Military history



JULY 1758

FROM 1758 ONWARD, the French would fight to maintain their influence in continental Europe while the British would fight to conquer an empire, a difference in goals that would eventually prove decisive. Canada would only continue to grow weaker, more impossible to defend against the Anglo-American onslaught. Yet when the British opened the campaigns of 1758 not much seemed to have changed, for the first blow to be struck in Pitt’s monumental American offensive produced only the familiar result of defeat. With the possible exception of Braddock’s defeat, Montcalm’s encounter with General Abercromby at Fort Carillon on July 8 would result in Britain’s greatest humiliation of the war.

By the last week of June, Abercromby had established his headquarters beside the wreck of Fort William Henry, where he would preside over the assembly of the most formidable army yet seen in America. Over twelve thousand regulars and provincials were already on hand along with the eight hundred bateaux and ninety whaleboats they would need to transport them to a promontory called Ticonderoga, where Fort Carillon stood waiting. Among the privates in the camp was Rufus Putnam, who had no more than recovered from the ordeal of his winter’s desertion before reenlisting in the Massachusetts regiment of Timothy Ruggles. “Every thing here seems to carry the face of war on it,” he observed on June 28: “Ammunitions, Provisions and Artillery &c loading continually into the bateaux in order for Ticonderoga.” The loading took a week to complete, and while it was in progress another four thousand provincials arrived in camp, bringing more supplies and bateaux with them. At dawn on July 5 the expeditionary force, now sixteen thousand strong, boarded its boats and rowed north. Arrayed in four columns, the thousand small craft “covered the Lake from side to side,” in lines that “extended from Front to Rear full seven Miles.” By the next daybreak they were within sight of the French advance guard, a camp at the foot of Lake George just four miles from Fort Carillon. The French troops fled, abandoning “a considerable [amount] of valuable Baggage, which our men plundered,” wrote Rufus Putnam. Lord Howe, who had charge of the advance element, quickly rallied a party to pursue the retreating enemy. Before anyone quite knew what had happened he was dead, killed by a French musket ball in a confused skirmish in the woods.1

Lord Howe had been Pitt’s choice as the expedition’s second-in-command because he had all the vigor, youth, and dash that Abercromby lacked. Now “his death struck a great damp on the army,” for the soldiers had little faith in a commander in chief they commonly called “Granny.” Indeed, Howe’s death struck a considerable damp on Granny himself: “I felt it most heavily,” he reported, without exaggeration, to Pitt. Although the skirmish had taken place in the morning, Abercromby allowed his units to blunder aimlessly about in the forest for the rest of the day before ordering them back to the landing place to re-form. That night his soldiers lay on their arms less than two hours’ march from the fort, but the next day he marched them no more than halfway there, pausing at a French sawmill site two miles from Ticonderoga to establish an entrenched camp as a base for further operations. Although Abercromby ordered his men to make ready for an attack, neither he nor any of his senior officers had yet reconnoitered the fort and its defenses. “I can’t but observe since Lord How’s Death Business seams a little Stagnant,” a provincial surgeon named Caleb Rea observed in his diary that night, wondering, like the rest of the army, what would happen next. Only on the following morning, July 8, did Abercromby send forward an engineer to examine the French position; by then two full days had passed since the landings.2

Abercromby’s delay gave Montcalm the gift of time, and he employed it well to prepare for the assault he knew could overwhelm Carillon’s defenses. He had arrived on June 30 to find the fort manned by “eight battalions of French regulars very weak . . . , forty men of La Marine, thirty-six Canadians ready to go to war, and fourteen Indians.” Their depleted food stock consisted of “provisions only for nine days, and for an emergency, 3600 rations of biscuits.” Over the next few days more men and rations arrived, but too few of each to make Carillon able to withstand a siege. On the morning of July 8 Montcalm had only 3,526 men, including just 15 Indian auxiliaries, to defend the post and less than a week’s supply of food. “Our situation is critical,” wrote Montcalm’s chief aide, Bougainville. “Action and audacity are our sole resources.” On the evening of the sixth, as Abercromby and his men remained inert at their landing place, Montcalm had ordered fieldworks to be laid out across the Ticonderoga promontory on high ground, about three-quarters of a mile north of the fort. Throughout the next day “the army was all busy working on the abatis outlined the previous evening.” “The officers, ax in hand, set the example” for their men, who “worked with such ardor that the line was in a defendable state the same evening.” 3

The “abatis” that the French built was a defensive barrier, so called both because it was made of felled trees, arbes abattus, and because it was intended to become the attackers’ abattoir. Above shallow entrenchments rose a log breastwork topped with sandbags, to shelter the defenders from enemy fire. Extending perhaps a hundred yards down a slope in front of it lay a tangle of felled trees with branches sharpened and interlaced to ensnare advancing infantrymen and make them easy targets for grapeshot and musket fire. Like a modern concertina-wire entanglement, the abatis made a highly effective barrier against frontal attack. Formidable as it was against infantry, however, it could not protect the fort from artillery fire.

