Military history

CHAPTER 13

Oswego

1756

ON THE AFTERNOON of August 10, more than two hundred miles to the west of Loudoun’s Albany headquarters, soldiers at Fort Ontario (one of Fort Oswego’s defensive outworks) spotted the recently scalped corpse of a comrade not far from the palisade. It had been a coup of extraordinary boldness, for the raiders had killed their victim in broad daylight. No other soldiers recently had been lost from the garrison, and since the local Oneidas had refused to act as scouts or communicate any useful intelligence to the garrison, this was the first solid evidence in more than a month that enemy Indians were in the vicinity. The next morning Lieutenant Colonel Mercer ordered one of his post’s vessels, a small armed schooner, to scout the lakeshore for evidence of the enemy. Before she had sailed a mile and a half, her crew spotted a great encampment on the shore. The captain put about and scuttled back to the fort. His report was the first intelligence to reach Oswego of the three-thousand-man expeditionary force with which the marquis de Montcalm was preparing to besiege the British outpost. By late that afternoon, Indian snipers had scaled trees at the edge of the forest and begun firing down into the interior of Fort Ontario.1

Montcalm had left Montréal on July 21, after having rather reluctantly agreed with Governor-General Vaudreuil that his first order of business would be to destroy Britain’s military and commercial outpost on the Great Lakes. Since coming to New France, Montcalm had found that he and Vaudreuil agreed about very little, and he was far from pleased with the situation in which he found himself. Both the Canadian-born governor and his brother, François-Pierre de Rigaud de Vaudreuil (known as Rigaud)—a tough and experienced officer in the colonial regulars, les troupes de la marine—firmly believed that the war should be fought by making maximum use of Indian allies and raids. Indians and Canadian troops had been crucial to the defense of New France in the previous colonial wars, for their ability to devastate the frontier had always forced the northern provinces to concentrate on defense and lessened their ability to mount an invasion. “Nothing,” Vaudreuil had said, “is more calculated to disgust the people of those Colonies and to make them desire the return of peace” than frontier raiding. Similarly, nothing was more likely to win and retain the favor of Indian nations eager to make war against the British than to let them do it in their own ways, and on their own terms. The affection of Vaudreuil, Rigaud, and the other Canadian veterans for Indian warfare and their commitment to cultivating friendly relations with Indian tribes, however, did nothing to win the affection or the respect of the new commander in chief.2

As almost any conventionally minded European regular officer would have, Montcalm disliked departures from what he understood to be civilized standards of military conduct. He distrusted Indians, who operated according to their own understandings of warfare and could not be subjected to military discipline. Because Indians fought to gain prisoners, trophies, and booty, they could be ungovernable in the aftermath of a battle and were particularly prone to what Montcalm could only understand as acts of savagery—scalping, torture, even cannibalism. But most important, to use Indians seemed futile to Montcalm because no matter how many small victories they might win, they could inflict no lasting defeat on the British: once a battle had been won, they would simply take their captives and loot and return home. So far as Montcalm could see, the Canadian militia and even the troupes de la marine were only marginally preferable to the Indians, since whatever their skills in woodcraft, neither could compare with properly disciplined European troops in reliability under fire or staying power.

For these reasons Montcalm was unwilling to assign the Canadians, Indians, and troupes de la marine and their style of fighting the preeminent role that Vaudreuil and Rigaud advocated. Yet the severe shortage of available manpower left Montcalm little choice; if he was to defend New France, he could hardly dispense with Indian and Canadian help. Thus the force that he led against Oswego included not only 1,300 highly trained French infantrymen and artillerists of the regiments of Béarn, La Sarre, and Guyenne, but about 1,500 troupes de la marine and militiamen under Rigaud, and at least 250 Indians from a half-dozen nations, from the Abenakis of upper New England to the Menominees from the western shore of Lake Michigan. Montcalm intended to use Canadians and Indians to harry Oswego’s defenders out of the woods, but his regulars and gunners would conduct a siege in the European style. Only such a decisive engagement, he believed, could eliminate Britain’s strategic presence on the Great Lakes.3

On the afternoon of August 11, the defenders of Fort Ontario could hear Canadian axmen felling trees in the woods, opening a cannon road from their camp to the entrenchments that the militiamen were already starting to dig just east of the fort. Unfortunately for the garrison, Oswego’s fortifications were not yet complete. Even after the weakened 50th and 51st Regiments had regained their health, the improvement of their defenses had been hampered by the uncertainties that attended the transfer of command from Shirley to Abercromby to Loudoun. Moreover, thanks in part to Shirley’s amateurism and in part to the difficult geography of the site, Oswego’s defenses had been poorly laid out. The original trading post, a stone blockhouse that dated from 1727, stood on a low rise beside the bay where the Oswego River emptied into Lake Ontario. Hardly more than a quarter of a mile to the east, across the river, a hill rose fifty feet above the lake; while a quarter mile west of the blockhouse, a second hill stood even higher. Attackers on either hill with even light cannon could so easily batter down the old trading post and its outbuildings that a prudent commander might have decided to abandon the complex and construct a defensible fort on stronger ground. But Shirley had decided instead to build a hornwork, or rampart, on the landward side of old Oswego and to emplace small outlying forts on the two hill-tops that overlooked it.4

