The French and Indian War: Deciding the Fate of North America - Walter R. Borneman (2006)
BOOK TWO. Mr. Pitt’s Global War (1757–1760)
England and Europe will be fought for in North America.
—WILLIAM PITT to the Duke of Newcastle, Christmas, 1757
6. MASSACRE AND STALEMATE
By the spring of 1757 the war in North America—both undeclared and declared—had been going very well for the French. Despite being outnumbered twenty to one in inhabitants, they continued to hold a vast territory, now more securely protected by a cordon of forts and Indian allies than ever before. This was a striking contrast to 1749, when Céloron, on his visit to the Ohio country, had found the French presence lacking.
In 1754, the French had seized the forks of the Ohio and sent young George Washington packing back to Virginia. In 1755, save for the loss of forts Beauséjour and Gaspereau in Nova Scotia, they had managed to block advances along all of Braddock’s roads. In 1756, they had not only solidified their perimeter defenses from Fort Duquesne to forts Niagara, Frontenac, Saint Frédéric, and Carillon, but also swept the British from Oswego and from a toehold on the Great Lakes. Meanwhile, the Indian allies of the French had played havoc all along the British frontier north of the Carolinas. With another round of reinforcements in hand and the fortress of Louisbourg still secure, why shouldn’t 1757 be another banner year for the fleur-de-lis? The answer to that question lay much more in Europe than in North America.1
In England, George II had finally resigned himself to William Pitt’s role in his government, although George still grumbled about Pitt’s apparent lack of interest in the king’s prized possession, Hanover. George and his favored son, the duke of Cumberland, remained transfixed by Hanover’s defense among the shifting boundaries of Europe. Pitt, however, painted on a much broader canvas, and it quickly became apparent that this canvas encompassed the world. He had little or no patience with generals and admirals or, for that matter, monarchs, who were content to debate ad infinitum the pros and cons of the push of a single pawn on the global chessboard. Rather, Pitt saw the big picture and demanded bold moves. In truth, the king was right: Pitt cared not a bit for Hanover, but he clearly recognized its strategic importance to keeping France occupied on the continent while he pursued global ambitions.2
France took the bait, for a variety of reasons. First of all, the very idea that France might become a great maritime power with a global reach seems to have run counter to its national psyche. England was an island, inexorably tied to the seas around it. France was the crossroads of western Europe, inexorably tied to the lands around it. French armies had held its borders and secured its domain since the days of Charlemagne. Why France could not be a power on both land and sea seems to have been lost on its national consciousness.
Second, the French military establishment, championed by the minister of war, Antoine-René de Voyer d’Argenson, was resolutely determined that the army, not the navy, should be given all priorities and opportunities in any military operations. The French army simply could not imagine circumstances in which it would play second fiddle to the navy. Even the successes of de la Motte’s resupply of Canada in 1755 and Galissonière’s victory off Minorca in 1756 were viewed as tactical support of the army and did not awaken the French to the importance of sea power as a major strategic weapon.
Finally, there was the marquise de Pompadour. Her alliance with Maria Theresa of Austria had turned France’s gaze once again to the battlefields of Europe. Rather than emphasize its navy and concentrate its strength against England, its worldwide rival, France chose instead to throw the bulk of its resources into a European land war. After 1757, Louis XV’s chessboard was much smaller than William Pitt’s, and Louis’s overseas colonies, particularly New France, would be neglected. In the words of Frances Parkman, “Louis XV and Pompadour sent a hundred thousand men to fight the battles of Austria, and could spare but twelve hundred to reinforce New France.”3
With so much glory waiting on the battlefields of Europe, it was no wonder that France’s rising military leaders did not fall over each other clamoring for a command in the backwoods of Canada. Louis-Joseph de Montcalm-Gozon, marquis de Montcalm de Saint-Véran, ended up there because he was a good soldier following orders—nothing more. Montcalm was born on February 29, 1712, at the château of Candiac near Nîmes in the south of France. He acquired an early taste for books and received a strict education in Latin, Greek, and history. He joined the French army as an ensign at the age of fifteen, and two years later his father bought him a captaincy. When his father died in 1735, Montcalm was left with an estate that he cherished but that was saddled with debt. Consequently, Montcalm had little choice but to continue his military service. Along the way, he found time to marry and to father ten children.
