The Debacle at Fort Carillon


At Ticonderoga, Lake George spills its waters northward into Lake Champlain, and for over a century whoever controlled the narrows there controlled the gateway to a continent. Travel through the dense American forests was arduous at best, impossible when supplies and trade goods needed to be taken along. If smugglers, traders, or armies wished to pass between the domains of Britain and France, between New York and Montreal, they had to go by water.

Thus from the first colonization, the Hudson-Champlain valley tied together two rival civilizations. In the 1750’s, when halfhearted negotiations were failing and war between France and Britain was imminent (they were already shooting in the colonies), the French occupied a spur of ground at the head of Lake George, and a fort began to take shape in the wilderness. They gave it the pretty name of Carillon, and the rockier name of the ground it stood upon was Ticonderoga. The fort blocked the path of any British invasion; the English troops could not move northward toward Montreal without passing under its guns. So it was that politicians and generals in London and Paris fretted over a minute outpost lost in the blind forests of the New World.

July 5 of 1758 was less than four hours old when an army began to stir along the shores of Lake George. Coughs, curses, murmurs, and the rattling of equipment sounded in the waning darkness. The buckled white crossbelts of 6,300 regular British troops picked up the dim light as the men struck their tents and filed down to the lake. Just offshore, hundreds of bateaux creaked and gurgled as the regulars climbed in. Provincial militia ten thousand strong—tough, rangy men from Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York—milled around behind the regulars. The first wash of dawn left the sky pale, but the trees still rose black behind the embarking army. Down the beach field guns glinted dully as they were trundled aboard barges. The handful of friendly Indians busied themselves tying red rags around the muzzles of their muskets to distinguish them from hostiles should the need arise.

Amid the increasing clamor, piles of equipment grew on the shore as men were ordered to lighten pack for the expedition. Officers left their sashes, portmanteaus (they would be allowed to take only one), extra blankets, and bearskins. The regimental colors were left behind. Some troops were ordered off for target practice to keep them busy, and the gunfire added to the martial air of the proceedings. By six o’clock the camp was desolate, and sixteen thousand men in over a thousand boats teetered out into the lake while the sun rose like empire above French Mountain.

At last, after months of confusion and delay, a powerful British force was moving against Ticonderoga.

There were cheers on the lake that day, and, for the first time in years, there seemed to be reason for cheering. From the beginning, four years earlier, the British prosecution of the war in North America had been marked by a series of frustrations and defeats at the hands of the French. The colonies, generally demoralized and dubious about the war effort, bickered among themselves. Greed, envy, and private interests stood in the way of any effective common action against the French. When the militia was called up, the men tended to be sulky and undisciplined. British regulars were not much better, and British generals consistently lost major battles and squandered minor advantages.


Now, however, the situation appeared to be changing. William Pitt had come into power the summer before and committed the government to a policy of all-out warfare. He provided for arming and paying American provincial troops by the government, called for twenty-five thousand militia, and relieved the faltering Earl of Loudon from the command of British forces in America. Loudon was replaced by a professional soldier named James Abercromby.

By the winter of 1757-58 Pitt had completed his plans for operations against the French. Jeffrey Amherst was to take Louisbourg, John Forbes was to avenge Braddock’s defeat at Fort Duquesne, and Abercromby was to invade Canada after capturing Ticonderoga.

Surprisingly, in view of these ambitious plans, Abercromby was slow, unimaginative. Now a rather sickly man in his early fifties, he had been in the army since his boyhood, and in North America as second in command since 1756. During his unspectacular stay in the colonies he had made no friends and no real enemies. Nor had he had any opportunity to demonstrate his incapacity for high command. Political influences had played the major role in his promotion, but Pitt, who had little confidence in him, had taken steps to make sure that Abercromby was only nominal commander of the expedition. Abercromby had gently been made to understand that real authority would rest with his second in command, a man whom Pitt described as “a character of ancient times; a complete model of military virtue.”