At the beginning of July 1758, the hopes of Britain and her American colonies were high. Full-scale hostilities had been raging in North America for three years and, while British arms had seen some limited successes, the French had proven most resilient. There had been the resounding defeat at the Monongahela in 1755 and the captures of Oswego by Gen. Montcalm in 1756 and of Fort William-Henry the following year. But, by June 1758, many British regiments had been sent over to North America and tens of thousands of New Englanders enrolled in the colonial provincial troops. Against such forces, there were hopes that New France might collapse at last. A large British army under Gen. Amherst would attempt to take the fortress of Louisbourg while another force would march up the Ohio Valley to take Fort Duquesne. But the most important attempt was the assault on Fort Carillon at Ticonderoga, against which the largest army ever assembled in America would march under the command of Gen. James Abercromby, commander-in-chief of the British forces in North America.
On the French side were Gen. Montcalm and his force of metropolitan regular soldiers with some colonial troops and Canadian militiamen. The story of that fascinating campaign is the subject of my new Campaign 76: Ticonderoga 1758. Certainly, after the terrible failure of their heroic assaults against the French lines on 8 July, the morale of Abercromby's army was at its lowest ebb. It had retreated back to the site of Fort William-Henry, south of Lake George, and was much discouraged.
Lt. Col. Bradstreet, who had played a generally creditable role in the preceding campaign, wanted to restore the morale, and indeed the honour, of the Anglo-American forces by attempting a raid on a French fort.
John Bradstreet was a British regular army officer with an unusual and interesting background. He has often been termed an American but he was born at Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia, in what is now Canada. He was commissioned in his father's regiment, the 40th Foot, in 1735 and had participated in several campaigns by the time he joined Abercromby's staff in 1758. By now a lieutenant-colonel, Bradstreet had been recruiting New England 'battoemen' and building bateaux for a projected expedition to Fort Frontenac. Abercromby channelled these efforts into the attack on Ticonderoga. Bradstreet played a distinguished part in the Ticonderoga campaign, his boats transporting the army up Lake George, his battoemen involved as skirmishers in the battle of 8 July, and Bradstreet himself filling something of a void in Abercromby's command. Following the retreat, he pressed for another operation against a French fort. To propose such a thing so soon after the disastrous attack on Ticonderoga gives an idea of the determined character he must have been.
The target already chosen by Bradstreet was Fort Frontenac on the northeastern shore of Lake Ontario. Also known by its Indian name of Cataraqui, Fort Frontenac was an almost legendary place by the middle of the 18th century. It already had a long history going back to 1673, when Louis de Buade, Comte de Frontenac, one of New France's most flamboyant governor-generals, had the place built to open the way west for France. With much pomp and ceremony to impress the Indians, Frontenac personally inaugurated this fort to be named after him, the first of many to be built on the shores of the Great Lakes. For a time in the 1670s, Robert Chevalier de La Salle was its commandant before he went on to explore the Ohio and the Mississippi rivers down to the Gulf of Mexico, adding Louisiana to the French realm. However, as time went on, Fort Frontenac became less strategically important than others such as Michilimackinac, Niagara and Detroit. By the 1750s it was largely a supply depot and a convenient harbour for French vessels.
All the same, Bradstreet's choice was excellent. Because it had been important for decades, Fort Frontenac was well known in America and in Europe so that its capture would attract a lot of favourable attention on the British side. And now, because it had become less important, it was unlikely to have a large garrison or to be well fortified. The forces of New France, stretched to the limit on various fronts, would not be deployed in strength there. The chances that a strong expedition would meet with success were thus very good.
The idea had been brought up some time before the attack on Ticonderoga. Lord Howe, Gen. Abercromby's brilliant second-in-command, who was killed at Bernetz Brook on 6 July with disastrous results to the army's morale, had enthusiastically endorsed the project and, in spite of Abercromby's reservations, had 'removed every objection and obtained the assent of the general'. As soon as Ticonderoga was taken, the plan would be carried out.
Now, with Lord Howe dead and the army defeated, Bradstreet once again sought permission to mount the expedition. He argued it was a unique chance to do some damage to the French and raise the morale of the Anglo-American army. However, after the defeat at Ticonderoga, some senior officers were resistant to Bradstreet's plan, fearing yet another disaster. On the other hand, doing nothing with the army could hardly help either. Finally, it was put to a vote and approved unanimously. On 13 July, Gen. Abercromby ordered elements of the New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Doty's Massachusetts regiments and a detachment of Royal Artillery and battoemen to Schenectady. There they joined William's Massachusetts Regiment, two companies of the New York Regiment, a company of rangers and two regular Independent Companies of New York. All these troops united to form the expeditionary force. From 26 July, they travelled to join the forces commanded by Brig. Gen. John Stanwix, who was posted on the Mohawk River. United, this formed a force of 5,600 men, certainly more than a match for any French raiding party.
