Military history


Fort William Henry


THE MOST OMINOUS problems were taking shape in New York, where Loudoun had left the defense of the lake frontier in the palsied hands of General Daniel Webb, the man who in 1756 had responded to rumors of a French advance down the Mohawk Valley by destroying Fort Bull, blocking Wood Creek with trees, and ordering a retreat to German Flats. Webb’s continued position as Loudoun’s third-ranking officer owed principally to the undiminished confidence of Webb’s patron, the duke of Cumberland, which left Loudoun little choice but to entrust the command to him. Although in one of the last letters he wrote from New York before departing for Louisbourg, Loudoun had urged Webb to establish an advanced post at the north end of Lake George and if possible to besiege Fort Carillon, Loudoun probably realized that he could be expected to do no more than defend New York against invasion. This was only in part because the commander in chief lacked confidence in the “timid, melancholic, and ‘diffident’ ” Webb, with his regrettable tendencies to panic and overreact. Loudoun’s desire to make the Louisbourg expedition an all-redcoat show had made him willing to allot Webb only two regular regiments to augment the questionable fighting capacities of 5,500 untrained provincials. Most of all, however, offensive action was realistically out of the question because Fort William Henry, the British post guarding the main approach to the upper Hudson Valley at the south end (or head) of Lake George, had already been damaged by a surprise attack.1

In mid-March a force of fifteen hundred Canadians, French, and Indians under the command of the governor-general’s wiry, sawed-off younger brother, François-Pierre Rigaud, had approached the fort over the frozen lake and harassed its small winter garrison for four days. The raiders had come equipped only with scaling ladders, not cannon, and therefore stood little chance of actually seizing the fort unless they could surprise or stampede its commander. As it happened, Fort William Henry that winter was under the highly competent command of the man who had designed it, Major William Eyre; and Eyre made no mistakes in directing its defense. Before the raiders withdrew to Ticonderoga, however, they burned all of the fort’s outbuildings (including a palisaded barracks, several storehouses, a sawmill, and a hospital), its exposed bateaux, and the half-built sloop that stood on stocks near the lake.2

Although its defenders had suffered only a handful of minor casualties and its wood-and-earth walls had been untouched by anything heavier than musket balls, the damage to Fort William Henry as a strategic outpost had been grave. The valuable supplies that would have to be replaced from Albany and the external buildings that would take weeks to rebuild were the least consequential losses. More serious by far was the loss of the fort’s bateaux, without which troops could not be moved down the lake against Fort Carillon; but most damaging of all was the loss of the sloop, which left the fort with only one serviceable gunboat to launch in the spring. As the winter’s experience showed, Fort William Henry was safe from attackers who lacked artillery. Unless the British could dominate Lake George with armed vessels, however, they could not prevent an invading French army from bringing siege cannon from Fort Carillon. It would take weeks of labor, once shipwrights had been brought in from New England, to construct a replacement for the lost sloop. In the meantime, Fort William Henry would be vulnerable to any siege the marquis de Montcalm cared to mount.

There was one other critical way in which Rigaud’s raid had put the British in New York at a disadvantage: the loss of intelligence. At the beginning of the winter Eyre’s garrison at Fort William Henry had included about a hundred rangers under Captain Robert Rogers. But Rogers had led them on a disastrous scout against Fort Carillon in January that had cost nearly a quarter of that number, and he had sustained a wound of his own that required treatment at Albany. He would not recover and return to the fort until the middle of April. Given these circumstances the rangers could not have ventured far from the fort even if conditions had favored them. But following Rigaud’s raid, the woods around Lake George grew thick with French-allied Indians. Word of Rogers’s defeat and of Rigaud’s adventure brought hundreds of Ottawa, Potawatomi, Abenaki, and Caughnawaga warriors to Fort St. Frédéric and Fort Carillon in the spring of 1757. From April through June, under the leadership of their own chiefs and of Canadian officers like Charles Langlade (who had directed the destruction of Pickawillany in 1752 and helped defeat Braddock in 1755), they raided English outposts and ambushed supply trains in the woods between Fort Edward and Fort William Henry. So effectively did the Indians and Canadian irregulars confine the rangers to the vicinity of the British forts that General Webb and his senior officers were deprived of virtually all intelligence concerning French preparations for the coming campaigns. If they had known what was coming Webb and his subordinates might conceivably have prepared more vigorously for the summer, but as late as the beginning of June the garrison at Fort William Henry had not undertaken repairs.3

