1759 - British expedition against Fort Niagara

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Hierarchical Path: Seven Years War (Main Page) >> Campaigns >> 1759 - British expedition against Fort Niagara

The campaign lasted from June to July 1759

Introduction

For the campaign of 1759, the British secretary of state William Pitt had directed that, while Québec was attacked, an attempt should be made to penetrate into Canada by way of Carillon (actual Ticonderoga) and Fort Saint-Frédéric (actual Crown Point) . Thus the two British armies might unite in the heart of the French colony, or, at least, a powerful diversion might be made in behalf of major-general James Wolfe. At the same time Oswego was to be re-established on the shores of Lake Ontario, and the possession of Pittsburgh (former Fort Duquesne), secured by reinforcements and supplies.

Lord Jeffrey Amherst, the commander-in-chief in North America, sent brigadier-general John Stanwix to conduct the operations for the relief of Pittsburgh. Amherst himself prepared to lead the grand central advance by Lake Champlain against Carillon, Fort Saint-Frédéric and Montréal.

Description

Initial operations on Lake Ontario and the Upper Saint-Laurent

On February 16, 5 Iroquois warriors were captured at Fort La Présentation (at the confluence of the Oswegatchie River and the Saint-Laurent River near actual Ogdensburg) where they had come to reconnoitre the French installations in this area and to offer the Iroquois of this place to join the British. The French were building new boats nearby at Pointe au Baril to replace those captured by the British at Fort Frontenac (actual Kingston) in 1758. They planned to launch these new boat at the beginning of April. The marquis de Vaudreuil, governor of Canada, treated the Iroquois prisoners with consideration, trying to lure them to the French alliance.

Late February, captain François Marie Le Marchand de Ligneris informed Vaudreuil that the British had built a fort on the height adjacent to the former Fort Duquesne and that this fort was defended by only 300 men while the next British post, Loyalhannon, had a garrison of only 500 men.

In March, Vaudreuil sent the Iroquois captured at La Présentation home.

On March 26, Vaudreuil sent captain Pierre Pouchot of Béarn Infanterie with 150 Canadians to take command at Pointe au Baril near Fort La Présentation, and to speed up the construction of the boats.

On April 2, Vaudreuil also sent lieutenant Joseph Marin of the Troupes de la Marine at the head of 150 Canadians and M. de Villars, captain at La Sarre Infanterie, at the head of another 150 regulars, to join Pouchot at Pointe au Baril through Les Cèdres. Once assembled, Pouchot's entire force counted some 700 men. It was destined to Fort Niagara where Pouchot was ordered to go as soon as possible. His instructions were to maintain his boats well armed and to send them cruising Lake Ontario towards Fort Frontenac and the Oswego river. About this time, the chevalier de Lévis received intelligence that the British were dispatching artillery to Oswego.

By April 3, Pouchot was on his way to Fort Niagara after strengthening the fortifications of Fort La Présentation.

At Montréal, the French commanders decided that the outlet of Lake Ontario in the Saint-Laurent river would be defended by Louis-Luc chevalier de La Corne with 1,200 men who was also charged to harass the British positions at Oswego.

Prideaux expedition

At the end of Spring 1759, Amherst's operations to south and west began to tell upon the situation. He decided to add the reduction of Fort Niagara to the enterprises prescribed to him by Pitt. He assigned this mission to brigadier-general John Prideaux with 5,000 men:

The operations of Prideaux and Stanwix were to be conducted in combination, for it was intended that while Prideaux was engaged with Fort Niagara, Stanwix should push a force northward against the French posts on Lake Érié, and thence on to Fort Niagara itself, thus releasing Prideaux for an advance to the Saint-Laurent.

In June, according to plan, the chevalier de La Corne was on his way with his detachment for his assigned position at the rapids of the Saint-Laurent river. However, misinformed by the Iroquois, Pouchot at Niagara sent most of his troops to Ligneris on the Ohio, keeping only 600 men with him at Niagara.

By June 15, Prideaux's force had been assembled on the Mohawk at Schenectady.

