Lake George was wilderness. It was the void between two encroaching European frontiers. Just a few miles north of the lake, stood Fort Carillon, the French fortress, designed to guard the area north from any English advance into Canada. Several miles south and east of the lake stood Fort Edward, on the Hudson, the northern terminus of the English foray into this forested area. Between the two stood the 26 mile long Lake George.
Named Lac Du St. Sacrement by the French, the place was renamed Lake George by William Johnson in 1755, shortly before he had defeated a French force there in the Battle of Lake George, to leave no doubt as to English sovereignty in the area. A road, constructed to link Fort Edward to the lake, now needed protection. In addition, a fort at this site could prove to be a launching and resupplying point for assaults against the French outposts and beyond. Thus was born Fort William Henry, designed and situated by Captain William Eyre along with Johnson.
On June 7, 1756 General Daniel Webb arrived to assume command of the fort and lead the upcoming planned offensive. At both ends of the lake, French and English garrisons were increased, entrenchments built, and preparations undergone. Over the course of the next year, a series of raids, counter-raids, and scouting missions occurred leading to some casualties and gathered intelligence.
It soon became apparent that Fort William Henry was becoming a thorn in the side of New France. General Marquis de Montcalm, in command at Fort Carillon, decided to invest and reduce the log structure at the south end of the Lake. Departing from his post on Lake Champlain, Montcalm led a force of 6 French Regular battalions consisting of 2570 soldiers. Augmented by an almost equal number of Canadian militia, 300 volunteers, along with a large contingent of invaluable Indian allies – between 1500 & 1800 from a large number of tribes – this French force became almost invincible, in this situation, by the presence of 200 men of the artillery units firing their 36 cannon and four mortars.
By contrast, the garrison at Fort William Henry, under the able leadership of Lt. Colonel George Monro – once General Webb decided to turn tail and survey matters from Fort Edward – had a total, as the siege began, of 2372 men. Only a maximum of 500 could man the fort. The remainder settled into an entrenched camp just east of the fort. No preparations were undertaken to resist French attempts to make landings on the shore. The English merely waited. Expecting the attack to come from the west – the east side being swampy and fortified by the camp – Monro had the heaviest of the artillery pieces along the west wall. And so it was to be …
Montcalm chose the northwest bastion to bear the brunt of the artillery barrage he planned. Arriving during the night of August 2-3, 1757, he immediately set to work building a road and then a series of entrenchments to inch ever-closer to the fort walls. Meanwhile, Indian and militia marksman positioned themselves between the entrenched camp and Fort Edward, straddling the road, and harassed the beleaguered British.
As the days went on, the French artillery moved closer, the British casualties mounted, and hope of reinforcement continued to dwindle. Couriers were routinely dispatched between the British forts, often times being intercepted by the French or their Indian allies. One such message, from Webb, encouraged surrender, as at the time, he felt he could not aid Monro. On August 7, Montcalm ordered his aid-de-camp, Captain Bougainville, forward under a flag of truce to make this intercepted letter known to the garrison. By the next morning, the French trenches were a mere 250 yards outside the fort wall. Within the fort, ammunition was low, spirits were lower. There was little hope.
And so, just after dawn on the 9th of August, following a conference of the fort’s officers, a flag of truce was visible flying over Fort William Henry. Montcalm offered generous terms, even for the typically gentlemanly terms of the day … the entire garrison would be allowed to march off in military parade, colors flying, to Fort Edward. A cannon would even be allowed to accompany the procession. In return, the English would not bear arms against France for the next 18 months. No ammunition would be granted, and the sick and wounded would be returned when well. One British officer would remain as hostage, until the French escort attached to the retreating column, returned safely from Fort Edward. In European terms, all was well. The paid French soldiers had earned their victory. Once burned, there would no longer be a British post on the shores of Lake George. The British, though defeated, had retained their honor. The siege of Fort William Henry was over.
The British evacuated the fort, leaving about 70 sick and wounded to the care of the French. Almost immediately, Indians entered to plunder – their form of payment – what baggage the British had left behind. Cries and screams for help were heard outside the fort. A missionary, Pere Roubaud says of one particular warrior, “[he] carried in his hand a human head, from which trickled streams of blood, and which he displayed as the most splendid prize that he could have secured.” Accounts vary, but somewhere between four and seventeen were killed within the fort. In light of upcoming events, it is reasonable to assume that they perhaps resisted. French troops soon restored order.
The tribes were restless. They wanted booty. It was their only reward. Clothing, arms, ammunition, supplies, rum … many felt deprived. They lingered. Tensions mounted. A proposed march from the entrenched camp to Fort Edward was postponed, at Montcalm’s suggestion, until the following morning, as hostile Indians gathered in the vicinity. They pestered the soldiers, wanting their baggage. Montcalm posted French guards. It was a long, tension-filled day and night. Two-thirds of the Indians were not in their camps.