By 1743, Montcalm had fought in Bohemia and been made colonel of the regiment of Auxerrois. (French regiments were generally named after the province where they were raised, whereas British regiments after 1751 were generally numbered.) More fighting followed in Italy; and in 1746, at the battle of Piacenza on the banks of the Po River, Montcalm twice rallied his troops back from the brink of disaster. In so doing, the marquis received no less than five saber wounds, including two to the head. Clearly, he was not lacking in personal courage. Captured in this engagement, Montcalm was soon paroled to France, where he was made a brigadier. After another year of warfare, the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle gave him an interlude in his fields at Candiac.
In the summer of 1755, the minister of war, Voyer d’Argenson, hinted that Montcalm might be headed for North America, but nothing came of the matter until Voyer d’Argenson looked around for a replacement for the fallen Dieskau after the battle of Lake George. Writing to Montcalm on January 25, 1756, Voyer d’Argenson was all flattery and noted his “greatest pleasure” in announcing that “the King has chosen you to command his troops in North America, and will honor you on your departure with the rank of major-general.” Setting out for Paris from his beloved château at Candiac, Montcalm wrote to his mother from Lyons that he had read a pleasant account of Quebec, but “shall always be glad to come home.”4
Montcalm sailed from Brest on April 3, 1756, with three ships of the line outfitted as transports. On board were two battalions of 600 men each—the 1,200 men Louis XV and the marquise de Pompadour had deigned to spare for the sake of New France. His subordinates were François-Gaston, chevalier de Lévis, named as brigadier; and François-Charles, chevalier de Bourlamaque, named as colonel. Louis-Antoine de Bougainville was to serve as his principal aide-de-camp. After a storm-tossed crossing of the Atlantic, the little fleet anchored in the Saint Lawrence River roughly thirty miles below Quebec, stopped from proceeding farther by heavy spring ice.
Within weeks of his arrival, Montcalm faced two issues that were to weigh heavily on his tenure in North America. The first was his meeting in Montreal with the governor general of New France, Pierre de Rigaud, marquis de Vaudreuil. Born in Canada, Vaudreuil was passionate about its cause, but somewhat indecisive and incompetent in his actions to pursue it. As was the long-established custom, Vaudreuil reported to the minister of marine, while Montcalm reported to the minister of war. Ostensibly, Montcalm was in charge of military matters, while Vaudreuil saw to civilian and administrative ones. But Vaudreuil was less than pleased by Montcalm’s arrival; and the fact that he himself had aspired to both the civilian and the military commands only added to a smoldering distrust between the two men.
The other issue facing Montcalm was the role of France’s Indian allies. At Montreal, Montcalm got a quick indoctrination into the intricacies of maintaining their alliances. “One needs the patience of an angel to get on with them,” Montcalm wrote to his mother shortly after arriving. “They make war with astounding cruelty, sparing neither men, women, nor children, and take off your scalp very neatly—an operation which generally kills you.” Montcalm was to see those tactics firsthand after his capture of the forts at Oswego the following summer, and doubtless they were on his mind as he plotted his strategy for 1757.5
But if Montcalm in Canada was feeling a little like the tail of the French dog, the British colonies had yet to feel any warmth from William Pitt’s global strategy. In fact, in the spring of 1757, they were feeling quite neglected, and in this they weren’t alone among their fellow Englishmen. The London Evening Post published a woodcut entitled “Without,” depicting the mood in London in the uncertain months between Pitt’s first dismissal and his coalition with Newcastle. England, according to this drawing, was feeling “without” about everything from “manufacturers without trade, to colonies without protection, parading fleets without fighting, great armies without use, the common people without money, and the poor without bread.”6
Given this situation, what were the British colonists to do? They could wallow in the loss of Oswego and wait for Montcalm to renew his attack via avenues from Niagara, Frontenac, and Carillon; or they could launch yet another assault against Canada despite the failures of three years running. To many, those failures proved a point. A jab here or there, or pruning a branch or two off Canada’s tree, wasn’t going to get the job done. This time, the thrust had to be for the jugular.
