Re: Montcalm & Oswego

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Posted by Elaine on April 26, 2000 at 14:22:21:

In Reply to: Re: Montcalm & Oswego posted by Gayle on April 24, 2000 at 18:26:48:

: : 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!"

: Dear Elaine,

: Many thanks for the dramatic details of Oswego. I know now why Cooper intended to write another Leatherstocking Tale using that as his theme. What a book it would have been!

: And here I go - just for the sake of argument (you know how I love it!)

: It appears that Oswego gave Montcalm plenty of experience in the difficulty of controlling his Indian allies. He certainly could have anticipated that he would lose control at William Henry, just as he did at Oswego.

: What I wonder is how much historical verity there is in the character of Magua. Magua seemed to be a thoroughly effective persuader when it came to getting the Indians to do his dirty work for him, and I doubt if, up against that kind of vengeful passion, Montcalm would have had a chance to exert any authority. But he had to know it was coming. I get the impression that he was a first-rate commander, but a pragmatist when it came to achieving victory. After all, the money he spent buying back prisoners at Oswego would be expected to be recouped, plus some, in reselling them to the English and the Americans, so I don't see that it was any particularly humane act on his part. However, I doubt if he could have gotten away with ransoming the prisoners twice - you might say that in his favor. But if there really was an Indian leader with an agenda, I think Montcalm would have turned a blind eye, because, after all, total victory seemed to be within his grasp at that point.

: Gayle

Hi Gayle,

I take it you chalk up Montcalm's renting of his garments while pleading for mercy on behalf of the captives as mere drama?
Might have been ... your argument is certainly sound.
Magua, I propose (not literally, Ros!) may be modeled after the Huron who killed Jane McCrea ...

"The shocking murder of Jane McCrea twenty years after the siege of Fort William Henry enflamed colonial opposition and served as literary inspiration for James Fenimore Cooper. Jane's tragic fate was instantly seized upon by Patriot propagandists and myths have overshadowed reality, yet the known facts do parallel, somewhat, Cooper's fictional account of the George Road ambush and the cave captivity.

Jane McCrea was the twenty-six year old daughter of a Presbyterian minister and fiancée of David Jones, a Loyalist officer serving under the British General, "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne. (Burgoyne did not get his nickname for his fine manners, but rather his fondness for fine living!) On July 27th, 1777, while visiting at the home of Mrs. McNeil a few miles north of Fort Edward, Jane and her companion were captured by an Indian patrol party of Burgoyne's. These two daughters of Scotsmen had a false sense of security, believing themselves immune from such danger due to their attachment to the British camp. The Indian abductors separated into two groups, each with one of the women. When news of the abduction reached the British camp, Jane's fiancée sent another Indian patrol to escort his betrothed safely to the encampment.

Jane's captor was a Huron named Le Loup (a French given name meaning "the wolf"; he is also known as "Panther"). Le Loup had hopes of ransom money in return for the young woman. The two groups met north of the point where the Hudson River flows easterly before continuing south, directly across from Rogers' Island. The escort party's arrival thwarted the Huron's plot and they proceeded to guide Miss McCrea towards the British camp. Le Loup, angry with the interference, attempted to retake his captive. An argument ensued and during the melee, the Huron spitefully dragged Jane from her horse, shot her, and artfully 'removed her tresses'. Jane's scalp was brought to the British camp where it was identified by the woman's Tory fiancée . Despite the clamoring for justice, Burgoyne refused to punish the Huron, knowing he would lose his Indian allies if he did.

Miss McCrea became an instant martyr. It is said that her death and the outrage that accompanied it greatly aided the raising of colonial militia troops, which in turn helped to defeat General Burgoyne following the Battle of Saratoga. So enshrined in martyrdom was Jane McCrea that she was not buried once, but three times! Her first grave was at the site of a Patriot camp, about two miles south of Fort Edward. She was then reburied at the Fort's cemetery. The much dragged about Jane McCrea was finally reinterred in 1852 at Union Cemetery, just north of the McNeil home where she first began her ordeal.

In this historic event, we have a Huron who goes by two names, one of which is French, who treacherously takes captive two women, one of whom is romantically involved with a British officer. When ordered to release his hostage, he reacts with hostile defiance. Unwilling to give up his property as 'the warrior has not a scalp', the disgusted Huron shoots the defenseless damsel in front of her would-be rescuers. In Cooper's Last of the Mohicans, the treacherous villain is also a Huron. He too is dualistically named, Magua and the French "Le Renaud" (the fox); and like Le Loup, takes two women captive. These sisters are, as were Jane McCrea and Mrs. McNeil, a Scotsman's daughters. When Magua hears the unavenging decision of the sachem in regard to his victims' fate, he angrily departs. Like Jane McCrea, Magua's captive is spitefully murdered. (In the novel there is no hopeless, desperate, cliff-flying suicide; Cora is stabbed when Uncas attempts her rescue!) And like Jane McCrea, Magua's victims are captured in the vicinity of Fort Edward, at nearby Glen's Falls. The Last of the Mohicans then, in its own way, continues the legend of Jane McCrea's murder."


I'd really like to read other thoughts regarding Montcalm & Magua ...

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