French and Indian War: Fort William Henry
French and Indian War: Fort William Henry
Montcalm. In May 1756, as the hostilities in America were about to flare into a European war, Louis-Joseph de Montcalm-Gozon, Marquis de Montcalm de Saint Véran, arrived in Canada with reinforcements from France. He found a difficult situation. The governor, Pierre de Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil, was the commander of fourteen thousand Canadian militia men and of the fifteen hundred marines in the colony. Montcalm directly commanded only six regiments of regulars, a total of about four thousand men. In this situation of divided military command, the two men found it increasingly difficult to deal with one another. Vaudreuil was jealous of Montcalm’s power, and Montcalm was contemptuous of the corruption of the government of New France. Nevertheless, they managed to agree on an offensive against Oswego. As a trading post Oswego had cut into what the French regarded as their monopoly of the fur trade. As a fort it threatened the security of French travel from the St. Lawrence River to the Mississippi River by way of the Great Lakes. Montcalm first went to Fort Ticonderoga to convince the English that an offensive would be directed toward Fort William Henry. He then hurried to Fort Frontenac and by 10 August was at Oswego with three thousand Frenchmen, Canadians, and Indians. After a brief bombardment the discouraged garrison, many of them ill, surrendered. For a price of thirty killed and wounded Montcalm had captured six hundred men with all of their provisions, more than one hundred cannon, and six armed sloops. More important, perhaps, he had so impressed the Indians that they joined the French cause in droves, with more than two thousand of them meeting Montcalm in Montreal to pledge their allegiance.
Failure at Louisbourg. On Cape Breton Island, north of Nova Scotia, stood one of the most formidable forts in the world. Named Louisbourg after the French king, its construction had cost so much that the king was fond of joking that any day he expected to look out the window of his palace in France and see it looming on the horizon. This fort guarded warships that could protect French fishing boats off the Grand Banks, bar an enemy sailing into the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, or trap an enemy fleet that managed to reach the river. If Quebec was to be attacked from the sea, Louisbourg would have to be seized. It had, in fact, been captured by New Englanders in 1745 during King George’s War (1740-1748). To the outrage of the colonists, it had been returned to France in the peace treaty. In the spring of 1756 Gen. John Campbell, Earl of Loudon, the new British commander in North America, assembled fifteen thousand troops to bring them to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to attack Louisbourg. The expedition went slowly. Loudon had difficulty rounding up enough sailors to transport his troops from New York and then had to wait until a fleet arrived from England. While the troops drilled in Halifax, news came that eighteen French battleships had arrived at Louisbourg. The British admiral could not tempt them to sail out to fight him, and their guns, combined with those of the fortress, made an attack on Louisbourg suicidal. On 24 September the expedition was abandoned after a storm scattered the British fleet.
Montcalm Loses Control. To mount the Louisbourg attack British troops had been taken from Forts Edward and William Henry, leaving only twenty-three hundred regulars and fifty-five hundred colonials to defend them. Col. Daniel Webb kept most of these troops with him at Fort Edward, allowing only seven hundred and fifty regulars and tweleve hundred New Englanders to defend Fort William Henry. On 3 August 1757 Montcalm appeared before Fort William Henry with four thousand French troops and one thousand Indians. After a fourday artillery duel all of the fort’s guns were disabled, and the militiamen were near mutiny. Lt. Col. George Monro surrendered the fort on terms that allowed his men to march out with the honors of war, providing they promise not to do any further fighting for eighteen months. On 9 August, as the unarmed garrison prepared to march to Fort Edward, the Indian allies of the French attacked them. Though Montcalm threw himself into the midst of the Indians to try to restrain them, the Indians massacred more than two hundred of the soldiers and about one hundred of their wives and children. Colonel Webb at Fort Edward had not sent aid during the battle and now decided that a counterattack was not possible. He was so demoralized that Montcalm could easily have destroyed Fort Edward and menaced Albany, but he had no supplies of food and had to fall back to Fort Ticonderoga.
Ian K. Steele, Betrayals: Fort William Henry and the Massacre (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).