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Oswego, 1756

In 1753 the governor of Virginia had sent Washington, then a young major of only twenty-one, to see what the French were doing in the valley of the Ohio, where they had been busy building forts to shut the gateway of the West against the British and to keep it open for themselves. The French officers at a post which they called Venango received Washington very politely and asked him to supper. Washington wrote in his diary that, after they had drunk a good deal of wine, 'they told me that it was their absolute design to take possession of the Ohio, and by God they would do it.' When Washington had returned home and reported, the Virginians soon sent him back with a small force to turn the French out. But meanwhile the French had been making themselves much stronger, and on July 4, 1754, when Washington advanced into the disputed territory, he was overcome and obliged to surrender--a strange Fourth of July for him to look back upon!

Exciting events followed rapidly. In 1755 Braddock came out from England with a small army of regulars to take command of the British forces in America and drive the French from the Ohio valley. But there were many difficulties. The governments of the thirteen British colonies were jealous of each other and of the government in Britain; their militia were jealous of the British regulars, who in turn looked down on them. In the end, with only a few Virginians to assist him, Braddock marched into a country perfectly new to him and his men. The French and Indians, quite at home in the dense forest, laid an ambush for the British regulars. These stood bravely, but they could not see a single enemy to fire at. They were badly defeated, and Braddock was killed. The British had a compensating success a few weeks later when, in the centre of Canada, beside Lake George, the French general, Baron Dieskau, was defeated almost as badly as Braddock had been. Following this, down by the Gulf the French Acadians were rooted out of Nova Scotia, for fear that they might join the other French in the coming war. Their lot was a hard one, but as they had been British subjects for forty years and had always refused to take the oath of allegiance to the British crown, and as they were being constantly stirred up against British rule, it was decided that they could not be safely left inside the British frontier.

At sea the French had also suffered loss. Admiral Boscawen had seized two ships with four hundred seasoned French regulars on board destined for Canada. The French then sent out another four hundred to replace them. But no veteran soldiers could be spared. So the second four hundred, raised from all sorts of men, were of poor quality, and spoiled the discipline of the regiments they joined in Canada. One of the regiments, which had the worst of these recruits, proved to be the least trust. worthy in the final struggle before Quebec in 1759. Thus the power of the British navy in the Gulf of St Lawrence in 1755 made itself felt four years later, and a long distance away, at the very crisis of the war on land.

Strange as it seems to us now, all this fighting had taken place in a time of nominal peace. But in 1756 the Seven Years' War broke out in Europe, and then many plans were made, especially in the English colonies in America, for the conquest of Canada. The British forces were greater than the French, all told on both sides, both then and throughout the war. But the thirteen colonies could not agree. Some of them were hot, others lukewarm, others, such as the Quakers of Pennsylvania, cold. Moreover, the British generals were of little use, and the colonial ones squabbled as the colonies themselves squabbled. Pitt had not yet taken charge of the war, and the British in America were either doing nothing or doing harm.

There was only one trained and competent general on the whole continent; and that general was Montcalm. Though new to warfare in the wilds he soon understood it as well as those who had waged it all their lives; and he saw at a glance that an attack on Oswego was the key to the whole campaign. Louisbourg was, as yet, safe enough; and the British movements against Lake Champlain were so slow and foolish that he turned them to good account for his own purposes.

At the end of June, 1756, Montcalm arrived at Ticonderoga, where he had already posted his second-in-command, the Chevalier de Levis, with 3,000 men. He walked all over the country thereabouts and seized the lie of the land so well that he knew it thoroughly when he came back, two years later, and won his greatest victory. He kept his men busy too. He moved them forward so boldly and so cleverly that the British who had been planning the capture of the fort never thought of attacking him, but made sure only of defending themselves. All this was but a feint to put the British off their guard elsewhere. Suddenly, while Levis kept up the show of force, Montcalm himself left secretly for Montreal, saw Vaudreuil, who, like Bigot, was still all bows and smiles, and left again, with equal suddenness, for Fort Frontenac (now Kingston) on July 21. From this point he intended to attack Oswego.

At the entrance to the Thousand Islands there was a point, called by the voyageurs Point Baptism, where every new-comer into the 'Upper Countries' had to pay the old hands to drink his health. The French regulars, 1,300 strong, were all new to the West, and, as they formed nearly half of Montcalm's little army, the 'baptism' of so many newcomers caused a great deal of jollity in camp that night. Serious work was, however, ahead. Fort Frontenac was reached on the 29th; and here the report that Villiers, with the advance guard, had already taken from the British 200 canoes and 300 prisoners soon flew round and raised the men's spirits to the highest pitch.

