1757 - Siege of Fort William Henry
The siege lasted from August 4 to 9 1757
During the summer of 1757, the French commanders in Canada organized an expedition against Fort William Henry. By the beginning of August they had successfully concentrated a superior force on Lake Saint-Sacrement (actual Lake George). On August 2, the entire French army under Montcalm disembarked near Fort William Henry ready to lay siege to it.
On August 3 at dawn, the French camp was all astir. The column of Lévis, with all Indians and part of the Canadians to lead the way, moved through the forest towards the fort and Montcalm followed with the main body in three columns: Rigaud on the right, Bourlamaque on the left and Montcalm in the centre. Then, the artillery boats preceded by Indian canoes rounded the point that had hid them from the sight of the British.
At 9:00 AM, Monro, who was in command at the fort, sent Webb a hasty note, telling him that the French were in sight on the lake. Skirmishes broke out between Lévis' Indians and British parties sent out to save the cattle roaming in the neighbourhood and to burn some out-buildings that would have favoured the besiegers. Meanwhile, other British detachments were taking down the tents that stood on a plateau to the south-west of the fort and moving them to the entrenchment on the hill. To support these detachments, the garrison sallied from the fort. Lévis’ vanguard only met a few outpost which were soon abandoned. It then took position on the road to Fort Edward.
By noon, the investment of the fort was entirely formed. Montcalm then joined the vanguard to reconnoitre the entrenchments which he considered too strong to be stormed and decided to besiege the fort in form. Accordingly, he sent orders to Bourlamaque to encamp: his left to the lake and his right to almost inaccessible ravines to cover the artillery depot. Bourlamaque then immediately brought the La Sarre and Royal Roussillon battalions into the camp. Meanwhile, La Reine brigade was advanced at 2 km from the vanguard.
At 4:00 PM, Montcalm sent a messenger to summon colonel Monro to surrender. However, Monro refused to capitulate.
At 6:00 PM, Monro wrote another note to Webb, announcing that the firing had begun and asking for reinforcements. When the skirmishing around the fort was over, La Corne, with a body of Indians, occupied the road that led to Fort Edward and Lévis encamped hard by to support him. Montcalm bivouacked with the La Reine brigade and Gaspé militia, within reach to support Lévis' corps.
Fort William Henry stood at the south-western head of the lake. On its eastern side was a marsh, then a rough piece of ground where Johnson had encamped in 1755, then a low rocky hill crowned with an entrenched camp and, further east, another marsh. Far around the fort and up the slopes of the western mountain, the forest had been cut down and burned by Winslow in the autumn of 1756. Fort William Henry itself was an irregular bastioned square, formed by embankments of gravel surmounted by a rampart of heavy logs, laid in tiers crossed one upon another, the interstices filled with earth. The lake protected it on the north, the marsh on the east, and ditches with chevaux-de-frise on the south and west. Seventeen guns, great and small, besides several mortars and swivels, were mounted upon it. The British garrison, which had been reinforced a few days before, now counted 2,500 men and consisted of regular troops, sailors and mechanics, under the command of a veteran Scottish officer, lieutenant-colonel Monro of the 35th Regiment of Foot.
In the morning of August 4, Montcalm ordered the vanguard to move closer. Meanwhile the La Reine and Gaspé brigades entered into the camp. Bourlamaque was left with seven battalions along with the Saint-Ours and Gaspé brigades to besiege the fort. Lévis with the remaining four brigades, the Volontaires de Villiers and all the Indians was charged to cover the right flank and to observe the movements of the enemies on the highway from Fort Edward. Montcalm then sent Fontbrune, one of his aides-de-camp, to summon Monro to surrender. Monro replied that he and his soldiers would defend themselves to the last. The same day, even if he had received Monro's letters, Webb lay quiet at Fort Edward, sending expresses to New England for help which could not possibly arrive in time. Webb thought that Montcalm had 12,000 men with him, so he did not consider it prudent to advance to Lake George until further reinforced. In the afternoon, the French began working on the trench depot and built a road between this depot and their camp. They also prepared fascines, gabions and saucissons for the siege work of the first night. The depot was also linked to a cove to land the artillery by night as it was needed.
During the night of August 4 to 5, the French opened the trenches at more than 600 m. from the fort. Some 500 men toiled till daylight with pick, spade, and ax, covered by 300 grenadiers and piquets under the command of lieutenant-colonel Roquemaure. The guns from the fort fired grape and round-shot on them. Before daybreak, the first parallel was made while a battery was nearly finished on the left and another was begun on the right. The parallel embraced the north-west side.
Early on August 5, Webb was informed by Monro that the French were upon him in great numbers, well supplied with artillery, but that the garrison were all in good spirits. The latter required reinforcements once more. Meanwhile, the French now worked under cover, one gang relieving another, and the work went on all day. They were obliged to move the left of their camp a little backward because it was too exposed to fire from the place. Indeed, guns and bombs had killed some people in the tents. The Indians, which were supposed to scout in the direction of Fort Edward to learn the movements of the British and prevent surprise, rather loitered about the camp and in the trenches, or amused themselves by firing at the fort from behind stumps and logs. The same day, the French captured a message from Webb to Monro announcing that soon after the arrival of the provincial militia which he had ordered to join him right away, Webb would advance to fight the French army, that however, if these militia arrived too late, Monro had to obtain the best conditions possible. The letter was brought to Montcalm who kept it in reserve for the proper moment.
