Siege of Fort William Henry: Wikis


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Siege of Fort William Henry
Part of the French and Indian War
A hand-drawn plan of the southern end of Lake George, prepared by British engineer William Eyre. The article text contains more details on the layout and geography.
Plan of Fort William Henry and Camp at Lake George
Date 3–9 August 1757
Location present-day Lake George, New York
Coordinates: 43°25′13″N 73°42′40″W / 43.42028°N 73.71111°W / 43.42028; -73.71111
Result French victory
France France United Kingdom Great Britain
Louis-Joseph de Montcalm George Monro
6,000 regulars and militia
1,800 natives
2,500 regulars and militia
Casualties and losses
130 dead or wounded,[1]
2,308 captured of which 69–184 killed in captivity or missing[2]

The Siege of Fort William Henry was conducted in August 1757 by General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm against the British–held Fort William Henry at the southern end of Lake George, on the frontier between the British Province of New York and the French Province of Canada. After several days of bombardment, the poorly-supported British garrison of George Monro surrendered to Montcalm's forces, which included nearly 2,000 Native Americans from a large number of tribes. The terms of surrender included the withdrawal of the garrison to Fort Edward, with specific terms that the French military protect the British from the Indians during the retreat.

In one of the most notorious incidents of the French and Indian War, Montcalm's native allies violated the agreed terms of surrender and attacked the British column, which had been deprived of ammunition, as it withdrew to the south. In addition to killing and scalping a significant number of men, women and children were also taken captive, and sick and wounded prisoners were slaughtered.

The exact role of Montcalm and other French leaders in either encouraging or defending against the actions of their allies, and the total number of casualties incurred as a result of their actions, is a subject of historical debate. The memory of the killings influenced the actions of British military leaders, especially those of British General Jeffery Amherst, for the remainder of the war.



The French and Indian War, which started in 1754 over territorial disputes in what are now western Pennsylvania and upstate New York, had not gone particularly well for Great Britain. A major expedition by General Edward Braddock in 1755 ended in disaster, and British military leaders were unable to mount any campaigns in 1756, suffering another setback that year when a French army led by Louis-Joseph de Montcalm captured the garrison and destroyed fortifications in the Battle of Fort Oswego.[3] In July 1756 the Earl of Loudoun arrived to take command of the British forces in North America, replacing William Shirley.[4]

British planning

Loudoun's plan for the 1757 campaign, submitted to William Pitt the Elder in September 1756, was focused on a single expedition aimed at the heart of New France, the city of Quebec, with only defensive postures along the frontier with New France, including the contested corridor of the Hudson River and Lake Champlain between Albany, New York and Montreal.[5] Following the Battle of Lake George in 1755, the French had begun construction of Fort Carillon (now known as Fort Ticonderoga) near the southern end of Lake Champlain, while the British had built Fort William Henry at the southern end of Lake George, and Fort Edward on the Hudson River, about 16 miles (26 km) from Fort William Henry.[6] The area between William Henry and Carillon was a wilderness dominated by Lake George, which historian Ian Steele described as "a military waterway that left opposing cannons only a few days apart."[7]

Lord Loudoun in a half-length portrait. Painted when he was about 45, he faces the painter, wearing a red coat over a white vest and a white shirt with lace on the front. His body is turned three quarters, so only his right arm is partially visible. He appears to be wearing a powdered wig.

