In the fall of 1776, the fate of the newly formed United States of America rested on the shoulders of an army entrenched on a rocky Vermont promontory. A few months earlier, this army had been described by John Adams as “disgraced, defeated, discontented, dispirited, diseased, naked, undisciplined, [and] eaten up with vermin….”
The unfortunate soldiers Adams was referring to had invaded Canada the previous fall at the outset of the Revolutionary War under orders from Congress. The idea was to help the Canadians throw off the shackles of their oppressors and deny the British a staging area from which to attack the rebelling colonies. As we have once again learned, a country’s inhabitants don’t always welcome an invading army with open arms.
After successfully capturing Montreal, the army’s advance stalled at the walls of Quebec, where it was ravaged by winter, desertions and small pox. Fresh British troops arrived as spring returned the frozen waters of the St. Lawrence River to a navigable waterway, and the American army dragged itself south as fast at its wretched condition allowed. Well over half of the 5200 soldiers in this army needed medical attention, wracked with small pox and other disabling disease. It was a meager force that remained to stave off the expected British reprisal.
Deciding Crown Point was not defensible, the American generals moved the army south to Fort Ticonderoga to make its stand.
Built by the French to repel a British invasion from the south, Fort Ticonderoga was not ideally situated to defend against an attack up Lake Champlain from the north. But Rattlesnake Hill, the craggy peninsula directly opposite Ticonderoga on the Vermont shore, was a natural fortification site, with steep cliffs and water protecting its 300 acres on three sides. Any ships sailing south would come directly into its northern face, the first place the Americans began to build gun batteries when ordered to fortify Rattlesnake Hill.
On July 28, the men were given a short break from the furious work of turning the the Rattlesnake Hill into a citadel as Colonel Arthur St. Clair read to them a copy of the Declaration of Independence. One can only imagine what the veterans of the Canada invasion must have felt on hearing the words of Thomas Jefferson. So many had already died, others had endured terrific hardship. Now they had a tangible expression of what they were fighting for: the freedom to govern themselves. They shouted three cheers and renamed the peninsula on which they were pinning their hopes. From then on Rattlesnake Hill would be known as Mount Independence.
As the fortifications grew stronger on the Mount, so did the army. Reinforcements flowed into camp. By autumn, 10,000 soldiers from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New England were stationed at Mount Independence, with another 2,000 across the lake at Fort Ti.
While work progressed on the Mount, Benedict Arnold was busy assembling America’s first fighting fleet of ships at what is now Whitehall, New York. Arnold had yet to turn traitor and, in fact, was one of the Americans’ best field commanders. Now he was racing to get his small navy ready for battle, because at the other end of the lake, British General Sir Guy Carleton was building his own flotilla, one large enough to transport his army of 8,000. It was Carleton’s intention to smash through the American defenses, make his way to Albany, and cut New England off from the rest of the colonies. If he succeeded, the Revolution might be stopped just as it was beginning.
In September, Arnold sailed his makeshift navy north to intercept the British fleet at Valcour Island. The British were superior sailors, with overwhelming numbers. But before their ships were hammered to pieces by the British guns, Arnold and his sailors managed to delay the British advance for three days. Those days proved pivotal. The weather shifted, bringing winds from the south that further delayed the British. When Carleton’s ships at last sailed into view of Mount Independence, 12,000 determined Americans were entrenched on both sides of the lake. Winter was advancing so Carleton could not afford a long siege, and the American position was far too strong for a quick battle. Carleton had no choice but to turn his ships around and return to Canada.
Arnold’s navy and the fortifications at Mount Independence had bought the new United States of America several precious months before they would again face attack from the north.
In 1777, General John Burgoyne led the British up Lake Champlain once again. This time the British force outnumbered the Americans three to one. As Burgoyne’s forces threatened to surround the American posts at Fort Ti and Mount Independence, newly promoted Major General Arthur St. Clair had little choice but to order a retreat in the early hours of July 6. Three months later St. Clair’s army formed the core of the forces gathered at Saratoga to turn back Burgoyne’s invasion. Like Carleton the year before, Burgoyne expected to end the rebellion by driving a wedge between the rabble-rousing New Englanders and the rest of the misguided colonies. But his big plans came to an end with his surrender at at Saratoga, arguably the most significant battle of the entire war, and perhaps in all of American history. After Burgoyne’s defeat, the remaining British troops occupying Mount Independence burned what they could and returned to Canada, thus returning the Mount to obscurity.
The American occupation of Mount Independence lasted just a year, but a year was enough to allow a “disgraced, defeated” army to mold itself into a force that could take on the mightiest military in the world and win.
When I hear or read right-wingnuts questioning a person’s patriotism based upon the lack of some token symbol, I think about the people who defended their freshly minted country on Vermont’s hard soil. A lapel pin is a pathetic measure of one’s love of country. A far better measure is how one appreciates and honors the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. These documents embody the principles that true patriots fought and died for.
Have we lived up to those ideals? Have we earned the privilige of Independence granted to us by those brave people who were willing to sacrifice so much to call themselves free men and women?
Mount Independence is now a Vermont State Historic Site, five miles west of Route 22A in Orwell.
Update: For a more eloquent Independence Day appeal to Obama and the DC elite to defend the Constitution, read this.