The Revolutionary War ‘Ride’ of Gershom Beach

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Here’s the opening stanza from “Paul Revere’s Ride”:

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

Less than a month later, at a different location but with the same cadence, Longfellow could have written:

In Vermont and New York they should surely teach
About the amazing walk of Gershom Beach.
On the tenth of May, in Seventy-five;
Lake Champlain folks now alive
Have no idea of the towns he reached.

Longfellow’s poem, written in 1860, memorialized Revere’s famous ride of 1775, while similar or even more impressive feats were mostly lost to the ages. The Champlain Valley hosted a spectacular example in a Vermont resident who, just three weeks after Revere’s ride, completed a very impressive trek that had a direct effect on the war’s outcome.

On May 8, 1775, Vermont’s famous leader of the Green Mountain Boys, Ethan Allen, found himself in sudden need of troops to execute a quickly hatched plan for capturing Fort Ticonderoga. The gathering point he chose was Hand’s Bay in Shoreham, Vermont, just northeast of the fort. From there they would row a mile southeast to the New York side of the lake at 4 a.m. on May 10 and launch a surprise attack.

But the multi-pronged plan that was finalized in Castleton, Vermont, 19 miles southeast of the fort, sent some men to Albany and others to capture Skenesborough (today’s Whitehall). Remaining with Allen were about 140 men—a tough, hardy group, no doubt, but believed well short of the numbers needed to tackle an armed fortress. Like the Massachusetts minutemen, the rest of Allen’s supporters were scattered about the countryside. With few roads and rugged terrain, and battle-ready fighters needed in less than two days, how to sound the alarm and reach the men willing to follow him into the fray?

The answer lay in a fellow Green Mountain Boy, blacksmith, and close friend — Major Gershom Beach Jr., a son of one of Rutland’s founders. Beach assumed the formidable task of heading north on foot and delivering a critical message to towns and farms along the way: that men were needed at Hand’s Cove before dawn the following day to launch an attack on Fort Ticonderoga.

Even today, using paved highways, succeeding at such a difficult assignment would seem unlikely. But history records that Gershom Beach walked and/or ran from Castleton, east to Rutland, and then north through places like Pittsford and Brandon. Arriving at Middlebury, he then headed south to Whiting before turning west on the final leg of his journey (and presumably on his last legs) to the lakeside rendezvous point.

The distance he covered in 24 hours was estimated at 64 miles, which is confirmed using modern maps. Perfectly straight lines from village to village total about 60 miles, and he certainly did not walk a perfectly straight line. (If you’re looking at a map, the route generally followed Route 7 north from Rutland to Middlebury, then south on Route 30 to Whiting before turning west towards the lake.)

Beach reportedly managed a short nap before enough men arrived at the lakeshore, swelling the Green Mountain Boys’ ranks to about 230. A shortage of boats meant that multiple trips would be required to ferry everyone to the other side if everything else went according to plan—which it didn’t. A force of 83 men made it across the lake, but before the others could do so, dawn was breaking and their movement near the fort was detected.

But famously, 83 men proved more than enough to capture the fort after only a few skirmishes, for most of the occupants were asleep and had no inkling that an attack was imminent.

Of the 83 men who initially accompanied Allen across the lake, only 53 of their names are known. Among them was Gershom Beach, forever a part of the North Country’s Revolutionary War history for his critical role in capturing the fort, and deserving of legendary status in Vermont.

Come to think of it, Boston and the country owe him a debt of gratitude as well. After the capture, cannons, howitzers, and mortars from Fort Ticonderoga were among those transported 300 miles east by Colonel Henry Knox to aid in the defense of Boston, which was under siege. The collection of artillery, which reached the city’s outskirts in late January 1776, was used by General George Washington and his troops to drive off the British, who withdrew on March 17th.

A version of this article first appeared on the Adirondack Almanack.

Photos: Depiction of Fort Ti’s capture by artist John S. Davis), and Gershom Beach’s route through Vermont.

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