A Winter Raid

While Johnson was building Fort William Henry at one end of Lake George,

the French began Fort Ticonderoga at the other, though they did not

finish it till the next year. In the winter of 1757, hearing that the

English were making great preparations at Fort William Henry to attack

them, they resolved to anticipate the blow and seize that post by

surprise. To this end, Vaudreuil, Governor of Canada, sent a large

nt from Montreal, while the small body of troops and provincials

who occupied the English fort remained wholly ignorant of the movement.

On St. Patrick's Day, the seventeenth of March, the Irish soldiers who

formed a part of the garrison of Fort William Henry were paying homage

to their patron saint in libations of heretic rum, the product of New

England stills; and it is said that John Stark's rangers forgot

theological differences in their zeal to share the festivity. The story

adds that they were restrained by their commander, and that their

enforced sobriety proved the saving of the fort. This may be doubted;

for without counting the English soldiers of the garrison who had no

special call to be drunk that day, the fort was in no danger till

twenty-four hours after, when the revellers had had time to rally from

their pious carouse. Whether rangers or British soldiers, it is certain

that watchmen were on the alert during the night between the eighteenth

and nineteenth, and that towards one in the morning they heard a sound

of axes far down the lake, followed by the faint glow of a distant fire.

The inference was plain, that an enemy was there, and that the necessity

of warming himself had overcome his caution. Then all was still for some

two hours, when, listening in the pitchy darkness, the watchers heard

the footsteps of a great body of men approaching on the ice, which at

the time was bare of snow. The garrison were at their posts, and all the

cannon on the side towards the lake vomited grape and round-shot in the

direction of the sound, which thereafter was heard no more.

Those who made it were the detachment, called by Vaudreuil an army, sent

by him to seize the English fort. Shirley had planned a similar stroke

against Ticonderoga a year before; but the provincial levies had come in

so slowly, and the ice had broken up so soon, that the scheme was

abandoned. Vaudreuil was more fortunate. The whole force, regulars,

Canadians, and Indians, was ready to his hand. No pains were spared in

equipping them. Overcoats, blankets, bearskins to sleep on, tarpaulins

to sleep under, spare moccasins, spare mittens, kettles, axes, needles,

awls, flint and steel, and many miscellaneous articles were provided, to

be dragged by the men on light Indian sledges, along with provisions for

twelve days. The cost of the expedition is set at a million francs,

answering to more than as many dollars of the present time. To the

disgust of the officers from France, the Governor named his brother

Rigaud for the chief command; and before the end of February the whole

party was on its march along the ice of Lake Champlain. They rested

nearly a week at Ticonderoga, where no less than three hundred short

scaling-ladders, so constructed that two or more could be joined in one,

had been made for them; and here, too, they received a reinforcement,

which raised their number to sixteen hundred. Then, marching three days

along Lake George, they neared the fort on the evening of the

eighteenth, and prepared for a general assault before daybreak.

The garrison, including rangers, consisted of three hundred and

forty-six effective men. The fort was not strong, and a resolute assault

by numbers so superior must, it seems, have overpowered the defenders;

but the Canadians and Indians who composed most of the attacking force

were not suited for such work; and, disappointed in his hope of a

surprise, Rigaud withdrew them at daybreak, after trying in vain to burn

the buildings outside. A few hours after, the whole body reappeared,

filing off to surround the fort, on which they kept up a brisk but

harmless fire of musketry. In the night they were heard again on the

ice, approaching as if for an assault; and the cannon, firing towards

the sound, again drove them back. There was silence for a while, till

tongues of flame lighted up the gloom, and two sloops, ice-bound in the

lake, and a large number of bateaux on the shore were seen to be on

fire. A party sallied to save them; but it was too late. In the morning

they were all consumed, and the enemy had vanished.

It was Sunday, the twentieth. Everything was quiet till noon, when the

French filed out of the woods and marched across the ice in procession,

ostentatiously carrying their scaling-ladders, and showing themselves to

the best effect. They stopped at a safe distance, fronting towards the

fort, and several of them advanced, waving a red flag. An officer with a

few men went to meet them, and returned bringing Le Mercier, chief of

the Canadian artillery, who, being led blindfold into the fort,

announced himself as bearer of a message from Rigaud. He was conducted

to the room of Major Eyre, where all the British officers were

assembled; and, after mutual compliments, he invited them to give up the

place peaceably, promising the most favorable terms, and threatening a

general assault and massacre in case of refusal. Eyre said that he

should defend himself to the last; and the envoy, again blindfolded, was

led back to whence he came.

The whole French force now advanced as if to storm the works, and the

garrison prepared to receive them. Nothing came of it but a fusillade,

to which the British made no reply. At night the French were heard

advancing again, and each man nerved himself for the crisis. The real

attack, however, was not against the fort, but against the buildings

outside, which consisted of several storehouses, a hospital, a saw-mill,

and the huts of the rangers, besides a sloop on the stocks and piles of

planks and cord-wood. Covered by the night, the assailants crept up with

fagots of resinous sticks, placed them against the farther side of the

buildings, kindled them, and escaped before the flame rose; while the

garrison, straining their ears in the thick darkness, fired wherever

they heard a sound. Before morning all around them was in a blaze, and

they had much ado to save the fort barracks from the shower of burning

cinders. At ten o'clock the fires had subsided, and a thick fall of snow

began, filling the air with a restless chaos of large moist flakes. This

lasted all day and all the next night, till the ground and the ice were

covered to a depth of three feet and more. The French lay close in their

camps till a little before dawn on Tuesday morning, when twenty

volunteers from the regulars made a bold attempt to burn the sloop on

the stocks, with several storehouses and other structures, and several

hundred scows and whaleboats which had thus far escaped. They were only

in part successful; but they fired the sloop and some buildings near it,

and stood far out on the ice watching the flaming vessel, a superb

bonfire amid the wilderness of snow. The spectacle cost the volunteers a

fourth of their number killed and wounded.

On Wednesday morning the sun rose bright on a scene of wintry splendor,

and the frozen lake was dotted with Rigaud's retreating followers

toiling towards Canada on snow-shoes. Before they reached it many of

them were blinded for a while by the insufferable glare, and their

comrades led them homewards by the hand.