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Three Wars, Three Armies, One Legacy

Fragment of French 12-pouce mortar
This fragment of a French 12-pouce mortar has served three armies in the three conflicts that defined the course of North American history. Collection of the Fort Ticonderoga Museum, 1999.1221. Photo, Gavin Ashworth.

Perhaps the most impressive survivor of Henry Knox’s “Noble Train of Artillery” is this enormous iron mortar. Knox’s expedition was just one part of its fascinating history.

Originally designated as a 12-pouce mortar (pouce is the French equivalent of the inch), it was cast in France and shipped to Canada during the French and Indian War, that may have been part of a shipment that arrived in Québec in June of 1758. Two 12-pouce mortars were eventually hauled to Fort Carillon (later named Ticonderoga) by 1759. Outnumbered by General Jeffrey Amherst’s British and American army, the two French mortars rained down massive explosive shells on the attackers. Each shell loaded with gunpowder and fuse weighing nearly 200 pounds, with as many as 60 shells every hour were fired at the British!

It was not enough though and the mortars were captured by Amherst. One was moved to Crown Point by the early 1760s. When Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen stormed Fort Ticonderoga and captured Crown Point in 1775, the two mortars were still there, reported as 13-inch mortars (the French pouce was somewhat larger than the English inch so measured using an English ruler it would appear bigger than 12 inches). When Henry Knox prepared for his expedition, he did not anticipate such large mortars. “I did not know of any 13-inch mortars, a number of which I found at Ticonderoga,” Knox wrote to Colonel MacDougall from Fort George seeking ammunition for his new finds. Pleasantly surprised, he selected them to make the trip to Boston. The mortars made the voyage to Boston and were the subject of much attention wherever they passed. They were mounted to opened fire on British troops in the city, who evacuated Boston on March 17, 1776.

Following the evacuation, the mortars were ordered north again to bolster the American invasion of Canada. Hauled with other guns by men of Knox’s regiment of artillery, they may have gotten as far north as Sorel, Québec before being caught in the retreat back to Ticonderoga. There the mortars were destined for experimentation on the lake fleet being built by Benedict Arnold. Likely mounted on the gondola Philadelphia, now on display at the Smithsonian Institution, a test firing on August 1, 1776 caused the mortar to burst, sending half of it plummeting into the lake. Useless as a weapon, the heavy mass of iron still had value as ballast. Probably loaded into the hold of the row galley Trumbull the now fragmentary mortar survived the Battle of Valcour Island on October 11, 1776 and safely returned to Ticonderoga. The luck ran out in 1777, when Trumbull was captured with Fort Ticonderoga during General John Burgoyne’s advance up Lake Champlain in July. Trumbull remained in British hands and continued to be used on Lake Champlain for the rest of the Revolution.

With the conclusion of the war, Trumbull was likely broken up in Canada and the mortar set aside. When war once again broke out between Britain and the United States in 1812, a new naval arms race developed on Lake Champlain. Once again, the mortar fragment was shifted as ballast into the newly built HMS Linnet, which sailed south in late 1814 to do battle with the Americans. Linnet was battered by American cannon fire during the decisive Battle of Lake Champlain on September 11, 1814. The victorious Americans sailed her south to avoid capture that winter, but the news of peace in 1815 caused her to rot away in the Poultney River near Whitehall, New York. The remains of the Linnet’s hull were salvaged in 1949 and in 1950, the identifiable mortar fragment was finally returned to Ticonderoga where it had served the French, American, and British forces in the three great conflicts that shaped the continent from 1758 to 1814. This single object embodies the ongoing strategic value of the Champlain Valley for the many cultures and peoples that have fought over it and have shaped the political boundaries we still live with today.

The fragmentary mortar was conserved in 2015 in preparation for the Last Argument of King’s exhibit, which closed in October of 2017.

For more information and to see other items in the Fort Ticonderoga collections, visit the ever-growing Online Collections Database!