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Was Ethan Allen a hero or a humbug? a patriot or a pretender? Ask Vermont and she cries "Nulli secundus!" Ask New York and the reply is "Ad referendum."
Ethan Allen at Ticonderoga.
In some cases new owners put in an appearance and attempted to take possession, having purchased, in good faith, of land speculators in New York City, to whom Governor Colden, of New York, had issued immense grants covering a large part of the disputed territory. These speculators were mostly lawyers, who were favorites or friends of the governor. Against these shrewd men of wealth and education, with their powerful backing, the puny defence of the original settlers seemed wellnigh hopeless. But it was to be a contest between might and right, and that invisible influence which seems ever to weaken the one and strengthen the other was surely, though silently at work.
Upon this scene of trouble and uncertainty appears Ethan Allen, a farmer, born about thirty years before in Coventry, Conn., large of frame, of great personal strength, and with mental characteristics in harmony with his powerful physique: a tender-hearted giant whose standard of honor and honesty soon measured the injustice of New York's position in the land controversy, and at once sided with the besieged farmers, with whom he had many generalities of sympathy.
With fiery energy of will and purpose, he immediately assumed the leadership of the defence, guiding its combined strength into the legal side of the question, thus meeting the power of alleged law with like weapons. Selecting the best legal talent of Connecticut as assistants, and armed with New Hampshire's charter and seal, he appeared in the Albany courts to contest New York's claim that the Connecticut River was the boundary between that province and New Hampshire.
But the trial was a farce, stripped of all dignity and justice by the fact that the judge upon the bench, the prosecuting attorneys, and other officials were personally interested, each holding New York grants for many thousand acres in the disputed territory. All evidence for the defence, even the New Hampshire charter, was ruled out of court, and Ethan Allen's peaceful efforts for defence were defeated.
He returned home, burning with indignation and resolving to protect his property and that of his neighbors, if need were, by the force of his own strong right arm. For six years, under his leadership, all attempts by New York settlers to take possession were frustrated by the alertness of the "Green Mountain Boys," as the defence now termed themselves, who drove them off quietly or with violence, according to the exigencies of the occasion.
As a measure of punishment for these acts, Ethan Allen was outlawed by the Governor of New York, and a price offered for his capture. Soon after he rode alone into Albany one day, and alighting at a tavern in the heart of the city, called for refreshment. His former visit had marked his strong personality in the remembrance of many, and he was at once recognized by prominent officials, who stared at him with curiosity, but made no effort to arrest him. Returning their gaze, he lifted his glass to his lips, pledging in a loud, firm voice "The Green Mountain Boys," and then rode away unmolested.
This act was defined by his friends as the rashness of bravery; by his enemies as the madness of impudence.
But the cloud overhanging the shores of Lake Champlain was but a shadow compared with the darkness of the storm brooding over the whole region south and east of it, and the battle of Lexington ended this local strife.
Thenceforth, Ethan Allen was to bid defiance, not to a State, but to a nation. To him and his Green Mountain Boys came urgent appeals from leading patriots of the American Revolution for help and support in the coming struggle, and the answer was more than kindly assent and promise: it was prompt and vigorous action--the first aggressive blow at the power of Great Britain, for the musket-shots that harassed the retreating red-coats from Concord were those of spirited defence rather than of deliberate attack.
As the fortress of Ticonderoga had been the key of the position in the late French and Indian wars, the gain or loss of which meant either overwhelming victory or disaster, so now it was deemed of equal importance in the coming conflict, which inevitably would bring the British foe upon them from the North, along the same familiar war-path. The capture of this fort was a serious undertaking, for it was well garrisoned by a company of British soldiers, and thoroughly equipped for vigorous defense. Only the keenest strategy and the most complete surprise would avail in the accomplishment of the task.
But the experience and ability of Ethan Allen--who had been unanimously chosen as leader--was adequate to the occasion, and his plans were made with the greatest secrecy and skill. One of his men was detailed to gain admission to the fort on some pretext, and then by skilfully acting the part of a greenhorn full of foolish questions, to learn many important facts and necessary details. In addition, a lad was found thoroughly familiar with the interior of the garrison, who would serve as guide, and on the night of May 9, 1775, 270 American patriots appeared on the shore opposite Fort Ticonderoga, which was on the west or New York side of Lake Champlain.
