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Lot #166
John Hancock Letter Signed to Arthur St. Clair, Ordering Him to Take Charge at Ticonderoga

Citing "the approach of the enemy," John Hancock orders Gen. St. Clair to take charge at Fort Ticonderoga in 1777

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Citing "the approach of the enemy," John Hancock orders Gen. St. Clair to take charge at Fort Ticonderoga in 1777

Revolutionary War–dated LS signed “John Hancock Presid't,” one page, 8 x 12.75, April 30, 1777. Significant letter by Hancock as president of Continental Congress, addressed to Major General Arthur St. Clair, ordering him to take charge at Ticonderoga in light of "the approach of the enemy." In full: "The Congress having received Intelligence of the approach of the Enemy towards Ticonderoga, have thought proper to direct you to repair thither without delay. I have it therefore in Charge to transmit the enclosed Resolve, and direct that you immediately set out on the receipt hereof." In very good condition, with irregular toning, complete backing, and professional restoration to areas of paper loss.

This letter is published in the 1882 work The St. Clair Papers: The Life and Public Services of Arthur St. Clair, Soldier of the Revolutionary War, edited and annotated by William Henry Smith, who observes: 'St. Clair had expressed a desire to be under Washington, but, while not being pleased with the resolve of Congress assigning him to Ticonderoga, he proceeded to that post with the alacrity of a good soldier.' General St. Clair arrived at Ticonderoga and assumed command on June 12th, with instructions from Congress for completing the fortifications there.

The Americans had held Fort Ticonderoga since May 1775, when a small force of Green Mountain Boys led by Ethan Allen and Colonel Benedict Arnold surprised and captured the fort's small British garrison. Although relatively small in scope, the capture of Ticonderoga proved important for multiple reasons—it marked one of the few patriot victories during the early stages of the war, and the fort held strategic value as a staging area for the invasion of Quebec. At the time Hancock wrote to St. Clair, they had intelligence that a small British force was prepared to assail the fort, largely as a strategic maneuver to prevent reinforcements from reaching Washington in New Jersey.

When St. Clair arrived, he found that his garrison of about 2,500 men was inadequate to man all the defenses at Fort Ticonderoga. They were also ill-equipped, with insufficient rations, shortages of gunpowder, and tents in 'very bad' condition. Further, he realized that the enemy forces—led by John Burgoyne—were much stronger than anticipated at about 8,000 men, and that they were preparing to besiege the fort. Sensing imminent attack, St. Clair made the decision to surrender the fort before a shot was fired. Not even a month into his command, St. Clair had surrendered America's most prized fortress. In spite of public outcry over the decision, and subsequent court-martial proceedings (in which he was acquitted), St. Clair retained the respect of heroes like Washington, Lafayette, and John Paul Jones.

St. Clair's easy defeat at Ticonderoga also set in motion several unintended consequences which would benefit the patriot cause. News of the capitulation convinced General William Howe that Burgoyne's force could manage without his assistance, leading him to advance to Philadelphia instead of moving up the Hudson to reinforce Burgoyne. Meanwhile, the victory fed Burgoyne's already inflated ego. Due in part to his overconfidence, Burgoyne would find himself surrounded at Saratoga just two months later, and was forced to surrender his army of 6,000 men. Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga marked a reversal of fortune for the Continental Army, provided a massive boost to the morale of the fledgling nation, and convinced France to enter the war in alliance with the United States.

Auction Info

  • Auction Title: Fine Autograph and Artifacts Featuring Revolutionary War, The War of 1812, and Civil War
  • Dates: #695 - Ended July 10, 2024

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