Sir William Johnson: The French and Indian war

Of the three principal operations laid out for the year 1755, that against Fort Duquesne ended, in a disastrous defeat for the English. The news of this defeat put an end to the expedition against Fort Niagara, through the discouragement which it produced. The third expedition, that against Crown Point, was more successful, and led to an engagement of such importance as to merit a special description. The forces selected for this purpose were militia-men from New England and New York, under the command of a prominent New Yorker named William Johnson, a man of great influence with the Five Nations. All his influence and endeavors, however, only induced about three hundred of them to enlist for the expected battle.

WHILE the British colonists were preparing to attack Crown Point, the French of Canada were preparing to defend it. Duquesne, recalled from his post, had resigned the government to the Marquis de Vaudreuil, who had at his disposal the battalions of regulars that had sailed in the spring from Brest under Baron Dieskau. His first thought was to use them for the capture of Oswego; but the letters of Braddock, found on the battle-field, warned him of the design against Crown Point, while a reconnoitring party which had gone as far as the Hudson brought back news that Johnson's forces were already in the field. Therefore the plan was changed, and Dieskau was ordered to lead the main body of his troops, not to Lake Ontario, but to Lake Champlain. He passed up the Richelieu, and embarked in boats and canoes for Crown Point. The veteran knew that the foes with whom he had to deal were but a mob of countrymen. He doubted not of putting them to rout, and meant never to hold his hand till he had chased them back to Albany. "Make all haste," Vaudreuil wrote to him; " for when you return we shall send you to Oswego to execute our first design."

Johnson, on his part, was preparing to advance. In July about three thousand provincials were encamped near Albany, some on the "Flats" above the town, and some on the meadows below. Hither, too, came a swarm of Johnson's Mohawks,-warriors, squaws, and children. They adorned the general's face with war-paint, and he danced the war-dance; then with his sword he cut the first slice from the ox that had been roasted whole for their entertainment. "I shall be glad," wrote the surgeon of a New England regiment, "if they fight as eagerly as they ate their ox and drank their wine."

The soldiers were no soldiers, but farmers and farmers' sons who had volunteered for the summer campaign. One of the corps had a blue uniform faced with red. The rest wore their daily clothing. Blankets had been served out to them by the several provinces, but the greater part brought their own guns; some under the penalty of a fine if they came without them, and some under the inducement of a reward. They had no bayonets, but carried hatchets in their belts as a sort of substitute. At their sides were slung powder-horns, on which, in the leisure of the camp, they carved quaint devices with the points of their jack-knives. They came chiefly from plain New England homesteads,-rustic abodes, unpainted and dingy, with long well-sweeps, capacious barns, rough fields of pumpkins and corn, and vast kitchen-chimneys, above which in winter hung squashes to keep them from frost, and guns to keep them from rust.

Mohawk scouts who had been sent to Canada returned with the report that eight thousand men were marching to defend Crown Point. Indecision followed, but it was finally resolved to march to Lake George.

The train of Dutch wagons, guarded by the homely soldiery, jolted slowly over the stumps and roots of the newly-made road, and the regiments followed at their leisure. The hardships of the way were not without their consolations. The jovial Irishman who held the chief command made himself very agreeable to the New England officers. "We went on about four or five miles," says Pomeroy in his Journal, "then stopped, ate pieces of broken bread and cheese, and drank some fresh lemon-punch and the best of wine with General Johnson and some of the field-officers." It was the same on the next day. "Stopped about noon and dined with General Johnson by a small broke under a tree; ate a good dinner of cold boiled and roast venison; drank good fresh lemon-punch and wine."

While Johnson lay at Lake George, Dieskau prepared a surprise for him. The German baron had reached Crown Point at the head of three thousand five hundred and seventy-three men, regulars, Canadians, and Indians. He had no thought of waiting there to be attacked. The troops were told to hold themselves ready to move at a moment's notice. Officers - so ran the order - will take nothing with them but one spare shirt, one spare pair of shoes, a blanket, a bearskin, and provisions for twelve days; Indians are not to amuse themselves by taking scalps till the enemy is entirely defeated, since they can kill ten men in the time required to scalp one. Then Dieskau moved on, with nearly all his force, to Carillon, or Ticonderoga, a promontory commanding both the routes by which alone Johnson could advance, that of Wood Creek and that of Lake George. devils; and yet one must always force himself to seem pleased with them."

