The largest army ever assembled in North America attacked the French at New York’s Fort Carillon . . . with disastrous results
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.
In hindsight, Pitt’s choice of James Abercromby as commander in North America seems less than inspired. Montcalm’s aide-de-camp, Louis Antoine de Bougainville, described Abercromby as a man “more of courage than resolution, more of sense than of dash and of objective; age has lessened in him the fire necessary for the execution of great undertakings.” Provincial Rufus Putnam spoke more bluntly, saying that Abercromby was “frequently called granny.”
Yet, under Pitt’s watchful eye, Abercromby had been blessed with a deputy whose very personal characteristics compensated for his commander’s defects. To Brigadier General Augustus Viscount Howe, the 33-year-old grandson of the king’s father, a veteran of the War of the Austrian Succession and deeply popular among regulars and provincials alike, he had ceded much of the operational planning for the campaign. Howe’s lean and dashing good looks provided an extreme contrast to the short, plump Scotsman. Howe was “a character of ancient times,” wrote Pitt, an anomaly among the British officer corps in his openness to, and even solicitous interest in, provincial expertise and leadership. During Howe’s first year in North America, he and Rogers had fallen into an easy relationship, spending hours discussing “the methods of distressing the enemy, and prosecuting the war with vigour . . . ” While British leaders had expressed interest in Rogers’ techniques, none so fully took them to heart as did the younger officer.
He cropped his “fine, and very abundant hair,” ordering his men to do likewise, and forbade displays of gold and scarlet, himself setting an example by wearing an ammunition coat “cut short” as a “necessary precaution,” wrote an observer, “because in the woods . . . the trees caught at the long and heavy skirts then worn by the soldiers.” Howe dictated that the best marksmen in each regiment receive new, rifled-barrel muskets, and that each man carry powdered ginger to ward off malarial fever–or ague, as it was then known. Had the British finally learned the hard lessons of campaigning in the new continent?
By five p.m., the lead elements of the grand flotilla reached Sabbath Day Point on Lake George’s left bank, 25 miles from their point of embarkation, unrolled their canvas tents, lit great bonfires, and cooked a meal. Despite the confidence that overwhelming numbers can deliver, the landing proved somewhat sobering, for the camp lay amid the still considerable presence “both in the water and on the shore,” observed one officer, of white bleached bones and fragments of clothing, hair, and leather: bleak reminders of Colonel Parker’s ill-fated bateaux expedition of a year earlier, which had ended with 300 provincials dead in an ambush.
Rogers, Howe, and the commander of the batteauxmen, Colonel John Bradstreet, took no rest. Rogers knew all too well that rugged topography could easily favor a smaller force with surprise and good position on its side. Anyone familiar with the chokepoint between marauder-friendly forest and water ready to devour any panicked rabble would know that the enemy, perhaps in considerable force, would be occupying a commanding position atop the exposed granite of Bald Mountain.
In a strategy that seems to display Rogers’ trademarks, the invasion force packed up camp at about 10 that night, re-embarked under strict silence, leaving its campfires burning to lull watchful eyes, and pressed downlake. Early the next morning, they pulled ahead of a 350-man French scouting unit. In the early morning light, with “gratest Dexterety,” wrote a Massachusetts provincial, Rogers and his rangers stormed the French narrows, the northern tip of Lake George. It marked the loading point for the portage road to Lake Champlain at Carillon. The nighttime passage of the fleet caught the French by such surprise that they precipitously abandoned their tents.
The spot also marked the beginning of the La Chute River, which curled away from Lake George, crashing over a number of falls, until it fed into Lake Champlain. The French built a water-powered sawmill at one of the falls to help construct the fort. Intending to bypass the sawmill complex, which he and Rogers thought might serve as a place for stiff resistance, Howe instead opted to swing west then north, following the La Chute’s left bank around to the fort. He sent the Rangers ahead to secure a passage over Bernetz (now Trout) Brook that falls into the La Chute from the west. Here Howe and Abercromby made the first of a chain of ultimately crippling mistakes. By sending the rangers ahead, they deprived themselves of the men most familiar with this singularly resistant country, counting instead on Gage’s Light Infantry as guides. But the “woods being thick, impassable with any Regularity to such a Body of Men,” Abercromby later wrote, “and the Guides unskilled, the Troops were bewildered, and the Columns Broke, falling in on one another.”
