1757 - French expedition against Fort William Henry Account 01

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Introduction

This article is a rough translation of a manuscript attributed to Louis Antoine de Bougainvile, one of Montcalm's aides-de-camp.

Relation of the expedition and of the capture of Fort William Henry on August 9 1757

The expedition of the winter during which the detachment under lord Rigaud de Vaudreuil had burned the small boats, barges, sheds of the English at Fort William Henry, had put them out of condition to take profit from their position, of their almost finished preparations and of a navigation that the climate allowed them to begin one month earlier than us to attack our forts at Carillon (actual Ticonderoga) and Saint-Frédéric (actual Crown Point). On the contrary, we could consider to act offensively in this part at the beginning of the Spring. However, an extreme food shortage afflicted the colony. The inhabitants of Québec were reduced to very poor rations and those of the countryside were subsisting only from milk products. How to gather the necessary foods for a considerable army.

However, since the preparations of the English seemed to threaten Québec, the marquis de Vaudreuil decided to make the greatest efforts to secure the frontier of lake Saint-Sacrement (actual Lake George) by capturing Fort William built by the English at the head of the lake. This done, he would then focus his attention to reinforce the defence of the capital. Canadians supported the opinion of their governor-general with a zeal worthy of the one that they had always shown. Those who had reserve of grains for the supply of their own family agreed to lend them to the king and by this mean we could find enough supplies to feed an 8,000 men army for 40 days. It was assembled to operate during the period between the seeding season and the harvests when the inhabitants were not obliged to toil the fields. It was also necessary to take profit of the presence of masses of Indians that the capture of Chouagen (actual Oswego) had attracted to Montéal and who would be forced to leave before the end of August because of the four to five hundred leagues to travel on rivers and lakes who freeze.

The army was entirely assembled at Carillon by July 20 1757 and as soon as the marquis de Montcalm (a), following the instructions received from the marquis de Vaudreuil distributed militia into battalions commanded by officers of the Troupes de la Marine”. Of the companies detached from this corps, he composed a battalion similar to ours and destined to roll with them. He also gave to lord de Villiers, known for his campaign of last year, a corps of 300 Canadian Volunteers.

The force and composition of the army was as follow.

Regular Troops

The La Reine brigade composed of the battalions of La Reine, Languedoc and the one of the Marine, the La Sarre brigade, of the battalions of La Sarre and Guyenne, the one of Royal Roussillon, of the battalions of Royal Roussillon and Béarn.

Militia

The battalions of La Corne, Vassan, Repentigny, Courtemanche, St-Ours and Gaspé and the 300 Volunteers of Villiers. M. Rigaud as commander in chief of this corps.

Indians

Mission Indians 820. From the Pays d'en haut (highlands) 986.

Artillery and Engineers

Lord Le Mercier commanding. 6 officers and about 120 gunners, bombardiers et workers.

Lords Fontbrune and Lobiniere engineers.

This army excluding the garrisons of Carillon, of the fall, of the carrying place, the sick and uncompleted ranks of the battalions amounted to 5,500 men not counting the Indians, the workers at the carrying place, an artillery considerable in ammunitions and pieces of all kinds, 250 small boats and 200 canoes carried from Carillon to lake Saint-Sacrement. The carrying had to be done entirely with manpower and could only be completed during the night from July 31 to August 1.

On the 27, the marquis de Montcalm had held a great council in which, by a necklace of 6,000 beads presented in the king's name, he binded all Indian nations between them and to him so that they could not separate nor leave him before the end of the expedition whose plan and dispositions he exposed them. In the morning of the 30, the chevalier de Lévis at the head of a corps of 2,500 men composed of six grenadier companies, eight picquets, the Volunteers of Villiers, about 1,000 Canadians and 500 Indians had marched across the woods to search them, to secure by this mean the navigation of the army, to reconnoitre and cover the landings. He had for guide the Iroquois Kanectagon, the most famous hunter of this nation. As early as the evening of the 31, the Indians destined to travel on water had advanced three leagues ahead on lake Saint-Sacrement where they were waiting for us.