A day or two previous a small force of men had been despatched secretly to points above and below this spot in quest of boats, which failing them, in this emergency only 83 of the 270 men could be accommodated in the limited number at hand. Spring lingers long in this latitude, and the night, clear and cold, was giving way to dawn when the brave leader and his little vanguard of heroes resolved to attack without further re-enforcement. According to military precedent, he first harangued his followers.
"Friends and fellow-soldiers, you have for a number of years been a scourge and a terror to arbitrary power. Your valor has been famed abroad and acknowledged, as appears by the advice and orders to me from the General Assembly of Connecticut to surprise and take the garrison now before us. I now propose to advance before you and in person conduct you through the wicket gate; for we must this morning either quit our pretensions to valor, or possess ourselves of this fortress in a few minutes. And inasmuch as it is a desperate attempt, which none but the bravest men dare undertake, I do not urge it on any contrary to his will. You that will undertake voluntarily, poise your firelock!"
Needless to state, the firelocks were all "poised"--whatever that may be--and, led by Allen, a rush was made, the sentry overpowered, and soon the gallant "83" were standing back to back on the parade-ground within the fort, their muskets levelled at the two barracks which, filled with sleeping soldiers, faced each other.
The commandant was then aroused by loud rapping on his door and the voice of Allen bidding him come out and surrender the fort. The astonished officer, half dressed, made his appearance, demanding by what authority he was asked to do such a thing.
A part of Ethan Allen's famous reply: "In the name of Jehovah and the Continental Congress!" was more prophetic than authentic, as the latter earthly tribunal at that time had no existence.
The hundred cannon and quantities of ammunition found in the fort were sent east, where they proved of great service in the siege of Boston.
Crown Point, the garrison of St. Johns, many boats, vessels, and a British armed schooner soon after fell into the hands of the Green Mountain Boys, thus giving them the full sweep of Lake Champlain, and holding in check any attempts at invasion from that direction.
Ethan Allen's military instincts and foresight transcended any experience and all knowledge he possessed on the subject. He at once saw the importance of pushing the advantage now gained, by an immediate advance upon Canada before reinforcements could arrive to strengthen the strongholds of Montreal and Quebec; a measure which, if adopted, would have changed the whole history of the northern campaign that eventually proved so disastrous.
With the splendid magnanimity of a noble soul and the abnegation of a true patriot, he addressed the Continental Congress of New York on the subject, first apologizing for his seeming neglect to consult with that body before his attack on Ticonderoga, which was within its province, and explaining the necessity for secrecy, which prompted him. Note the spirit of prophecy breathed in the following words:
"I wish to God America would at this critical juncture exert herself agreeable to the indignity offered her by a tyrannical ministry. She might rise on eagle's wings and mount up to glory, freedom, and immortal honor if she did but know and exert her strength. Fame is now hovering over her head. A vast continent must now sink to slavery, poverty, and bondage, or rise to unconquerable freedom, immense wealth, inexpressible felicity, and immortal fame."
He then offers the services of his own men for the purpose, and to raise a regiment of rangers in Northern New York, a proposal which he trusts will not be deemed impertinent.
But for some unexplained reason no action was taken on his suggestions until months later, when the conditions had materially changed, making such a campaign exceedingly more difficult. Generals Schuyler and Montgomery were then in command, and to Ethan Allen was given a task requiring shrewdness, tact, and great personal influence--to enlist the co-operation or the neutrality of the Canadians in the struggle between the American colonists and the mother country. For weeks he travelled in Canada, "preaching politics" so successfully that he was able to report a company of 300 Canadian recruits for the American service, and that 2,000 more could be enlisted when needed.
In returning from this expedition he was persuaded by a brother officer into a step that but for an accident would have been more brilliant than Allen's former exploit and added fresh laurels to his name as a military hero. It was no less than the surprise and capture of Fort Montreal, then garrisoned by 500 men, 40 only of whom were regulars, the remainder volunteers and Indians.
