Ticonderoga has a name which might be difficult to remember at first, but once it’s in a mind it’s also unlikely to be forgotten. Not only is it situated on the shores of a scenic lake, amidst gently rolling hills, but it is also a spectacular piece of engineering. It is so very easy to forget that it is the 21st century now on the shores of Lake Champlain…
The fort is, even today, surrounded by wilderness. That is not to say that there are no human settlements nearby, for there are, but none of it is apparent when one walks on the ramparts of the fortress. In many ways, what the visitor sees from the walls today will not be cardinally different to what an inhabitant of the fort saw three centuries ago.
The reason this fort exists is that Ticonderoga was the perfect place to move from Lake Champlain onto Lake George to continue one’s southward (or northward) journey. Hence, the area near Ticonderoga was well worthy of fortification. The French who originally built this—in their mind a shoddy fort of poor quality—called it Fort Carillion. Despite its drawbacks, Carillion served as the staging post for early attacks in the Seven Years’ War.
The original British assault against Carillion failed, spectacularly, with the British attacking force driven back by a quarter of their number of Frenchmen. Yet, despite the French improving the fort over the next year, a new British advance conquered it in 1759 without too much effort. The fort was, after this, not of great significance in the Seven Years’ War with most of the military activity taking place further north.
The Revolutionary War saw further use for Ticonderoga though the fort was in disrepair by the war’s start. A small force of Americans conquered it from the British early on, after which the Americans used it as a staging post for further assaults northwards. The Americans also saw to further fortifying the area though this did not avail them of a better fortune when the British advanced again in 1777, under General Burgoyne.
Burgoyne’s genius—or perhaps the military mind of the 18th century who would not have found the solution to cracking Ticonderoga would have not been fit to be a soldier—was to position his cannon on the nearby Mount Defiance from where he could shoot into the fort at will. This made the defence of Ticonderoga untenable, and the Americans retreated. The British garrisoned the fort for about half a year, but Burgoyne was defeated further south, making Ticonderoga irrelevant in the scheme of the war.
Fort Ticonderoga was a pleasure to visit. What I started with—my note that time has essentially stood still there on the shores of Lake Champlain—was probably why I liked it so much. It didn’t take much to imagine a hostile (or friendly) force lurking in those wooded hillsides. Yet, it’s certain that this sentimentality would not be familiar to the troops who actually had to garrison the fort at one point. I’m sure they would have been far happier further south, somewhere with more people and less snow in the winter. Yet, for the historian of today, Ticonderoga offers a lot.