Artillery was always the key to siege warfare, and there—in his train of sixteen cannon, eleven mortars, and thirteen howitzers, supplied with eight thousand rounds of ammunition—lay Abercromby’s greatest advantage. Because of the shortage of men and time, Montcalm had not secured Rattlesnake Hill (later renamed Mount Defiance), which rose about seven hundred feet above the lake, a little over a mile to the southwest of Carillon. If Abercromby chose to have a road cut up the side of the hill, and then to have two or three twelve-pounders hauled to its summit, Montcalm would be forced to withdraw—at least from the breastwork, the open rear of which would have been exposed to cannon fire, and perhaps from the fort itself. Even if he chose not to make use of the hill, Abercromby could still advance his howitzers to the edge of the clearing and smash the breastwork to splinters before launching an assault on the French lines. Montcalm’s decision to stake the defense of Ticonderoga on these hasty fortifications therefore represented a gamble of the most extreme sort.4

As it happened, the engineer whom Abercromby dispatched to survey the French lines on the morning of July 8 was a very junior lieutenant, and he made only a hasty inspection before returning to advise his chief that the works could be carried by storm.5 Abercromby did not bother to take a look himself, or to trouble Major William Eyre—the vastly experienced engineer who was acting commander of the 44th Regiment—for a second opinion. Nor did he evidently consult his new second-in-command, Colonel Thomas Gage, a physically brave if undynamic officer; or if he did, Gage did not manage to dissuade him from doing what indecisive eighteenth-century generals often did, convening his senior officers as a council of war to choose the method of attack. Traditionally in such councils, the commander set the limits of discussion by asking his assembled commanders to choose from a range of alternatives; depending on his temperament and eagerness to diffuse responsibility for the decision’s outcome, he might or might not regard himself as bound by their majority vote. In this case, Abercromby only asked his assembled subordinates whether they preferred to have the infantry attack the French lines in three ranks or four. The majority favored three. Abercromby thanked them for their counsel, then dismissed them to prepare for the assault. He did not order his field artillery forward from the landing place, where it remained. Infantry alone would bear the burden of battle.

Immediately thereafter British skirmishers—Gage’s light infantry regiment (the 80th Foot), Major Robert Rogers’s ranger companies, and a battalion of Massachusetts light infantry—moved up to the edge of the abatis, driving in the French pickets and taking up sniping positions. This vanguard of light infantry and rangers, men trained to aim and fire individually and practiced in fighting from cover, testified to the tactical adaptations that had taken place in the British service since Braddock’s defeat. But the plan of attack suggested that for Abercromby not much had changed after all. He intended to use his most thoroughly disciplined troops in the most thoroughly conventional way: by arraying them in three long, parallel lines and sending them straight up against the French barricade. They were, his orders said, “to march up briskly, rush upon the Enemy’s fire, and not to give theirs, untill they were within the Enemie’s Breastwork.” By noon the eight regular battalions designated to make the assault were moving into position backed by the six provincial regiments that were to act as reserves.6

The attack began half an hour later with a signal that sent more than a thousand light troops rushing forward into the abatis, taking cover among the trees and firing at the enemy’s position. Behind them, as sunlight flashed from the barrels and bayonets of their muskets, seven thousand men in brilliant scarlet formed ranks along battalion fronts and dressed right to straighten their lines. Moving at the quick step to the beat of the drum and (because the Inniskillings were on the right wing and the first battalion of the Black Watch was in the center) the wail of bagpipes, the regulars marched uphill toward the French breastwork. Despite its intended precision, the attack began raggedly: the battalions on the British right entered the abatis before the units in the center and on the left had finished dressing their ranks. It was a bad start. As the redcoats came within range, the French at the breastwork opened fire, and the abatis began to earn its name.

