- 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
And the British were not alone in the woods. A reconnaissance force under Langy, trying to return to the fort, had also gotten lost. The Frenchmen were moving cautiously along a small stream when one of the men heard a noise in the bushes in front of him. “ Qui vive! ” he challenged. “ Français , ” came the reply—but unmistakably in a British accent. The French fired.
The British, recovering from their initial surprise at having the shrubbery spray gunfire at them, began to shoot back. “We had a very smart ingagmen,” wrote Archelaus Fuller. “The fire was so smart for som time that The Earth trembled.” The woods were filled with noise and smoke. The British, confused and fearful that the whole French army was upon them, began to slip away from the fighting. As units fell back, they blundered into others coming up, and the chaos became general. Final panic and retreat, however, were averted by Rogers and his Rangers. Together with some Connecticut men, they had been scouting far ahead of the main body of the army when they heard the sullen volleys behind them. They wheeled around, moved back through the trees, caught the French in a crossfire, and routed them. A hundred Frenchmen were dead and a hundred and fifty taken prisoner. The British had lost eighty-seven men killed and more than twice that many wounded. In relation to the size of their army, their casualties would have been nothing more than a rub of the game—but for the death of one vitally important man.
Lord Howe, in his enthusiasm for the campaign, had been marching with Major Israel Putnam in front of the most forward units of his army when the fighting erupted. One of the men with him reported that “when the firing began on part of the Left Column, Lord Howe thinking it would be of the greatest Consequence, to beat the Enemy with the Light Troops, so as not to stop the march of the Main Body, went up with them, and had just gained the Top of the Hill, where the fighting was, when he was killed. Never Ball had a more Deadly Direction I …was about six yards from him, he fell on his Back and never moved, only his Hands quivered an instant.”
From the moment of Howe’s death, the British campaign began to take on an aura of baffling and somewhat eerie ineptitude. Howe had, in the words of Abercromby, been “very deservedly, universally beloved and respected throughout the whole Army, and it is easy to conceive the Grief and Consternation his untimely fall occasioned.”
But the effects of Howe’s death were more than sorrow or anger. A peculiar lassitude settled over the army. Robert Rogers noted that “the fall of this noble and brave officer seemed to produce an almost general languor and consternation through the whole army.” A soldier writing at the time said that with Howe’s death “the soul of General Abercromby’s army seemed to expire … neither order nor discipline was observed, and a strange kind of infatuation usurped the place of resolution.” Possibly the most accurate judgment was that of James Wolfe (who himself was to die at Quebec the following year), far away in the siege lines that were nibbling at the vast fortress-rock of Louisbourg. “If the report [of Howe’s death] is true,” he said, “there is an end of that expedition, for he was the spirit of that army.”
So as dusk came on, sixteen thousand men were stunned and irresolute because of a single death. Abercromby and his new second in command, General Thomas Gage (who had shown with Braddock at the Monongahela two years earlier that he was inept at forest warfare), were hopelessly confused. The main body of the army continued to work their way toward Rogers’ position when, wrote Fuller, ”… As the Heads of the Columns were descending a low ground, A fire Was heard in the front … [and then] a loud heidious Yell.” The men began to scatter. ”… No intreaty could prevail with the men for some time, but in about an hour’s time after this, we found out, the fire that began this Confusion in the front was from Our Selves … by this time it was almost Dark, we were separated & had som difficulty to Join Afterwards; but in a very irregular Way, the Reg’ts intermix’d with each Other, And as it appeared to me in a most wretched situation. …”
Abercromby, frightened and indecisive, called some of the men back to the landing and left some to sleep in the woods. The army that had started out that morning with drums and laughter under a benign sky settled down gloomily for the night, the men stupid with exhaustion and the fear of death. They hunched their shoulders against the darkness and wondered what would happen the next day.
Nothing happened the next day, as it turned out. Abercromby regrouped his men at the landing, rebuilt a bridge that the French had destroyed, and crawled forward to occupy a campground that Montcalm had recently abandoned. By nightfall, two days had slipped by since the English had landed. They had made no decisive move, and most of the artillery was still on the rafts. But Montcalm had been busy.