Military history




WILLIAM HAVILAND, the imperious forty-two-year-old brigadier who commanded the regulars and provincials who were to approach Montréal via Lake Champlain and the Richelieu River, had launched his expedition only on August 11, when Murray was already past the halfway point. For once it was not the provincials who were at fault, for most of them had arrived at Crown Point by mid-June. Instead, the huge task of carrying provisions and stores forward from Albany had held up the campaign, as had the necessity of giving Amherst time to reach Oswego, from which his western expedition would descend the St. Lawrence. Amherst, guessing that Haviland’s small army would take about as long to besiege and take Île-aux-Noix as his larger force would require to make the passage from Oswego down the river, had ordered the two armies to jump off, as nearly as possible, simultaneously. Surprisingly, that almost happened: although it had been delayed by low water in the Mohawk, Amherst’s force managed to leave Oswego on August 10. Thus on the sixteenth, when Amherst’s bateaux and their escorts, the armed sloops Onondaga and Mohawk, were approaching the first obstacle in their path—Fort Lévis, Captain Pouchot’s island post at La Galette— Haviland’s men were disembarking opposite Fort Île-aux-Noix and preparing to open their siege.1

Although Amherst and Haviland (the former with almost 11,000 men at his disposal after leaving behind garrisons for the Mohawk River posts and Fort Oswego, and the latter with 3,500 effectives) commanded forces much larger than either of their adversaries, their tasks were formidable ones. At Île-aux-Noix, the chevalier de Bougainville blocked Haviland’s advance with 1,450 men in an island fort that dominated the Richelieu River. The French had prepared to receive the invaders by building temporary dams and flooding the land on either shore to a depth of two or three feet, while a schooner and a radeau lay moored just below the island to prevent the British from attempting to run their floating battery, the Ligonier, past the fort. Similarly, on the St. Lawrence, the ingenious Captain Pouchot had had enough time to fortify an island at the head of an imposing stretch of rapids. Although he had only about three hundred men under his command, the situation of this stout little fort and Pouchot’s thoroughness in preparing its defenses meant that Amherst could not simply pass it by. Like Haviland, he would have to carry out one last complicated siege before he could pass on toward Montréal.2

In the end, although the two sieges were conducted under dissimilar circumstances, they lasted about equally long. Haviland opened his batteries against Île-aux-Noix on the nineteenth, and shelled the fort relentlessly until Bougainville evacuated it on the night of August 27–28. Punishing as it had been, it was not Haviland’s bombardment that had made him abandon the post, but a raid on the twenty-fifth in which the British seized the schooner and radeau moored below the island. Without these, and lacking any other way to deny the British passage down the Richelieu, Bougainville could only withdraw overland toward Montréal and join forces with Bourlamaque on the south shore of the St. Lawrence.

Haviland, like Amherst a systematic commander, took his time in following Bougainville, securing his conquests as he went; but it was only caution that slowed his advance. Rather than defend the two remaining forts on the Richelieu, St.-Jean and Chambly, Bougainville ordered them burned. Thus, impeded less by force of arms than by the necessity of taking oaths of allegiance from the habitants and deserters who poured into his camps to surrender, Haviland marched overland for the St. Lawrence. On September 3 his messengers reached Murray at Varenne, advising him to expect the southern army in two or at most three days.

Meanwhile Amherst had forced the surrender of Fort Lévis, but only after Pouchot’s tiny garrison had held up his huge army for a week. Then, with typical care, Amherst repaired the battered fort (which he renamed William Augustus in Cumberland’s honor) and refitted his gunboats before pressing on to face the deadliest obstacles to his progress: the rapids of the upper St. Lawrence. Twenty-one redcoats and provincials had been killed in the siege of Fort Lévis; four times that number drowned before Amherst’s boats had shot the last of the white water that lay between the fort and Montréal. Although irregulars would have found the army extremely vulnerable as it tried to negotiate the rapids, neither Canadian militiamen nor Indian warriors appeared to harass the British force. Thus even with time taken to repair damaged boats and to raise cannon that had fallen into the river, the western army encamped on Île Perrot near the mouth of the Ottawa River, virtually within sight of Montréal, on September 5. Like Murray and Haviland, Amherst found that the main impediments to his advance were the Canadians who flooded into his camps, begging his men to trade and his officers to administer the oath of allegiance.3


Île-aux-Noix. This island, its fortifications, and its obstacles—chains stretched across the channels and flooded woods on either shore—posed the only serious tactical problem that Haviland had to face between Lake Champlain and Montréal. Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.


