Recently a large crowd came to the Olympic Arena in Lake Placid to commemorate and celebrate the 35th anniversary of the “Miracle on Ice,” the upset win of the US hockey team over the world champion Soviet team, while earlier in the day in the wintery forest outside Fort Carillon (now Ticonderoga) re-enactors captured the thrilling come-from-near-defeat victory by the French garrison over the famed Rogers Rangers.
The 1757 Battle on Snowshoes was hard fought. The French had the numbers, but many of their ranks had recently arrived from southern France. Wearing moccasins, wool leggings, and breach cloths was a new thing, say nothing of using snowshoes – articles they had never seen much less worn before. Added to that was the unnerving task of fighting alongside Ottawa and Nippising warriors, whose treatment of captured combatants was horrific to say the least.
By then Captain Rogers and his Rangers were a known force feared for their daring raids. Indeed just a month before they had snuck up, set fire to the Fort Carillon woodpile, and slaughtered the cattle leaving taunting messages stuck to a dead cow’s horns thanking the French for the fresh meat. The Rangers were tough. While the French slept inside on hay mattresses in a fire-warmed barracks, the Rangers slept out in the open with no tent or tarp overhead, just rolled up in blankets on top of fresh cut boughs laid out on the snow.
The weather that Saturday was no less harsh than 258 years ago, deep snow, frigid temperatures, and biting wind, conditions that did not daunt the Rangers or the defending French, nor the hearty re-enactors and those who came out to witness how it took place. For the visitors, enthralling and educational was the pre-battle tours of the French officers, enlisted men, and Indian quarters as well as a sortie to the Rangers lines to see how they slept, stayed warm, cooked their food, and had traveled up from Fort William Henry a good 40 miles away.
“When the French Continental Army get here, it is a completely different climate than they are used to in Mediterranean France,” said Cameron Green, assistant director of interpretation at Fort Ti. “When they arrive they are given Native American-type of clothing such as the capote and these winter moccasins, which can be layered up and attached to what the French called Le soulier du sauvage, “the shoe of the savage” – snowshoes.”
We learn that Rogers Rangers had a good reason to be attacking the French, as they employed out of work French voyageurs (fur trappers), often referred to as thieves of the woods, who spoke native tongue of the tribes and knew the region well, to help lead raiding parties as far south as Saratoga capturing prisoners and destroying as much property as they can. Indeed from his vantage point, on his earlier trip, Rogers bore witness to French voyageurs raiding parties entering and debarking from Carillon.
“The amount of space the Rangers covered is amazing,” said Chris Dipasquale, one of Rogers Rangers, a ten-year re-enactor. “After they were defeated in the Battle of the Snowshoes, that night they are way down the lake, they covered over 30 miles to get to the base of Lake George dragging their wounded on toboggans behind them. They regularly covered huge amounts of distances that we today would think almost undoable. They were in phenomenal shape.”
A special feature of the Battle of Snowshoes, in comparison to major reenactments held at the Fort Ti in the summer, and staged elsewhere, was the incredible intimacy. Using passwords, we viewers could get up close and personal checking out the situations of opposing sides as if we were some neutral Swiss party. At times we were yards from the action, and near the end captured combatants were dragged right through us as if we were but members of an army’s camp followers and baggage train.
We could warm ourselves at their fires, watch them make and eat their meals, try tea made from Hemlock needles, a tea that helped heal wounds I was to learn, and the re-enactors stayed much in character. Running in beaver tail snowshoes is no easy thing, some tripped up, and muskets misfired at times, especially when a gust of falling snow dampens the powder. You want to yell, “Watch out! There is Ranger behind that tree!”
“We want to push the Rangers ways from our fort and homes in the area,” said Lew Meyers, a member of the French Garrison getting ready to head out. “We don’t want the Anglos encroaching on our territory. We are also doing this to protect our families. We are doing what we need to do. I think my chances are like anyone else I guess.”
The French file out in two groups, their first line is savagely beaten back by the Rangers, but then, as if sweeping out the end of a crescent moon, the second wing makes a flanking attack resulting in greatest the lost of life and percent of forces by the Rangers, a staggering blow that sends them into retreat.
“Hi, I’m from the Fort Orange News, I see you fellows took a tough beating, how are you feeling?” I said taking on the role of an 18th century reporter from Albany.
“Tired, cold, and wet. We lost about forty percent of our men,” said Chris Dipasquale. “Now we are going to regroup and head south towards Fort Edward. We need to warm up and lick our wounds, but we view it as a success. We fought the French on their own ground. We reconnoitered 40 miles north of Fort Edward and gathered information on the enemy. We will be back.”
“We won. Victory is sweet. I am content,” said Green flourishing a jacket in one arm. “It was a bloody battle on both sides, we lost about the same number of men as them, but we captured Rogers’ jacket. He slipped away. In the jacket are scalps, a mark of their savagery, and a commission. I hope he freezes.”
“This was really good,” said visitor Steve Atherton after the event. “It’s wonderful to get an idea of what actually happened about where it happened, especially for my children. It’s a great way for them to learn about history. We enjoyed it.”
“I thought it was really exciting and they portrayed the battle really well,” said Lauren MacLeod of Fort Ticonderoga. “I think we accomplished our goal of expanding the visitors knowledge of the Battle of the Snowshoes. It’s great for them to be able to talk to the interpreters and get the inside scoop of what it was really like.”
Indeed, next January, be sure to head to Fort Ticonderoga, and this coming summer as well.
Photos by Naj Wikoff.