We heard a chant, followed by a syncopated crack, then rising wisps of smoke joined to form a cloud before dissipating. The five men standing beneath the cloud were dressed in dirty white pants, and there were tilted black caps set upon their heads. Staccato commands punctuated the silence, and each was answered by a reply in unison. The motions of the men were jerky stop-and-go, well-rehearsed and precise. The muskets were loaded and raised, there was another crack and a puff of smoke — this is how British troops fought battles in 1781.
I visited Fort Ticonderoga once about 10 years ago, and the impression it left was one of awe. Sure, it’s part museum and part historic landmark, but more than anything it’s a fully immersive experience executed with a sense of detail that goes down to the thread used to hold the re-enactors’ leather shoes together. Re-enactor doesn’t quite tell the whole story, though — the men and women who bring the fort to life are really reliving the experience.
As I watched the musket men demonstrate 18th century war tactics, the smell of a campfire wafted to my nose. I live in the Adirondacks — I know that smell. Behind the row of curious visitors a man sat on a stump, slicing bacon as a large black pot warmed over a fire.
This was lunch, he explained, and it’s what the soldiers would have eaten some 200 years ago. Basically, it was about a pound of meat and a pound of bread, plus a few pints of peas or beans for the week. The cook’s hat bore a number that signified his regiment, the 29th infantry, and his pants, much like the ones donned by the riflemen, were dirty from work.
“The soldiers were issued rations, so we know the kinds of things they were eating,” Fort Ticonderoga CEO Beth Hill said. “For officers it was a different story — we learned what they were eating from reading orders and journals.”
Just around the corner, within the stone walls of the fort itself, I’d see pants like the cook’s being made by a tailor, who explained how global trade played a major role in the clothing of the era. To emphasize that point, he picked up a hat and turned it over in his hands. The feather, he explained, would have been an ostrich plume from Africa, the felt might be made of Canadian beaver pelt, or from sheep sheared in France or England, the horse hair crest was procured in Canada, but the dye used to color it could be from Mexico or South America. The woolen band and pewter button likely came from England, the linen on the inside probably came from Ireland, Holland, or Germany. These caps would have been made for hundreds of soldiers.
Shoes are also made on site. They’re leather and a pair doesn’t consist of a right and a left. Instead, they mold to the shape of the person’s feet as they’re worn. I had to try a pair on, and they’re surprisingly comfortable and strangely stylish, just the way I like things to be.
Keeping it real
As we explored the site, Beth explained how the fort is still very much alive. Every year the re-enactors focus on a different year in the fort’s history, and considering Fort Carillon was built by the French in 1755 (the British took the fort in 1759 and renamed it Fort Ticonderoga), there are a lot of stories to tell and every visit is a different experience.
“One of the innovations of our museum is every year we tell a different part of the story,” Beth said. “What that means is our staff takes a deep dive into our museum collection, and the narrative and what we do here changes accordingly. This summer covers 1781."
Next year things will shift to 1758, when French soldiers were there. Holidays and special events are the only exception to the theme.
From the water
Our next stop was the shore of Lake Champlain, a huge waterbody that’s situated between New York and Vermont. It’s 125 miles long, 12 miles at its widest point, and 400 feet at its deepest point. A wide path goes downhill from the fort, offering a stunning view of the lake, then it passes through The King’s Garden on its way to the dock, where the 90 minute boat tour begins. I swear I’m not making this up — a bald eagle soared overhead as we crossed the lawn on our approach to the dock.
The ride aboard the Carillon is highly recommended. As we slowly crisscrossed the lake, we peered up at the fort as the tour guide told us tales of battles past. Too much detail would ruin the cruise, so here are my highlights: sunken ships, failed attacks, and lots of fortification building. Yeah, it’s super interesting.
After the cruise, we explored The Discovery Garden and The King’s Garden. The former is a cool, interpretive garden geared toward kids, but it’s pretty cool for adults to see, too. The King’s Garden is not to be missed. It’s a gorgeous walled-in courtyard of brick walkways and stunning flower gardens, modeled after an English estate. We lingered there for a while, amongst the poppies and butterflies, imaging garden parties and other posh gatherings.
The final leg of our journey was exploring the fort. Walk through any of the building’s open doors and you’ll find displays filled with artifacts found here. Among them is the largest collection of 18th and early 19th century in the western hemisphere, and the largest collection of military clothing from the 18th century in America. Interpretive displays flesh out the long history of this incredible place, and swords that saved — and took — people’s lives are proudly displayed.
An entire day could be spent milling from room to room, but we had one more stop to make. Leaving the fort, we passed battlefields with walking trails and made our way up nearby Mount Defiance. From atop this little hill the fort is in plain view, and so is a vast stretch of Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains in Vermont. Even without the history, it’s an amazing place to visit, but the history does add a different perspective. Just think of the ships battling the fort from the water, the air rife with shouts and cannon fire. It all happened right here, and we have the fort to prove it.
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