Abercromby's orders specifically stated that a sizeable fort was 'to be built at Oneida, or what is commonly called the General Carrying Place'. This was the spot where troops and supplies went by land from the Mohawk River to Wood Creek. It was a good precaution and the fort was duly built and named Fort Craven, later renamed Fort Stanwix (today Rome, NY). The task before Bradstreet's and Stanwix's force was not only to raid faraway Fort Frontenac but, just as importantly, to reinforce the weak British flank by securing the line of the Mohawk River, Wood Creek, and Oneida Lake and river, right up to Oswego on Lake Ontario. In 1756, Montcalm had taken and razed the three forts at Oswego. In 1758, the French contemplated a full-scale raid led by Gen. Lévis going by that water route to Albany, an endeavour which had been cancelled only a week before Abercromby's attack on Ticonderoga. With Fort Stanwix to be built, the way to Albany via the Mohawk River was closed to the enemy so long as a sufficient garrison was stationed there. By early August, Stanwix's army was on the spot and the fort was started. As instructed by Gen. Abercromby, a garrison of no less than 2,000 men was to be present at Fort Stanwix. This would be sufficient to resist any powerful French raid.
It was now time to proceed swiftly with the raid on Fort Frontenac. Volunteers were selected and, on 11 August, Bradstreet determined the force that would go on with him to the attack:
Royal Artillery 27
Rangers (or scouts) 60
New York Regiment 1,112
Col. Joseph William's Massachusetts Regiment 432
Col. Thomas Doty's Massachusetts Regiment 248
Rhode Island Regiment 318
New Jersey Regiment 418
Iroquois Indians 42
This is according to Bradstreet's account and the numbers vary somewhat in other sources. The London Gazette later mentioned 300 battoemen and 70 Indians for a total of 3,103 but there may have been more. A forward party in a barge sent ahead may be in addition to the above and it seems that more Indians might have joined on the way. In any event, all had to be 'good men' chosen from the various units and all were 'to be accustomed to canoes'. The force was nearly entirely made up of American provincial troops. Even the regular infantry allotted to the expedition were drawn from Capt. Ogilvie's Independent Company, one of the four regular garrison companies of New York colony, existing in one form or another since the 1660s and largely made up of Americans. Only Capt. Stevens' Royal Artillery gunners could be termed regulars from Great Britain. All these troops made their way from the remains of Fort Newport at the head of Wood Creek in bateaux.
On 13 August, Capt. Ogilvie with his Independent Company arrived on the site of Fort Bull, another fort razed by the French in 1755, then rebuilt and ordered demolished by the British following the fall of Oswego in 1756. Two days later, the main force arrived but sickness had broken out caused by bad drinking water. Liberal rations of rum were issued to improve the water but this 'was still far from rendering it wholesome'. The expedition went on across Lake Oneida and Oswego Falls and, on 21 August, reached the shores of Lake Ontario and Oswego, whose harbour was 'very commodious' and where vessels could be anchored in 'the greatest safety.' It was the first time since 1756 that an Anglo-American force had been there. Bradstreet and his men looked at the ruins of the fortifications while the Indians took down a tall wooden victory cross erected by Montcalm's men two years earlier.
Some French Indian scouts had spotted the Anglo-American troops several days earlier. A party of four Missassagua Indian scouts spied a well-armed barge full of men — apparently rangers with some battoemen — sent ahead by Bradstreet on 13 August to scout the area. The Missassaguas even managed to seize a copy of the order allowing the expedition without being detected. Later, two New Englanders wandered away from the barge and vanished. It seems that the Anglo-Americans were unaware of the presence of French scouts observing them at this point until the scalped bodies of the two unfortunate men were found by Bradstreet's force on the 19th. For their part, the Indian scouts still had to get back to warn Fort Frontenac. It is unknown when they arrived at Fort Frontenac but as soon as they did, its commandant sent a courier to Montreal with the captured documents and gave notice that the fort was threatened.