What Webb and his officers did not know was that since late in the summer of 1756 the most successful recruiting drive in the history of New France had been under way among the Indians of the pays d’en haut, the upper Great Lakes basin. The combination of Governor-General Vaudreuil’s enthusiasm for using Indian allies and the widespread reports of French victories at the Monongahela and Oswego attracted warriors from a vast area to serve in the principal campaign planned for 1757: a thrust against Fort William Henry. Montcalm, still unhappy with the uncontrollable behavior of his Abenaki, Caughnawaga, Nipissing, Menominee, and Ojibwa warriors after the surrender of Oswego, entertained more reservations than ever about relying on Indians, but these were overborne by the sheer numbers who presented themselves at Montréal and the Lake Champlain forts between the fall of 1756 and the early summer of 1757. Stories that the Ojibwas and Menominees carried back home to the Great Lakes after the fall of Oswego had “made a great impression,” Montcalm’s aide-de-camp noted; “especially what they have heard tell of everyone there swimming in brandy.” Of equal importance, perhaps, was the news that Montcalm had been willing to ransom English prisoners from their Indian captors after the battle. At any rate, the Indians came in numbers that exceeded even Vaudreuil’s fondest hopes and included warriors who had traveled as far as fifteen hundred miles to join the expedition.4

By the end of July nearly 2,000 Indians were assembled at Fort Carillon in aid of the army of 6,000 French regulars, troupes de la marine, and Canadian militiamen that Montcalm was preparing to lead against Fort William Henry. More than 300 Ottawas had come from the upper Lake Michigan country; nearly as many Ojibwas (Chippewas and Mississaugas) from the shores of Lake Superior; more than 100 Menominees and almost as many Potawatamis from lower Michigan; about 50 Winnebagos from Wisconsin; Sauk and Fox warriors from even farther west; a few Miamis and Delawares from the Ohio Country; and even 10 Iowa warriors, representing a nation that had never been seen in Canada before. In all, 979 Indians from the pays d’en haut and the middle west joined the 820 Catholic Indians recruited from missions that extended from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes—Nipissings, Ottawas, Abenakis, Caughnawagas, Huron-Petuns, Malecites, and Micmacs. With no fewer than thirty-three nations, as many languages, and widely varying levels of familiarity with European culture represented, problems of control were magnified even beyond their usual scope. Since Montcalm realized that “in the midst of the woods of America one can no more do without them than without cavalry in open country,” he did what he could to accommodate, appease, and flatter his allies. But as he knew better than anyone else, he could not command them. Montcalm could only rely on the persuasive abilities of the missionary fathers, interpreter-traders, and warrior-officers like Langlade whom he “attached” to each group in the hope of gaining its cooperation. 5


Robert Rogers, of the rangers (1731–95). Shown here in a Revolutionary-era engraving as the Loyalist “Commander in Chief of the Indians in the Back Settlements of America,” Rogers spent most of the Seven Years’ War leading ranger units that were supposed to replace the Indian allies that the British lacked. He tried indefatigably to perfect the rangers’ skills in woodlands warfare, yet never entirely succeeded in doing so; twice he and his men suffered terribly (and he himself nearly died) at the hands of French marines and Indians whose expertise was of a markedly higher order. What Rogers lacked as an irregular, however, he made up as a self-publicist. His Journals, published in London in 1765, secured his reputation as the very model of the frontier guerrilla leader. Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

In the spring Lieutenant Colonel George Monro had brought five companies of his regiment, the 35th Foot, to Fort William Henry to relieve Major Eyre’s winter garrison. Together with two New York independent companies and nearly eight hundred provincials from New Jersey and New Hampshire, Monro’s command numbered more than fifteen hundred men in late June when two escaped English prisoners brought the first reliable intelligence of the eight-thousand-man force that Montcalm was gathering at Fort Carillon. Monro—“an old Officer but [one] who never ha[d] served” in the field—dispatched several ranger patrols over the next several weeks to observe the French and Indian buildup at the foot of the lake. None succeeded, and the lack of serviceable boats prevented Monro from mounting a reconnaissance-in-force until late July. It was only on the twenty-third that he finally hazarded five companies of New Jersey provincials under Colonel John Parker in a raid intended to burn the French sawmills at the foot of the lake and to take as many prisoners as possible. Traveling in two bay boats under sail and twenty whaleboats—virtually all of the vessels available at Fort William Henry—Parker’s command made its way north down the lake toward Sabbath-Day Point. They did not know until the next morning that more than five hundred Ottawas, Ojibwas, Potawatomis, Menominees, and Canadians were waiting for them. According to Louis Antoine de Bougainville, Moncalm’s aide-de-camp,

