The Orphaned Guns of Ticonderoga
by Bernard Shturmann
In February of 1778 Governor George Clinton ‘rediscovered’ the remaining cannon left behind at Fort Ticonderoga from when Henry Knox had made his famous trek to the siege of Boston with the artillery. Clinton now had urgent need of the guns and he requested Colonel Wynkoop and Major Ebenezer Stevens of Massachusetts, both then in Albany, to go to the fort and load these up on sledges and to then bring them back down to Albany where they could be mounted on gun barges and floated down to the defense of the great chain that was about to be emplaced at West Point. The barges would serve not only as transportation but as floating gun platforms once they got there anchored in the river to protect the chain when the ice broke that spring. Parsons had been so eager for the cannon that he had already designed the gunboats which were to be fabricated in Albany in the meanwhile. (It was the eventual inability to procure the cannon that probably contributed to Parson’s resignation.)
Governor Clinton had been assured by Major Stevens by February 28th that the cannon had been dismounted, inspected and were ready to be moved down to Albany per his request. Things had been well arranged and the preparations were being made to load the hundred and seven pieces along with trunions and carriages onto the sledges. On March 4th the State Convention resolved to consign the cannon to George Clinton’s care providing official sanction for the project and effectively making a de facto claim of ownership of the cannon for New York State Things seemed to be going along swimmingly but,---.
When Conway and Gates got wind of all this, thinking perhaps that this was all a plot of Washington and Clinton against Gates to drain the Northern Command (now under Gates authority) of muscle (some of the cannon involved included several 32 pounders) they stepped in quickly to prevent the sledges from leaving Ti. Conway with Stevens’ cooperation successfully delayed the transport party until it was too late in the season to easily get the cannon over land to Albany and then tried to divert these to the use of Schuyler and Fort Stanwix. Lafayette suspecting the actual reason for the delay interceded and on March 17th asked Stevens for an immediate complete report and inventory but Conway had temporized long enough. The snow was off the ground and the larger sledges could no longer be moved making it not worth disputing over the smaller pieces which still could be had. The cannon remained at Ti that spring and the chain was left to some extent unprotected by heavy ordnance at least at the river level except for Greaton’s Battery.
The repercussions of the actions of Conway and Stevens were instantaneous and far reaching. The intentional failure of Major Ebenezer Stevens to forward the cannon provided the final straw for Washington in his contest of wills with Gates. The consequences of the actions of Major Stevens hence would have broad and far reaching effect not only as far as the defenses of West Point and the valley but on the very command structure of the grand army itself. This all came to pass like a glacier carving its way from the north country only to create a new landscape when it retreated.
As a reward to Stevens for acceding to Conway’s request to delay shipping the cannon, Gates had appointed Stevens head of Northern Department of the Artillery thus essentially superseding John Lamb in the command structure. Though Stevens was officially a Massachusetts officer, Lamb had previously considered him a direct subordinate in his chain of command. Lamb would not take this insult lying down and he wrote to the Congress and to Washington livid and threatening to resign if the affair was not rectified. Stevens in response likewise enlisted various members of congress on his side of the dispute and a rouhaha erupted in congress with Henry Laurens taking Stevens side.
Washington clearly did want to get in the middle of this dispute but neither did he want to lose Lamb’s services and he requested that the congress appoint a special committee to arrange the ranks of the officers of the army hoping this would settle the matter without his direct interference. By the end of April the matter between Lamb and Stevens had essentially been settled with the appointment of Stevens as a Lt. Colonel under Lamb in the NY 2nd but it was already too late to stop the congressional juggernaut. The congress had decided to take matters into its own hands and their committee of arrangement arrived at the continental encampment at White Plains in the summer of 1778. With typical overkill they required every officer of rank to document their entire service dating back to 1776. Operating under Joseph Reed the committee aside from the blizzard of paperwork they had engendered was remarkably efficient in settling the actual questions and was able to provide relative rankings for essentially every corps and every officer in the army within a month and a half. They still however could not settle the ranks of the artillery whose bruised egos already had been so inflamed by the previous posturing that this question had to go to a board of General Officers. This last question would not be fully settled until two years later.
