Location: Fort Ticonderoga, New York
Webpage: Private Museum
General Description: For a hundred years prior to the French and Indian War in 1754, Lake Champlain was the major overland route between New York and Montreal which traveled up the Hudson River with a portage over to Lake George and an additional portage around the falls to Lake Champlain. This 120 mile long lake was fought over between the Native American tribes of the Iriquois, that allied with the British and Algonquins, that allied with New France. Through three European wars that spilled over to the colonies the British and French attempted to control access to this important trade route, culminating in the French and Indian Wars. Along with Fort Saint Frederic built at the narrows on Lake Champlain to the north, the French attempt to control this region extended to Fort Carillon at the portage location from Lake George. Construction began in 1755 following the Battle of Lake George where the French stopped a British attempt to attack Fort Saint Frederic. Fort Carillon was a massive star-shaped stone fortress. Working during the summer months the fort was completed in 1758. The walls were 7 feet high and 14 feet thick with the whole fort surrounded by a glacis and dry moat 5 foot deep and 15 feet wide. In August of 1757, the French used Fort Carillon as a staging area to capture Fort William Henry on the south end of Lake George. This along with a string of other French victories led the British to attempt to capture both Fort Carillon and Fort Saint Frederic. In July of 1758, the British landed a huge force of 16,000 men on the north shore of Lake George against a much smaller force of fewer then 3500 men defending the fort. Faced with overwhelming numbers, General Montcalm began construction of entrenchments on the rise northwest of the fort to deny access of the higher ground to British cannon. The British were led by General Abercrombie and following the unopposed landing of the troops on the north shore of Lake George on the morning of July 6, he first landed an advanced force to scout the French locations. During a skirmish that morning led by General Howe, who was the most experienced military officer in General Abercrombie’s army, was shot and killed. Deciding to have the cannon land to the south of the fort to provide flanking fire on the French defensive position on the higher ground proved to be a mistake as they got within range of the fort’s cannons and had to withdraw. This left Abercrombie without cannon support which would have made short work of the hastily constructed entrenchments. Not to be deterred Abercrombie ordered a frontal assault of the entrenchments in the afternoon believing the vastly superior numbers would overwhelm the French. However, the assault was not simultaneous as planned and the French were able to shift their forces to stop every charge. By the end of the day the British had lost over 2000 men to the French 400, creating the single most bloodiest war in North America until the Civil War. The remaining British withdrew back to Fort William Henry. The following year, the British again mounted an assault on Fort Carillon with 11000 men under General Amherst. Due to the worst harvest in recorded history in Canada, the French army was much reduced in size with men leaving the army to save their farms. Consequently Fort Carillon was defended by only a small force of 400 men, who quickly abandoned the fort, as well as, Fort Saint Frederic to the north after destroying both forts. The British renamed the fort to Fort Ticonderoga and repaired and improve the fort in 1759 and 1760. After the war, the British garrisoned only a small token force and allowed the fort to fall into disrepair. Thus the condition of the fort at the beginning of the Revolutionary War was not up to standards and was easily captured by a small force of Green Mountain Boys led by Ethan Allen in May of 1775. With the capture of the fort, the Patriot forces secured a large supply of cannon and other armaments that were badly needed, many of which were taken by General Knox during the winter of 1775-1776 to fortify the Dorchester Heights and end the siege of Boston. Beginning in July of 1775, Fort Ticonderoga was the staging area for an invasion of Canada to begin in September leading to the siege of Quebec City. When the British broke the siege in May, 1776 the Continental Army retreated to Fort Ticonderoga where they wintered. During the summer of 1776, the Patriots built substantial defensive works on Mount Independence connecting them to Fort Ticonderoga with a pontoon bridge across the lake. However, due to lack of commitment from General Washington denying sufficient manpower to man all the defenses, they left Mount Defiance undefended. This proved a critical mistake, because in the June, 1777 General Burgoyne led 7800 British and Hessian forces south from Quebec and hauled cannon up to the top of Mount Defiance. Facing bombardment from these heights General St. Clair abandoned Fort Ticonderoga on July 5, 1777 without a shot being