Loudoun's plan depended on a timely arrival before Quebec, so that French troops would not have the opportunity to move against targets on the frontier, and would instead be needed to defend the heartland of the province of Canada along the Saint Lawrence River.[8] However, political turmoil in London over the progress of the Seven Years' War both in North America and Europe resulted in a change of power, with William Pitt rising to take control over military matters. (Pitt eventually became Prime Minister after the poor results of the 1757 military campaign.) As a result of this turmoil, Loudoun did not receive any feedback from London on his proposed campaign until March 1757.[5] In the absence of approval, he developed plans for the expedition against Quebec, and worked with the provincial governors to develop plans for the defence of the frontier, including the allotment of militia quotas to each province.[9]

In March 1757, Pitt wrote to Loudoun, with instructions that his expedition should first target Louisbourg.[10] Although this did not materially affect the planning of the expedition, it was to have significant consequences on the frontier. The French forces on the Saint Lawrence, which would be too far from Louisbourg to support it, would be free to act elsewhere. Loudoun assigned his best troops to the Louisbourg expedition, and placed Daniel Webb in command of the New York frontier. He was assigned about 2,000 regulars, primarily from the 35th and 60th (Royal American) Regiments. The provinces were to supply Webb with about 5,000 militia.[11]

French planning

A half-length portrait of Montcalm, dressed mainly in black, but also wearing a metal breastplate, against a dark brown background. He is wearing a powdered wig.
Portrait of Montcalm, copy by Théophile Hamel from unknown original

Following the success of his 1756 assault on Fort Oswego, Montcalm had been seeking an opportunity to deal with the British position at Fort William Henry, since it provided the British a launching point for attacks against Fort Carillon.[12] He was initially hesitant to commit his limited resources against Fort William Henry without knowing more about the disposition of British forces.[13] Intelligence provided by spies in London arrived in the spring, indicating that the likely British target was Louisbourg. This suggested that troop levels on the British side of the frontier might make such an attack feasible.[14] This idea was reinforced by the questioning of deserters and captives taken during periodic scouting and raiding expeditions both sides conducted.[15]

New France's governor, the Marquis de Vaudreuil, had begun the process of recruiting Indians as early as December 1756 for the campaign of the following summer. Fueled by stories circulated by Indian participants in the capture of Oswego, this drive was highly successful, drawing nearly 1,000 natives from the Pays d'en Haut (the more remote regions of New France) to Montreal by June 1757.[16][17] To these were added 800 Indians recruited from tribes that lived closer to the Saint Lawrence.[17]

British preparations

Fort William Henry was a roughly square fortification with bastions on the corners, in a design that was intended to repel Indian attacks, but not necessarily withstand attack from an enemy armed with artillery. Its walls were 30 feet (9.1 m) thick, with log facings around an earthen filling. Inside the fort were wooden barracks two stories high, built around the parade ground. Its magazine was in the northeast bastion, and its hospital was located in the southeast bastion. The fort was surrounded on three sides by a dry moat, with the fourth side sloping down to the lake. The only access to the fort was by a bridge across the moat.[18] The fort was only capable of housing four to five hundred men; additional troops were quartered in an entrenched camp 750 yards (690 m) southeast of the fort, near the site of the 1755 Battle of Lake George.[19]

During the winter, Fort William Henry had been garrisoned by several hundred men from the 44th Foot under Major Will Eyre. In March 1757 the French sent an army of 1,500 to attack the fort under the command of the governor's brother, Pierre de Rigaud. Composed primarily of troupes de la marine, militia, and Indians, and without heavy weapons, they besieged the fort for four days, destroying outbuildings and a large number of watercraft before retreating.[20] Eyre and his men were replaced by George Monro and the 35th Foot in the spring. Monro established his headquarters in the entrenched camp, where most of his men were located.[21]

General Webb received intelligence in April that the French were accumulating resources and troops at Carillon. News of continued French activity arrived with a captive taken in mid-July. Following an attack by Joseph Marin de la Malgue on a work crew near Fort Edward on July 23, Webb traveled to Fort William Henry with a party of Connecticut rangers led by Major Israel Putnam, and sent a small detachment of them onto the lake for reconnaissance.[22] These returned with word that Indians were encamped on islands in the lake about 18 miles (29 km) from the fort. Swearing Putnam and his rangers to secrecy, he returned to Fort Edward, and on 2 August sent Lieutenant Colonel John Young with 200 regulars and 800 militia to reinforce the garrison at William Henry.[21] This raised the size of the garrison to about 2,500, although several hundred of these were ill, some with smallpox.[23]

