Early on July 5, 1758, 15,000 confident, well-armed men boarded boats and began rowing north over the placid waters of Lake George. In the vanguard were 5,285 British regulars, including some of the proudest regiments in the king’s army. Behind them came more than 9,000 American recruits. Their goal was Fort Carillon (later known as Fort Ticonderoga), on the strip of land between Lake George and Lake Champlain—the only obstacle to British conquest of French Canada.
William Pitt, the new British prime minister, had persuaded Parliament to ship the 13 British colonies large sums of money to pay volunteers, and the Americans had answered with more than 20,000 men.
Pitt also sent a new general, a short, fat 52-year-old Scotsman named James Abercrombie, who had never held an independent command. King George III had forced this uninspiring plodder on the prime minister. Pitt countered by naming the army’s second-in-command, charismatic 33-year-old Lord George Augustus Howe, who became “the idol of the army,” in the words of one American soldier. Unlike most British officers, Howe did not look down on Americans; indeed, he admired their skill in woodland combat and urged all the British regiments to take lessons from Major Robert Rogers and his Rangers.
The British and Americans were facing a dispirited French army of about 3,000 men. They and their gifted young general, Louis-Joseph de Montcalm-Gozon, felt their country had abandoned them by failing to match Pitt’s shipments of men and money to America.
By noon on July 6, the vanguard was ashore at the head of Lake George. Rogers led his Rangers and British light infantry regiment to clear the way to Fort Carillon. Howe went along, and when they met French scouts, a fierce firefight erupted. One of the first French bullets struck Howe in the head, killing him instantly.
Howe’s death drained all vigor from the attack. General Abercrombie took two days to get his army ashore. That gave Montcalm time to build trenches and barricades in front of Fort Carillon. He placed most of his army in these defenses. They could have been battered to pieces by Abercrombie’s 16 cannons, 11 mortars and 13 howitzers, but the general, infatuated by his numerical superiority, instead ordered frontal assaults by his prized British regiments.
Bagpipes skirling and drums beating, three ranks of red-coated regulars and kilted Scotsmen strode forward, to be struck by a storm of bullets from the breastworks where Montcalm’s men crouched, firing as fast as they could reload. Most of the attackers were trapped in a maze of downed trees. For more than four hours the regiments repeated these futile attacks, while Abercrombie sat clueless in the rear, clinging to plan. The Scottish Black Watch, at the center of the attacking line, lost 674 men, 65 percent of its strength.
Not until 5 p.m. did Abercrombie order a retreat. The army left many of its wounded behind, to be finished off by French-allied Indians. Also abandoned was a month’s worth of provisions. Most of the 551 dead and 1,356 wounded were British regulars. French losses were 106 killed and 266 wounded. By evening on July 9, the beaten army had retreated to the south end of Lake George.MH
■ Select an able leader. Abercrombie landed his generalship through political connections; George III liked him.
■ Command experience counts. The hapless Abercrombie achieved his rank (see above) without ever holding an independent command.
■ Mind the locals. Howe, second-in-command, realized that American recruits like Rogers’ Rangers understood and were adept at woodland warfare.
■ Never underestimate the enemy. Montcalm’s French forces were outnumbered and low on ammo, but he was a canny leader who appreciated the advantages of a strong defense.
■ Bad luck can change everything. Howe was a fine soldier and charismatic leader —but he was killed in the first action.
■ Once committed to battle, move fast. Abercrombie took two days to land his army, giving Montcalm plenty of time to harden his defenses.
■ Numbers count, but only when smartly deployed. Abercrombie used up his best regulars in repeated bloody frontal assaults.
■ Always have a Plan B. Despite the obvious fatal futility of his one tactic, Abercrombie seemed to have no other ideas on how to take Fort Carillon.
Originally published in the December 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.