1756 - Operations on Lake Ontario
The campaign lasted from May to August 1756
For the 1756 campaign in North America, the British planned four offensives:
- an attack against Fort Carillon (present-day Ticonderoga) and Fort Saint-Frédéric (present-day Crown Point) in the Lake Champlain area;
- an expedition on Lake Ontario with strong naval and land forces to seize the French forts upon it: Niagara, Frontenac (present-day Kingston), and Toronto;
- an attack on Fort Duquesne (present-day Pittsburgh) in the Ohio Valley;
- a diversionary attack down the Chaudière River upon the settlements about Québec.
At the beginning of 1756, General Shirley still continued commander-in-chief. He chose to personally lead the amphibious expedition against the French forts on Lake Ontario. His land forces consisted of the remains of:
- Shirley's 50th Regiment of Foot (1 bn)
- Pepperrell's 51st Regiment of Foot (1 bn)
- New Jersey Provincials aka Jersey Blues (about 500 men)
- North Carolina Provincials (4 coys)
- New York Independent Companies (4 coys)
Shirley's first care was to recruit the ranks of his regiments to raise them to their full complement. This brought his force to some 4,400 men.
In March, the Earl of Loudon was appointed commander-in-chief of the British forces in North America.
In April, Shirley learned that he would be superseded in the command. Colonel Daniel Webb would be sent to America, followed by General James Abercromby and finally by the Earl of Loudon, the destined commander-in-chief. Shirley was to resign his command to Webb, Webb to Abercromby, and Abercromby to Loudon. Meanwhile, Shirley was still responsible for the preparation of the campaign.
At the beginning of May, Vaudreuil, the governor of Canada, sent Coulon de Villiers with 1,100 French regulars, Canadians and Indians, to harass Oswego and cut its communications with Albany.
On May 7, Shirley arrived at Albany from New York to continue his preparations. He established his headquarters in Albany and first rebuilt the Fort at the Great Carrying Place (near present-day Rome, New York) which had been destroyed by the French just a month before (March 1756).
On May 19, the expedition under the command of Coulon de Villiers left Montréal.
In June, Webb arrived in New England. Meanwhile, Mackellar, an engineer of the army, estimated that the works at Oswego were incapable of defense. The Shirley's 50th Regiment of Foot had lost half its effective while wintering at Fort Oswego. The Pepperrell's 51st Regiment of Foot quartered at Fort Ontario on the other side of the river had suffered less. During the same month, Shirley posted detachments in the newly built forts on the Mohawk River and at the Great Carrying Place. He also took into pay 2,000 boatmen, including many whale-men from the eastern coasts of New England, divided them into companies of 50, armed each with a gun and a hatchet and placed them under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel John Bradstreet.
Despite the French force threatening the communications between Albany and Fort Oswego, Bradstreet safely conducted a convoy of provisions and military stores to the garrison of Oswego.
The delays caused to Shirley's expedition were sufficient to give the French time for securing all their posts on Lake Ontario. Before the end of June this was in good measure done. The II./Béarn Infanterie lay encamped before the now strong Fort Niagara and the II./ Guyenne Infanterie and the II./La Sarre Infanterie, with a body of Canadians, guarded Fort Frontenac against attack.
At the end of June, Abercromby and Webb arrived at Albany with a reinforcement of some 900 men consisting of the 35th Foot and the I./42nd Highlanders. Shirley then resigned his command and returned to New York to wait for the arrival of Lord Loudon and inform him of the state of affairs.