On August 1st at 2 o'clock in the afternoon, the army embarked and arrived on the 2nd at 3 o'clock in the morning at Ganouskie Bay located 4 leagues from Fort William Henry where the chevalier de Lévis had taken post the previous day at 3 o'clock in the evening after a march that the excessive heat, the continuous mountains, the fallen trees and the necessity to carry everything, had made tiresome even for the Indians.

He left this place with his detachment at 10 o'clock in the morning, went to a cove distant of about a league from the English fort and then reconnoitred this fort, the position of the enemies and the landings that could be used for the artillery. The army then arrived at 11 o'clock in the evening at this same cove and everybody bivouacked there. Prisoners captured during the night informed us that the number of enemies could amount to 3,000 men of which 500 in the fort and the rest in the entrenched camp located on the heights at 200 toises from the fort and within reach to refresh its garrison daily. They also told us that at the signal of a cannon shot, all troops should take arms. Consequently, the marquis de Montcalm immediately gave the order of march to the army whose disposition was made to receive the enemy, in case that he came to meet us, and, in the case that he did not come, to invest the place and even attack the entrenched camp if it was considered feasible to storm it.

On the 3rd at daybreak, the army was on the move, the chevalier de Lévis forming the vanguard with his corps, part of the Canadians and all Indians. The battalions and the remaining militia followed in column: lord Rigaud on the right, lord Bourlamaque on the left, the marquis de Montcalm in the centre. Lord Privatre, lieutenant-colonel, had been placed with 500 men and the Saint-Ours brigade to the guard of the boats and artillery.

At noon, the investment was entirely formed and the marquis de Montcalm who had gone to the vanguard, having reconnoitred that we could not attack the entrenchments of the enemies without compromising all the forces of the colony, sent orders to lord Bourlamaque to seat the army camp: the left to the lake and the right to almost inaccessible ravines and to immediately bring there the battalions of La Sarre and Royal Roussillon. For himself, with the La Reine brigade and Gaspé militia, he spent the night bivouacking within reach to support the chevalier de Lévis' corps. (*)

In the morning of the 4th, since the post occupied by the vanguard, although the best possible to cut the communication of the besieged with Fort Edward, was too far away from the siege, the boats and the supplies, it moved closer. In the mean time, the marquis de Montcalm brought the La Reine and Gaspé brigades to take their place in the camp marked the previous day. The army destined for the siege, for which lord Bourlamaque had received command, found itself out of reach and composed of seven battalions and of the Saint-Ours and Gaspé brigades. The chevalier de Lévis with the four other brigades , the Volunteers of Villiers and all the Indians was charged to cover of our right, to observe the movements of the enemies on the highway to Fort Edward and to make them believe by continuous movements that we still occupied this line of communication. Indeed, it would have required a thrice more numerous army than ours to entirely invest the place.

In the afternoon of the 4th, we marked the depot of the trench, we made the road from this depot to the camp, and the fascines, gabions and saucissons necessary for the works of the first night. We prepared a cove where this depot ended up to land the artillery by night as it was needed.

On the night of the 4th to 5th, we opened the trench at 350 toises from the fort. The attack embraced the north-west front. The trench was a sort of first parallel. We also began two batteries and their communications to the parallel.

On the 5th during the day, the day workers perfected the works of the night. We were obliged to move the left of army camp a little backward, it was too exposed to fire from the place whose guns and bombs had killed people in the tents. The Indians intercepted a letter from general Webb written at Fort Edward on the 4th at midnight. He informed the commander of the place that, soon after the arrival of the militia of the provinces which he had ordered to join him right away, he would advance to fight the French army, that however, if these militia arrived too late, the commander had to obtain the best conditions possible. This letter determined the marquis de Montcalm to accelerate further the construction of the batteries and the number of workers was increased. He also assembled a council of all the nations and informed them of the content of the intercepted letter and of the measures that he intended to take in consequence. He then complained that the young men were less occupied of the essential object of scouting than to do all day long useless shooting around the fort and that barely a small number of them were established at the chevalier de Lévis' camp even though the conduct of the affair required it and that they had promised it to him. The Indians thanked the marquis de Montcalm for the news that he gave them and guaranteed that before the end of the day they would all go to the chevalier de Lévis' camp to do his will about scouting. The marquis de Montcalm binded them with two necklaces and ten pieces of porcelain.

