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On the fields of friendly strife are sown the seed that on other days and other fields will bear the fruits of victory.-- General Douglas MacArthur
Some military historians have cited the Battle of Carillon as a classic example of tactical military incompetence. Abercrombie has been criticized for ignoring several good military options such as flanking the breastworks, waiting for artillery reinforcements, or bypassing the fort entirely. Instead he decided in favor of an unsuccessful frontal assault.
The fort is situated on a point of land between Lake Champlain and Lake George, a natural point of conflict between French forces moving south from Quebec and the Saint Lawrence River Valley across the Lake toward the Hudson River valley, accessible near the southern reaches of the Lake. The fort is surrounded on three sides with water, and on one half of the fourth side by a morass. The remaining part was strongly fortified with high entrenchments, supported and flanked by three batteries, and the whole front of that part was blocked up with felled trees, with their branches turned outwards, and their points first sharpened, and then hardened by fire; forming altogether a most formidable defence. The fort controlled the southern reaches of Lake Champlain and access to the Hudson River Valley.
Preparations, July 6
The British forces, including the Highland Regiment: Lord John Murray's Highlanders of the 42nd Highland Reg. (1st Battalion) and other Regiments including the 27th, 44th, 46th, 55th, and the 1st & 4th battalions of the 60th, arrived at the north end of Lake George on July 6, after two days on the water moving north from the remains of Fort William Henry (in modern Lake George Village, NY) Abercrombie formed his men into regular marching columns. They marched to an outpost which had been easily cleared by Rogers' Rangers earlier in the day.
On July 7 Abercrombie resumed the march to the fort. Unfortunately, the road was not wide enough to accomodate the army, and they soon with scattered over a great distance. Rogers' Rangers were sent ahead as a forward guard and guide, and were able to prevent any frontal attack on the army but unable to properly lead the now scattered British army (later both Rogers and Abercrombie would blame the other for this failure).
Lord Howe's light infantry were ordered to protect the exposed flank during the march engaged and entered into a small skirmish with a French patrol. This skirmish while tactically successful (the French were easily driven off), lead to the death of Lord Howe while chasing the retreating French.
In 1825 Major General David Stewart wrote an account of the battle:
The march was continued in the same order (July 7th), but the ground not having been previously examined, and the guides proving extremely ignorant, the columns came in contact, and were thrown in confusion. A detachment of the enemy, which got bewildered in the wood, fell in with the right column, at the head of which was Lord Howe. A smart skirmish ensued, in which the enemy were driven back and scattered, with considerable loss. This petty advantage was dearly purchased by the death of Lord Howe.
There continues to be conjecture that Howe's death lead to the disaster soon to befall the British, as he had encouraged Abercrombie to bring forward the field cannon. That evening General Abercrombie pulled his men back to the landing site due to concerns about fatigue and time. During the night of July 7 it was reported to Abercrombie that 3000 French reinforcements were en route, and would be arriving soon.
On the morning of July 8 Abercrombie was determined to press his advantage before he lost his numerical superiority. The British forces faced a strongly fortified French position; while the fort was still under construction the French had thrown up high entrenchments, supported and flanked by three batteries. The land gave the British only one clear line of attack and that was blocked up with felled trees, with their branches turned outwards and sharpened. Abercrombie hastily moved his army into position, without giving time for the cannon to be moved up from the landing site. The battle was lead by Rogers' Rangers pushing the few remaining scouts behind the entrenchments, the Rangers then moved out of the way to let the regular army through. The Highland Regiment then attacked (without direct orders), followed by the remainder of the army. The French position was such that they were able to lay down withering fire on the British forces as they advanced. Only briefly were any the British able to mount the wall of trees erretched by the French, only to be pushed back by a bayonet charge.
Abercrombie was forced to order a retreat, although the highlanders were at first unwilling to give up on the battle having suffered great loses. The highlanders were the first into the battle proper, and the last to leave. Along the way they suffered the highest rate of lose of any British unit.
