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Understanding the Siege and Battle at Fort William Henry

By Greig Santos-Buch
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Understanding the Siege and Battle at Fort William Henry

The attack on Fort William Henry in August 1757 was a pivotal event during the French and Indian War, a conflict that saw the British and French empires vying for control of North America. The fort, located at the southern end of Lake George in present-day New York, was a strategic British stronghold designed to defend the colonies against French invasion from the north. The tension leading up to the battle had been mounting, with both sides seeking dominance over the region’s critical waterways and fur trade routes. The French, under the command of General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, saw the fort as a key target to disrupt British defenses and supply lines.

General Montcalm, a seasoned military leader, assembled a formidable force of approximately 8,000 troops, including regular French soldiers, Canadian militia, and a diverse coalition of Native American warriors from various tribes. Opposing him was Lieutenant Colonel George Monro, the commander of Fort William Henry, with a significantly smaller garrison of around 2,300 men, comprising British regulars and colonial militia. Despite being outnumbered and facing heavy artillery brought by the French, Monro resolved to hold the fort. The siege commenced on August 3, 1757, with the French forces bombarding the fort’s wooden walls and gradually tightening their grip.

After several days of relentless bombardment and with his supplies dwindling, Monro realized the fort could not hold out much longer. On August 9, 1757, he reluctantly agreed to surrender to Montcalm under negotiated terms that promised safe passage for his men to the nearby Fort Edward. However, the aftermath of the surrender took a tragic turn. Montcalm’s efforts to maintain control over his Native American allies failed, and as the British forces began their withdrawal, they were attacked by the Native warriors. The ensuing massacre saw the deaths of approximately 185 British soldiers and civilians, an event that would become infamous and resonate deeply in the annals of the war.

The significance of the Battle of Fort William Henry extends beyond the immediate military implications. The massacre highlighted the complexities and volatile nature of alliances between European powers and Native American tribes, who had their own interests and grievances. It also fueled outrage and fear among the British colonists, galvanizing them for the continuing conflict. The event was immortalized in James Fenimore Cooper’s novel “The Last of the Mohicans,” which, despite its fictional embellishments, brought lasting attention to the harrowing events of the siege and massacre. The fall of Fort William Henry thus marked a critical juncture in the French and Indian War, influencing the strategies and morale of both British and French forces in the subsequent years of the conflict.

Visiting Fort William Henry

Images courtesy Fort William Henry Museum.

Set against the scenic backdrop of Lake George, New York, Fort William Henry is located at 48 Canada Street, Lake George, NY 12845, at the southern tip of the lake. For those traveling by air, the closest major airport is Albany International Airport (ALB), approximately 60 miles to the south. From Albany, you can rent a car and take Interstate 87 (I-87) North, also known as the Adirondack Northway, exiting at Lake George Village (Exit 22 or 23) and following signs to the fort. The drive is straightforward and well-marked, offering a pleasant journey through the picturesque Adirondack Mountains.

Upon arrival, visitors can expect an immersive historical experience. The reconstructed Fort William Henry is a meticulously crafted replica of the original 18th-century military post. Guided tours, often led by costumed interpreters, provide engaging insights into the life of soldiers during the French and Indian War. You’ll also be able to explore various exhibits showcasing period artifacts, weapons, and daily life activities. Demonstrations of musket firings, cannon drills, and interactive displays bring history to life, making it an educational and entertaining experience for all ages. The fort also hosts reenactments and special events throughout the year.

Admission to Fort William Henry is reasonably priced, with adult tickets costing around $24.95 (as of 2024), while children’s tickets (ages 5-15) are approximately $14.95. Senior tickets are currently $19.95. Family packages and group rates are also available. The fort is open seasonally, usually from May to October, so it’s advisable to check their official website for current hours of operation and any special events. In addition to the historical tours, the site features a gift shop with souvenirs and a snack bar for refreshments. The surrounding Lake George area offers numerous dining, shopping, and lodging options, making it a convenient and enjoyable destination for a day trip or a longer stay.

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