That morning, the French scouting patrol had also lost their way in the dense woods. They finally found Bernetz Brook and decided to follow its south bank as far as the La Chute; the time they lost put them directly into the path of the British advance guard and a fire fight ensued. At first the French got the better of the equally startled rangers and provincials, clearly unaware that the bulk of the massive British army lay close by. But soon the tide turned for the British, aided by the battle-hardened and experienced rangers.
At the head of his column, Howe, his brigade major, Capt. Alexander Monypenny, at his side, raced to the scene “with great eagerness and intrepidity,” Rogers later wrote. As Howe gained a crest, Monypenny later wrote, a ball “entered his breast on the left side, and (as the surgeons say) pierced his lungs, and heart, and shattered his backbone.” Half a dozen paces away, Monypenny watched Howe crash backwards, his hand only quivering for an instant: “Never ball had more deadly direction.” Howe had taken Rogers’ discussions to heart but not to mind, when his headlong plunge into the mêlée, recklessly outlined himself against the sky as no veteran woodsman would. Despite Howe’s eagerness to learn the craft of woods warfare, he still could not shed the romantic notions of Homeric, sword-raised courage, dashing into the fray at the head of his men, doing subalterns’ work at the cost of effective overall command and his own life. Rogers wrote that “his fall was not only most sincerely lamented, but seemed to produce an almost general consternation and langour through whole [army].”
At this moment, even with the French patrol routed, the expedition began to unravel. Spread out across two square miles of forest, provincials and regulars alike found themselves in the now darkening and disorienting woods. As the disordered columns stumbled through the woods toward some low ground near the brook, shots rang out, followed by what one soldier described as “a loud heidious Yell.” The Connecticut provincials fired blindly into the woods and received fire in return.
It all was a dreadful error. “At length. . . ,” wrote Garrett Albertson of the Jersey Blues, the firing “was stopped by a universal cry through the army—“All is well! All is well!” “The fire that began this Confusion in the front was from Ourselves . . . not a Single Shot was fir’d against us by the Enemy,” wrote Eyre. The number of casualties was not recorded.
The frightened, exhausted men “lay on their arms” that night, sleeping on the dank ground. By morning, the scattered units had begun to straggle back to the landing place. The annihilation of the French scouting force had thrown the entire British army into disarray. For the French, the disruption of the advance “gave us twenty-four hours’ delay,” wrote Montcalm’s aide de camp Bougainville. “This precious time was the saving of us and of the colony.” Drums beat the Carillon garrison to life at 4:30 a.m., rousing all 3,526 French, Canadians, and Indians, officers and men alike, who hefted shovel, pick, and axe and began digging entrenchments on the heights near the neck of the peninsula. Their formidable defensive line of three-foot thick logs laid horizontally and packed with earth, intersected with loopholes, would eventually stretch into a 230-yard horseshoe.
Howe’s death advanced Brigadier General Thomas Gage to second in command, but at the moment when Abercromby could have best used the advice of a senior colleague, Gage disappeared, perhaps suffering from some sort of nervous breakdown. (Gage later became the royal governor of Massachusetts at the outbreak of the Revolution.) Like Howe’s death, Gage’s absence on the field would ripple through English command with tragic consequences.
Late in the afternoon, the senior engineer, young Lt. Mathew Clerk and some British officers climbed Rattlesnake Mountain, the steep eminence that overlooked the fort and where Rogers had spent time spying on the French weeks before. It’s difficult to understand why Rogers himself, who better than anyone knew the terrain around the fort, was not included in this critical mission. Most likely, Abercromby’s inborn prejudice against provincials, and Rogers in particular, removed the irascible major from consideration.
The young engineer saw exactly what the French intended: knowing full well that the British would peer down upon his defenses, Montcalm had taken pains to camouflage the breastworks with cut fir trees and bushes. From atop the 850-foot mountain, the two officers observed thousands of French soldiers digging and carrying logs, but only, it appeared, to reinforce rudimentary trenchwork. A scout the next morning seemed to confirm what the officers had observed.
