Posted by Elaine on April 24, 2000 at 17:48:29:
So - was Montcalm culpable for what occurred at Fort William Henry?
Here's a previous encounter, very much like Fort William Henry's aftermath.
Governor Vaudreuil intended for some time to capture the forts at Oswego, on the southeastern portion of Lake Ontario. Directly west of Lake George, Oswego was the western most British possession. Originally a fur trading post, it was situated on the mouth of Oswego River (Oswego is an Iroquoian reference to 'the mouth of the river'). Established as a fort in 1755, the isolated post offered the only possibility for England's probe into the American interior. For France, it presented an obstacle to her absolute command of Lake
Ontario. Though the campaign was not yet ready to be launched, the plan of action had already been schemed.
Montcalm headed to Ticonderoga, reaching the fort in June. The Iroquoian reports proved to be a false alarm. Fort Carillon's repairs and structural reinforcements were nearly complete. All seemed quiet on the southern front, for the moment. Unbeknownst to Montcalm or Vaudreuil, British Governor Shirley was planning a campaign of his own; the objective, to master Lake Ontario. He intended to accomplish this lofty goal with an overpowering naval force and simultaneous assaults against a number of French forts including Niagara, Frontenac, Crown Point, and Carillon. The key was to hold Oswego.
The English commander had designed a campaign that was comprehensive and aggressive, yet fragile in its need for precision. A successful execution of Shirley's plan would have cut in two the French forces and had he the opportunity to implement it, would have been a devastating blow to France. Instead, Shirley received the blow. The Ministry in England sent him a letter in March 1756 stating he was to resign his command to Colonel Daniel Webb. Following Webb from England would be James Abercromby, who in turn was to be followed by the Earl of Loudoun as commander-in-chief. There was time yet before the
military usurpers were expected in America and to Shirley's credit, he continued to plot the details of his scheme, though its success would have glorified another. He headquartered in Albany, stocked provisions, rebuilt a fort destroyed by the French in March (for which Vaudreuil not surprisingly took complete credit), and sent troops to guard the routes to Oswego. Troops and supplies were transported via the Hudson River, on a hop-scotch trail of land to water, to land again. Arriving at Fort Edward, the weary men still had a seventeen mile overland route to Lake George and their immediate destination, Fort William Henry. It was from here the English troops were to launch their campaign against Ticonderoga, site of Fort Carillon. Several hundred whaleboats were needed to carry the troops to Carillon and work was begun at Fort William Henry in July to provide them. By mid-summer of 1756, when he passed the command over to Webb, Shirley had reinforced the garrison at Oswego (though weakly, the reinforcements were raw recruits and meager in numbers). It was clear to the ousted commander that Oswego must be defended and could not be allowed to fall. If it did, the entire campaign he had laid out would fail. Oswego was the only barrier against complete control of Lake Ontario by the French. If they were unchallenged in their hold on
the western frontier lake, they would have the freedom to intensify their military attention on Lake Champlain, as well as strengthen the lines of communication along the western interior. On Oswego's
importance wrote Fort Edward's surgeon on August 28th; "Whether Oswego is yet ours is uncertain. Would hope it is, as the reverse would be such a terrible shock as the country never felt, and may be a sad omen of what is coming upon poor sinful New England. Indeed we can't expect anything but to be severely chastened till we are humbled for our
pride and haughtiness."
Montcalm understood full well Oswego's importance. He and Vaudreuil had continued to plan their move against this place for quite some time, but in July came news of English movements towards Ticonderoga.
Believing the English would dilute their amassed strength near Lake George to protect the forts at Oswego if attacked, which in turn would have negated an attack on Fort Carillon, the two commanders decided to
strike immediately. If all went well, it may even prove to be a victory, rather than merely an harassment deployment. Montcalm left Fort Carillon, rowed "day and night" on Lake Champlain, and finally reached Montreal on July 19th. From Quebec to the north came regular troops, from the west came Indian allies (including Menominee living beyond Lake Michigan). On the 29th, Montcalm reached Fort Frontenac and sent a reconnaissance party to the English forts led by the engineer, Descombles. To no one's surprise, the evaluation was so pleasingly in the favor of the French that the troops felt certain of a victory. From deserters and prisoners, Montcalm already knew the miserable conditions for the garrison at Oswego. The main fort was defended by only six to seven hundred poorly fed, disease ridden, very unhappy men. (Reportedly, 1200 men had died at Oswego during the previous year from disease alone and there were several "councils of war" held on the question of abandoning the place just to avoid starvation!) There was a mutinous sentiment within the decaying walls of Oswego's forts.
