An Ancient Veteran of the Revolutionary War Acts As Tour Guide
For a Rare Glimpse of the Ruins of Fortress Ticonderoga
The American Revolution had been over for sixty years when writer Benson Lossing decided to take a grand tour of the East Coast to view any site he could find connected with the war. His experiences resulted in two large volumes of his recollections filled with more than 1,100 sketches. His painstaking effort was the most important work on the Revolution to be published in the 19th century.
In his travels, he met several ancient veterans of the conflict. He must have sensed that within a few short years, all of these aged soldiers would be gone. Ever the historian, he dutifully recorded personal histories that otherwise would have been lost forever.
Lossing was keenly aware that it wasn’t only the old soldiers who were dying off. The sites themselves were disappearing at a great rate. He expressed disappointment that “while England erects a monument in honor of the amputated leg of a hero who fought for personal renown, we allow these relics to pass away and be forgotten. Acquisitiveness is pulling down walled fortresses; the careless agriculturist, unmindful of the sacredness of the ditch and mound that scar his fields, is sowing and reaping where marble monuments should stand.”
Fort Ticonderoga was certainly one of the most substantial monuments left behind by the Revolution. On Wednesday, May 10, 1775, Ethan Allen and his men seized command of the fort from a small contingent of British soldiers. Militia Colonel Benedict Arnold was at his side in the takeover yet his association with this American victory had already been blotted out of America’s memory.
The capture of the fort itself wasn’t especially important. The fort’s artillery, however, was. The captured cannons from Ticonderoga were later transported to Boston where a grand display of them from the fortified American position of Dorchester Heights caused the British to pack up and leave the occupied city.
The ruins of Fort Ticonderoga must have shocked and depressed Lossing. This once magnificent stone fort, so central to the early history of the war, was fast vanishing. It was already a popular tourist attraction yet no efforts were being made to preserve it. Today, Fort Ticonderoga has been beautifully restored, although In the 1840’s its fate seemed anything but certain. It’s interesting, in an age before Federal parks and conservation acts, to hear of an aging veteran’s plan to set up a refreshment stand within the ruins of the fort to sell beer and fruits to the tourists.
Ironically, while Ticonderoga is now perfectly restored, it is Lossing’s fine work that has nearly disappeared. Sadly, it has long been out of print. Fragile, leather-bound copies sit in libraries where any attempt to photocopy a page or two results in death threats from the librarian. Now, however, through the magic of the Internet, Lossing’s words come straight to you. There are no brittle pages coming apart in your hands, no mysterious stains blotting out words, no missing pages, and no silverfish leaping out of the spine.
Allow yourself to be tranported back to the 1840’s and follow Benson Lossing in his travels. In this excerpt, he has just arrived at his destination…
AN 1840’S VISIT TO THE RUINS OF FORT TICONDEROGA
(from Volume One of Lossing’s “Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution”)
…The distance from the steam boat landing to Fort Ticonderoga is four miles. We found vehicles in abundance awaiting our arrival, and prepared to carry passengers with all their baggage for twenty-five cents each. I succeeded in securing my favorite seat on a pleasant day, the coachman’s perch.
The road from the foot of Lake George to Fort “Ty” is hilly, but the varied scenery makes the ride a pleasant one. We arrived at the Pavilion near the fort at one o’clock, dined, and with a small party set off immediately to view the interesting ruins of one of the most noted fortresses in America.
A glimpse from the coach, of the gray ruins of the fortress of “Ty,” as we neared the Pavilion, made us impatient as children to be among them. Our own curiosity was shared by a few others, and a small party of us left early and ascended the breast-works, over seatered fragments of the walls, and eagerly sought out the most interesting localities, by the aid of a small plan of the fort which I had copied for the occasion. Without a competent guide, our identifications were not very reliable, and our opinions were as numerous and diverse as the members of our party. We were about to send to the Pavilion for a guide and umpire, when a venerable, white-haired man, supported by a rude staff, and bearing the insignia of the “Order of Poverty,” came out from the ruins of the northern line of barracks, and offered his services in elucidating the confused subject before us. He was kind and intelligent, and I lingered with him among the ruins long after the rest of the party had left, and listened with pleasure and profit to the relation of his personal experience, and of his familiar knowledge of the scene around us.
