Battle of Fort Carillon

The Battlefield

Fort Ticonderoga

Fort Ticonderoga today. This was The Prize. A witness to three wars, it was fatally flawed and compromised the day it became operational. However, the French, the British and the Americans fought over it for half a century. It between wars, it was abandoned and allowed to rot. In those periods, civilians looted it for materials and fuel, to the point where by 1850, there was almost nothing left. The present fort is a complete reconstruction, with few original components. The arrows mark the direction to the Carillon battlefield. The outlines of the French position are still there and clearly visible, along with several monuments that tell the story. **Historical Footnote: Click on the link to see a photo of the decimated fort.**

In northeast upstate New York near the Canadian border are two lakes – Lake George and Lake Champlain. They are long and narrow and form a straight line running north and south. They actually parallel each other for about 20 miles with a narrow strip of land between them. At its narrowest point, the land is only about one swampy mile across. If someone were to fortify that narrow point, they could control the traffic on both lakes. The French, the British and the Americans did just that during the colonial wars of the 18th and 19th centuries. The lake country of upstate New York was a battleground in three wars spanning six decades- the French and Indian War, the American Revolution and the War of 1812. The biggest and bloodiest encounter in all of them was the Battle of Fort Carillon on July 8, 1758. In fact, it was the costliest battle in North America until July 21, 1861, and the Civil War battle of First Manassas.

Lake George forms the southern end of this lake highway. It starts at the town of Lake George, NY. Relatively small and shallow – 32 miles long, 3 miles wide and average depth of 40 feet, it empties from south to north. At the northern end, it flows into the La Chute River, a short and wild waterway that empties into Lake Champlain. The La Chute River wasn’t navigable, so lake traffic had to be portaged overland.

Lake Champlain is the larger by far – 120 miles long, up to 12 miles wide and as much as 400 feet deep. It also empties from south to north into the Richelieu River, which in turn flows into the St Lawrence River just northeast of Montreal. (So if you’re traveling south on the lakes, you’re actually going “up the lake”).

Overhead of Ft Ticonderoga

A Google map overhead view of the Fort Carillon battle area. Mt. Defiance is 700 feet higher than the fort. The straight line distances are quite small. It’s only a mile from Mt. Defiance to the fort, putting it well within artillery range. The fort, which bristled with cannons, would have had a tough time responding to that threat. Shooting uphill changes the firing solution. The fort guns may not have been able to elevate their guns enough to even shoot back. The only real solution would be to occupy and fortify Mt. Defiance to deny its use to the enemy.

This little spit of land between the lakes was one of the most strategic spots on the colonial northern frontier. The northern end of these lakes puts you on the doorstep of Montreal and Quebec. The southern end offers a straight shot to Albany, the Hudson River Valley and New York City. Control of this route gave an attacker from either side a direct route into the heart of enemy territory. In 1755, during the second year of the French and Indian War, the French built a massive fort right on the portage – Fort Carillon. The British later named it after an Iroquois word meaning “the joining of waters” – Ticonderoga.

**Historical Footnote: Soon after the War of 1812, New York began building canals to connect inland waterways with ports on the Atlantic coast and the Great Lakes. The most famous was the Erie Canal. At the same time it was being built, workers were also building the Champlain Canal. This 60 mile long system connected the southern end of Lake Champlain to the Hudson River, completely bypassing Lake George. The Champlain Canal was an economic success and has been in continuous use since it opened in 1817. It carried substantial commercial traffic until the 1970’s. Now its primary users are recreational boaters.The northern end of the canal joins Lake Champlain at Whitehall, NY.**

The Battle

The early years of the French and Indian War went very badly for the British. From 1754 to 1758, they were outfought at every turn. Fort Necessity, Braddock’s Defeat, Grant’s Hill and others were debacles. Additionally, the war was bankrupting the empire and British commanders in North America were often weak and inept. The British government even started questioning the outcome of the war and whether it was worth continuing. **Historical Footnote: Unbeknownst to them, the French were in much worse shape. They were overextended world-wide and dead broke. It eventually cost them the war.**

In 1758, the new Prime Minister, William Pitt, settled that question. With the support of King George, he committed massive forces to defeat the French in North America. Britain embarked on a complex four pronged land and sea campaign. One of the primary strategic objectives was to gain control of the lakes in upstate New York. That would split French forces and cut off their supply routes. It also offered an attack route right to the capitol city of New France – Quebec. But first, they had to take Fort Carillon.

Mt Defiance

This down the barrel view of Fort Carillon/Ticonderoga from Mt. Defiance tells you all you need to know about how vulnerable the massive fort really was. Why did the French even build it here? They probably figured the top of the mountain would always be inaccessible to heavy guns and equipment.

