- 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
At Ticonderoga, Lake George spills its waters northward into Lake Champlain, and for over a century whoever controlled the narrows there controlled the gateway to a continent. Travel through the dense American forests was arduous at best, impossible when supplies and trade goods needed to be taken along. If smugglers, traders, or armies wished to pass between the domains of Britain and France, between New York and Montreal, they had to go by water.
Thus from the first colonization, the Hudson-Champlain valley tied together t wo rival civilizations. In the 1750’s, when halfhearted negotiations were failing and war between France and Britain was imminent (they were already shooting in the colonies), the French occupied a spur of ground at the head of Lake George, and a fort began to take shape in the wilderness. They gave it the pretty name of Carillon, and the rockier name of the ground it stood upon was Ticonderoga. The fort blocked the path of any British invasion; the English troops could not move northward toward Montreal without passing under its guns. So it was that politicians and generals in London and Paris fretted over a minute outpost lost in the blind forests of the New World.
July 5 of 1758 was less than four hours old when an army began to stir along the shores of Lake George. Coughs, curses, murmurs, and the rattling of equipment sounded in the waning darkness. The buckled white crossbelts of 6,300 regular British troops picked up the dim light as the men struck their tents and filed down to the lake. Just offshore, hundreds of bateaux creaked and gurgled as the regulars climbed in. Provincial militia ten thousand strong—tough, rangy men from Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York—milled around behind the regulars. The first wash of dawn left the sky pale, but the trees still rose black behind the embarking army. Down the beach field guns glinted dully as they were trundled aboard barges. The handful of friendly Indians busied themselves tying red rags around the muzzles of their muskets to distinguish them from hostiles should the need arise.
Amid the increasing clamor, piles of equipment grew on the shore as men were ordered to lighten pack for the expedition. Officers left their sashes, portmanteaus (they would be allowed to take only one), extra blankets, and bearskins. The regimental colors were left behind. Some troops were ordered off for target practice to keep them busy, and the gunfire added to the martial air of the proceedings. By six o’clock the camp was desolate, and sixteen thousand men in over a thousand boats teetered out into the lake while the sun rose like empire above French Mountain.
At last, after months of confusion and delay, a powerful British force was moving against Ticonderoga.
There were cheers on the lake that day, and, for the first time in years, there seemed to be reason for cheering. From the beginning, four years earlier, the British prosecution of the war in North America had been marked by a series of frustrations and defeats at the hands of the French. The colonies, generally demoralized and dubious about the war effort, bickered among themselves. Greed, envy, and private interests stood in the way of any effective common action against the French. When the militia was called up, the men tended to be sulky and undisciplined. British regulars were not much better, and British generals consistently lost major battles and squandered minor advantages.
Now, however, the situation appeared to be changing. William Pitt had come into power the summer before and committed the government to a policy of all-out warfare. He provided for arming and paying American provincial troops by the government, called for twenty-five thousand militia, and relieved the faltering Earl of Loudon from the command of British forces in America. Loudon was replaced by a professional soldier named James Abercromby.
By the winter of 1757-58 Pitt had completed his plans for operations against the French. Jeffrey Amherst was to take Louisbourg, John Forbes was to avenge Braddock’s defeat at Fort Duquesne, and Abercromby was to invade Canada after capturing Ticonderoga.
Surprisingly, in view of these ambitious plans, Abercromby was slow, unimaginative. Now a rather sickly man in his early fifties, he had been in the army since his boyhood, and in North America as second in command since 1756. During his unspectacular stay in the colonies he had made no friends and no real enemies. Nor had he had any opportunity to demonstrate his incapacity for high command. Political influences had played the major role in his promotion, but Pitt, who had little confidence in him, had taken steps to make sure that Abercromby was only nominal commander of the expedition. Abercromby had gently been made to understand that real authority would rest with his second in command, a man whom Pitt described as “a character of ancient times; a complete model of military virtue.”
