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Wolfe and Montcalm
Chapter IV Campaign of 1757 - Taking of William Henry


THE campaign of 1757 was marked by a daring achievement, no less remarkable than that of the preceding year, namely, the siege and the destruction of Fort William Henry.

Never had the star of France shone so brightly in the depths of the great American solitudes; never was such a variety of tribal people assembled under its flag; from the Sakis (Sacs), seated on their mats at the border of Wisconsin, and the Illinois, hunters of the buffalo, to the Abenakis and the Micmacs, accustomed to follow the salmon by torchlight and to spear them with the trusty nigog; from the Kikapoas of Lake Michigan, still pagans and anthropophagists to the Mohicans and the Chaouenous of the Blue Mountains.

The emissaries of Onontio,1 sent in all directions during the winter to infuse the spirit of war, had been well received everywhere, even in the home of the Five Nations. The warriors, tattooed in black and vermillion, had lighted the council fire, smoked the calumet with them, and accepted their proposed alliance. The chichikoue, accompanying the war dance had been heard from one village to another, and the jugglers, squatting in their cabins, had seen in their visions, numbers of scalps and prisoners.

The squadron of canoes coming from all points of the horizon converged towards the fort of Carillon, which in the month of July presented one of the strangest and most picturesque scenes that it is possible to imagine. The total number of these Indians reached 1,799 warriors, belonging to forty different tribes. They swelled the effective force of the army gathered by Montcalm at the fort of Carillon, to 8,019 men of all branches of the service, including regulars and Canadian militia.

The inspection of the advance posts, which Montcalm made on July 21st, was accompanied by a characteristic scene which it gave the marquis pleasure to recall. He had embarked for the Falls in a canoe paddled by several Indians from the upper part of the country. During all the journey a young warrior stood singing in the canoe, accompanying his song upon an Indian tambourine. Behind him sat the oldest Indian of the expedition— Pennahouel, the Nestor of the forest. In his recitative, modulated to a tone which was not lacking in grace, the young warrior described his last visions: "The Manitou has appeared to me; he told me that of all the young men who would follow thee to the war you will lose none; they will succeed, and will cover themselves with glory, and you will bring them back again to their mat." Cries of applause interrupted him from time to time. The old chief spoke at last, saying to him in a solemn tone: "My son, was I wrong to exhort you to fast? If, like the others, you had spent your time in eating and sacrificing to your appetite, you would not have secured the favour of the Manitou; and here he has sent you happy visions which give joy to all the warriors."

The Indian camp resounded day and night with similar juggleries. They stuck a stick in the ground, and from the end of it suspended their Manitou : it might be, for instance, an accoutrement, the skin of a beast or a dead dog, to which they offered in sacrifice ends of tobacco, several whiffs of their pipe, or pieces of meat, which they threw into the fire. They spent the rest of their time in dancing, in amusing themselves or in bathing. Their dexterity in swimming and in diving astonished the whites. "Sometimes," writes Parkman, "when mad with brandy, they grappled and tore each other with their teeth like wolves. They were continually 'making medicine,' that is, consulting the Manitou, to whom they hung up offerings, sometimes a dead dog, and sometimes the belt-cloth which formed their only garment."

The manners of the Christian Indians formed quite a contrast to those of these pagans. Clothed, generally, with more decency, they were more tractable, and held the priests who followed them in great respect. They were furnished with muskets which they used with rare ability, while most of the others were armed only with arrows, lances or small pikes.

On July 24th, at break of day, four hundred Indians who. had been placed in ambush facing the islands of the lake, noticed the approach of twenty-two English barges, bearing three hundred and fifty militiamen. They threw themselves upon them, captured twenty vessels, took nearly two hundred prisoners, and became intoxicated from drinking the brandy which they found on the barges. The scenes of carnage and of horror which they then enacted defy description.