French preparations

Fort Carillon is at the far northern end of the map, separated from Lake George by a short river with falls. There is a road or path leading from the fort to the northern end of the lake, with a sawmill at the first crossing. The map is labelled with mountains to either side of Lake George, which is long and narrow, extending about 3/4 the length of the map. At its southern end the fort is shown, with the French camp to the northwest, and the camp of Indians and Canadians over the road leading south toward Fort Edward. The latter is near the bottom of the map, on the Hudson River just below some falls.
A hand-drawn map depicting the siege area, by James Gabriel Montresor

The Indians that assembled at Montreal were sent south to Fort Carillon, where they joined the French regiments of Béarn and Royal Roussillon under François-Charles de Bourlamaque, and those of La Sarre, Guienne, Languedoc, and La Reine under François de Gaston, Chevalier de Lévis. Combined with the colonial troupes de la marine, militia companies, and the arriving natives, the force accumulated at Carillon amounted to 8,000 men.[24]

While at Carillon, the French leadership had difficulty controlling the behavior of their native allies. While they did stop one group from forcing a British prisoner to run the gauntlet, one group of Ottawas not stopped when it was observed that they had ritually cannibalized another, and French authorities were also frustrated in their ability to limit the natives' taking of more than their allotted share of rations. Montcalm's aide, Louis Antoine de Bougainville, observed that curbing some of this activity would have resulted in the loss of some of these forces.[25] In another prelude of things to come, a large number of prisoners were taken on 23 July in the Battle of Sabbath Day Point, some of whom were also ritually cannibalized before Montcalm managed to convince the Indians to send them to Montreal to be sold as slaves.[26]


While Montcalm's Indian allies had already begun to move south, his advance force of French troops, led by Lévis, departed on 30 July, traveling overland because the expedition did not have enough boats to carry everyone.[21] Montcalm and the remaining forces sailed the next day, and met with Lévis for the night at Ganaouske Bay. The next night, Lévis camped just 3 miles (4.8 km) from Fort William Henry, with Montcalm further back. Early on the morning of 3 August, Lévis and the Canadians blocked the road between Edward and William Henry, skirmishing with the recently-arrived Massachusetts militia. Montcalm summoned Monro to surrender at 11 that morning. Monro refused, and sent messengers south to Fort Edward, indicating the dire nature of the situation. Webb, feeling threatened by Lévis, refused to send any of his estimated 1,600 men north, since they were all that stood between the French and Albany.[27] He wrote to Monro on 4 August that he should negotiate the best terms possible; this communication was intercepted and delivered to Montcalm.[28]

Montcalm, in the meantime, ordered Bourlamaque to begin siege operations. The French then opened trenches to the northwest of the fort with the objective of bringing their artillery to bear against the fort. On 5 August French guns began firing on the fort from 2,000 yards (1,800 m), a spectacle the large Indian contingent relished. The next day a second battery opened fire from 900 yards (820 m). The garrison in the fort returned the fire, but it was largely ineffectual, and some of their guns were either dismounted, or burst due to the stress of use.[29] On 7 August Montcalm sent Bougainville to the fort under a truce flag to deliver Webb's dispatch. By then the fort's walls had been breached, many its guns were useless, and the garrison had taken significant casualties.[30] After another day of bombardment by the French, in which the trenches approached to less than 250 yards (230 m), Monro raised the white flag.[31]


The terms of surrender were that the British and their camp followers would be allowed to withdraw, under French escort, to Fort Edward, with the full honours of war, on condition that they refrain from participation in the war for 18 months. They were allowed to keep their muskets but no ammunition, and a single symbolic cannon. In addition, British authorities were to release French prisoners within three months.[31]