Isaac Rice was the name of our octogenarian guide, whose form and features I sketched for preservation. Like scores of those who fought our battles for freedom, and lived the allotted term of human life, he is left in his evening twilight to depend upon the cold friendship of the world for sustenance, and to feel the practical ingratitude of a people reveling in the enjoyment which his privations in early manhood contributed to secure. He performed garrison duty at Ticonderoga under St. Clair, was in the field at Saratoga in 1777, and served a regular term in the army; but, in consequence of some lack of documents or some technical error, he lost his legal title to a pension, and at eighty-five years of age that feeble old soldier was obtaining a precarious support for himself from the free-will offerings of visitors to the ruins of the fortress where he was garrisoned when it stood in the pride of its strength, before Burgoyne scaled the heights of Mount Defiance. He is now alone, his family and kindred having all gone down into the grave. His elder brother, and the last of his race, who died in 1838, was one of the little band who, under Colonel Ethan Allen [and Benedict Arnold], surprised and captured Fort Ticonderoga in the spring of 1775.
I lingered with the old soldier among the fragments of the fortress until sunset; and just as the luminary went down behind Mount Defiance I made the preceding sketch, which may be relied upon as a faithful portraiture of the present features of Fort Ticonderoga. The view is from the remains of the counterscarp, near the southern range of barracks, looking northward. The barracks or quarters for the officers and soldiers were very substantially built of limestone, two stories high, and formed a quadrangle. The space within was the parade. Upon the good authority of his brother, our venerable guide pointed out the various localities of interest, and, having no doubt as to the correctness of his information, I shall accord it as truth. The most distinct and best-preserved building seen in the sketch is the one in which the commandant of the garrison was asleep when Allen and his men entered the fort. On the left of the group of figures in the fore-ground is the passage leading from the covered way into the parade, through which the provincials passed. The two lines of forty men each were drawn up along the range of buildings, the remains of which are seen on the right and left of the picture. The most distant building was the officers’ quarters. A wooden piazza, or sort of balcony, extended along the second story, and was reached from the ground by a flight of stairs at the left end. The first door in the second story, on the left, was the entrance to [British Captain William] Delaplace’s apartment. It was up those rickety steps, with young Beman at his side, that Colonel Allen ascended; and at that door he thundered with his sword-hilt, confronted the astonished captain, and demanded his surrender. Between the ruined walls on the extreme left is seen Mount Defiance, and on the right is Mount Hope. The distant wall in the direction of Mount Hope is a part of the ramparts or out-works, and the woods beyond it mark the location of the remains of the “French lines,” the mounds and ditches of which are still very conspicuous.
Near the southeastern angle of the range of barracks is the bakery; it is an under-ground arched room, and was beneath the glacis, perfectly bomb-proof, and protected from all danger from without. This room is very well-preserved, as the annexed sketch of it testifies; but the entrance steps are much broken, and the passage is so filled with rubbish that a descent into it is difficult. It is about twelve feet wide and thirty long. On the right is a window, and at the end were a fire-place and chimney, now in ruins. On either side of the fire-place are the ovens, ten feet deep. We had no light to explore them, but they seemed to be in good condition. This bakery and the ovens are the best-preserved portions of the fortress.
For more than half a century the walls of the fort have been common soil for all who chose to avail themselves of such a convenient quarry; and the proximity of the lake affords rare facility for builders to carry off the plunder. The guide informed me that sixty-four years ago he assisted in the labor of loading a vessel with bricks and stones taken from the fort, to build an earthen-ware factory on Missisqui Bay, the eastern fork of the lower end of Lake Champlain. Year after year the ruins thus dwindle, and, unless government shall prohibit the robbery, this venerable landmark of history will soon have no abiding- place among us. The foundation is almost a bare rock, earthed sufficient to give sustenance to mullens, rag-weed, and stinted grass only, so that the plowshare can have no effect; but desecrating avarice, with its wicked broom, may sweep the bare rock still barer, for the site is a glorious one for a summer hotel for invalids. I shall, doubtless, receive posthumous laudation for this suggestion from the money-getter who here shall erect the colonnade, sell cooked fish and flavored ices, and coin wealth by the magic of the fiddle-string.
