The Seven Years War as it was fought in the New World has always fascinated students of military history. Its stage—the wilderness of the American north-east, at a time when its vast forests and lakes were sparsely populated by settlers from Britain and France and ever threatened by the fierce indigenous Indian tribes, each with its particular loyalty or enmity—conjures a drama of colour and romance which has found its way into fiction and the cinema. Yet this was a brutal contest—often fought with little mercy—and one which despite its intimacy was fought for the highest of stakes—the dominance of continental America and the premiership of world power. Here is the story of that confrontation—from burning cabins and stockades to massacre. From lightning raids by daring forest rangers to the storming of besieged fortresses and cities. This is the French and Indian War—an account of how the New World became a mostly English speaking one and how France lost its opportunity to be the dominant world power of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The afternoon and night of the 9th were passed anxiously enough by the two thousand British of all ranks, besides the women and children, within the entrenchment. They were to march in the morning, and as soon as the escort of 300 regulars, an absurdly weak one, seeing the temper of the savages, should arrive. Seventeen wounded men lying in a hut under care of a surgeon were the first victims. The Indians, brushing aside the sentries, dragged the wretched men from their beds, and butchered them within a few yards of a group of Canadian officers, who did not trouble even to remonstrate.<br>
As the defenceless column of prisoners began to move, the savages fell to indiscriminate plundering. The men strenuously resisted this attempt to rob them of their personal effects. Monroe protested loudly that the terms of the capitulation were broken, and appealed to the French officers of the escort which was drawn up close by. The latter seem to have been cowed by the turmoil around them, and had not even the presence of mind to send for support to the army which lay a few hundred yards off.<br>
All they did was to urge the British to give up their property for the sake of peace, and to get away as fast as possible. Many indignantly refused this mean advice. Others followed it, and a certain amount of rum from private canteens thus found its way down the throats of the yelling savages and made them still more uncontrollable. No sooner had the column got clear of the entrenchments, and started upon the forest road to Fort Edward, than all restraint was thrown off, and the Indians fell upon the rear, stripping both men and officers to their very shirts, and instantly tomahawking those who showed resistance. The war whoop was now raised—by the pet converts of the Canadian priesthood from Penobscot it is said—when the rear of the column, rushing forward upon those in front, a scene of horror ensued that has been described by many pens.<br>
Women and children were dragged from the crowd; some were tomahawked, others carried off as prisoners to the woods. Their shrieks and cries, mingled with the hideous yells of the Indians and the shouts and curses of the impotent British, made an unforgettable scene. Montcalm and the French officers threw themselves among the savages now half drunk with rum or blood, and did all that men armed only with authority and not backed by force, as they should have been, could do. The small French escort in the meantime looked on helplessly, the crowd of Canadians indifferently, as the scene of blood and plunder and outrage continued.<br>
At length the exertions of Montcalm and Lévis, Bourlamaque and other French officers, had some effect; but it was only by promising payment for the captives seized by the Indians that some sort of order was restored. The precise number of both sexes thus butchered under the eyes of the French, while unarmed captives of war, is a matter of dispute. Lévis counted fifty corpses on the field, while sick and wounded men to half that number had been murdered in their beds, and numbers more dragged off into the woods. It seems probable that a hundred would be a fair estimate of those slain.<br>
Over six hundred were made captives by the savages, and it required the utmost exertions on Montcalm’s part, with a considerable outlay of money, to recover about half of them. The Indians would not give up the remainder on any terms, and eventually took them to Montreal, where Vaudreuil, who, in his character of Canadian, looked with much toleration on Indian outrage, had to pay for the amusement this time with large sums out of his scant treasury by way of ransom. The whole body of Montcalm’s Indians left for Canada the day after the massacre, carrying with them the three hundred prisoners above alluded to, and no difficulty was experienced in getting the rest of the captured British garrison in safety to Fort Edward.<br>
There is absolutely nothing to be said in defence of the French in this affair. That they did not dare to run the risk of offending and alienating their Indians is, of course, the explanation, though surely no extenuation of such ignoble conduct. It is one of the worst stains upon the annals of their arms in America. They would have been bound by humanity only in the storming of a fort, but after a formal capitulation, they were bound not merely by humanity, but by the most elementary rule of military honour, and it is satisfactory to think that they paid dearly for it.
The British Government, as a matter of course, repudiated their part of the contract, and not a French prisoner was sent to Montreal, nor was the parole of the garrison held to be binding of. The memory of the massacre drove many a bayonet home in the coming years of British success that might otherwise have been stayed in mercy, and many a Canadian sued in vain for his life at the hands of the New England Ranger who might formerly have been spared. Remember Fort William Henry became an ominous war cry in many a battle and in many a bloody backwoods skirmish. The French knew it well and felt that it added a fresh terror to defeat. The first impulse of a disarmed or captured Canadian was to protest by voice and gesture that he had not been present at that accursed scene.
The growing scarcity of food in Canada saved the forts on the Hudson and, probably, the flourishing town of Albany itself, from being captured and sacked by the French. Word was sent that it was of the first necessity, that the now ripening harvest , should be gathered, and there were not men to do it. So the French turned their attention to the destruction of the British fort and all its dependent buildings.