Amherst attacks Fort Lévis, August 16–26, 1760. This engraving, from Captain Pouchot’s Mémoires sur la dernière guerre de l’Amérique septentrionale entre la France et l’Angleterre (1781), shows the English shelling the fort from three vessels on the river, and batteries located on nearby islands and Pointe de Ganataragoin, upstream. The French battered two of the ships to hulks and held out until they had exhausted their ammunition. When Pouchot surrendered on August 26 his fort had been reduced to a heap of earth and splintered logs. He and his officers were sent to France as prisoners on parole in 1761. Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

Within the jaws of the vise now closing on him, Lévis had pulled all his regulars back to defend Montréal—a site with none of Québec’s geographical advantages. As an island with enemy troops on three of its four sides, lacking any independent base of supply, Montréal would in any case have had little hope of withstanding a siege. The town’s “mean and inconsiderable” fortifications, however, made the task of defense a hopeless one even before the first enemy battery could be erected. Lying low to the river, the town was surrounded by a dry ditch, about eight feet deep, and a “slight wall of masonry, solely calculated to awe the . . . Indians.” At the northeast end, near the arsenal and boatyard, stood its pathetic excuse for a citadel—“only a Cavalier [an artificial hill, ten or twelve feet high] without a Parapet.” Most of the Canadian militiamen had already vanished; the regulars and troupes de la marine who were left, including the wounded and men too sick to stand, numbered perhaps four thousand.4

And yet, as recently as the day before Amherst landed at Île Perrot, Lévis had continued to maintain substantial bodies of troops on the river’s southern bank, where they and the forces of Murray and Haviland eyed each other with the mutual respect of old adversaries. Lévis had thought he could still strike out against the invaders, if only he could secure the support of a few hundred Indian warriors. To that end he had summoned the chiefs of the local villages to a conference on September 4, at the settlement of La Prairie. Warriors from the pays d’en haut, of course, had not been much in evidence since 1757, but thus far the Catholic Indians of the St. Lawrence missions had remained steadfast allies. As Lévis was in the very midst of his appeal for help, however, an envoy from one of the upriver villages arrived, stepped into the council circle, and announced that his people had concluded peace with Amherst’s army, which would be arriving as soon as the next day. Nothing more needed to be said. “In a moment [the chiefs] dispersed leaving M. le Chevalier de Lévis with the [other] officers quite alone.” Thereafter the grim Gascon could only prepare to make his last stand. By the morning of the fifth, he had withdrawn all his remaining forces to the island of Montréal, where they made ready to defend what little was left of New France against an enemy they knew they could not stop.5

The outcome of Lévis’s last Indian conference demonstrated that, man for man, the most valuable component of Amherst’s army was the one that Amherst most despised and distrusted: the seven hundred Iroquois warriors who had accompanied him from Oswego. Amherst had been outraged at the size of the present Sir William Johnson had thought necessary to secure their cooperation—£17,000 worth of goods and cash—and had never believed they were anything but an expensive, savage nuisance. Thus he, like every British general who served in America except John Forbes, failed to grasp the Indians’ real significance. Wherever his army appeared at a mission village—as, for example, at the mission of La Présentation near Fort Lévis—the mere presence of the Iroquois, and their testimony to the benefits of alliance with the British, gave enough weight to Sir William’s offers of amnesty and trade to procure not only peace but active support for the invaders. Through the whole of Amherst’s expedition, therefore, the very Indian villages that had always furnished New France with its most loyal auxiliaries actually expedited the British advance. Caughnawaga Mohawks guided Amherst’s army through the rapids from La Présentation onward. Amherst barely acknowledged their help, but this service undoubtedly saved scores, if not hundreds, of his soldiers’ lives.6


Montréal, c. September 8, 1760. This topographical map suggests exactly how hopeless the position of the French had become in the last hours of the North American conflict. The city, dominated by the heights on which Amherst and Murray had encamped, was defenseless against shelling. If Amherst had chosen to fire red-hot shot, as he did at the sieges of Louisbourg and Fort Lévis, he could easily have reduced the city to ashes. Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

Among the many things that Amherst failed to understand about the Indians was that they were not crass opportunists, eager to abandon their old masters for new and richer ones, but rather that they—like the Shawnees and Delawares of the Ohio Country—had always regarded themselves as free agents: allies, not servants, of the French. In the late summer of 1760 the Canadian mission Indians—like the Ohioans two years before, and most of the nations of the pays d’en haut after the battle of Fort William Henry—had decided that the time had come to terminate the relationship. Without the services of the Iroquois diplomats and of Johnson, who made the case for forging a new alliance with the British in every village and mission along the way, and without the seven hundred Iroquois warriors whose presence with the army testified to Great Britain’s power and largesse, Amherst’s campaign could never have been as quick, and as comparatively bloodless, as it was.7

The commander in chief’s inability to understand Indians as anything but expensive, barbaric encumbrances would have serious consequences for his later career in America, but for the present he would be spared anything more unpleasant than organizing the surrender of the last effective enemy force in Canada. On Saturday, September 6, his army rowed the short distance from Île Perrot to the west end of the island of Montréal, landing at the settlement of Lachine. His messengers had already established contact with the armies of Murray and Haviland, which in turn were moving to join forces on the south shore, opposite the city—a process facilitated by hundreds of habitants who offered their wagons, their horses, and their services as teamsters, eagerly hauling Haviland’s supplies and cannon overland from Chambly. On the night of the sixth while his army made camp near Lachine, Amherst reconnoitered a route to Montréal.8

