- 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
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.