“Trees were fell down in Such Manner that it Broke our Batallions before we got near the Breastwork,” wrote Major Eyre. “All [that] was left for each Commanding Officer of A Reg[imen]t to do, was to support & march up as quick as they could get Upon their Ground And so on to the Intrenchm[en]t.” But the fragmented battalions, with their men struggling forward through a nightmare of branches and stumps and musketry, never reached the breastwork. In attack after attack, the magnificently disciplined redcoats advanced into the barrier, only to be “Cut . . . Down Like Grass,” according to a Massachusetts private, Joseph Nichols, who watched from the ranks of Colonel Jonathan Bagley’s regiment, at the edge of the field. “Our Forces Fell Exceeding Fast,” he wrote. “It was Surprizing to me to think [that] more of ye Regiments Should be Drawn up to the Breast work for Such Slaughter.” An ensign in another company of the same regiment agreed. “The fier began very hot,” he wrote: “the Regalors hove down thair pak and fixed their bayarnits came up in order stod and fit very corage[ous]ly. . . . [T]he fi[gh]t came on very smart it held about eaght [h]ours a soreful Si[gh]t to behold the Ded men and wounded Lay on the ground having Som of them legs thir arms and other Lims broken others shot threw the body and very mortly wounded to hear thar cris and se thair bodis lay in blod and the earth trembel with the fier of the smal arms was a mornfull [h]our as ever I saw.”7

If to look on this shambles was mournful, to march into it must have been hell. “Our orders were to [run] to the breast work and get in if we could,’ ” a survivor later remembered.

But their lines were full, and they killed our men so fast, that we could not gain it. We got behind trees, logs and stumps, and covered ourselves as we could from the enemy’s fire. The ground was strewed with the dead and dying. It happened that I got behind a white-oak stump, which was so small that I had to lay on my side, and stretch myself; the balls striking the ground within a hand’s breadth of me every moment, and I could hear the men screaming, and see them dying all around me. I lay there some time. A man could not stand erect without being hit, any more than he could stand out in a shower, without having drops of rain fall upon him; for the balls came by handsfull. It was a clear day—a little air stirring. Once in a while the enemy would cease firing a minute or two, to have the smoke clear away, so that they might take better aim. In one of these intervals I sprang from my perilous situation, and gained a stand which I thought would be more secure, behind a large pine log, where several of my comrades had already taken shelter but the balls came here as thick as ever. One of the men raised his head a little above the log, and a ball struck him in the centre of the forehead. . . . We lay there till near sunset and, not receiving orders from any officer, the men crept off, leaving all the dead, and most of the wounded.8


The Battle of Ticonderoga, July 8, 1758. This superb topographical rendering by a French engineer shows Fort Carillon’s commanding position on the Ticonderoga peninsula, at the head of Lake Champlain. The Anglo-American positions are sketched in a semicircle outside the log breastwork and abatis (“made in ten hours,” according to the legend) that surround the heights of Carillon, three-quarters of a mile north of the fort. The battalions of troupes de terre that took part in the defense are shown in order of battle between the fort and the breastwork. Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

Meanwhile, outside Abercromby’s headquarters at the sawmill camp, a mile from the battle, Rufus Putnam worked alongside the other soldiers of his regiment, digging entrenchments, listening to the “constant peele of Cannon and Musquetry,” and worrying that he would be thought a coward for having occupied so safe a post during the battle. As evening came on, he decided to prove his courage by volunteering to carry ammunition forward to the troops; but “When I came to the Army they were Retreated into a Breast-work that Col. Williams’ men had builded [at the rear of the battlefield]. I was very much amazed to see so many of our men killed and wounded. The path all the way was full of wounded men. . . . [Then I returned to my] Regiment where I found them employed as before. [Soon thereafter,] the most of the Troops retreated into the Breast[work] which we had builded.” 9

General Abercromby, who had known of the battle only from the dispatches sent back by his commanders, had ordered attacks all day without seeing any of the consequences. Now, at nightfall, fearing a French counterattack, he began to comprehend what his army had suffered, with nearly two thousand dead and wounded. “It was therefore judged necessary,” he later reported to Pitt (prudently choosing the passive voice), “for the Preservation of the Remainder of so many brave Men, & not to run the risk of the Enemy’s penetrating into His Majesty’s Dominions, which might have been the Case if a Total Defeat had ensued, that we should make the best retreat possible.” Late that night he ordered his officers to muster their men and march them back to the bateaux. Unfortunately no one told the soldiers why they were retreating; haste compounded confusion, and fear and rumor fed on one another as men stumbled through the darkness. As the troops neared the landing place, anxiety exploded in panic and a stampede for the boats. “News came that the Enemy was Coming to fall upon us—Oh the Confusion we was in at that Time for we was in a poor Cituation for an Enemy to Attack us, Being Joyn’d to a Point of Land & the Battoos Lay Joyning to one another 15 deep from Land—The Cry of Enemy made our People Cry out & make Sad Lamentations [, but] We made the Best of our way off & Rec[eive]d not Hurt.” By dawn on July 9, the largest English army ever assembled in America was rowing for its life up Lake George, fleeing an enemy not a quarter its size—and not in pursuit. By sunset the ruin of Abercromby’s army collapsed, exhausted, beside the hulk of Fort William Henry.10