Go for Quebec, the New York Gazette urged its readers as early as December 6, 1756. Given the logistics of attacking Fort Duquesne or Fort Saint Frédéric, Quebec was no more difficult, the newspaper asserted, and “nothing is more certain than that when the head is lopped off, the inferior members will fall of course; why then is not this effectual step attempted?”7 Why indeed, but who was to lead it and from where?
In the British chain of command, only one thing was clear. By the end of 1756, William Shirley had become the scapegoat for the fall of Oswego. Not only that, but his successor, the earl of Loudoun, had charged Shirley with near treason. Shirley, Loudoun claimed, had been “raising armies to support himself” by enriching his friends through “lavishing the public treasure” and otherwise impressing people that he was “the only man entrusted in American affairs, by the King or his servants.”8
Given Shirley’s long record of service in North America, it was a low and unjustified blow, but Shirley was summoned home to England to account nonetheless. Loudoun, whom Shirley was to describe as “a pen and ink man whose greatest energies were put forth in getting ready to begin,” now had to do just that.9
While Lord Loudoun would soon have plenty of his own detractors, he received high marks for his efforts during the fall of 1756 to impose order on the chaotic logistics of the colonial war machine—just the sort of “pen and ink” work at which he excelled. Essentially, this meant improving the stockpiles of clothing, equipment, and provisions for regulars and provincials alike. This required not only the goods themselves, but also a steady and reliable means of moving them from the centralized storehouses at New York, Albany, and Halifax to the principal forts and troops in the field.
Loudoun made progress in this regard, but then ran afoul of provincial governors and their assemblies by instituting an embargo prohibiting all trade between the individual colonies unless it was of a military nature. This was supposed to centralize control over the flow of goods and eliminate the opportunists who were trading with Canada despite the war. About all that it did, however, was to crowd the docks from Boston to Charleston with spoiling produce. By the time that Loudoun realized that the measure was fruitless and lifted the embargo, it had accomplished nothing save harming American commerce. (This was a lesson that Thomas Jefferson would have done well to remember before imposing a far lengthier and far more destructive embargo on the American economy before the War of 1812.)
Given the disaster at Oswego and the impasse around Lake George, Loudoun heartily agreed with the New York Gazette and was convinced that the only way to win North America from the French was to strike a blow at its jugular—the Saint Lawrence—and seize Quebec. The question was, by land or by sea? “By fighting across the land,” Loudoun wrote to the duke of Argyle, “the troops must be exposed to a thousand accidents … and if we have all the success we can hope, we can get no further next campaign than to Lake Champlain.” Loudoun’s choice was clearly by sea. “By going to Quebec,” Loudoun concluded, “success makes us master of everything.”10
William Pitt certainly didn’t disagree with that sentiment, but he did have a different idea about how to attain the goal. England would strike for Quebec, all right, but Pitt refused to do so while his flank was threatened by the fortress of Louisbourg, which, it will be remembered, the English had seized once before—thanks in no small measure to the leadership of William Shirley. Consequently, on February 4, 1757, Pitt dispatched orders to Loudoun to seize Louisbourg before sailing on to Quebec.
But in the winter of 1757, Pitt was in his first tentative ministry and still groping for political power. He needed consensus and was not without critics. The duke of Cumberland in particular favored Loudoun’s plan of a single thrust directly against Quebec. Thus, subsequent to Pitt’s initial order instructing Loudoun to attack Louisbourg, the consensus of the cabinet broadened his directive to include Quebec at Loudoun’s discretion.
This change did not reach Loudoun before he embarked from New York with more than 100 ships carrying 6,000 troops. By the time he received the revised orders in Halifax on July 9, he had also received what proved to be an erroneous report that the French were massing troops at Quebec to repel just the sort of direct thrust he had initially proposed. Despite the discretion allowed in his new orders, Loudoun may well have been relieved to fall back upon Pitt’s initial wishes and direct his attention first toward Louisbourg.
