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Fort William Henry, 1757

In January Montcalm paid a visit to Quebec, and there began to see how Bigot and his fellow-vampires were sucking away the life-blood of Canada. 'The intendant lives in grandeur, and has given two splendid balls, where I have seen over eighty very charming and well-dressed ladies. I think Quebec is a town of very good style, and I do not believe we have a dozen cities in France that could rank before it as a social centre.' This was well enough; though not when armies were only half-fed. But here is the real crime: 'The intendant's strong taste for gambling, and the governor's weakness in letting him have his own way, are causing a great deal of play for very high stakes. Many officers will repent it soon and bitterly.' Montcalm was placed in a most awkward position. He wished to stop the ruinous gambling. But he was under Vaudreuil, had no power over the intendant, and, as he said himself, 'felt obliged not to oppose either of them in public, because they were invested with the king's authority.'

Vaudreuil nearly did Canada a very good turn this winter, by falling ill on his way to Montreal. But, luckily for the British and unluckily for the French, he recovered. On February 14 he began hatching more mischief. The British, having been stopped in the West at Oswego, were certain to try another advance, in greater force, by the centre, up Lake Champlain. The French, with fewer men and very much less provisions and stores of all kinds, could hope to win only by giving the British another sudden, smashing blow and then keeping them in check for the rest of the summer. The whole strength of Canada was needed to give this blow, and every pound of food was precious. Vaudreuil, however, was planning to take separate action on his own account. He organized a raid under his brother, Rigaud, without telling Montcalm a word about it till the whole plan was made, even though the raid required the use of some of the French regulars, who were, in an especial degree, under Montcalm's command. Montcalm told Vaudreuil that it was a pity not to keep their whole strength for one decisive dash, and that, if this raid was to take place at all, Levis or some other regular French officer high in rank should be in command.

Vaudreuil, however, adhered to his own plan. This time there was to be no question of credit for anyone but Canadians, Indians, Vaudreuil himself, and his brother. As for making sure of victory by taking, as Montcalm advised, a really strong force: well, Vaudreuil would trust to luck, hit or miss, as he always had trusted before. And a strange stroke of luck very nearly did serve his unworthy turn. For, on March 17, when the 1,600 raiders were drawing quite close to Fort William Henry, most of the little British garrison of 400 men were drinking so much New England rum in honor of St Patrick's Day that their muskets would have hurt friends more than foes if an attack had been made that night. Next evening the French crept up, hoping to surprise the place. But the sentries were once more alert. Through the silence they heard a tapping noise on the lake, which turned out to be made by a Canadian who was trying the strength of the ice with the back of his axe to see if it would bear. This led to a brisk defense. When the French advanced over the ice the British gunners sent such a hail of grape-shot crashing along this precarious foothold that the enemy were glad to scamper off as hard as their legs would take them.

The French did not abandon their attempt, however, and two days later Vaudreuil's brother arrayed his 1,600 men against the fort and summoned it to surrender. As he had no guns the garrison would not listen to him. Rigaud then proceeded to burn what he could outside the fort. He certainly made a splendid bonfire; the wild, red flames leaped into the sky from the open, snow-white clearings beside the fort, with the long, white reaches of Lake George in front and the dark, densely wooded hills all round. A great deal was burnt: four small ships, 350 boats, a sawmill, sheds, magazines, immense piles of firewood, and a large supply of provisions. But the British could afford this loss much better than the French could afford the cost of the raid. And the cost, of course, was five times as great as it ought to have been. Bigot's gang took care of that.

Then the raiders, unable to take the fort, set out for home on snow-shoes. There had been a very heavy snowstorm before they started, and the spring sun was now shining full on the glaring white snow. Many of them, even among the Canadians and Indians, were struck snow blind so badly that they had to be led by the hand--no easy thing on snow-shoes. At the end of March they were safely back in Montreal, where Vaudreuil and his brother went strutting about like a pair of turkey-cocks.

Montcalm's first Canadian winter wore away. Vaudreuil and Bigot still kept up an outward politeness in all their relations with him. But they were beginning to fear that he was far too wise and honest for them. He was, however, under Vaudreuil's foolish orders and he had no power to check Bigot's knaveries. Much against his will he was already getting into debt, and was thus rendered even more helpless. Vaudreuil, as governor, had plenty of money. Bigot stole as much as he wished. But Montcalm was not well paid. Yet, as the commander-in-chief, he had to be asking people to dinners and receptions almost every day, while becoming less and less able to meet the expense. The Bigot gang made provisions so scarce and so dear that only the thieves themselves could pay for them. Well might the sorely tried general write home: 'What a country, where knaves grow rich and honest men are ruined!'