Meanwhile, despite the reports made to Pouchot by the Iroquois, the British were advancing on Fort Niagara. Indeed, Prideaux moved up the Mohawk river, left a strong garrison at Fort Stanwix to guard the Oneida Great Carrying-place, established posts at both ends of Lake Oneida and descended the Onondaga to Oswego. There leaving nearly half of his force (about 2,000 men) under colonel Frederick Haldimand to secure his retreat, he embarked with the rest on the lake for Fort Niagara. Meanwhile, Haldimand prepared to build a fort and he barricaded his camp with pork and flour barrels.

Early in July, uninformed that Prideaux was already advancing on Lake Ontario, Louis-Luc de La Corne decided to advance to Oswego whence he planned to advance upstream to harass the British expedition. Accordingly, he left the head of the rapids of the Saint-Laurent with 1,000 French and Canadians and a body of Indians. If this party ever seized Oswego, the return of Prideaux from Niagara would be cut off and, when his small stock of provisions had failed, he would be reduced to extremity.

When La Corne discovered the British detachment at Oswego, he resolved to attack them. Haldimand's men were taken by surprise. Many of them were dispersed in the woods, cutting timber for the intended fort. However, at the moment of the attack, some of La Corne's Canadians became alarmed and rushed back to their boats. La Corne rallied them and the whole party ensconced itself in a tract of felled trees so far from the British that their fire did little harm. They continued it about 2 hours.

The next morning, La Corne wanted to renew the attack but the British being prepared and entrenched, he retired at the head of the rapids. When 3 cannon were brought to bear on them, the Canadians took to their boats and disappeared, having lost about 30 killed and wounded, including 2 officers and La Corne himself, who was shot in the thigh. The British loss was slight.

Meanwhile, Prideaux safely reached Niagara.

The siege of Niagara begins

On July 6, Pouchot was surprised to see a British force of about 3,000 men land at the Petit Marais near Fort Niagara.

On July 7, Pouchot sent a messenger to ask assistance from the troops of the Ohio. Indeed, in obedience to an order from Vaudreuil, the governor of Canada, the French population of the Illinois, Détroit, and other distant posts, joined with troops of Western Indians, had come down the lakes to recover Fort Duquesne (Pittsburgh), undo the work of brigadier-general John Forbes, and restore French ascendency on the Ohio. Pittsburgh had been in imminent danger, nor was it yet safe though brigadier-general Stanwix was sparing no effort to succour it. These Franco-Indians bands were now gathered, partly at Le Boeuf (near modern Waterford) and Venango (actual Franklin, PA), but chiefly at Presqu'isle (actual Erie, PA), under command of Aubry, Ligneris, Marin and other partisan chiefs, the best in Canada.

On July 8, the British made preparations to attack Fort Niagara.

On July 9, the British summoned Pouchot to surrender the place.

During the night of July 9 to 10, the British opened a trench. Niagara was a strong fort, lately rebuilt in regular form. It stood in the angle formed by the junction of the river Niagara with Lake Ontario, and was held by about 600 men, well supplied with provisions and munitions of war. Higher up the river, 2 km above the cataract, there was another fort, called Little Niagara, built of wood, and commanded by the officer Daniel-Marie de Chabert de Joncaire de Clausonne and his brother Philippe-Marie and a numerous clan of Indian Allies, had so long thwarted the efforts of sir William Johnson to engage the Iroquois in the British cause. But recent British successes had had their effect. Joncaire's influence was waning and Johnson was now in Prideaux's camp with 900 Iroquois warriors pledged to fight the French. Joncaire, finding his fort untenable, burned it and came with his garrison and his Indian Allies to reinforce Niagara.

On July 11, the British uncovered a battery of mortars.

On July 12, the British continued working on the trenches. The French made an unsuccessful sortie. The British engineers were so incompetent that the trenches, as first laid out, were scoured by the fire of the place, and had to be made anew.

On July 15, the British started work on a trench-cavalier to enfilade the covert way.

At last, on July 17, 2 British batteries (the first counting 4 pieces the second 5 pieces) opened against Fort Niagara from a distance of about 200 m. The bombardment continued for several days.