Bradstreet's force had a fleet of 123 bateaux and 95 whaleboats. It sailed from Oswego on 22 August at 11 am and, according to Bradstreet, 'made a formidable appearance' on the lake. The 'order of march' of the boat fleet was as follows: Indians and rangers in whaleboats; regulars first in the main body of bateaux; then the New York and New Jersey regiments; the artillery in the centre; the Massachusetts and Rhode Island regiments following; detachments forming a rear guard.
The sun was out, the weather most favourable and the lake calm. But, on the Great Lakes, conditions can change in a matter of minutes, raising a swell powerful enough to upset the boats. So, rather than cut across directly to Fort Frontenac, the fleet followed the shore round — most wisely as it turned out. On the second day the boats set off at 8 am after a night ashore but this time, with 'the wind and sea rising', had to head back to land until calmer weather in the late afternoon allowed them to sail on.
The expedition was still undetected as it approached Fort Frontenac but, towards evening, the advanced boats ran into five French Indian canoes. The rangers and Indians of the advance guard tried to catch them but their canoes were faster than the whaleboats and they got away. The expedition was only about 15 miles from its objective when the Indians in the canoes reached the fort and gave the alarm. That night, at 2 am, Bradstreet's men heard the fort's guns fire four shots, the alarm for nearby Indian allies. The wind was so strong that the expedition did not get under way in its boats until 4 pm and stopped at an island in the late evening. It was then only six miles from its objective.
On 25 August, the expedition boarded its boats and 'at about eight o'clock, came in sight of Fort Frontenac'; landing on a small island about three miles from it. Bradstreet and his men had a good view of the fort 'with the houses about it, which made the appearance of a tolerable settlement'. Two vessels were seen in the harbour. After experimenting firing a howitzer from a bateau, which was found to be 'extremely well-suited' for this, Bradstreet's entire force managed to land on the shore nearby without opposition at six in the evening. The rangers, a party of battoemen and the Indians were ordered to scour the nearby woods and eventually came back to report that there were no French or Indians outside the fort. The perimeter was sealed and sentries posted.
Inside Fort Frontenac, the situation was not very hopeful. The garrison consisted of only 110 men besides eight Indians and the civilian men, women and children. Of the 110 men, only five officers and 48 enlisted men were of the regular colonial troops, the Compagnies franches de la Marine, the rest being various employees and ship's carpenters pressed into service. The most dependable were perhaps the 28 voyageurs employed to move supplies. The commandant was Canadian colonial troops officer Pierre-Jacques Payen, Sieur de Noyan (1695-1766). He was an elderly and partly infirm officer nearing his 63rd year with a long record of service. He had commanded at Fort Frontenac in the early 1720s when, before the building of forts Niagara and Toronto, it was the main French military post on Lake Ontario; he later served in Detroit and on the garrison staff of Montreal and as 'King's Lieutenant' (lieutenant-governor) of Trois-Rivières. He had been back in Fort Frontenac since 1757 in a semi-retired capacity, as the fort was now more of a supply depot. This garrison was probably partly made up of more elderly and inferior soldiers, suitable only for garrison, as Frontenac was considered something of a secondary post. The better fighting troops were with Montcalm at Ticonderoga and towards the Ohio Valley. The main military French post on Lake Ontario was now Fort Niagara. Noyan was a good officer put into a hopeless situation but he did not surrender. That evening, Bradstreet's men stayed safely covered at a distance as about 50 shots were fired from the fort's guns.
It was clear to Bradstreet that artillery would have to be brought up to start siege operations. He had with him four brass 12-pdr cannons, two 8-in. iron howitzers and two Royal brass howitzers. Early the next morning, his artillery was landed and three companies of New York troops took possession of the high grounds west of the fort, while Bradstreet went to reconnoitre the place with the engineer Capt. Thomas Sowers. In spite of vastly overwhelming numbers, the attacking force only had 70 rounds for each of its guns and only 40 spades, 40 shovels and 40 pickaxes for building siege fortifications. Thus, whatever was built would have to be most carefully sited. Bradstreet had selected 'a spot very advantageous' on a bluff about 150 yards north of the fort where a fascine battery could be built. To the west, two cannons and three howitzers were installed in an abandoned breastwork. Capt. George Coventry, 55th Foot, who had been attached to Bradstreet on the late Lord Howe's recommendation, was tasked to oversee the building of the siege works, a task he performed to considerable satisfaction. The French kept firing for the rest of the day but without any effect on the New Englanders. That night, all the fascines were brought up and each of the 1,200 men deployed took one and advanced closer to the fort suffering only one wounded during this operation.
