Note: This chapter includes the events that precipitated the end of the siege of Fort William Henry and the ensuing massacre. This event has become relatively well-known through the writings of James Fenimore Cooper in his terrific book, The Last of the Mohicans. I make this note because the attentive reader is bound to notice large discrepancies between my account of the event and Cooper’s, a fact I attribute to my access in the 21st century to various (and usually much more accurate) sources on the event. In short, my account will less Romantic (in the sense of the literary genre itself) and truer (I hope) to the actual incident.
Fort William Henry
Province of New York
9 August, 1757
I woke in what seemed to be the middle of the night with the memories of the evening before swirling about in my mind abstractly, refusing to congeal into one coherent thought. While we had eaten hard bread and venison stew which seemed strangely absent of any venison, the militiamen and regulars had discussed a very important talk that had occurred earlier that afternoon.
“Montcalm gave Monro a letter that he intercepted from Ft. Edward,” Joseph Frye, an older militiaman, had said gravely before ripping off a piece of bread with an effort that made me want to eat mine all the less. We all knew that Monro and his officers had gone out to meet the French in the field between the closest French trench works and our embattled, diseased fort after the white flag was raised on the fort’s flagpole. What we did not know was exactly what was said earlier that afternoon, though rumors were rampant.
“So?” Tim had responded dryly. “The French got a letter from Webb. What difference does it make? It’s not like Webb could divulge any of Ft. William Henry’s secrets, if we had any clandestine passages in the first place…”
“That’s not the point,” Joseph had said quickly, looking up from his poor excuse for a meal. Joseph seemed to be around forty or fifty years of age, though his white hair and matching beard atop a face that seemed too young for the color surrounding it made any guess of his age just that—a mere guess. “Listen,” he continued. “I know you’ve heard a lot of babble about what the letter contained, but I know Officer Piers Lennox and he made it perfectly clear what was in that letter.”
Piers Lennox was a British officer under Monro who just so happened to be in command of Percival, Tim, and myself. Hearing his name mentioned along with Joseph Frye’s information gave his words an imagined stamp of validity as we all respected Officer Lennox, despite the fact that he was only about two years older than the 26 year-old Tim. He was an experienced British officer, and never went anywhere without a certain Indian from the Mohawk tribe known simply as “Joshua” with him. Joshua was a tall, muscular man who seldom spoke in public but was often seen speaking with Piers in private.
Joseph had eyed us all carefully as if judging whether to trust us with his precious information or not. Joseph was a respected veteran of King George’s War, the war that claimed the life of my father, Charles Lewis. When Joseph had told me of his service during King George’s War, I mentioned my father’s name. Joseph never told me that he had known my father, but he had looked at me for several moments without speaking after I first mentioned the name of Charles Lewis. From that point on, he sat with me during any meals in which we were both free from guarding the wall or any other duties.
“Webb can’t spare the men,” Joseph had said slowly, chewing in a dilatory fashion. “He even suggested that Monro negotiate the best terms possible for our surrender.” The last word was laden with a fair amount of disgust, and I had felt the sting of the word all the way in my gut. Percival had just stared down into his bowl of venison soup, failing to eat a bite of it. It had seemed that his earlier suspicions had been vindicated, and this only spelt uncertainty for everyone in the fort. My mind quickly went to the civilians who had fled to Ft. William Henry from the surrounding villages and towns. What would happen to them? They were unlike us. They were families of men, women, and children who had no interest in warfare. Many were diseased with Smallpox, just like a large amount of the soldiers in the fort. The unfairness of it all hurt just as much as the word “surrender” had hurt in my gut.
Later that evening, during a speech provided by our respective officers, we found out that Joseph Frye was right. We were surrendering to the French and had to march out in the morning. Terms of the surrender would be made clear to us once we reached our destination, Ft. Edward, to the south. We were to march out in a full retreat, escorted by the French, in the morning.
This morning. That thought woke me up a bit more. In just a few hours, we would suffer our first defeat. My deployment to Ft. William Henry was my first true station in the New York provincial militia since I began training, and it would end in a bitter defeat. All things considered, I was nevertheless glad that the French would not take us prisoner but instead were allowing us to retreat to Ft. Edward. Montcalm truly wanted the siege to be over, so perhaps that was reason enough to provide such amenable terms. We had lost several men to French artillery and musket fire on the wall, and several others were wounded. Further, smallpox was wreaking havoc in the fort. Perhaps this defeat was a blessing in disguise…
All of these thoughts bombarded me just as I was waking in the dead of night. What had awoken me? The sun was not yet up, and there was no sign of dawn. The room was so dark that I could barely make out the sleeping bodies of nine of the other men in the room. Suddenly, my attention moved to a shadow near the entrance that seemed to be moving. It seemed to move quickly into the room, but made no noise whatsoever.
