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Montcalm et le Canada

French Drill

La Periode Coloniale

France's claim to Canada was founded upon the explorations of Jacques Cartier from 1534 to 1541. Though initially viewed as a 'stock house' for trade goods rather than a colonial expansion of France, the Canadian wilderness was eventually inhabited by 'coureurs de bois' (fur traders and adventurers), Jesuits, French settlers, and a small number of soldiers, as well as the native population already present. The relations among the French and Indian Canadians were fairly good, especially in comparison with those of Canada's southern neighbors. (English/Indian dynamics were less amiable and far more explosive.) Among the mixed people of 'Ca-na-da' (Iroquoian for 'village' ), powerful alliances were formed; alliances that would define the course of later territorial disputes with England. In time, French Canadians developed their own distinct identity and culture, giving rise to a growing sentiment of independence and distrust for the mother country. Colonial trouble for France was brewing.

By 1756, the year of Montcalm's arrival, French Canada had been engaged in three colonial wars with England and a fourth was underway. The repeated struggle for domination of the continental interior had been played much like a chess game, the outcome perpetually a stale-mate. England had enclosed Canada by establishing a post in Hudson Bay to the north and numerous colonies to the south, but they were all coastal territories. England's colonial borders could not penetrate the highly coveted interior. France had fewer colonies and they were more concentrated than the English settlements ... but she held the queen. The French crown possessed the Canadian waterways that afforded the only route into the western interior. Along these waterways forts were constructed, trade flourished, and military alliances with the many Indian tribes were formed. As long as France maintained control of the rivers and lakes of the Albany-Montreal corridor which guaranteed her domination westward into the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley, neither 'king' was to be captured.

Montcalm arrived at the Fleuve St. Laurent (St. Lawrence River) on May 11, 1756 aboard the frigate 'Licorne', following thirty-eight grueling days at sea. The fleet could go no further, having been blocked by ice. While still aboard the anchored ship, Montcalm wrote a letter to his wife describing the voyage. "......seventeen days without being able to take anything but water. The season was very early for such a hard voyage,.......We had very favorable weather till Monday the twelfth; but since then till Saturday evening we had rough weather, with a gale that lasted ninety hours, and put us in real danger.........From the twenty-seventh of April to the evening of the fourth of May we had fogs, great cold, and an amazing quantity of icebergs..........I have taken very little liking for the sea, and think that when I shall be so happy as to rejoin you I shall end my voyages there." Bon voyage, this was not. The new French general then went by foot to Quebec (the former Iroquois village Stadacona, where Cartier first met Canadian Indians), leaving behind three transports, three frigates, and 1200 troops. Arriving in Quebec, he was informed of the safe arrival of all 6 ships in the river just below. He promptly sent a courier to Montreal bearing a letter to the governor-general, Pierre Rigaud de Vaudreuil de Cavagnial, informing him of his arrival in New France.

Governor Vaudreuil was a Canadian by birth, his family having been prominent in Canada since the opening of the 18th century. He loved Canada and her native born, and like so many other French Canadians, he regarded Old France with contempt and distrust. Vaudreuil resented Montcalm's presence in 'his Canada' and had tried vainly to persuade the French Court against sending a general officer to command the troops in North America. It was no secret that Vaudreuil wished to lead the forces himself. He has been characterized as blatantly egotistical, authoritative yet indecisive, forceful though easily led awry, and quick to claim every success as his own while just as speedily hurling blame for failures at others. All in all, it appears he lacked both the good judgment and selfless patriotism necessary for a successful defense against the English foe. For the Marquis de Montcalm, a man with such qualities could be dangerous. For Canada, it could be fatal.

Le Maison Division


From the outset it was evident there would be a divisive element present in Canada's military structure. Montcalm was to command the French troops, while Vaudreuil had charge of the Canadian regulars and militia. (A letter from the Minister of War dated March 15 advised Vaudreuil to allow Montcalm command over all troops, Canadian and French. Vaudreuil's reply was that Montcalm "...ought to concern himself with nothing but the command of the troops from France." ) The antagonistic spirit of the Governor was inherent also among the native born serving in the Canadian French army.

There were three distinct groups in the18th century army of New France; the troupes de terre, the troupes de la marine, and the Canadian militia. The first of these were the French regulars, comprised in 1756 of four battalions who had come previously with Baron Dieskau, the two battalions that accompanied Montcalm, and the battalions garrisoned at Louisbourg. The second group were the colony regulars who provided a permanent military presence in Canada. Their duties included policing the colonies and garrisoning the frontier posts ... officially. Unofficially, the Canadian regulars had become heavily involved in the fur trade, leading to widespread inefficiency and lack of discipline. The majority having originally enlisted in France, these regulars had been encouraged to settle in Canada when their terms of service ended, whether or not they re-enlisted. The relationship they developed with the colonials was good and as a result they often served as a bridge between the troupes de terre and the militia, which comprised the third component of the French military in New France.