After this success all the Indians wished to return to their own country, for, said they, to brave the danger anew, after so successful a stroke, would be to tempt the Master of Life. In order to prevent this flight, which might render the expedition abortive, Montcalm called a general meeting of the Indians. It was held in the middle of the camp. None of the French officers, accustomed as they were to operatic scenes and to the enchantments of the Parisian boulevards, had ever seen a spectacle more theatrical or better calculated to strike the imagination. Everything contributed to it, the locality, the personnel, and the proceedings. There, with its tents pitched in a glade in the midst of a desert valley, between two chains of mountains, covered from base to summit with virgin forests, in all the splendour of their summer foliage, was the military camp, exhaling, under a Neapolitan sky, the noisome odours of the assembled Indians ; there were the smart-looking officers in white uniforms and gold lace, with powdered hair under their plumed hats, who might have been mistaken in such a place for fops, were it not that they were as brave as they were elegant; while all around them, elbowing them and grazing them with their naked bodies were the Sakis, the Iowas from the extreme West and the Mascoutins, eaters of human flesh, and many besides forming a conglomeration more like a masquerade than an army. Such were the actors, such the scene, and the drama to be enacted was a victory darkened by a bloody tragedy.

While Montcalm addressed the Indians a large tree happened to fall a few feet from them. The general, without losing his presence of mind, thus interpreted the omen: "That," cried he, "is how the English will be overthrown, how the walls of Fort George will fall. It is the Master of Life who announces it."

Lamotte, the chief of the Folles-Avoines, accepted the augury in the name of the upper tribes, and Pennahouel, raising himself with solemnity, supported it in these words:

"My father, I, who of all the Indians count the most moons, I thank you in the name of all the nations, and of my own, for the good words that you have given us. I approve them. Nobody has ever spoken better to us than you. It is the Manitou of war who inspires you."

After the orators had spoken Montcalm again addressed the assembly, and raising his collar of six thousand beads, which he held in his hands, he said : "By this collar, sacred pledge of the good faith of my words, symbol of good intelligence and of strength by the union of the different beads of which it is composed, I bind you one to the other in such a manner that none of you are able to separate from the others, before the defeat of the English and the destruction of Fort George."

These words were then repeated by the different interpreters, and the collar was thrown into the midst of the assembly.

It was taken up by the orators of the different nations, who exhorted them to accept it, and Pennahouel, in presenting it to, those of the upper country said to them:

"A circle is now drawn around you by the great Onontio, from which none of you can go out. So long as we remain within it the Master of Life will be our guide, will inspire us as to what we should do, and will favour all our enterprises. If any one leaves before the time, the Master of Life will no longer answer for the misfortunes which may strike him; and which must fall upon himself alone, and not upon the nations who promise an indissoluble union and entire obedience to the will of their father."

On the morning of August 3rd the whole army disembarked in front of Fort William Henry, built at the head of Lake George. From this strong position the English, by the aid of the fleet which they had sheltered there, could ascend, by way of Lake Champlain, to the very doors of Montreal. It was to dislodge them thence that Montcalm had gone there on his adventurous expedition. Already, in the course of the preceding winter, a daring surprise had almost succeeded in giving the mastery of William Henry to the French. In fifteen or twenty degrees of frost one thousand five hundred French, Canadians and Indians had crossed Lakes Champlain and George on the ice, marching sixty leagues on snow-shoes, with their provisions on sleds, which, upon good roads, were drawn by dogs. They slept in the snow on bearskins, with only a sail for shelter, and arrived at a distance of a short league from William Henry. When the Canadian expedition set out on its return the fort alone remained standing in the midst of smoking ruins ; two hundred and fifty transport boats, four brigantines, and all the dependencies had been burnt. It was necessary now to open the frontier on this side by destroying the place itself.

When the traveller stops to-day at the head of Lake George it is with difficulty that he can recognize the site formerly occupied by Fort William Henry. Of its walls and its ditches there now remain only vague undulations of the land. Cultivated fields have been cut, here and there, out of the forest, and graceful villages rise on the border of the lake; but the great lines of the horizon have kept their wild aspect. The beautiful mountains of Lake St. Sacrament still mirror their plumes of verdure in its limpid waters. With the return of August 11th, which witnessed the tragic events that are about to be described, the promontories and islands still take on the closing summer tints; and when the whistle of the steam engine, which has replaced the cannon of Montcalm, has ceased resounding, the dead leaves that the breeze carries out upon the lake fall in the same silence as that of other days.

Fort William Henry was situated on the cliff which dominates the lake. On the right, that is to say at the south-east, it was defended by an impassable marsh ; on the left .by the lake, and on the other two sides by a good palisaded ditch. These ramparts were formed by a collection of large pieces of wood, crossed one on the other, and solidly bound together; the interstices being filled with earth and gravel.

