A dozen people from as far away as New Jersey braved thunder, lightning and swarms of mosquitoes for a recent “Gossip Tour of Fort Ticonderoga.”
The tour promised to provide attends with “the real story of life at Ticonderoga…Drunken soldiers, stolen wives, unsolved crimes, and attempted murder were sprinkled through the experiences of the men and women stationed at Ticonderoga from 1755 to 1781.”
(Editor’s note: It’s like reality TV in the Revolutionary era; sign me up!)
Fort Ticonderoga, known as the “key to the continent,” is located in Essex County on a peninsula between Lake George and Lake Champlain. It seesawed between strategic significance and military backwater in the French & Indian and Revolutionary wars, was abandoned in the 19th century and rebuilt as a historic attraction in the early 20th century.
The Gossip Tour is one way the Fort keeps people coming back; they’re always putting a fresh spin on history.
Tour Takeaway No. 1: Guns and Alcohol Do Not Mix.
Ticonderoga may have been a desolate place in the middle of a hostile wilderness, but at least there was booze to take the edge off. Whether rum, fortified wine, or locally produced spruce beer, alcohol was both a daily ration and an occasional reward. Overindulgence led to soldiers getting lost, being left behind when regiments moved out, even armed brawls.
One of the best documented fights was over a woman. Calling it a “lurid tale of Ti,” curator and tour leader Matthew Keagle told the story of a soldier, his wife, and allegations of infidelity with an officer.
Drunkenness, fighting and time in confinement ensued. Drawing from diaries and documents in the Fort’s collection, Keagle built the drama to a peak…then left the group hanging as the written record stopped without a resolution. Just one of the challenges of being a historian, he said.
Tour Takeaway No. 2: Familiarity Breeds Contempt.
At capacity, Fort Ticonderoga could house several hundred soldiers in its barracks. In such tight quarters, slights – perceived or actual – would often fester into all-out fights.
John Lacey, born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, served as a captain under Colonel Anthony Wayne. Lacey recorded a long list of grievances against Wayne – he would have been great on Twitter – and eventually resigned his commission. While Keagle referred to him as “pouty,” Lacey later rejoined the Bucks County Regiment of militia and commanded the American forces at the Battle of Crooked Billet.
Additional stories included inter-regimental fighting – a la Sharks vs. Jets – a brave Scotsman protecting a haymow from a marauding cow (!), and upstart officers ignoring the protocols of rank.
As the tour wrapped up, Keagle noted that despite the bickering and infighting, the soldiers who served at Fort Ticonderoga played an outsized role in the birth of the United States of America. While scholars focus on major battles, the stories on the Gossip Tour are the “garnish” that brings history to life.
Visit Fort Ticonderoga
The Gossip Tour will be offered one more time in 2019 – on Wednesday, Aug. 14 – in other words, tomorrow. The cost for the tour is $35. Fort Ticonderoga is open daily from 9:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. through Oct. 31 and is about a two-hour drive from Albany.
Colleen M. Ryan has always been a storyteller. An innovative communications professional with experience in government, nonprofit and business sectors, she recently launched CMR Communications.