Earthen Remains of 1776

In 1777, Lieutenant Charles Wintersmith mapped out American Earthworks built on the remains of the old French Lines.

In 1777, Lieutenant Charles Wintersmith mapped out American Earthworks built on the remains of the old French Lines.

In creating living history programs based on diaries, letters, artifacts, and other documentation one can sometimes be left feeling that it’s a story, somehow detached from reality from so long ago. This upcoming season’s focus on 1776 and the Fourth PA battalion offers the wonderful nexus of visual and written sources with surviving earthworks 238 years old. This gives historians a chance allowing us to take a big deep breath and realize that yes, it’s really real and really happened right here.

Though three companies briefly passed through Ticonderoga on their march to join the army in Canada, it was July 13, 1776, when the entire Fourth PA battalion arrived and encamped on the slope just to the south of Fort Ticonderoga. In a letter to his wife back in Pennsylvania, Captain Persifor Frazer briefly described his arrival to FortTiconderoga:

On Friday we removed to this place and encamped just under the walls to the southward of the fort. This has been the strongest place of any I have yet seen but is now in a very ruinous condition and there is not any thing done to put it in a posture of defence…Our Battalion is now joined for the first time since it has been raised and it gave us all great satisfaction to find ourselves together though many of the 3d company through the fatigue they had undergone are in a poor state of health…

While the ruins of the Fort recreated today certainly allows the view of Captain Frazer to be easily imagined, it’s the Fourth PA battalion’s encampment and entrenchments in the old French lines that evoke the most.

The French Lines of the July 8th, 1758 battle are famous, but what survives today is the work of Americans in 1776.

The French Lines of the July 8th, 1758 battle are famous, but what survives today is the work of Americans in 1776.

In Fort tours visitors are encouraged to explore the French Lines on the Carillon Battlefield. Similar in shape and placement to the earthworks that survive today, General Montcalm on July 8th, 1758, made his stand against the army of General Abercromby at the lines. In the two days prior, French soldiers deforested this wooded hill overlooking the Fort itself. They used the logs to build a breastwork eight feet high with the tree tops arrayed outwards with sharpened branches twenty feet high. Whether recounting the withering fire unleashed by French soldiers or the epic attack of the 42nd Highlanders, the events that made the July 8th Battle of Carillon center around General Montcalm’s French lines. While the French Lines stand today as a testament to the great battle, they were already extensively modified by July 9th as French soldiers continued to build up the lines preparing for a second day’s attack. By the following year, General Amherst’s British and provincial army soldier’s found the French lines greatly reinforced with batteries of cannon and earth covering the outside of the log breastworks. Amherst’s men further modified the lines as they dug the first parallel trench of their siege lines into the French lines. Far from being the original French lines of July 8th 1758, the earthworks upon the heights of Carillon were already extensively modified by the time the Fort was in British hands.

In the summer of 1776 Colonel Wayne’s Pennsylvanians moved to the French Lines to defend this tactically important approach from a British attack from the north and west, much as Montcalm’s men took up this position to defend from a British attack from the south and west in 1758. Captain John Lacey appraised these earthworks as the 4th Pennsylvania Battalion moved into their new position.

On the 18th the Pennsya Troops moved from their encampment near the old Fort Ticonderoga, and Encamped along and within the old French lines on the high ground to the Northward and Westward of the Fort. These lines consist of a string of Redoubts or Breast Work, with a ditch on the outside, which had been picketed, and appeared to have once been a formadable works, but now gone very much to decay and out of repair. They extended across a point or Neck of Land from the Southern to the Northeast bend of Lake Champlain, as far as the hight extended, to a Marsh or Morass on the Margin of the Lake. These lines or Redoubts appeared to be well calculated for defence against the sudden approach of an Enemy without Cannon, but required twice the number of Men composing the four Pennsya Regiments to defend it.

Captain Lacey detailed life in camp at the French Lines, chronicling their work and a return to military discipline as they prepared to defend this historic ground.