At daybreak three of [the English] barges fell into our ambush without a shot fired. Three others that followed at a little distance met the same fate. The [remaining] sixteen advanced in order. The Indians who were on shore fired at them and made them fall back. When they saw them do this they jumped into their canoes, pursued the enemy, hit them, and sank or captured all but two which escaped. They brought back nearly two hundred prisoners. The rest were drowned. The Indians jumped into the water and speared them like fish. . . . We had only one man slightly wounded. The English, terrified by the shooting, the sight, the cries, and the agility of these monsters, surrendered almost without firing a shot. The rum which was in the barges and which the Indians immediately drank caused them to commit great cruelties. They put in the pot and ate three prisoners, and perhaps others were so treated. All have become slaves unless they are ransomed. A horrible spectacle to European eyes.6

In fact, four of the boats escaped the trap, but three-quarters of the Jersey Blues on the expedition were killed or captured. The arrival of the panic-stricken survivors offered the first tangible evidence of a large enemy presence at Fort Carillon, and it thoroughly rattled General Webb, who was making his first visit to Fort William Henry when the remnants of Parker’s command appeared. Webb ordered Monro to quarter the garrison’s regulars within the fort and directed him to have the provincials construct an entrenched camp on Titcomb’s Mount, a rocky rise about 750 yards southeast of the fort, to prevent the enemy from siting cannon on its summit. Then, promising to send reinforcements, he beat a hasty retreat to Fort Edward.

Monro needed the promised men badly. When Webb left on July 29, Fort William Henry’s garrison consisted of only about eleven hundred soldiers fit for duty, together with sixty carpenters and sailors, about eighty women and children, and a handful of sutlers. Since its total complement of vessels on the lake now consisted of five whaleboats and two armed sloops (one in need of repair), Monro knew that he could not prevent the French from investing the place with artillery. The larger the number of men in place at the fort on the day the siege began, therefore, the better the chances would be that they could resist the attackers.7

And yet Webb, fearful of stripping the defenses of his own post, Fort Edward, persuaded himself to dispatch only about two hundred regulars of the Royal American (60th) Regiment and eight hundred Massachusetts provincials under Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Frye. They arrived on the evening of August 2—the same night that lookouts spotted three large fires on the western shore of the lake at about seven miles’ distance. Two scouting boats were dispatched to investigate. Neither returned.

At dawn the next morning, observers on the ramparts of William Henry could begin to make out shapes on the dark surface of the lake: there, beyond cannon range, bobbed nearly 250 French bateaux and at least 150 Indian war canoes. To officers surveying the scene through field telescopes, the growing light revealed that more than sixty of the bateaux had been joined together catamaran-style by platforms of planks; these rode low in the water, borne down by the weight of the siege guns they carried. “We know that they have Cannon,” Monro wrote to Webb, in one of three pleas for help he sent that day. If anyone had entertained any lingering doubts, it was now unmistakable that the second siege of Fort William Henry would be conducted in the European style.8

The three bonfires that sentries at the fort had seen the night before had been kindled by an advance party of six hundred regulars, a hundred troupes de la marine, thirteen hundred Canadians, and five hundred Indians under Brigadier François-Gaston, chevalier de Lévis, Montcalm’s second-in-command. They had been toiling south through the woods “in heat . . . as great as in Italy,” since July 29. Montcalm’s main army, numbering more than four thousand men, needed only a day to traverse the same distance by boat. Unlike the overburdened advance party, they had made the trip in a festive mood. Perhaps the beauty of the lake—a drowned valley between mountain ranges, its waters studded with “a very great quantity of islands”—animated those who rowed and rode in the dark, stolid ranks of bateaux; or perhaps it was the sight of scores of birch-bark canoes in the vanguard, gliding like a cloud over the lake’s blue surface, that lifted their spirits—for, as Bougainville wondered, “who could imagine the spectacle of fifteen hundred naked Indians in their canoes?” Whatever the cause, not even Montcalm’s strict orders for silence could restrain the gaiety his soldiers felt, and they fired musket salutes, beat rolls on the drum, and sounded hunting horns as their flotilla made its way up the lake. Disapproving of the breach of discipline and yet stirred by the fanfares that echoed between the mountains, Bougainville believed that these must have been “the first horns that have yet resounded through the forests of America.”9