At thirty-four George Augustus, third Viscount Howe, was one of the youngest brigadier generals in the British army and certainly the most popular. Even before the war started, there were people who called him England’s best soldier. He had been in America for a year and, disdaining army politics, had set out to learn as much as he could about wilderness fighting. Robert Rogers, the Ranger, had taught him his methods and would accompany the expedition to Ticonderoga [see “Americans as Guerrilla Fighters,” AMERICAN HERITAGE, August, 1971].
Howe had learned well, and through his efforts the army that would march against the French would look like no other British army that had ever taken the field. During the months before the campaign, Howe had his soldiers lighten pack, trim their hair close, and carry enough provisions to be independent of supply trains for weeks. One of his officers wrote: “You would laugh to see the droll figure we all make. Regulars as well as provincials have cut their coats so as scarcely to reach their waists. No officer or private is allowed to carry more than one blanket and bearskin. … No women follow the camp to wash our linen. Lord Howe has already shown an example by going to the brook and washing his own.” The picture of an eighteenth-century British aristocrat and officer doing his own laundry helps to explain Howe’s enormous popularity. In an age when officers tended to hold the rank and file in contempt, Howe went out of his way to become acquainted with regular soldiers and provincials alike, and he scorned any luxuries that his men could not share.
Howe and Abercromby complemented each other well enough, and there was no reason to believe that the campaign would not be a success.
Pitt, hoping to catch Fort Carillon with its winter garrison, had planned the expedition for early May, but there were delays. The militia, which was to assemble with the regular troops along the upper Hudson before marching to the head of Lake George, arrived late. A Massachusetts man named Archelaus Fuller was with the provincials when they finally started out. His journal provides a semiliterate but vivid account of the campaign; one entry can serve to describe the march to Lake George: “We marched in the morning abouet thre mils, holted and eate breforst. Marched about fore mils, holted whear we dind. Marched. Et thondered and rain were queck. … Marched and had bad travele.”
But finally, after all the delays and “bad travele,” the army was together and in the boats bound for Ticonderoga.
It was a great sight, and the men who sailed on Lake George that day never forgot it. There were nine hundred bateaux, 135 whaleboats, and flatboats tilting under artillery. Rogers and his Rangers and Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Gage with the light infantry headed the fleet in the whaleboats. Behind them were the thick red masses of Howe’s regulars and the Highlanders of the legendary Black Watch. It is reported that their major, Duncan Campbell of Inverawe, was gloomy that day with a premonition of his death. Campbell is the subject of a persistent family legend: years before, in his castle in the western Highlands of Scotland, he is supposed to have been confronted by an apparition of his murdered cousin, who bade him farewell until they should meet again at a place called Ticonderoga. The strange name meant nothing to Campbell until years later in America, when he was horrified to learn of Abercromby’s destination.
But if Campbell was gloomy that day, he had little company. The British felt cheerful and invincible, surrounded as they were with the vast files of boats. Buttons and weapons flashed in the bright day, and the hills echoed with the fierce, unfamiliar noise of bagpipes. When the boats entered the narrows that morning, they formed a procession six miles long from front to rear. An officer wrote later that he had “never beheld so delightful a prospect.”
All this pomp must have been a doomsday sight to a French partisan named Langy, who, watching from the shore at the head of the lake that afternoon, saw the endless lines of bateaux and heard the skirling bagpipes, thin and distant in the summer air. He hurried back to Fort Carillon and reported the arrival of the English to his commanding officer, General Louis Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm de Saint-Véran.
Montcalm was one of the finest soldiers of his era. He had entered the French army at the age of twelve and was a captain by the time he was twenty. In 1756 he was appointed commander in chief of the French forces in North America, and that same summer he captured the important British post of Oswego. The next year he led an army down Lake George and put Fort William Henry to the torch. Despite constant friction with the Marquis de Vaudreuil, the vain and jealous governor of Canada, Montcalm’s career in America had been one of uninterrupted success. Even so, the spring of 1758 had found the brilliant man filled with misgivings.
