- 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
“We have only eight days’ provisions,” he wrote to a trusted friend in Quebec. “I have no Canadians and no Indians. The British have a very strong army. From the movements of the British I can see that they are in doubt. If they are slow enough to let me entrench on the heights of Ticonderoga, I shall beat them.” This positive statement must have had a good deal of nervous wishing behind it, but, nevertheless, he was entrenching.
A half mile behind the fort, the Ticonderoga peninsula narrows to a ridge only a quarter of a mile wide. The land falls away to Lake Champlain on one side and Lake George on the other. On the morning of the seventh, while Abercromby was frittering away his advantage down at the landing, Montcalm put his entire little army to work across that narrow neck of ground. Sweating officers, stripped to their shirt-sleeves, swung axes side by side with their men. All morning they made inroads on the virgin forest in front of them. Trees, some of them more than three feet in diameter, came down and were piled horizontally one on top of the other. A massive log wall with loopholes for muskets began to rise up from the hard ground. Three thousand men pushed the forest a hundred yards back from the wall. In the clearing they built an abatis of tree tops to serve as a sort of primitive barbed-wire entanglement. The ends of the branches were whittled into points and turned to face the direction from which the British would come. A Massachusetts officer who survived the campaign said that the abatis looked like a forest knocked flat by a hurricane. Directly in front of the log wall the heaviest branches were interlaced and sharpened so that the entire barricade bristled with lethal wooden daggers.
By evening the job was finished. The men, exhausted by the day’s work, lay down behind the raw logs to cook their supper in iron kettles. At about this time three hundred reinforcements came out of the forest and said that by morning one of Montcalm’s best officers, the Chevalier de Lévis, would arrive with a hundred more. By tomorrow Montcalm would have about 3,600 men. A half mile away in the forest sixteen thousand men were waiting for the sun to come up and the fighting to begin.
The armies woke on the morning of the eighth to a vast blue day. The sun was climbing into a windless sky that would be hot by nine o’clock. Abercromby, in his tent, was planning his battle. He summoned one of his engineers, Lieutenant Matthew Clark, and ordered him to scramble up Rattlesnake Hill and gauge the strength of Montcalm’s defenses. Clark was a boy; he had received his commission only six months before and had no experience with warfare. Abercromby had an excellent military engineer with him, a Lieutenant Colonel William Eyre, but the two men had squabbled over the command of Eyre’s regiment, and now Abercromby refused to call on him for help. Clark looked out over Montcalm’s log wall and felled trees, decided that they were harmless rubbish, and reported to his general that the position could easily be carried by a frontal assault.
Armed with Clark’s misinformation, Abercromby assembled his officers for a council of war. Having fretted away so much time earlier, he was panicky now. Prisoners taken by the British during the fighting of two days before had told of six thousand regular troops in the fort (though it is hard to imagine where Montcalm would have put them) and thousands more on the way. Abercromby, frightened by these phantom regiments, explained that the French must be attacked at once and taken at bayonet point.
He had a number of other choices open to him. Rattlesnake Hill, where Clark had made his fatal survey, loomed over the fort. It had already worried the French engineers, and a British officer later wrote bitterly that “these proceedings must undoubtedly appear most astonishingly absurd to people who were at a distance, but they are still more glaringly so to us who were upon the spot & saw the disposition of the ground. There was one hill in particular which seem’d to offer itself as an ally to us, it immediately Commanded the lines from hence two small pieces of cannon well planted must have drove the French in a very short time from their breastwork, the consequences of which wou’d have been that the greatest part of ’em must either have surrendered or drown’d themselves in the Lake … but … this never was thought of which (one wou’d imagine) must have occur’d to any blockhead who was not absolutely so far sunk in Idiotism as to be oblig’d to wear a bib and bells.” Burgoyne, in fact, used Rattlesnake Hill to take the fort two decades later. Abercromby ignored it.
Nor was this the only other possibility. He could have taken part of his army around Montcalm’s position and cut off supplies and reinforcements from the rear. Or he could have preceded his frontal assault with artillery fire, against which the heavy log wall and the abatis would have been feeble. The cannon were at hand, still on the rafts. Captain Loring, who had helped bring them to Ticonderoga, later insisted that they “lay very Contiguous at the landing place, and could very easily have been Brought up Long before the Attack, had they been Order’d … I think we had the finest Train for attacking of Lines that ever was in America.”