On July 20, a shell from a howitzer burst prematurely, just as it left the mouth of the piece and a fragment, striking Prideaux on the head, killed him instantly. Johnson took command in his place and made up in energy what he lacked in skill.

After a few days, Johnson had erected a third battery within 100 m. of the flag bastion.

After two weeks of battering, the fort was in extremity. The rampart was breached, more than 100 of the garrison were killed or disabled and the rest were exhausted with want of sleep. Pouchot watched anxiously for the promised succours.

On July 23, Johnson received intelligence that a Franco-Indian relief party was approaching Niagara. In the evening, he ordered his light infantry and picquets of the line regiments to lie near the road to his left where he expected the French.

Engagement at La Belle Famille

On the morning of July 24, a distant firing told Pouchot that reinforcements were at hand. Aubry and Ligneris parties (about 1,100 French and 1,200 Indians) had left Presqu'isle a few days before. Among them was a body of Compagnies Franches de la Marine but the Frenchmen of the party were chiefly traders and bushrangers from the West. They were excellent woodsmen, skilful hunters, and perhaps the best bush-fighters in all Canada.

Johnson, besides his Indians, had with him about 2,300 men, whom he was forced to divide into 3 separate bodies: one to guard the bateaux, one to guard the trenches and one to fight Aubry and his band. This last body, which initially consisted of the provincial light infantry and the pickets sent forward the previous evening, was reinforced with 2 companies of grenadiers and 150 men of the 46th Foot, and placed under command of colonel Eyre Massey. They took post behind an abattis at a place called “La Belle Famille”, and the Iroquois placed themselves on their flanks. These Iroquois had shown signs of disaffection and, when the enemy approached, they opened a parley with the French Indians, which, however, soon ended, and both sides raised the war-whoop.

Johnson also instructed lieutenant-colonel Farquhar to take position at the tail of the trenches with the 44th Foot and to support the guard commanded by major John Beckwith in case the French garrison should make a sally.

When Pouchot heard the firing, he went with a wounded artillery officer to the bastion next the river and, as the forest had been cut away for a great distance, they could see more than 2 km along the shore. There, by glimpses among trees and bushes, they descried bodies of men, now advancing, and now retreating; Indians in rapid movement, and the smoke of guns, the sound of which reached their ears in heavy volleys, or a sharp and angry rattle. Meanwhile, the British cannon had ceased their fire and the silent trenches seemed deserted. There was a call in the fort for volunteers to sally and destroy the works. No sooner did the volunteers show themselves along the covered way than the seemingly abandoned trenches were thronged with men and bayonets and the attempt was given up. The distant firing lasted half an hour, then ceased. Indeed, the fight had been brisk for a while but at last Aubry's men broke away in a panic. The French officers seem to have made desperate efforts to retrieve the day, for nearly all of them were killed or captured; while their followers, after heavy loss, fled to their canoes and boats above the cataract.

Pouchot remained in suspense till, at 2:00 PM, a friendly Onondaga, who had passed unnoticed through the British lines, came to him with the announcement that the French and their allies had been routed and cut to pieces. Pouchot would not believe him.

At 4:00 PM, after a furious cannonade on both sides, a trumpet sounded from the trenches and major Harvey approached the fort with a summons to surrender. He brought also a paper containing the names of the captive French officers. Pouchot, feigning incredulity, sent an officer of his own to the British camp, who soon saw unanswerable proof of the disaster; for here, under a shelter of leaves and boughs near the tent of Johnson, sat Ligneris, severely wounded, with Aubry, Villiers, Montigny, Marin, and their companions in misfortune, in all, 16 officers, 4 cadets, and 1 surgeon.

Fort Niagara surrenders

Pouchot had now no choice but surrender which he did on July 25. By the terms of the capitulation, the garrison (now amounting to about 600 men) were to be sent prisoners to New York, though honours of war were granted them in acknowledgement of their courageous conduct. There was a special stipulation that they should be protected from the Indians, of whom they stood in the greatest terror, lest the massacre of Fort William Henry should be avenged upon them. Johnson restrained his dangerous allies, and, though the fort was pillaged, no blood was shed.