At a distance of a cannon shot from the place a waste space had been made, where the half-burnt and fallen trees, lying one on the other, together with their stumps, presented an obstacle such as was almost unknown in the defence of similar European places. At the east of the fort an entrenched camp had been constructed upon a very advantageous height commanding the fort itself, and largely protected by marshes. The entrenchments were made of the trunks of trees placed one on the other; they were of small extent, but with many flanks provided with artillery, and could be lined by the enemy.

The fort and the entrenched camp, which were connected by a roadway constructed along the beach, were defended by twenty-nine cannon, three mortars, a howitzer, seventeen swivel-guns, making in all fifty pieces of artillery, and by a garrison of two thousand four hundred men, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Monro, of the 35th Regiment of the English army, a veteran Scotsman of incontestable personal bravery, but, as events proved, of feeble character.

Despite his garrison, and the strong position which he occupied, Monro was unable to resist without assistance. At Fort Edward, a few hours' march nearer to Albany, General Webb commanded six thousand men.

From the ramparts of William Henry old commandant Monro listened attentively in that direction, whence from hour to hour he hoped to hear the roar of the English general's cannon. But in this direction the forest remained silent. A letter concealed in an empty bullet was found on a courier killed by a party of Indians. It was written by Webb to the commandant of William Henry, and gave him but little hope of succour. Webb advised him to capitulate before being reduced to extremities. Monro was lost. Montcalm sent him the intercepted despatch, and with it a letter in which he urged him not to resist beyond measure, so as not to excite the fury of the Indians.

The surprise and consternation of the veteran Scotsman upon receiving from Bougainville the communication of a message from Webb only a soldier can imagine.

On August 9th the drums of the fort sounded a parley; William Henry had yielded.

Before signing the capitulation the Marquis de Montcalm summoned the chiefs of all the nations in council, and asked if they approved of it. They all consented, and pledged themselves to keep the young men within bounds. Alas! they promised more than they were able to do, and the following day gave to their words a bloody denial.

According to the terms of the capitulation the garrison abandoned the fort, the camp and all that they contained, including the provisions and munitions of war. They, marched out with the honours of war and the baggage of both officers and men, and they also carried their arms with a certain number of ball cartridges, and took with them a piece of cannon: this last was conceded by Montcalm out of consideration for the English commandant, who had not asked it. The garrison was to be conducted to Fort Lydius, escorted by a detachment of French troops, and by the principal officers and interpreters attached to the Indians.

Before commencing the recital of the frightful catastrophe of which he was a witness Captain Desandrouins made a profession of faith as to his honesty which deserves to be quoted.

"I am about," he said, "to give an account of this massacre, faithfully and according to my conscience, and with the utmost impartiality, after having carefully informed myself from ocular witnesses, as to what occurred beyond my own view. To change the truth in order to save the honour of the guilty, no matter who they might be, would be to become a participant in the crime. I should be much more inclined to expose the outrage to the indignation of all honourable men.

"At daylight on August 11th the evacuation of the fort commenced. M. de Laas had the column preceded by a detachment of his escort, and advised the English to proceed cautiously, and to keep together without intervals. He stationed himself at the entrance of the camp to oversee the departure.

"Seeing the column leaving the Indians ran to watch them. The head of the column squeezed itself close to the little detachment in front. Those of the English who had not yet left the camp held back and appeared to waver. In the meantime a vacant space was formed, and orders were sent to the head to slacken its pace.

"The Indians approaching the trouble increased, and the hesitation which followed emboldened them so that they indulged in threatening gestures. The English, a little scattered, were only too glad to abandon their bags or their arms, in order to rejoin the main body of their column.

"It was still possible to re-establish order, and the officers of the escort did their utmost with that end in view. But those Indians who had picked up anything ran at once with it to the camp, each to those of his own nation, to show his trophy. The others, jealous at the idea that they might otherwise appear in their own country with less of glory than their brothers, darted off immediately, and ran tumultuously to endeavour to secure a share of the spoil; some of them even raised a war-cry.

"The English then became agitated, and lost their heads. The British commandant, on the advice, as he pretends, of an unknown Frenchman, ordered his men to carry their rifles, butts upwards, on the ground that the ordinary methods of bearing them appeared menacing, and irritated the Indians.

