THE BLOG

The Fiasco of July 4, 1777

05/25/2011 01:35 pm ET
  • Alex Storozynski Author, The Peasant Prince: Thaddeus Kosciuszko and the Age of Revolution

On the first anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Army regiment stationed at Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York was drunk with freedom, swilling rum and celebrating their liberty. Little did they realize, that the British Army that had marched down from Canada was slowly surrounding them on nearby hills.

Col. Thaddeus Kosciuszko warned his fellow American officers that they were making a huge mistake by not arming nearby Sugar Loaf Hill that overlooked their fort. But the Continental soldiers ignored their foreign recruit - a mistake that they would later acknowledge.

The next morning, woozy American soldiers awoke to see Redcoats mounting cannons on that very hill. The British soon began firing down into the fort. The rebels were sitting ducks as cannon balls landed in and around the fort. U.S. Gen. Arthur St. Clair ordered an evacuation after dusk.

As the Americans began sneaking out of Fort Ticonderoga under cover of the night, French General Matthias Alexis Roche de Fermoy rose from a drunken stupor, and ignoring the order for lights out, set fire to his quarters illuminating the night sky like a fireworks display. The fermented Fermoy thought burning the barracks would keep them out of the hands of the British, but the flames he set highlighted the silhouettes of American soldiers creeping away from the fort.

The British set out in hot pursuit, and the Americans put Col. Kosciuszko in charge of covering the rear during the retreat. He and his men cut down trees to block the escape route and rolled boulders to reroute streams to flood roads so that British supply wagons could not follow them. As a result, it took the British 22 days to travel 20 miles. The Continental Army got away.

One participant in the campaign, Major John Armstrong wrote: "In retreat of the American Army, Kosciuszko was distinguished for activity and courage and upon him devolved the choices of camps and posts and everything connected with fortifications."

Knowing that the British would eventually catch up, Gen. Horatio Gates ordered his troops to make a stand near the Hudson River in Stillwater, N.Y. As the troops pitched camp on an indefensible lowland meadow along the river, Kosciuszko rode up on his horse to Col. Morgan Lewis who was settling in and said, "From Yonder Hill, on the left, your encampment may be cannoned by the enemy or from that on our right they may take aim at your shoe-buckles."

Kosciuszko convinced Gen. Gates to move the American Army up to Bemis Heights, which would force the British to march up hill if they wanted to attack. With the river to the east, and thick woods to the west, this tactical decision was the deciding factor in the victory at the Battle of Saratoga, which was the turning point of the American Revolution.

American historians have given credit for this victory to the colorful Benedict Arnold, who rushed down the hill after Continental Army snipers took out the British high command. Yet soldiers who took part in the campaign, such as Gen. Gates, and Colonels Morgan Lewis, Udney Hay and James Wilkinson all gave credit for the victory to Kosciuszko's strategy.

Even George Washington acknowledged Kosciuszko's impact. After the battle, Washington suggested that he be promoted to General, writing, "the Engineer in the Northern Army, (Cosieski, I think his name is), is a Gentleman of science and merit."

Washington spelled Kosciuszko's name 11 different ways until he got to know him. The Commander in Chief put Kosciuszko in charge of designing and building West Point, which he called, the "key to America."

After Washington inspected the impressive fortress of 13 separate forts and redoubts on various hilltops that Kosciuszko had built to protect the Continental Army, the Commander in Chief made it a point to correctly spell the name of his best military engineer. West Point was so impressive, that the Redcoats were afraid to attack. Instead, the British bribed Benedict Arnold to steal Kosciuszko's plans for West Point. Luckily, Arnold was caught, and went down in history as the most infamous traitor of all time.

Kosciuszko proved invaluable to the American cause, and he is but one of the unsung heroes of our history that have been overlooked by historians and media. So as we celebrate our national day of independence, we should remember the contribution that the peoples of all countries have made to this great melting pot that we call the United States.

And remember, always cover the high ground -- and always take the high road.

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