The Canadian militia; a military element as colorful as it was disorderly. At times the militia was a strength for Montcalm's forces; other times, a liability. Recruited primarily from the northern regions, these men were 'bushrangers' who resembled the rugged independent frontiersmen of the British colonies. Their fighting style mirrored the guerrilla tactics of the Indian warriors so incessantly courted by both armies. The militia's effectiveness was strongest in the ambush assaults frequently carried out from under the protective cover of forests. They, like their Indian comrades, were viewed as useless on the open battlefield; too disorganized, insubordinate, and undisciplined to be counted on for the execution of a planned assault. To the regulars and their officers, the militia and Indian forces both were seen as necessary evils that must be endured, however frustrating they were, for the invaluable service they provided. Both the English and French made ample use of the militia/Indian units for ambushing, and perhaps more importantly, raiding. Such was the make-up of the French/Canadian army in 1756 led by the Marquis de Montcalm in his quest for victory over the encroaching English.

At Montreal Montcalm assessed the military situation at hand. He had written to Angelique, "I see that I shall have plenty of work. Our campaign will soon begin. Everything is in motion. Don't expect details about our operations; generals never speak of movements till they are over." (His words betray his effort to become acquainted with the idea of being 'general', while familiarizing his wife to the particular peculiarities of commanders.) There were reports that the English had been amassing troops in preparation for attacks against Crown Point and Fort Carillon, as well as Fort Frontenac and Fort Niagara. Fort Carillon was the southernmost point of defense, therefore, in need of immediate attention. Montcalm was uncertain as to the reliability of these reports as they had been received by Iroquois spies, who were not only in the employment of the French, but also the English. Adopting a policy of 'better safe than sorry,'  Montcalm and Vaudreuil opted to respond defensively. Repairs were made, garrisons were reinforced, and after the situation was given further deliberation, an offensive strategy was laid out as well.

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 of 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 force, 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!"

There were significant consequences to the fall of Oswego. For France it couldn't have been written any better, with the exception of the massacre/hostage fiasco. General-governor Vaudreuil expediently boasted of his personal victory and initiated a propaganda campaign to exalt himself. Montcalm laid waste not only to the Oswego structures, but also to the possibility of any English threat to Lake Ontario. Additionally,  the French demonstration of will, determination, and ultimately victory, cemented their union with the much coveted Indian 'weapon,'  including many of the supposedly neutral Iroquois. (These were warrior societies. Not surprisingly, they were impressed with French military might. Conversely, many had been disgusted with the English failure to gain victories, or as they saw it, to fight.) In addition to the glory, alliances, and sovereignty of Lake Ontario, the army of New France, by right of 'to the victor goes the spoils,' confiscated six boats and a substantial amount of artillery. The seized booty was transported to the Lake George region where it was to be used against its former owners.

The British loss of Oswego was a glaring example of English incompetence, factional disputes, and tardiness. The mistakes were costly. Loudoun angrily sent a scathing letter to Shirley, whom he blamed entirely, if not deservedly, for Oswego's fall. Informing Shirley of his "uselessness" in America, he ordered his immediate return to England. That Shirley was responsible for the inadequate provisions at Oswego, both in food supplies and troop support, cannot be denied. However, his plan failed and the forts fell because of the untimely change of command, the lack of any reinforcement from Webb, and Loudoun's own failure to arrive quickly. In truth, Loudoun was more responsible than any, including the missing-in-action General Webb. In Francis Parkman's words, "They yielded too soon; but unless Webb had come to their aid, which was not to be expected, they must have yielded at last." One could almost hear the voice of Colonel Monro a year later asking, "Where is Webb? And where are my reinforcements?"

"Nous sommes tant a Carillon qu'aux postes avanc'es 5,300 hommes."

For le Marquis de Montcalm, the victory was encouraging. "It is the first time that 3,000 men and inferior artillery have besieged eighteen hundred who could promptly be reinforced by 2,000 and could oppose our landing, having a superior navy on Lake Ontario. The success has been beyond all expectation." He offered no explanation or excuse for the attack on the Oswego prisoners, just a brief description. From Oswego, Montcalm went first to Montreal where he planned his next move, then he held war councils at several Indian villages. New France was in an excellent position, politically and strategically, and she meant to stay there.

Turning southward, Montcalm headed for Fort Carillon. There was an elevated level of tension that autumn on Lake George. Loudon was headquartered at Fort Edward, where numerous reports had come in regarding a French attack, including the 'news' that Montcalm was planning to visit the English with more than 14,000 troops. The French visitation did not materialize, but nonetheless, the troops remained on edge throughout the winter, while Loudon and Montcalm occupied opposite edges of the lake. Each commander attempted to anticipate the other's move. The ill-tempered Loudoun set his sight upon Ticonderoga; Montcalm set his on two forts near the southern end of Lake George; Fort Edward and Fort William Henry.

En Fort Guillaume-Henri ...1757

Next Segment: LE MARQUIS DE MONTCALM ... Lac du St. Sacrement

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