A Highland officer reported “that the enemy was encamped on rising ground about a half-mile from the Fort, but not fortified, only a few logs laid on another as a breast Work.” Unknown to the British, this irregular fencelike obstruction was only a quickly thrown together temporary work to protect the men building the significant complexes immediately to the rear. Abercromby gathered his officers, notably absent any provincials. “Upon this Intelligence it was thought proper to attempt storming the enemy lines, without loss of time, and immediately the whole army marched.” Wet conditions precluded lugging the heavy artillery guns to the front lines; instead two sets of ten whaleboats would each tow a raft carrying two six-pounders down the La Chute and submit the fort’s defenses to a murderous enfilade.
The British, moving with false confidence toward Carillon, would be facing its worst defeat in the war. Early on July 8, Rogers led an advanced guard of nearly 2,500 men forward to skirmish and provide protection as the provincials, backed by British regulars, marched up the road from the sawmills to the enemy defenses on the heights of Carillon. As the woods opened into the muddy Carillon heights, interspersed with stumps and tall grass, Rogers reported that within 300 yards of the breastwork, they were “ambushed and fired upon” by 200 French soldiers, positioned to slow the advancing enemy. In the face of this resistance, Rogers drew up a line and marched forward, only to find that the enemy hid behind formidable works, not the light constructs reported by intelligence.
What was more, the French had also built an “abatis,” a tangled maze of large axed fir and oak trees that one participant described as resembling the aftermath of a hurricane. The French had felled hundreds of trees, then sharpened the green and pliant limbs into murderous points, forming an effective entanglement which, wrote Montcalm, gave “the effects of the chevaux-de-frise,” the deadly medieval entrenchment barricades. Behind that, Rogers could see for the first time that the French awaited them behind strong entrenchments defended at key points by swivel guns. The British faced a murderous gauntlet.
Rogers kept to the center around the road, the bateauxmen spread to the left, Gage’s Light Infantry to the right. At around 10:30 a.m., Rogers noted, while still engaging in a scattering fire “between our flying parties and those of the enemy without the breast work,” he heard a “smart fire” from the left flank–the New York Provincials shooting at the advanced guard. Without Abercromby, who was still well behind the lines, and with Gage simply not there, William Haviland, commanding the right flank, ordered Rogers forward to provide covering fire at the abatis, then to set down, so his men might march through them. Rogers knew that Haviland’s decision to attack ran contrary to Abercromby’s clear orders that the six divisions should their attack “till the whole Army was formed, & then a point of War would be beat for the attack,” as one of his aides-de-camp later stated. Somehow the New Yorkers’ shouting and cheering on the left inflamed Haviland, causing him to send in his men, long before all the other divisions had gotten into position. At that moment, Abercromby’s and Howe’s careful plan for a united frontal assault perished.
The abatis stopped Haviland’s front ranks head on, leaving them easy targets; men “fell like pigeons” wrote one provincial soldier, as they attempted to clamber over the frightening tangle of felled trees. The French, three deep behind their entrenchment had placed their best marksmen at the keyholes, the men behind them loading weapons and passing them forward, so that the shooters could jump from a firing rate of two or three shots a minute to six or more. “A man could not stand erect, without being hit, any more than he could stand out in a shower, without having drops of rain fall on him, for the balls come like hands full,” wrote a stunned 16-year-old Massachusetts soldier. “Whistling of balls and the roar of musketry terrified me not a little.” Rogers hunkered down behind the abatis directing his rangers’ fire at the unsatisfying targets afforded by the occasional tip of a tricorn or ducking head of a French soldier. Their practice with shooting at marks—a practice instituted by Rogers—paid off. They took out the determined defenders with deadly accuracy, but could do little to stem the tide of slaughter all around them.
When Abercromby arrived at the battlefront by about 1:15 p.m., the battle was fully, if raggedly, joined. No indication exists that he attempted to call off the now haphazard attack. Instead he retreated to a safe spot on the right flank. For the next four hours, the regiments battered themselves headlong against the French position with appalling losses, each commander acting independently, and by all accounts bravely. But, wrote Lee, “we found that it was not in the power of Courage or even of chance to bestow success unless we alter’d our method: this was perceived very soon & had we profited of our early discovery, & beat the retreat in proper time, there was no loss sustain’d which was by any means irreparable . . . ” The command and control structure disintegrated, especially as great numbers of officers fell on the field. “The Ded men and wounded lay on the grown, the wounded having some of them legs their arms and other Lims broken, others shot threw the bodey and very mortly wounded,” wrote a 31-year-old Massachusetts man, Archelaus Fuller. “To hear thar cris and se thar bodis in blood and the earth trembel with the fier of the smol arms was a mornfullous as ever I saw.”