In early July of 1758, 52 year old Major General James Abercrombie had the mission of taking the fort. He had 18,000 men, heavy guns and siege equipment. They faced 4,000 French defenders led by the Marquis de Montcalm, an experienced battle commander. Fort Carillon was an imposing structure but had a fatal flaw. There was high ground overlooking the fort less than a mile away to the southwest – well within artillery range. British engineering and artillery officers did a recon of the area. It was unoccupied, undefended and in perfect position to bombard the fort but a wilderness road would have to be built to get the heavy stuff on top. **Historical Footnote: The French named the high ground Rattlesnake Mountain. The British called it Sugar Loaf. The Americans named it Mt. Defiance. It’s now part of the Fort Ticonderoga Historical Site and can be visited while you’re there.**

A siege and bombardment would have made short work of Carillon and the French commander, the Marquis de Montcalm, knew it. In a gambit to change the odds, he ordered the construction of a strong entrenched position on a hill a half mile northwest of the fort blocking the British route of advance. In this area, there is bedrock right underneath the topsoil, making serious digging impossible. It was a log and dirt wall built up from the surface. In front of it, they felled trees to form abatis, a very effective obstacle to foot movement. They also built redoubts manned with artillery to protect their flanks. It was a very strong position. Out of range of their own guns, they hoped to sucker the British to fight out in the open. At the very least, they could draw some blood before British seige guns forced them to abandon the fort.

**Historical Footnote: Montcalm was a larger than life figure for the French in North America. He led their forces for almost the entire French and Indian War. He racked up victory after victory, usually in the thick of it with his soldiers. His most famous (and notorious) victory was the taking of Fort William Henry at the southern edge of Lake George. The siege, surrender and subsequent massacre were made famous in both the book and movie versions of “The Last of the Mohicans”. His luck ran out on September 14, 1759. He was killed in action on the Plains of Abraham during the fighting for Quebec. He was 47.**

Attack at Carillon

This painting of unknown origin shows the 42nd Highlander Regiment – the famed Black Watch – in action at the French defensive line. In the background, you can see the defensive works of parallel logs. It completely protected the French soldiers from rifle fire. Artillery would have made quick work of it, but Montgomerie didn’t bring any. The abatis of felled trees is vividly depicted. Note the sharpened stakes and the branches piled in between as tanglefoot. Also notice the smoke. Black powder muzzle-loaders produce an incredible amount of acrid, thick, white smoke. After hours of firing, the entire battlefield was probably shrouded in the stuff, with visibility near zero. What you don’t see is French artillery. Unlike Abercrombie, there was a method to their madness. Montcalm was trying to lure the British his way and he figured that charging into cannons would spook them. Also, the construction of the defense wasn’t suited for artillery. It was hastily built over the course of 2 days. They didn’t have time to chop firing apertures and construct firing platforms to hold the guns. They did have cannons on their flanks in case of a British breakthrough. That almost happened around 5:00 PM, when the highlanders somehow made it to the base of the wall. Some were able to clamber over it and fought hand to hand before being driven back by French bayonets.

Abercrombie took the bait – hook, line and sinker. On July 8, in a stunning display of incompetence, he decided to forget the siege, forget the high ground and end it quickly with his overwhelming numerical advantage. Leaving his artillery behind and tossing any semblance of tactics or maneuver out the window, he sent wave after wave of British soldiers across open ground in uncoordinated banzai attacks against the French position. The battle started around 1:00 PM and raged until nightfall. Darkness, exhaustion and soldiers abandoning the field finally forced him to call it off. During that entire time, Montgomerie never got close enough to the battle to see the slaughter.

The French lines today

The outlines of the French positions are still clearly visible today. The trenches are actually berms built up with dirt and not dug into the bedrock. The wooden palisade would have been on top.

The Aftermath

When it was over, almost 3,000 British dead and wounded lay on the battlefield. The decimated British force limped back to their base at the southern end of Lake George, expecting the French to swoop down on them at any minute. The French suffered about 400 casualties, which was 10% of their force – a significant degradation. They had no intentions of pursuing the British. Instead, Montcalm, who had been in the middle of things with his troops, had barrels of wine delivered to the lines while they prepared their defenses for another attack that never came. History was repeating itself. The French still had their fort and the British had yet another military disaster on their hands.

Abercrombie abandoned the Ticonderoga mission but didn’t want to return empty handed. Two hundred miles to the west, where the St. Lawrence River empties into Lake Ontario, was Fort Frontenac. It was an old fort, dating back to 1673 and was lightly defended. It was also the main supply base for the French frontier forts around the Great Lakes and down the Ohio River Valley. Abercrombie sent a force of 3,000 men commanded by Lt. Col. John Bradstreet to capture Fort Frontenac. They attacked on August 26 and the fort surrendered two days later. Bradstreet paroled the defenders, allowing them to walk away. Then the British helped themselves to the warehouses. What they couldn’t carry, they destroyed and with it went the supplies and materials to wage war and trade with the Indians. The seizure and destruction of this supply base did more damage to the French than had been done so far in the whole war.