fired. The British retained control of Fort Ticonderoga for the rest of the war without serious opposition, except for a small force of 500 men led by Colonel John Brown in September, 1777 to test the defenses. They sneaked up to where the British were constructing a blockhouse on Mount Defiance, surprising the British troops and captured just under 300 soldiers and freeing just over 100 Patriots. Following Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga in 1777, the British abandoned both Fort Ticonderoga and Fort Crown Point, destroying as much as they could of the fortifications. These forts held no strategic value following the Revolutionary War and were allowed to fall into disrepair. Local residents began stripping the fort for building supplies, a practice which continued until William Pell bought the property from the state in 1820. He built a hotel on the property to rival those popular at the time at Niagara, which was successful using the fort as a tourist attraction. The Pell family began rebuilding the fort in 1909 and opened it to the public. Restoration of the fort has continued to this day with most of the fort itself completed. During the summer months the fort is open to the public with many programs throughout the day to show what military life was like in the time period, as well as, museums and demonstrations.
1) Fort Ticonderoga is owned and operated by a private non-profit foundation that uses the entrance fee in the continuing restoration efforts at the fort. Although the entrance fee is substantial, it is well worth it in my opinion. They have done an excellent job of restoring the fort which provides a useful contrast to the ruins you can see at Fort Crown Point to the north from the same time period. Once you pay the entrance fee visitors are free to wander the fort and watch the many demonstrations they have throughout the day. There is no Visitor Center as such at the fort, with the entrance to the fort itself controlled at the location of a small cafe they operate.
2) The first impression of the fort is provided as you enter the fort and view the massive dry moat and walls. The second impression is the sheer firepower at the fort. Although the cannon are not original to the fort, since most of them were removed by General Knox during the Revolutionary War and the rest were salvaged by the locals, they have managed to purchase cannon from this time period to completely outfit the fort. The cannon are from all over Europe including Spanish, French, British, and Dutch, but it is very interesting to see what a full complement of cannon of a fort this size would look like. Very impressive!!
3) As we approached the entrance to the fort, we stopped to watch a demonstration of musket firing put on by the staff. While I have seen demonstrations of the process used to load and fire a musket before, I had never seen a demonstration of the different combat strategies. Three of the staff dressed in period French uniforms demonstrated how they would fight in open conditions, as well as, from behind solid walls such as at the fort.
4) We also took advantage of a quick overview tour of the museum collections they have at the fort. Following this tour we were free to spend more time at each of the exhibits, which included the largest collection of small arms from the time period you will find anywhere. There were also exhibits about medical practices which included details about the small pox epidemic that nearly destroyed the Continental Army until they improved the sanitary practices and began the very controversial inoculation practices that saved the army. They had one entire room devoted to dioramas which was a popular technique in the early 20th century to bring realism to museums.
5) While we were there they had two demonstrations by local artisans on the making of shoes and clothing.
6) I was surprised that the latest addition to the fort is the second soldiers barracks. While on the outside the barracks looks like the other parts of the reconstructed fort, the interior was very different. The inside is divided between a classroom used to show a short film about the history of the fort, a convention hall, and a climate controlled room to display original uniforms from the time period, all within an air conditioned building! I wonder if this is the future of modern reconstruction of historical landmarks.
7) The property also includes The Pavilion, which is the original summer home and hotel of the Pell family along with the formal gardens within a brick wall in the back. Although the building itself is in dire need of repairs and restoration, the grounds have been maintained in beautiful condition. In early August the garden was full of many colored flowers beautifully arranged around fountains and brick walkways.
8) In addition, they have planted a vegetable and herb garden to provide an example of the gardens the soldiers would have had to supplement their diet. They are using many heritage varieties of the vegetables and herbs that would have been available at the time.