In June there was such a sight in Montreal as Canada had never seen before, and never saw again. During the autumn, the winter, and the spring, messengers had been going along every warpath and waterway, east and west for thousands of miles, to summon the tribes to meet Onontio; as they called the French governor, at Montreal. The ice had hardly gone in April when the first of the braves began to arrive in flotillas of bark canoes. The surrender of Washington at Fort Necessity and the capture and rebuilding of Fort Duquesne in 1754, the bloody defeat of Braddock in 1755, and Montcalm's sudden, smashing blow against Oswego in 1756, all had led the western Indians to think that the French were everything and the British nothing. In Canada itself the Indians were equally sure that the French were going to be the victors there; while in the east, in far Acadia, the Abnaki were as bitter as the Acadians themselves against the British. So now, whether eager for more victories or thirsting for revenge, the warriors came to Montreal from far and near.

Fifty-one of the tribes were ready for the warpath. Their chiefs had sat in grave debate round the council fires. Their medicine men had made charms in secret wigwams and seen visions of countless British scalps and piles of British booty. Accordingly, when the braves of these fifty-one tribes met at Montreal, there was war in every heart among them. No town in the world had ever shown more startling contrasts in its streets. Here, side by side, were outward signs of the highest civilization and of the lowest barbarism. Here were the most refined of ladies, dressed in the latest Paris fashions, mincing about in silks and satins and high-heeled, golden-buckled shoes. Here were the most courtly gentlemen of Europe, in the same embroidered and beruffled uniforms that they would have worn before the king of France. Yet in and out of this gay throng of polite society went hundreds of copper-colored braves; some of them more than half-naked; most of them ready, after a victory, to be cannibals who reveled in stews of white man's flesh; all of them decked in waving plumes, all of them grotesquely painted, like demons in a nightmare, and all of them armed to the teeth.

Much to Vaudreuil's disgust the man whom the Indians wished most to see was not himself, the 'Great Onontio,' much less Bigot, prince of thieves, but the warrior chief, Montcalm. They had the good sense to prefer the lion to the owl or the fox. Three hundred of the wildest Ottawa came striding in one day, each man a model of agility and strength, a living bronze, a sculptor's dream, the whole making a picture for the brush of the greatest painter. 'We want to see the chief who tramples the British to death and sweeps their forts off the face of the earth.' Montcalm, though every inch a soldier, was rather short than tall; and at first the Ottawa chief looked surprised. 'We thought your head would be lost in the clouds,' he said. But then, as he caught Montcalm's piercing glance, he added: 'Yet when we look into your eyes, we see the height of the pine and the wings of the eagle.'

Meanwhile, prisoners, scouts, and spies had been coming in; so too had confidential dispatches from France confirming the rumors that the greater part of the British army was to attack Louisbourg, and that the French were well able to defend it. With the British concentrating their strength on Louisbourg a chance offered for another Oswego-like blow against the British forts at the southern end of Lake George if it could be made by July. But Vaudreuil's raid in March, and Bigot's bill for it, had eaten up so much of the supplies and money, that nothing like a large force could be made ready to strike before August; and the month's delay might give the militia of the British colonies, slow as they were, time to be brought up to the help of the forts.

Montcalm was now eager to strike the blow. Once clear of Montreal and its gang of parasites, he soon had his motley army in hand, in spite of all kinds of difficulties. In May Bourlamaque had begun rebuilding Ticonderoga. In July Lake Champlain began to swarm with boats, canoes, and sailing vessels, all moving south towards the doomed fort on Lake George. Montcalm's whole force numbered 8,000. Of these 3,000 were regulars, 3,000 were militia, and 2,000 were Indians from the fifty-one different tribes, very few of whom knew anything of war, except war as it was carried on by savages. By the end of the month these 8,000 men were camped along the four miles of valley between Lakes Champlain and George. Meanwhile the British were at the other end of Lake George, little more than thirty miles away. Their first post was Fort William Henry, where they had 2,200 men under Colonel Monro. Fourteen miles inland beyond that was Fort Edward, where Webb commanded 3,600 men. There were more British troops still farther on, but well within call, and it was known that a large force of militia were being assembled somewhere near Albany. Thus Montcalm knew that the British already had nearly as many men as his own regulars and militia put together, and that further levies of militia might come on at any time and in any numbers. He therefore had to strike as hard and fast as he could, and then retire on Ticonderoga. He knew the Indians would go home at once after the fight and also that he must send the Canadians home in August to save their harvest. Then he would be left with only 3,000 regulars, who could not be fed for the rest of the summer so far from headquarters. With this 3,000 he could not advance, in any case, because of lack of food and because of the presence of Webb's 4,500, increased by an unknown number of American militia.