It seemed a feasible undertaking. The plan was similar to the seizure of Ticonderoga--the quiet landing of boats under the walls of the fort before daybreak and the quick rush of attack. The forces were divided, Allen taking 110 men and landing below the city. The remainder and larger portion were to cross the river above and then signal the others. Colonel Allen promptly performed his part of the programme, but no signal greeted his ears, and daylight found him in full view of the fort and unable to retreat. He and his men for two hours bravely resisted the enemy, who sallied out to attack them, but without avail, and they were taken prisoners.
The story of Ethan Allen's long captivity, lasting two years and eight months, as told by himself, is one of the most interesting narratives connected with the Revolutionary war. Loaded with chains, consigned to the filthy hold of a vessel, with no seat nor bed save a seaman's chest, half starved, tortured by daily indignities, his high courage and brave spirit never faltered. Once, when insulted, he sprang at his tormentor--the captain of the ship--and with his shackled hands knocked him down; and again he bit off the nail that fastened his handcuffs, and by these feats of strength and anger awed his guards into some show of respect.
The method by which he saved himself from a felon's death in England was worthy the dignity of a veteran diplomat. A letter to the Continental Congress, which he knew would never reach its destination, but fall into the hands of its bitterest enemy, Lord North, contained an account of his ill treatment and possible fate, and closed with the request that if retaliation upon the Tory and other prisoners in its power should be found necessary, it might be exercised not according to his own value or rank, but in proportion to the importance of the cause for which he suffered.
The English ministry concluded evidently to treat him henceforth as a prisoner of war entitled to an honorable exchange, rather than a rebel deserving an ignoble death, and he was returned to America, where he was confined, with varieties of usage, in Halifax, and afterward in New York.
While in the latter place, and suffering from hunger and long ill health, he was approached by a British officer, authorized to offer him the command of a royalist regiment, and the gift of thousands of acres of land at the close of the war, in any part of the American colonies he might select, providing he would forsake the patriot cause and take oath of allegiance to the crown. Colonel Allen rejected this overture with great scorn, assuring the officer that he had as little land to promise him as had the devil when making a similar one.
"Thereupon," said Allen, "he closed the conversation and turned from me with an air of dislike, saying I was a bigot."
An exchange of prisoners at length freed him from a situation so full of personal hardship and mental anguish, and he hastened home to his family, from whom he so long and cruelly had been separated.
His only son had died in the meantime, and his wife and daughters, not expecting his arrival, were not at Bennington in time to receive him. But his neighbors and friends flocked in from miles around to give him greeting, and although it was the Sabbath, a day strictly observed in those parts, the enthusiasm of the joyful occasion could neither be postponed nor suppressed, and its expression found vent in the firing of cannon and happy huzzas.
The "Hampshire Grants" in his absence had become the full-fledged "State of Vermont," knocking for admission at the doors of the Continental Congress.
Ethan Allen at once was appointed General of the Vermont State Militia, and although he did not again join the American army, his natural gifts of diplomacy were of inestimable service to the country, and the number of men he could summon at a moment's notice to his command, served to hold in check any attempted raids of the enemy through Canada. He lived eight years after the declaration of peace, dying at the age of fifty-one, in Burlington, where he was engaged in farming.
A little incident never before in print was recently related to the writer of this sketch by a lady to whom it was told in childhood by an old man who, as a lad, lived on Ethan Allen's farm. It was in illustration of the simplicity of the celebrated hero's private life.
The farm hands all sat at the table with the family, much to the amusement or astonishment of his frequent guests, who sometimes were wealthy and distinguished and quite unaccustomed to such practical exhibitions of democracy. One of these had the poor taste to expostulate with the general, and remarked, "I should think your men would prefer to eat by themselves."
General Allen feigned to misunderstand the meaning of this, and after a moment's reflection replied, "Thank you very much for calling my attention to it. I see that what has been hearty enough for my family may not have been for my hard-working help. I will take more notice hereafter to see that they are better served."
"It was little use," says my informant, "to try to dictate to Ethan Allen."
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