"This pusillanimous manoeuvre completely killed the already waning courage of the soldiers, and emboldened the Indians, several of whom dared to seize the guns of the former, making signs to them to give them up, which they did with every evidence of terror. One Indian, not satisfied with having secured a gun that was too heavy for him, soon attempted to exchange it for that of an officer, which illustrates the rapid progression of insolence on one side and fear on the other.

"Colonel Monro believed that it was only necessary that the cupidity of these barbarians should be satiated, in order to put an end to the disorders, and he ordered his men to cast their bags and other effects at their feet, adding that the King of England was powerful enough to compensate them. Those of the English who were within reach of the escort threw theirs to the French soldiers, who were weak enough to take them. They might have done well had they returned them.

"In most of the packages the Indians found rum and other strong liquors, with which they became intoxicated. Then they became real tigers in fury. Tomahawk in hand, they fell mercilessly upon the English, who, filled with fright, finished by scattering themselves in all directions, having finally believed that they had been really sacrificed by the French.

"None of them dreamed of saving themselves by any other means than flight. Our escort, far too small, protected as many as it could, principally the officers. But being compelled to maintain its ranks, in order itself to command respect, it was only possible for it to shelter those who were within its reach.

"Unfortunately during all this disorder no Canadian officer or interpreter, who usually has some control over the Indian mind, was to be found. They had endured considerable fatigue during the siege, and were all quietly resting.

"At last M. de Montcalm, Ml de Lévis, and M. de Bourlamaque were notified. They ran and gave orders to employ the whole force if it should be necessary. Interpreters, officers, missionaries, Canadians, all were set at work, each one striving his best to save the unfortunate English by snatching them from the executioners.

"These last, intoxicated with blood and carnage, were no longer capable of listening to anybody. Many killed their prisoners rather than abandon them; a great number dragged them to their canoes and carried them off.

"M. de Montcalm, in despair at his failure to make any impression on the Indians, bared his breast and cried:— 'Since you are rebellious children, who break the promise you made to your father, and will not listen to what he says, kill him the first.'

"This extraordinary vehemence on the general's part seemed to impress them a little, and they said, ' Our father is angry.' But the mischief was done. No comparison can be made of the despair which now took possession of us at the spectacle of this butchery 1 I heard soldiers utter loud cries of indignation."

Desandrouins not unnaturally expresses his astonishment that the English, who had retained their arms, whose guns were loaded, and who were more numerous than the Indians, permitted themselves to be intimidated and disarmed by them. In addition to this they had bayonets at the ends of their guns and their cartridge boxes were filled. Yet they made no use of them.

Montcalm and Lévis were not less surprised than Desandrouins at the pusillanimity of the English. "It is difficult to understand," says the chevalier, "how two thousand three hundred armed men allowed themselves to be stripped by the Indians, armed only with lances and tomahawks, without making the least appearance of defence."

He adds that the English are not justified in complaining of the infraction of the terms of capitulation by the Indians, since they gave them brandy in spite of recommendations to the contrary.

"Several days after the catastrophe," continues Desandrouins, "Colonel Monro and all the officers and soldiers whom he had been able to assemble, left in good order, dragging after them the cannon which belonged to them. Such is the unfortunate event which I have described as I saw and heard it without disguising anything."

Montcalm employed all his troops in the demolition of the fort and the camp. On August 15th there remained nothing but a mass of smoking ruins, of what six days before had been William Henry.

On the night of the sixteenth the last French boats had left the shore, and disappeared one after the other in the light mists which the coolness of the twilight had suspended over the lake. Faint glimmerings of fire, gradually dying out, marked the sites that the English fort and camp had occupied. All sound of war had ceased in this corner of the land where thousands of men had battled. The whoops of the Indians and the cries of agony and despair had been succeeded by the gloomy silence of the forest, scarcely interrupted by the sinister cry of some nocturnal bird, or of some tawny wild beast attracted to the neighbourhood by the odour of dead bodies.

Thus closed one of the most appalling incidents of these eventful times. The accounts of the massacre given from the English standpoint do not minimize Montcalm's sense of horror at the outrage, but they do not entirely exculpate him and his officers. The English soldiers were defenceless, for they were without ammunition and few of them possessed bayonets. The charges, therefore, of pusillanimity, if we accept this account, are unfounded. Montcalm, moreover, had witnessed the disorder which had prevailed in the afternoon, and if he had followed the dictates of prudence would have had enough troops at his disposal to repress an outbreak among the Indians whose natural ferocity had been intensified by rum.


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