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French & Indian War: Siege of Fort William Henry

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French & Indian War: Siege of Fort William Henry

Plan of Fort William Henry

Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Siege of Fort William Henry - Conflict & Dates:

The Siege of Fort William Henry took place August 3-9, 1757, during the French & Indian War (1754-1763).

Armies & Commanders

British

  • Lieutenant Colonel George Monro
  • 2,500 men

    French & Native Americans

  • Marquis de Montcalm
  • approx. 8,000 men
  • Siege of Fort William Henry - Background:

    Though tensions between British and French forces on the frontier had been growing for several years, the French & Indian War did not begin in earnest until 1754 when Lieutenant Colonel George Washington's command was defeated at Fort Necessity in western Pennsylvania. The following year, a large British force was crushed at the Battle of the Monongahela attempting to avenge Washington's defeat and capture Fort Duquesne. To the north, the British fared better as noted Indian agent Sir William Johnson led troops to victory at the Battle of Lake George in September 1755. In the wake of this setback, the governor of New France (Canada), the Marquis de Vaudreuil, directed that Fort Carillon (Ticonderoga) be constructed at the south end of Lake Champlain.

    In response, Johnson ordered Major William Eyre to build Fort William Henry at the southern shore of Lake George. This position was supported by Fort Edward which was located on the Hudson River approximately sixteen miles to the south. Built in a square design with bastions on the corners, Fort William Henry's walls were approximately thirty feet thick and consisted of earth faced with timber. Though formidable, the fort was not constructed to withstand enemy artillery. While the northern wall faced the lake, the other three were protected by a dry moat. Supporting the fort was a large entrenched camp located a short distance to the southeast. Manned by Eyre's 44th Regiment of Foot, the fort turned back a French attack, led by Pierre de Rigaud in March 1757. This was largely due to the French lacking heavy guns.

    Siege of Fort William Henry - British Plans:

    As the 1757 campaign season approached, the British commander-in-chief for North America, Lord Loudoun, submitted plans to London calling for an assault on Quebec City. The center of French operations, the city's fall would effectively cut off enemy forces to the west and south. As this plan moved forward, Loudoun intended to take a defensive posture on the frontier. He felt this would be feasible as the attack on Quebec would draw French troops away from the border. Moving forward, Loudoun began assembling the forces needed for the mission. In March 1757, he received orders from the new government of William Pitt directing him to turn his efforts to taking the fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island. While this did not alter Loudoun's preparations directly, it dramatically changed the strategic situation as the new operation would not draw French forces away from the frontier.

    Siege of Fort William Henry - The French Response:

    In New France, Vaudreuil's field commander, Major General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm (Marquis de Montcalm), began planning to reduce Fort William Henry. Fresh from a victory at Fort Oswego the previous year, his intelligence network began providing him with information that suggested that the British target for 1757 would be Louisbourg. Recognizing that such an effort would leave the British weak on the frontier, he began assembling troops to strike south. This work was aided by Vaudreuil who was able to recruit around 1,800 Native American warriors to supplement Montcalm's army. At Fort William Henry, command passed to Lieutenant Colonel George Monro of the 35th Foot in the spring of 1757. Establishing his headquarters in the fortified camp, Monro had around 1,500 men at his disposal. He was supported Brigadier General Daniel Webb, the commander for the New York frontier, who was at Fort Edward.

    Siege of Fort William Henry - The Campaign Begins:

    Assembling a combined force of around 8,000 men at Fort Carillon, Montcalm began preparing to move south against Fort William Henry. Despite his best efforts, his Native American allies proved difficult to control and began mistreating and torturing British prisoners at the fort. Alerted to the French build up, Webb travelled to Fort William Henry with a detachment of Connecticut rangers led by Major Israel Putnam. Scouting north, Putnam reported the approach of a Native American force. Returning to Fort Edward, Webb directed 200 regulars and 800 Massachusetts militiamen to reinforce Monro's garrison. On July 30, Montcalm ordered François de Gaston, Chevalier de Lévis to move south with an advance force. Following the next day, he rejoined Lévis at Ganaouske Bay. Again pushing ahead, Lévis camped within three miles of Fort William Henry on August 1.