Carillon battlefield

This is a photo of the killing ground taken from the top of a French trenchline. It would have been completely open. The trees you see are new growth. This was old growth virgin timber at the time of the battle but the area was completely cut down to build fortifications and clear fields of fire. Nobody knows for sure how many British soldiers fell here, but few, if any, were recovered. Their remains are still out there to this day.

**Historical Footnote: Major General James Abercrombie was a one trick pony. His place in history is defined solely by the disaster at Ticonderoga. For his appalling leadership there, he was recalled to England, promoted to Lt. General and became a member of Parliament for 20 years. There he became a leading voice for strong repressive measures against the insolent and ungrateful American colonies. He died at his Scottish estate in April 1781 at age 75 and is buried there.**

The loss at Fort Carillon was a major setback for the British campaign in North America, but it was too important to let go. A year later, it was in the crosshairs again. This time, British General Jeffrey Amherst was in command. His army dragged artillery up to the top of Mt. Defiance. Completely compromised and without a chance of a successful defense, the French quickly abandoned the fort, blowing up or destroying everything they could. The British entered the fort on July 27, 1759 without a shot being fired.

Author’s Comments

The Battle of Fort Carillon was a model find for Off the Beaten Path. It’s what my web page is all about. This was a big battle in a big war that nobody has ever heard of. From the point of view as a webmaster and historian, it’s fascinating. However, viewing it as a retired Marine officer, I find it disturbing and stupid.

War is full of unknowns. Sometimes, luck, weather, happenstance or other seemingly trivial events affect the outcome of a battle. So does stupidity. General Abercrombie did more stupid stuff in a shorter amount of time than probably any battle I’ve ever studied. It’s a classic military axiom that you’ll never have all the things you need to engage in battle, but Abercrombie came close. He had manpower, equipment, weapons, favorable weather, freedom of movement, a weakened opponent and most importantly – time. All he had to do was methodically lay siege to the fort.The French were in no position to mount any resistance except small spoiling attacks – which they did. The fort was untenable. The outcome was never in doubt – until Abercrombie got stupid. The Battle of Fort Carillon was a disaster but it wasn’t a game changer. The war went on and a year later, the fort was taken. A year after that, the French surrendered. The loss of 3,000 British soldiers for absolutely nothing is infuriating along with fact that Abercrombie was never held accountable for anything.

One of the trends throughout the French and Indian War is that the French constantly outfought, outmanuevered and outsmarted the British. The gambit at Carillon to sucker in the British was classic. They were aggressive and proficient in wilderness fighting, something the British never learned. France lost the war and their North American territory because of economics. They were simply overwhelmed by British logistics, engineering and manpower and they couldn’t afford to keep pace. By the end of the war, the French were eating their horses to survive.

If you like history, forts, battlefields, colonial towns, hiking, biking, back roads, canals, rivers and lakes, you’ll love upstate New York. It’s beautiful. The whole area is one big museum. All you have to do is drive down the road and you’ll find stuff. We were there in the fall to take in the colors and we were not disappointed. Leaves here peak around Columbus Day, which is when we visited. Be warned though – during the summer, the entire area is a crush of people. Make reservations well in advance and be prepared to wait in line for just about everything. Be sure to tour Lake George on a steamboat. Cell phone connectivity is good, so your geocaching killer app should work just fine. Geocaching is a great way to escape the crowds and get out into the countryside.

Hope you enjoyed the post and learned a few things. We sure did…Boris and Natasha

Battle of Grant’s Hill

Battle of Grant's Hill

The Battle of Grant’s Hill was very one-sided, as the British showed yet again that they were not proficient in fast moving, close in wilderness fighting. Twenty years later in the American Revolution, they still weren’t. It shouldn’t have been fought at all. Major Grant disobeyed orders, which stated he was not to get decisively engaged in a battle. There’s no trace remaining of the battle area. It’s now in the middle of the “Golden Triangle” in downtown Pittsburgh.

Summer 1758 in present-day western Pennsylvania. The French and Indian War is in its fourth year and so far, it’s been all French and Indians. There is no British military presence on the western frontier except a regiment of part-time volunteer Virginia militia commanded by George Washington. For three years, they have been fighting a lost cause, trying to hold back French and Indian raids across the depth and breadth of the colonial western frontier. These raids have plundered as far north as Lake Erie and south to the Potomac River while moving east as far as the Susquehanna River in the center of Pennsylvania.