The defeated French relief force hastened back to Lake Erie, burned Presqu'isle, Le Boeuf and Venango, and, joined by the garrisons of those forts, retreated to Détroit.

The whole region of the Upper Ohio was now an undisputed possession of the British. Furthermore, the French posts of the West were hopelessly cut off from Canada. The British commanders could now consider an advance on Montréal by Lake Ontario.

The French prepare to defend the outlet of Lake Ontario

When the news of the capture of Fort Niagara reached Québec, it was decided to send Lévis to Montréal with 100 regulars and 700 militia. Vaudreuil promoted him commander-in-chef of the government of Montréal.

Johnson, being short of ammunition and supplies, then returned to Oswego.

Meanwhile, on hearing of Prideaux's death, Amherst sent brigadier-general Thomas Gage to supersede Johnson. Upon his arrival at Oswego, Johnson relinquished his command to Gage. Meanwhile, captain Joshua Loring of the Royal Navy superintended the construction of 2 large vessels for the navigation and command of Lake Ontario and the Saint-Laurent river. Indeed, Gage had been instructed to take command on Lake Ontario, to descend the Saint-Laurent, to attack the French post of La Présentation (aka La Galette) at the head of the rapids and to hold them if possible for the winter.

On August 9, Lévis left Québec accompanied by M. de la Pause and the chevalier Le Mercier.

On August 12, Lévis arrived at Montréal.

On August 12, Lévis left Montréal to identify good defensive positions at the rapids of the Saint-Laurent.

On August 14, Lévis was back to Montréal after his inspection of the French positions at the rapids. Since most men of his government were enlisted in the militia and fighting at Québec, Lévis sent 400 men of his troops to work at the harvest. He also asked for the help of the entire population in the endeavour. He then sent his remaining 400 men (including the 100 regulars) to reinforce La Corne at the rapids. Finally, he left Montréal and spent the night at Lachine.

On August 15, Lévis left Lachine and spent the night at Les Cèdres.

On August 16, Lévis travelled from Les Cèdres to Anse-aux-Bateaux (unidentified location) at the entrance of lake Saint-François.

On August 17, Lévis reached Long-Sault.

On August 18, Lévis continued his travel upstream.

On August 19, Lévis arrived at the camp of the chevalier de La Corne.

On August 20, Lévis sailed towards Fort Frontenac where he arrived at noon on August 22. He reconnoitred the surrounding of the destroyed fort.

On August 23, Lévis was back to La Corne's camp.

On August 24, Lévis gave orders to fortify a large island adjacent to La Corne's camp. He spent the following days taking arrangements for the defence of the rapids. During this period 200 of the 300 militia, previously sent from Montréal on August 14, arrived at La Corne's camp.

On August 29, the 100 French regulars along with the last 100 militia sent from Montréal two weeks before arrived at La Corne's camp.

On September 1, a party of Iroquois from Lac des Deux-Montagnes joined La Corne's forces and a council took place with the Iroquois of La Présentation.

On September 4, Lévis was recalled to Montréal.

On the Saint-Laurent, Gage was now facing a French force greater than that which he could bring against it, after providing for the safety of Oswego and Niagara. Gage reported that the movement was impossible.

At the end of November, La Corne retired from the rapids of the Saint-Laurent to take his winter quarters.

References

This article is essentially an abridged and adapted version of 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, pp. 384-386
  • Clowes, Wm. Laird, The Royal Navy – A History from the Earliest Time to the Present, Vol. III, Sampson Low, Marston and Company, London: 1898, p. 204
  • Fortescue J. W., A History of the British Army Vol. II, MacMillan, London, 1899, pp. 368-370
  • Lévis, chevalier de, Journal des campagnes du chevalier de Lévis en Canada de 1756 à 1760, Montréal, Beauchemin, 1889, pp. 166-174, 177, 181, 188-202
  • Parkman, Francis, Montcalm and Wolfe, Collier Books, New York, 1884, pp. 442-456