On July 3, Bradstreet set out on his return with the empty boats. He divided his force into three divisions. The first of these, consisting of some 100 boats and 300 men, with Bradstreet at their head, were about 14 km from Oswego, when, at 3:00 p.m., they received a heavy volley from the forest on the east bank. It was fired by a part of Villiers' command, consisting of about 700 men (by British account). A considerable number of the boatmen were killed or disabled and the others made for the shelter of the western shore. Some prisoners were taken in the confusion. The French then tried to cross under cover of an island just above. Bradstreet saw the movement, and landed on the island with six or eight followers, among whom was young Captain Schuyler (afterwards General Schuyler of the Revolution). Their fire kept the French in check till others joined them, to the number of about 20. They repulsed the French two more times. The French gave over the attempt and made for another ford at some distance above. Bradstreet saw their intention and, collecting 250 men, was about to advance up the west bank to oppose them when Dr. Kirkland, a surgeon, came to tell him that the second division of boats had come up, and that the men had landed. Bradstreet ordered them to stay where they were and defend the lower crossing. Bradstreet then hastened forward; but when he reached the upper ford, the French had passed the river and were ensconced in a pine-swamp near the shore. Bradstreet attacked them and both parties fired at each other from behind trees for an hour, with little effect. Bradstreet at length encouraged his men to make a rush at the French, who were put to flight and driven into the river, where many were shot or drowned as they tried to cross. Another party of the French had meanwhile passed by a ford still higher up to support their comrades but the fight was over before they reached the spot, and they in their turn were set upon and driven back across the stream. Half an hour after, Captain Patten arrived from Onondaga with the grenadiers of Shirley's 50th Regiment of Foot and, late in the evening, 200 men came from Oswego to reinforce the victors. In the morning Bradstreet prepared to follow the French to their camp, 19 km distant but was prevented by a heavy rain which lasted all day.
On Monday July 5, Bradstreet and his men reached Albany, bringing two prisoners, 80 French muskets, and many knapsacks picked up in the woods. He had lost between 60 and 70 killed, wounded, and taken. The French prisoners declared that the French meant to attack Oswego.
Indeed, Vaudreuil had conceived a plan to secretly send an expedition against Oswego to alleviate the pressure of the British forces against Fort Carillon. Accordingly, Montcalm and Bougainville, his aide-de-camp, were recalled from Carillon with some troops.
On July 19, Montcalm arrived in Montréal where he was reinforced with troops from Québec and Indians from the far west (among which a band of Menomonies from beyond Lake Michigan).
On July 21, Montcalm left Montréal for Fort Frontenac at the head of a strong expeditionary force to attack Oswego. The works at Oswego consisted of three forts: Fort Oswego proper, Fort Ontario located on the opposite bank of the river and Fort Rascal an unfinished work. However, Shirley had recently replenished the ranks of the [[50th Foot] and 51st Foot.
On July 23, Loudon finally arrived at New York. He then sailed up the Hudson.
On July 27, a party of 700 Canadians under Rigaud previously sent forward to the south side of the lake to reinforce Villiers, reached the latter's encampment at Nyanwauré Bay (present-day Sackett's Harbor) Rigaud then took command of their united forces. From this location, the engineer Descombles reconnoitred the forts at Oswego and reported about the certain success of the expedition.
On July 29, Montcalm reached Fort Frontenac (present-day Kingston) on Lake Ontario. Part of II./Béarn Infanterie had already been recalled from Niagara to join the expedition. The same day, the Earl of Loudon arrived at his headquarters at Albany. He then assumed command of the army. Upon his arrival, Loudon decided to abandon the attempt against Niagara and Frontenac, resolving instead to turn his whole force against Fort Carillon. However, a few days later, Loudon was informed by Bradstreet that the French were preparing to attack Oswego with about 1,200 men.
During the night of August 4 to 5, after waiting a few days for the arrival of the II./Béarn Infanterie from Fort Niagara, Montcalm left Fort Frontenac at the head of a force of more than 3,000 men consisting of:
- II./La Sarre (1 bn)
- II./Guyenne (1 bn)
- II./Béarn (1 bn)
- Colony regulars (probably a few companies of Troupes Franches de la Marine)
- a body of Canadians
- Indians (250 men)
- Artillery (32 guns mainly 12-pdrs and 24-pdrs and several large brass mortars)
During the night of August 5 to 6, after spending the previous day hidden on Wolf Island, Montcalm embarked again with the first division and joined Rigaud at Nyanwauré Bay at 7:00 a.m. on August 6. The second division followed, with provisions, hospital train, and 80 artillery boats.
