- 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 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.