Military history

CHAPTER 27

Bradstreet at Fort Frontenac

JULY-AUGUST 1758

THE STORY OF Fort Frontenac’s fall is largely the story of Lieutenant Colonel John Bradstreet’s strategic insight, persistence, and ingenuity. Born Jean-Baptiste Bradstreet in Nova Scotia in 1714, this son of a British army lieutenant and an Acadian mother had literally grown up in the army, serving from the age of fourteen as a volunteer attached to the 40th Regiment of Foot, the unit in which he finally received his ensign’s commission in 1735. Ten years later he distinguished himself at the siege of Louisbourg while serving as a temporary lieutenant colonel in a Massachusetts provincial regiment. This was an extraordinary assignment for a man who, at the age of thirty, had not yet passed the rank of ensign in the 40th Foot; but Bradstreet was no ordinary officer. He was in fact a massively ambitious if comparatively poor man who had taken advantage of a casual meeting with William Shirley in 1744 to plant in the governor’s mind the idea of an expedition against Louisbourg—and then had promoted himself as its leader. Although Bradstreet played a major role in the capture of the fortress, his achievements failed to bring him the preferment he longed for, and at the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War he was still a captain, the rank he held in the revived 51st Regiment of Foot. Once again William Shirley stepped in, eager to use Bradstreet’s special gifts as a regular who could deal effectively with irregular troops by putting him in charge of bateau transport service in the Mohawk-Oswego corridor and promoting him—illegally—to the rank of lieutenant colonel. It is a testimony to Bradstreet’s sheer ability that despite his close ties with Shirley, the earl of Loudoun also concluded that he was worth using—even if Bradstreet was a man who had to “be rode with a bridel.”1 In December 1757 Loudoun repromoted Bradstreet to the rank of lieutenant colonel and made him his deputy quartermaster general.

Whatever satisfaction Bradstreet may have derived from Loudoun’s recognition of his logistical talents, however, his real desire was to lead a raid against Fort Frontenac. The idea of such an expedition had come to him in 1755, when in the course of supervising the supply of Fort Oswego he realized the key position that Frontenac occupied in Canada’s western Indian trade. By the summer of 1757, a raid to destroy Fort Frontenac had become something like his idée fixe—a plan he promoted in letters to his English patron and about which he ceaselessly pestered the commander in chief. Early in 1758 he finally convinced Loudoun to let him undertake it by offering to pay all expenses from his own pocket, to be reimbursed only in event of success.2

Loudoun’s dismissal thwarted Bradstreet’s design, for Pitt’s instructions made no mention of Fort Frontenac, and the cautious Abercromby would no more have added a jot or tittle to those than he would have weakened the force he intended to send against Ticonderoga. Defeat gave Bradstreet the opportunity he needed, and in the hugger-mugger that followed the retreat he bludgeoned the commander in chief with requests for permission to undertake the expedition. On July 13, just three days after Abercromby’s beaten army had reestablished itself at the head of Lake George, Bradstreet induced the general to detach 5,600 men and to send them, under the command of Brigadier John Stanwix (and himself, as Stanwix’s second), “to distress the enemy” on Lake Ontario and— “if found practicable”—to attack Fort Frontenac.3 Abercromby may or may not have appreciated the plan’s strategic elegance, but he could not have missed the fact that a successful outcome might help offset the disgrace of defeat at Ticonderoga.

Bradstreet’s force would proceed with the announced intention of rebuilding the fort at the Great Carrying Place that General Webb in his panic had destroyed in 1756, and to provide it with a permanent garrison. The reestablishment of an advanced post in the upper Mohawk Valley would serve two useful purposes. In the first place, it would secure the river route against invasion and reopen trade in the heart of Iroquoia—a trade that the Six Nations now needed desperately, since European manufactures had grown steadily scarcer and dearer as the war progressed. In the second, the Iroquois could be counted on to let the French know that the expedition was limited in intent, and thus (Bradstreet hoped) lull them into thinking that it posed no immediate threat. Only at the Carrying Place were Stanwix and Bradstreet authorized to reveal the secret orders to attack Fort Frontenac; then Bradstreet would take a force of picked men by bateaux and whaleboats along a route he knew so well— down Wood Creek to Oneida Lake, thence to the Onondaga River to Lake Ontario—to carry out the raid. Surprise was of the essence, for the raiding party could carry only a few cannon to use in the attack (four twelve-pounders and four eight-inch howitzers, each with seventy rounds of ammunition). As soon as he had Abercromby’s blessing, Bradstreet left the Lake George camp for Schenectady, where with his customary energy he made ready for the expedition. By the end of July the task force was on its way up the Mohawk.4

Two weeks later Stanwix, Bradstreet, and their provincials—for only 157 regulars and 27 artillerists along with 70 Onondaga and Oneida warriors accompanied a force made up overwhelmingly of troops from New York, New Jersey, and New England—arrived at the Great Carrying Place. There, according to plan, Stanwix and Bradstreet revealed their true mission. With that, the Onondagas (about half of the Indians) left; only by promising the Oneidas first claim to any plunder did Bradstreet persuade the remainder to continue with the expedition. Secrecy, so scrupulously preserved up to this point, now served Bradstreet well. Word had already passed to the French through Iroquois channels that the Anglo-American force intended to rebuild Fort Bull. Even if Francophile or neutralist Iroquois factions got word of the impending attack to Montréal, there would be too little time to reinforce Fort Frontenac.

