The French and Indian War was the name of the North American Theater of the Seven Years War, which took place from 1754 to 1763. In 1748, British legislators and elites in the Virginia territory vied for land speculation and settlement of the Ohio River Valley. The French liked the climate and began building forts in the area, such as Fort Duquesne and Fort Frontenac. However, the Native Americans had the Ohio River Valley by right of conquest, and so tensions between the French, British, and Native Americans competing for land and trading claims in the Ohio River Valley grew between 1752 and 1753 as each group wanted control of the land. Minor skirmishes, mostly occurring in rural areas, ensued.From November to December of 1753, a 21-year-old George Washington surveyed the land in the Ohio River Valley and carried Virginia’s ultimatum over French encroachment to Captain Legardeur de Saint-Pierre at Riviere aux Boefs, where the ultimatum is rejected.
After a series of battles in what is now Pennsylvania and Nova Scotia, the French and British forces, along with their Native American allies, found themselves in the Adirondack Mountain region of New York where they encountered one another in battles in Lake George, Oswego, and Niagara.
At the risk of sounding bias, I will be highlighting the Battle of Lake George, the Battle and Massacre at Fort William Henry, and the Battle of Fort Carillon as I grew up in that region of the Adirondacks and consider those battles to be part of my local history.
Picture: Fort William Henry Museum in Lake George, NY
The Battle of Lake George
With the outbreak of the French and Indian War, the governors of the British colonies in North America convened in April 1755 to discuss strategies for defeating the French. Meeting in Virginia, they decided to launch three campaigns that year against the enemy. In the north, the British effort would be led by Sir William Johnson who was ordered to move north through Lakes George and Champlain. Departing Fort Lyman (renamed Fort Edward in 1756) with 1,500 men and 200 Mohawks in August 1755, Johnson moved north and reached Lac du Saint Sacrament on the 28th.
Renaming the lake after King George II, Johnson pushed on with the goal of capturing Fort St. Frederic. Located on Crown Point, the fort controlled part of Lake Champlain. To the north, the French commander, Jean Erdman Baron Dieskau, learned of Johnson's intentions and assembled a force of 2,800 and 700 allied Indians. Moving south to Carillon (later called Fort Ticonderoga), Dieskau made camp and planned an attack on Johnson's supply lines and Fort Lyman. Leaving half of his men at Carillon as a blocking force, Dieskau moved down Lake Champlain to South Bay and marched within four miles of Fort Lyman.
Scouting the fort on September 7th, Dieskau found it heavily defended and elected not to attack. As a result, he began moving back towards South Bay. Fourteen miles to the north, Johnson received word from his scouts that the French were operating in his rear. Halting his advance, Johnson began fortifying his camp and dispatched 800 Massachusetts and New Hampshire militia, under Colonel Ephram Williams, and 200 Mohawks under King Hendrick, south to reinforce Fort Lyman. Departing at 9am on September 8th, they moved down the Lake George-Fort Lyman road.
While moving his men back towards South Bay, Dieskau was alerted to Williams' movement. Seeing an opportunity, he reversed his march and set an ambush along the road about three miles south of Lake George. Placing his grenadiers across the road, he aligned his militia and Indians in cover along the sides of the road. Unaware of the danger, Williams' men marched directly into the French trap. In an action later referred to as the "Bloody Morning Scout", the French caught the British by surprise and inflicted heavy casualties.
Among those killed were King Hendrick and Colonel Williams, who was shot in the head. With Williams dead, Colonel Nathan Whiting assumed the command. Trapped in a crossfire, the majority of the British began fleeing back towards Johnson's camp. Their retreat was covered by around 100 men led by Whiting and Lieutenant Colonel Seth Pomeroy. Fighting a determined rearguard action, Whiting was able to inflict substantial casualties on their pursuers, including killing the leader of the French Indians, Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre. Pleased with his victory, Dieskau followed the fleeing British back to their camp.
Arriving, he found Johnson's command fortified behind a barrier of trees, wagons, and boats. Immediately ordering an attack, he found that his Indians refused to go forward. Shaken by the loss of Saint-Pierre, they did not wish to assault a fortified position. In an effort to shame his allies into attacking, Dieskau formed his 222 grenadiers into an attack column and personally led them forward around noon. Charging into heavy musket fire and grape shot from Johnson's three cannons, Dieskau's attack bogged down. In the fighting, Johnson was shot in the leg and command dissolved to Colonel Phineas Lyman.
By late afternoon, the French broke off the attack after Dieska was badly wounded. Storming the barricade, the British drove the French from the field, capturing the wounded French commander. To the south, Colonel Joseph Blanchard, commanding Fort Lyman, saw the smoke from the battle and dispatched 120 men under Captain Nathaniel Folsom to investigate. Moving north, they encountered the French baggage train approximately two miles south of Lake George. Taking a position in the trees, they were able to ambush around 300 French soldiers near Bloody Pond and succeeded in driving them from the area. After recovering his wounded and taking several prisoners, Folsom returned to Fort Lyman. A second force was sent out the next day to recover the French baggage train. Lacking supplies and with their leaders gone, the French retreated north. The Battle of Lake George effectively secured the Hudson Valley for the British.
