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Book review: "Ethan Allen, His Life and Times"

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Vermont might have become the eastern side of New York State if it hadn't been for the bold action of patriot and land speculator Ethan Allen. Betsy Kepes reviews William Sterne Randall's new biography of Vermont's first hero.

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Betsy Kepes
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I have to admit before I read this biography of Ethan Allen I knew of the furniture company named after him and little else. My colonial era history was pretty shaky too. Fortunately, William Randall, an historian at Champlain College in Burlington, is a fine guide to the life and times of a man who was equal parts hero and hustler.

At the start of the Revolutionary War, Allen, with his Green Mountain Boys, commanded the second-largest standing army in North America. Only the British garrison in Boston was larger. When Allen and his men took Fort Ticonderoga without firing a shot, Allen became an immediate American hero. A year later, when prisoner of war Ethan Allan stepped off a ship in Cornwall, he discovered he was a folk hero for the English commoners too. They lined the road to see him and his men transported to their next jail in Pendennis Castle. The prison ship that would bring him back to the States stopped at the Irish port of Cork where Allen received costly gifts, including an expensive suit of clothes, gold and whiskey. When he was finally released, after almost three years of captivity, his memoir was an instant best-seller.

Randall lets the reader know that Allen’s life wasn’t all glory. The oldest child in a frontier family in Connecticut, Allen had to give up the chance to go to Yale when his father died. Always scrambling for money, Allen invested heavily in land in Vermont, then known as the New Hampshire grants. The territory was claimed by both New York and New Hampshire and many pages of this thick biography are devoted to the land wars between the two. Allen despised the “Yorkers” and with his Green Mountain Boys led raids on their farms, burning barns and houses.

New York put a price on Allen’s head, but when the British finally provoked the American Colonists into war, Allen and his Green Mountains Boys became valuable troops, rather than disruptive terrorists.

Allen assumed he would lead the surprise attack on Fort Ticonderoga and didn’t realize Benedict Arnold was marching north with his troops. They had to share the command, though they never liked each other. Arnold called Allen “ a proper man to lead his own wild people, but entirely unacquainted with military service.”

When Allen made the rash decision to attack Montreal he was captured and sat out much of the war in the dark holds of prison ships. George Washington sought his release and it was his aide de camp, the young Alexander Hamilton, who finally negotiated a prisoner exchange.

Sterne does a good job balancing a “just the facts” approach with some extended scenes that bring the history to life. He takes time to describe the meeting at the Valley Forge headquarters between Washington and the newly released prisoner. Sterne writes, “The man Washington saw before him when he welcomed Allen into his cramped, high-spirited headquarters was forty years old, weak and haggard, his thick black hair all but gone, his blue Cork suit hanging loosely on him.”

In the last ten years of his life, Allen negotiated fiercely to have Vermont recognized as its own state. In February of 1789 while crossing the ice on Lake Champlain with a sleigh load of hay, Allen had a stroke and died the next day at the age of 51. Two years later, the American colonies finally voted to allow Vermont to join the union.

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