Fort William Henry in the French Indian War

For more than a year the English in America had acted so much "like women" that the Indians were disgusted. They admired the different spirit of the French, and warriors from more than thirty "nations" were at Montreal at the beginning of the summer of 1757. Governor Vaudreuil told them of glory and plunder surely to be won by alliance with the French. Montcalm danced their wild war-dances with them; he sung their fierce war-songs with them, until their affection for him and enthusiasm for the cause of the French became intense, and they were ready to follow wherever that general might lead. He commanded them to meet his regulars and Canadians at St. Johns on the Sorel, for a voyage over the Lake. They went, in a wild, tumultuous march for Montreal, accompanied by priests who chanted hymns and anthems in almost every Indian dialect. In canoes and bateaux the motley army, led by Montcalm, went up Lake Champlain and landed at Ticonderoga. It was hot July. Under a wide-spreading oak high mass was celebrated, and voices chanting sacred hymns were mingled with the martial music of French instruments. Scouts were sent out and returned with prisoners and scalps. When Marin, who had destroyed the hamlet of Saratoga a dozen years before, came back from the hills near Fort Edward, and pointed to his canoe moored at the shore, in which lay a solitary prisoner and more than forty scalps, the Indians set up a yell of exultation that awakened the echoes of Mount Defiance and Mount Independence, then bearing Algonquin names. Very soon the whole body of Montcalm's force moved to the foot of Lake George, for their destination was Fort William Henry, at the head of the Lake. "His sailing," wrote Malartie from Montreal, when Loudon departed for Halifax, "is a hint for us to project something on this frontier." The expedition against Fort William Henry was the result of that hint.

During the previous winter, the Rangers commanded by Major Rogers, at Fort William Henry, had not been idle. The active and intrepid Lieutenant Stark (afterward the hero of Bennington), who commanded the Rangers when Rogers was absent, was frequently out, at the head of scouts, watching the foe and striking them a blow now and then near Fort Carillon--a name suggested to the French by the rushing waters of the outlet of Lake George, and which also suggested to the Indians their name of Che-on-de-ro-ga--"Sounding Waters"--the origin of Ticonderoga. These Rangers glided over the frozen waters on skates, or traversed the pathless forests on snow-shoes. On one occasion a party of Frenchmen were traveling merrily on the lake between Ticonderoga and Crown Point, on rude sledges drawn by Canadian ponies, when Stark and his followers rushed from the woods, and made some of them prisoners. Others were borne beyond danger by the frightened ponies, which fled over the ice with the fleetness of the wind. As Stark touched the shore with his prisoners, he was assailed by a large body of Indians in the edge of the woods. An unequal fight was kept up until dark, when Stark, leaving twenty of his men behind--killed, wounded, and missing--made his way back to the fort.

Meanwhile, fifteen hundred French regulars and Canadians followed the younger Vaudreuil from the St. Lawrence to Lake George, to capture Fort William Henry by surprise. They traveled on snow-shoes; their provisions were carried on small sledges drawn by dogs, and their beds were bear-skins spread upon the snow. Stealthily they went over the frozen lake, and appeared before the fort at midnight. The garrison were on the alert. The invaders set on fire the vessels there frozen in the ice, the store-houses and some huts, and escaped by the light of the conflagration. That was the night succeeding St. Patrick's day, in March, 1757. From that time until early in August, the garrison suffered very little molestation.

At the close of July, the garrison at Fort William Henry was composed of less than five hundred men under the brave Colonel Monro. A short distance from the fort, on a gentle rocky eminence, where may now be seen the ruins of the citadel of Fort George, seventeen hundred men lay intrenched.

A little more than a dozen miles distant was Fort Edward, where lay the timid General Webb, with about four thousand troops. At the same time Montcalm was at the foot of Lake George with six thousand French and Canadians, and about seventeen hundred Indians. There he held a grand council, and then he moved over the waters and along the western shore of Lake George. In a skirmish on the Lake, a great Indian warrior had been killed, and his body borne away by his comrades. Funeral honors were paid to it. It was dressed in full war-costume, and painted as if for the war-path. Brilliant ribbons, and glittering belts in which were his tomahawk and scalping-knife, and earrings and nose-jewels, adorned the dead body, which was placed upright on the green sward. In his hand was a lance; at his lips was a pipe, and by his side a filled bowl. In this presence there was an oration; then followed the death-dance and the death-song, accompanied by the low music of a softly-beaten drum and the tinkling of little bells. Then the body was placed in a grave, in a sitting posture, with plenty of food, and covered with earth; and the spirit of the warrior was dismissed to the happy hunting-grounds beyond the setting sun.