From the 1825 account:
Next morning, (July 8th), he again advanced the attack, his operations being hastened by information obtained from the prisoners that General Levi, with 3000 men, was advancing to succour Ticonderoga. Alarmed at the report of this unexpected reinforcements, the General determined to strike a decisive blow before a junction could be effected. When the troops marched up to the entrenchments, they were surprised to find a regularly fortified breast-work, which could not be approached without the greatest exertions, particularly as the artillery had not yet been brought up. Unexpected and disheartening as these obstructions were, the troops displayed the greatest resolution, though exposed to a most destructive fire, from an enemy well covered and enabled to take deliberate aim, with little danger to themselves. The Highlanders, impatient at being left in the rear, could not be restrained, and rushing forward from the reserve, were soon in the front, endeavouring to cut their way through the trees with their broadswords.
No ladders had been provided for scaling the breast-work. The soldiers were obliged to climb up on each other's shoulders, and by fixing their feet in the holes which they had made with their swords and bayonets in the face of the work, while the defenders were so well prepared that the instant a man reached the top, he was thrown down. At length, after great exertions, Captain John Campbell, with a few men, forced their way over the breast-work, but were immediately dispatched with the bayonet. The General, despairing of success, gave orders for a retreat; but, the Highlanders in particular were so obstinate, that it was not till after the third order from the General that the commanding officer, Colonel Grant, was able to prevail upon them to retreat, leaving on the field more than one-half of the men, and two-thirds of the officers, either killed or desperately wounded. The next is an extract of a letter from an officer (Lieutenant William Grant), of the old Highland regiment containing apparently a candid detail of circumstances: "I have seen men behave with courage and resolution before now, but so much determined bravery can be hardly equalled in any part of the history of ancient Rome. Even those who were mortally wounded cried aloud to their companions, not to mind or lose a thought upon them, but to follow their officers, and to mind the honour of their country.
Impact on the "Black Watch"
The Black Watch was "first in the attack, and last in the retreat", and paid dearly with the loss of many lives and many severely wounded. However, due to the gallantry of the 42nd at Ticonderoga, letters of service were issued for adding a second battalion, and an order to make the regiment Royal, "as a testimony of his Majesty's satisfaction and approbation of the extraordinary courage, loyalty, and exemplary conduct of the Highland regiment."
The vacancies occasioned in the 42nd by the deaths at Ticonderoga were filled up in regular succession. The second battalion was to be formed of the three additional companies raised the preceding year, and of seven companies to be immediately recruited. One historical view was that the nation was highly satisfied with the conduct of the army; and the regret occasioned by the loss of so many valuable lives was alleviated by the hope, that an enterprise, so gallantly though unsuccessfully conducted, offered a fair presage of future success and glory.
The old Highland regiment having suffered so severely, and the second battalion being ordered on another service, (to the West Indies), they were not employed again this year.
42nd Highland Officers Killed (plus 9 sergeants, and 297 soldiers):
Major: Duncan Campbell of Inveraw.
Captain: John Campbell.
Lieutenants: George Farquharson; Hugh McPherson; William Baillie; and John Sutherland.
Ensigns: Patrick Stewart, son of Bonskied; and George Rattray.
42nd Highland Officers Wounded (plus 10 sergeants, and 306 soldiers):
Captains: Gordon Graham of Drainie; Thomas Graham of Duchray; John Campbell of Strachur; James Stewart of Urrard; and James Murray of Strowen, son of Lord George Murray (and afterwards General).
Lieutenants: James Grant; Robert Gray; John Campbell; :William Grant; John Graham, brother of Duchray; Alexander Campbell; Alexander Mackintosh; Archibald Campbell; David Miller (Milne?); and Patrick Balneaves, son of Edradour.
Ensigns: John Smith; and Peter Grant.
The battle is also the site of the legend of Duncan Campbell who was cursed to die at Ticonderoga, a name that he had not heard until the battle.
The modern Flag of Quebec was reputedly based upon a regimental banner carried by French-Canadian militia at Carillon.
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