- 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
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.”