The Bloodiest Day: The Battle of Carillon, July 8, 1758

No military engagement fought in North America prior to the Civil War was bloodier or more costly than the Battle of Carillon (Ticonderoga). For over four hours during the afternoon of July 8, 1758, British and French forces ruthlessly clashed in upstate New York atop the heights west of Fort Carillon, producing over 2,400 casualties – nearly 2,000 of them English. In a year of such memorable British triumphs this was truly an incredible and most tragic disaster. By nightfall, Major General James Abercromby’s army was in full retreat up Lake George, and the Marquis de Montcalm’s courageous Frenchmen remained behind their earthworks, celebrating one of the most miraculous victories ever won on the continent.[1]

It had been over four years since George Washington ordered his small detachment of Virginians and Mingo warriors to open fire on the French-Canadian party encamped within Jumonville Glen, and England’s military efforts against the French in North America were still abysmal. Seventeen fifty-eight was meant to turn the tide in favor of King George II. With William Pitt’s ascension to Secretary of State for the Southern Department, it became his duty to prosecute the war in earnest, sparing no expense. After the failed operation against Fortress Louisbourg and the capitulation of Fort William Henry the previous year, plans for a four-pronged offensive in North America began to formulate. These large-scale movements were directed against Forts Duquesne and Frontenac (located along the eastern shore of Lake Ontario), Louisbourg (yet again), and finally Fort Carillon atop the promontory between Lakes Champlain and George. The effort against the French at Carillon was to be led by the newly instated Commander-in-Chief of His Majesty’s Forces in North America, Major General James Abercromby.

Abercromby

Major General James Abercromby

James Abercromby was born in 1706 in Glassaugh, Scotland and received his first commission as an ensign in 1717 with the 25th Regiment of Foot. He saw action and was wounded during the War of Austrian Succession, and by 1756 he held the rank of major general, serving under Lord Loudoun in North America. By December of the following year he was officially commissioned to replace Loudoun after his recall. To compliment Abercromby during his offensive against Fort Carillon, Brigadier General George, Viscount Howe (the older brother of Richard and William) was given the role of second-in-command for the expedition.[2]

During June 1758, Abercromby’s army of British Regulars and colonial provincials gathered along the southern shore of Lake George beside the still present ruins of Fort William Henry, which was burned by Montcalm following its capitulation the previous August. By July 5, when the army began its embarkation down Lake George, the British could count a total of 16,000 men amassed to assault Carillon – it was the largest military force ever assembled for a campaign on the North American continent. Nearly 10,000 provincials from New England, New Jersey, and New York had joined ranks with eight regiments of British Regulars. To oppose them over thirty-two miles to the north, Montcalm had roughly 3,500 men at his disposal with another 500 that would join him before the battle commenced.[3]

Embarkation

Embarkation of Abercromby’s Army, July 5, 1758

On July 5, nearly one-thousand small boats and other crafts departed from the shore of Lake George and headed north. The spectacle must have been amazing. Extending seven miles in four rows covering shoreline to shoreline, Abercromby’s army rowed towards its destiny, arriving at its debarkation point the following day around 10:00am.  The landing party, consisting of Rogers’ Rangers, Thomas Gage’s 80th Light Infantry, and Phineas Lyman’s 1st Connecticut Regiment, staggered ashore with George Howe at the head of the advance. The men were immediately met with resistance and a running battle commenced that ran several miles to the north near Bernetz Brook. Leading on foot at the head of an advancing force is no place for the second-in-command of an army, but Howe was not your typical general and that is why his men adored him. At 4:00pm the fighting became the hottest it was all afternoon as the French continued their hasty withdraw back to Montcalm’s lines. During this contest, Howe lost his life. With their beloved leader now dead, confusion amassed and the British left the field and returned to the landing site. While the skirmishing yielded no true tactical significance, Montcalm was alerted of Abercromby’s landing and began to fortify the heights west of Fort Carillon, choosing to face the British in the field rather than defend against a siege with his army so outnumbered.[4]