Lévis’s advance party fired the first shots at the fort’s defenders on August 3. Even before the main body had landed its artillery and supplies, Montcalm ordered Lévis to circle through the woods behind the fort and cut the road leading southward to Fort Edward. This task his Indians and Canadians quickly accomplished, driving a guard of Massachusetts provincials back to their camp on Titcomb’s Mount and seizing virtually all of their livestock—about 50 horses and 150 oxen, most of which the Indians slaughtered to supplement the scanty rations they had been receiving from the army. Meanwhile, as Indian sharpshooters began sniping at the defenders of William Henry from the main garrison garden—a seven-acre plot lying just fifty or sixty yards from the western wall of the fort—Montcalm brought the main body up from the landing place and surveyed the shoreline for a position from which to begin his entrenchments.

At three in the afternoon Montcalm formally opened the siege by sending in a messenger under flag of truce, in accord with European custom, bearing a demand for the garrison’s surrender. “Humanity,” he wrote, “obliged him to warn [Monro] that once [the French] batteries were in place and the cannon fired, perhaps there would not be time, nor would it be in [his] power to restrain the cruelties of a mob of Indians of so many different nations.” With equal gravity Monro replied that he and his troops would resist “to the last extremity.” While the commanders exchanged their ceremonial courtesies, the Indians stood “in a great crowd in the space around the fort,” obeying the norms of their own cultures by hurling taunts at the defenders. “Take care to defend yourself,” shouted one Abenaki warrior in clear (though “very bad”) French to the soldiers on the ramparts, “for if I capture you, you will get no quarter.”10

Although Fort William Henry was clearly in trouble on August 3, its position was far from desperate. The fort’s magazines held adequate if not ample stocks of ammunition and provisions; its batteries mounted eighteen heavy cannon (including a pair of thirty-two–pounders), thirteen light swivels capable of raking the wall faces and glacis with grapeshot, two mortars, and a howitzer. A stout stone-and-log breastwork enclosed the provincial camp atop Titcomb’s Mount, which had six brass fieldpieces and four swivels, as well as the small arms of its men, to defend it. The most immediate threat to the fort’s garrison was fire, and Monro soon minimized that danger by ordering the flammable roof shingles removed from the interior buildings and having all stocks of firewood dumped into the lake. The greater dangers were those of the longer term: that a portion of the fort’s wall would collapse under sustained cannonading, allowing attackers to rush through the breach and overwhelm the defenders, or (if the walls held up) that the garrison would be starved into submission.11

Since time inevitably favored the besiegers, such eventualities could be prevented only if Webb dispatched a relief expedition to attack Montcalm before he had a chance to organize his own camp’s defenses. Hence the urgency of Monro’s three attempts to notify Webb that Montcalm was about to besiege (or, as he said, using the technical term, “invest”) the fort; for without reinforcement from below, Fort William Henry would be no more immune to prolonged cannon siege than Oswego or St. Philip’s Castle had been. Thus on August 4, as Montcalm’s engineers laid out the first line of entrenchments less than half a mile from William Henry’s north bastion and as his Canadian militiamen began to construct artillery emplacements opposite the fort’s western wall, Monro knew better than anyone that—barring a great mistake on his adversary’s part, the arrival of a relief column from Fort Edward, or a miracle—his garrison’s days were numbered.