Thus on the day Montcalm opened his siege, Oswego consisted of three separate posts: in the center lay Oswego proper, a decrepit blockhouse defended on its land side by a hornwork, but open to the river and lake; east of the river stood Fort Ontario, a square palisade with four bastions; and to the west crouched new Fort Oswego, a fort so “poor [and] Pittyful” that the soldiers of the garrison had nicknamed it Fort Rascal. Even had all its parts been complete and properly laid out, Oswego would have been a hard spot to defend. As it was, not one of its forts had been planned correctly or built well, and Lieutenant Colonel Mercer had only 1,135 soldiers to hold off Montcalm’s 3,000 men and eighty cannon.5

The defense of Oswego would not prove a long one. Once he had surveyed the site, Montcalm decided first to invest Fort Ontario. Under cover of a small ridge less than a hundred yards from the fort, Montcalm’s men began on the afternoon of the eleventh to dig a trench parallel to the fort’s eastern wall. That night and all the following day they dug, throwing up a parapet and constructing platforms from which their cannon could fire, at virtually point-blank range, into the wooden palisade. Seeing no purpose in subjecting the garrison to a murderous cannonade, Mercer gave the order to abandon Fort Ontario on the thirteenth. At dawn the next morning, he looked across the river and saw that the French had not only occupied Fort Ontario but had emplaced a dozen cannon next to it, on high ground. It was a horrifying sight, because the cannon in Fort Oswego’s own batteries were all mounted on the hornwork, and therefore pointing away from the enemy.

Mercer, a courageous officer, ordered the guns reversed on their platforms. This left his gunners without a parapet to cover them and aiming their cannon over the heads of the garrison, but Mercer gave the order to open fire anyway. According to Stephen Cross, a civilian carpenter who had come to Oswego to build ships, what followed was “as Severe A Cannonade on Both Sides, as Perhaps Ever was, until about 10 o’clock.” Then, Cross continued, “about this time we Discovered the Enemy, in Great Numbers, Crossing the River [upstream from Oswego, out of range]; and we not in force Sufficient to go up and oppose them, and being Judged not safe, any longer, to Keep the Men, in Fort Raskel, that was Evacuated; and [while] we all were Huddled together, in and about the Main Fort, the Comandent . . . was killed by a Cannon Ball....”6

In fact, the shot had beheaded him. The command passed to Lieutenant Colonel John Littlehales, a man so unnerved by Mercer’s grisly death and so disheartened by his hopeless position that within an hour he ordered a cease-fire and dispatched a representative under flag of truce to ask for terms. Montcalm, as a professional officer exquisitely sensitive to the etiquette of surrender, judged that the brief British defense had been insufficient to merit magnanimity. He therefore refused to offer Littlehales the honors of war—to have granted them would have allowed the British to depart with their colors, personal possessions, and a symbolic cannon, in return for the promise that they would not return to active service for a specified period—and instead insisted on taking the entire garrison prisoner. Prudently, ingloriously, Littlehales acquiesced.

Thus, this Place fell into the hands of the French; with a Great Quantity of Stores [, which] we suppose [amount to] about 9000 Barrells of Provisions, A Considerable Number of Brass, and Iron Cannon, and Morters; one Vessell just Launched, two Sloops Peirced for 10 Guns each, one Schooner Peirced for 10 Guns, and one Row Gally, with Swivels, and one Small vessell on the Stock about Half Built, A great Number of Whailboats, and as Near as I can Judge between 14 & 16 hundred Prisoners; Including Soldiers, Sailers, Carpenters, and other artifisers, Settlers, Indians, traders, Women, and Children.7

The only promise Montcalm made was that he would protect the British from the attacks of his Indian allies and would guarantee their safe conduct to Montréal. But it soon became clear that he had promised too much.

The Indian warriors who had accompanied the expedition were under French leadership only in the attenuated sense that each group had a Canadian officier assigned who spoke its language. The warriors received no payment beyond provisions and presents. Unlike French and Canadian troops who (at least in theory) served for the greater glory of church and king, the Indians fought in order to demonstrate personal courage and to gain plunder, trophies, and captives. Now, in the aftermath of the surrender, they helped themselves to what they regarded—and what previous French commanders had always accorded them—as the proper reward for their services.8 In a long afternoon of disorder, Indians killed and scalped the sick and wounded in the British hospital, appropriated supplies from the stocks of the trading post and the forts, seized personal property, and took captives from among the soldiers’ and traders’ families. To the colonials and the defenseless British, it seemed an orgy of violence. As Stephen Cross told the story, once the Indians had got into our fort [old Oswego], they went searching for Rum; which they found, and began to Drink, when they Soon became like so Many hel Hounds; and after Murdering, and Scalping, all they Could find on that Side, Come over the River [to Fort Ontario, where Cross and most of the defeated soldiers were being held] with A Design, to do the Same to all the Rest; and on their Coming Near the Fort where we was, and hearing the Confused noyes of those within [the walls, they] United their Hideous Yells and Rushed the [French] Guards Exceeding hard, to git in among us, with their Tomehawks; and it was with Great difficulty the French, Could Prevent them.9

