Friday, August 19, 2016

On This Day -- The Siege of Fort Massachusetts: Day One

On this day, August 19, 1746, an attack was made on Fort Massachusetts. Between eight and nine o'clock in the morning, an army of 440 French soldiers and 300 of their Indian allies attacked the fort. But the fort of twenty-two soldiers held their ground throughout the day and into night.

We are fortunate to possess, from the pen of an eye-witness and active participant, a detailed account of the siege and capture of Fort Massachusetts, and of the captivity that followed it. The ensuing events were strikingly narrated by the Reverend John Norton, in his book, "The Redeemed Captive : Being a Narrative of the Taking and Carrying Into Captivity."

The Reverend Norton wrote of this day:
Tuesday, 19th.-— Between eight and nine o'clock in the morning, when, through the good providence of God, we were all in the fort, twenty-two men, three women, and five children, there appeared an army of French and Indians, eight or nine hundred in number, commanded by Monsieur Rigaud de Vaudreuil, who, having surrounded the fort on every side, began with hideous acclamations to rush forward upon the fort, firing incessantly upon us on every side.
Three days earlier, Sergeant John Hawks, officer left in charge of the fort, sent a letter with Dr. Thomas Williams and fourteen soldiers to Deerfield for his commanding officer, Captain Ephraim Williams, desiring that he would speedily send up some stores to the fort, being very short on it for ammunition, and having discovered some signs of the enemy. Little did they know that the fort was already encircled by its enemies from Canada! Close by the road leading down to the ford of the Hoosac, a part of Vaudreuil's forces had secreted themselves in the brakes and bushes, and so near were they to the little detachment headed east, that they could actually have touched them with their guns; "but rather than attempt to seize them, which would have brought on a fire, and apprised the garrison of their proximity, they suffered the surgeon and his men to pass without interruption." The message did not reach Captain Williams in time.

The fort was under serious duress; eleven of the soldiers were troubled with the griping and flux, leaving only eight of the men in good health.