The following day, Abercromby’s army marched to within a mile and a half or so of the French at Carillon and encamped for the evening. From this position near a saw mill the commander-in-chief added the finishing touches to his battle plan on the morning of July 8 – it was from here as well that he would observe the engagement, staying far behind the frontlines. With the loss of his trusted subordinate, Howe, and the information newly at hand that a large body of French reinforcements numbering 3,000 men was approaching Fort Carillon, Abercromby seemingly lost his wit. Rather than sending an experienced engineer such as Major William Eyre of the 44th Regiment of Foot to observe the French position, he instead ordered two of his personal aides, Captains James Abercrombie and Matthew Clerk to ride forward and report the situation. The two officers returned and suggested to the commanding general that the French earthworks were incomplete and that the position could easily be carried with a frontal assault. Abercromby accepted the report as gospel and began preparations for an attack.[5]

Truth be told, by the morning of July 8, the French had indeed completed their defensive works a half-mile to the northwest of the fort. The series of fallen logs – stacked some six to seven feet high with loopholes cut into them to fire out of from behind cover – extended from the lowland near the La Chute River to the south across the peninsula to Lake Champlain to the north. The area in front of the earthworks was cleared for about one-hundred yards, and a line of abatis was erected in front of the line to hinder the enemy’s advance. The earthworks were defended by seven regiments of French Regulars, each manning roughly a hundred yards of entrenchment. To the right of the line a company of Troupes de La Marine (Canadian Regulars) was positioned and a battery of six cannon was placed in a redoubt constructed on the left. Canadian militia defended the lowland near the La Chute River. This area was the weak point in Montcalm’s line, but Abercromby failed to exploit it. A battalion of the Regiment de Berry was left behind to man the fort and run ammunition to the front. While Montcalm had selected the best ground near the fort to make his stand, his position was nevertheless dangerous. His army was bottled up on a peninsula and if his defensive measure should fail his force would be trapped and surrounded by the overwhelming numbers of the British. Things could all begin tumbling down for Montcalm if his earthworks were blasted to splinters by the might of the English artillery before a frontal attack commenced. Lucky for him, however, Abercromby opted that an artillery barrage to precede the assault was unnecessary, and in fact, that no cannon would be needed at all to assist in carrying the French position.[6]

Montcalm

Louis-Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm

At half past noon, July 8, 1758, the 80th Light Infantry, Rogers’ Rangers, and a battalion of Massachusetts light infantrymen advanced forward to the abatis in a long skirmish line, driving the French pickets before them back to the earthworks. With the ground in front of the French position clear it was time to launch the grand European-style assault. Stepping out from the tree line at the base of the heights, over six-thousand men garbed in scarlet red moved forward in a line three ranks deep. The beating of drums and the shrill of the fifes pierced the air, and the wale of Scottish bagpipes reverberated from the musicians amongst the 42nd Regiment of Foot – the “Black Watch” – near the center of the line. Forward they went with undaunted courage only to be cut to pieces by French small arms fire upon reaching the abatis. There the dead and dying lay tangled amidst the branches as their comrades struggled to press forward. “The fire was prodigiously hot,” Captain Charles Lee (yes, that Charles Lee) of the 44th Regiment of Foot vividly remembered, “the slaughter of officers very great, almost all wounded, the men still furiously rushing forwards without any leaders.” Staring through the smoke up towards the French line, only the tops of the regimental standards were visible above the earthworks.[7]

Map

The devastating effect of the French musketry forced the British lines to waiver. They could not obtain enough momentum to make their way into the enemy entrenchments, let alone even climb near them. Abercromby was no help during all of this. He remained behind at the sawmill camp delegating orders as his men were being sent into a meat grinder a mile and a half away. His decision to not order up his artillery to bombard the French or support his infantry’s attack was beginning to show how costly it truly was.

