Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Military History and Warfare: The French and Indian War: Massacre at Fort William Henry?

As a schoolboy I remember watching 'Last of the Mohicans' with great enthusiasm. The 1992 film was a remake of an older film version based upon the original novel by James Fenimore Cooper. Both the film and book are set in 1757 against the backdrop of the French and Indian war. The film portrays the historical siege of Fort William Henry defended by the British. The British are forced to surrender and agree honourable surrender terms. As they march away from the fort, the Anglo-American soldiers and colonists are subjected to a horrendous ambush by hundreds of tomahawk welding homicidal Indians. The British regulars form up and fire volleys into the forest, only to find themselves on the receiving end of a scalping. And so it goes on.

Sixteen years later I decided to try and find out how much of this was actually based upon reality. Fort William Henry was indeed a real place and still exists as a reconstruction on the shore of Lake George. In 1757 it guarded the main approach to the upper Hudson valley at the south end of the lake. It was therefore an important strategic position for both the British and the French.

A plan of Fort William Henry

In the spring of 1757, Lieutenant Colonel George Monro brought five companies of the 35th Foot to the Fort in order to relieve the winter garrison. Together with two New York independent companies and nearly eight-hundred provincial troops from New Jersey and New Hampshire, Monro commanded a force of 1500 men. In late June, two escaped English former prisoners of war reached the Fort warning that the French General Montcalm was preparing an invasion force at Fort Carrillon on the other side of the Lake. By the end of July, Montcalm had been able to supplement his army of 6000 regulars with an additional 2000 Indian allies. He intended to take the Fort and use it as a platform for an invasion of British North America.

On the 23rd July, Monro cautiously dispatched several ranger patrols on reconnaissance missions to obtain more information about the French assault force. When these patrols failed to return, he ordered Colonel John Parker to led five companies of New Jersey provincials in a raid to destroy the sawmills at the foot of the lake and seize as many enemy prisoners as possible. Three-quarters of the expedition were killed or captured. Five-hundred Ottawas, Ojibwis, Potawatomis, Menominees and Canadians had been waiting for them. General Webb had been visiting Fort William Henry when survivors of Parker's force returned. He promised to send urgent reinforcements. Despite these promises, Webb was afraid of stripping the defences of his own post, Fort Edward. As such he sent only two hundred regulars of the Royal American 60th regiment and eight-hundred provincials under Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Frye. They arrived just in time for the start of the siege on August 2nd.

The Siege

Despite being massively outnumbered, Colonel Monro commanded a well-equipped post. The Fort's artillery batteries consisted of eighteen heavy cannon, thirteen light swivels, two mortars and a howitzer. The Fort's magazines also held an adequate supply of ammunition and provisions. Once Monro had ordered all flammable roof shingle to be thrown into the lake, the most serious threat to the Fort was that of the wall collapsing under sustained bombardment. If the wall did collapse, the attacking French would be able to overwhelm the British through sheer force of numbers. Alternatively, even if the wall held up, provisions would not last indefinitely. Over the long term the garrison could be starved into submission.

Monro quickly deduced that the only chance of saving the Fort would be if Webb dispatched a relief expedition before Montcalm had the chance to organise his own camp's defences. By the 7th August, Monro had received word from Webb that reinforcements would not arrive at Fort William Henry until he himself had been reinforced by militia from New England and New York. By the evening of the 8th, the relentless French bombardment had seriously reduced the morale of the British garrison. With the constant firing of artillery, as well as the stress of shrapnel raining down upon the defenders, many had not slept for five nights in a row. With no reinforcements coming, Monro ordered his engineers to survey the Fort and assess its continued ability to resist. The top three feet of the bastions most exposed to French guns had been completely shot away. Only five of the Fort's cannon were still operational and stocks of ammunition had dwindled to almost nothing. The next morning, Monro agreed to discuss terms of surrender.

The Surrender

By one o'clock in the afternoon on the 9th August, the terms of surrender had been agreed. They were extremely generous given the predicament in which the British and Colonials found themselves. In return for agreeing to remain non-combatants for eighteen months, the entire garrison would be granted safe passage to Fort Edward under French escort. They would be allowed to keep their small arms, colours and a symbolic brass field piece. The sick and wounded would be cared for by the French and then repatriated when they had recovered. In return, Montcalm asked only that all French military and civilian prisoners be repatriated and returned to Fort Carillion by November and that the cannon and supplies within the Fort be surrendered. Unfortunately, Montcalm had not bothered to consult his Indian allies before agreeing to these terms. The idea of honourable surrender with the terms granted by Montcalm were totally alien to his Indian allies. They had expected greater rewards for their participation. To have defeated their enemy and then return home without prisoners, loot or scalps left them feeling betrayed and confused as to the purpose of fighting in the first place. Therefore, after Montcalm explained the surrender terms to them, many of the warriors decided they would simply take what they came for and then leave.