Montcalm at once sent out two armed ships, with twenty-eight cannon between them, to cut off Oswego by water, while he sent a picked body of Canadians and Indians into the woods on the south shore to cut the place off by land. There was no time to lose, since the British were, on the whole, much stronger, and might make up their slow minds to send an army to the rescue. Montcalm lost not a moment. He sailed across the lake with his 3,000 men and all his guns and stores, and landed at Sackett's Harbor, which his advance guard had already seized and prepared. Then, hiding in the mouths of rivers by day and marching and rowing by night, his army arrived safely within cannon-shot of Oswego under cover of the dark on August 10.

There were three forts at the mouth of the Oswego. The first was Fort Ontario; then, across the river, stood Fort Oswego; and, beyond that again, little Fort George. These forts were held by about 1,800 British, mostly American colonists, with 123 guns of all kinds.

While it was still dark Montcalm gave out his orders. At the first streak of dawn the Indians and Canadians were in position to protect the engineers and working parties. Only one accident marred the success of the opening day. One of the French engineers was returning to camp through the woods at dusk, when an Indian, mistaking him for an enemy, shot him dead. It is said that this Indian felt so sorry for what he had done that he vowed to avenge the engineer's loss on the British, and did not stop scalp-hunting during the rest of the war; but went on until he had lifted as many as thirty scalps from the hated British heads. In the meantime, other engineers had traced out the road from the bay to the battery. Led by their officers the French regulars set to work with such goodwill that the road was ready next day for the siege train of twenty-two cannon, now landed in the nick of time.

Every part of the siege was made to fit in perfectly with every other part. While the guns were being landed, the British, who had only just taken alarm, sent round two armed vessels to stop this work. But Montcalm had placed a battery all ready to beat off an attack, and the landing went on like clock-work. The next day, again, the soldiers were as busy as bees round the doomed British forts. Canadians and Indians filled the woods. Canadians and French hauled the cannon up to the battery commanding Fort Ontario, but left them hidden near by till after dark. The engineers made the first parallel. French troops raised the battery; and at daylight the next morning it was ready. Fort Ontario kept up an active fire, at a distance of only a musket shot, two hundred yards; but the French fire was so furious that the British guns were silenced the same afternoon.

Colonel Mercer, the British commander, called in the garrison, who abandoned Fort Ontario and crossed the river after spiking the guns. Without a moment's delay Montcalm seized the fort and kept his working parties hauling guns all night long. In the morning Fort Oswego on the other side of the river was commanded by a heavier battery than the one that had taken Fort Ontario the day before. More than this, the Canadians and Indians had crossed the river and had cut off the little Fort George, half a mile beyond. There was a stiff fight for it, but Mercer's men were driven off into the other fort with considerable loss.

Montcalm's new battery beside the river was on higher ground than Fort Oswego, which was only five hundred yards away. At six o'clock it opened fire and ploughed up the whole area of the fort with terrible effect. Hardly a spot was left which the French shells did not search out. The British reply, fired uphill, soon began to falter. The French fire was redoubled. Colonel Mercer was killed by a cannon ball, and this, of course, weakened the British defense, The second-in-command kept up the unequal fight for another couple of hours. Then, finding that he could not induce his men to face the murderous fire any longer, and seeing his fort cut off by land and water, he ran up the white flag.

Montcalm gave him an hour to surrender both fort and garrison. Again there was no time to lose, and again Montcalm lost none. That morning a letter found on a British messenger showed that Colonel Webb, with 2,000 men, was somewhere up the river Oswego waiting for news. So, while Montcalm was attacking the fort with his batteries, he was also preparing his army to attack Webb. He did not intend to wait; but to march out and meet the new enemy, so as not to be caught between two fires.

At eleven the fort surrendered with 1,600 prisoners, 123 cannon, powder, shot, stores and provisions of all kinds; 5 armed ships and 200 boats. There was also a large quantity of wine and rum, which Montcalm at once spilt into the lake, lest the Indians should get hold of it and in their drunken frenzy begin a massacre. As it was, they were anything but pleased to find that he was conducting the war on European principles, and that he would not let them scalp the sick and wounded British. Some of them sneaked in and, in the first confusion, took a few scalps. But Montcalm was among them at once and stopped them short. He had been warned not to offend them; and so he promised them rich presents if they would behave properly. In his dispatch to the minister of War he said: 'I am afraid my promises will cost ten thousand francs; but the keeping of them will attach the Indians more to our side. In any case, there is nothing I would not have done to prevent any breach of faith with the enemy.'

In a single week every part of all three forts was leveled with the ground. This delighted the Indians more than anything else, for they rightly feared that any British advance in this direction would be sure to end in their being driven out of their own country. By August 21, ten days from the time the first shot was fired, Montcalm was leading his victorious army back to Montreal.