Again and again the regulars were ordered to advance, only to be met with the same result each attempt. Nearly four hours had passed since the initial line had stepped off and the situation was beginning to become desperate. In a last-ditch effort to pierce the French earthworks and turn the tide of the battle, the 42nd Regiment of Foot emerged from the abatis and with a terrible cry the “Ladies from Hell,” charged forward. As the “Black Watch” advanced up the heights, an officer of the 55th Regiment of Foot watched in admiration:

With a mixture of esteem, grief, and envy, I am penetrated by the great loss and immortal glory acquired by the Highlanders engaged in the late bloody affair. Impatient for the fray, they rushed forward to the entrenchments, which many of them actually mounted. Their intrepidity was rather animated and damped by witnessing their comrades fall on every side. They seemed more anxious to avenge the fate of their deceased friends than careful to avoid a like death….[8]

The “intrepidity” of the 42nd Regiment was not enough to carry the works. Their dedication and valor that day cost them tremendously. Of the 900 or so men that the regiment took into the field with them that bloody day, 647 were casualties – 314 of that number dead on the field. In any other battle of any other war fought in North America, only one other regiment, the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery at Petersburg on June 18, 1864, suffered a near greater loss of life in a single engagement. This is a sacrifice that needs to be better remembered.[9]

Black Watch

Assault of the 42nd Regiment of Foot “The Black Watch”

Around 5:00pm, Abercromby called off the attack and ordered his army to retire from the field. The men, battered and bruised, made their way back to the sawmill camp and later that night were led back down to the landing site from two days before. Rumors that Montcalm was following closely in pursuit to destroy the English army spread rapidly and the retreat became extremely hasty – if not an actual rout. The campaign was over.

Montcalm’s victory against the British at Carillon was nothing short of a miracle. His army was outnumbered four-to-one and had essentially trapped itself on the Ticonderoga peninsula in order to meet the English army in open combat to avoid a siege. Abercromby made zero use of his artillery to weaken or destroy the French defenses – which were somehow complete in less than two days and conveniently during the morning of the battle – and he failed to exploit any of the weak points on Montcalm’s flanks.

The British had failed to bag the French army at Fort Carillon and therefore left the enemy in possession of the crucial north-south waterway of Lake Champlain that offered direct access into the Richelieu River and henceforth Canada. The bloody defeat had cost Abercromby nearly 2,000 men with upwards of 800 of that number killed. Montcalm on the other hand incurred just fewer than 400 casualties – still roughly ten percent of his army present on the field that day. In the history of military conflict in North America prior to the Civil War, only the Battles of Long Island and New Orleans come close to the 2,400 lost July 8, 1758.

BW Monument

The “Black Watch” Monument today on Carillon Battlefield (notice the position of the French earthworks in the rear of the photograph)

The Battle of Carillon was England’s most humiliating defeat of the French and Indian War. At no other battle during the conflict did a British/Provincial army outnumber its foe so greatly in both manpower and artillery, only to be beaten as terribly as Abercromby’s army was before the French entrenchments at Carillon. This defeat should not be put upon the shoulders of the brave men who fought with such rigor that July afternoon though. Their commanding general let them down. Abercromby’s failure to conduct proper reconnaissance and utilize his army’s artillery cost him the day. If George Howe had not been killed two days before, maybe things would have been different. But who knows? Lucky for Abercromby, the other three British offensives on the continent succeeded, so his defeat only cost him his job and not the war for his countrymen. He was replaced by Jeffrey Amherst two months later. The following year, another effort was made to take Fort Carillon with Sir Jeffrey at its head. The French ignited their powder supplies and abandoned the fort, blowing it up before a shot was fired in anger. France’s attention in North America had turned solely to defending Canada as James Wolfe’s army was threatening Quebec.

[1] William R. Nester, The Epic Battles of Ticonderoga, 1758 (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2008), 156.

[2] Ibid., 60-62.

[3] Rene Chartrand, Ticonderoga 1758: Montcalm’s Victory against All Odds (New York: Osprey Publishing Ltd., 2000), 29.

[4] Fred Anderson, Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 154-1766 (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), 240-241; Nester, The Epic Battles of Ticonderoga, 1758, 126-131.

[5] Ibid., 137-138.

[6] Anderson, Crucible of War, 242; Nester, 139-140.

[7] Anderson, 243-244; Quoted in Stephen Brumwell, Redcoats: The British Soldier and War in the Americas, 1755-1763 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 28.

[8] Quoted in Archibald Forbes, The History of the Black Watch (N/A: Leonaur, 2010), 44.

[9] Ibid.

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