- 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
The French, while still holding the advantage over the British, were facing serious difficulties. During the long winter the soldiers had been billeted in farmhouses around Montreal and Quebec. With inadequate uniforms and poor food, they had had a cold, hungry season. Vaudreuil was drafting ambitious plans for spring expeditions down Lake George and against Albany, but his armies couldn’t move until they could be properly fed. There was little food, what with two bad harvests and the capture of sixteen provision ships from France. The soldiers around Quebec had been making do with four ounces of bread and a scrap of salt pork per day; now even that meager ration would have to be cut in half. In May a depressed Montcalm wrote in his Journal that “the colony is almost lost.” Later that month, however, the few merchantmen who had survived storms and avoided the British navy began to appear with pork, flour, codfish, and maize. Everyone complained that there wasn’t enough, but at least the troops could finally move.
On June 24 Montcalm set out for Lake Champlain to begin his campaign. He was in a pessimistic rage. His instructions from Vaudreuil, he said, were “ridiculous, obscure, and insidious.” Nor was he cheered when upon arriving at Ticonderoga he found himself head of a severely reduced garrison with eight weak battalions of 2,970 men, nine days’ provisions, and a few discontented Indians. The Indians, annoyed at not receiving their customary gifts, killed cattle and stole barrels of wine from the commissariat. “What a country! What a war!” wrote Montcalm.
That evening he received from some captured British Rangers the appalling word that Fort Carillon was soon to be attacked by twenty-five or thirty thousand men. He sent out dispatches to Vaudreuil begging for reinforcements, ordered detachments forward to scout along the lake, and began to plan his seemingly hopeless defense.
As Montealm surveyed the fort with his military engineers, he must have become increasingly worried. The rocky ledge that thrust out over the falls and rapids between Lake George and Lake Champlain did indeed command the passage completely. Fort Carillon, however, did not. De Lotbinière, the Canadian engineer who had gotten rich building the fort and was now getting richer running its canteen, had located the works too far back from the narrows to cover them with its guns. A small redoubt had been built nearer the narrows sometime later, but this did not make up for the initial error. The fort itself was sturdy enough, but a thousand yards away the slopes of Rattlesnake Hill (now Mount Defiance) made it vulnerable to anyone who could haul up a cannon. A few days before the battle an unhappy French military engineer ended a survey of the fort with the words “From this description it will be seen how little susceptible of defense is this fort; yet, it is the only work that covers Lake Champlain and, consequently, this Colony. Were I entrusted with the siege of it, I should require only six mortars and two cannon.” Abercromby had forty pieces of artillery.
There were other problems. Montcalm had less than three thousand men—not nearly enough to meet the British in open field, but ten times more than could fit inside Fort Carillon, even if Fort Carillon were defensible. He considered retreating, then persuaded himself that drawing back would only bring him into action in some place possibly even less favorable. Finally he decided to fight it out where he stood. So, when Langy appeared on July 5 with his news of sighting the British armada, Montcalm ordered his men to the high ground down the peninsula from the fort. They began digging ditches and cutting down trees.
On the morning of July 6 Abercromby and his sixteen thousand men disembarked from their splendid flotilla. They landed on the west bank of Lake George near the portage road that led to Ticonderoga. A French guard of three or four hundred men watched the British approaching but disappeared into the forest when they began to come on shore. The English landed unopposed.
Things seemed to be going well for Abercromby’s forces. The men were in high spirits as they splashed ashore behind Rogers and his Rangers, who had already moved off into the forest to reconnoiter. By noon everyone was out of the boats and forming into ranks under a hot, clear sky. Abercromby’s artillery, however, remained strapped to the rafts that had brought it up the lake. The men shuffled around and shouted to each other while the day slipped down from noon. At two o’clock, commands were called out, and the army, in four columns, moved forward confidently into the thick belt of forest that separated it from Ticonderoga.
Things began to disintegrate almost immediately. Abercromby wrote later: “The wood being thick, impassable with any Regularity to such a Body of Men, and the Guides unskilled, the Troops were bewildered, and the columns broke, falling in on one another.” The soldiers had passed from white sunlight into a baffling, leafy gloom. The ancient trees grew nearly trunk to trunk, and heavy summer branches bent down around the army. Marching order fell apart as men made their way forward over the spongy ground, blinking in the dim green light and random sun slants.