On August 6, Lieutenant-Colonel Mercer, commanding at Oswego, was informed that there was a large French encampment about 20 km from his fort.
On August 7, the British brigantine that was cruising Lake Ontario with two sloops (including the HMS Oswego) returned to Oswego. While entering the harbour, the brigantine was driven by a gale of wind upon rocky ground. She was stranded for 18 hours.
By August 8, the entire French force was united at Nyanwauré Bay.
On August 9, under the cover of the dense forest, Rigaud marched in advance to protect the landing of the troops. Montcalm followed with the first division and, coasting the shore in bateaux, landed at midnight 2 km from Oswego. Four cannon were planted in battery upon the strand, and the men bivouacked by their boats.
In the morning of August 10, a reconnoitring British canoe finally discovered the French forces. Two armed vessels soon came to cannonade them but their light guns were no match for the heavy artillery of the French, and they were forced to keep the offing. Descombles, the engineer, was mistakenly shot by an Indian during a reconnaissance. M. Desendroin then assumed command of the engineers assisted by M. de Pouchot, captain at Béarn Infanterie, replaced him and the attack was pushed vigorously. The Canadians and Indians fired all day on the forts under cover of the trees. The second division came up with 22 more guns.
During the night of August 10 to 11, the first parallel was marked out at 160 meters from the rampart. Stumps were grubbed up, fallen trunks shoved aside, and a trench dug, sheltered by fascines, gabions, and a strong abattis.
Fort Ontario, counted as the best of the three forts at Oswego, stood on a high plateau at the east or right side of the Oswego River where it entered the lake. It was in the shape of a star, and was formed of trunks of trees set upright in the ground, hewn flat on two sides, and closely fitted together. This type of palisade was an excellent defence against musketry or swivels but worthless against cannon. Fort Ontario was garrisoned by 370 men which were the remnant of the 51st Pepperell's Regiment of Foot, joined to raw recruits lately sent up to fill the places of the sick and dead. They had eight small cannon and a mortar.
On August 12, ignoring all about Montcalm's offensive but fearing a French attack on Oswego, Loudon sent Webb forward from Albany with the 44th Regiment of Foot and some of Bradstreet's boatmen to reinforce the forts.
On Friday August 13, the garrison of Fort Ontario kept up a brisk fire till towards night then it ceased. Not a single gun had yet opened on them from the trenches but it was certain that the fortification could not withhold the French artillery fire. Consequently, Lieutenant-Colonel Mercer, commandant at Fort Oswego, signalled to them from across the river to abandon their position and to join him on the other side. Boats were sent to bring them off; and they passed over unmolested, after spiking their cannon and spoiling their ammunition. The French immediately took possession of Fort Ontario.
The principal work, called Old Oswego, or Fort Pepperell, stood at the mouth of the river on the west side, nearly opposite Fort Ontario, about 450 meters distant from it. The trading-house, which formed the centre of the place, was built of rough stone laid in clay and the wall which enclosed it was of the same materials. Towards the west and south they had been protected by an outer line of earthworks, mounted with guns and forming an entrenched camp. The side of the fort towards Fort Ontario was left wholly exposed. On a hill, 400 meters beyond Old Oswego, stood the unfinished stockade called New Oswego, Fort George, or, by reason of its worthlessness, Fort Rascal. It had served as a cattle pen before the French appeared, but was now occupied by 150 New Jersey Provincials. Old Oswego with its outwork was held by the 50th Shirley's Regiment of Foot to whom were now joined the garrison of Fort Ontario and a number of sailors, boatmen, and labourers.