The base for these raids is Fort Duquesne (dew-cane’), located at the junction of the three rivers in present-day Pittsburgh. This location was simply referred to as “The Forks”. From the northeast flows the Allegheny River.  Up from the southeast flows the Monongahela River.  They join at “The Forks” to form the Ohio River, which flows southwest to the Mississippi River. With all the navigable rivers and tributaries that connect to this water network, one can go from the Gulf of St. Lawrence via the Great Lakes all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Whoever controls The Forks controls this inland water super highway, making it the most strategic and valuable piece of real estate in the interior.

There were several reasons why Great Britain was in this fix. The French and Indian War was part of the much larger Seven Years War. It was the first true world war and Britain was fighting world-wide on both land and sea.**Historical Footnote: They were fighting the French, Spanish, Austrians, Russians and Swedes (yes, Swedes). Their only ally was Germany.** The British government considered the French and Indian War to be a sideshow and a problem the colonials would have to deal with themselves. British officers and government officials already in North America tended to be dismissive of the colonials and especially the Indians, who they had no use for at all. The French, however, welcomed Native American support, who became a lethal mercernary wilderness army for the French.

Second, the British, who were the masters of the European battlefields, had no idea how to fight in the wilderness. Time and again, they were outfoxed and outfought by the French and their Native American allies. In fact, throughout the entire war, it was taken as gospel by the British that attempts to operate independently in Indian country were tantamount to suicide. It simply wasn’t done.

Outline of Fort Duquesne

This overhead view of “The Point” in Pittsburgh shows the outline of Fort Duquesne. It was tiny. The interior courtyard was about the size of a tennis court. Fort Pitt, which replaced it, was built in the same area and covered 13 acres. The settlement the sprung up outside the walls became Pittsburgh. **Historical Footnote: Both the fort and the town were named after William Pitt, the Leader of the House of Commons, future Prime Minister and driving force behind the British strategy to expel France from North America. Without his focus on that strategy and the means to carry it out, we might all be speaking French today.**

In 1758, Britain entered the war in force and with a newfound vigor. **Historical Footnote: Great Britain paid Germany to continue the fight in Europe. That freed them to throw the might of their empire into the North American War.** The most important strategic objective was the capture of Fort Duquesne in present-day Pittsburgh. General Edward Braddock had tried it three years earlier. On July 9, 1755, his force was cut to pieces on the banks of the Monongahela River by a smaller force of French and Indians. Braddock was killed. The ghost of Braddock’s Defeat haunted the British for the rest of the war. The unspoken rule for commanders was – “No more Braddocks”.

Now it was the mission of General John Forbes to capture Fort Duquesne. Forbes’ second-in-command was Lt.Col Henri Bouquet, a Swiss soldier-of-fortune who had been fighting for a living for 20 years. He may have been the best field officer in the British Army. Tough and savvy, he understood wilderness fighting and didn’t buy into this gospel that Brits alone couldn’t operate in Indian country. When they got close to Fort Duquesne, he decided to give the French and the Indians a taste of their own medicine.

The officer selected to lead it was Major James Grant, an officer with Montgomerie’s Highlanders. Grant was a bad tempered and impatient Scotsman who was tired of building wilderness roads and waiting. In his view, it was time to fight. Although he had been in the army since 1744, he had no wilderness fighting experience. Nevertheless, he convinced Bouquet that they should go big with a large force of several hundred men conducting what the military calls a “reconnaissance-in-force“. Grant left the forward base at Fort Ligonier on September 9 with 800 men – about 400 highlanders and 400 militia troops. Their orders were to create as much mayhem as possible around Fort Duquesne without getting trapped in an all out battle, take prisoners and bring back detailed information on the fort.

Grant planned and executed his movement well. They traveled light and carried everything in their haversacks. Noise and light discipline were strictly enforced. No fires at night. Barking dogs encountered along the way were killed. On September 13, they reached a hill several hundred yards away from the fort. They had gotten there undetected. Grant estimated there were 200 defenders and no sign of any Indians. Against all orders, he decided to attack the fort. His plan was to decoy the defenders out and ambush them in the open with a bigger force. Another section would be held in reserve further up the hill. Fifty Virginia militia troops were left further back to guard the packs. Some militia officers advised against the plan. Grant, who was openly contemptuous of colonial units, brushed them off.

The Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh.

Built in 1884, the Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh sits on the site of the Battle of Grant’s Hill. The hill itself was leveled in the early 1900’s to make room for development, but the area is still called Grant’s Hill. The first floor of the courthouse in the photo used to be the basement.Other than a few commemorative plaques, there’s no battlefield to visit.