On the 2d of August, Montcalm, who had passed up the Lake with the main army, on bateaux, landed, with a heavy train of artillery, not far from the site of the village of Caldwell, and at once constructed siege batteries. La Corne, with Canadians, had landed on the east side of the Lake, and taken position across the road leading to Fort Edward; and De Levi, with French and Canadians, formed a camp northwest of La Corne.

This sudden appearance of so large a force was a surprise to the commander of the garrison. General Webb had come up from Fort Edward a day or two before, under an escort of Rangers led by Major Israel Putnam. He examined the fort and the intrenched camp, and sent Putnam on a scout down the Lake, who discovered a large force of French and Indians. This fact Webb concealed from Colonel Monro, and immediately returned to Fort Edward, with the same scout. Not doubting the intention of his superior to give him all the aid in his power, the veteran, when, on the 4th of August, Montcalm demanded an instant surrender of the fort, refused compliance in a defiant tone. The siege was then prosecuted with vigor, but Monro held out, in continual expectation of aid from General Webb. Express after express was sent through by-ways to Fort Edward, imploring aid; but Webb, fearing an attack upon that post, would not spare a man. Finally, when Sir William Johnson was allowed to march with Putnam and his Rangers and some provincials to the relief of Monro, the whole force was recalled when within three miles of Fort William Henry. Instead of forwarding relief to the beleaguered garrison, Webb sent a letter to their commander, in which he gave an exaggerated estimate of the numbers of the French and Indians, and advised him to surrender to prevent the massacre of his whole force.

This letter was intercepted by Montcalm, at a moment when he was about to abandon the siege and return to Ticonderoga, for his ammunition and provisions had become almost exhausted during a siege of several days. He sent the letter in to Monro, with a summons for him to surrender. That commander perceived the hopelessness of his situation. His own means for defence were almost exhausted, and he could not expect aid from Fort Edward. He yielded reluctantly, after honorable terms had been agreed upon. The garrison were to march out with the honors of war, carrying with them their baggage and small arms, and one cannon in recognition of their gallant defence of the fort, Monro agreeing that his men should not bear arms against the French for the space of eighteen months; also to deliver at Ticonderoga, all the French and Indian prisoners in the hands of the English. Montcalm pledged himself to furnish them with a strong escort half-way to Fort Edward. All this had been arranged at a council in which the Indians were represented. On the 9th of August, the French entered the fort and the English left it.

It was now near evening. Montcalm had kept intoxicating liquors from the Indians, and admonished the English to do likewise. They did not heed the admonition, but supplied the Indians with rum. After a night's carousal, the Indians were ready for any mischief. At daybreak they gathered around the English camp with hostile menaces. When the garrison began their march toward Fort Edward, the infuriated Indians fell upon them, plundered nearly all of them, murdered a large number of the soldiers and women, and made many prisoners. Montcalm and his officers did all in their power to arrest the fury of the Indians. He and De Levi rushed in between them and their victims, at the peril of their own lives, and finally stayed the massacre. The survivors were sent to Fort Edward under a strong escort, and the prisoners were afterward ransomed in Canada. The fort and all of its appendages were immediately destroyed by fire and pick, and its conquerors moved down the Lake the same day. Putnam, who visited the ruins as soon as the French had left, described the scene as appalling. He saw the bodies of murdered Englishmen scattered in every direction, many of them half-consumed among the dying embers. He counted the bodies of more than one hundred women shockingly mangled, and some of them scalped. The fort was never rebuilt. An irregular line of low mounds--the remains of Fort William Henry--might have been seen on the borders of the Lake until 1854, when the site was covered by a large summer-hotel, already mentioned.

General Webb, at Fort Edward, with almost six thousand men, expecting to be attacked at any moment, sent off his private baggage to a place of safety, preparatory to a retreat to the Hudson Highlands. But his dreaded foe, having accomplished the chief object of his expedition, returned to Lake Champlain to rest upon his laurels. So ended Loudon's campaign in 1757. It was more inglorious than that of the preceding year. The British aristocracy had weakened British power; and their representative in America had disgraced the British arms. The English had been expelled from the Ohio basin; they had been made powerless in northern New York, and contemptible in Nova Scotia; and the French bore undisputed sway over the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes, and the Valley of the Mississippi. At that moment, French territory in America exceeded that of English full twenty-fold. The colonists were humiliated and exasperated. But they were learning, in a degree, the measure of their strength in union. It was a lesson of vast importance to them in their impending struggle with a power that sought to enslave them.

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