Attacking Louisbourg first was certainly the far more conservative step. Fail at Louisbourg, and at least there was hope of a safe retreat to New England. Fail at Quebec with a French garrison and fleet from Louisbourg blocking retreat, and disaster might follow. Loudoun prepared to attack Louisbourg. But meanwhile, his concentration of British troops in Nova Scotia had left forces rather thin along the New York frontier.11
Montcalm spent the winter of 1756–1757 entertaining guests in both Montreal and Quebec. Custom and good manners demanded it; adequate though hardly abundant provisions permitted it. Indeed, this winter season may have been the high point of New France. Recent arrivals from old France mingled with Vaudreuil’s comrades from the new amid a gaiety and confidence reminiscent of Versailles. From Louisiana to Newfoundland, Canada was secure. The British had been beaten back or contained on all fronts, and Montcalm himself had described his campaign against Oswego as “the most brilliant that has ever been fought on this continent.”12
Whatever the future held, few could imagine that Louis XV’s myopic global vision would be their downfall and that Vaudreuil’s own vanity would seal their doom. Throughout the winter, Montcalm wrote endearing letters to his wife and expressed the hope that “next year I may be with you all.”13
But before that, there was a summer campaign to be fought. Once it became apparent that Loudoun had pulled a goodly number of troops out of the New York area and was heading for Nova Scotia, Montcalm decided to move south from Fort Carillon and attack Fort William Henry at the southern end of Lake George. The fort had already weathered one surprise attack by the French. In mid-March 1757, Governor Vaudreuil’s younger brother, François-Pierre Rigaud, led 1,500 French regulars, Canadians, and Indians over the frozen waters of Lake George and besieged William Henry’s garrison for four days. Armed only with scaling ladders and lacking siege cannon, the French stood little chance of taking the fort itself, but as the British defenders hunkered down inside, Rigaud’s forces were free to pillage and plunder the outbuildings and storehouses, a flotilla of bateaux, and a half-built sloop.
In the aftermath of the French attack, the situation was far graver than might appear from looking only at Fort William Henry’s stout walls. Strategically, the fort still guarded the southern end of Lake George and the route south toward Albany, but its effectiveness as a forward base of operations and a stronghold from which to launch an attack against Carillon had been greatly reduced. For the British, the long summer started out with frantic efforts to rebuild some semblance of a flotilla and replenish the fort’s supplies.14
When Lord Loudoun and his second in command, Major General James Abercromby, sailed for Louisbourg in June of 1757, command of British forces along the New York frontier devolved on Brigadier General Daniel Webb. At first glance, it would seem that Webb should have exuded confidence and inspired it in his men. He had served with the Coldstream Guards, and during the War of the Austrian Succession he had fought at Dettingen in Bavaria in 1743 and Fontenoy in Belgium in 1745. Despite this experience, when faced with the rigors of the New York frontier, Webb seems to have fallen apart. Certainly, he had not inspired anyone when, after the fall of Oswego, he ordered a hasty retreat down the Mohawk Valley.
That Webb remained Lord Loudoun’s third in command was not particularly to Loudoun’s liking, but Webb held the same advantage as General Braddock—the unwavering patronage of the duke of Cumberland. As Montcalm marshaled his forces and headed south, Webb seemed determined to keep Fort William Henry as a mere pawn pushed to the forefront rather than strengthen it as a bastion designed to control Lake George and threaten Fort Carillon.15
Webb’s field commander at Fort William Henry was Lieutenant Colonel George Monro. Contrary to the touching story related in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, Monro had no daughters named Alice and Cora who were determined to rush to their father’s side at the beleaguered fort. Monro did have with him five companies of regulars of his Thirty-fifth Foot Regiment—about 600 men—and some 1,200 provincials from New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New Hampshire. But there was serious trouble coming his way. Scouts reported to Monro that Montcalm was gathering upwards of 8,000 men at Fort Carillon.16
Colonel John Parker led five companies of New Jersey provincials—the Jersey Blues—north down Lake George to Sabbath Day Point in most of the boats and bateaux that could be mustered to reconnoiter the threat. It was real. Parker’s men were surprised off the point by more than 500 Indians—mostly Ottawa, Ojibwa, and Potawatomi—and a few Canadians. The Indians paddled their canoes into the midst of the British flotilla and attacked with a grisly ferociousness, sinking boats and drowning soldiers, many of whom had surrendered. These tactics were hardly new, but they reminded many of the massacre in the aftermath of the siege at Oswego and set a dismal standard for the remainder of the campaign. It was, Montcalm’s aide-de-camp Bougainville reported, “a horrible spectacle to European eyes.”17
Only four boatloads of men escaped the melee and straggled back to Fort William Henry. Their timing could not have been worse. General Webb was at the fort making his first inspection tour. The panic of the returning Jersey Blues was contagious. Completely rattled, Webb promised to send Monro reinforcements and then, just as had happened the year before after Oswego, he scurried in retreat back to Fort Edward.