The battery on the bluff to the north was quickly built and in action. Its howitzers, under the direction of the artillery commander, Captain Stevens, did considerable damage. A number of shells landed in the fort. One exploded near the powder magazine, firing some gun-powder 'which scorched some of the Indians almost to death and greatly intimidated the garrison.' The French guns kept firing but again with little result, only 11 Anglo-Americans being wounded. Clearly, the British artillery was much better, 'every ball doing execution'. The French had a varied collection of about 30 guns mounted in the fort with 16 small mortars but many would have been old and of little use. In any event, the garrison had only one artillery officer and two private gunners, one of whom died during the siege. The fort's guns were thus served by men unfamiliar with artillery and this certainly explains the lack of success of their shooting. On the contrary, Bradstreet's force had few guns but they were in good condition, well suited for the task and expertly served by personnel of the Royal Artillery.
The bombardment continued into the early morning of the 27th but, 'between seven and eight in the morning, they hoisted a red flag, and beat a parley', at which time the firing on both sides was stopped. A French officer came out and was met by Capt. Sowers. The garrison had put up a short but honourable resistance. Their artillery was no match for the well-served guns of the Royal Artillery. They had observed the many hundreds of men with fascines getting closer to the fort's walls. Obviously, in a matter of days or even hours, the fort would be stormed at the point of the bayonet by hundreds if not thousands of soldiers. The small garrison would not be able to resist and it could end in a bloody tragedy for the civilians, women and children. On Bradstreet's side, there was a desire to get on with the business quickly as a relief force was bound to be sent from Montreal before long.
Meanwhile, the crews of the nine French vessels in the harbour, seeing the fort capitulating, decided to make a run for it, but most were compelled to remain and surrender due to unfavourable winds and Captain Stevens' guns opening up 'a constant firing upon them'. Two vessels manned by about 40 men managed to get out but ran aground on the island opposite the fort, their crews escaping in their longboats. The eight Indians, including the three who were 'almost burned to death by the bursting of a shell', also slipped out in canoes.
The surrender conditions agreed to by both parties were quite fair. All arms, ammunition, vessels and supplies were surrendered. The officers and men of the garrison and the civilians were allowed to keep their personal belongings and depart for Montreal as soon as possible where they would release an equal number of British prisoners. Bradstreet feared for their safety, judging from their mood that the British Indian allies were eager for plunder and scalps.
Thus ended the siege and capture of Fort Frontenac. The Anglo-Americans reported only 11 men wounded. The French seem to have had two soldiers killed and an unreported number of wounded.
By the afternoon of 27 August, the French garrison and civilians had packed their belongings, boarded their bateaux and headed for Montreal while the New Englanders set fire to the storehouses and homes outside the fort. As they left, the French were 'in the greatest apparent affliction, for the melancholy destruction they beheld; tears flowed universally from their eyes'. For most of them, Fort Frontenac had been home and now they could see part of their lives going up in smoke. The French professed 'the highest sense of gratitude, for the humane and generous treatment' they had received from Col. Bradstreet as many were under 'the most dreadful apprehensions' as to the intentions of the British allied Indians. Only a year earlier, the French allied Indians had escaped Montcalm's control with horrible consequences for the British and American garrison and civilians of Fort William-Henry (terrifyingly recreated in the film The Last of the Mohicans). Bradstreet's conduct at Fort Frontenac was certainly laudable in this regard. Some of his men must have wished for revenge but, clearly, he did not want too bloodstained a victory.
Meanwhile in Montreal, the Marquis de Vaudreuil, Governor General of New France, had received the courier from de Noyan stating the New Englanders were nearby. Vaudreuil immediately ordered a levy of 1,500 'soldiers, inhabitants or Indians' to go to Fort Frontenac under the command of Montreal Town Major Duplessis-Fabert. This was done in record time as they left Montreal the next day.
Bradstreet was anxious to leave as he knew that a relief force was bound to arrive soon and also because a great many of his men were sick and some were deserting. After loading whatever seemed valuable, demolishing 'sufficiently' the stone walls and burning the buildings inside, Bradstreet and his men departed the day after the French. The booty was estimated at £35,000. His goal to restore the army's reputation was fully achieved on 31 October 1758 when the London Gazette published an 'Extraordinary' issue to report the capture of Fort Frontenac.
