You are Captain Jonas Schuyler, commander of a Massachusetts colony militia company serving alongside British army regulars garrisoning Fort William Henry on the south shore of Lake George in Britain’s New York colony. The fort occupies a strategic position on the Lake Champlain-Lake George-Hudson River corridor, the most easily traversed route from the French colony of New France (Canada) to southern New York. Britain has been at war with France and its Indian allies in North America since 1754, and the fighting in this vast wilderness has ranged from major expeditions involving thousands of soldiers to sharp, brutal raids and ambushes carried out by small numbers of troops and Indian warriors.
Two days ago, August 2, 1757, your militia company and 200 British soldiers arrived to reinforce Fort William Henry’s garrison, bringing its total number of troops to 2,500. Your arrival proved timely. Yesterday, 6,200 French regulars and Canadian militiamen under General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, along with 1,800 Indian allies, suddenly appeared and established siege lines around the fort. The French quickly began digging trenches to move their artillery guns into firing positions. Once the guns start bombarding the fort’s earth and log ramparts, it is only a matter of time – perhaps a few days – until the walls are breached. Unless a British relief force can arrive from Fort Edward, 16 miles south on the Hudson River, Fort William Henry’s garrison is doomed.
At midnight last night, Colonel George Monro, Fort William Henry’s commander, ordered you to lead seven of your militiamen through the wilderness to Fort Edward to report news of the siege to General Daniel Webb, commander of British forces on the New York frontier. Monro hopes that Webb will send a relief force, which you will guide back to Fort William Henry.
You and your seven militiamen silently slipped out of the fort on the Lake George side at 4 a.m., carefully avoiding enemy lookouts. Many hours and several miles later, you are deep in the forest on your way to Fort Edward. As you pass through a small clearing, a musket volley suddenly erupts from the tree line to your right – ambush! The initial volley, launched by approximately 15 Indian warriors and two French army officers, takes down two of your militiamen. Your remaining men frantically look to you for orders as you decide your next move.
WHAT IS YOUR DECISION, CAPTAIN SCHUYLER?
ASSESSMENT OF THE TACTICAL SITUATION
You and your militiamen are not professional soldiers. In fact, you are a farmer, as are most of your men. British regulars, however, have taught them the basics of conventional linear warfare tactics, in which opposing lines of soldiers march to confront each other and then trade musket volleys until one side breaks. Drilling in these formalized tactics during periodic militia musters has given your company a modest degree of proficiency in executing them.
However, the combat in this war is far from restricted to formal sieges and conventional battles with linear tactics. Indeed, much more common in the vast North American wilderness is “Indian-style” fighting – brutal hit-and-run warfare in the dense forests featuring close-quarter combat and dominated by raids and ambushes.
Fortunately, militiamen excel at Indian-style combat since it mimics hunting on the frontier, which requires one to become a master at stalking wild game and striking quickly from a place of concealment. For you and your men, hunting is a necessity, not just a sport.
POSSIBLE COURSES OF ACTION
Now, in the few seconds it will take the ambushers to reload their muskets, you must make the same life-or-death decision that the prey must make when confronted by the hunter – whether to fight or to flee.
If you decide to fight, you will order your five surviving militiamen to run to the rocky hill on the east side of the clearing before the attackers can fire again. The rocks will provide cover from the next round of enemy bullets and the area will serve as a good fighting position from which to repulse any attempts by the Indians to charge and overrun your force.
If you choose to flee, you will order your militiamen to run quickly back out of the dangerously exposed clearing before the attackers launch their next deadly volley. The dense forest will help block enemy fire from hitting your men as they escape. Your force will then race the several miles back to Fort William Henry, the nearest place of refuge. If you can stay ahead of the pursuers until nightfall, the darkness will help you elude them and facilitate your efforts to slip back into the fort.
CAPTAIN SCHUYLER’S ORDERS
Pointing east, you shout to your militiamen, “Run for that hill and take cover behind the rocks!” To ensure they understand the order and follow suit, you dash as fast as you can toward the rise. During the seconds it takes you to reach the hill, you say a silent prayer for your men struck down by the initial volley. You cannot help them now, so you must concentrate on saving the others.
As you and your militiamen reach the hill and dive behind the rocks, another enemy volley crashes out of the woods. Musket balls bounce off the outcroppings and buzz over your heads, but thankfully no one else is hit.
You then order, “Take position behind the rocks and be prepared to fire on my command! If we put up a stiff defense, the Indians will quickly realize they are in for a tough fight. Based on our previous experience fighting them, we know they always look for easy targets promising swift victories and avoid battle if there is a risk of suffering many casualties. Thus our stout defense will soon convince them to move on and seek easier ‘game.’”
Jerry D. Morelock, PhD, “Armchair General” Editor in Chief.
HISTORICAL NOTE: This fictional vignette is based on the August 3-9, 1757, Siege of Fort William Henry, the aftermath of which resulted in one of the most infamous atrocities of the 1754-63 French and Indian War. Although Colonel Monro was able to get word of Montcalm’s siege via messengers to General Webb – commanding the only British troops between the French force and Albany – Webb refused to mount a relief operation. After Montcalm’s August 5-9 artillery bombardment breached the fort’s walls, Monro surrendered the garrison. Montcalm’s uncontrollable Indian allies, however, set upon the defenseless British troops and civilians (including women and children) living at the fort, slaughtering an estimated 200 of them and carrying off into captivity 700 men, women and children. The massacre featured prominently in James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel The Last of the Mohicans and is vividly re-created in the 1992 film version of the book starring Daniel Day-Lewis.
Originally published in the March 2014 issue of Armchair General.