The Siege of Fort William Henry, August 3–9, 1757. On the left, atop Titcomb’s Mount, is the “retrenched camp” of the New England provincials; at the center, across a marshy creek, the fort and its gardens stand on a plateau above the lake. Beyond the large garden on the right are the French siege works. The initial parallel trench is at the far right, with Montcalm’s first two batteries (marked E and F), from which the French gunners began to shell the fort on August 6. An approach trench, or “sap,” (marked G) connects the first parallel to a second parallel, at the edge of the garden. This entrenchment’s breaching batteries (marked H) were never actually used; the British surrendered on August 9, before Montcalm could give the order to open fire. From Rocque, A Set of Plans and Forts. Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

Yet Webb, as Monro would not know until August 7, responded to Fort William Henry’s predicament by deciding not to send reinforcements until he himself had been reinforced by militia from New England and New York. As Webb saw it, to weaken Fort Edward’s garrison would expose Albany and the rest of upper New York to invasion. If Montcalm succeeded in seizing William Henry, after all, he would have not only a fort from which to launch further operations, but a splendid road to use in transporting siege guns against Fort Edward. In a letter of noon, August 4, Webb’s aide-de-camp therefore advised Monro that the general “does not think it prudent (as you know his strength at this place) to attempt a Junction or to assist you” at present. Indeed, in view of the eleven-thousand-man strength of the French force that Monro had reported, and the possibility that Webb “should be so unfortunate from the delay of the Militia not to have it in his power to give you timely Assistance,” Monro might well consider how (if worse came to worst) he “might make the best Terms” of capitulation possible. Monro would receive this message only on August 7 because one of Montcalm’s Caughnawaga scouts stalked the courier into the woods after he left Fort Edward and killed him, long before he could reach Fort William Henry. The bloodstained letter, cut from the lining of the dead man’s jacket, came to Monro under a flag of truce together with a polite note from Montcalm suggesting that he take Webb’s advice and surrender.12

Colonel Monro declined Montcalm’s invitation on the seventh but knew how far his situation had deteriorated from the relative security of the third. In the intervening days, the chevalier de Lévis had posted his force opposite Titcomb’s Mount, and his Canadian and Indian scouts had made it all but impossible for the provincials to leave the entrenched camp. Indian war parties operating in the woods had cut all communication with Fort Edward. Despite harassing fire from Fort William Henry’s artillery, Montcalm’s sappers had quickly completed the first siege parallel and emplaced a battery from which his gunners had opened fire on August 6. On the morning of the seventh the French had brought a second battery into action and had driven an approach trench to within three hundred yards of the fort’s western wall. From this point, Monro knew, they would dig another parallel trench along which they would site one or more “breaching batteries”; and these guns, firing at point-blank range, would blast passageways through the wall.13

When Monro received Montcalm’s message on the morning of August 7, Fort William Henry’s walls and bastions were still intact, which according to the elaborate etiquette of siege warfare meant that Monro could not—yet—honorably contemplate capitulation. But he also could not ignore the effect of the indirect, or high-trajectory, fire of the French mortars and howitzers, which had been raining shrapnel on his men and those in the entrenched camp for two days. Monro had been disturbed to learn that some of the solid shot recovered within the fort bore royal ordnance markings: proof that they, like the guns firing them, had been captured at the Monongahela or Oswego. Meanwhile the guns of his own batteries had been bursting at a fearful rate. Since the first shots had been fired at the French on August 4, more than half of William Henry’s heavy cannon had split from prolonged firing, often injuring their crews as they exploded.14

By sunset on August 8, the relentless French bombardment had shattered the morale of Monro’s garrison, most of whom had not slept for five nights running. Already on the seventh Monro had felt compelled to threaten to hang cowards, or indeed anyone who advocated surrender, over the walls of the fort; now his men seemed “almost Stupified” with stress and fatigue, and there was no telling how they would react to an assault if the western wall, weak from sustained shelling, were to collapse.15

Knowing now that Webb would send no reinforcements, Monro ordered one of his engineers to survey the damage and report the state of the fort’s defenses. What he heard was that the top three feet of the bastions most exposed to French fire had been shot entirely away; that the casements, or bunkers within them, had been heavily damaged; that all but five of the fort’s cannon were inoperable; and that stocks of ammunition had dwindled to near exhaustion. Nor were the reports he received from the entrenched camp any more encouraging. The Massachusetts troops stationed there had suffered even heavier losses from indirect fire than the fort. As their commander, Colonel Frye, reported, they “were quite worn out, & wou’d stay no longer, And [say] that they wou’d rather be knock’d in the Head by the Enemy, than stay to Perish behind the Breastworks.”That same night the French completed a breaching battery of eighteen-pound guns within three hundred yards of the fort’s west wall. With so much discouraging information in hand, Monro summoned a council of war from among his officers for the next morning. They unanimously advised him to send a flag of truce to Montcalm and negotiate a surrender on the best terms possible.16