Montcalm, before agreeing to these terms, attempted to make sure that his Indian allies understood them, and that the chiefs would undertake to restrain their men. The British garrison was then evacuated from the fort to the entrenched camp, while Monro was quartered in the French camp. The Indians then entered the fort and plundered it, butchering some of the wounded and sick that the British had left behind.[31] The French guards posted around the entrenched camp were somewhat unsuccessful at keeping the Indians out of that area, and it took significant effort to prevent plunder and scalping in that camp. Montcalm and Monro initially planned to march the prisoners south the following morning, but after seeing the Indian bloodlust, decided to attempt the march that night. When the Indians became aware that the camp was getting ready to move, a large number of them massed around the camp, leading the leaders to call off the idea.[31]

Montcalm is depicted wearing a uniform and three-cornered hat, facing an Indian who has raised a tomahawk over his head, as if to strike at Montcalm, while stepping over a wounded soldier. Bodies lie about, and an Indian is seen holding a white baby away from a woman who is trying to reach for it.
Engraving of Louis-Joseph de Montcalm trying to stop Native Americans from attacking British soldiers and civilians as they leave the fort.

The next morning, even before the British column began to form up for the march to Fort Edward, the Indians renewed attacks on the largely defenceless British. At 5 am, Indians entered huts in the fort housing wounded British who were supposed to be under the care of French doctors, and killed and scalped them.[32] Monro complained that the terms of capitulation had in essence been violated already, but his contingent was forced to surrender some of its baggage in order to even be able to begin the march. As they marched off, they were harassed by the swarming Indians, who snatched at them, grabbing for weapons and clothing, and pulling away with force those that resisted their actions, including many of the women, children, and black servants.[32] As the last of the men left the encampment, a war whoop sounded, and a contingent of Abenaki warriors seized a number of men at the rear of the column.[32]

While Montcalm and other French officers, attempted to stop further attacks, others did not, and explicitly refused further protection to the British. At this point, the column dissolved, as some tried to escape the Indian onslaught, while others actively tried to defend themselves. Massachusetts Colonel Joseph Frye reported that he was stripped of much of his clothing and repeatedly threatened. He fled into the woods, and did not reach Fort Edward until 12 August.[33]

“At last with great difficulty the troops got from the Retrenchment, but they were no sooner out than the savages fell upon our rear, killing and scalping, which occasioned an order for a halt, done in great confusion at last, but, as soon as those in the front knew what was doing in the rear they again pressed forward, and thus the confusion continued & encreased till we came to the advanced guard of the French, the savages still carrying away Officers, privates, women and children, some of which later they kill'd & scalpt in the road. This horrid scene of blood and slaughter obliged our officers to apply to the French Guard for protection, which they refus'd told them they must take to the woods and shift for themselves...”[34]

Joseph Frye

Estimates of the numbers killed, wounded, and taken captive during this time vary widely. Historian Ian Steele has compiled estimates ranging from 200 to 1,500.[35] His detailed reconstruction of the action and its aftermath indicates that the final tally of British missing and dead ranges from 69 to 184, at most 7.5% of the 2,308 who surrendered.[2]


The reconstructed fort is a wooden log construction, painted brown, roughly a single story tall. There are four flagpoles, from which fly a variety of flags, including the American flag and a British Union Jack. Mountains are visible in the background.
The reconstructed fort today

On the afternoon after the massacre, most of the Indians left, heading back to their homes. They took with them about 200 captives, whom Montcalm was apparently powerless to recover.[36] The French remained at the site for several days, destroying what remained of the British works before abandoning the works on 18 August and returning to Fort Carillon.[37] For unknown reasons, Montcalm decided not to follow up his victory with an attack on Fort Edward. Many reasons have been proposed for his decision, including the departure of many (but not all) of the Indians, a shortage of provisions, the lack of draft animals to assist in the portage to the Hudson, and the need for the Canadian militia to return home in time to participate in the harvest.[35]

Word of the French movements had reached William Johnson on 1 August. Unlike Webb, he acted with haste, and arrived at Fort Edward on 6 August with 1,500 militia and 150 Indians. In a move that infuriated Johnson, Webb refused to allow him to advance toward Fort William Henry, apparently believing a French deserter's report that the French army was 11,000 men strong, and that any attempt at relief was futile given the available forces.[38]