That Abercromby had crowned defeat with humiliation was apparent to everyone. “Shamefully retreated,” noted Artemas Ward, a Massachusetts lieutenant colonel, in a diary otherwise almost devoid of adverbs. “This Day,” the Reverend John Cleaveland of the Massachusetts provincials wrote on the tenth, “where ever I went I found people, officers and soldiers astonished that we left the French Ground and lamenting the strange conduct in coming off.” Private Joseph Nichols, too, thought it an “Astonishing Disappointment” but concluded that “we must Submitt for Twas Gods Holy will & Pleasure.” Like many other provincials, Nichols believed that the Lord had deprived them of the victory because he wanted to teach them humility and because he was chastising the regulars for their inveterate profanity and Sabbath-breaking. Private Nichols’s chaplain, John Cleaveland, did not disagree with such providentialist reasoning, but in looking for the proximate cause did not hesitate to blame “the General [and] his Rehoboam-Counsellors.” “We now begin to think Strongly,” he wrote on July 12, “that the Grand Expedition against Canada is laid aside and a Foundation is going to be made totally to impoverish our Country.” 11

Eventually the muddle of defeat and disorientation resolved itself when Abercromby ordered his troops to build a fortified camp next to Fort William Henry, but Rufus Putnam and his fellow soldiers saw only confusion in the weeks after the battle. “After our return from Fort Ticonderoga, we were employed in almost everything,” he wrote after nearly two weeks when he had been too busy to write at all: “in the building of Breast-works—and moving of our encampment from one place to another—had hardly time to pitch in one place before we were ordered to remove and pitch in another; and no body, to see us, would be able to tell what we were about.” 12

Provincials were by no means the only ones to find fault. Experienced regular officers were also sending home scathing accounts of the battle and its aftermath, and none was more violent in his censure than a cerebral and intemperate captain of the 44th Foot, Charles Lee:

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. . . . 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 breast work . . . but notwithstanding some of our Cannon was brought up & in readiness, this was never 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.13

The French, not least of all their commander, saw the Anglo-American retreat as a providential deliverance from evidently certain defeat and the loss of Canada itself. Montcalm at first believed the retreat was a ruse, and waited for two days after the battle before he sent out a battalion “to find what had become of the enemy army.” What the troops found—“wounded, provisions, abandoned equipment, shoes left in miry places, remains of barges and burned pontoons”—convinced Montcalm that his adversaries had indeed suffered a general collapse, even though at the close of the battle they had still had more than enough troops, cannon, ammunition, and supplies to besiege and destroy Fort Carillon. On the twelfth, while Cleaveland bitterly marked the parallels between Abercromby and Rehoboam, the worst of Israel’s kings, Montcalm and his men sang a Te Deum of thanksgiving. Even so hardheaded a rationalist as Montcalm’s chief aide, Bougainville, believed that “never ha[d] a victory been more especially due to the finger of Providence.” The marquis himself was moved to compose a Latin couplet and have it inscribed on a great cross, which he ordered erected at the breastwork:

Quid dux? Quid miles? Quid strata ingentia ligna?

En signum! En victor! Deus hic, Deus ipse triumphat.

To whom belongs this victory? Commander? Soldier? Abatis? Behold God’s sign! For only He Himself hath triumphed here.14

By the time Montcalm raised his cross, August was drawing to a close and he had dismissed his militiamen to harvest the grain in the Montréal district. Too strapped for men and provisions to take the offensive, Montcalm had spent the rest of the summer improving Carillon’s fortifications. Reconnaissance patrols sent to the head of Lake George brought back prisoners and intelligence that indicated that Abercromby, too, had gone on the defensive. Yet Montcalm knew that unless the war ended first, some other British officer would return to try again.15

It would be some weeks before Montcalm, lingering at Carillon, heard tell of providences more ominous than the one he had seen on July 8: the loss of Louisbourg and the destruction of Fort Frontenac. On the evening of September 6, the same day that couriers brought word of these defeats, Montcalm left for Montréal to confer with the man he now regarded as his enemy, Vaudreuil. The season was so far advanced that there was little chance that Canada itself would come under attack before the next spring. But the news of these defeats and the suspicion that Vaudreuil was conspiring against him filled Montcalm with dreadful forebodings. Perhaps his defeat of Abercromby had bought some time; but with the loss of Louisbourg, the destruction of Frontenac, and the prospect of yet another failed harvest, time now seemed to have become Britain’s most formidable ally.16

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!