As for the original shipment of cannon that had been sent from Ti in 1775, it is clear that some went east with Knox to the siege of Boston which is well documented but what is less well known is that others went south probably with the Dutch engineer Bernard Romans (probably the heavier ones for which it is was impractical to send this distance overland). Romans along with Benedict Arnold had been responsible fore securing and inventorying the heavy armaments captured so likely. Romans had some charge of these. It is very possible they ended up at Roman’s project, Fort Constitution. (No large cannon were noted by the congressional commission when they went to inventory these works so it is possible Romans had hidden the larger cannon, having not been able to emplace them yet due to difficulties with the work crews. Perhaps he was concerned that they would be confiscated if it was seen they were not yet being utilized. This commission included Benjamin Franklin. )
when Roman’s plans for the ‘Grand Bastion’ on
Constitution Island fell thru, the cannon on that site were shipped down
To Fort Montgomery for the defense there and these mostly likely were those
employed in the Grand Battery as there were no other significant field pieces
reported available on the site by October 6th when the fort fell which raises
another perhaps even more interesting question as to why the fort was so
poorly defended with a lack of land facing artillery.
The key to this final important question which was supposed to have been settled by the Court of Inquiry convened by General Washington again harks back to Fort Ticonderoga and its guns. Obviously Henry Knox in 1775 had been well aware of the military value of the remaining cannon he had left behind and hoped some day to retrieve them for the Continental Artillery. Aside from the Continental Army, New York State itself had a very valid claim on the armament for itself as well and it therefore presented a somewhat ticklish situation for anyone removing them from the site. Once they were deployed in the Highlands to the defense of the chain, though they were still movable, in fact floatable, the cannon would be considered stationary installations and no longer be available for the moving army which was Knox’s major concern. He clearly could not just confiscate the remaining cannon without greatly upsetting the applecart with Lamb and Clinton which is probably why they had remained there unused for two years.
Clinton had been aware of the likelihood of a British land side attack on Fort Montgomery since March of 1777 and had written clearly of this possibility to Levi Pawling stating it in no uncertain terms. Washington too was very concerned about this same possibility. For some reason the preparations for this eventuality languished and by the day of the actual attack there was only a single fieldpiece available for the defenders of the forts. (This was the Fenno/Machin brass piece deployed on the furnace road) and the land facing fortifications of Fort Montgomery had not even been fully completed.
What was the reason for this deplorable situation? In May of 1777 Knox on a commission to investigate the state of readiness visited the site along with MacDougall at which time he convinced Clinton that he had nothing to fear from a land based attack. He claimed the land route back of the forts was essentially impassable for any large British force. (Obviously this was on hearsay as a man of Knox’s girth would not have determined this fact on this own). In any event, this was enough to allay Clinton’s fears and to prevent him from requesting the remaining cannon at Ticonderoga be sent down post haste settling the issue finally of who they belonged to; New York State or the Continental Army. (As to whether Knox’s remark was disingenuous or a sincere estimation of the defensive situation, that is far too complex to treat here.)
Nevertheless, in a sense, the lack of artillery on the west side of the fort on October 6th, when the forts fell is directly attributable to Henry Knox’ and his possible designs on retrieving the Ti cannon for his own use instead of allowing them to be claimed by New York State. The loss of the forts in this sense can be laid at his and MacDougall’s doorstep not only at Putnam’s, the perennial scapegoat which makes it all the more ironic that MacDougall was chosen to head the inquiry, thus insuring that there would be a whitewash.
As for the orphaned cannon, eventually Lafayette had them floated down to Virginia where they participated in the siege of Yorktown under his command with Lamb, Knox and Stevens all directing the fire. Clinton would eventually ask the congress for monetary reimbursement to the State of New York for the confiscation of these cannon by the United States from the State of New York.
This is just a draft article of the research and any further information on the subject would be appreciated. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org