On the night of the 5th to 6th , the workers completed the left battery and the communication of the right battery with the parallel and moved this battery considerably forward. The left one was ready at daybreak to the great satisfaction of the Indians whose shouts signalled all successful shots. It was of eight guns and one mortar and battered the defences of the west front, of the lake front and of the small boats harbour. On the night of the 6th to 7th , we conducted a gallery of 160 toises in front of the west bastion and finished the right battery. This battery of eight guns, one mortar and two howitzers battered the front of attack sideways and the entrenched camp on the rebound. It was uncovered at 7 o'clock in the morning and, after a double salvo from the two batteries, the marquis de Montcalm sent me to deliver the letter of his general intercepted on the 5th to the commander. It was, at a moment when our works were already well under way, supplying him with an excuse to talk about surrender and the Indians had asked that we undertook this action. In the night of the 7th to 8th, the workers progressed towards the place by continuing the gallery begun the previous day which was conducted to 100 toises from the ditch. We also opened a hook at the end of this gallery to establish a third battery and lodge some musketry.

Around midnight, two deserters from the entrenched camp, fell into an ambush of Indians who were laying hidden in front of the workers. At the sound of the volley of shots fired upon them, the mountains surrounding the fort rang of the shouts of all the Indians who were calling and answering each others. This likely disgusted the besieged from attempting a sortie which they were on the verge of doing. The work of this night drove us to a marsh about 50 toises wide that a bordering hillock covered from the batteries of the place to the exception of ten toises which were exposed to fire. Even though it was now day time, the marquis de Montcalm had a passage built like those made for water filled ditches. The sappers worked with such liveliness that the passage was completed in the morning despite the artillery and musket fire of the besieged. This gave us the mean before night time to make across the marsh a causeway able to support artillery. At 4 o'clock in the evening, the Indian scouts reported that a large body was marching to the rescue of the place on the highway from Fort Edward. The chevalier de Lévis immediately went there with most of the Canadians and all the Indians. The marquis de Montcalm did not delay to follow at the head of La Reine brigade and Gaspé militia. He left for the guard of the trenches, boats and camp the La Sarre, Royal Roussillon and St-Ours brigades under the command of lord Bourlamaque. At 6 o'clock the army was advancing in battle order ready to receive the enemy, battalions in columns on the highway, Indians and Canadians in the woods on the wings. When we learned that the news of the march of the enemies was false, troops returned to camp and siege works was not disturbed. Besides that, the quickness of our movement at least served to further increase the confidence that Indians had on the French troops since it proved them that these troops which they called they “supporting wall” had as much activity as bravery. In the night of the 8th, we debouched from the marsh through a gallery used as communication with the second parallel which was opened on the ridge of the hillock and well under way during the night. It is from this parallel that we were supposed to leave to establish the breaching batteries and, by prolonging it, to surround the fort and cut the communication with the entrenchment which had until then remained free. The besieged did not give time to do so, at 8 o'clock in the morning they displayed a white flag. The marquis de Montcalm told colonel Young sent by the commander to negotiate the capitulation that he could not sign anything before having communicated the articles to the Indian nations and obtained they approval. For this, he immediately summoned a general council in which he exposed to the chiefs the conditions under which the English offered to surrender and those that he had decided to grant them. He asked them if they were approving them and if their young men would not infringe them. The chiefs assured him that they approved everything that he would do and that they would stop their young men to commit any disorder. After these solemnly given words, the marquis de Montcalm sent me to write the capitulation with colonel Monro, commander of the fort and entrenchments. The main articles were that the troops, from the garrison as well as from the entrenched camp would leave with their baggage and the honours of war, that they would retire to Fort Edward the following morning and that to reassure them against the Indians, they would be escorted by a detachment of our troops and by the main officers and interpreters attached to the Indians, that these troops could not serve for 18 months against His Majesty nor aginst his allies, that within three months all French, Canadian and Indian prisoners captured on land in North America since the beginning of the war would be brought back to French forts.