[Dieskau, being falsely informed by a prisoner that Fort Lyman was indefensible, resolved on a rapid movement to seize it. He passed down Lake Champlain to the site of Whitehall, by canoe, and then took up the line of march through the forest. Word came in now that there was a large force encamped on Lake George, and the Indians decided that they would not attack the fort, but were ready to proceed against the camp. This movement was determined on.

It was soon after eight o'clock when Ephraim Williams left the camp with his regiment, marched a little distance, and then waited for the rest of the detachment under Lieutenant-Colonel Whiting. Thus Dieskau had full time to lay his ambush. When Whiting came up, the whole moved on together, so little conscious of danger that no scouts were thrown out in front or flank; and, in full security, they entered the fatal snare. Before they were completely involved in it, the sharp eye of old Hendrick detected some sign of an enemy. At that instant, whether by accident or design, a gun was fired from the bushes. It is said that Dieskau's Iroquois, seeing Mohawks, their relatives, in the van, wished to warn them of danger. If so, the warning came too late. The thickets on the left blazed out a deadly fire, and the men fell by scores. In the words of Dieskau, the head of the column "was doubled up like a pack of cards." Hendrick's horse was shot down, and the chief was killed with a bayonet as he tried to rise. Williams, seeing a rising ground on his right, made for it, calling on his men to follow; but as he climbed the slope, guns flashed from the bushes, and a shot through the brain laid him dead. The men in the rear pressed forward to support their comrades, when a hot fire was suddenly opened on them from the forest along their right flank. Then there was a panic; some fled outright, and the whole column recoiled. The van now became the rear, and all the force of the enemy rushed upon it, shouting and screeching. There was a moment of total confusion; but a part of Williams's regiment rallied under command of Whiting, and covered the retreat, fighting behind trees like Indians, and firing and falling back by turns, bravely aided by some of the Mohawks and by a detachment which Johnson sent to their aid. "And a very handsome retreat they made," writes Pomeroy; "and so continued till they came within about three-quarters of a mile of our camp. This was the last fire our men gave our enemies, which killed great numbers of them; they were seen to drop as pigeons." So ended the fray long known in New England fireside story as the "bloody morning scout." Dieskau now ordered a halt, and sounded his trumpets to collect his scattered men. His Indians, however, were sullen and unmanageale, and the Canadians also showed signs of wavering. The veteran who commanded them all, Legardeur de Saint-Pierre, had been killed. At length they were persuaded to move again, the regulars leading the way.

About an hour after Williams and his men had begun their march, a distant rattle of musketry was heard at the camp; and as it grew nearer and louder, the listeners knew that their comrades were on the retreat. Then, at the eleventh hour, preparations were begun for defence. A sort of barricade was made along the front of the camp, partly of wagons, and partly of inverted bateaux, but chiefly of the trunks of trees hastily hewn down in the neighboring forest and laid end to end in a single row. The line extended from the southern slopes of the hill on the left across a tract of rough ground to the marshes on the right. The forest, choked with bushes and clumps of rank ferns, was within a few yards of the barricade, and there was scarcely time to hack away the intervening thickets. Three cannon were planted to sweep the road that descended through the pines, and another was dragged up to the ridge of the hill. The defeated party began to come in: first, scared fugitives, both white and red; then, gangs of men bringing the wounded; and at last, an hour and a half after the first fire was heard, the main detachment was seen marching in compact bodies down the road.

Five hundred men were detailed to guard the flanks of the camp. The rest stood behind the wagons or lay flat behind the logs and inverted bateaux, the Massachusetts men on the right, and the Connecticut men on the left. Besides Indians, this actual fighting force was between sixteen and seventeen hundred rustics, very few of whom had been udner fire before that morning. They were hardly at their posts when they saw ranks of white-coated soldiers moving down the road, and bayonets that to them seemed innumerable glittering between the bougs. At the same time a terrific burst of war-whoops rose along the front; and, in the words of Pomeroy, "the Canadians and Indians, helter-skelter, the woods full of them, came running with undaunted courage right down the hill upon us, expecting to make us flee." Some of the men grew uneasy; while the chief officers, sword in hand, threatened instant death to any who should stir from their posts. If Dieskau had made an assault at that instant, there could be little doubt of the result.

