Chronicles of America 

Montcalm's Thrust Into New York

War is, at best, a cruel business. In Europe its predatory barbarity was passing away and there the lives of prisoners and of women and children were now being respected. Montcalm had been reared under this more civilized code, and he and his officers were shocked by what Vaudreuil regarded as normal and proper warfare. In 1756 the French had a horde of about two thousand Indians, who had flocked to Montreal from points as far distant as the great plains of the West. They numbered more than thirty separate tribes or nations, and each nation had to be humored and treated as an equal, for they were not in the service of France but were her allies. They expected to be consulted before plans of campaign were completed. The defeat of Braddock in 1755 had made them turn to the prosperous cause of France. Vaudreuil gave them what they hardly required--encouragement to wage war in their own way. The more brutal and ruthless the war on the English, he said, the more quickly would their enemies desire the kind of peace that France must have. The result was that the western frontiers of the English colonies became a hell of ruthless massacre. The savages attacked English settlements whenever they found them undefended. A pioneer might go forth in the morning to his labor and return in the evening to find his house in ashes and his wife and children lying dead with the scalps torn from their heads as trophies of mighty prowess.

For years, until the English gained the upper hand over the French, this awful massacre went on. Hundreds of women and children perished. Vaudreuil reported with pride to the French court the number of scalps taken, and in his annals such incidents were written down as victories, He warned Montcalm that he must not be too strict with the savages or some day they would take themselves off and possibly go over to the English and leave the French without indispensable allies. He complained of the lofty tone of the French regular officers towards both Indians and Canadians, and assured the French court that it was only his own tact which prevented an open breach.

Canada lay exposed to attack by three routes by Lake Ontario, by Lake Champlain, and by the St. Lawrence and the sea. It was vital to control the route to the West by Lake Ontario, vital to keep the English from invading Canada by way of Lake Champlain, vital to guard the St. Lawrence and keep open communications with France. Montcalm first directed his attention to Lake Ontario. Oswego, lying on the south shore, was a fort much prized by the English as a base from which they could attack the French Fort Frontenac on the north side of the lake and cut off Canada from the West. If the English could do this, they would redeem the failure of Braddock and possibly turn the Indians from a French to an English alliance.

The French, in turn, were resolved to capture and destroy Oswego. In the summer of 1756, they were busy drawing up papers and instructions for the attack. Montcalm wrote to his wife that he had never before worked so hard. He kept every one busy, his aide-de-camp, his staff, and his secretaries. No detail was too minute for his observation. He regulated the changes of clothes which the officers might carry with them. He inspected hospitals, stores, and food, and he even ordered an alteration in the method of making bread. He reorganized the Canadian battalions and in every quarter stirred up new activity. He was strict about granting leave of absence. Sometimes his working day endured for twenty hours--to bed at midnight and up again at four o'clock in the morning. He went with Levis to Lake Champlain to see with his own eyes what was going on there. Then he turned back to Montreal. The discipline among the Canadian troops was poor and he stiffened it, thereby naturally causing great offense to those who liked slack ways and hated to take trouble about sanitation and equipment. He held interminable conferences with his Indian allies. They were astonished to find that the great soldier of whom they had heard so much was so small in stature, but they noted the fire in his eye. He despised their methods of warfare and notes with a touch of irony that, while every other barbarity continues, the burning of prisoners at the stake has rather gone out of fashion, though the savages recently burned an English woman and her son merely to keep in practice.

Montcalm made his plans secretly and struck suddenly. In the middle of August, 1756, he surprised and captured Oswego and took more than sixteen hundred prisoners. Of these, in spite of all that he could do, his Indians murdered some. The blow was deadly. The English lost vast stores; and now the French controlled the whole region of the Great Lakes. The Indians were on the side of the rising power more heartily than ever, and the unhappy frontier of the English colonies was so harried that murderous savages ventured almost to the outskirts of Philadelphia. Montcalm caused a Te Deum to be sung on the scene of his victory at Oswego. In August he was back in Montreal where again was sung another joyous Te Deum. He wrote letters in high praise of some of his officers, especially of Bourlamaque, Malartic, and La Pause, the last "un homme divin." Some of the Canadian officers, praised by Vaudreuil, he had tried and found wanting. "Don't forget," he wrote to Levis, "that Mercier is a feeble ignoramus, Saint Luc a prattling boaster, Montigny excellent but a drunkard. The others are not worth speaking of, including my first lieutenant-general Rigaud." This Rigaud was the brother of Vaudreuil. When the Governor wrote to the minister, he, for his part, said that the success of the expedition was wholly due to his own vigilance and firmness, aided chiefly by this brother, "mon frere," and Le Mercier, both of whom Montcalm describes as inept. Vaudreuil adds that only his own tact kept the Indian allies from going home because Montcalm would not let them have the plunder which they desired.

Montcalm struck his next blow at the English on Lake Champlain. In July, 1757, he had eight thousand men at Ticonderoga, at the northern end of Lake George. Two thousand of these were savages drawn from more than forty different tribes--a lawless horde whom the French could not control. A Jesuit priest saw a party of them squatting round a fire in the French camp roasting meat on the end of sticks and found that the meat was the flesh of an Englishman. English prisoners, sick with horror, were forced to watch this feast. The priest's protest was dismissed with anger: the savages would follow their own customs; let the French follow theirs. The truth is that the French had been only too successful in drawing the savages to them as allies. They formed now one-quarter of the whole French army. They were of little use as fighters and probably, in the long run, the French would have been better off without them. If, however, Montcalm had caused them to go, Vaudreuil would have made frantic protests, so that Montcalm accepted the necessity of such allies.