This capitulation was signed at noon and immediately the garrison left the fort and lord Bourlamaque took possession of it with the troops of the trenches. We also sent a guard of our troops to the entrenchment as required by the English and the marquis de Montcalm ordered the officers and interpreters attached to the Indians to remain there till the departure of the English. Despite all these precautions, the only one imaginable, the Indians wanted to plunder and the English opposed it. It was feared that some disorders would follow. The marquis de Montcalm rushed there himself and used everything to contain and stop the Indians. Finally, he seemed to succeed and even obtained that besides the escort agreed in the capitulation, two chiefs of each nation would accompany the English troops up to the vicinity of Fort Edward. It was only after having made this last arrangement that he sent me to bring the news of the capitulation to the marquis de Vaudreuil. Such has been the success of this expedition in which 5,500 men, notwithstanding the Indians, have taken a fort and an entrenched camp defended by 3,000 men and by almost 50 guns or mortars abundantly equipped with supplies of all kinds, within reach of being rescued by all the forces of the English colonies. As long as the siege has lasted, the army has been almost entirely on duty day and night, in the trench, or at the camp, or in the woods to make the necessary fascines, gabions and saucissons. They constructed with pickaxe, axe and saw some 600 toises of trenches wide enough to carry two guns side by side, and abbatis which cluttering up the whole terrain. We have had about 60 men killed or wounded and the besieged 250 killed and 100 wounded.

The marquis de Montcalm was in a position to require them to surrender as prisoners of war, but how the colony could have fed 2,500 additional men in a time when part of its inhabitants were suffering the extremities of food shortage?

This same food shortage, a portage of 6 leagues to do with an army exhausted by fatigue and bad food, the departure of all Indians of the Pays d'en haut and of most of the Mission Indians, the necessity to return the Canadians to the already ripened harvests, there were the invincible obstacles who stopped us to march upon Fort Edward. The marquis de Montcalm will demolish Fort William Henry, evacuate his army and cross the portage from lake Saint-Sacrement to Carillon where we expect to finish the campaign defensively.

P.S. We have just learned the news of violences committed by the Indians on the morning of the 10th. The English, who have an inconceivable fear of them, impatient to move away from them wanted to begin their march before our escort was assembled and deployed. Some of their soldiers had, despite all the advices given on this subject, make them drink some rum. Who in the world could contain 1,800 Indians from 32 different nations when they have drunk. Disorder began with the Abenakis who pretended to have suffered bad treatments from the English. Their example led others, they threw themselves onto the garrison which, rather than make good countenance, took fright. This make them grow bolder, they plundered, killed about twenty men and brought 5 to 600 with them. To the sound of this disorder, French officers rushed to the spot and made great efforts to stop it until some grenadiers of our escort were injured by the Indians. The English themselves publish that the marquis de Montcalm, MM. de Lévis, de Bourlamaque and many others risked their lives to save them. Indeed in such cases, Indians do not respect anything. Finally, we appeased them and the marquis de Montcalm immediately recovered 100 of those who had been taken. He made them dressed and since the departure of the Indians, he has returned them with an escort to Fort Edward. Those brought back to Montréal by the Indians have been bought back at great price by the marquis de Vaudreuil at the king,s expense et they will soon be sent to Halifax aboard a ship.

(a) A few days after the marquis de Montcalm's arrival to Carillon, lord Marin, lieutenant in the Marine troops came back from a raid into which 200 Canadians and Indians had made some prisoners and scalps in the very outposts and under the entrenchments of Fort Edward. Lord Corbières, lieutenant in the same troops, at the head of a large party of Indians and of a few Canadians entirely defeated on lake Saint-Sacrement a detachment of 350 men under the command of colonel Parker arrived into 30 barges of which only two returned to Fort William Henry.

(*) Upon arriving, he had warned the commander of the fort, that once our batteries established it might be impossible to him to put a stop the barbarity of a host of Indians, this summon dictated by humanity had been without effect.

References

Bougainville, Louis Antoine de, Relation de l'expédition et de la prise du fort Guillaume Henry le 9 août 1757, Pièce A2-32s - Collection de pièces relatives à l'histoire de la guerre commencée entre la France et l'Angleterre en 1756, Service historique de la Défense

Acknowledgements

Philippe Évrard for his research in the archives of the Service historique de la Défense