Return of captives

On August 14, Montcalm wrote letters to Loudoun and Webb, apologising for the behavior of the Indians, but also attempting to justify it. He managed to secure the release of about 500 captives, who were returned to Fort Edward on August 15.[37] Many captives that were taken to Montreal by the Indians were also eventually repatriated through prisoner exchanges negotiated by Governor Vaudreuil. On 27 September a small British parole fleet left Quebec, carrying prisoners taken in a variety of actions including those of Fort William Henry and Oswego. When the fleet arrived at Halifax, about 300 people captured at Fort William Henry were returned to the colonies. The fleet continued on to Europe, from where a few more captives eventually returned to the colonies.[39]


General Webb was recalled because of his actions, as was Lord Loudoun, due to the failure of the Louisbourg expedition. William Johnson wrote that Webb was "the only Englishman [I] ever knew who was a coward."[40] Colonel Monro died in November 1757, of apoplexy that may have been the result of anger over Webb's failure to support him.[40]

Lord Loudoun, upset over the event, delayed implementing the release of French prisoners promised as part of the terms of surrender. General James Abercrombie, who succeeded Loudoun as commander-in-chief, was asked by paroled members of the 35th Foot to void the agreement so that they would be free to serve in 1758; this he did, and they went on to serve under Jeffery Amherst in his successful British expedition against Louisbourg in 1758. Amherst, who also presided over the surrender of Montreal in 1760, on both occasions refused the surrendering garrisons the normal honours of war, due in part to the French failure to uphold the terms of capitulation in this action.[41]


An open grassy area is strewn with bodies, most of them in red and white uniforms, although some with blue coats are visible farther back. In the distance there are white tents and a crowd of people, and a small thin cloud of smoke obscures the view a little.
Reenactment of the events on the 250th anniversary

The British did not try to build over the site of Fort William Henry. The fort lay in ruins for many years. In the 1950s, excavation of the site eventually led to the reconstruction of Fort William Henry as a tourist destination for the town of Lake George.[42]

Many colonial accounts of the time focused on the plundering perpetrated by the Indians, and the fact that those who resisted them were killed, using words like "massacre" even though casualty numbers were uncertain. The later releases of captives did not receive the same level of press coverage.[43] The events of the battle and subsequent killings were depicted in the 1826 novel The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper and in film adaptations of the book. Cooper's description of the events contains numerous inaccuracies, but his work, and the sometimes lurid descriptions of the event by early historians like Benson Lossing and Francis Parkman led to the belief that many more people died than actually did. Lossing wrote that "fifteen hundred [people] were butchered or carried into hopeless captivity", when many more were captured than killed, and even many of those captured were eventually freed.[44]

A black and white head-and-shoulders photographic portrait of Parkman. He faces to the right, sports long sideburns, and wears a dark suit and tie. The photograph has scratches and other damage.
Daguerreotype of Francis Parkman

Historians disagree on where the responsibility for the Indian actions falls. Francis Jennings contends that Montcalm anticipated what was going to happen, deliberately ignored it when it did happen, and only stepped in after the atrocities were well under way. In his opinion, the account by Bougainville, who left for Montreal on the night of 9 August and was not present at the massacre, was then a whitewash to protect Montcalm.[45][46] Parkman is more vigorous in his defence of Montcalm, claiming that he and other French officers did what they could to prevent atrocities, but were powerless to stop the onslaught.[47]