With a force of three-thousand men, including regulars, Canadians, and two hundred and fifty Indians, Montcalm departed from the southern end of Lake Ontario. Traveling at night along the water's edge and
under cover of the forest by day, the shadowy expedition sailed towards Oswego undetected. There were three forts at this crucial frontier port; Fort Ontario, Old Oswego, and New Oswego. (Old Oswego was also known as Fort Pepperell; New Oswego as Fort George.) Of the three, Fort Ontario was the strongest,- yet, with only three-hundred and seventy men, eight small cannon, one mortar, and a tree-trunk fabrication (which would have done very nicely against arrows, swords, and muskets; Montcalm preferred cannon), it had no hope of defense. The second fort, Old Oswego, was almost directly opposite across the river. The third, New Oswego, wasn't even completed. (The English troops called it 'Fort Rascal'. Prior to the French arrival, it housed cattle! Due to the nature of war, the commander of Oswego, Colonel Mercer, prudently decided to replace the unarmed beasts with Jersey militia.) Such was the condition of a place the English regarded as 'crucial' to their cause. Crumbling, barely-manned, poorly armed, and half built; the only facade to be found was in the designation as 'forts.' These structures hardly served the purpose of defending or holding an English position along massive Lake Ontario. If the events at Oswego did not include the deaths of men, it would seem a comical affair. For Montcalm it was to be a well planned assault, and an easy victory.
On the tenth of August, Montcalm coasted the shore of the lake in bateaux, landing at midnight. The English were unaware of the French presence until the following morning. Before dawn, a reconnaissance
party led again by the engineer, Descombles, scouted the English forts. (While on this mission, one of the Indians in the party mistook Descombles for an Englishman and shot him.) On Montcalm's command, the
assault was stepped up and the troops of Oswego were fired upon and harassed throughout the day. On Friday the thirteenth, after returning fire upon the French heavily but with no effect, Col. Mercer, who was
across the river from Fort Ontario, gave the signal to abandon the fort and cross over, presumably opting to spare the garrison and relinquish the fort. Without detailing the further blunders of the Oswego garrison, it would suffice to say that when Col. Mercer was killed by a cannon blast on the fourteenth of August, whatever semblance of fighting spirit still alive in his troops quickly dissipated. Pleas were made from the women in the fort (there were at least one hundred), and a parley was held. The terms of capitulation were offered and accepted. ("The cries, threats, and hideous howlings of our Canadians and Indians made them quickly decide," said Gov. Vaudreuil afterward.) Montcalm had seized the prized Oswego, giving New France undisputed control of Lake Ontario. What happened following the fall of the garrison is also significant; ominously significant.
Shortly after the surrender of the Oswego garrison and its civilians, the Canadians and Indians in Montcalm's army, to no one's surprise, began to plunder. Belongings were taken, barracks were ransacked,
and several discovered barrels of rum were opened. Before long, the scene degenerated into a chaotic mass of drunkenness. (Oddly, among the revelers supposedly were some of the English troops. Why and how
they were permitted to join in the celebrations is perplexing.) A number of prisoners, in a state of panic, attempted to flee amidst the confusion. Being discovered, the would-be escapees were quickly cut down by the Indians, who had now become agitated. In a scene strangely foreboding, the surrendered garrison was set upon by the Indian contingent, a massacre of the wounded and some of the prisoners took place, and nothing short of Montcalm's intervention could put an end to it. It is not known for sure how many were killed or taken as prisoners. There were several conflicting reports, from less than fifty killed to over a hundred. Estimates of prisoners varied as well; one thousand and fifty to seventeen hundred. (Vaudreuil quoted rather high figures, as did Shirley. Both did so for personal reasons, embellished figures being desirable for both of their reputations. This was especially true of Shirley, who was under fire for weakly
garrisoning Oswego and therefore may have wished to inflate the numbers.) Montcalm had to buy off the Indians and ransom the prisoners. In a rather bizarre bazaar-like scene, here was the Marquis de Montcalm, commander of the troops in North America, General in one of 18th century Europe's greatest military forces, frantically negotiating the price of his own prisoners! In what had to be an almost unbelievable event to witness, we must visualize the Marquis "buying" his prisoners much like one would buy cattle at an auction; The Indian captors stubbornly rejecting offered sums and striking better deals. On the ransoming of the English prisoners Montcalm wrote, "It will cost the King eight or ten thousand livres in
presents." A dangerous and more costly precedent was set at Oswego; the Indians learned the French would pay for their captives. Hearing of the approach of English troops (Webb was advancing at a snail's pace towards Oswego), the French sent their prisoners to Montreal in forty bateaux, then they burned the forts of Oswego. The Marquis de Montcalm had achieved his first North American victory; Louis Antoine de Bougainville was to later write, "What a country! What a war!"
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