By one o’clock on the afternoon of August 9 the articles of capitulation had been worked out. Montcalm offered terms identical to those allowed the British garrison on Minorca in 1756—an intentional compliment to Monro, acknowledging that he had conducted his defense according to the highest professional standards. In return for a pledge that they would remain noncombatants “on parole” for eighteen months, the entire garrison of Fort William Henry would be granted safe passage to Fort Edward under French escort, and—in recognition of their valor—would be permitted to retain their personal effects, small arms, unit colors, and a symbolic brass fieldpiece. All English and provincial soldiers too sick or badly wounded to make the trip to Fort Edward would be cared for by the French and repatriated when they had recovered. In return, Montcalm demanded only that all French military and civilian prisoners in Anglo-American custody be returned to Fort Carillon by November; that the cannon, ammunition, stores of war, and provisions within the fort would be surrendered to the French; and that one British officer would remain as hostage until the escort of troops accompanying the garrison to Fort Edward had safely returned. 17

These terms, so honorable by European conventions of war and military professionalism, were not only alien to the cultures of Montcalm’s Indian allies but had been negotiated entirely without consulting them, with notable disregard for what they regarded as their legitimate expectations. Only after the capitulation had been concluded, immediately before it was signed, had Montcalm summoned the war chiefs to explain the surrender terms. They could not harm the defeated soldiers, he said, nor take their personal effects or arms from them; while all food stocks, arms, and matériel left behind were to be respected as the property of His Most Christian Majesty. Although the chiefs listened politely to Montcalm’s explanation, they could not have doubted that their warriors would never obey such outrageous prohibitions. The warriors had fought bravely and indeed more selflessly than the French, who served for wages; they had asked only for their rations, ammunition, and what few gifts Montcalm had bestowed. The only rewards that the Indians—whether Christian or heathen—had expected were plunder, trophies to prove their prowess in battle, and captives to adopt or sacrifice as replacements for dead warriors or perhaps hold for ransom. When it became clear that the man whom they had called “Father” intended to do what no real father would and deprive them of the reward they had earned, most of the warriors decided merely to take what they had come for, and then to leave. And that was exactly what they did.18

The episode that the colonists and the English would come to know as “the massacre of Fort William Henry” began on the afternoon of August 9, immediately after the last British detachment handed over the fort to the French and made its way to the entrenched camp, where the soldiers and civilians of the garrison were to remain until they would march for Fort Edward on the following day. As they left, Indians entered the fort in search of booty and, finding little, set upon the seventy or so sick and severely wounded men who had been left to be cared for by the French. The prompt intervention of French soldiers and missionaries saved at least some of them, but many lost their lives when the Indians made trophies of their scalps. Through the rest of the afternoon and well into the terrifying night that followed, Indians roamed the entrenched camp and plundered its inhabitants. When French guards finally cleared them out of the camp around nine o’clock they hung about its perimeter, menacing the Yankees with “more than usual malice in their looks which made us suspect they intended us mischief.”19

Dawn brought all the mischief the Anglo-Americans had feared. As the regulars prepared to lead the column down the road to Fort Edward, hundreds of warriors armed with knives, tomahawks, and other weapons swarmed around them, demanding that they surrender arms, equipment, and clothing. Other Indians entered the entrenched camp, where the provincial troops and camp followers anxiously awaited the order to march, and began carrying off not only property but all the blacks, women, and children they could find among the camp followers. When at last the column began to move out, at around 5:00 a.m., the regulars in the lead marched alongside the column’s French escort and thus were spared the worst of the violence that followed. The provincials at the rear of the column, however, lacked all protection and found themselves beset on every side. Within minutes, Indians had seized, killed, and scalped the wounded from the provincial companies and stripped others of clothes, money, and possessions. As noise and confusion mounted, discipline disintegrated. Terrified men and women huddled together, trying as best they could to defend themselves. Then, with a whoop that witnesses took to be a signal, dozens of warriors began to tomahawk the most exposed groups, at the rear of the column.