Lee, who would later go on to serve under Washington in the Revolution (Fort Lee in New Jersey would be named for him), escaped death only by chance when a musketball hit him in the chest, breaking two ribs and knocking him “senseless.” He lay amid the carnage until dusk, when his servant dragged him to safety. His criticism of the leadership on that fateful day was blistering: “ . . . no General was heard of, no Aid de Camps seen, no instructions receiv’d; but every officer left at the head of his division, Company, or squad, to fall a sacrifice to his own good behaviour and the stupidity of his Commander.”
The 42nd Scottish Highlanders, known as the Black Watch, threw themselves time and again at the French, several times breaking through to the trenches before they were slaughtered. “Even those that were mortally wounded, cried aloud to their companions not to lose a thought upon them, but to follow their officers and charge the enemy,” recalled Lt. William Grant. “When advancing . . . they appeared like roaring lions breaking from their chains,” wrote another observer. The unit lost 647 men, fully 65 percent of its strength that afternoon, the highest casualty rate during the war.
The promised artillery enfilade never came. Lt. Mathew Clerk, who now lay dying, had specified a landing place for the barges pulling the six-pounders, but the bateauxmen missed the spot that had seemed so clear from the vantage on the side of the mountain, and floundered right underneath Carillon’s guns, which pounded the small flotilla and sunk some of its craft.
By 5 p.m., Abercromby ordered a retreat, detailing Rogers and his rangers to cover the battered divisions as they limped and staggered back to the boats. By 7:30, the rangers withdrew, leaving hundreds of the terribly wounded, some still crying for help. “I suppose that soon as we left the ground, the enemy let loose his Indians upon them, for none of those that we left behind where ever heard from afterwards,” wrote 16-year-old Private David Perry. The victorious but outgunned, outmanned, and bloodied French chose not pursue.
The next morning, eight French grenadier companies marched out to see what had become of the British force, discovering, “Wounded, provisions, abandoned equipment, shoes left in miry places, remains of barges and burned pontoons.” Wrote a French officer, “We found in the mud, on the road to the Falls, more than five hundred pairs of shoes with buckles, which strongly indicated the precipitancy of their flight.”
While more than 2,000 men died that bloody day, the British expedition still constituted a formidable army, vastly superior in size to the French, but many of the fresh recruits were frightened and exhausted from two days without sleep. Even so, many were eager to avenge the losses. The record remains unclear on why Abercromby pulled back, although he had heard that reinforcements were sailing south. But no French force threatened his position. The midsummer weather, although unusually wet, presented no serious challenges. Perhaps most importantly, he had lost so many officers that he felt no longer capable of mounting a coordinated attack.
The month’s reserves of supplies, so patiently gathered, were destroyed and the large flotilla moved southward on the lake “with so much hurry, precipitation and confusion,” wrote Charles Lee, “as to give it entirely the air of a flight.”
On the evening of July 9, the battered army rowed ashore onto the encampment on the Lake’s southern edge, “melancholy and still, as from a funeral,” wrote Perry. The following day, Abercromby delivered a message of thanks to the men, wrote Rogers, “for their good behavior,” but the general’s words did little to revive the camp’s spirits. “Horrid cursing and swareing” boiled from the lips of everyone, “even among ye chief Commanders and those that were gasping for their last breath . . . ” noted the surgeon Caleb Rea. The British and provincial American soldiers all knew that they had botched their chance to deal a decisive blow to the French. The war dragged on.
During the same month that Abercromby was bungling the campaign against Ticonderoga, Lord Jeffrey Amherst was having more success to the east. Following the Major General’s successful siege of the French fortress of Louisbourg, William Pitt named Amherst as his new commander-in-chief of North America. The Louisbourg victory opened the St. Lawrence River to future British incursions, and Amherst devised a three-pronged attack against French Canada for the following year: a push up the St. Lawrence to attack Quebec, a northward invasion from Albany by way of lakes George and Champlain, and pressure against the French in the West at Fort Niagara.
The French were forced to pull back their troops from Carillon to reinforce Quebec, abandoning the fort to British forces moving northward. In September 1760, Amherst completed his triumph with the capture of Montreal, and Ticonderoga would remain in British hands until contested by the Americans in their war for independence 15 years later.