All in all, the Indians killed between thirty and a hundred Anglo-American soldiers and civilians and made captives of an indeterminate number before Montcalm could restore order. He was intensely embarrassed by this “massacre,” which he believed dishonored him as an officer pledged to protect prisoners of war. The incident left him so abashed that he omitted all mention of it from his report to the minister of war except for a single, cryptic notation: “It will cost the King from eight to ten thousand livres, which will preserve to us the affection of the Indian Nationals.” It was his only mention of the funds he had laid out to ransom what prisoners the Indians were willing to give up.10

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Louis-Antoine de Bougainville (1729–1811). Appointed as an army captain and aide-de-camp to the marquis de Montcalm in 1756, Bougainville was already the author of a celebrated treatise on integral calculus when he made his way to America. Although he was not particularly gifted as an infantry leader, his splendidly observed journals still provide the best account of the American war from the perspective of a French regular officer. After the war Bougainville embarked on a second career as a naval officer—in which uniform he appears in this late-eighteenth-century stipple engraving. From 1766 to 1769 he became the first Frenchman to circumnavigate the globe, exploring Tahiti and other South Pacific islands. During the American Revolutionary War he served as a frigate captain and was eventually promoted to the rank of rear admiral. Courtesy of the McCord Museum of Canadian History, Montreal / Musée McCord d’histoire canadienne, Montréal.

Oswego had been Montcalm’s first victory, and it was one in which Vaudreuil and Rigaud and other Canadians could take a certain satisfaction, because they had played a crucial role in winning it. Yet victory had come at what for the marquis de Montcalm was entirely too high a price. Like Loudoun in his encounters with the provincials of the British colonies, Montcalm too was learning his first unwelcome lessons about the cultural dynamics of war in the wilderness, and he was beginning to draw exactly the same conclusions. To Montcalm, as to Loudoun, it seemed that a strange degeneracy afflicted everything and everyone who lived in North America; that war there would be better fought by men who knew the right and honorable way to conduct themselves, the regulars; that the less one had to rely on colonials or Indians, the better. Eventually Montcalm’s aide-de-camp, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, would crystallize the attitude that most European officers who served in America instinctively shared: “The air one breathes here is contagious, and I fear lest a long sojourn here makes us acquire the vices of a people to whom we communicate no virtues.”11

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Wood Creek and Oneida Lake. This sketch map, with much of the lettering inverted, shows the course of Wood Creek from Fort Bull to Oneida Lake—most of which General Daniel Webb ordered filled with felled trees in anticipation of a French invasion that existed only in his panicked imagination. Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

By the time word of Montcalm’s attack reached the nearest substantial British force, it was already August 17 and too late to relieve a garrison that was already under guard and on its way to Montréal. Major General Daniel Webb, third in the command hierarchy after Loudoun and Abercromby, had earlier been dispatched with the 44th Regiment to reinforce Oswego. He heard the news at German Flats, a small Mohawk Valley settlement seventy miles west of Albany. Webb advanced cautiously to the Great Carrying Place, where, on August 20, the rumors circulating in the nervous garrison convinced him that Montcalm was preparing to march for the Mohawk. Without pausing to send scouts west to see if the French were indeed headed his way, Webb ordered the recently rebuilt Fort Bull to be burned, directed that axmen fell trees to obstruct Wood Creek, and then without losing a moment beat a hasty retreat to German Flats, which now became Britain’s westernmost outpost in New York.12

Lord Loudoun seldom criticized other regular officers, and especially not other protégés of the duke of Cumberland, but even he thought Webb had gone too far. Nonetheless, Webb had so efficiently destroyed the advanced posts on the Mohawk that there was little Loudoun could do to reverse the situation. Fearful that the stroke against Oswego would be followed by another against the provincials at Fort William Henry, Loudoun had already ordered Winslow, on August 20, to abandon all further preparation for the expedition against Crown Point and concentrate on improving his post’s fortifications. By the end of August the collapse of the British offensive capability on the northern frontier was complete. Loudoun had been in New York less than a month. While the provincials longed to be disbanded and the regulars waited for the order to go into winter quarters, the commander in chief applied himself to the organizational duties at which he excelled, sparred with civilian authorities over quarters for his troops, and surveyed the state of the British war effort in America. He could do little to repay the French and not a great deal to reform the Americans, but at least he was beginning to understand what he was up against.13

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