From the Carrying Place, Bradstreet and about 3,100 men proceeded to Lake Ontario, which they reached on August 21. Resting only one night at Oswego (where “there was scarce the appearance, of there ever having been a fort, or any place of defence”) they pressed on for Sackets Harbor at the east end of the lake. There they organized themselves for the attack, worrying that they might be discovered by one of the armed sloops that they knew patrolled the waters of Ontario.5

The lake fleet posed the greatest threat to the expedition, for the French sloops carried cannon enough to sink every boat in Bradstreet’s command. If they appeared before the provincials made the twenty-mile run from Sackets Harbor to their objective, all would surely be lost; but no sail broke the horizon for the next three days. Late in the afternoon of August 25 Bradstreet’s men pulled to within sight of the promontory where the Cataraqui River enters the lake and the lake in turn empties into the St. Lawrence: the spot where Fort Frontenac and its warehouses stood bursting with military supplies destined for the Ohio Country and trade goods and peltry from the whole pays d’en haut. Less than a mile from the fort they beached their bateaux and threw up hasty defenses for the night. The next morning they landed the guns, assembled their dismantled carriages, and began hauling them toward the fort. Apart from random, ineffectual cannon shots, the French offered no resistance.6

Bradstreet had no time to dig the elaborate parallels and saps of a siège en forme. Taking advantage of what seemed the extraordinary timidity of the garrison, he ordered his men to seize an old breastwork the French had dug about 250 yards from the fort; then, after nightfall, he led a party to emplace guns on a rise still nearer Frontenac’s west wall—perhaps 150 yards, or virtually point-blank range. From these vantage points at dawn on the twenty-seventh the British gun crews opened fire on the fort, the stone walls of which had been constructed to defend against musket shot, not twelve-pound cannonballs. Before eight o’clock the sixty-three-year-old commandant of the garrison, Major Pierre-Jacques Payen de Noyan, ran up a red flag of truce. Bradstreet briskly dictated his terms—the members of the garrison could keep their money and their clothes but would proceed as prisoners of war to Albany, from which they would be exchanged for an equal number of British prisoners—and gave Noyan ten minutes to make up his mind. The old soldier hardly needed so much time. Within the hour Bradstreet’s men took possession of the fort. What they found within its walls revealed both why the French defense had been so lackluster and why Bradstreet had found this post so mesmerizing an objective.7

The seigneur de Noyan’s garrison consisted of only 110 soldiers, along with a great many women and children; the remainder of the fort’s ordinary complement had been withdrawn to defend Fort Carillon. The defenders could man fewer than a dozen of the fort’s sixty artillery pieces, a number already reduced by the casualties inflicted in Bradstreet’s brief cannonade. Although Noyan’s Indian allies had reported Bradstreet’s force three days before it landed, and Noyan had immediately sent to Montréal for help, he knew that his messenger could not have arrived at the city in less than four days and that a relief expedition would take even longer to make its way the two hundred miles upriver. (In fact, Vaudreuil received Noyan’s message on the twenty-sixth and immediately organized a militia force from harvesters in the fields around Montréal; they left on the morning of the twenty-seventh and despite every exertion did not arrive until after the first of September.) Noyan, a veteran of forty-six years’ service in the troupes de la marine and a man familiar with every weakness of his fort’s ancient walls, harbored no illusions about heroic resistance; yet surely surrender pained him beyond words, for he knew what treasures lay in the fort’s magazines, in the storehouses at the water-side, and in the holds of the sloops in the river.

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Bradstreet’s attack on Fort Frontenac, August 26–27, 1758. Rocque’s engraving, from A Set of Plans and Forts, vividly suggests the smash-and-grab quality of Bradstreet’s attack, which improvised a siege trench from an old French breastwork, at left. Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

To the Anglo-Americans, the sight of the booty they had gained was “uncrediable.” “The stores of the fort wer Exceeding many,” observed one Massachusetts lieutenant: “warlike Stores of all Sorts for the Endions and there was Sixtey Piecs of Cannon which was Distroyed[.] The Chief [plunder] that we Brought off was Bailes of Cloth[,] Laist [laced] and plain Coats and Shirts of all sizes[,] a great Number of Dear skins and fur of all sorts[,] and Several othe[r] things.” When Bradstreet made his report from Oswego on August 31, he estimated the value of goods seized at £35,000, or 800,000 livres. The nine sloops that lay in the Cataraqui anchorage comprised the whole of French shipping and naval strength on Lake Ontario. Because Fort Frontenac served as the base from which all of Canada’s western trading posts were supplied, the combined loss of goods and vessels would have a catastrophic impact on the Indian trade of the pays d’en haut as well as on the ability of the installations of the Ohio Country to defend themselves. “The garrison made no scruple of saying,” Bradstreet reported, “that their troops to the southward and western garrisons will suffer greatly, if not entirely starve, for want of the provisions and vessels we have destroyed, as they have not any left to bring them home from Niagara.”8