On the point of the promontory, just above the steam-boat landing, are the remains of the “Grenadiers’ Battery,” a strong redoubt built of earth and stone. It was constructed by the French, and enlarged by the English. It commanded the narrow part of the lake, between that point and Mount Independence, and covered the bridge, which was made by the Americans, extending across to the latter eminence. The bridge was supported by twenty-two sunken piers of large timber, at nearly equal distances; the space between was made of separate floats, each about fifty feet long and twelve feet wide, strongly fastened together by chains and rivets, and also fastened to the sunken piers. Before this bridge was a boom, made of very large pieces of timer, fastened together by riveted bolts and chains of iron, an inch and a half square. There was a lottery at the foot of Mount Independence, which covered that end of the bridge; another half way up the hill; and upon the table-land summit was a star fort well-picketed. Here, strongly stationed, the Americans held undisputed possession from the 10th of May, 1775, until the 5th of July, 1777, when they were dislodged by Burgoyne, who began to plant a battery upon Sugar Hill, or Mount Defiance.
I went up in the evening to view the solitary ruins by moonlight, and sat upon the green award of the old esplanade near the magazine. All was hushed, and association, with its busy pencil, wrought many a startled picture. The broken ruins around me, the lofty hills adjacent, the quiet lake at my feet, all fading into chaos as the evening shadows came on, were in consonance with the gravity of thought induced by the place and its traditions.
So smoothly ran the current of thought, that I was almost dreaming, when a footstep startled me. It was that of the old patriot, who came and sat beside em. He always spends the pleasant moonlight evenings here, for he has no companions of the present, and the sight of the old walls kept sluggish memory awake to the recollections of the light and love of other days. “I am alone in the world,” he said, “poor and friendless; none for me to care for, and none to care for me. Father, mother, brothers, sisters, wife, and children have all passed away, and the busy world has forgotten me. I have been for almost eighty years a toiler for bread for myself and loved ones, yet I have never lacked for comforts. I began to feel my strength giving way last spring, and looked fearfully toward the poor- house, when I heard that the old man who lived here, to show visitors about, was dead, and so I came down to take his place and die also.” He brushed away a tear with his hard and shriveled hand, and, with a more cheerful tone, talked of his future prospects.
He took me to an opening in the broken wall, which fronted a small room near the spot where the provincials entered, and with a low voice, as if afraid some rival might hear his business plans, explained how he intended, another year, to clear away the rubbish, cover the room over with boards and brush, arrange a sleeping place in the rear, erect a rude counter in front, and there, during the summer sell cakes, beer, and fruit to visitors. Here I saw my fancied hotel in embryo. He estimated the cash capital necessary for the enterprise at eight dollars, which sum he hoped to save from his season’s earnings, for the French woman who gave him food and shelter charged him but a trifling weekly sum for his comforts. He calculated upon large profits and extensive sales, and hoped, if no opposition marred his plans, to make enough to keep him comfortable through life. He entertained me more than an hour with a relation of his own and his father’s adventures.
His father was a lieutenant in the English service and he belonged to the Connecticut troops that were with Amherst when he took Ticonderoga [in 1759]. While the English had possession of that post, before seizing Crown Point, he was much annoyed by a swaggering English major, who boasted that no American in the country could lay him upon his back. Lieutenant Rice accepted the general challenge. For twenty minutes it was doubtful who the successful wrestler would be. Rice was the more agile of the two, and, by a dexterous movement, tripped his adversary and brought him upon his back. The burly major was greatly nettled, and declared the act unfair and unmanly. Rice made a rejoinder, and hard words passed, which ended in a challenge from the major for a duel. It was accepted, and the place and time of meeting were appointed. But the fact having reached the ears of Amherst, he interposed his persuasion. The Englishman was resolved on fighting, and would listen to no remonstrance until Amherst touched his national and military pride. “Consider,” he said, “how glorious is our conquest. We have taken this strong fortress without shedding one drop of blood. Shall Britons be such savages, that, when they can not spill the blood of enemies, they will shed that of each other?” The appeal had the desired effect, and the parties sealed their reconciliation and pledged new friendship over a glass of grog. They then tried their strength again. The major was prostrated in an instant by a fair exertion of superior strength, and from that hour he was Rice’s warmest friend. The major’s name was Church. He was a lieutenant colonel under [British General Augustine] Prevost, and was killed at Savannah on the 16th of September, 1779.
It was late in the evening when I bade him [the old man] a final adieu. “God bless you, my son,” he said, as he grasped my hand at parting. “We may never meet here again, but I hope we may in heaven!”