Turner on Zarzynski, 'Ghost Fleet Awakened: Lake George's Sunken Bateaux of 1758'

Joseph W. Zarzynski. Ghost Fleet Awakened: Lake George's Sunken Bateaux of 1758. Albany: Excelsior Editions, 2019. Illustrations. 284 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4384-7672-8

Reviewed by Jobie Turner (Air University)
Published on H-War (April, 2021)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55121

On July 5, 1758, Major General Abercrombie’s army of sixteen thousand British and colonial soldiers and Native American allies alighted in nine hundred craft (boats, bateaux, and canoes) at the south end of Lake George, New York.[1] The vast armada was the largest military force assembled on the continent by any European power to that date. Their destination was Fort Carillon, twenty-six miles north and a few miles over land. Fort Carillon had been held by the French since the start of the Seven Years’ War and had vexed the British for three years. Most famously, French general Louis-Joseph de Montcalm had sailed south in 1757 and besieged Fort William Henry. It was on the ruins of Fort William Henry that the British built their camp to prepare for their row up Lake George in 1758.

After one overnight camp, Abercrombie’s troops disembarked and began their movement to Fort Carillon. By July 8, 1755, the British were in full rout, the French and their native allies killing and wounding more than 1,500 of the British force. In a chaotic retreat, Abercrombie ordered the army to destroy supplies, sink boats, and proceed back to the south end of Lake George as quickly as possible. The Battle of Carillon was one of Britain’s worst defeats in the eighteenth century. Eventually the British would take the post and rename it Ticonderoga, the moniker gaining its infamy in the next war. With the defeat, the British decided to abandon their post on the south end of Lake George. Rather than leave their boats to the elements and French raiding, Abercrombie directed his soldiers to load two hundred craft with rocks and sink the boats in the lake so they could be brought up the next summer during campaign season.

In Ghost Fleet Awakened, Joseph W. Zarzynski picks up the story two hundred years later. Over the preceding two centuries, bateaux from Abercrombie’s sinking occasionally washed ashore. Then in the 1960s, with the advent of recreational scuba gear, civilians began seeing the bateaux on the bottom of Lake George. In the last half of the twentieth century more than forty-seven craft were found and the local Lake George community built scuba tourism and tours of the boats into the local economy and lore. In addition, formal scientific studies were carried out with Zarzynski a key member of several of them, eventually serving as the president of Bateaux Below, a Lake George association dedicated to preserving and educating the public on the boats.

Abercombie’s boats are a passion for Zarzynski, and with his vast experience, the author dives deep into the material, describing the locations of the boats and the painstaking efforts to locate and catalogue them. In doing so, he fills a much-needed gap in our understanding of eighteenth-century freshwater craft in colonial North America. He meticulously documents the sizes, uses, and various construction methods of the boats. To the larger history of the area, this research demonstrates the vibrancy, hard work, and exceptional integration of local and imported craftsmen to construct so many well-built vessels. When doing my own research on eighteenth-century watercraft in the New World just a few years ago, I found that the scholarship lacked all the details that Ghost Fleet provides. Zarzynski’s primary sources and meticulous detail will allow future scholars of the period to expand what we know about Abercrombie’s ill-fated armada. Before this work, what little was known about eighteenth-century sailing on fresh water was confined to niche civilian sailing advocates and public libraries. Zarzynski deserves a gold medal in research for pulling all the disparate sources and his own personal work together. Most of all, this book is a documentation of all the difficult and painstaking work that went into diving into the murky and cold water, pinpointing locations, and then transferring that knowledge into the public sphere—via tours, museums, and lectures. It is also a work that is destined to have a far-reaching audience, especially for those who are interested in underwater archaeology or Lake George in general.

Zarzynski’s strength in detail, research, and experience is a double-edged sword. He gets every tactical piece right but sometimes obscures the bigger picture. Two or three pages upfront describing the historical background of the boats and Abercrombie’s mission would have helped frame the narrative. The attack on Fort Carillon was not just a minor battle; it was a huge defeat for the largest army assembled in North America up to that time. In addition to the boats at the south end of Lake George, as noted by the limited primary scholarship of 1758, notably the diary of Caleb Rae, the British scuttled many boats at the lake’s north end. Are those boats also still there, or was the water too shallow to keep them entombed in the water? And even more pressing, why did the British fail to pull up forty-seven of the craft? They were expensive, well made, and hard to reproduce.

In the same breath, these critiques of Ghost Fleet Awakened are minor and more a case of an academic of the time period wanting more questions answered than a lack of scholarship. As aforementioned, Zarzynski’s depth of research and description of the physical characteristics of the boats is a shining addition to the historiography of the Seven Years’ War. Zarzynski achieves what he sets out to do: to document how these boats still fascinate us more than 260 years after their sinking.


[1]. Abercrombie is spelled Abercromby (a less common variant) in the book under review.

Citation: Jobie Turner. Review of Zarzynski, Joseph W., Ghost Fleet Awakened: Lake George's Sunken Bateaux of 1758. H-War, H-Net Reviews. April, 2021.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55121

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.