- 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
But Abercromby, in his sudden eagerness for decisive action, felt that there was no time to get the guns forward. Possibly he feared that the French, once reinforced, would attack his men in the woods. But it is more likely that, having finally settled on a plan, he was reluctant to abandon it, crude though it was. Bringing up the guns would give the French more time, and Clark had told him that their defenses were weak. Abercromby had made up his mind. Massed British infantry were to carry Montcalm’s position with bayonets. It was as simple as that. Moreover, his officers seem to have raised no objections prior to the fight. “I believe,” wrote one, “we were one and all infatuated by a notion of carrying every obstacle by a mere coup de mousquetene .” Howe would have known better.
While Abercromby was forming his regiments into line for the attack, he sent Sir William Johnson with some Iroquois Indians up Rattlesnake Hill. At about nine o’clock they deployed along the hillside and started squeezing off random shots at the Frenchmen far below at the barricade. They kept up this ineffectual popping all day and succeeded in wounding one French officer.
This first firing was largely ignored by Montcalm, who was arranging his troops and supervising the final work on his wall. Toward noon there was heavy gunfire in the forest— English light troops driving in the French pickets—and a French signal gun made a flat noise in the heavy air. Seven battalions of French regulars with iron names—La Reine, Guyenne, Royal Roussillon, Beam, Languedoc, 1st Berry, and La Sarre —took their places along the wall in a triple row. Men peering along three thousand musket barrels watched the British attack come out of the forest.
The British soldiers had been waiting for hours in the cover of the woods, nervously fingering lucky coins, muttering and complaining, checking their muskets, wishing, no doubt, that the day was over and they were safe. At about twelve thirty the line stiffened, commands snapped back and forth, and they walked forward into the sunlight.
The scarlet masses of infantry came into the clearing in long lines three deep. The men saw the strange hills and trees, an ocean away from the hills and trees they knew, and they saw the log wall and the hostile glint of musket barrels. Above the wall the regimental flags drooped in the still air. Montcalm’s soldiers were invisible, though here and there a cap showed above the barricade. The British troops pointed their bayonets at the breastwork and moved into the abatis, where the leaves were already curling with the heat.
A distant French voice shouted something, and the wall spurted smoke from one end to the other. Bullets whickered in the hot sky, and men began to scream and fall down. All the British soldiers were caught in the abatis now, fighting their way forward while level gusts of musketry thinned their lines with terrible efficiency. Men in the front ranks were impaled on the wooden spikes as the soldiers behind pushed them forward. Highland troops of the Black Watch tried to cut away branches with their broadswords, but these made poor axes. A few men broke through and pushed on toward the wall. None reached it. For an hour they came on, some almost reaching the French positions, most caught in the abatis and tossed backward by French bullets to die hanging on the branches. Finally, having done as much as men could, the British began to fall back toward the woods, staring dumbly at one another and shaking their heads at the impossibility of the attack.
When news of this failure reached Abercromby at his headquarters a mile and a half away—there is no record that he ever saw the ground where he was so desperately willing to spend lives—he became angry and stubborn. He had made himself clear. If the men hadn’t succeeded in breaking through the French lines, then they must try again. The order went forward through the forest, and again the red lines moved toward the invisible enemy. Again the men became tangled in the briers and sharp stakes. Some got through to die at the wall, most did not. Soldiers trussed in the branches found that they could go neither forward nor back, and had to wait in a frenzy of rage and fear for inevitable death to reach them. Eventually this attack, like the first one, melted away.
Early in the battle Abercromby made a halfhearted attempt to get around the French left flank. Barges carrying cannon wallowed down the river toward Ticonderoga. It might have worked, but the slow boats had to pass under the guns of Fort Carillon. The cannon were trained and fired, splinters whirred in the sunlight, and two of the boats went down. The others pushed away for safety. This failure strengthened Abercromby’s resolve that the French must be beaten at bayonet point. He ordered another attack.