Published on February 6, 2013 by Carol
The fall of Fort William Henry and the ensuing “massacre” of the surrendered English on August 8, 1757 is one of the most famous incidents in American history. As dramatized by James Fenimore Cooper in The Last of the Mohicans , the fall of the fort was an incredible tragedy of epic proportions, an illustration of the nobility of the British and the savagery of both the French and the Indians, and an example of brutal primal rage. The real picture is more complicated.
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On August 2, 1757 Major General Daniel Webb learned of a concentration of French forces preparing to attack Fort William Henry, which was on the southern end of Lake George along the route to Montreal. With the poor foresight typical among the British officers up to that point in the war, Webb decided to retreat, leaving Lieutenant Colonel George Munro in charge. When Munro, who was left to defend the fort with 2,300 men (only 1,600 of whom were fit for battle) learned that Louis-Joseph de Montcalm was preparing to attack the fort with over 7,000 men, he appealed to Webb for reinforcements. Though Webb had a good number of ready and able reinforcements at his side, he refused Munro’s request, and sent back a letter advising Munro to settle on the best possible terms. Amazingly, Munro held out against the French for four days. But the odds were virtually impossible, and he finally capitulated on August 9.
The British troops were disarmed as a condition of surrender, and made to march from the fort. As the inhabitants of the fort streamed out, the Ottawa, Abenaki, and Potawatomi Indians who fought with the French fell upon the British. The massacre began with the helpless—the wounded and sick men that had been in the fort’s hospital and were carried out last. Women and children, most likely families of the soldiers, were also murdered. Other victims included black and mulatto servants, Indian allies of the British, and retreating soldiers who were in sight when order broke down.
While the Indians attacked, the French did nothing to stop the massacre or go to the assistance of those who were being slaughtered. Montcalm excused his behavior with the following words: “I have been obliged here to gratify the Indian nations, who will not leave without me, and am obliged to pass my time with them in ceremonies as tiresome as they are necessary.” Montcalm did attempt to restore hostages that the Indians carried off, and he was successful at rescuing many of them.
The number of casualties of the massacre continues to be disputed. It is certain that the French underestimated the death toll, and the English wildly overestimated it, both for propaganda purposes. Contemporary historians normally place the number at over 200, with over 300 captives taken.