At dawn on September 14, 1758, the French defenders of Fort Duquesne were greeted by an unbelievable sight. One hundred Scottish Highlanders, kilts and all, were marching towards the front gate to the music of bagpipes. The gates opened and defenders came rushing out while Indians came running up from the river banks where they were encamped unseen. Grant’s estimated 200 defenders inside the fort quickly became over 500 swarming all over them with more on the way from across the Allegheny River.

The decoy force was overwhelmed almost immediately. While that brief action was going on, other defenders went down to the rivers, ran along the banks and came up above and behind the rest of Grant’s force. The whole attack plan fell apart and desperation set in so the British used what they knew – European linear tactics. On the heavily timbered hillside, they tried to form up in ranks and volley fire.

It was right out of the Braddock playbook. Grant was on the verge of a completely successful mission when he got stupid. All up and down the hill, groups of British soldiers were surrounded and cut down by an enemy they couldn’t see or fight. Some of the British broke and ran for the “safety” of the river, where they became targets of the Indians. In a panic, some soldiers rushed headlong into the water and drowned. The only reason Grant’s force wasn’t completely annihilated is because the Virginians guarding the packs came forward and counterattacked. It bought enough time and space for survivors to bug out.

Of the 800 men who left Fort Ligonier, only 400 came back. The rest were dead or captured, with wounded men dying on the retreat. Grant himself was taken prisoner. It was a complete disaster and the very thing that Forbes and Bouquet had sworn would never happen on their watch. They still had no hard intelligence other than what survivors told them. They painted a picture of an impregnable fortress with thousands of defenders.

Despite that, Forbes pushed on, overwhelming the French with sheer numbers and a slow methodical approach. As they closed in on Fort Duquesne on November 25, the French blew it up and bugged out. The next day, the vanguard of Forbes’ army walked up to the gates of Fort Duquesne without a shot fired. There was nothing left but chimneys and iron frames, but that’s not all they found.

On their final approach march, they walked through Braddock’s kill zone from three years earlier. The bleached bones of Braddock’s men were still laying all around. When they got to the fort, they made another horrifying discovery. The heads of Grant’s captured highlanders were impaled on stakes a short distance away by the river bank. There was nothing to be done except bury them. Such was the nature of frontier warfare. But after five years, the British finally had Fort Duquesne. It was the beginning of the end for New France. Things went downhill fast for them as the British tightened the noose, driving the French out of the colonies and attacking Quebec and Montreal. The French surrendered after the capture of Montreal on September 8, 1760.

**Historical Footnote: Major Grant was a POW in Quebec for a year. He was released in a prisoner exchange and went home to England, becoming a member of Parliament. He returned to serve during the American Revolution, then returned to Parliament until his death in 1802. He blamed the colonial militia for the debacle that bears his name and his family connections blunted any political fallout. He was never held accountable for anything nor did he ever express any remorse or regret. He’s buried on his Scottish Estate.

**Historical Footnote: General John Forbes was a late-comer to the army, having been a physician first. At the time of his assignment to the Fort Duquesne mission, he was a dying man, ravaged by a disease (never identified) that kept him bedridden much of the time. He was the brains of the operation and Lt. Col. Bouquet was the brawn. Together, they got it done. Forbes left Fort Duquesne in early December, arriving in Philadelphia after a grueling six week trip on a litter slung between two horses. He died in early March and is buried in Philadelphia.

**Historical Footnote: Lt. Col. Henri Bouquet stayed at The Forks and built Fort Pitt. Five years later, he was in Philadelphia when Pontiac’s War exploded on the western frontier. Fort Pitt was attacked and under siege by a large force of Indians. Bouquet gathered a force and marched to relieve it. He was ambushed by Indians near a tiny way station called Bushy Run, about 40 miles from Fort Pitt. After two days of fierce fighting, he decisively defeated the attackers and moved on to relieve the fort. The Battle of Bushy Run broke the back of Pontiac’s War and got Bouquet promoted to Brigadier General. He was re-assigned to command Britain’s new souther command based in Pensacola, FL. As soon as he got there, he went down with yellow fever and was dead a week later. He is buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery in Pensacola but his gravesite is unknown.

Author’s Comments

Well, there’s not much to say. Major Grant “screwed the pooch” as we say in the military. Military history is full of guys like Grant – Braddock at Monongahela, Sickles at Gettysburg and Custer at the Little Bighorn come to mind. Combat actions favor the bold but there’s a fine line between that and recklessness. If you win, you’re bold. If you lose, you’re reckless. Sometimes you don’t know which until you go for it.

