The siege of Fort William Henry

August 3-9 1757 - 261 years ago today

French capture of the British stronghold cleared the way for a possible invasion of New York, and even threatened Great Britain’s control over their North American colonies.

The French General Montcalm needed men as his next target was the last major fortress on the French-controlled Canadian and British controlled New York boarder, and he needed them badly. He knew that the British garrison in the fort was made of 2.5k regulars and a handful of Natives and militia men, but the number one rule when besieging a city is to try and have double the amount of men as there are defenders. Safe behind walls and with a height advantage allowing for a better field of vision, defenders can be notoriously tough to kill. Luckily for Montcalm he had won a great victory the year before taking Fort Oswego and in the process impressing the various native tribes. Shrewdly using this victory as a recruitment device, Montcalm added some 2k Abenaki, Algonquin, and Huron (to name just a couple of tribes) warriors to his already 6k strong regulars and militia. Moving up his heavy siege guns Montcalm began his attack on Fort William Henry on August 3r.

Fort William Henry’s commander was one Lieutenant Colonel George Monro and he was determined not to surrender but rather to withstand the siege. The French guns were relentless and laid down a withering and for the time continuous barrage that did serious damage to the fortress walls. Considering all his options and understanding that the French guns were constantly inching closer, Monro decided that the safety of all inside the fort was his most important concern. Under a flag of surrender Monro vacated the fort and in a gesture of good will Montcalm gave the battered British defenders the dignity of keeping their arms as they made their way to the nearest British base.

Montcalm being the shrewd general that he was realized a defeated and heavily armed enemy force moving freely in his rear was dangerous so one of the stipulations of the surrender was that the British column was to have no ammunition. As the British column of men, women, and children made it’s way towards safety the 2k force of Native American warriors ambushed them on both sides. With no ammunition to defend themselves the British had to fight hand to hand and things quickly became frenzied and violent, with hundreds of single combats happening up and down the line. By the days end some 185 British lay dead and another 2k were abducted and taken away by the Native Americans. The resulting outrage and embellishment in the press whipped up a war fever which allowed the British High Command to mass mobilize the New England militia.

Let me leave you with this - the Native warriors Montcalm had recruited were still very much spoiling for a fight even after the surrender. Considering that this may have been one of the largest gathering of such men for one fight in history (Dan Carlin suggests in his excellent podcast on the Gallic Wars that probably the largest bands of Native American warriors only ever reached around 5-7k) getting these excited warriors to just pack up and go home was tough if not downright impossible. It becomes doubly so if you don’t in fact want them to go home, Montcalm swore he tried to make sure the Native Americans understood that the column was off limits but that seems unlikely. The victory and capture of the fort was a sign to the military establishment of the British that the French weren’t screwing around. I think the assault and “massacre” of the column was a sign to the militiamen and colonists saying “Stay home! We have these guys on our side and next time this could be you!”. What do you think? Send me your thoughts by going to the Your Theories page!

Cullen Burke