- 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
Despite the celebrations, Montcalm was uneasy. Certainly he and his men had done a brave day’s work, but the English still outnumbered them four to one. He had lost 377 men, and the rest were weary. Even Abercromby couldn’t be expected to attack the next day without artillery. But when the sun came up, there were no British in sight. Soon a group of scouts returned to the fort with the news that Abercromby was in full retreat. Montcalm put up a huge wooden memorial cross in the middle of his barricade and wrote his wife with ecstatic exaggeration: “Without Indians, almost without Canadians or colony troops,—I had only four hundred,—… [with] thirty-one hundred fighting men, I have beaten an army of twenty-five thousand. … This glorious day does infinite honor to the valor of our battalions. I have no time to write more. I am well my dearest, and I embrace you.”
There were no further attempts to invade Canada by way of the lakes that year. Abercromby—now called Mrs. Nabbycromby by his disgusted soldiers—was recalled to England in September. “The General,” wrote one of his medical officers, “returns to Europe as little regretted as any man that ever left America. He had no resolution, no will of his own, was bullied into the favours he bestowed, made few friends thereby, created some enemies, and in short fell into universal contempt.” He never again saw active service.
A number of the men who were with him on his dismal campaign became famous during the Revolution twenty years later. Robert Rogers, Israel Putnam, and Charles Lee served the colonial cause, and poor Gage ended his twenty-year sojourn in America by ordering the disastrous attack on Bunker Hill. Howe’s two younger brothers, Richard and William, followed his ghostly footsteps to North America, where, despite their sympathies, they fought against the colonists, one as the admiral of a British fleet and the other as a general.
Abercromby’s incredible mistakes gave the French another year’s grace in North America, but only that. Even while the British were failing at Montcalm’s wall, Amherst was taking Louisbourg and Forbes was working his way toward Fort Duquesne. The next year Amherst would take Ticonderoga virtually without casualties. Montcalm, enjoying the greatest triumph of his career, had little more than a year of it left. The next September, on the Plains of Abraham before Quebec, his army would be defeated, he would die, and with him, New France.
But to the men who hobbled back from the log wall on the night of the battle, Fort Carillon represented more than a minor setback. It was to them, and it remains today, the scene of one of the bloodiest and most futile battles ever fought on American soil. A young Massachusetts colonel condensed the campaign into a brief, grim indictment when he wrote three days after the battle: “I have told facts; you may put the epithets upon them. In one word, what with fatigue, want of sleep, exercise of mind, and leaving the place we went to capture, the best part of the army is unhinged. I have told you enough to make you sick, if the relation acts on you as the facts have on me.”