In 1775, Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys attacked the British garrison at Fort Ticonderoga, taking them by surprise and capturing the fort. The British were unable to recapture the fort in 1776, but amassed a larger force to sweep down Lake Champlain and recapture the area in 1777. Under General John Burgoyne, 7400 British and German troops left Montreal, ultimately looking to capture the city of Albany. The plan was to drive the rebels from Fort Ticonderoga and force them to retreat to Albany, where they would be at the mercy of British troops that were sweeping up the Hudson Valley.
By July 5, 1777 Burgoyne set his troops outside the fort on Sugar Hill, with twelve cannons pointed down on the fort. However, the 4000 rebels that had been guarding the fort had retreated across the lake, and into the foothills of Vermont. Burgoyne, wanting to put pressure on the retreating garrison, sent a force of 1000 men to follow them into the wilderness.
The story of the Battle of Hubbardton is of the rebel soldiers retreat from an overwhelming British force. A small force of the rebel garrison harassed the approaching British force, fighting them to a standstill while the main rebel force escaped. The battle is considered the most successful rear guard action in the history of the United States military, and is the only battle of the American Revolution to take place entirely in Vermont.
The Escape from Ticonderoga
The British force approached Fort Ticonderoga on the west, while their German Brunswick mercenaries approached on the Vermont side of Lake Champlain. These troops, unlike their rebel counterparts, were well fed and well trained. The rebels were mostly comprised of very green units, some of which were suffering from measles and other ailments. They were also poorly supplied, often not having enough uniforms or bayonettes.
The American garrison at Fort Ticonderoga, under the command of Major General Arthur St. Clair, found themselves outclassed even by the fortifications they were defending. Between the actual Fort at Ticonderoga and the battery of cannon on the opposite side of the lake atop Mount Independence, St. Clair didn't even have enough troops to adequately man both sides of the lake. When intelligence reports showed a British force coming down from Canada that outnumbered his force by nearly 2-to-1, St. Clair began to organize the rebel retreat from the Fort.
Before the British had even established their positions on Sugar Hill, the garrison at the fort had already crossed Lake Champlain under cover of darkness and entered the fortifications at Mount Independence. While out of cannon range, General Burgoyne was in a good position to alert the Brunswick troops as to the rebel positions. However, the Brunswick troops were not in position to attack, and St. Clair was able to move the rebels into the Vermont countryside.
Burgoyne, needing to consolidate the takeover of Fort Ticonderoga, sent 1000 British and German men under Brigadier General Simon Fraser to pursue the fleeing rebels. Fraser amassed his troops, and followed the rebels down the military road that connected the fort to Skenesborough (now Whitehall, New York).
Upon reaching the outskirts of Hubbardton, St. Clair made a tactical decision. It would be impossible for all of the American troops to retreat to Castleton without leaving behind the rear guard force, which was following several miles behind. St. Clair made the decision to keep the main force marching towards Castleton, in the hopes that the rear guard would slow down the approaching British, or eventually catch up to the troops once they had reached Castleton.
The rear guard was under the command of Colonel Seth Warner. St. Clair had put him in charge of the group because he knew the terrain of the area very well, and would know how to use it to his advantage when the inevitable battle came. After following the retreat for some time, Warner ordered his troops to stop marching. The reasoning for this halt is up to debate, but it was probably because his troops had become tired after marching for a solid day.
After felling several trees along the road to slow the British advance, Warner assembled his guard on top of what is called Monument Hill, which overlooked the road the British would inevitably be marching down. On top of this hill was a stone fence, and he ordered the troops to take up defensive positions behind the fence, using it as a makeshift battlement. The men dug in, and waited for the British to approach.
At 5:00am July 7th, rebel pickets fired on the advance scouts of Fraser's troops, mostly composed of German Brunswick troops. After firing several times, the Americans then retreated into the forest surrounding the roads, and regroup with the main rear guard on top of Monument Hill. The advance scouts moved north along the top of the ridge and discovered the American camp. When hearing of the size of the rear guard, Fraser decided to let the rest of the main troops catch up with the scouts in order to make a solid assault.
As Fraser's main force came up the road, rebel pickets attacked once again, this time killing 21 British troops. This brought the main rear guard into battle, and by 6:30am the British force was completely stalled. In an effort to surround the rebels on top of Monument Hill, Fraser split his force in two, and sent them to surround the encampment, hoping to cut off the rear guard's chances at retreat.
At 7:00am, Warner received word that Burgoyne had broken the bridge at Ticonderoga, and the British fleet in Lake Champlain had sailed down the lake and destroyed the fledgling American naval presence there. Orders were given to Warner to immediately retreat and head for Rutland. Warner most likely would have followed these orders had the British force not spent all morning surrounding him.
Fraser sent his force storming up the hill, hoping to run the rear guard out from behind the stone fence. Unfortunately, the rear guard's defenses were very well organized, and soon the rebels were chasing the British back down Monument Hill. Fraser was still able to hold his position on the road, and immediately regrouped his troops for another assault on the hill. His forces were once again repelled by an organized counter attack.
At this point in the battle, German troops arrived to relieve the battered British troops. The Brunswick troops soon made a charge at the weak side of the American defense, running up the hill with their marching band playing as loud as they could. During the German charge, Fraser himself was shot.
By 8:30am, Warner received word that St. Clair had reached Castleton, and that he was to bring his troops there immediately. Having accomplished his goal of slowing the British, Warner sent orders to make a full retreat. By 8:45, the main battle was all but over. The rear guard raced towards Castleton, only stopping to return fire when the British forces came too close to their position.
Forces Killed Wounded Captured
Americans 730 41 95 234
British 1,030 60 138 0
Although this short battle would seem to be a defeat for the retreating Americans, time would prove quite the opposite. By stalling the British force, Warner and St. Clair were able to retreat from Burgoyne with two-thirds of the main garrison intact. These troops would go on to solidify the position of the Americans farther down the Hudson Valley, allowing the rebels to put up a proper fight at the Battle of Bennington. Also, Warner had learned some of the British army's tactics, which would come in handy for future battles.
As Burgoyne's plan had been to decimate the forces stationed at Fort Ticonderoga, this battle was a dismal failure. He would write that the successful retreat of this force was "hanging like a gathering storm" in respect to his future plans to capture Albany. This storm would force his surrender at the Battles of Saratoga.
The Battlefield Today
A local group in Hubbardton erected a modest monument to the battle in 1859. The monument consists of a Vermont Marble obelisk surrounded by a cast iron fence. The field of battle, including Monument Hill, is registered as a National Historic Site.
A visitor's center was built in 1970, along with a museum about the American Revolution and the Battle of Hubbardton. A diorama of the battle by Paul V. Winters is on display in the museum, as well as a 3D map of the phases of the battle.