To his credit, Webb dispatched an additional 200 regulars to Monro’s command, but as the French closed in, this was clearly a case of too little too late. Rather than reinforce William Henry with some of the 3,500 men that he had at Fort Edward or with other contingents of provincials stationed at Saratoga and Albany, Webb seemed determined to keep Fort William Henry as a weak outpost.18
The rationale of this strategy was completely lost on Colonel Monro. Pleading for reinforcements, Monro urged Webb to fight the decisive battle on Lake George: “If they [the French] are repulsed in their attempt upon Fort William Henry, the affair will be over; but if they take it, I won’t say the taking of Fort Edward will be the consequence, but I think it will be a great step toward it.”19
At dawn on the morning of August 3, 1757, sentries atop the parapets at Fort William Henry reported a fleet of some 250 French bateaux and 150 Indian war canoes bobbing on the waters of Lake George like so many ducks. Some of the bateaux were lashed together with heavy planks and looked like catamarans. It could mean only one thing. “We know that they have cannon,” Monro reported to Webb in yet another plea for assistance.20
But once again, the French held an advantage over the British more powerful than cannons—their Indian allies. In the two years since Braddock’s defeat, the British had not done much to endear their cause to Native Americans. From the Abenaki and Nipissing of Maine westward across the Great Lakes to the Ojibwa, Fox, and Sauk of the upper Mississippi Valley—indeed, southward to the Choctaw along the lower river—most Indian nations could be counted on to support the fleur-de-lis. The two major groups who did not—the Iroquois in the north and the Cherokee in the south—professed a neutrality that wavered depending on who sat before them at their council fires and plied them with presents.
Great Britain’s chief Indian agent, Sir William Johnson, certainly tried to persuade the Iroquois to take a major role in Britain’s behalf. Lord Loudoun himself strongly supported Johnson’s heavy use of presents in pursuit of this goal. But the best that Johnson could achieve, despite abundant presents, was an uneasy neutrality that meant different things to each side. Even as Montcalm marshaled his forces at Fort Carillon, Johnson told the Six Nations that “to the English their neutrality meant that no French-Indian war parties were to pass through Iroquoian territory and that the Six Nations were immediately to transmit all intelligence to the English.”21 This was wishful thinking.