The killing lasted only a few minutes, but more lives would be lost in the panic that followed. Frye’s regiment dissolved in chaos as men bolted screaming in every direction: some into the woods, others toward the French camp, others back to the fort, with Indians in hot pursuit. Since prisoners were more valuable than trophies, most of those whom the Indians caught were in less immediate danger than they thought. When Montcalm and other senior French officers ran up to stem the disorder, however, they first tried to intervene and free the captives, only to find that the result was often fatal: many warriors preferred to kill their captives and take trophies rather than be deprived of them altogether.

By the time order could be restored, as many as 185 soldiers and camp followers had been killed and a much larger number—between 300 and 500—had been taken captive. Another 300 to 500 provincials and regulars had found refuge with the French. The rest either fled down the road or escaped into the woods and eventually made their way toward Fort Edward. As for the Indians, virtually all of them left without delay once they had secured the prisoners, scalps, and plunder they had earned in battle. By sunset on August 10, only about 300 domesticated Abenakis and Nipissings remained with Montcalm’s army. The other 1,300 warriors and their captives were already paddling north on the first leg of the long journey home. 20

Also by sunset on August 10, substantial numbers of men had begun to reach Fort Edward, where they brought the first, exaggerated reports of the massacre to General Webb and a garrison that was now beginning to swell with the arrival of thousands of New England and New York militiamen. Refugees continued to straggle in from the woods—scared, starving, and sometimes stark naked—for more than a week. On August 15 the largest single group arrived, a contingent of perhaps five hundred survivors including Colonel Monro, dragging with them the brass sixpounder that was supposed to symbolize their honor in defeat. They had been brought under French escort to Half-way Brook and handed over to a British guard along with Montcalm’s assurances that the rest of the garrison would be returned as soon as its members could be recovered from the Indians.

Indeed, Montcalm, his officers, and the missionary fathers who had accompanied the expedition’s Indians had gone to great lengths to retrieve prisoners ever since the tenth, and Governor-General Vaudreuil was doing his best to intercept warriors returning to the pays d’en haut at Montréal in order to ransom their captives. Thanks to all these strenuous efforts at least two hundred prisoners were recovered by the end of August, at an average cost to the crown of 130 livres and thirty bottles of brandy each. Further redemptions followed, piecemeal, along with a few escapes. Including those who died before they could be recovered and as many as forty who were adopted into Indian families and refused to return, only about two hundred captives would fail to return to the British colonies by 1763. 21

Both humanitarian and practical concerns made Montcalm and Vaudreuil eager to retrieve the prisoners. Montcalm desperately wanted to preserve the integrity of the capitulation proceedings, for as the officer who had guaranteed the safety of the surrendered garrison he would be personally dishonored by any violation of the surrender terms. Moreover, as he clearly understood, the British would be disinclined to behave generously toward any French garrison in the future, should they ever gain the upper hand; and he could ill afford to antagonize an enemy so potentially powerful by seeming to sanction uncivilized warfare. As for the governor-general, Vaudreuil hoped to minimize the damage to Franco-Indian relations by an episode that the Indians regarded as a betrayal of trust, and that Montcalm saw (with equal conviction) as evidence of an ineradicable savagery. Vaudreuil, convinced that Indian alliances were the key to the successful defense of Canada, understood that the appalling aftermath of victory at Fort William Henry threatened two possibilities, equally dire: that the Indians would not volunteer their services again, or if they did that Montcalm would decline to use them. Thus he did his best to appease both the commander in chief, by ransoming as many prisoners as possible, and the Indians, by offering the most generous terms he could afford. He also did his best to overlook such distasteful incidents as the ritual eating of a prisoner outside Montréal on August 15. 22

In the end the violent sequel to Montcalm’s victory would both defeat Vaudreuil’s best efforts to salvage Indian relations and realize Montcalm’s worst fears of British vengeance. Never again would Indian allies flock to the French colors as they had in 1757. The western Indians would discover too late that the English and provincials at William Henry had been suffering from smallpox, and thus that the captives, scalps, and clothing they brought back carried the seeds of a great epidemic, which would devastate their homelands. No warriors from the pays d’en haut would help Montcalm again, and even the converts from the St. Lawrence missions would become reluctant to take up the hatchet. In coming campaigns Montcalm would rely on regulars and Canadians to oppose the regulars and provincials of the British, fighting increasingly in the European mode that he preferred. But although the conflict would in this sense be Europeanized after 1757, British officers would never be inclined to offer the honors of war to any French force. At the same time, provincial outrage over “the massacre of Fort William Henry” would feed an already ferocious anti-Catholic tradition in New England and intensify an undiscriminating Anglo-American hatred of Indians.23

