A Trace of Mud and Asses: Fort Ticonderoga

August 17, 2013 in Living history, Resources and Research by M C

Insanity runs in my family.  How else would you explain the Voyageurs in the family tree?  But Voyageurs there are, so insanity there must be.  I am a genetic combination of thrifty Scot, steadfast German, and the French, who take the credit, or blame, for everything else.

1758 Map of Fort Carillon, now Fort TiconderogaMy ancestor built, with a little help of course, what was then called Fort Carillon.  Smack at the end of Lake Champlain, guarding northern New England from British aggression, Fort Carillon was one of a series of forts designed to hold back the British from New France’s territories.

It looked great on paper, Fort Carillon.  Click on the fort plans and you can see the star design, canoe landing (still in use today), and the fort gardens, which exceed in square footage the fort itself.  The Fort was designed, and construction overseen, by the cousin of the Marquis de Vaudreuil, governor of French Canada, one Michel Chartier de Lotbinière. He’s a very young man at the time, about 24 I believe, with only a year of study in France behind him before taking on the challenge.  Chartier de Lotbinière decided on a star-shaped fort based on the designs of the French military engineer Vauban, which would have been fine… had he understood Vauban’s design.

The French fort was largely a timbered fort with stone foundations, nothing like the edifice you see today, and… it was hugely flawed.

Let’s take a moment to review some basic physics.  Likely you don’t have a cannon ball handy by (it says something about me that I know people who have cannon balls readily to hand). But you can make do with a any piece of shot.  If you don’t have shot, a rock will do nicely.

Now, throw your shot, cannon ball, or rock, at another rock with great force.

What happens?

Not somewhere you want to be standing when the shot hits. Likely, among all possible events, your projective goes flying off, at great speed, in a different, unpredictable, direction.  Or it may split, and fly off in two or more different directions.  In other words, when shot hits a solid object, like a rock, it ricochets.  This, from the point of view of anyone near the projectile, is very bad.  It had death and destruction written all over it.

The exterior walls of a fort of the time existed not to poke cannon through, as you see today, but to hold earthworks in place.  Cannon (and men) were placed behind soft sand, clay, and loam earthen breastworks, which were held in place to the front (exterior wall of the fortress) with stone and timber, and to the back with timber.  Shot coming over the wall would hit not store ramparts, walls, and floors, but soft dirt, which would absorb the impact and keep the shot from flying off somewhere to cause death and destruction, which was universally considered something to be avoided, and forts were designed accordingly.

Too high above the surrounding countryside, Ticonderoga makes a tempting target.This design, however, requires at least 12-14 feet of clearance from the front of the fort to any interior wall.  Naturally the stone barracks were constructed within six feet of the exterior walls.  While there might have been room for earthworks, once they were in place, there was no room for the cannon.

And things went downhill from there.  Literally.  Fort Ticonderoga may command the lake, but it was built to command the approaches to the lake, otherwise known as “the surrounding countryside.”  But Fort Ticonderoga stands too tall, too high on the landscape, too high above its escarpments, making it a perfect target for well placed guns.  It is no wonder when French military engineers came to inspect the fort they were upset, disappointed, extremely critical, and ordered retrofitting to begin immediately.

Fort Ticonderoga is built by the French during that twenty year stretch between Dragonfly in Amber (Outlander, Book 2)(1744-1746) and Voyager , which starts in 1766.  If you’re reading this, and you’re not a fan of the The Outlander Series by Diana Gabaldon.. get yourself an Audible.com membership (Try Audible Now and Get A FREE Audiobook) and start with Outlander. Or buy the book.

For the rest of us, that 20 year stretch includes what the American colonies will come to call “The French and Indian War,”  otherwise known as “The Seven Year’s War.”  In Outlander this gap is filled by Lord John, from Hand of the Devils to Custom of the Army.  Ticonderoga pops up again in An Echo in the Bone, and indeed, Fort Ticonderoga plays a role in battle for control of Lake Champlain and the New England territories from roughly 1755, when the French start constructing it, to 1781 when it ceased to be of any military significance.  At which point the deteriorating fort largely fell down.

So while Jamie is at at Helwater, and Claire is pulling late nights at the hospital, my ancestor is mired in mud,  building a poorly conceived fort.

And I stepped in that mud.

The last remains of French dirt fortifications.Let us pause to consider this for a moment.  I took a special tour of Fort Ticonderoga called “History Beneath the Walls.”  This gives visitors access to the underground and unseen spaces below the fort.. much of which is quite modern construction designed to support and stabilize the exterior appearance of the fort.  But behind the modern works is a door to nowhere.  A door which would never be opened, but for this tour.  And behind that door, hidden under the parade ground, is the last earthen works wall from the French building of the fort. A tiny underground time capsule, dirt, thrown up by someone who lived long enough to pass his name on to a son.  And on the floor, mud.  The same mud he struggled through every day of the summer he was there, throwing up those dirt ramparts.

The 18th century sticking with me as I return to the present.

I have walked through time, and it stuck to my shoes.


Independence, Defiance and a Smidean of Ass >>

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