Military history




JEFFERY AMHERST learned of Prideaux’s death and Niagara’s fall on Saturday night, August 4, when he was busy taking possession of Fort St. Frédéric at Crown Point, the spot a dozen or so miles from Ticonderoga where Lake Champlain narrows to a dramatic strait, then widens to dominate the broad Champlain Valley to the north. This was the second post the French had blown up and abandoned at his approach, a circumstance for which he was grateful but one that left him puzzled and ill at ease. Amherst, never inclined to show his emotions anyway, responded to this uncertainty as he typically did, by clamming up—and slowing down.

For a variety of reasons Amherst had been late in taking the field. The Niagara expedition and his own had shared a common base of supply, in Albany, and despite John Bradstreet’s expertise as quartermaster general, even that gifted officer could only attend to one major task at a time. The New England provincials, on whose axes, picks, and shovels Amherst would have to rely in the sieges he expected to direct, had as usual arrived slowly. Finally, Amherst habitually preferred security to speed. Before he felt ready to venture even as far as the head of Lake George, he had improved the road from Fort Edward and built a fortified way station at Half-way Brook. Once he established his base camp at the lake, he had spent a month assembling matériel and beginning construction on the new post, Fort George, that was to replace Fort William Henry. As a consequence of so much deliberation and attention to detail, it had been July 21 before Amherst’s men boarded their bateaux and pulled oars for Ticonderoga. The seven battalions of regulars and nine of New England provincials in his command, plus nine companies of rangers and a train of artillery, amounted to about ten thousand men: many fewer than Abercromby had taken down the lake the previous year, and, in the mind of the commander in chief, another reason to proceed with caution.1


Fort Edward to Ticonderoga, 1759. This manuscript map, from the papers of Thomas Gage, shows what had become by 1759 a thoroughly familiar geography of lake, stream, and marsh. The preferred route to Ticonderoga and Lake Champlain remained via Fort William Henry, despite its destruction. As the shading on this map makes clear, the alternative route, along Wood Creek, South Bay, and South River, ran through swampy, difficult ground. Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

But Fort Carillon, the site of such slaughter in 1758, had fallen just four days after Amherst’s arrival on the twenty-second, at a total cost to the attackers of five dead and thirty-one wounded. Amherst’s men had barely emplaced their siege cannon when the token force of defenders had spiked their guns, lit a fuse to the powder in the magazine, and retired to Crown Point. There they joined the three-thousand-man army of Brigadier General François-Charles de Bourlamaque, the capable, asthmatic officer to whom Montcalm had entrusted the defense of Montréal’s southern approaches. Methodical to a fault, Amherst paused to survey the ruins of Fort Carillon before sending a detachment of rangers ahead to observe Bourlamaque’s activity at Fort St. Frédéric. When they returned on August 1 with news that the French had already blown up the post and withdrawn, Amherst ordered his army ahead to take control—and stopped once more to take stock of his position.2

By the time the commander in chief learned of Niagara’s fall, then, he had gained command of Lake Champlain as far north as Crown Point, a “great Post” which “secures entirely the country behind it.” He had also begun to acquire intelligence on the enemy from rangers and deserters and thus knew that the French had withdrawn all the way to Île-aux-Noix, a fortified island at the foot of the lake. But the lack of determined resistance only served to make Amherst more circumspect, and less willing to make a headlong thrust toward Montréal, for two reasons. In the first place, the French had a small fleet of warships on the lake, and he had none. The enemy’s schooner and three xebecs mounted thirty-two cannon between them and could easily make hash of his bateaux. Amherst accordingly resolved to wait for his own shipwrights, back at Ticonderoga, to build a brigantine and a large armed raft, or radeau, to protect the army’s advance down the lake.3 The second factor that weighed on his mind was perhaps even more disabling than the lack of naval protection, for he could do nothing about it: he had heard nothing of Wolfe since the beginning of July.

Without some knowledge of the progress of the campaign against Québec, Amherst had no reliable way to interpret the lack of resistance to his army’s advance. If operations on the St. Lawrence were tying down large numbers of men, he could proceed against Bourlamaque in relative safety. But Amherst was anything but an optimist by nature and almost certainly expected Wolfe to fail. If this had happened—if Wolfe had fallen back to Louisbourg—Montcalm would be free to shift his forces to Île-aux-Noix and achieve local superiority over Amherst and the five thousand or so men he would be able to bring northward after garrisoning Fort George, Ticonderoga, and Crown Point. For all Amherst knew, the withdrawals of the French had been no more than bait to a cunning trap. Île-aux-Noix was eighty miles (three days) down the lake from Crown Point, and he knew next to nothing about its situation. To venture so far from his base of supply, so far from reinforcements, would be to place his whole army and all his gains at risk. Thus in August, Amherst set his men to repairing Ticonderoga and to constructing a new pentagonal fort at Crown Point; to planting gardens; to scouting northward through the woods; and to building roads—one to connect Ticonderoga to Crown Point, another to run seventy-seven miles overland from Crown Point to Fort Number 4 in the Connecticut Valley—the better to secure the supplies he needed to retain his conquests.4


Crown Point Fort, 1759. At least a third larger than its predecessor, Fort St. Frédéric, Amherst’s new post was fully as large and expensive as Fort Pitt. And as ill-fated: a chimney fire in 1773 ignited a general conflagration that blew up the magazines and leveled the fort, which was never rebuilt. From Rocque, A Set of Plans and Forts. Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

Until he had his ships or knew whether Wolfe had triumphed or failed, Jeffery Amherst would be content to build. And wait.

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