But while the fall of Fort William Henry thus marked a critical juncture in the war, its long-term significance remained latent in 1757. American colonists and British ministers alike saw it as one more humiliation, one more instance of military incapacity, in the long, dismal litany of defeat that the war had become. Yet two events that followed the capitulation, the full implications of which no one in British North America understood, foretold important dimensions of what was to come. The first was Montcalm’s decision not to attack Fort Edward.

After Montcalm’s victory, nothing seemingly prevented him from following the road that pointed toward the next logical objective; yet he opted instead to destroy Fort William Henry and return to Fort Carillon. Webb was greatly relieved without understanding why. Montcalm had in fact had no choice but to withdraw, for he was hobbled both by the loss of his Indian supporters—which was to say, his main source of intelligence—and by an acute shortage of provisions. New France had suffered a disastrous crop failure in 1756; Montcalm indeed had had to delay his departure from Fort Carillon until the necessary foodstuffs arrived from France. Unable to open his campaign before the very end of July, now he could not delay in releasing the Canadian militiamen who made up more than half of the non-Indian troops at the siege, for they urgently needed to return home to the harvest. Yet even dismissing them at the earliest possible moment did not prevent further disaster, for the harvest of 1757 would be one of the worst in Canadian history. Conditions were especially bad in the vicinity of Montréal, ordinarily “the granary of Canada” and also the home of many of the militiamen who served on the expedition. By late September the inhabitants of Montréal were each subsisting on a half-pound of bread a day, and those of Québec on half that. No one contemplating New France’s military prospects could escape the conclusion that, without provisions from Europe, the colony would soon become indefensible. 24

The second event that accompanied the fall of Fort William Henry was the equally significant, but equally unremarked, mobilization of thousands of militiamen from the New England provinces. In response to Webb’s frantic summons for help, between August 7 and 10 Connecticut drafted five thousand men from its militia regiments—about one-quarter of all the militiamen in the colony—formed them into temporary companies, and marched them off to defend Fort Edward. Massachusetts’s response was equally impressive. Upon receiving the first appeals for help, Governor Pownall ordered the four westernmost regiments of militia to march for New York and warned all twenty-six of the province’s battalions “to hold themselves in readiness to march at a minutes warning.” On August 8 he “ordered up all the Troops of Horse and a fourth part of the Militia of the province,” and began assembling a train of artillery, as well as provision magazines, to support them. Between August 9 and 12 more than seven thousand Massachusetts militiamen left their homes and began to march for Fort Edward. Because of the distances to be covered, none actually arrived before Fort William Henry surrendered, but soon thereafter they came streaming in in numbers that overwhelmed Webb’s ability to feed and control them. As soon as it had become clear that the French were not advancing on his post, Webb dismissed the militiamen at the fort and dispatched couriers to turn back those still on the road. Even so, by August 12 no fewer than 4,239 New England men were encamped outside the walls of Fort Edward.25

This response cost the northern provinces a vast sum of money, for militia privates on active service earned more than twice as much per day as provincial soldiers of the same rank. The total charges for maintaining the Connecticut militia in the field for the eighteen days of the alarm equaled one-third of the expense of all its operations in 1757. Yet notwithstanding the expense and the logistical difficulty of mobilizing large proportions of their male populations on short notice, the northern provinces had demonstrated a capacity to respond to a military emergency without parallel in the English-speaking world.26

Even though in the aftermath of this great mobilization colonial governments remained chiefly aware of its futility and expense, and even though regular officers tended to ignore or to dismiss it as having made no difference to the outcome of the campaign, the response of the New England provinces provided unmistakable evidence of the willingness of the colonists to fight. The alarm proved that no lack of popular motivation or military resources could account for the growing uncooperative-ness of the New England assemblies. If only the means could be found to tap them, and some way discovered effectively to direct them, the energies and the manpower of the northern colonies alone could tip the strategic balance in North America. But how they could be tapped, and how they might be directed, remained problems that were still very far from being solved.

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