Everyone likes to be on the winning side, and this was particularly the case with the Indian nations who fought not for a cause or even a continent, but for the loot and plunder of victory. In 1757, the French were clearly winning the war in North America. Theirs was the side to be on. “Our ill success hitherto hath intimidated them,” William Johnson reported of his unsuccessful attempts to recruit Indian allies. The British way of warfare was not the Indian way, Johnson continued, and “in short, without some striking success on our side, I believe they will not join us.”22
But the Indian allies who joined the French at Carillon themselves posed problems for Montcalm. There is no doubt that they were quite an assemblage: by one account, some 2,000 warriors from thirty-three different nations. The French, too, had been busy giving out presents, and these and the promise of victory’s rewards had lured some Indians from as far away as the lakes of Minnesota. In modern parlance, command and control in such a situation were bound to be a nightmare, if possible at all. In fact, even as the French recognized that “in the midst of the woods of America one can no more do without them [Indians] than without cavalry in open country,” Montcalm also knew that while he might “accommodate, appease, and flatter his allies,” he did not truly command them.23
So as the sun filled the sky above Fort William Henry on August 3, drums beat a call to arms. Monro and his garrison of less than 2,000 watched as Montcalm’s combined force of 7,500 regulars, provincials, and Indian allies unloaded their artillery, quickly encircled the fort, and cut the road leading south to Fort Edward. Help was only fifteen miles away, but with Webb reluctant to provide any, it might as well have been fifteen hundred. “That Fort William-Henry was invested the third instant, by a body of French and Indians,” reported the New York Gazette, “is past doubt, and very probably are, at this time in possession of it. If so, Fort Edward falls of course, and where they will stop is hard to determine.”24
Although its outlying works were still showing the results of the French attack of the preceding March, Fort William Henry was nonetheless a position of some consequence. It was built in an irregular square about 130 yards at the widest, and its corners were anchored by four bastions. The northeast bastion stood above the waters of Lake George and the southeastern one above a boggy marsh over which a bridge on the road to Fort Edward now led nowhere. The western bastions were protected by moats topped by a series of palisades. Beyond these lines the trees had been cleared a good distance to afford an advancing enemy no protection. Fort William Henry was certainly not impregnable, but neither was it to be easily brushed aside. The French settled in for a siege and began the backbreaking work of digging zigzagging siege trenches across the open fields. Colonel Monro could do little but choose targets for his cannons wisely and seethe at Webb’s outright neglect.25
But Webb—for all his recent ineptitude—was in a quandary. If he advanced to Fort William Henry with his remaining force, all might be lost along with the William Henry garrison. If that happened, the road south to Albany would be wide open for Montcalm. So, while Monro pleaded for the decisive battle to be fought at William Henry and not at Fort Edward, Webb sent out frantic appeals of his own for militia from all over New York and New England and hunkered down at Fort Edward. If William Henry fell, Webb might then decide whether to stand and fight at Fort Edward or scurry south to Albany.
Meanwhile, twenty-year-old Sergeant Jabez Fitch, Jr., who traced his family tree back to the Mayflower, was serving at Fort Edward in a company of provincials from Norwich, Connecticut. Some of his fellow soldiers wanted to march immediately to the aid of their comrades at William Henry, no matter what the risk. Others, Fitch included, were impatient but content to wait for the arriving militia units because “we are not yet strong enough to engage the enemy.” But there was plenty of notice of the contest that was raging just fifteen miles away. “Before sunrise we heard the cannon play very brisk at the lake,” Fitch recorded in his diary. “Soon after the small arms began to fire. This firing lasted all day without much ceasing.”26
But then Monro received a blow more devastating than the thunder of Montcalm’s cannon. In a letter to Monro dated August 4, Webb’s aide-de-camp had written that General Webb “does not think it prudent … to attempt a junction or to assist you” and suggested that Monro consider how he “might make the best terms” of any capitulation.27 Webb’s letter did not reach Monro until August 7. It came under a flag of truce carried from Montcalm by Bougainville after the British courier had been killed in the woods by French scouts. Montcalm added a note of his own, cordially suggesting that Monro take Webb’s advice.
Throughout the next day, Monro watched Montcalm’s trenches inch closer and closer to the fort. His own effective firepower had been severely reduced over the last several days. Most of his heavy cannons had burst or cracked under the heavy firing. His regulars were anxious, and many of the provincials—totally new to the mental strain of siege warfare—were beside themselves. The commander of one regiment from Massachusetts, Joseph Frye, reported to Monro that “they were quite worn out, and … would rather be knocked in the head by the enemy, than stay to perish behind the breastworks.”28
On the morning of August 9, 1757, Colonel Monro concluded that he had made an honorable defense and in the absence of any support whatsoever from Webb had no option but to surrender. The Union Jack was lowered from William Henry’s flagpole and a white flag run up in its place. “We had a rumor about noon that Fort William Henry was taken,” Jabez Fitch wrote in his diary, “for their firing ceased some time in the morning.”29
Colonel Monro dispatched Lieutenant Colonel John Young to Montcalm’s camp to negotiate the terms. When agreed to, they were the epitome of the most courteous European warfare of the day. The entire British garrison was to be given safe passage under French guard to Fort Edward. In exchange, all promised that they would not fight again for a period of eighteen months. The conquered would be permitted to keep their personal effects, sidearms, and regimental colors, as well as one six-pound cannon that symbolized their brave defense. Those too gravely wounded to travel would be cared for by the French at Fort William Henry.