On the night of August 5 to 6, the French workers completed the left battery and the communication of the right battery with the parallel. They also moved the right battery considerably forward.
At sunrise on August 6, the French battery of the left opened to the great satisfaction of the Indians whose shouts signaled all successful shots. It consisted 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 August 6 to 7, the French dug a gallery of almost 300 m. in front of the west bastion and completed the right battery which consisted of eight guns, one mortar and two howitzers. It battered the front of attack sideways and the entrenched camp on the rebound.
On August 7 at 7:00 AM, the trench was only 70 m. from the fort. The French battery of the right joined its 11 pieces to those already firing on the fort. After a double salvoes from the two batteries, Montcalm sent Bougainville to deliver Webb's letter to Monro who still refused to surrender.
Some 2,000 New York provincials had now reached Fort Edward, bringing Webb's forces to some 3,600 men. Even by stripping all the forts downriver, Webb could gather up at most 4,500 men.
On the night of August 7 to 8, the French sappers had worked their way to the angle of the lake by continuing the gallery begun the previous day which was conducted to 180 m. from the ditch. They opened a hook at the end of this gallery to establish a third battery and lodge some musketry. Around midnight, two men came out of the fort to reconnoitre with a view to a sortie but they were greeted by a general volley. At the sound of this volley, the mountains surrounding the fort rang from the shouts of all the Indians who were calling and answering each others. This likely demoralized the besieged from attempting a sortie which they were on the verge of doing. Meanwhile, the French sappers were stopped by a marshy hollow about 90 m. wide covered by a nearby hillock.
On August 8, even though it was now day time, Montcalm ordered to build a passage over the marsh. The sappers worked with liveliness. Logs and fascines in large quantities were thrown into the hollow and hurdles were laid over them to form a causeway for the guns. Then the sap was continued up the acclivity beyond, a trench was opened in the garden and a battery begun, not 230 meters from the fort.
The position of the besieged was now deplorable. More than 300 of them had been killed and wounded, small-pox was raging in the fort and the casemates were crowded with the sick. A sortie from the entrenched camp and another from the fort had been repulsed with loss. All their large cannon and mortars had been burst, or disabled by shot; only seven small pieces were left fit for service and the whole of Montcalm's 31 guns and 15 mortars and howitzers would soon open fire. The walls were already breached and an assault was imminent.
At 4:00 PM (August 8), Indian scouts reported that a large body was marching on the highway from Fort Edward to the rescue of the place. Lévis moved towards the highway with most of the Canadians and all Indians. Montcalm quickly followed at the head of La Reine brigade and Gaspé militia. He left the La Sarre, Royal Roussillon and St-Ours brigades behind under Bourlamaque to guard trenches, boats and camp. At 6:00 PM, the French 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. The whole incident soon turned to a false alarm and troops returned to camp. Siege works had not been disturbed by this alarm.
In the night of August 8 to 9, the French debouched from the marsh through a gallery used as communication with the second parallel which was opened on the ridge of the hillock. It was from this parallel that the breaching batteries were to be established.
In the morning of August 9, the British officers held a council and all agreed to surrender if honourable terms could be had. At 8:00 AM, a white flag was raised, a drum was beat and lieutenant-colonel Young, mounted on horseback, for a shot in the foot had disabled him from walking, went, followed by a few soldiers, to the tent of Montcalm who informed him that he could not sign anything before having communicated the articles to the Indian nations and obtained they approval. Montcalm then summoned a general council in which he exposed to the chiefs the conditions under which the British offered to surrender and those that he had decided to grant them. He asked them if they were approving these conditions and if their young men would not infringe them. The chiefs assured Montcalm that they approved everything that he would do and that they would stop their young men from committing any disorder. Montcalm then sent Bougainville to write the capitulation with colonel Monro. 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
- they would retire to Fort Edward the following morning
- to protect them against the Indians, they would be escorted by a detachment of French troops and by the main officers and interpreters attached to the Indians
- these British troops could not serve for 18 months against the French and their Allies
- 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.
- the stores, munitions, and artillery were to be the prize of the victors, except one field-piece, which the garrison were to retain in recognition of their brave defence.
The capitulation was signed at noon and immediately the British garrison left the fort. At 11:00 AM, Bougainville and the chevalier de Bernets took possession of the fort. They were charged with the demolition of the fort. The French captured 23 guns, 3 mortars, 17 pierriers, 1 howitzer, a large quantity of powder and 4 months supplies. The British lost 100 men killed and 150 wounded; the French, 20 killed and 40 wounded.
Unfortunately, when the British column retired on August, Indians disobeying orders attacked it. Some 50 persons were killed while about 700 hundred were carried off. Montcalm succeeded in recovering more than 400 of them in the course of the day. All the refugees and redeemed prisoners were afterwards conducted to the entrenched camp where food and shelter were provided for them and a strong guard set for their protection.
This article incorporates texts from the following books which are now in the public domain:
- 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
- Fortescue J. W., A History of the British Army Vol. II, MacMillan, London, 1899, pp. 305-306
- Lévis, chevalier de, Journal des campagnes du chevalier de Lévis en Canada de 1756 à 1760, Montréal, Beauchemin, 1889, pp. 81-112
- Parkman, Francis, Montcalm and Wolfe, Collier Books, New York, 1884, pp. 276-306