Bradstreet’s conversations with Noyan and the vast quantities of bread being baked within the fort made it clear that as many as four thousand reinforcements might be on the way from Montréal. Thus the colonel lost no time in setting his men to work, loading the most valuable of the trade goods and peltry aboard two of the sloops, then sinking the rest; disabling cannons, destroying arms and accoutrements, spoliating provisions; burning buildings and setting charges to collapse the fort’s walls. Amid this carnival of destruction Bradstreet paused only long enough to alter the surrender terms in favor of the tiny garrison and its dependents, whom he allowed to return directly to Montréal, where Noyan promised to arrange the release of an equal number of Anglo-American prisoners. This ostensibly generous gesture was in fact a prudent move on Bradstreet’s part, for he had no idea when reinforcements might arrive and dreaded having his retreat slowed by women, children, and wounded prisoners.

By the afternoon of August 28, with nothing left to demolish, Bradstreet ordered his troops to their boats. By the thirty-first they were back at Oswego, where they paused only long enough to transfer the booty from the ships to the bateaux and destroy the vessels. On September 8, back at the Great Carrying Place, the victors at last divided the spoils equally among themselves. Only Bradstreet—evidently content in the glory that came from winning so important a victory without the loss of a single life—took no share. The irrepressible Nova Scotian had, at any rate, more important things on his mind than the skins of deer and beaver.9

Bradstreet had no sooner reached Albany than he began to press Abercromby for permission to return to Lake Ontario with a new and larger force, one with which he could take Fort Niagara and perhaps conquer other western posts as well. Fort Frontenac’s condition suggested that the garrisons on the lakes had been stripped bare and would fall easily before vigorous attacks. With the lake fleet destroyed, even the slightest pressure in the west would oblige the French “to abandon their settlements, forts, and possessions on lake Erie, the streights of lake Huron, and the lake Superior; their trade and interest with the Indians inhabiting those countries, must consequently decay, and if a proper use is made of these advantages, may be utterly taken from them.” What he envisioned was nothing less than the conquest of an empire stretching eight hundred miles into the North American interior, from the Thousand Islands to Thunder Bay: a scheme that Abercromby thought grandiose. Made cautious once more by Bradstreet’s success, he dispatched the colonel to Lake George, where he could supervise the fulfillment of the conditions of prisoner exchange he had worked out with the seigneur de Noyan.10

Bradstreet, incredulous that Abercromby could let so great an opportunity slip away, obeyed his orders but also wrote furiously to his English patrons to urge the commander in chief’s recall and composed an anonymous pamphlet to publicize his own role in the taking of Fort Frontenac. An Impartial Account of Lieut. Colonel Bradstreet’s Expedition to Fort Frontenac,to which are added a few reflections on the conduct of that Enterprize . . . by a volunteer on the Expedition, however, was not only an exercise in self-aggrandizement, for the principal argument it made to its intended (British) audience was that the time was ripe for seizing “the dominion of the lakes” from the French. “Had any one measure been taken by [Abercromby],” Bradstreet wrote, “our advantages might have been multiplied almost beyond imagination”; a change in command was obviously in order. Nor was Bradstreet the only officer to complain of Abercromby’s timidity in following up the raid on Cataraqui. Captain Charles Lee was recuperating from a wound he had suffered in the attack at Fort Carillon but still capable of working himself into a rage at the “blunders of this damn’d beastly poltroon (who to the scourge and dishonour of the Nation is unhappily at the head of our Army, as an instrument of divine vengeance to bring about national losses and national dishonour).” Taking care to instruct his sister to give the letter and its enclosures to the parliamentary agent of the 44th Regiment, Lee described Bradstreet’s victory and its likely consequences. “If our Booby in Chief had only acted with the spirit and prudence of an old Woman,” he wrote, “their whole Country must inevitably have this year been reduc’d.”11

Letters like Lee’s, passing reliably along the lines of family, clientage, and influence that tied writers on the colonial periphery to recipients with access to ministers at the core of British politics, destroyed the hapless general’s chances of retaining his command. And yet, lethargic as he was, to judge him solely by the condemnations of his critics would be to miss his real significance in shaping the campaigns of 1758. For Abercromby did, after all, decide on July 13 to permit Bradstreet to undertake his mission to Cataraqui, despite the fact that nothing in Pitt’s instructions authorized him to do so. And ten days thereafter he made a second unauthorized decision that would prove equally consequential in destroying France’s hold on the Ohio Valley.

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