During the night of August 13 to 14, Montcalm lost no time. As soon as darkness set in he began a battery at the brink of the height on which stood the captured Fort Ontario. His whole force toiled all night, digging, setting gabions, and dragging up guns. Before daybreak 20 heavy pieces had been brought to the spot, and nine were already in position. The battery opened fire at 8:00 a.m. Grape and round shot swept the entrenchment and crashed through walls of Old Oswego. The British had to move their guns from the west to the east side of their fortification, making a shelter of pork-barrels, three high and three deep, and planting their guns behind them.
Early in the morning of August 14, Montcalm ordered Rigaud to cross to the west bank of the river with the Canadians and Indians. There was a ford 3 km above the forts where they passed over unopposed. They then showed themselves at the edge of the woods near Old Oswego, further demoralising an already disheartened garrison. Lieutenant-Colonel Mercer had just been cut in two by a cannon-shot while directing the gunners. After a council of the officers, Lieutenant-Colonel Littlehales, now in charge, raised the white flag. Bougainville went to propose terms of capitulation which was soon concluded. The British surrendered prisoners of war to the number of about 1,400, exclusive of civilians. At 1:00 p.m., the French took possession of the fort which was plundered by the Canadians and Indians.
During this siege, the British lost 40 killed while the French lost 1 engineer and 13 men killed and 8 wounded. In the forts and vessels were found above 100 pieces of artillery, most of them swivels and other light guns, with a large quantity of powder, shot, and shell. The French burned the forts, the 6 small ships and the 200 bateaux on the stocks, destroyed such provisions and stores as they could not carry away and made the place a desert.
On August 17, Webb had reached German Flats when he received news that Oswego was in the hands of the French. He immediately ordered the commanding officer at the Great Carrying Place to obstruct the passage of the Wood Creek. When Webb arrived at the Great Carrying Place the entire British force there amounted to more than 2,500 men, including 1,500 regulars, seamen and boatmen. Furthermore Johnson was marching thither with the Albany militia. Webb encamped at the Great Carrying Place, fortified his camp and deployed 28 guns to protect it.
On August 18, once the fortifications razed, the French army decamped, loaded with prisoners and spoil and returned to Fort Frontenac, on their way back to Montréal.
When he received an erroneous report that 6,000 French were advancing upon New York, Webb, with shameful precipitation, burned the fort at the Great Carrying Place and retreated down the Mohawk River to German Flats and then to Albany.
Loudon ordered Winslow to abandon his projects against Fort Carillon but to stay where he was and hold the French in check.
Canadian militia were sent back to Canada for the harvest while most of the French regulars took the road to Fort Carillon to reinforce Lévis in these quarters. The II./La Sarre Infanterie was left behind at Saint-Jean on the Richelieu River. Some detachments were also sent to Niagara and Frontenac. Supplies captured at Oswego were sent to Niagara, Frontenac and Belle-Rivière (present-day Ohio River).
France had now conquered the undisputed command of Lake Ontario, and her communications with the West were safe.
From Montréal, the captured British garrison was transferred to Québec where it was put on board a merchant ship which set sail directly for Portsmouth in Great Britain and exchanged them for the same number of French prisoners.
This article incorporates texts from the following books which are now in the public domain:
- Anonymous: A Complete History of the Present War, from its Commencement in 1756, to the End of the Campaign, 1760, London, 1761
- Fortescue, J. W.: A History of the British Army Vol. II, MacMillan, London, 1899, p. 297.
- Lévis, chevalier de: Journal des campagnes du chevalier de Lévis en Canada de 1756 à 1760, Montréal, Beauchemin, 1889, pp. 63-66
- Parkman, Francis: Montcalm and Wolfe, Collier Books, New York, 1884, pp. 223-241
Castex, Jean-Claude: Dictionnaire des batailles terrestres franco-anglaises de la Guerre de Sept Ans, Presse de l'université Laval, Québec: 2006, pp. 134-138.