It has often been said by American and British officers at the time, and historians since, that the capture of Fort Frontenac severed 'the lifeline' of the French Great Lakes empire. Actually, the Ottawa River-Lake Huron route was the main trade 'highway' to the French posts on Lakes Huron, Michigan and Superior, and to Detroit and Lake Erie to a certain extent. For the French, the loss of Frontenac was a disagreeable surprise but it was merely a temporary break in the Lake Ontario-upper St. Lawrence River route. It was not seen as a strategic or tactical disaster as long as the link was maintained and this is confirmed by the fact that they did not even bother to restore Fort Frontenac. Duplessis-Fabert and his French relief force retook possession of the abandoned place early in September. Chief engineer Pontleroy reported that the walls were in good condition and could be easily repaired but nothing was done.
Communications and supplies could be moved from other posts such as La Présentation (Ogdensburg, NY) and the place was left abandoned. What the capture of Fort Frontenac did do for the Anglo-Americans was to indicate to the French that a raid could cut their communications. Even more important to the British and Americans, it secured again Oswego on Lake Ontario not only as a defensive position protecting their left flank but also as a base for future offensive operations. Only in July 1783 was a military post re-established there, renamed Kingston, this time to protect British Canada from the nascent United States.
During the French and Indian War, the North American colonies of Great Britain raised a variety of troops to serve with the regulars of the British army. Depending on its population and economic resources which varied greatly from one colony to another, the legislature of the province would vote laws enabling these units to be raised. These usually consisted of infantry regiments with a few companies of rangers. They were recruited from volunteers lured by bounties and pay.
In nearly all cases, the regiments and companies were raised yearly for a single campaign. They were usually authorised in May and were kept in pay for service until November when the men would be discharged and go home. In some colonies, a few ranger companies were raised to guard the frontiers during the winter until more regiments and rangers were raised again in May of the ensuing year. The enabling legislation specified the numbers of officers and men to be raised, the terms under which they were to serve, how they were to be armed, clothed, subsided and paid from the province's treasury. The great majority of these units had uniforms. Some wore red but, perhaps to differentiate themselves from the British regulars, they generally had blue or green uniforms. Officers were also appointed by the provincial governor and thus received 'provincial' commissions. Many officers would be the same individuals from one year to the next. A sizeable proportion of men also appear to have re-enlisted often. Thus, by 1758, these units had a good proportion of officers and soldiers who were veterans of several campaigns.
The New York Provincial Regiment was the largest unit in Bradstreet's little army, consisting of over a third of his force deployed against Fort Frontenac in 1758. Like other provincial troops, the regiment was first raised in May 1755 as a one-battalion unit of 800 officers and men, re-raised in 1756 to 1,715 officers and men and again in 1757. A peak was reached in March 1758 when the New York assembly voted for a three-battalion regiment totalling 2,680 officers and men under a colonel-commandant. Oliver De Lancey, brother of New York governor James De Lancey, was commissioned to lead the regiment. In 1759 and 1760, the unit was raised to the same strength but divided into two battalions and reduced to 1,787 officers and men in 1761, 1762 and 1763, the last year it existed as a regiment. Besides the 1758 battles of Ticonderoga and Frontenac, the regiment was deployed in many campaigns during its existence that would take a full-fledged regimental history to describe. After 1763, the New York assembly only voted to raise 300 men to 'be employed against the enemy Indians' of Chief Pontiac.
by René Chartrand
Chartrand, René, Campaign 79: Louisbourg 1758 (Osprey Publishing, 2000)
Chartrand, René, Campaign 76: Ticonderoga 1758 (Osprey Publishing, 2000)
Chartrand, René, Fortress 27: French Fortresses in North America 1535-1763: Quebec, Montreal, Louisbourg and New Orleans (Osprey Publishing, 2005)
Chartrand, René, Campaign 140: Monongahela 1754-55 (Osprey Publishing, 2004)
Marston, Daniel, Essential Histories 44: The French-Indian War 1754-1760 (Osprey Publishing, 2002)
May, Robin, Men-at-Arms 48: Wolfe's Army (Osprey Publishing, 1998)
Reid, Stuart, Warrior 19: British Redcoat 1740-93 (Osprey Publishing, 1997)
Reid, Stuart, Warrior 42: Redcoat Officer 1740-1815 (Osprey Publishing, 2002)
Reid, Stuart, Campaign 121: Quebec 1759 (Osprey Publishing, 2003)
Windrow, Martin, Men-at-Arms 23: Montcalm's Army (Osprey Publishing, 1973)