This he well knew; but he was powerless. He had his small force of regulars well in hand; but the rest, red and white, were beyond control, scattering through the woods and swamps, shouting, yelling, and firing from behind trees. The regulars advanced with intrepidity towards the camp where the trees were thin, deployed, and fired by platoons, till Captain Eyre, who commanded the artillery, opened on them with grape, broke their ranks, and compelled them to take to cover. The fusillade was now general on both sides, and soon grew furious. "Perhaps," Seth Pomeroy wrote to his wife, two days after, "the hailstones from heaven were never much thicker than their bullets came; but, blessed be God! that did not in the least daunt or disturb us." Johnson received a flesh-wound in the thigh, and spent the rest of the day in his tent. Lyman took command; and it is a marvel that he escaped alive, for he was four hours in the heat of the fire, directing and animating the men. "It was the most awful day my eyes ever beheld," wrote Surgeon Williams to his wife; "there seemed to be nothing but thunder and lightning and perpetual pillars of smoke.".

Dieskau had directed his first attack against the left and centre of Johnson's position. Making no impression here, he tried to force the right, where lay the regiments of Titcomb, Ruggles, and Williams. The fire was hot for about an hour. Titcomb was shot dead, a rod in front of the barricade, firing from behind a tree like a common soldier. At length Dieskau, exposing himself within short range of the English line, was hit in the leg. His adjutant, Montreuil, himself wounded, came to his aid, and was washing the injured limb with brandy, when the unfortunate commander was hit again in the knee and thigh. He seated himself behind a tree, while the adjutant called two Canadians to carry him to the rear. One of them was instantly shot down. Montreuil took his place; but Dieskau refused to be moved, bitterly denounced the Canadians and Indians, and ordered the adjutant to leave him and lead the regulars in a last effort against the camp.

It was to late. Johnson's men, singly or in small squads, were already crossing their row of logs; and in a few moments the whole dashed forward with a shout, falling upon the enemy with hatchets and the butts of their guns. The French and their allies fled. The wounded general still sat helpless by the tree, when he saw a soldier aiming at him. He signed to the man not to fire; but he pulled trigger, shot him across the hips, leaped upon him, and ordered him in French to surrender. " I said," writes Dieskau, " ' You rascal, why did you fire? You see a man lying in his blood on the ground, and you shoot him!' He answered, 'How did I know that you had not got a pistol? I had rather kill

the devil than have the devil kill me.' 'You are a Frenchman?' I asked. 'Yes,' he replied; 'it is more than ten years since I left Canada; ' whereupon several others fell on me and stripped me. I told them to carry me to their general, which they did. On learning who I was, he sent for surgeons, and, though wounded himself, refused all assistance till my wounds were dressed."

It was near five o'clock when the final rout took place. Some time before, several hundred of the Canadians and Indians had left the field and returned to the scene of the morning fight, to plunder and scalp the dead. They were resting themselves near a pool in the forest, close beside the road, when their repose was interrupted by a volley of bullets. It was fired by a scouting party from Fort Lyman, chiefly backwoodsmen, under Captains Folsom and McGinnis. The assailants were greatly out-numbered; but after a hard fight the Canadians and Indians broke and fled. McGinnis was mortally wounded. He continued to give orders till the firing was over, then fainted, and was carried, dying, to the camp. The bodies of the slain, according to tradition, were thrown into the pool, which bears to this day the name of Bloody Pond.

Johnson had great difficulty in preserving the life of Dieskau, the Mohawks, who were furious at the death of Hendrick, making several efforts to kill him. The wounded baron, however, survived to reach England, where he recovered sufficiently to live for several years, though wretchedly shattered by his wounds.

The success attained by Johnson was not improved. He failed to follow the flying foe, on the excuse that his men were tired. Yet five hundred of them had stood still all day, and there were boats enough to transport them to where Dieskau had left his canoes and provisions, ten miles down the lake. Nor did he send out scouts to Ticonderoga till a week afterwards. On the contrary, he intrenched himself against a possible assault, and let two weeks pass away, by the end of which time the enemy was entrenched at Ti-conderoga in force enough to defy him. Thus the expedition against Crown Point, though attended with such an incidental success, proved a failure. Johnson remained a month longer at the lake, when he sent his army home. With the art of the courtier, he changed the name of Fort Lyman to Fort Edward after one of the king's grandsons, and called his new fort at Lake George William Henry, after another. As a result of his victory and his policy he received five thousand pounds from Parliament and was made a baronet by the king.

Return to The Great Republic by the Master Historians (Vol 1)