“oh Amherst, Brave Amherst…

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Amherst needed no second look. He ordered his troops ahead over the roughest ground they had yet encountered—gullies and outcroppings of granite, felled trees, bramble thickets, and the mire of unexpected bogs. It took the men two hours to cover the distance to the old entrenchments. There the treespiked barrier stood, deserted, a death’s-head memento of the year before, with the star-shaped fortress glowering on beyond. “In the center of the line,” Brother Billy noted, “the French had erected a high cross, with a large grave dug and left open before it.” On the cross was a copper plate with the Biblical taunt in Latin: “Bury their generals here, like Oreb and Zeeb, Zebah and Zalmunna.”

Though Billy recorded it in his Journal , the taunt meant little to his practical brother. Amherst had not been to bed for two nights, yet still with controlled energy he directed the unloading and setting up of his cannon, the cutting of new paths, and the erecting of fortifications. He did not sleep that third night either. By morning the first arc of his batteries was ready. A sunrise cannonade set the roof of the fort afire, and soon the English could see the Frenchmen swarming out like ants from a trodden anthill.

As the ring of cannon closed in, Robert Rogers’ Rangers scoured the woods. Whenever a French head appeared above the walls, a provincial sharpshooter was waiting to draw a bead on it. Amherst’s mind was flexible and he relied equally on European and colonial military experience. In his besieging army were unknowns whose names would be better known later—among them Israel Putnam, Ethan Allen, John Stark, and Benedict Arnold.

If Amherst was not Abercromby, the Chevalier de Bourlamaque, the French commander, was no Montcalm, even though he commanded as many men as had the latter in his victory the year before. Bourlamaque had had his orders from Vaudreuil to abandon both Ticonderoga and Crown Point at the approach of the English and retreat to the more defensible isle aux Noix (Nut Island) just beyond the entrance to the Richelieu River. Bourlamaque followed his instructions to the letter. The same evening that Amherst brought up his cannon, Bourlamaque embarked with his main body of 2,500 men and headed up the lake, leaving a Captain Hebecourt behind with a holding garrison of 400.

Two days later Amherst’s clock-work siege tactics had brought him almost to the granite walls of the fort. But by this time he had learned of Bourlamaque’s withdrawal, and late in the afternoon he observed more boats heading up the lake from the fort. Three deserters came to tell him that Hebccourt had gone with the last of his men, lighting a fuse to the powder magazine as he left. Amherst vainly offered them a hundred guineas to go back and cut the fuse. At eleven o’clock that evening Ticonderoga exploded, one bastion blowing up and setting the barracks afire. Several volunteers rushed in to capture the still-intact French standards. And so the enchanted fortress, the dread of the provincials, had fallen, with a loss of sixteen killed and fifty-one wounded.

Ticonderoga fell on the twenty-sixth of July. Two days earlier and three hundred miles away, Sir William Johnson, who assumed command alter Prideaux had been killed by a shell fragment, had received the surrender of Fort Niagara. Meanwhile, at the apex of the military triangle, Wolfe was planning his unfortunate Montmorency Falls attack of July 31.

Within a few days Amherst was ready for his advance on Fort St. Frederic at Crown Point, fifteen miles to the north. But before his army reached the fort he learned from scouts that it, too, had been blown up and abandoned. In his unhindered occupation of the area, Amherst saw Crown Point as a key military base for the northern colonies and set about reconstructing and enlarging it on a grand scale. Through the full August days he consolidated his position, sending out exploring parties, cutting his military highway across Vermont to the Connecticut River, and building a brigantine and two additional vessels to challenge French control of Lake Champlain.

For his deliberateness at Crown Point Amherstearned the adjective “cautious” and the subsequent censure of Parkman and others who felt that if he had shown more dash in pushing on he might have concluded the war that year. History is full of such tempting “perhapses.” A Wolfe might have taken the chance, but Amherst was not a man who took chances.

As long as the French controlled the lake with their four small warships, Amherst felt that he must wait for his own navy before he could advance on the Isle aux Noix. Then, too, he was maneuvering in the unknown, for dispatches from the other fronts were much delayed. It was mid-August before he learned of Johnson’s victory at Niagara, and not until October 18 was he notified of the fall of Quebec and Wolfe’s death in the battle a month earlier. The week before, his newly launched flotilla had swept the French from the water, but autumn storms were scouring the lake now, and Brigadier Thomas Gage, whom he had sent to succeed Prideaux, had stalled at Oswego. By the time first frosts had blackened the roadside greenery, Amherst knew that the year’s campaign must end with the Montreal heartland still intact.