The first skirmish on Lake George was fought while the main bodies of both armies were still at opposite ends. A party of 400 Indians and 50 Canadians were paddling south when they saw advancing on the lake a number of British boats with 300 men, mostly raw militia from New Jersey. The Indians went ashore and hid. The doomed militiamen rowed on in careless, straggling disorder. Suddenly, as they passed a wooded point, the calm air was rent with blood-curdling war-whoops, and the lake seemed alive with red-skinned fiends, who paddled in among the British boats in one bewildering moment. The militiamen were seized with a panic and tried to escape. But they could not get away from the finest paddlers in the world, who cut them off, upset their boats, tomahawked some, and speared a good many others like fish in the water. Only two boats, out of twenty-three, escaped to tell the tale. That night the forest resounded with savage yells of triumph as the prisoners, out of reach of all help from either army, were killed and scalped to the last man.

On August 1 Montcalm advanced by land and water. He sent Levis by land with 3,000 men to cut Fort William Henry off from Fort Edward, while he went himself, with the rest of his army, by water in boats and canoes. The next day they met at a little bay quite close to the fort. On the 3rd the final advance was made. The French canoes formed lines stretching right across the lake. While the artillery was being landed in a cove out of reach of the guns of the fort Levis was having a lively skirmish with the British, who were trying to drive in their cattle and save their tents. About 500 of them held the fort, and 1,700 were in the entrenched camp some way beyond.

Montcalm sent in a summons to surrender. But old Colonel Monro replied that he was ready to fight. On the 4th and 5th the French batteries rose as if by magic. But the Indians, not used to the delay and the careful preparation which a siege involves, soon grew angry and impatient, and swarmed all over the French lines, asking why they were ordered here and there and treated like slaves, why their advice had not been sought, and why the big guns were not being fired. Montcalm had been counseled to humor them as much as possible and on no account whatever to offend them. Their help was needed, and the British were quite ready to win them over to their own side if possible. Accordingly, on the afternoon of the 5th, Montcalm held a grand 'pow-wow' with the savages. He told them that the French had to be slow at first, but that the very next day the big guns would begin to fire, and that they would all be in the fight together. The fort was timbered and made a good target. The Indians greeted the first roar of the siege guns with yells of delight; and when they saw shells bursting and scattering earth and timbers in all directions they shrieked and whooped so loudly that their savage voices woke almost as many wild echoes along those beautiful shores as the thunder of the guns themselves.

Presently a man came in to the French camp with a letter addressed to Monro, which the Indians had found concealed in a hollow bullet on a British messenger whom they had killed. This letter was from Monro's superior officer, General Webb, fourteen miles distant at Fort Edward. He advised Monro to make the best terms possible with Montcalm, as he did not feel strong enough to relieve Fort William Henry. Montcalm stopped his batteries and sent the letter in to Monro by Bougainville, with his compliments. But Monro, while thanking him for his courtesy, still said he should hold out to the last.

Montcalm now decided to bring matters to a head at once. As yet his batteries were too far off to be effective, and between them and the fort lay first a marsh and then a little hill. By sheer hard work the French made a road for their cannon across the marsh; and Monro saw, to his horror, that Montcalm's new batteries were rising, in spite of the British fire, right opposite the fort, on top of the little hill, and only two hundred and fifty yards away.

Monro knew he was lost. Smallpox was raging in the fort. Webb would not move. Montcalm was able to knock the whole place to pieces and destroy the garrison. On the 9th the white flag went up. Montcalm granted the honors of war. The British were to march off the next morning to Fort Edward, carrying their arms, and under escort of a body of French regulars. Every precaution was taken to keep the Indians from committing any outrage. Montcalm assembled them, told them the terms, and persuaded them to promise obedience. He took care to keep all strong drink out of their way, and asked Monro to destroy all the liquor in the British fort and camp.