At dawn’s light on August 10th, the English assembled by companies, Monro on horseback, and attempted to leave from the entrenched camp. A French escort of 200 was on the scene. When the last British regiment had left, Indians fell upon 17 helpless wounded left behind in huts. They were scalped and killed. At the rear of the column was a Massachusetts regiment, some New Hampshire militia, and camp followers. The Indians next fell upon them. “… than the savages fell upon the rear killing and scalping.” A “hell whoop” was heard. “ … the Indians pursued tearing the Children from their Mothers Bosoms and their mothers from their Husbands, then Singling out the men and Carrying them in the woods and killing a great many whom we say lying on the road side.” Not surprisingly, despite a halt being ordered, many fled, these images indelibly stamped upon their minds. Hundreds, up to 1500, were reported killed by those panic-stricken souls arriving at Fort Edward. It is easy to imagine it as so. The column was unarmed. The Indians fully armed. Eyewitnesses claimed this “slaughter” went on for “three hours“. Accounts were typified by this:
this Day when they Came to march the Savage Indiens Came upon them and Stript them of their Packs and Cloths and the most of their Arms then they Pickt out the negrows Melatows and Indiens and Dragd them Away and we Know not what is Become of them then they fell to killing of our men At A most Dredfull manner they Ravesht the women and then Put them to the Slaughter young Children of the Regular forces had their Brains Dasht out Against the Stones and trees
It is easy to visualize nearly the entire column being slaughtered under these circumstances, much like what one sees in the movie, The Last of the Mohicans. How could it be otherwise? 1600 armed, frenzied warriors falling upon a defenseless, panicked column of some 2400 (including women & children) for nearly three hours. It certainly is very easy to imagine. In reality, however, it just didn’t happen. Col. Monro, speaking of his regular troops, gave 129 killed and wounded – including the siege – as his estimates. Regarding the militia, he says, “No Regular Accot Could be got from the Provincials but their Numbers Kill’d Could not be Less than Four Officers & about 40 Men. And very near as many Men Wounded.” Roubard stated killed could number “hardly more than forty or fifty.” Another man stated, “Near Thirty Carcasses, however, were actually seen …” There is no doubt some killing occurred, but, by and large, the picture was one of Indians taking, from terrified soldiers, baggage and clothing they felt was due them. It was a scene of pawing, grabbing, poking & touching. When a soldier resisted stiffly, he may have been knocked down, beaten, scalped or killed. Indians had learned from Oswego that a soldier was worth more alive than dead. The French would pay handsomely for the return of prisoners. So, as the soldiers broke and ran, the Indians pursued. They gathered booty, and collected prisoners. It was undoubtedly a scene of utter pandemonium and terror, but the “massacre” as film and some historians have presented it, just never did occur. At some point, the French did help restore some semblance of order. Though hundreds streamed in well before, the remnants of the column, including Col. George Monro, did arrive at Fort Edward, under French guard, on August 14.
Note that Lake George Lodge, a military Lodge was situated within the fort. After evacuation, the records were seized and transported back to Quebec. These Lodge records are believed to be in the possession of the Grand Lodge of Quebec.
According to Ian K. Steele’s Betrayals, the most recent and exhaustive study on the subject, of the 2308 soldiers who left Fort William Henry on August 9, 1783 had shown up at Fort Edward by August 31, an additional 217 appearing by year’s end. Considering the fact that only 500, including “wives, servants, & sutlers” arrived with Monro, it is obvious that many fled into the woods to make their way alone or in parties over the next weeks. Among those captured, most were paroled at some point. By the new year, only 308 were considered killed or missing. It seems reasonable to assume that of these, many were those who fled but never, for one reason or another, went to Fort Edward. Again, according to Steele’s study, the maximum number killed on August 10 “including those who happily or unhappily lived the rest of their lives in the villages and forests of New France’s Indian allies, could not have numbered more than 184.” His minimum figure is 69.
Fort William Henry’s impact on history had been accomplished. The French burned the fort. Today, a reconstruction stands where the original once stood. There is a marker on the site of the entrenched camp, and several other markers and monuments nearby. The ruins of a portion of Fort George, built a couple of years later near where Fort William Henry stood, can still be found. Fort Edward is marked merely by a couple of blue signs. Fortunately, there is excavation work being done in the vicinity, and this may someday change. Fort Carillon (Ticonderoga) stands proudly today, as it did nearly 250 years ago, as a silent reminder to all that once took place.