    Siege of Fort William Henry - The French Attack:

    Two days later, Lévis moved south of the fort and severed the road to Fort Edward. Skirmishing with Massachusetts militia, they were able maintain the blockade. Arriving later in the day, Montcalm demanded Monro's surrender. This request was rebuffed and Monro sent messengers south to Fort Edward to seek aid from Webb. Assessing the situation and lacking sufficient men to both aid Monro and cover the colonial capital of Albany, Webb responded on August 4 by telling him to seek the best surrender terms possible if forced to capitulate. Intercepted by Montcalm, the message informed the French commander that no aid would be coming and that Monro was isolated. As Webb was writing, Montcalm directed Colonel François-Charles de Bourlamaque to commence siege operations.

    Digging trenches northwest of the fort, Bourlamaque began emplacing guns to reduce the northwest bastion of the fort. Completed on August 5, the first battery opened fire and battered the fort's walls. A second battery was finished the next day and brought the bastion under crossfire. Though Fort William Henry's guns responded, their fire proved relatively ineffective. In addition, the defense was hampered by a large portion of the garrison being ill. Hammering the walls through the night of August 6/7, the French succeeded in opening several gaps. On August 7, Montcalm dispatched his aide, Louis Antoine de Bougainville, to again call for the fort's surrender. This was again refused. After enduring another day and night's bombardment and with the fort's defenses collapsing, Monro hoisted a white flag on August 9 to open surrender negotiations.

    Siege of Fort William Henry - Surrender & Massacre:

    Meeting, the commanders formalized the surrender and Montcalm granted Monro's garrison terms which allowed them to keep their muskets and one cannon, but no ammunition. In addition, they were to be escorted to Fort Edward and were prohibited from fighting for eighteen months. Finally, the British were to release the French prisoners in their custody. Housing the British garrison in the entrenched camp, Montcalm endeavored to explain the terms to his Native American allies. This proved difficult due to the large numbers languages used by the Native Americans. As the day passed, the Native Americans looted the fort and killed many of the British wounded which had been left within its walls for treatment. Increasingly unable to control the Native Americans, who were eager for plunder and scalps, Montcalm and Monro decided to attempt to move the garrison south that night.

    This plan failed when the Native Americans became aware of the British movement. Waiting until dawn on August 10, the column, which included women and children, formed and was provided with a 200-man escort by Montcalm. With the Native Americans hovering, it began moving towards the military road south. As it exited the camp, the Native Americans entered and killed seventeen wounded soldiers that had been left behind. They next fell upon the rear of the column which largely consisted of militia. A halt was called and an attempt was made to restore order but to no avail. While some French officers attempted to halt the Native Americans, others stepped aside. With Native American attacks increasing in intensity, the column began to dissolve as many of the British soldiers fled into the woods.

    Siege of Fort William Henry - Aftermath

    Pushing on, Monro reached Fort Edward with around 500 people. By the end of the month, 1,783 of the fort's 2,308-man garrison (on August 9) had arrived at Fort Edward with many making their own way through the woods. In the course of the fighting for Fort William Henry, the British sustained around 130 casualties. Recent estimates place losses during the massacre of August 10 at 69 to 184 killed. Following the British departure, Montcalm ordered Fort William Henry dismantled and destroyed. Lacking sufficient supplies and equipment for pushing on to Fort Edward, and with his Native American allies leaving, Montcalm elected withdraw back to Fort Carillon. The fighting at Fort William Henry gained increased attention in 1826 when James Fenimore Cooper published his novel Last of the Mohicans.

    In the wake of the fort's loss, Webb was removed for his lack of action. With the failure of the Louisbourg expedition, Loudoun was relieved as well as replaced by Major General James Abercrombie. Returning to the site of Fort William Henry the following year, Abercrombie conducted an ill-fated campaign that ended with his defeat at the Battle of Carillon in July 1758. The French would finally be forced from the area the in 1759 when Major General Jeffery Amherst pushed north.

    Selected Sources

  • Fort William Henry Museum
  • Lake George Historical Society
  • Military Heritage: An Account of Two Attacks on Fort William Henry
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