A couple of weeks before Christmas Day, modern day re-enactors in Revolutionary War-era uniforms gathered below the walls of Fort Ticonderoga, on the shore of Lake Champlain about an hour’s drive north of Albany in northern New York. One history buff, portraying a Pennsylvania officer in the Continental Army, approached a group of men, demanding angrily that they identify themselves.
“Who be you?” he shouted. “A friend!” they replied, but the encounter quickly escalated. The officer charged at the men, members of a Massachusetts regiment, slashing and jabbing with his sword. “God damn you!” he cried. “God damn you!”
The events playing out here were an echo of bloody violence that broke out on Christmas Day 1776. Soldiers defending America’s frontier against the British rioted, attacking each other with swords and rifles. Historians have always known that something went dangerously wrong at Fort Ticonderoga during that bitter cold winter as the Revolutionary War was just beginning.
Details of the battle and its causes have long been a mystery.
Over the past year, however, historian and lead curator at Fort Ticonderoga Matthew Keagle uncovered new documents in a half-dozen archives around the East, including never-before-seen personal accounts that give a much clearer picture of what happened.
“It is, I have to say, remarkably exciting,” Keagle told NPR. “You really start to envision an event that we figured was lost to history. We’ve been able to piece it back together, down to the words spoken by individuals.”
On this day, Keagle joined the re-enactors, wearing a bright blue coat trimmed with red, a Continental Army officer’s uniform he made himself. The riot they acted out in a field below the fort’s walls was scripted as closely as possible from first-person accounts found scattered in depositions and court-martial records from 1776.
In those documents, Keagle learned that tensions simmered that winter between soldiers from Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. There were class differences, cultural clashes and escalating rivalries between officers. There was also a lot of boredom and alcohol. On Christmas night, a Pennsylvania colonel named Thomas Craig appears to have led a sudden, vicious attack.
Dozens of Pennsylvania soldiers followed him, raiding the Massachusetts encampment, shouting threats against the “Damn Yankees” and threatening murder. Keagle found one officer’s account that described Pennsylvania soldiers “armed with guns, bayonets and swords, [who] by force entered the tents and huts of [Massachusetts] officers and soldiers, dragging many out of doors naked and wounding them, robbing and plundering.”
It was a risky moment of disunity at a time when a powerful British army stationed in Canada was threatening to invade. There was later a court-martial. Keagle uncovered those records too, including testimony from Craig, the Pennsylvania officer, who denied any wrongdoing. “I even shudder at the thought of having it said that I should begin, cause or excite any riot,” Craig testified. In the end he was cleared of wrongdoing.
Indeed, the whole affair of the Christmas Riot of 1776 was quickly downplayed and the differences between the Colonial regiments papered over. It wasn’t exactly a cover-up, Keagle says, but the affair was kept quiet as Gen. George Washington and his officers struggled to build a truly unified Continental Army.
A few happy endnotes about this messy chapter in American history: Keagle is convinced no one died during the Christmas riot, a surprise given all those flashing swords and thunderous musket shots. Keagle also says officers were quickly able to restore order. New rules were issued to tighten military discipline.
The deep divisions among the Colonies and within its new army were kept in check, long enough at least for the British to be defeated.