In spite of these precautions a dire tragedy followed. While the garrison were marching out of the fort towards their own camp, some Indians climbed in without being seen and began to scalp the sick and wounded who were left behind in charge of the French. The French guard, hearing cries, rushed in and stopped the savages by force. The British were partly to blame for this first outrage: they had not poured out the rum, and the Indians had stolen enough to make them drunk. Montcalm came down himself, at the first alarm, and did his utmost. He seized and destroyed all the liquor; and he arranged with two chiefs from each tribe to be ready to start in the morning with the armed British and their armed escort. He went back to his tent only at nine o'clock, when everything was quiet.

Much worse things happened the next morning. The British, who had some women and children with them, and who still kept a good deal of rum in their canteens, began to stir much earlier than had been arranged. The French escort had not arrived when the British column began to straggle out on the road to Fort Edward. When the march began the scattered column was two or three times as long as it ought to have been. Meanwhile a savage enemy was on the alert. Before daylight the Abnaki of Acadia, who hated the British most of all, had slunk off unseen to prepare an ambush for the first stragglers they could find. Other Indians, who had appeared later, had begged for rum from the British, who had given it in the hope that, in this way, they might be got rid of. Suddenly, a war-whoop was raised, a wild rush on the British followed, and a savage massacre began. The British column, long and straggling already, broke up, and the French escort could defend only those who kept together. At the first news Montcalm ordered out another guard, and himself rushed with all his staff officers to the scene of outrage. They ran every risk to save their prisoners from massacre. Several French officers and soldiers were wounded by the savages, and all did their best. The Canadians, on the other hand, more hardened to Indian ways, simply looked on at the wild scene. Most of the British were rescued and were taken safely to Fort Edward. The French fired cannon from Fort William Henry to guide fugitives back. Those not massacred at once, but made prisoners by the Indians in the woods, were in nearly all cases ransomed by Vaudreuil, who afterwards sent them to Halifax in a French ship.

Such was the 'massacre of Fort William Henry,' about which people took opposite views at the time, as they do still. It is quite clear that, in the first instance, Montcalm did almost everything that any man in his place could possibly do to protect his captives from the Indians. It is also clear that he did everything possible during and after the massacre, even to risking his life and the lives of his officers and men. He might, indeed, have turned out all his French regulars to guard the captive column from the first. But there were only 2,500 of these regulars, not many more than the British, who were armed, who ought to have poured out every drop of rum the night before, and who ought to have started only at the proper time and in proper order. There were faults on both sides, as there usually are. But, except for not having the whole of his regulars ready at the spot, which did not seem necessary the night before, Montcalm stands quite clear of all blame as a general. His efforts to stop the bloody work--and they were successful efforts involving danger to himself--clear him of all blame as a man.

The number of persons massacred has been given by some few British and American writers as amounting to 1,500. Most people know now that this is nonsense. All but about a hundred of the losses on the British side are accounted for otherwise, under the heading of those who were either killed in battle, or died of sickness, or were given up at Fort Edward, or were sent back by way of Halifax. It is simply impossible that more than a hundred were massacred.

Still, a massacre is a massacre; all sorts of evil are sure to come of it; and this one was no exception to the rule. It blackened unjustly the good name of Montcalm. It led to an intensely bitter hate of the British against the Canadians, many of whom were given no quarter afterwards. It caused the British to break the terms of surrender, which required the prisoners not to fight again for the next eighteen months. Most of all, the massacre hurt the Indians, guilty and innocent alike. Many of them took scalps from men who had smallpox; and so they carried this dread disease throughout the wilderness, where it killed fifty times as many of their own people as they had killed on the British side.

The massacre at Fort William Henry raises the whole vexed question of the rights of the savages and of their means of defense. The Indians naturally wished to live in their own country in their own way--as other people do. They did not like the whites to push them aside--who does like being pushed aside? But, if they had to choose between different nations of whites, they naturally chose the ones who changed their country the least. Now, the British colonists were aggressive and numerous; and they were always taking more and more land from the Indians, in one way or another. The French, on the other hand, were few, they wanted less of the land, for they were more inclined to trade than to farm, and in general they managed to get on with the Indians better. Therefore most of the Indians took sides with the French; and therefore most of the scalps lifted were British scalps. The question of the barbarity of Indian warfare remains. The Indians were in fact living the same sort of barbarous life that the ancestors of the French and British had lived two or three thousand years earlier. So the Indians did, of course, just what the French and the British would have done at a corresponding age. Peoples take centuries to grow into civilized nations; and it is absurd to expect savages to change more in a hundred years than Europeans changed in a thousand.