Taking Fort Duquesne was a big deal. It wasn’t pretty. The French defended aggressively as far forward as they could by attacking the attackers. When things got terminal, they destroyed the fort and bugged out to fight another day. They deprived the British of the satisfaction of capturing the fort intact. The Forbes Expedition never did prove its mettle in a fight. It was plodding, methodical operation that lasted for over six months. It was a marvel of logistics and engineering. They cut a new road through the wild, rocky and steeply wooded Allegheney Mountains that is still in use today – Route 30, also called the Forbes Road. Most importantly, it gave Britain a win when it sorely needed one. John Forbes was hailed as a hero destined for great things. He didn’t live long enough to enjoy it.

The city of Pittsburgh (my hometown) is one big museum. The steel mills and their rotten egg smell are long gone. Modern skyscrapers are mixed in with one-of-a-kind diners and everything in the Grant’s Hill neighborhood is within walking distance. Make sure you take the Duquesne Incline up to Mt. Washington for dinner. Also take a ride on the Gateway Clipper fleet, paddle wheelers that tour the rivers. Fort Duquesne and Fort Pitt are gone, but they live on in the John Heinz Museum at Point State Park. There is still a blockhouse standing from the original Fort Pitt.

If you like to find or collect things, Pittsburgh is the Mother Lode. Geocaches, Munzees, benchmarks, letterboxes and NPS Passport Stamps are in abundance here. The city is safe to move around in, unlike Fort Duquesne days. The only time you’ll get scalped is if you try to score Steelers tickets in the parking lot on game day.

Hope you enjoyed the post and learned a few things. We sure did……Boris and Natasha

Go Ahead, Make My Day

We love forts, especially the huge brick ones built before the Civil War. They are three dimensional history books, great for touring, exploring and crawling around. It’s like going back in time. Referred to as Second and Third System forts, they were the space shuttle programs of their day.

Cannon muzzle

Out of the interior darkness, a 32 pounder cannon is positioned at its firing port at Fort Pickens, FL. Second and Third System brick forts were engineering marvels and several features can be seen here. The arch over the gun strengthens the walls around it and makes it less likely to collapse. Different brick patterns were used to strengthen specific areas depending on the forces they would be subjected to. The inward angle of the firing port gives the defenders good fields of observation and fields of fire, while limiting that of the attackers. Inside, the cannon was mounted on a semi-circular rail, so that it could be traversed right to left as needed. The rail allowed the gun to be moved smoothly by just a few men even though it weighed several tons.

This cannon would have been used to defend the fort against a land attack. The anti-ship batteries mounted on the seaward walls were huge. They could fire shells up to 15″ in diameter up to three miles away. Some of these forts fought furious battles, including the aforementioned Fort Pickens. Many others saw no action at all. Some became famous for other reasons – such as Alcatraz.

Many of these forts are now part of the National Park Service. Still others are maintained by the states. In addition to the history and learning opportunities, forts are a steady source of NPS Passport Stamps, benchmarks, geocaches, letterboxes and munzees for us.

If you’re interested, here’s a link to a page on Fortress Engineering. Here’s an additional link on Attacking and Defending Forts

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

Cruising Into Kauai

Entrance to port in Kauai.

This is the entrance to Nawilliwilli Bay in Kauai, Hawaii at sunup in early March. It was taken from the balcony of our starboard side aft Deck B stateroom on the Sapphire Princess with the trusty Nikon D3100. The wind, the waves and the sunlight all coming in from the east combined to create a colorful photo that almost seems alive. The lighthouse-looking structure is actually a navigational aid located at the very southern end of the main runway of Lihue Airport. Kauai is great for exploring on your own. It’s small and uncrowded and you can see a lot in one day. We rented a Jeep and took off for the day. (If you go that route, make sure you have a reservation.) One of the hidden gems we found was a state park dedicated to a Russian fort – Fort Elisabeth. Turns out the Russkies had eyes for Hawaii before America did. Aloha tovarich.

dasvidaniya … Boris and Natasha

The Alamo

The Alamo was a battle that epitomizes much of what is good about America. In honor of that, here are some little known facts about the battle along with a few pictures from our visits there.

Sunday, March 6, 1836. 5:00 AM. The storming of the Alamo by the 5,000 man army of Santa Anna begins. After waiting since February 23 for reinforcements that never arrived, the 185 defenders have to fight alone. They have less than 90 minutes to live.  Many Mexican soldiers have less than that. The Texans exact a fearsome toll on their attackers – estimates range from a few hundred to over a thousand. We’ll never know.

Painting of the Alamo

“For God and Texas” by Richard Luce

Davy Crockett and his Tennesseans at the Alamo. The artist has captured an accurate snapshot of the early part of the battle. It’s still dark. Unlike the movies, the chapel is in the correct place. Crockett’s men are shown behind a low, makeshift palisade which was the weakest part of perimeter. Smoke fills the air. Men are frantically loading weapons. You can almost feel the chaos and intensity.