Work on the French Lines proceeded rapidly in the late summer of 1776. Hard work in the dirt took a toll on the men and uniforms of the 4th PA battalion.

Work on the French Lines proceeded rapidly in the late summer of 1776. Hard work in the dirt took a toll on the men and uniforms of the 4th PA battalion.

The Troops Officers and men lay in Tents, their daily occupation was repairing the old lines and building new Re doubts, not even Sundays excepted, officers as well as men laboured in cutting brush making and toting fashines, and diging in the ditches, not a moments time was lost, and only time allow’d to Eat. Fattigue and guard-mounting occu pyed all our time. The following was the order of work viz. On the beating of the Revelee, which commenced at the Fire of the Morning Gun at the head Quarters of the Commander in Chief. At the moment the report of the Cannon was heard every Drum in Camp began to beat the Revelee, a little before or on the first appearance of Day brake, the Soldiers at the same instant seasing their Arms and accrutraments, rush forward to the Alarm posts–a place previously fixed for that purpose, there with the Officers they remain there ready for action untill, and sometimes after sunrise. As soon as it is sufficiently light to distinguish the Men, orders are given to go through the exercise of fireing, which is kept up untill the Troops are ordered to their Quarters, to get their brakefasts and at 7 at Troop Beating the Guards and Fattigue parties are turned out, who assemble opposate their respective Companies and are marched by Sergants to the Genl Parade to be joined by others, and placed under the proper officers are sent to the Stations of the different Guards or Fattigue, according to the Order of the Detail of the Day. The sick having been on our first arival from Crown Point sent over Lake George to the Barracks at the south end of it, where they had good Quarters, those in Camp are geting well, and very few new Cases accrue, owing to our regular duty & better supplies which are now becoming very regular and plenty. We begin to live like Christians and all in good Humour and Harmony.

PA soldiers, including the 4th PA Battalion constructed a large redoubt at the center of the French Lines. It survives today incredibly well preserved.

PA soldiers, including the 4th PA Battalion constructed a large redoubt at the center of the French Lines. It survives today incredibly well preserved.

In December the Fourth PA battalion left the French lines to take up winter quarters inside the Fort itself. Despite the elements these Fortifications remained, albeit in need of repair, into the summer 1777 when the British captured the American fortifications at Ticonderoga. Lieutenant Charles Wintersmith, who served as an engineer officer with the British Army, carefully surveyed the American earthworks, mapping them in 1777.  His maps show incredible detail of the Fort, batteries, and redoubts and the French lines.  Exploring the trails along the French lines in December with the leaves down reveals remains that almost perfectly correspond with Charles Wintersmith’s maps. Sally ports, cut at an angle between the inner parapet wall and outer ditches, remain in exactly the locations shown by Wintersmith. The redoubt at the center of the French Lines still stands tall with openings cut for cannons looking out over the paved exit road. Looking over earthworks which are in such impressive shape, that match up so well to contemporary maps, it is easy to imagine soldiers of the Fourth PA battalion building their new earthworks on the remains of the French Lines. The French lines that stand today grounds the history of the Fourth PA battalion and of 1776 in undeniable reality.

…it appears to be the last part of the world that God made & I have some ground to believe it was finished in the dark-that it was never Intended that man shou’d live in it is clear—for the people who attempted to make any stay—have for the most part perished by pestilence or the sword.

I believe it to be the Ancient Golgotha or place of Skulls—they are so plenty here that our people for want of Other Vessels drink out of them whilst the soldiers make tent pins of the shin and thigh bones of Abercrumbies men–

Ironically enough, our experience as historians today mirrors the experience of soldiers in the Fourth PA battalion of 1776. The military significance of the French Lines was not lost on the officers of this regiment, being students of military history in their own right. In this August 23rd letter to Colonel Penrose, Colonel Anthony Wayne, with both callous humor and backhanded reverence, remarked on the visceral reality of the 1758 battle as his men dug into this already historic ground.

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