For Montcalm’s side, in addition to his retaining all the military stores and provisions in the fort, any French prisoners in British custody anywhere in North America were to be returned to Canada by the following November. It was a gentlemen’s agreement, quite understood and acceptable to both Monro and Montcalm, but totally foreign to any concept of warfare held by Montcalm’s Indian allies.
What happened the following day has many versions, but one undeniable result. Clearly, Montcalm did not “command” his Indian allies, and they had no intention of honoring his promise of safe conduct. The incident seems to have begun when French guards were removed from the British wounded in the fort’s hospital. Abenaki fell upon them, murdering and scalping many. The Abenaki were out for the plunder that they had been implicitly promised, and they were determined to get it. Next, they fell to taking items from the British prisoners. How much Montcalm and his officers attempted to restrain them has always been debatable. When French officers suggested that the British give up their baggage and personal effects—despite the terms of surrender—Monro agreed, but this concession had little ameliorating effect on the Indians.
On the morning of August 10, the first large contingent of British troops departed William Henry for Fort Edward, only to be set on by a force of Indians out for much more than just plunder. French guards had been promised, but the few who were present seem to have melted into the woods. “The savages fell upon the rear, killing and scalping,” reported Colonel Frye, whose Massachusetts regiment had so desperately wanted to escape the confines of Fort William Henry. They got their wish and indeed were “knocked in the head by the enemy.”
To repeat, reports vary greatly, but by August 11 upwards of 700 on the British side had been killed or wounded, or were missing. Belatedly, Montcalm sought the return of those taken captive by the Indians but with limited success. Satiated with the plunder of battle—human and other—Montcalm’s Indian allies quickly scattered in the directions from which they had come. On August 15, Colonel Monro and a remaining contingent of soldiers were escorted halfway to Fort Edward by a proper French guard. Incredibly, the survivors of the debacle still chose to drag their six-pounder with them.30
What glory there had been in Montcalm’s capture of Fort William Henry evaporated on the wind. “Unhappily for the renown of Montcalm and his army,” wrote France’s greatest military historian of the war, Richard Waddington, “this fine feat of arms was terminated by a horrible massacre.”31 Montcalm’s aide, Bougainville, sought to downplay the horror somewhat by suggesting, among other things, that Montcalm had gotten the various chiefs to agree to the terms of surrender. This seems unlikely and quite contrary to the reasons the Indians joined the French campaign in the first place. In fact, Bougainville himself had already come closer to the truth when in the aftermath of Oswego he had characterized Indian warfare as “an abominable kind of war.”32
What was Montcalm to do now? His Indian allies had gotten what they had come for and were leaving the campaign. Webb cowered at Fort Edward fifteen miles away, but his ranks were swelling daily with the arrival of more and more militia. Montcalm’s own militiamen were eager to return home for the harvest. And the British colonies were up in arms. All previous atrocities paled in comparison with the tales that survivors brought back from the woods south of William Henry. Montcalm’s Indian allies had broken open a hornet’s nest. “Surely if any nation under the heavens was ever provoked to the most rigid severities in the conduct of a war, it is ours!” trumpeted the New York Mercury: “Will it not be strictly just and absolutely necessary, from henceforward … that we make some severe examples of our inhuman enemies, when they fall into our hands?”33
No one would ever suggest that General Webb was the savior of Albany, but in the aftermath of what came to be called the massacre of Fort William Henry, that is what happened. Montcalm looked at the field and, rather than continue southward, decided merely to destroy the remains of Fort William Henry and retire to the security of forts Carillon and Saint Frédéric. Perhaps he remembered Dieskau’s misfortune in the woods south of Lake George two years before; but the loss of his Indian allies—and with them much of his ability to gather intelligence—and the unrest of his own militia sealed his decision.
