the high seas, water transport allowed for substantial cannons to maneuver on the lake with relative ease. Obviously smaller than the massive guns of the great ships of the line, the six- and twelve-pounder cannons of many of these lake vessels still dictated the range of engagement. As in coastal fortifications, lakeside fortifications carried a similar armament to their water born adversaries. Accordingly, combat was amphibious, as well as centered around the relatively large cannons stationed on ship and shore.

Battle during the siege ofSaint Johns was both very brief and agonizingly long. Encounters between patrols were a mere matter of minutes, while the ever-present cannons and mortars of ships and batteries alike could drop shot or mortars on soldiers at a moments notice day or night. Sergeant Aaron Barlow, of the Fifth Connecticut, described the first scout around the Fort in his September eighth entry:

They went out on scout about 1000 men, and came to within a mile and a half of the Fort where they were fired upon by some Indians and Regulars. They returned the fire. There was a hot fire for about 15 minutes. They run off and we retreated back a few rods and put up a Breast work. We lost 8 men and 6 wounded…In the evening they flung bombs at us and drove us out of our Breast work. We retreated back about a mile and put up another Breast work and tarried here till day.

Two days later, and back in bateaux with his fellow Connecticut soldiers, Sergeant Barlow described another encounter with a British sortie:

As we came near the place where we had our first fight we discovered the enemy before they saw us, some on the shore and some on theLakein Batteaux. We fired at those on shore. They returned the fire—grape shot from their swivel boats and small arms from the shore. Our row gallies fire on their boats. The fire continued about 10 minutes very hot, then they ran off.


1775 battlefield, soldiers marching
The battlefield in 1775 was very far from a well mowed field.

Indeed these encounters on land and lake were quite brief, but the big guns present in boats and batteries meant long hours under fire. Already seemingly a seasoned veteran ten days later, Sergeant Barlow wrote of his service, “-A number belonging to the water craft went to work with them on land-we cut a road and made bridges within half a mile of the Fort. They fired Bomb shells and cannon Balls more or less every day at us but they have done us no damage by it.”  Major Henry Livingston of the Third New York noted this threat during the landings around the Fort on the eleventh of October, “As we were landing & for some time after we were landed they fired briskly with grapeshot from the Fort but by the good providence of God we had not a single man hurt. We made no Regular Encampment, but lodged about in the woods as well as we could for this night.” Given artillery ranges over two miles, soldiers in camp weren’t immune from the shot and shell. Near the end of the siege on October twenty-fifth, Colonel Rudolphus Ritzema noted, “-one of Capt. Mott’s Men killed and another wounded in their Tent by a dead Shot.”

Neither wide open fields, nor bare tree trunks under the canopy of the deep woods, the corridor along the lake presented both a challenge and an opportunity. Before landing to the south of Saint Johns, Colonel Rudolphus Ritzema tersely described this battlefield, “very few Settlements along either Shore of the lake; the Country hereabouts is very low & marshy.” The effects of this terrain were compounded by the employment of night-time maneuvers to avoid the cannon fire of the British held fort. Reverend Benjamin Trumbull wrote a spirited defense of the conduct of the CT soldiers, describing this difficulty:

The Design was that 500 men should pass the Forts in the dead of Night, undiscovered, and the remaining 400 should return with the Boats to the Isle Aux Noix. As soon as the 500 Men, who were designed to pass the Forts, were landed and paraded, they had Orders to march through the Swamp on the west Side of the Forts and take post below them. Although the Night was serene, yet the woods were so exceeding thick it was very dark for them, and the Passage difficult. For this Reason orders were given, which many of the troops heard, not to march with any Flank Guard, but to keep good Guards in the Front and Rear.

Despite these unfortunate consequences on September tenth, Continental Army actions during this siege were often aided by the concealment offered by this dense underbrush. Sergeant Barlow’s Journal records such an incident on the twenty-second of September, even allowing his fellow Connecticut Yankees to ambush a British gunboat:

We went to building a fasheen Batteryabout 100 rods this side of the Fort. We carried them through the bushes very still undiscovered by the Regulars til just at night a boat came along the lake about 12 Rods from the shore. A party discovered them, crept down in the bushes by the side of theLaketill they came against us, when they fired on them. They all dropt in the boat. They soon fired on us from the Fort, grape shot, cannon balls, and Bomb-shells did rattle.

 Major Livingston found similar success with his Yorkers as they built another battery opposing Saint Johns, stating, “As soon as it was dark under the Direction of on Halsey we began a Battery for 2 twelve pounders in addition to the French on & finish’d it before daylight. The Enemy probably never knew any thing we were abt although they were not more than 450 yards off…” The brush screening this battery was dense enough to prevent it from firing, requiring a detail of 40 men to clear away brush and trees under the cover darkness on the night of October twelfth.

Soldiers mounting packs into boat
Mounting packs and rowing onward was a daily part of soldiers life in 1775.

In many ways, the “battle” that Continental soldiers faced during the siege of Saint Johns would contain elements contemporary to more modern periods. At the very least it bears no resemblance to the 18th-century battle of the silver screen. Naval support and transport meant that soldiers could be landed into or withdrawn from combat with relative speed. Albeit powered oars and sails, the effect of this transport mirrors mechanized transport today. The combat described in these accounts contains both moments of sheer terror, and long nervous hours under observation and artillery fire. Even on quick scouts these soldiers had to be equally adept with the firelock and the shovel. Every static position, even for only a few hours, required entrenching a breastwork. Under the artillery fire of guns and mortars from land and water, the protection of these breastworks and larger batteries was vital. Likewise, managing the concealment of maneuver and entrenchments using the cover of the landscape and darkness seem equally modern. With all these complicating factors, it’s difficult to create a simple image to describe “battle,” but what is perhaps more important is to explain the sacrifice of those who served in battle in 1775.