My eyes almost refused to focus as I strained to get a better look at the shadowy figure that had slinked into the room. Thoughts of the night before faded completely out of my mind as I saw the figure approach the mat of the soldier lying directly across from me on the floor, Daniel Foxe. It moved stealthily, and seemed to have had ample amount of practice doing so as I could not hear the first footfall or shuffle as the figure advanced toward Daniel. What was this? Another soldier pulling a prank? The figure was nothing but a blacker portion of the darkness that filled the room, but when I saw what appeared to be the figure’s arm raise slowly, the malevolent intentions of the intruder became more than apparent. Attempting to cry out to stop the intruder, my fear and apprehension allowed only a startled gasp to escape from my lips.
Apparently the gasp was loud enough, for I saw the figure spin around in alarm, almost tripping over Daniel’s artillery box on the floor. I briefly discerned that several men to the left of me were stirring, and Daniel, Percival, and others beside them were moving as well. I struggled to get out of my blanket, off my mat, and to my feet as quickly as possible, but fear seized me as I saw the figure advancing toward me with unnerving speed.
Reacting purely out of half-awoken fear, I grabbed the closest thing nearby—my blanket—and threw it at the intruder while scrambling to my feet. The shadow of a man attempted to swat the blanket away with his right arm, but the blanket instead wrapped around his arm, from what I could discern in the scarce moonlight that filtered in through one small window on the left side of the room. Fear was no longer driving me to act purely erratically as I found myself consciously bent over, groping desperately at my feet for my father’s flint musket which I always kept to my right as I slept. Looking to my left quickly as I continued to grab at the area on the floor where I believed my musket to be, I saw that the intruder had freed himself from the blanket and was now standing only a pace or two away from me as I was kneeling down to find my musket, raising his right arm in preparation to strike me. It was then that I noticed two things: one was the tomahawk in his hand as it gleamed in a beam of moonlight; the other was the sensation of the barrel of my musket in my right hand.
I had often despised the bayonet lessons my father had drilled into my head as a child, preferring instead to play in the river with my friends, but he had always insisted that I finish my lessons with him every single day save Sundays. My father, Charles Lewis, was a renowned bayonet combatant, and sparring with him always frustrated me. Though he promised that he would teach me to be as good a fighter as he, I had a hard time believing that when I consistently failed to get one hit in on my father. Yes, I had hated those lessons back then; this night, however, I cherished every bit of his drilling as I brought the musket up and above my head instinctively, just how my father had taught me. I felt the portion of the tomahawk’s handle just below the blade collide violently with the middle of my musket’s barrel, pushing both my arms back to the extent that the butt of my musket almost hit my face.
The intruder was undeterred by my defense and raised the tomahawk to strike once more, standing over me. Again, just as my father had taught me, I used the sparse time he took to prepare his next strike to provide one of my own. Swinging the opening of the barrel around to the right side of my face, I aimed the butt of the musket at the intruder’s abdomen and thrust it with as much force as I could muster. The intruder abandoned his attack and jumped back to evade my thrust, and quickly circled to my right in order to strike at me before I could turn the musket in time to defend my side. He raised the tomahawk again, and I knew I would be too slow in defending myself as I had not anticipated his sudden move to my right side.
Yet it was just as he raised the tomahawk high above his head that he suddenly flinched and the weapon’s ascent was stilled. Slowly, ever so slowly, his knees began to bend and the intruder finally collapsed to the floor beside me. Standing just behind the spot where the intruder had been was Michael Tyons, one of the soldiers who shared the room with me, his musket and bayonet at the ready.
“Don’t worry, mate,” he said with strained eyes while looking down at the intruder. “He’s been properly dispatched.”
Standing shakily, I wiped the sweat off my forehead and nodded a thanks to Michael, unable in my fear to express my appreciation for his intervention which had saved my life. I looked down and found that my eyes had adjusted to the darkness enough to see that the intruder was an Indian. The excitement and anxiety were causing my hands to shake incessantly, and I barely registered the words Percival spoke next.
“What happened, Sam?” he asked, his tone both caring and bewildered.
I shook my head, attempting to figure out what had happened for myself. “I—I woke up just in time to see someone steal into the room. He…he went straight to Daniel Foxe’s mat, and I cried out when I saw him raise the tomahawk above Daniel. That’s when he came straight for me, ‘til Michael here intervened.”
Michael was kneeling beside the Indian now, looking at the decorations the Indian had strung in his hair. “I think we need to find Officer Lennox’s Indian friend, Joshua. He can tell us what tribe this man is from.”
Percival nodded and added, “My main concern is whether the French sent him here or not. And is he alone? After all, I—”
Shouts were suddenly heard down the hall in the other men’s rooms, providing a grim answer to Percival’s query. What we had believed to be the incident of a lone intruder caught in a single act of espionage was in fact nothing of the sort.
It was an act of war.