Each success, however, brought some new horrors at the hands of the Indians. Montcalm captured Fort William Henry, at the southern end of Lake George, in August, a year after the taking of Oswego. Fort William Henry was the most advanced English post in the direction of Canada. The place had been left weak, for the Earl of Loudoun, Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in America, was using his resources for an expedition against Louisbourg, which wholly failed. Colonel Monro, the brave officer in command at Fort William Henry, made a strong defense, but was forced to surrender. The terms were that he should march out with his soldiers and the civilians of the place, and should be escorted in safety to Fort Edward, about eighteen miles to the south. This time the savages surpassed themselves in treachery and savagery. They had formally approved of the terms of surrender, but they attacked the long line of defeated English as they set out on the march, butchered some of their wounded, and seized hundreds of others as prisoners. Montcalm did what he could and even risked his life to check the savages. But some fifty English lay dead and the whole savage horde decamped for Montreal carrying with them two hundred prisoners.

Montcalm burned Fort William Henry and withdrew to Ticonderoga at the north end of the lake. Why, asked Vaudreuil, had he not advanced further south into English territory, taken Fort Edward--weak, because the English were in a panic--menaced Albany itself, and advanced even to New York? Montcalm's answer was that Fort Edward was still strong, that he had no transport except the backs of his men to take cannon eighteen miles by land in order to batter its walls, and that his Indians had left him. Moreover, he had been instructed to hasten his operations and allow his Canadians to go home to gather the ripening harvest so that Canada might not starve during the coming winter. Vaudreuil pressed at the French court his charges against Montcalm and without doubt produced some effect. French tact was never exhibited with more grace than in the letters which Montcalm received from his superiors in France, urging upon him with suave courtesy the need of considering the sensitive pride of the colonial forces and of guiding with a light rein the barbaric might of the Indian allies. It is hard to imagine an English Secretary of State administering a rebuke so gently and yet so unmistakably. Montcalm well understood what was meant. He knew that some intrigue had been working at court but he did not suspect that the Governor himself, all blandness and compliments to his face, was writing to Paris voluminous attacks on his character and conduct.

In the next summer (1758) Montcalm won another great success. He lay with his forces at Ticonderoga. The English were determined to press into the heart of Canada by way of Lake Champlain. All through the winter, after the fall of Fort William Henry, they had been making preparations on a great scale at Albany. By this time Amherst and Wolfe were on the scene in America, and they spent this summer in an attack on Louisbourg which resulted in the fall of the fortress. On the old fighting ground of Lake Champlain and Lake George, the English were this year making military efforts such as the Canadian frontier had never before seen. William Pitt, who now directed the war from London, had demanded that the colonies should raise twenty thousand men, a number well fitted to dismay the timid legislators of New York and Pennsylvania. At Albany fifteen thousand men came marching in by detachments--a few of them regulars, but most of them colonial militia who, as soon as winter came on, would scatter to their homes. The leader was General Abercromby--a leader, needless to say, with good connections in England, but with no other qualification for high command.

On July 5, 1758, there was a sight on Lake George likely to cause a flutter of anxiety in the heart of Montcalm at Ticonderoga. In a line of boats, six miles long, the great English host came down the lake and, early on the morning of the sixth, landed before the fort which Montcalm was to defend. The soul of the army had been a brilliant young officer, Lord Howe, who shared the hardships of the men, washed his own linen at the brook, and was the real leader trusted by the inept Abercromby. It was a tragic disaster for the British that at the outset of the fight Howe was killed in a chance skirmish. Montcalm's chief defense of Ticonderoga consisted in a felled forest. He had cut down hundreds of trees and, on high ground in front of the fort, made a formidable abbatis across which the English must advance. Abercromby had four men to one of Montcalm. Artillery would have knocked a passage through the trunks of the trees which formed the abbatis. Abercromby, however, did not wait to bring up artillery. He was confident that his huge force could beat down opposition by a rapid attack, and he made the attack with all courage and persistence. But the troops could not work through the thicket of fallen trunks and, as night came on, they had to withdraw baffled. Next day Lake George saw another strange spectacle--a British army of thirteen thousand men, the finest ever seen hitherto in America, retreating in a panic, with no enemy in pursuit. Nearly two thousand English had fallen, while Montcalm's loss was less than four hundred. He planted a great cross on the scene of the fight with an inscription in Latin that it was God who had wrought the victory. All Canada had a brief period of rejoicing before the gloom of final defeat settled down upon the country.


An abbatis as used in this context is a form of defense used by early militaries by which they fell trees so as the trees crossed over each other, thereby preventing a clear path in which the invading army could traverse.

Hewgill's Translation of Tielke on Fortification states that the understated cases are where abbatis may be of use in war:

  1. When woods are included within the position of the corps.
  2. When you wish to put your advanced posts or other small bodies in a state of defense, or to prevent their being carried off;
  3. When you wish to retard the enemy's march through hollow ways, ravines, etc., or to make them impassible.

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