- Historic Sites
Father To The Six Nations
Only Sir William Johnson, living among them in feudal splendor, won and kept the confidence of the Iroquois.
April 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 3
I must say he is a complete gentleman, and willing to please and oblige all men; familiar and free of access to the lowest sentinel; a gentleman of uncommon smart sense and even temper; never saw him in a ruffle, or use any bad language—in short, I never was so disappointed in a person in the idea I had of him before I came from home, in my life; to sum up, he is almost universally beloved and esteemed by officers and soldiers as a second Marlborough for coolness of head and warmness of heart.
The year 1755 was one of disaster for the colonies. Braddock’s grave under the road had been trampled over by his broken units and crisscrossed by the fellies of his own artillery. Shirley, late in starting for Niagara and his men disheartened by the news of Braddock’s defeat, was hampered by bad weather and finally immobilized by the September line storms. In his distress he attempted to suborn Johnson’s Indians for his own ends, a step that Johnson never forgave and one that sundered for good these two, perhaps the ablest of the colonial leaders. Only Johnson with his Indians and Yankee militia was successful in that grim season, triumphing over French regulars under Baron Dieskau.
Up till now Johnson had never commanded troops in the field, and he proceeded gingerly. At first there was difficulty with the Indians, an aftermath of Shirley’s intrigues, but finally he set out with a small Mohawk contingent—among them the thirteen-year-old Joseph Brant—and 3,500 provincial troops. He arrived without incident at Lac St. Sacrement, which he loyally renamed Lake George, and laid out a camp on its western shore near the southern end, some fifty miles below Crown Point. A more professional soldier would have avoided such a site, flanked by swamps with the lake in the rear barring retreat, but Johnson did not anticipate a land attack. This, however, is what was to come. Baron Dieskau—the wily professional trained under Marshal Count de Saxe, more brilliant than Braddock but with the same contempt for provincials—did not choose to wait behind his Crown Point fortifications but started down from Lake Champlain with a canoe flotilla of over a thousand Indians and several hundred regulars from the regiments of Languedoc and La Reine.
When news of Dieskau’s advance reached the camp Johnson sent out a thousand men under Colonel Ephraim Williams, with Old Hendrik, long most faithful of the Indian chiefs, to lead the scouts. Together they marched into a defile trap that Dieskau had prepared for them, in the preliminary engagement known afterward as “the bloody morning scout.” Williams and Hendrik with a hundred more were killed. The remaining provincials panicked and cut back to the temporary barricades near the water’s edge. Dieskau pressed on, no doubt feeling that the battle was won, only to be met by improvised artillery fire that stopped him in his tracks.
Forming up his regulars, he sent them in a precise frontal attack against Johnson’s center. They advanced by close column platoons, their white frogged uniforms an ominous line against the green background of scrub alders. The New Englanders, with their backs to the lake, knew the fear that all men know in battle, but the spell of those uniforms had been broken ten years before at Louisbourg, and though the grenadiers of Languedoc and La Reine reached the crest of the barricades the Americans did not give. In the end it was the French regulars who broke in disorder, pursued back through the thickets by Yankee farmers and whooping Indians.
At an early stage in the battle Johnson was shot in the thigh—the bullet was to remain there to trouble him for the rest of his life—and carried to his tent, so that although the defenses and troop dispositions had been prepared by him, the direction of the battle was taken over by his second in command, Brigadier Phineas Lyman. Dieskau too had been wounded several times in the assault, but propped up against a stump in the long grasses he still shouted unheeded orders to his infantry until he was overrun and made prisoner.
Johnson, with 260 casualties, prudently remembered Braddock and made no attempt to follow up the French along the Crown Point road. His was a moral rather than a strategic victory, but it was the only one of the year and one in which provincials on their own had stood up to regulars and beaten them. Young Joseph Brant, it is said, returned with a French scalp and a grenadier’s white uniform. For Johnson, the amateur general, the reward was great—£5,000 from the Crown and a baronetcy.