Ian Steele notes that two primary accounts dominate much of the historical record. The first is the record compiled by Montcalm, including the terms of surrender and his letters to Webb and Loudoun, which received wide publication in the colonies (French and British) and in Europe. The second was the 1778 publication of a book by Jonathan Carver, an explorer who was in the Massachusetts militia at the time. According to Steele, Carver originated, without analysis, the idea that as many as 1,500 people had been "killed or made prisoner" in his widely popular work.[48] Yale College president Timothy Dwight, in a history published posthumously in 1822, apparently coined the phrase "massacre at Fort William Henry", based on Carver's work; his book and Carver's were likely influences on Cooper, and tended to fault Montcalm for the Indian transgressions.[49] Steele himself adopts a more nuanced view of the underlying cause of the "massacre". Montcalm and the French leaders repeatedly promised the Indians opportunities for the glory and trophies of war, including plunder, scalping, and the taking of captives.[50] In the aftermath of the Battle of Sabbath Day Point, captives taken were ransomed, denying visible trophies. The terms of surrender at Fort William Henry effectively denied significant plunder, as war provisions taken went to the army, and personal effects of the British were to stay with them. This caused resentment, as it appeared that the French were conspiring with their enemies (the British) against their friends (the Indians), denying them any chance at promised war trophies.[51]

Participating Indian nations

According to historian William Nester, the following tribal nations were represented in the French army. Some were only represented by a few individual warriors. Some individuals were estimated to travel 1,500 miles (2,400 km) to join the French, coming from as far away as the Mississippi River and Hudson Bay.[17] Nester claims that some of the atrocities, which included the murder and scalping of sick individuals and the digging up of bodies for plunder and scalping, may have resulted in many Indians becoming infected with smallpox, which they then carried into their communities. The devastation wrought by the disease in the following years had a notable effect on Indian participation in the French campaigns of the following years.[36]


  1. ^ Pargellis, p. 250
  2. ^ a b Steele, p. 144
  3. ^ Steele, pp. 28–56
  4. ^ Parkman, p. 397
  5. ^ a b Pargellis, p. 211
  6. ^ Steele, pp. 59–61
  7. ^ Steele, p. 57
  8. ^ Pargellis, p. 243
  9. ^ Pargellis, pp. 212–215
  10. ^ Pargellis, p. 232
  11. ^ Pargellis, p. 235
  12. ^ Steele, p. 78
  13. ^ Parkman, p. 482
  14. ^ Nester, p. 52
  15. ^ Parkman, p. 488
  16. ^ Steele, p. 79
  17. ^ a b c Nester, p. 54
  18. ^ Starbuck, p. 6
  19. ^ Starbuck, p. 7
  20. ^ Nester, pp. 43–44
  21. ^ a b c Nester, p. 55
  22. ^ Nester, p. 53
  23. ^ Steele, p. 69
  24. ^ Parkman, pp. 489–492
  25. ^ Parkman, pp. 493–497
  26. ^ Parkman, p. 498
  27. ^ Nester, p. 57
  28. ^ Parkman, p. 517
  29. ^ Nester, p. 57. He claims the second battery is at 900 feet; this is probably a copyediting error, based on later (nearer) placements.
  30. ^ Nester, p. 58
  31. ^ a b c d Nester, p. 59
  32. ^ a b c Nester, p. 60
  33. ^ Dodge, p. 92
  34. ^ Dodge, pp. 91–92
  35. ^ a b Nester, p. 62
  36. ^ a b Nester, p. 61
  37. ^ a b Nester, p. 64
  38. ^ Nester, pp. 57–58
  39. ^ Steele, pp. 135–138
  40. ^ a b Starbuck, p. 14
  41. ^ Steele, p. 145
  42. ^ Starbuck, p. 18
  43. ^ Steele, p. 151
  44. ^ Starbuck, p. 15
  45. ^ Parkman, p. 523
  46. ^ Jennings, pp. 316–318
  47. ^ Parkman, pp. 521–525
  48. ^ Steele, p. 159
  49. ^ Steele, pp. 167–168
  50. ^ Steele, p. 184
  51. ^ Steele, p. 185


Further reading

  • Bellico, Russel P (1995). Chronicles of Lake George: Journeys in War and Peace. Purple Mountain Press. ISBN 0-935796-62-2. 

External links

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