- Historic Sites
Battle For Ticonderoga
The largest army ever assembled in North America attacked the French at New York’s Fort Carillon . . . with disastrous results
Spring/Summer 2008 | Volume 58, Issue 4
By early morning of July 5, 1758, more than a thousand Albany-built bateaux, whaleboats, and three radeaux—cumbersome barges known as “floating castles”—crowded the calm waters of New York’s Lake George in orderly columns. They spread a mile and a half from shore to shore and extended “from front to Rear full Seven Miles,” as The Pennsylvania Journal reported. This inland navy bore more than 15,000 soldiers, the largest army ever seen in North America, along with a train of gunpowder kegs and barrels of flour and salted pork–provisions enough for a month–and 44 cannons, the heaviest weighing more than 5,000 pounds.
To thousands of fresh young colonial recruits, many clutching the brand-new muskets issued to them only three days before, the spectacle was phantasmagoric. Nothing had prepared them for the sheer magnitude of this floating city that seemed to suffocate the crystal lakewaters.
Robert Rogers, head of the now infamous Rogers’ Rangers and master of irregular warfare, rode at its head, standing grimly satisfied in the stern of a gently bobbing whaleboat, the forest of sails “a most agreeable sight.” Time and again he had fought the enemy over uncertain terrain, rarely at times or places of his choosing, had watched musketballs and hatchets wreak their destruction. (Two hundred and fifty years later, Rogers’ Rangers would be celebrated by U.S. Army rangers as the father of special forces.)
Rogers’ men pulled proudly at the head of an imperial force, set on driving the French back to Canada. General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm and some 3,000 soldiers manned Fort Carillon (the British would later call it Fort Ticonderoga), whose formidable walls and redoubts overlooked a narrow section of Lake Champlain near the portage road that connected it to Lake George to the south. France’s North American empire hinged on control of the northeastern continent’s major watercourses, critical not only as trade highways into the interior, but also as strategic highways to obstruct British land venturers. The massive fortress of Louisbourg, in what is now Nova Scotia, protected the Atlantic approach to the St. Lawrence; Ft. Niagara closed the Niagara River’s entrance into Lake Ontario, and with it, access to the Great Lakes; Ft. Carillon prevented the passage of hostile vessels north from Albany up the Hudson-Champlain waterway all the way to Montreal and heart of New France. Of these, Ft. Carillon and the stone corridors along valleys of Lakes Champlain and George would become the main southern battlefront in the French and Indian War.
During the early part of the 18th century, French and British colonists had lived uneasily with one another in the New World; in the 1750s, interest in the rich Ohio Valley and events in Europe conspired to bring them to a bitter war that raged across Europe and North America. The North American end of the Seven Year’s War, known as the French and Indian War, would determine who controlled most of the known New World. When the massive flotilla set sail, the war had entered its fourth year. The British, after suffering many setbacks against their woods savvy foes, saw the opportunity to deal New France a deathblow by annihilating their main army at Ft. Carillon and controlling the critical portage between Lakes George and Champlain.
Three hundred Rogers’ Rangers rowed ahead of the main fleet along with 100 Stockbridge Indians, each man gloriously arrayed in new green regimental coats, most heads crowned with the Rangers’ signature Scotch Balmoral bonnet. Along with them came some 400 “leathercap” infantry and 1,600 river-toughened “Armed Battoemen.”
Behind them paddled 5,825 regulars including the Royal Highlanders, their grenadiers wearing pointed bearskin caps and dirks fastened to belts over breeches, a division of Royal Artillery, and 9,000 more provincials from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and New Jersey. Some 400 Mohawk warriors among them had splashed on blood-red war paint. Thick clouds broke the sun’s glare that morning, promising relatively cool rowing conditions as the force pushed on. Only a “desponding dastard,” wrote Captain Charles Lee, “could entertain a doubt of our success.”
This vast imperial fleet had other reasons for optimism. Back in London, William Pitt, arguably the most brilliant global statesman of his age, now clearly held the reins of this multi-continental war. In late December 1757, as part of his efforts to transform British military priorities, Pitt had recalled the Earl of Loudoun, whose high-handed treatment of the colonies as commander-in-chief had caused friction and outright mutiny.
Pitt recognized that the most profitable British path to victory centered not on European battlefields, but rather on hammering the French at sea and in their colonial holdings. Conquering French North America became a high priority, and he backed it with thousands of redcoats. Even so, he realized that provincials must constitute the bulk of the fighting forces.
He convinced Parliament to furnish subsidies to the colonial assemblies to help offset the costs of the war. Within a month of learning about these subsidies, 23,000 new American recruits had enlisted, many of them now pulling oars in Lake George.