So Albany and even Fort Edward were safe, but the grim affair near Lake George caused tremors despite Montcalm’s withdrawal. If William Shirley was still in hot water over the loss of Oswego the previous year, Lord Loudoun—who had been in the vanguard of those urging Shirley’s banishment—was suddenly under even greater scrutiny to explain not only the loss of Fort William Henry but also the ensuing massacre. And just where was Loudoun now? Safely ensconced at Louisbourg? Hardly. Loudoun’s grand assault on France’s Atlantic fortress had been frustrated by the one thing that most of the French military hierarchy seemed to disdain—French sea power.
Yes, it was true. Loudoun’s transports had arrived in Halifax on June 30, to be joined ten days later by a Royal Navy squadron boasting seventeen ships of the line under the command of Admiral Francis Holburne. But before they could sail for Louisbourg, no fewer than eighteen French ships of the line and five frigates had congregated in the safety of Louisbourg’s fine harbor, waiting for the British to appear.
Holburne spent most of a foul and foggy July trying to ascertain this French naval strength. When at last he did so, he knew that he was at least evenly matched if not clearly outgunned. He undoubtedly also remembered what had happened to Admiral Byng off Minorca. “Considering the strength of the enemy and other circumstances,” the admiral reported to Loudoun, “it is my opinion that there is no probability of succeeding in any attempt upon Louisbourg at this advanced season of the year.” It was August 4, 1757, the same date that Montcalm’s troops had encircled Fort William Henry.34
Loudoun and his transports returned to Boston to face only the firestorm of William Henry’s collapse, but Holburne’s squadron was not so lucky. Reinforced by more ships from England, Holburne determined to lurk outside Louisbourg and pounce on the French fleet as it sailed for Europe in the fall. It was a good plan, but one that failed to account for the fall hurricane season along the Nova Scotia coast.
On September 24, a powerful storm blew in from the southeast and almost drove the bulk of Holburne’s fleet onto the rocky coast of Cape Breton Island. The sixty-gun ship of the line Tilbury was dashed to pieces on the rocks, and six other ships lost masts to the fury. Most limped into Halifax harbor “in a very shattered condition.”35 Meanwhile, the French fleet rode out the hurricane in the safety of Louisbourg harbor and sailed for France unmolested a few weeks later. Who said that Britannia ruled the waves?
Meanwhile, his majesty’s forces were not faring any better on the European continent. After urging Loudoun’s direct thrust against Quebec, the duke of Cumberland was dispatched to the continent to save Hanover but instead was surrounded by the French at Hastenbeck in Germany. The duke made his personal escape only through the bravery of his aide-de-camp, Colonel Jeffery Amherst, in directing a rearguard action. Soon afterward, Cumberland was compelled to sign the Convention of Kloster-Zeven, effectively surrendering Hanover to the French. George II’s most treasured son had lost his father’s most treasured possession. The duke of Cumberland resigned his military offices in disgrace. The only winner in the dismal affair was William Pitt, who saw his hand in military matters considerably strengthened.36
For a time in 1757, Great Britain’s European ally, Frederick of Prussia, did not fare much better. Defeated in Bohemia by the Austrians, Frederick suffered raids on Berlin by the Russians and Austrians and a French occupation of Hanover. Then with winter approaching, just as Frederick appeared down for the count, he struck a quick one-two punch that gave credence to his appellation “the Great.” He handily defeated the French at Rossbach in Saxony and then crushed the Austrians at Leuthen (Lutynia) in Silesia.
Frederick was certainly not out of the woods, but although the Austrians recovered, the French never would. They had been thwarted in their grand scheme to seize Europe’s balance of power. “Rossbach,” Napoleon said years later when he himself attempted to seize that balance, “was the battle that started the Bourbon regime toward its collapse in revolution.”37
In the meantime, their defeat at Rossbach meant that the French would become even more transfixed by European battlefields at the expense of North America in the years ahead. Faced with the stigma of a gruesome massacre, the best the French could hope for at the close of a year that had dawned so brightly was a stalemate. The marquise de Pompadour was even more succinct after Rossbach. “After us the deluge,” bemoaned the would-be empress whose shortsighted pettiness in trying to win one continent almost assuredly cost her another.38