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”).
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 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.
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.**
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 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.
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.
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.
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