We need hardly inquire which side was the more right and which the more wrong in respect to these barbarities. The fact is, there were plenty of rights and wrongs all round. Each side excused itself and accused the other. The pot has always called the kettle black. Both the French and the British made use of Indians when the savages themselves would gladly have remained neutral. In contrast with the colonial levies the French and British regulars, trained in European discipline, were less inclined to 'act the Indian'; but both did so on occasion. The French regulars did a little scalping on their own account now and then; the Canadian regulars did more than a little; while the Canadian militiamen, roughened by their many raids, did a great deal. The first thing Wolfe's regulars did at Louisbourg was to scalp an Indian chief. The American rangers were scalpers when their blood was up and when nobody stopped them. They scalped under Wolfe at Quebec. They scalped whites as well as Indians at Baie St Paul, at St Joachim, and elsewhere. Even Washington was a party to such practices. When sending in a batch of Indian scalps for the usual reward offered by Governor Dinwiddie of Virginia he asked that an extra one might be paid for at the usual rate, 'although it is not an Indian's.' It is thus clear that the barbarities were in effect a normal feature of warfare in the wilderness.

A week after its surrender Fort William Henry had been wiped off the face of the earth, as Oswego had been the year before, and Montcalm's army had set out homeward bound. But he was sick at heart. Vaudreuil had been behaving worse than ever. He had written and ordered Montcalm to push on and take Fort Edward at once. Yet, as we have seen, the Indians had melted away, the Canadians had gone home for the harvest, only 3,000 regulars were left, and these could not be kept a month longer in the field for lack of food. In spite of this, Vaudreuil thought Montcalm ought to advance into British territory, besiege a larger army than his own, and beat it in spite of all the British militia that were coming to its aid.

Even before leaving for the front Montcalm had written to France asking to be recalled from Canada. In this letter to the minister of Marine he spoke very freely. He pointed out that if Vaudreuil had died in the winter the new governor would have been Rigaud, Vaudreuil's brother. What this would have meant every one knew only too well; for Rigaud was a still bigger fool than Vaudreuil himself. Montcalm gave the Canadians their due. 'What a people, when called upon! They have talent and courage enough, but nobody has called these qualities forth.' In fact, the wretched Canadian was bullied and also flattered by Vaudreuil, robbed by Bigot, bothered on his farm by all kinds of foolish regulations, and then expected to he a model subject and soldier. How could he be considered a soldier when he had never been anything but a mere raider, not properly trained, not properly armed, not properly fed, and not paid at all?

While Montcalm was writing the truth Vaudreuil was writing lie after lie about Montcalm, in order to do him all the harm he could. Busy tell-tales repeated and twisted every impatient word Montcalm spoke, and altogether Canada was at sixes and sevens. Vaudreuil, sitting comfortably at his desk and eating three good meals a day, had written to Montcalm saying that there would be no trouble about provisions if Fort Edward was attacked. Yet, at this very time, he had given orders that, because of scarcity, the Canadians at home should not have more than a quarter of a pound of bread a day. Canada was drawing very near a famine, though its soil could grow some of the finest crops in the world. But what can any country do under knaves and fools, especially when it is gagged as well as robbed? Montcalm's complaints did not always reach the minister of Marine, who was the special person in France to look after Canada; for the minister's own right-hand man was one of the Bigot gang and knew how to steal a letter as well as a shipload of stores.

To outward view, and especially in the eyes of the British Americans, 1757 was a year of nothing but triumph for the French in America. They had made Louisbourg safer than ever; the British fleet and army had not even dared to attack it. French power had never been so widespread. The fleurs-de-lis floated over the whole of the valleys of the St Lawrence, Ohio, and Mississippi, as well as over the Great Lakes, where these three valleys meet. But this great show of strength depended on the army of Montcalm--that motley host behind whose dauntless front everything was hollow and rotten to the last degree. The time was soon to come when even the bravest of armies could no longer stand against lions in front and jackals behind.


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Chronicles of Canada, The Passing of New France, A Chronicle of Montcalm, 1915

 

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