The 'Massacre'

After the official surrender, the British made their way to an entrenched camp where the soldiers and civilians were to remain until they marched to Fort Edward the following day. As the last British detachments left, Indians entered the fort in search of booty. They found only seventy sick and wounded who had been left to be cared for by the French. Fortunately the prompt intervention of French guards and missionaries saved the lives of many of the the wounded. Through the rest of the afternoon, Indians roamed the entrenched camp plundering its inhabitants. When French guards managed to clear them out of the camp they continued to hang about its perimeter menacingly. At dawn, as the regulars prepared to lead the column to Fort Edward, hundreds of Indian warriors armed with knives, tomahawks and muskets began to crowd around demanding that they they surrender arms, equipment and clothing. The Indians were clearly not satisfied. At 5 am the column set off with French guards escorting the British regulars at the front. The regulars were thus spared the worst of the violence which was to follow. By contrast, the rear of the column consisted entirely of militia and civilians. Suddenly the rear of the column found itself beset on every side. Within minutes, Indians had seized, killed and scalped the wounded from the provincial companies and robbed others of their clothing and possessions. As confusion mounted, all discipline broke down. A whoop was heard from the direction of the Indians (this was later assumed to be a signal) and dozens of warriors began to tomahawk the most exposed groups. Although the killing lasted only a few minutes, panic had set in. Frye's provincial regiment disappeared in every direction. When Montcalm and his officers realised what was happening, they ran up to try and halt the killing. Unfortunately they found that in many instances, the warriors preferred to kill their captives and take a scalping rather than surrender them. By the time the French had manage to restore order, some 185 soldiers and camp followers had been killed and between 300-500 taken captive. The rest of the column had either fled down the road or escaped into the woods and eventually made their way to Fort Edward.


Refugees continued to straggle in to Fort Edward from the woods for more than a week. On the 15th August, Colonel Monro arrived with a contingent of five-hundred survivors and the the brass six-pounder that they had been allowed to bring with them. Monro and his men had been brought under French escort to Half-way brook and handed over to a British guard. Montcalm assured the British that the rest of the garrison would be returned as soon as its members had been retrieved from the Indians. Thanks to the combined efforts of Montcalm and the French Governor-General Vaudreuill, at least two-hundred prisoners were recovered by the end of August. The prisoners were returned at an average cost to the French crown of 130 livres and thirty bottles of brandy each. Only about two-hundred captives would fail to return to the British colonies by 1763. The Indians themselves also adopted forty of the captives into their tribes. However, the events at Fort William Henry were a disaster for future French recruitment efforts of Indians to the war effort. The capture of prisoners at the Fort exposed the Indians to a small pox epidemic which made them extremely unwilling to join any future French expeditions.

Describing the events at Fort William Henry following the surrender as a 'massacre' is perhaps too extreme. Nevertheless, many people were killed or taken prisoner and it was no doubt extremely traumatic for those that lived through it.

If you are interested in reading more about Fort William Henry and the French and Indian war, have a look at these books below;

Fred Anderson, 'Crucible of War' (London, 2000)

Ian K.Steele, 'Betrayals: Fort William Henry and the "Massacre" (New York, 1990)

'Empire Collide: The French and Indian War 1754-63', ed. Ruth Sheppard (Oxford, 2006)

David R. Starbuck, 'Massacre at Fort William Henry' (Hanover, 2002)


Battlefield Biker said...

Great post about an incredibly interesting time in North American history. Well done.
I took a ride through the Lakes to Locks highway which includes this area a couple of years ago. The whole area is wonderful and scenery and dripping with histroy from this period.

The Almanack Editor said...

Nice post - a small correction though. You have "Fort Carrillon on the other side of the Lake" but it was in fact built at Ticonderoga on nearby Lake Champlain, although the Fort is near the north end of the 32-mile-long Lake George, it's actually on Champlain.