The Battle and Massacre at Fort William Henry
In the 1750s, the European imperial powers in North America, France and Britain, faced one another as rivals in the greater Lake Champlain region, an area of economic and strategic value to both powers. Fort Carillon (also known as Fort Ticonderoga) located between Lakes Champlain and George was the southernmost outpost of New France. The closest British position was Fort Edward on the banks of the upper Hudson River to the southeast.
The British gradually increased their presence in the Lake George area and by 1757 had completed a road through the dense forest from Fort Edward. In late summer of that year, a French army unsuccessfully attacked British forces under William Johnson on the south shore of the lake. The victors solidified their position by constructing the wood-walled Fort William Henry, which was designed to serve as a base of operations for future campaigns against French positions to the north.
During 1756, both sides increased their troop strength on the lakes and conducted small raids against each other. In the following year, the French commander at Fort Carillon, the Marquis de Montcalm, decided to end the stalemate and moved against Fort William Henry. His army numbered more than 7,000--French regulars, Canadian militia, and Native American warriors from several dozen tribes. The French had stirred Indian interest by promises of great plunder to be gained in the conquest.
British General Daniel Webb had visited Fort William Henry but withdrew to the safer confines of Fort Edward after receiving reports of the advent of the large French army. Lieutenant Colonel George Munro was left at Fort William Henry in charge of 2,000 soldiers. The modest installation could only hold 500 persons, which forced the remaining men to dig trenches outside the walls.
Montcalm arrived in the area in August 1757 and commenced a protracted artillery attack; as the days passed, the French slowly tightened their lines around the fort. Nevertheless, Montcalm's looming victory was threatened by shortages of ammunition and supplies. Before the General could order a retreat, the French intercepted a message sent by Webb in which he expressed his inability to bring reinforcements and urged Munro to surrender. The note was quickly passed on to its intended recipient under a flag of truce and the British, lacking any other alternative, negotiated terms of surrender. The French agreed to allow their foes to leave for Fort Edward in possession of their side arms and a token cannon. The fort formally changed hands on August 9th. The departing British forces camped outside and anticipated getting an early start the following day.
The gentlemanly operation cooperation between the British and the French was shattered by the Indians, who felt as though they were cheated out of the spoils of war. Although reports of the following events differ widely, authorities agree that the natives attacked soldiers and civilians in the British party. There is also general agreement that Montcalm and other French officers acted honorably and risked their lives by trying to stop the slaughter.
What has been open for debate, however, was the extent of the killing. Some reported that as many as 1,500 men, women, and children were shot, scalped, and bludgeoned to death. More recent accounts describe the extent of the killing between 70 and 180 men, women, and children. After the Indians had killed those who had resided at Fort William Henry, they threw their bodies into what is now known as Bloody Pond.
After the massacre was quelled, French soldiers accompanied the British survivors to Fort Edward and then returned to Lake George to burn down Fort William Henry so it could not be utilized as a military hold again.
The Battle of Fort Carillon
Fort Carillon, later renamed Fort Ticonderoga (which in Iroquois means “Land between two waters”), was built by Michel Chartier de Lotbiniere. The governor of Canada, Marquis de Vaudreuil, ordered the fort to be built after the French defeat at the Battle of Lake George in September 1755 to protect the French routes to Canada. When the fort was completed in 1758, it was surveyed by the principal French field commander Louis-Joseph le Marquis de Montcalm.
Assessing the fortifications with his engineers, Montcalm criticized Carillon’s size, the quality of its construction, as well as the height of its buildings.
Having launched his successful campaign against Fort William Henry from Fort Carillon in 1757, Montcalm prompted the British to plan an attack on the new fort the following year. Moving up Lake George , 16,000 British troops led by Major General James Abercrombie (not to be confused with the Abercrombie from Abercrombie and Fitch) arrived near the fort on July 6th. Having been alerted to the British approach, Montcalm’s 3,600 men quickly worked to expand the fort’s defenses.
By adding lines of entrenchments and abatis, Montcalm’s men were able to repel Abercrombie’s frontal assaults on July 8th. Attacking these lines, Abercrombie sought to overwhelm the defenders and did not order his artillery into the fight. In the battle that ensued, the British were repulsed with almost 2,000 casualties. The fighting occurred away from the fort itself and its guns played only a minimal role. After further expanding the fort’s defenses, Montcalm withdrew the bulk of the garrison as winter approached.
The following spring, Montcalm, who faced a severe manpower shortage, elected not to reinforce the fort. Instead, he issued instructions to the garrison’s commander, Brigadier General Francois-Charles de Bourlamaque, to destroy the fort and retreat in the face of a British attack. In July, the new British commander, Major General Jeffery Amherst, advanced on the fort with 11,000 men. Sending away all but 400 of his men, Bourlamaque withdrew to the fort. Occupying the outer defenses, Amherst captured the fort after a brief fight. The French attempted to destroy the fort as Montcalm commanded before leaving but they only damaged the magazine.
Taking possession on June 27th, 1759, the British renamed the fortification Fort Ticonderoga. While work commenced in 1759 and 1760 to improve and repair the fort, it saw no further combat during the war as the action moved toward Canada. Following the war’s end in 1763, the garrison was severely reduced and the fort began to fall into despair. With the outbreak of the American Revolution, however, the fort remained a quiet backwater with a garrison of only 48 men.