- Historic Sites
The Debacle at Fort Carillon
It started with jaunty confidence and skirling bagpipes. Five days later it had turned into one of the bloodiest and most futile battles ever fought on American soil.
June 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 4
At thirty-four George Augustus, third Viscount Howe, was one of the youngest brigadier generals in the British army and certainly the most popular. Even before the war started, there were people who called him England’s best soldier. He had been in America for a year and, disdaining army politics, had set out to learn as much as he could about wilderness fighting. Robert Rogers, the Ranger, had taught him his methods and would accompany the expedition to Ticonderoga [see “Americans as Guerrilla Fighters,” AMERICAN HERITAGE, August, 1971].
Howe had learned well, and through his efforts the army that would march against the French would look like no other British army that had ever taken the field. During the months before the campaign, Howe had his soldiers lighten pack, trim their hair close, and carry enough provisions to be independent of supply trains for weeks. One of his officers wrote: “You would laugh to see the droll figure we all make. Regulars as well as provincials have cut their coats so as scarcely to reach their waists. No officer or private is allowed to carry more than one blanket and bearskin. … No women follow the camp to wash our linen. Lord Howe has already shown an example by going to the brook and washing his own.” The picture of an eighteenth-century British aristocrat and officer doing his own laundry helps to explain Howe’s enormous popularity. In an age when officers tended to hold the rank and file in contempt, Howe went out of his way to become acquainted with regular soldiers and provincials alike, and he scorned any luxuries that his men could not share.
Howe and Abercromby complemented each other well enough, and there was no reason to believe that the campaign would not be a success.
Pitt, hoping to catch Fort Carillon with its winter garrison, had planned the expedition for early May, but there were delays. The militia, which was to assemble with the regular troops along the upper Hudson before marching to the head of Lake George, arrived late. A Massachusetts man named Archelaus Fuller was with the provincials when they finally started out. His journal provides a semiliterate but vivid account of the campaign; one entry can serve to describe the march to Lake George: “We marched in the morning abouet thre mils, holted and eate breforst. Marched about fore mils, holted whear we dind. Marched. Et thondered and rain were queck. … Marched and had bad travele.”
But finally, after all the delays and “bad travele,” the army was together and in the boats bound for Ticonderoga.
It was a great sight, and the men who sailed on Lake George that day never forgot it. There were nine hundred bateaux, 135 whaleboats, and flatboats tilting under artillery. Rogers and his Rangers and Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Gage with the light infantry headed the fleet in the whaleboats. Behind them were the thick red masses of Howe’s regulars and the Highlanders of the legendary Black Watch. It is reported that their major, Duncan Campbell of Inverawe, was gloomy that day with a premonition of his death. Campbell is the subject of a persistent family legend: years before, in his castle in the western Highlands of Scotland, he is supposed to have been confronted by an apparition of his murdered cousin, who bade him farewell until they should meet again at a place called Ticonderoga. The strange name meant nothing to Campbell until years later in America, when he was horrified to learn of Abercromby’s destination.
But if Campbell was gloomy that day, he had little company. The British felt cheerful and invincible, surrounded as they were with the vast files of boats. Buttons and weapons flashed in the bright day, and the hills echoed with the fierce, unfamiliar noise of bagpipes. When the boats entered the narrows that morning, they formed a procession six miles long from front to rear. An officer wrote later that he had “never beheld so delightful a prospect.”
All this pomp must have been a doomsday sight to a French partisan named Langy, who, watching from the shore at the head of the lake that afternoon, saw the endless lines of bateaux and heard the skirling bagpipes, thin and distant in the summer air. He hurried back to Fort Carillon and reported the arrival of the English to his commanding officer, General Louis Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm de Saint-Véran.
Montcalm was one of the finest soldiers of his era. He had entered the French army at the age of twelve and was a captain by the time he was twenty. In 1756 he was appointed commander in chief of the French forces in North America, and that same summer he captured the important British post of Oswego. The next year he led an army down Lake George and put Fort William Henry to the torch. Despite constant friction with the Marquis de Vaudreuil, the vain and jealous governor of Canada, Montcalm’s career in America had been one of uninterrupted success. Even so, the spring of 1758 had found the brilliant man filled with misgivings.