The French, while still holding the advantage over the British, were facing serious difficulties. During the long winter the soldiers had been billeted in farmhouses around Montreal and Quebec. With inadequate uniforms and poor food, they had had a cold, hungry season. Vaudreuil was drafting ambitious plans for spring expeditions down Lake George and against Albany, but his armies couldn’t move until they could be properly fed. There was little food, what with two bad harvests and the capture of sixteen provision ships from France. The soldiers around Quebec had been making do with four ounces of bread and a scrap of salt pork per day; now even that meager ration would have to be cut in half. In May a depressed Montcalm wrote in his Journal that “the colony is almost lost.” Later that month, however, the few merchantmen who had survived storms and avoided the British navy began to appear with pork, flour, codfish, and maize. Everyone complained that there wasn’t enough, but at least the troops could finally move.
On June 24 Montcalm set out for Lake Champlain to begin his campaign. He was in a pessimistic rage. His instructions from Vaudreuil, he said, were “ridiculous, obscure, and insidious.” Nor was he cheered when upon arriving at Ticonderoga he found himself head of a severely reduced garrison with eight weak battalions of 2,970 men, nine days’ provisions, and a few discontented Indians. The Indians, annoyed at not receiving their customary gifts, killed cattle and stole barrels of wine from the commissariat. “What a country! What a war!” wrote Montcalm.
That evening he received from some captured British Rangers the appalling word that Fort Carillon was soon to be attacked by twenty-five or thirty thousand men. He sent out dispatches to Vaudreuil begging for reinforcements, ordered detachments forward to scout along the lake, and began to plan his seemingly hopeless defense.
As Montealm surveyed the fort with his military engineers, he must have become increasingly worried. The rocky ledge that thrust out over the falls and rapids between Lake George and Lake Champlain did indeed command the passage completely. Fort Carillon, however, did not. De Lotbinière, the Canadian engineer who had gotten rich building the fort and was now getting richer running its canteen, had located the works too far back from the narrows to cover them with its guns. A small redoubt had been built nearer the narrows sometime later, but this did not make up for the initial error. The fort itself was sturdy enough, but a thousand yards away the slopes of Rattlesnake Hill (now Mount Defiance) made it vulnerable to anyone who could haul up a cannon. A few days before the battle an unhappy French military engineer ended a survey of the fort with the words “From this description it will be seen how little susceptible of defense is this fort; yet, it is the only work that covers Lake Champlain and, consequently, this Colony. Were I entrusted with the siege of it, I should require only six mortars and two cannon.” Abercromby had forty pieces of artillery.
There were other problems. Montcalm had less than three thousand men—not nearly enough to meet the British in open field, but ten times more than could fit inside Fort Carillon, even if Fort Carillon were defensible. He considered retreating, then persuaded himself that drawing back would only bring him into action in some place possibly even less favorable. Finally he decided to fight it out where he stood. So, when Langy appeared on July 5 with his news of sighting the British armada, Montcalm ordered his men to the high ground down the peninsula from the fort. They began digging ditches and cutting down trees.
On the morning of July 6 Abercromby and his sixteen thousand men disembarked from their splendid flotilla. They landed on the west bank of Lake George near the portage road that led to Ticonderoga. A French guard of three or four hundred men watched the British approaching but disappeared into the forest when they began to come on shore. The English landed unopposed.
Things seemed to be going well for Abercromby’s forces. The men were in high spirits as they splashed ashore behind Rogers and his Rangers, who had already moved off into the forest to reconnoiter. By noon everyone was out of the boats and forming into ranks under a hot, clear sky. Abercromby’s artillery, however, remained strapped to the rafts that had brought it up the lake. The men shuffled around and shouted to each other while the day slipped down from noon. At two o’clock, commands were called out, and the army, in four columns, moved forward confidently into the thick belt of forest that separated it from Ticonderoga.
Things began to disintegrate almost immediately. Abercromby wrote later: “The wood being thick, impassable with any Regularity to such a Body of Men, and the Guides unskilled, the Troops were bewildered, and the columns broke, falling in on one another.” The soldiers had passed from white sunlight into a baffling, leafy gloom. The ancient trees grew nearly trunk to trunk, and heavy summer branches bent down around the army. Marching order fell apart as men made their way forward over the spongy ground, blinking in the dim green light and random sun slants.
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 ofthat 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.
“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 dark’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.”
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.
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.
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.”