Army

May 10, 2013

Military Intelligence – this week in history

Col. Ethan Allen, with drawn sword, captures Fort Ticonderoga on May 10, 1775.

Capt. Noah Phelps – mission accomplished

May 9, 1775

Ever since 1759, Fort Ticonderoga, on the western shore of Lake Champlain, N.Y., had been in British hands. Up until May 10, 1775, that is. That was the day that Col. Ethan Allen and Gen. Benedict Arnold marched into the fort and demanded its surrender, giving the Americans their first victory of the Revolutionary War.

By what logic could these commanders make such a bold move? It was due to actionable intelligence provided by young Capt. Noah Phelps.

Days after the defeat at Lexington, a plan was formed and financed by members of the Connecticut militia, to have Phelps head north from Hartford towards New York. He was joined by forces in Massachusetts and eventually by Allen and his Green Mountain Boys. This was a militia group from Vermont (directly across the lake from Fort Ticonderoga) that formed in 1770 to protect the rights of local landowners. They eagerly joined the American forces in the common fight against British rule.

At the same time, a separate mission was launched, led by Arnold under the authority of the Massachusetts militia. Both commanders were in need of intelligence, as their forces were small and inexperienced.

Phelps was a member of the Committee of the War which met to determine the advisability of taking the fort. The only thing he knew on May 8, 1775, was that it was occupied by British troops. So he set out to determine the enemy’s strength, situation, and capabilities.

Since he was in an area known for its loyalty to the crown, he expected to be treated as friend rather than foe. He was not disappointed. He took a room at the inn near the entrance to the fort and listened intently while the British officers dining there talked openly about their circumstances. Phelps was encouraged, and decided to investigate further.

The next day, Phelps, an American Revolutionary, strolled through the gates of British-held Fort Ticonderoga, smiled and waved at the sentry, and ran into Capt. William Delaplace, the fort’s commanding officer. The two men chatted amiably, and Delaplace offered to show Phelps how to find the post barber.

On the way, Delaplace asked Phelps a number of questions regarding the disposition of American troops around Cambridge, which Phelps answered cheerfully but noncommittally. In his turn, Phelps pointed to a break in the wall and asked the commander if it didn’t pose a security threat to the fort, should there be an attack. The British officer replied that the break was the least of his worries, since all of their gunpowder was wet and therefore unusable.

Phelps continued to the barber, got his shave, returned to the boatman, hurriedly made it to the American camp by the afternoon of May 9, and reported all he had heard and seen to the Council of War. The attack was planned for the next morning, and Delaplace was awakened from his sleep by Allen’s shouting to surrender. The British surrendered to the Americans without a shot being fired.

While this “battle” may seem insignificant in retrospect, it was an important boost of morale to the American forces and public. Additionally, it disrupted the supply and communications chains linking this area to Canada. Most importantly, the cannons taken from Fort Ticonderoga were moved to Dorchester Heights, just south of Boston, which compelled the British to abandon that city on March 17, 1776.

The expedition of Capt. Noah Phelps was the first recorded intelligence mission in the story of American Army intelligence. History has long recognized the intrepidity of Allen and Arnold, brazenly demanding surrender of a British fort. But the reason they could do so, was that they were well informed by a daring captain who gave them accurate, relevant and timely intelligence.




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