General Montcalm had advised Colonel Munro to dispose of the fort’s supply of rum to keep it away from the warriors. But some of his men couldn’t see all that good liquor going to waste. So they only broke open most of the barrels spilling the highly prized plunder on the ground.
The warriors were in a foul mood. The English were being allowed to walk away carrying their belongings including unloaded firearms. There would be no scalps nor prisoners which the French were only to happy to turn into cash and trade goods. There would be no loot to keep for themselves. Was this was their reward for fighting for their French allies? The First Nations felt betrayed!
The British prisoners were held in an entrenched camp just outside the fort. They were preparing for the march to Fort Edward the next day. Those who had kept back a good portion of the store’s rum barrels decided to sample their wares. All this was a very bad idea but the worst was yet to come.
Some of them thought if they shared some of the rum with the warriors it would put them on their good side, just in case there was trouble ahead. Over the course of the night some of the warriors helped themselves to the liquor and they weren’t shy about it. By dawn’s first light they were in a state of inebriation and highly agitated over Montcalm’s betrayal. The ones who didn’t participate in the intoxicating spirits were just as angry and tumultuous as the ones who did. The old chiefs such as Pennahouel lost control of their young men.
The British spent an uneasy night listening to the pounding of war drums and shouting of war cries coming from the darkness that surrounded them. They became extremely nervous and at dawn gathered together anxious to move out.
Not all were ready to march. Seventeen soldiers were recuperating in the surgeon’s tents too wounded to travel. The French surgeon had left them in the protection of a French guard with La Corne and other Canadian officers within sight of the tents.
For the warriors this battle was not over. They began the day by attacking the medical tents. They dragged the wounded out of their beds and killed and scalped them on the spot. The French guards looked the other way while the Canadians look on with seemingly disinterest.
The escort of 300 French regulars finally arrived and Munro complained that the terms of capitulation had been broken. They were advised to give the warriors their baggage in order to try to appease them. This turned out to be bad advice as it only served to agitate their antagonizers all the more. The warriors demanded rum and some of the British regulars in fear for their lives gave them some from their canteens. Another bad mistake!
The long procession of 2,200 prisoners finally got underway. Down the narrow road they trudged in an even narrower column stretched out too far for any kind of safety. The French escort lead the way followed by British red coats, then the women and children. The colonial militia brought up the rear.
The English being harassed all the while by individual warriors who, one at a time would grab some prized item be it a hat or canteen or unloaded musket from an unresisting soldier. If there was resistance the unfortunate one would be tomahawked on the spot and relieved of his scalp as well. The French escort did nothing to curb the harassment.
Suddenly the loud screech of an Abenaki war cry signalled an attack. The “Praying Indians” from the mission of Panaouski led the escalation in violence. They rushed upon the New Hampshire militia at the rear of the column. The militia suffered 80 killed or captured. The rear of the column pressed in on those in front. Panicked by the escalation general confusion presided and the rest of the First Nation warriors joined in attacking the long procession from all sides. The British prisoners of war were stripped to their breeches and relieved of all their possessions. Some were killed, some were taken prisoner and some were left dazed in the middle of the road. Many others escaped into the woods to make their own way to the safety of Fort Edward.
Montcalm was advised of the turmoil and he and Levis and other French officers rushed to the scene. They did try to restore order by inserting themselves in the melee calling for peace. Although brave it did little to quell the frenzied warriors.
When things did settle down the survivors were escorted back to the entrenched camp and put under extra guard until the next day. They were then marched under a stronger guard to Fort Edward where cannon fire could be heard at intervals as a signal to stragglers coming in from the previous day. Meanwhile Montcalm tried to retrieve the 200 prisoners being held in First Nations camps but it was to no avail.
The same day the survivors were marched to Fort Edward the First Nations broke camp and with prisoners in tow headed to Montreal. They were still highly agitated, upset at Montcalm’s betrayal. They were determined to receive their remuneration if not from the battle then from the governor.
Governor Vaudreuil rebuked them when they arrived for breaking the terms of surrender but this was just for show. Bougainville, who was in Montreal when the First Nations arrived, thought the British prisoners should be taken from them and they should be sent home in disgrace. But Vaudreuil thought better being confronted by more than 1,000 angry warriors. Intendent Bigot wrote in report that the warriors should be sent home satisfied at all costs.
To this end the First Nations received a ransom of two kegs of brandy for each prisoner, guns, canoes and other payment for services. They left Montreal for their homelands so distrustful of their French allies that most would not fight in their service again.
During the battle of Fort William Henry Montcalm’s officers did try to alleviate the attacks of the warriors after the capitulation, but not the regulars and certainly not the Canadians. Afterall, they understood the time-tested arrangement for payment for First Nations support and they knew Montcalm had foolishly broken it. The French may have won the battle but it was at Fort Henry they lost the war. The First Nations held the balance of power at this time and it was here that he lost them as trusted allies.
NEXT WEEK: Fort Duquesne – An Encore 1758