The news spread like wildfire. No such sudden, complete, and surprising victory had ever before been won in the West. The name and fame of Montcalm ran along the war-paths of the endless forest and passed from mouth to mouth over ten thousand leagues of inland waters. In one short summer the magic of that single word, Montcalm, became as great in America as it had been for centuries in France. The whole face of the war was changed. At the beginning of the year the British had thought of nothing but attack. Then, when Montcalm had shown them so bold a front at Ticonderoga, they had paused to make sure. Now, after Oswego, they thought of nothing but defense.

People could hardly believe that one and the same man had in July checked the threatened British invasion at Lake Champlain and in August had taken the stronghold of British power on Lake Ontario. Every step of the way had to be covered by force of the men's own legs and arms, marching, paddling, hauling, carrying. In short, Montcalm had moved a whole army, siege train and all, as fast through the wilderness without horses as another army would have been moved over good roads in Europe with them. The wonder grew when the numbers became known. With 3,000 men and 22 guns Montcalm had taken three forts with a garrison of 1,800 men and 123 guns; and had done this in face of five armed British vessels against his own two, and in spite of the fact that 2,000 more British soldiers were close behind him in the forest.

Canada burst into great rejoicings. All the churches sang Te Deum. The five captured flags were carried in triumph through Montreal, Three Rivers, and Quebec. In France the news was received with great jubilation, and many of Montcalm's officers gained promotion. In the midst of all this glory Montcalm was busy looking after the health and comfort of his men, seeing that the Canadians were sent home as soon as possible to gather in their harvest, and engaging the Indians to join him for a still greater war next year. Nor did he forget any one who had done him faithful service. He asked, as a special favor, that an old sergeant, Marcel, who had come out as his orderly and clerk, should be made a captain. Marcel had thus good reason never to forget Montcalm. It was his hand that wrote the last letter which Montcalm ever dictated and signed, the one to the British commander after the battle of the Plains, the one which admitted the ultimate failure of all Montcalm's heroic work.

Another man whom Montcalm specially praised was Bougainville, his aide-de-camp, of whom we shall hear again very often. Bougainville, though still under thirty, was already a well-known man of science who had been made a Fellow of the Royal Society of London. 'You could hardly believe how full of resource he is,' wrote the admiring Montcalm, who then added modestly: 'As the account of this expedition may be printed I have asked him to correct it carefully, because he writes much better than I do.'

Only one thing spoiled the triumph; and that was the jealousy of Vaudreuil, who tried to claim all the credit of making the plan for himself and the credit of carrying it out for the Canadians. Certainly he had been saying for some time before Montcalm arrived that Oswego ought to be taken. Everybody on both sides knew perfectly well, however, that Oswego was the gateway of the West; so Vaudreuil was not a bit wiser than many others. In a way he did make the plan. But Montcalm was the one who really worked it out. Vaudreuil pressed the button that launched the ship. It was Montcalm who took her into action and brought her out victorious.

Montcalm's crew worked well together. But this did not suit Vaudreuil at all. He wrote both to the minister of War and to the minister of Marine in France, praising the Canadians and Indians and making as little as possible of the work of the French. 'The French regulars showed their wonted zeal; but the enemy did not give them a chance to do much work.' 'Our troops, the Canadians and Indians, fought with courage. They have all done very well.' True enough. But, all the same, the regulars were, from first to last, the backbone of the defense of Canada. 'The measures I took made our victory certain. If I had been less firm, Oswego would still have been in the hands of the British. I cannot sufficiently congratulate myself on the zeal which my brother [an officer in the Canadian service] and the Canadians and Indians showed. Without them my orders would have been given in vain.' And so on, and so on.

Montcalm saw the real strength and weakness of the Canadians and wrote his own opinion to the minister of War. 'Our French regulars did all I required with splendid zeal. ... I made good use of the militia, but not at the works exposed to the enemy's fire. These militiamen have no discipline. In six months I could make grenadiers of them. But at present I would not rely on them, nor believe what they say about themselves; for they think themselves quite the finest fellows in the world. The governor is a native of Canada, was married here, and is surrounded by his relatives on all sides.'

The fact is that the war was no longer an affair of little raids, first on one side and then on the other, but was becoming, more and more, a war on a great scale, with long campaigns, larger numbers of men, trains of artillery, fortifications, and all the other things that require well-drilled troops who have thoroughly learned the soldier's duty, and are ready to do it at any time and in any place. War is like everything else in the world. The men whose regular business it is will wage it better than the men who only do it as an odd job. Of course, if the best men are chosen for the militia, and the worst are turned into regulars, the militia may beat the regulars, even on equal terms. If, too, regulars are set down in a strange country, quite unlike the one in which they have been trained to fight, naturally they will begin by making a good many mistakes. But, for all-round work, the same men, as regulars, are worth much more than twice what they are worth as militia, everywhere and always.

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Chronicles of Canada, The Passing of New France, A Chronicle of Montcalm, 1915


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