At eight o’clock on Sunday morning, as the great force of regulars and provincials prepared to march, the chevalier de Bougainville rode up to Amherst’s headquarters under a flag of truce. He told Amherst that he had come as an emissary from Governor-General Vaudreuil, with instructions to propose an armistice until it could be ascertained whether peace had already been concluded in Europe. Amherst replied, in fluent disdainful French, that “[he] was come to take Canada and [he] did not intend to take anything less.” If Bougainville’s master wished to propose terms of capitulation, he could have a cease-fire until noon. In the meantime British forces would continue to land on the island and prepare to lay siege. 9

Within Montréal’s fragile walls remained about 2,100 effective soldiers together with a nearly equal number of men too sick or badly wounded to fight. The militiamen had long since deserted along with many of the regulars who had married Canadian women: they had all gone home to protect their families. There were no Indians; almost no provisions; a few pathetic cannon; scarcely any cannonballs; little powder. The wooden buildings would burn like so much kindling if the British gunners threw incendiary shells over the walls. Worst of all, the place was thronged with civilian refugees and its hospitals were crowded with sick and wounded soldiers. These circumstances enabled Vaudreuil to convince Lévis that further resistance, while undeniably glorious to the arms of France, would only serve to immolate thousands of His Most Christian Majesty’s subjects in an otherwise meaningless holocaust.

Therefore, promptly at noon, Vaudreuil sent back a long, elaborate list of articles for the surrender of the colony. Nearly half of these dealt with the disposition of French and colony troops, all of whom—in Montréal and everywhere else, from Michilimackinac to Restigouche—would surrender in return for being granted the honors of war, and thus the privilege of returning on parole to France, where they could continue to serve their king. The remainder of the proposals specified protections for those colonists who might choose to remain in Canada, especially concerning their ability to continue unmolested in the practice of their faith and the ownership of their property. One article hopefully proposed that those who remained would be regarded, like the Acadians under the Treaty of Utrecht, as “neutrals,” and forever exempted from bearing arms against France. Another proposed with equal improbability that His Most Christian Majesty and his successors on the throne of France would continue to name the colony’s bishop.10

Amherst agreed to a surprising number of the conditions that Vaudreuil had proposed. With respect to the future of the civil population of Canada, in fact, he agreed to every provision that did not (as in the case of the neutrality of the Canadians and the appointment of the bishop of Québec) obviously impair British sovereignty. Indeed Amherst intended to be a magnanimous victor in every respect except the one that was, to Lévis, the most important of all. For Amherst had replied to the proposals dealing with the French forces by denying that they deserved the honors of war and insisting that instead they “must lay down their arms, and shall not serve during the present war.” The regulars would be transported to France with their personal effects intact, but without the emblems of honor that professional officers held sacred: their colors and a symbolic artillery piece. On this point Amherst would not compromise, for he was determined to punish “the infamous part the troops of France had acted in exciting the savages to perpetrate the most horrid and unheard of barbarities in the whole progress of the war.”11

Lévis and his officers, furious at this deliberate insult, demanded that Vaudreuil break off negotiations. If the governor-general would not permit them to defend Montréal to the last man, he should at least allow them to withdraw with their troops to the nearby Île Ste.-Hélène, where they could die without dishonor. Fortunately for the enlisted men, whose opinion the officers had not solicited before making this offer, Vaudreuil would have none of it. His charge was to protect the welfare of all the colonists of New France, not to sustain the reputation of French arms. Because he had no intention of letting a generous peace slip through his fingers, he agreed only to give Lévis and his officers time to burn their regimental standards before he accepted Amherst’s terms.

Before sunset on Monday, Amherst and Vaudreuil exchanged signed copies of the surrender and Amherst dispatched Major Barré to carry the news to Pitt. A quiet night passed; then, “On the 9th, the ten French Battalions layed down their Arms, and delivered up two Colours, which had been taken from Pepprels and Shirley’s Regts. at Oswego[. T]he Marquis de Vaudreuil, Generals, and the Commanding Officers of the Regts., [all gave] their words of honour, that the Battalions had not any Colours; they had brought them six years ago with them, they were torn to Pieces, and finding them troublesome in this Country, they had destroyed them.”12

So ended the dominion of France in North America, not with a bang but with a lie calculated to save face for the officers of an army that could no longer preserve it. Vaudreuil’s unwillingness to countenance further sacrifices of life denied Lévis the kind of heroic exit that Vauquelin and Montcalm had made; and yet, in the end, the conventions of military professionalism and honor remained powerful enough to make Amherst accept Lévis’s improbable explanation of why he had no colors to surrender.

But then to be a regular officer was everything to Jeffery Amherst. As to Montcalm, who died rather than compromise his values, and to Lévis, who snapped the blade of his sword rather than surrender it, Amherst esteemed military professionalism above all else. The conqueror of Canada allowed himself only a single sentence of self-congratulation on the occasion of the conquest: a passage that ascribed the victory not to God nor to valor nor to good fortune, but to the necessary effects of military efficiency, properly applied. “I believe,” he wrote, that “never three Armys setting out from different & very distant Parts from each other, Joyned in the Center, as was intended, better than we did, and it could not fail of having the effect of which [we] have just now seen the consequence.”13

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