- 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
Again and again, all day long, files of men pushed up the clanging hillside. The men struggled forward with the same tragic, deadly courage that future generations of British soldiers would show at Balaclava and on the Somme. Once, deep in the blazing afternoon, a Rhode Islander named William Smith managed to claw through the abatis. He crouched down at the foot of the wall, unnoticed in the confusion of battle, and began to shoot Frenchmen. Finally one of them saw Smith, leaned over the parapet, and shot him. Smith was badly wounded, but he still managed to scramble up to the top of the breastwork and brain one of Montcalm’s men with his hatchet. A British officer saw him raging on top of the wall and ordered two of his men forward to rescue him while the rest kept the French down with a strong covering fire. They brought Smith back alive.
Behind the barricade, Montcalm was everywhere, dashing from one end of the line to the other shouting orders and fierce encouragements. He knew that things were going far better than he could ever have hoped. There had been a crisis earlier when the Berry battalion, which was mostly made up of young recruits, had broken and run from the wall. But before the attackers could take advantage of this, reserve companies of grenadiers filled the gap. Now the whole line was holding well.
Down by the landing, the handful of men who had been left to guard the artillery listened to the distant rumbling of the battle and wondered who was winning, and why their cannon weren’t being used.
Abercromby, far away from the dying, ordered a new assault as soon as he got word of the failure of the one before. Archelaus Fuller wrote in his “soreful account of thes onfortenat day” that “The fit came on very smart. It held for Eaight ours, a soreful sit to behold. The Ded men and wounded lay on the groun, the wounded having some of them legs their arms and other Lims broken, others shot threw the bodey and very mortly wounded. To hear … thar cris and se thar bodis lay in blood and the earth trembel with the fier of the smol arms was a[s] mornfullous as ever I saw.”
Toward evening, with the weakening sun shining red through banked smoke, the Black Watch attacked in the last great effort of the day. The Highlanders came on shouting through the scorched branches. “Even those who were mortally wounded,” wrote one of their officers, “cried to their companions not to lose a thought upon them, but to follow their officers and mind the honor of their country. Their ardor was such that it was difficult to bring them off.” Campbell of Inverawe fell with his prophesied mortal wound, and twenty-four other officers were killed. Cursing and lurching toward the guns, the Scots broke out of the abatis and rushed forward. Captain John Campbell climbed the wall and jumped down inside among French bayonets. A few men followed him over to die at his side.
The Highlanders trickled back, leaving half their numbers between the abatis and the wall. The final attack had failed. Desultory gunfire rose and fell from both sides as men ran crouching onto the ghastly field to bring in the wounded, but the fight was over.
For a while the Frenchmen stared out over the steaming ground, watching the abandoned equipment, the papers from burst knapsacks, and the corpses hanging on the trees in the dusk. Eventually it became evident that there would be no more attacks, and grins began to flicker in smoke-black faces. Montcalm came down the line thanking the tired soldiers who had, for the moment, saved New France. Beer and wine began to appear. The soldiers drank and cheered their general again and again.
When the news of the final assault reached Abercromby, he knew that he had failed. The peculiar courage that had kept him stubbornly throwing away his soldiers all through the futile afternoon deserted him. In the space of a few hours he had lost over 1,600 men, and although there were still thousands left to continue the fight, he had had enough. He immediately ordered his tired officers to call a general retreat.
In the darkness, with the groans of the wounded and the milling of frightened, disorganized men, the retreat became a rout. Hundreds of barrels of provisions were abandoned, and soldiers running over marshy ground in panic left their shoes stuck in the mud. Fuller wrote: “We marched of the ground before dark down to … whear we went from in the Day. [Lay] down thair to rest but befor day we saw the men marching … We marched after the army, came down to the landing before son ris, pased by wounded men all the way. I was very wek and out done. …” They all were. The army could still scarcely believe the outcome of the harrowing day. One exhausted soldier summarized the battle in his diary with an unconscious couplet: “At Ticonderoga, July y6 8, for seven hours we fought the French. While we ware all in open field and they within a trench.”
The men, shocked and despondent, huddled by the landing until daylight, when they climbed aboard the boats. Soon they were headed back down the lake, a bleak parody of the proud army that had passed the other way a few days before.