● The structure dates back to 1724 when it was called Misión San Antonio de Valero. It housed Christian missionaries and their converts. The source of the name Alamo has two theories. Some say it comes from the Spanish word for cottonwood tree – El Alamo. Others say it was named by Spanish troops who garrisoned the post in earlier days. They were from a town called Alamo.

● The crown that figures prominently across the front of the chapel wasn’t there during the battle. It was constructed in 1847.

● It was bitter cold that morning and much of the fighting was in darkness. It was all over by 6:30 AM.

● The defenders were taken by surprise. Santa Anna had shelled the Alamo non-stop for days. It stopped at 10:00 PM the night before and the defenders collapsed into an exhausted sleep. They had little if any time to ready for the actual assault. They rushed to their positions in the dark and the fight was on.

Alamo View

The front of the chapel from across the plaza where the perimeter would have been. This peaceful scene was the middle of the battle area. Fighting swirled in every direction from here. The chapel was in the defenders’ left rear. Davy Crockett and his men would have been on the right side of the photo where the trees now stand.

● Contrary to many movie and artist accounts, the chapel wasn’t at the front of the action. It was actually in the defenders’ left rear of the post, making up the southeast corner of the perimeter. Troops and cannon fought from the roof. A large perimeter, some of it makeshift, was manned by the defenders. This perimeter extended across present day Alamo Plaza and the stores beyond. Since there weren’t enough defenders to man the whole perimeter, they fought from strongpoints along the wall.

● The attack came from every direction, although the main effort was directed at the north wall. Defenders fought back two assault waves but were overwhelmed by the third. Once the perimeter was breached, the courtyard became a caldron. They did a fighting retreat across the courtyard into the chapel and barracks for their last stand.

● The defenders used artillery with deadly effectiveness. They loaded their cannons with nails, door hinges, horse shoes and anything else they could find, turning the cannon into giant shotguns that ripped huge gaps in the attacking ranks. However, they got pushed off their guns so fast, they didn’t spike them. The attackers turned the guns around and used them to blast away inside the compound.

Alamo Courtyard

The courtyard as it looks today. The chapel is behind you. By 6:00 AM, there was ferocious fighting here, much of it hand-to-hand with swords, bayonets, tomahawks and knives. The defenders fortified and barricaded every room inside the compound and exacted a fearsome price from the attackers, who had to fight for every square inch. Notice the office building in the top right of the picture.

● The defenders fortified and barricaded almost every square inch of the buildings with the exception of the chapel. Fighting positions were dug in the floors of the rooms. Obstacles were placed in doorways and windows. Holes were chopped between rooms to allow movement inside. With the walls breached, room to room fighting commenced. At first, the attackers paid dearly in the dark, close quarters fighting. It didn’t take long for the captured cannons to be brought to bear. Santa Anna’s soldiers wheeled them down to the rooms and blasted away at point blank range before entering and clearing.

● Davy Crockett and his Tennessee volunteers defended the weakest point of the perimeter – a low wooden palisade just in front and to the left of the chapel on the south wall. They felled trees with the branches towards the enemy as an obstacle to the attackers. They were the last ones to be pushed off the perimeter.

● The fate of the Alamo’s most famous defender is a mystery. Some reports have Crockett killed on the north wall, indicating he had moved there to reinforce the crumbling defenses against the main attack. Other reports from Mexican soldiers say he survived and was executed afterwards.

● Colonel Travis died early in the battle. He was shot in the head while leaning over the north wall to fire his shotgun down on the attackers.

● Jim Bowie was bedridden from illness and killed where he lay.

● The women and children hid in the center of the chapel and survived. Santa Anna spared them.

● Other mysteries surround the Alamo. Did any defenders escape or survive? Some say they did. Witnesses after the battle report seeing several defenders being brought before Santa Anna and summarily executed. One of them may have been Davy Crockett.

● The bodies of the defenders were burned in a mass funeral pyre. A year later, ashes from that pyre were gathered and interred at the San Fernando Chapel in San Antonio. These ashes represent the symbolic remains of Crockett, Bowie and Travis. They remain there still.

The Alamo is highlight of a visit to San Antonio. There are both guided and self-guided tours available. The structures you see are the original ones that have survived. Many have not. A modern urban environment surrounds the Alamo and encroaches into the actual battle area. Remember that when you are standing in the plaza in front of the Alamo, you are in the middle of where the fighting took place. This is hallowed ground, much like Gettysburg. If you go, no pictures inside the chapel. It is also customary for men to remove their hats in respect.

