Mount Independence State Historic Site
" . . . a perfect mousetrap."
- Col. Alexander Scammell,September 21, 1777
From here are seen nearly all the powerful forces of nature that made this spot on Lake Champlain the Gibraltar of the North as well as its Achilles heel during the American Revolution. Straight ahead (looking west) is the 853-foot high Mount Defiance. On the other side of it is Lake George. To the north the narrow, quarter-mile wide channel was the perfect place to build artillery batteries to curtail activity on Lake Champlain. To the west of the channel is the south-facing Fort Ticonderoga, built in 1755 by the French during the French & Indian War as a defense against the British. It guarded southern Lake Champlain and the mouth of the LaChute River, the outlet of Lake George that spills 225-feet down the northern side of Mount Defiance into Lake Champlain.
When the American Northern Army of 4,000 to 5,000 men straggled into Ticonderoga in July 1776, the stone fort sat in disrepair. They began its rehabilitation and the monumental task of creating a new defense across from Ticonderoga on the rocky peninsula that juts northward toward Canada and the British enemy. After three months, new gun batteries and breastworks on Mount Independence were armed with cannon, ready to defend New England and points south.
On October 28, 1776, Gen. Guy Carleton and his British fleet of five major vessels and 28 gunboats approached, after their naval victory on October 11 to 13 against Benedict Arnold at Valcour Island. Mount Independence and Fort Ticonderoga, manned by nearly 14,000 soldiers and bristling with cannon batteries, was a formidable sight. Carleton, feeling winter drawing near, turned back to Canada. British invasion was delayed for another year.
In June 1777 the British tried again. Lt. Gen. John Burgoyne sailed south on Lake Champlain to split off New England from the rest of the American states. American scouting parties fed the news about his movements to Maj. Gen. Arthur St. Clair, commander of the now severely undermanned Fort Ticonderoga and Mount Independence. By June 25 the British were only 11 miles away, cannon fire signaling their approach. The 4,000 Americans worked feverishly, strengthening their vast defenses and bringing in reinforcements. A large British detachment landed at Three Mile Point on June 30. With nearly 8,000 British soldiers and German allies ready to attack, the Americans knew they were outnumbered two to one. St. Clair wrote, "The Scene thickens fast."
The squeeze continued. On July 3 the British were repelled while attempting a minor attack on lines west of Ticonderoga. As the Americans celebrated the one-year anniversary of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, British engineer William Twiss discovered the flaw in the American defenses. Rugged Mount Defiance was undefended. "It was very commanding ground." The British cut a road, hauled up two cannons, and placed troops on the summit.
As the next morning dawned Maj. St. Clair spotted British artillerymen high atop Mount Defiance, perfectly positioned to bombard Mount Independence and Ticonderoga. Col. Alexander Scammell of the 3rd New Hampshire Regiment called the predicament "a perfect mousetrap." St. Clair convened his officers, who decided that under the cover of darkness that night they would abandon Mount Independence.
St. Clair ordered the sick and weak to travel by boats loaded with supplies to the south end of the lake at Skenesborough, New York. The rest of the army would march southeast thirty miles to Castleton, and then meet up with the others at Skenesborough to head south together. The shocking order to evacuate slowly spread around the garrison, the soldiers silently making preparations. Steady fire from a cannon battery masked any sounds. The night of July 5 and 6 wore on. At 3:00 a.m. a blazing fire burst out on Mount Independence, exposing the American retreat. Brig. Gen. Roche de Fermoy, a French soldier of fortune commanding the Mount, violated orders by setting his headquarters on fire. American pickets remaining at Ticonderoga later reported they "could see every movements they (the Americans) were making, striking their tents, and loading and carrying off their baggage."
The Americans hastened their departure, forced to leave much behind. St. Clair placed a volunteer four-man gun crew at the Mount Independence shore battery, with orders to fire at any enemy crossing the bridge. By 4:00 a.m. the Americans were marching out the south gate of Mount Independence or rowing their vessels southwards. At the same time the British entered Fort Ticonderoga. The several mile length of Mount Independence was all that separated the enemies. The American soldiers at the shore batteries, finding a cask of Madeira wine nearby, had passed out by the time the British crossed the bridge. The American occupation of Mount Independence and Fort Ticonderoga was over.