- 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
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.