Six weeks later and 200 miles east, on April 21, 1836, Santa Anna’s army was decisively defeated at the Battle of San Jacinto, which lasted 18 minutes. Fought in the bayous of what is now the Houston Ship Channel, they were slaughtered by the hundreds. Another 1,000 were captured, including Santa Anna himself. Sam Houston’s force had nine killed.

San_Jacinto_Monument

The monument at the San Jacinto Battlefield near La Porte, TX. At 567 feet, it is the tallest memorial column in the world – 12 feet higher than the Washington Monument.

The price of freedom for Santa Anna was to leave Texas and give up all attempts to put down the rebellion. The delay at the Alamo had cost him dearly and gave Sam Houston the time he needed to get ready. Texas won its independence in no small part to the sacrifice at the Alamo.

Remember the Alamo … Boris and Natasha

1862 Dakota War

The 1862 Dakota War is often called Minnesota’s Other Civil War. Most people have never heard of it and that includes a lot of Minnesotans.  Fought in the same time period as the Civil War battles of Second Manassas and Antietam in that horrific late summer of 1862, it couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Union and Abraham Lincoln.  They tried to stay out of it but couldn’t.  It was too big and too damaging.

It was the largest Indian war in American history.  The main battleground was the entire Minnesota River Valley in southern and central Minnesota – 20% of the state’s total land area. The uprising spread into the Dakota Territories and sent panic into Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin.

The defenders of New Ulm counterattack.

An artist’s realistic portrayal of the decisive action of the Second Battle of New Ulm. As the Dakota were closing in for the kill, the defenders leaped over their own barricades and counterattacked. After pushing the Indians back, the defenders set fire to 40 buildings to deny their use to the enemy. Those two desperate actions saved the people of New Ulm but destroyed much of the town.

In Minnesota, Indians did mass attacks on a fort and an entire town – both twice.  Contrary to what folklore and Hollywood tell us, this was almost unheard of in any of the Indian campaigns.

When the fighting ended, 500 settlers and 100 soldiers were dead.  Over 200 people were killed the first morning – as many as Custer lost at the Little Bighorn. To this day, that number of civilians killed on American soil as a result of hostile action is exceeded only by the attacks on 9/11.

Disease and battle wounds killed unknown numbers after the battlefields were silent. Refugees numbered in the thousands. The war de-populated and ravaged a large part of the state, which took years to recover.

The number of Indians slain in battle has never been confirmed but we do know that hundreds died in the retribution that followed.  That number includes 38 in the gallows – at the same time. It’s the largest mass execution in U.S. history.  As further retaliation, the Dakota (Sioux) way of life was intentionally destroyed forever.

The fighting was close and ferocious.  In both battles at New Ulm, outnumbered farmers, settlers and shop keepers fought house to house, launched desperate counterattacks and burned down much of their own town to hold off the Dakota braves assaulting them from every direction.

John Erd's dry goods store in New Ulm.

The Frank Erd dry goods store was one of only three brick buildings in the New Ulm defensive perimeter. Many women and children took cover here during the fighting. The women decided that if the town fell, they were not going to be taken and face a hideous death at the hands of the Indians. They had a barrel of gunpowder rolled into their basement shelter. If the Dakota came, the last act of the defenders of New Ulm would be to blow up themselves and as many Indians as possible. Fortunately, it never came to that.

This was one of the few engagements throughout all the Indian Wars of the 19th century where artillery could be brought to bear and used effectively.  It was used extensively against the Dakota and saved the day in several actions.  At Fort Ridgely, the Dakota attackers ran into a storm of fire and lead the likes of which they had never seen.

The war never really ended.  It just moved west and metastasized into a 30 year conflict that included Red Cloud’s War (1866),  the Little Bighorn (1876) and, finally, Wounded Knee (1890).

For over 100 years, the people of Minnesota celebrated the Dakota War as a victory of pure good over pure evil, i.e., the settlers defeating the treacherous blood thirsty savages.  It was called the Sioux Massacre. That view has changed in recent years,  especially with the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the conflict in 2012.  As it turns out, there was enough blame and blood to go around for everyone.

Regardless of what one thinks about the Indians and the whites, there’s no denying that what happened in New Ulm, Minnesota on August 19 – 23, 1862 was extraordinary. Regular people banded together, fortified their town and fought tooth and nail against an implacable enemy – and won despite being outnumbered and outgunned.  I can find no other instance in U.S. history of a similar event.  There are many instances of people hunkering down in forts, but none like this. The Battles of New Ulm stand as singular events in American history.

And before I forget…there’s lots of geocaches in New Ulm and throughout the Minnesota River Valley.  History, geocaches, German food – what more could you want?

Here’s your link to our web site which has a full history of the Dakota War.

That’s all for now … Boris and Natasha