Remarkably cool and level-headed under the circumstances were the Sergeant and the Chaplain and the Sharpshooters, that they should calculate by inference to fire where the Indians would probably be in an instant, rather than where they actually were at the instant.
About this time we saw several of the enemy fall and rise no more; among which was the captain of the St. Francis Indians, who was one of the foremost, and called upon the rest to press on upon the fort. Sergeant Hawks got an opportunity to shoot him into the breast, which ended his days. At the beginning of the engagement, the General sent his ensign with his standard (which he, standing behind a tree about thirty rods distant from the fort, displayed), the General also walked up the hill within about forty rods of the fort, where he stood and gave his orders; but being discovered he had a shot or two fired at him; upon which he moved off; but presently after comes to his ensign, where being discovered, he received a shot in his arm, which made him retreat with his ensign to their camp.
The enemy still continued to fire almost incessantly upon us, and many of them crept up within a dozen rods of the fort. We were straitened for want of shot. Several of our men being newly come into the service, and for want of bullet moulds, had not prepared for any long engagement, and therefore the sergeant ordered some of our sick men to make bullets, another to run some shot, having shot-moulds. This put him upon taking particular notice of the ammunition, and he found it to be very short, and therefore gave orders that we should not fire any more than we thought necessary to hold the enemy back, unless when we had a very good opportunity and fair prospect of doing execution; so that we fired but little. We had sometimes very fair shot, and had success. We saw several fall, who, we are persuaded, never rose again. We might have shot at the enemy almost any time in the day, who were in open view of the fort, within fifty or sixty rods of the same, and sometimes within forty and less; the officers sometimes walking about, sword in hand, viewing of us, and others walking back and forth as they had occasion, without molestation, for we dare not spend our ammunition upon them that were at such a distance.
Sergeant Hawks then first became fully aware how short were his stores of ammunition.
Towards evening the enemy began to use their axes and hatchets. Some were thoughtful that they were preparing ladders in order to storm the fort in the night; but afterward we found our mistake, for they were preparing faggots in order to burn it. This day they wounded two of our men, viz., John Aldrich they shot through the foot, and Jonathan Bridgman with a flesh wound the back side of the hip. When the evening came on the sergeant gave orders that all the tubs, pails, and vessels of every sort, in every room, should be filled with water, and went himself to see it done; he also looked to the doors, that they were made as fast as possible. He likewise cut a passage from one room to another, that he might put the fort into as good a posture of defence as might be, in case they should attempt to storm it. He distributed the men into the several rooms. While he was thus preparing, he kept two men in the northwest mount, and some in the great house, the southeast corner of the fort, to watch the enemy and keep them back. 
I was in the mount all the evening; it was cloudy and very dark the beginning of the evening. The enemy kept a constant fire upon us, and, as I thought, approached nearer and in greater numbers than they had in the daytime. We had but little encouragement to fire upon the enemy, having but the light of their fire to direct us, yet we dared not wholly omit it, lest they should be emboldened to storm the fort. We fired buckshot at them, and have reason to hope we did some execution, for the enemy complained of our shooting buck shot at that time, which they could not have known had they not felt some of them. They continued thus to fire upon us until between eight and nine at night, then the whole army (as we supposed) surrounded the fort, and shouted, or rather yelled, with the most hideous outcries, all around the fort. This they repeated three or four times. We expected they would have followed this with a storm, but were mistaken, for they directly set their watch all around the fort; and besides their watch they sent some to creep up as near the fort as they could, to observe whether any persons attempted to make their escape, to carry tidings to New England.
The body of the army then drew back to their camps; some in the swamp west of the fort, the other part to the southeast, by the river side. We then considered what was best to be done: whether to send a post down to Deerfield or not. We looked upon it very improbable, if not morally impossible, for any men to get off undiscovered, and therefore the Sergeant would not lay his command upon any to go; but he proposed it to several, desired and encouraged them as far as he thought convenient; but there was not a man willing to venture out. So the Sergeant having placed the men in every part of the fort, he ordered all the sick and feeble men to get what rest they could, and not regard the enemy's acclamations; but to lie still all night unless he should call for them. Of those that were in health, some were ordered to keep the watch, and some lay down and endeavored to get some rest; lying down in our clothes, with our arms by us. I lay down the fore part of the night. We got little or no rest. The enemy frequently raised us by their hideous outcries, as though they were about to attack us. The latter part of the night I kept the watch.
Deerfield was the nearest town of any size to the line of forts, the home of many of the officers and men in garrison, the source of most of their commissary supply, and the only hope for reinforcements in case of exigency; accordingly, it is no wonder that the sergeant and the chaplain thought of Deerfield, when they found that the fort was thoroughly invested. Indeed, the Sergeant, in cooperation with the Surgeon, had already sent fourteen men to Deerfield to act as convoy to stores and ammunition, before he knew the fort was to be invested, though he had "discovered some signs of the enemy"; an urgent letter was at the same time sent to Captain Williams at Deerfield, that he "would speedily send up some stores to the fort"; and now the question was between sergeant and chaplain, whether in their now weakened and besieged state, other messengers should be sent after the former, — whether such messengers would be likely to "get off undiscovered," that is, to get through the close lines of the besiegers, — and, if so, whether they would be likely to fetch back succor in season to prevent, if that were possible, the surrender of the fort. The long stretches over the Hoosac Mountain were a minor element in the question, but the chief thing was the hostile camps on either side of the fort, the night watch of the French set all round the fort, and besides "they sent some to creep up as near the fort as they could, to observe whether any persons attempted to make their escape, to carry tidings to New England." It was madness, under the circumstances, to send anybody out; whoever went would by so much lessen the eight men, who alone of the twenty-two, were in tolerable health. The Sergeant, therefore, would not lay his command upon any to go; but he evidently desired that one or more should make the attempt, for he proposed it to several, and encouraged them as far as he thought convenient; but it was in every respect fortunate, that no one could be persuaded to go.

Next: The Siege of Fort Massachusetts: Day Two


  • "The Redeemed Captive : Being a Narrative of the Taking and Carrying Into Captivity," by the Reverend Mr. John Norton -- Published 1870 (Originally published in 1748)
  • "Origins in Williamstown," by Arthur Latham Perry -- Published 1894

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