It was July 1776. The American rebellion against British rule was not going so well. The Northern Army had invaded Canada the previous fall trying to bring the fight to the enemy. They believed that once they “liberated” that country, the locals would join the fight. That familiar strategy failed, as it would many other times throughout history, and the invasion stalled outside the walls of Quebec. When British reinforcements arrived as the ice of the St. Lawrence River gave way to spring, the Americans began a full-scale retreat.
But this unit was not just battling the Redcoats. Their numbers were decimated by small pox and they didn’t have enough food or clothing. They retreated first to the northern end of Lake Champlain and then back to Crown Point. John Adams described this miserable lot to Abigail.
Our Army at Crown Point is an Object of Wretchedness, enough to fill a humane Mind, with Horror. Disgraced, defeated, discontented, dispirited, diseased, naked, undisciplined, eaten up with Vermin—no Cloaths, Beds, Blanketts, no Medicines, no Victuals, but Salt Pork and flour…
Col. John Trumbull was dispatched by his commander, Gen. Horatio Gates, to assess the situation. He reported that half the 5200 men in the army were in need of hospitalization. In a letter to his father, Trumbull wrote that at Crown Point he had “found not an army but a mob, the shattered remains of twelve or fifteen very fine battalions, ruined by sickness, fatigue, and desertion, and void of every idea of discipline or subordination. You will be surprised, sir, to know the real state of affairs in this department.”
This army, all that stood between the rebellious colonies and the mighty British army massing at the border, retreated once again, dropping back to Fort Ticonderoga. Gen. Philip Schuyler, commander of the Northern Army, decided the Americans would make a stand at that crumbling French fort, and across the lake on the spit of land known as Rattlesnake Hill. By the 28th of July, work had begun in earnest on the new fortifications. It was on this day that Col. Arthur St. Clair gathered the men together to read them a document that had been sent from Philadelphia.
One of the soldiers on hand that day wrote a letter describing the scene:
Immediately after divine worship this day, the Declaration of Independence was read by Colonel St. Clair; and, having said “God save the free independent States of America!” the Army manifested their joy with three cheers. It was remarkably pleasing to see the spirits of the soldiers so raised, after all their calamities; the language of every man’ s countenance was, Now we are a people; we have a name among the States of this world.
From that day onward, Rattlesnake Hill had a new name: Mount Independence. And it was upon this Mount named for the idea of freedom that the Army of the United States of America faced off in October against the British. The American forces had swelled with militia streaming in from the northeast. They had built a formidable artillery park at the northern end of the Mount. That “disgraced” and “defeated” army was now a determined fighting force ready to defend its brand new nation.
After assessing his chances, the British commander turned his troops back to Canada for the winter, ensuring that the United States would survive at least until its first birthday. This was a year’s reprieve that would make all the difference, as the next time the Redcoats invaded from Canada under John Burgoyne, the American’s gave him a greeting at a place called Saratoga and turned the tide of the war.