The Victory of Montcalm’s Troops at Carillon. Early 20th century painting by Henry Alexander Ogden (1854 1936). Fort Ticonderoga Museum, NY.
The British opened the 1758 campaign with a new government leader, the eloquent and efficient William Pitt, who was committed to providing more troops, more money, and new military commanders for the North American theater of war. In a strategy roughly parallel to the failed operations of 1755, though now focused on the conquest of Canada, the British again attacked four targets simultaneously: Louisbourg, Fort Carillon (Ticonderoga), Fort Frontenac, and Fort Duquesne. In July some thirteen thousand British regulars under Major General Jeffrey Amherst, supported by a fleet of thirty-nine ships and fourteen thousand sailors successfully besieged Louisbourg. Meanwhile, Major General James Abercromby hurriedly ordered a conventional frontal assault on Fort Carillon, located on Lake Champlain, in July; fifteen thousand attackers were unable to overcome a massive abattis of freshly cut trees with sharpened branches, ably reinforced by thirty-five hundred defenders under Montcalm. In the wake of this failure, Abercromby approved a successful surprise attack in August on Fort Frontenac, on Lake Ontario, by a force of three thousand colonial volunteers under Lieutenant Colonel John Bradstreet. Farther west that summer, seven thousand men under Brigadier General John Forbes built a fortified road, similar to those created in subduing Scotland a decade earlier, through Pennsylvania to Fort Duquesne. Indian allies from various tribes joined the Canadians repeatedly in challenging the road builders, but local Shawnees, Delawares, and Mingos eventually abandoned their French allies in the face of Forbes’s army, and the French evacuated and demolished Fort Duquesne before the end of November. More than fifty-two thousand men had succeeded in three of four British offensives in 1758, whereas fewer than ten thousand had been defeated in three of four major engagements in 1755.
After spending the winter in Montreal, Montcalm decided to deploy most of his regular troops to Fort Carillon, and by early summer eight regular battalions were assembled there. They were largely without support from the Canadian militia, the vast majority of which was held back in Montreal, Quebec, and other frontier areas.
General Abercromby, in preparation for the attack on Fort Carillon, had assembled 6,000 British regulars and 9,000 provincials. The British column assembled at the ruins of Fort William Henry to drill and build bateaux for the lake crossing. On 4 July, the British force was completed and ready to sail.
Montcalm had realized that the British were on the move, and in early July he ordered his troops to build an outer defensive work around Fort Carillon. A large entrenchment was constructed, with felled trees spread out in front of the dug trenches. One British observer described how the ‘[French] had large cut trees one laid above another a man’s height and in the outside there was brush and logs for about 15 paces from it’. The British would have to overcome this obstacle before they could approach the fort itself.
The British force landed unopposed on the north shore of Lake George on 6 July. As they moved to the north on 7 July, a large-scale skirmish broke out on their left flank. The French were easily pushed aside by British light infantry and rangers, but in the fracas the innovative light infantry officer, Brigadier George Augustus, Lord Howe, was killed. A French senior officer Bouganville recorded the event: ‘[Howe] had showed the greatest talents. … [The skirmish] gave us twenty-four hours delay’.
A British captain, Charles Lee, offers another reason for the delay of the British advance, claiming that ‘our troops [were] a good deal scattered and divided through ignorance of the wood’.
After the skirmish, Montcalm gave orders for his troops to deploy to the entrenchment. Further work was done on the works in anticipation of the British attack, and seven of the eight battalions were stationed in the entrenchment. Only one battalion remained in Fort Carillon proper. Each battalion was allotted 130 paces of frontage. Montcalm was aware that there was not an endless supply of ammunition available to his army. He specifically ordered his officers to ‘see to it the soldier fires slowly and they must urge him to take good aim’. On the morning of 8 July, the British were in sight of the entrenchment.
At this juncture, General Abercromby made the worst command decision possible. After a forward engineer party reported that the works should be attacked immediately, Abercromby decided to make a frontal attack without artillery support. This plan made no sense, even to his own officers. One British officer noted: ‘[entrenchment] made it impossible to force their breastworks without cannon’. Captain Lee was even more scathing: ‘a miscarriage maybe brought about by the incapacity of a single person I really did not think that so great a share of stupidity and absurdity could be in possession of any man’. At 10.00 am Bougainville commented: ‘they [British] let off a great fusillade which did not interrupt our work at all; we amused ourselves by not replying’.
Sources differ on what time the main British attack began, but it was most likely sometime around 12.00 pm. Bougainville described how four main British columns attacked the entrenchment. Another French officer noted: ‘our musketry fire was so well aimed that the enemy was destroyed as soon as they appeared’. While the British attacks were not immediately destroyed, they suffered heavy casualties as recorded by an officer of the 42nd Foot: ‘had as hot a fire for about three hours as possibly could be, we all the time seeing but their hats and end of their muskets’.
There are estimated to have been six major British attacks throughout the day, without a single successful breach of the breastwork. Montcalm commented that ‘every part of the entrenchment was successively attacked with the greatest vigour’, while Charles Lee described ‘attacks made with most perfect regularity, coolness and resolution’. French grenadier and light companies were shifted to dangerous holes in the defense. Bougainville told of: ‘their [British] light troops and better marksmen, who, protected by the trees, delivered a most murderous fire on us’.
Captain Lee summarized the reasons for the defeat with his account of how the unevenness and ruggedness of the ground and height of the breastwork
… rendered it an absolute impossibility … [N]o order given to change attack … but every officer led at the head of his division, company or squadron to fall a sacrifice to his own good behaviour and stupidity of his commander [Abercromby] … [T]he fire was prodigiously hot and the slaughter of the officers was great; almost all wounded, the men still furiously rushing forward almost without leaders, five hours persisted in this diabolical attempt and at length obliged to retire.
At about 7.00 pm the British began to withdraw towards Lake George. Some of the troops, after suffering such a setback, became demoralized, and Captain Bradstreet was ordered to march back to the landing place and ensure that no one stole or seized the boats. The light infantry and rangers protected the retreat as the boats were loaded, and the remaining elements of the expedition withdrew to the south end of Lake George. From there the retreat continued to Fort Edward.
The battle casualties for British were more than 1,000 regulars and 300 provincials killed.
The French, by contrast, lost only 300 killed in the battle. General Abercromby’s demonstration of poor leadership and decision-making skills, contrasted against Major General Jeffrey Amherst’s success at Louisbourg, led shortly to Abercromby’s replacement as commander-in-chief by Amherst in September.