French & Indian War: Battle of Fort Niagara

Sir William Johnson
William Johnson. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Battle of Fort Niagara - Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of Fort Niagara was fought July 6 to July 26, 1759, during the French & Indian War (17654-1763).

Armies & Commanders at Fort Niagara

British

  • Brigadier General John Prideaux
  • Sir William Johnson
  • 3,945 men

French

  • Captain Pierre Pouchot
  • 486 men

Battle of Fort Niagara - Background:

Following his defeat at the Battle of Carillon in July 1758, Major General James Abercrombie was replaced as the British commander in North America that fall.

To take over, London turned to Major General Jeffery Amherst who had recently captured the French fortress of Louisbourg. For 1759 campaign season, Amherst established his headquarters below Lake Champlain and planned a drive against Fort Carillon (Ticonderoga) and north to the St. Lawrence River. As he advanced, Amherst intended for Major General James Wolfe to advance up the St. Lawrence to attack Quebec.

To support these two thrusts, Amherst directed additional operations against the western forts of New France. For one of these, he ordered Brigadier General John Prideaux to take a force through western New York to assault Fort Niagara. Assembling at Schenectady, the core of Prideaux's command consisted of the 44th and 46th Regiments of Foot, two companies from the 60th (Royal Americans), and a company of Royal Artillery. A diligent officer, Prideaux worked to ensure the secrecy of his mission as he knew if the Native Americans learned of his destination it would be communicated to the French.

The French at Fort Niagara:

First occupied by the French in 1725, Fort Niagara had been improved during the course of the war and was situated on a rocky point at the mouth of the Niagara River. Guarded by a 900-ft. battlement that was anchored by three bastions, the fort was garrisoned by slightly less than 500 French regulars, militia, and Native Americans under the command of Captain Pierre Pouchot.

Though Fort Niagara's eastward defenses were strong, no effort was made to fortify Montreal Point across the river. Though he had possessed a larger force earlier in the season, Pouchot had forwarded troops west believing his post safe.

Advancing to Fort Niagara:

Departing in May with his regulars and a force of colonial militia, Prideaux was slowed by high waters on the Mohawk River. Despite these difficulties, he succeeded in reaching the ruins of Fort Oswego on June 27. Here he joined with a force of around 1,000 Iroquois warriors which had been recruited by Sir William Johnson. Holding a provincial colonel's commission, Johnson was a noted colonial administrator with a specialty in Native American affairs and an experienced commander who had won the Battle of Lake George in 1755. Wishing to have a secure base in his rear, Prideaux ordered the destroyed fort to be rebuilt.

Leaving a force under Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Haldimand to complete the construction, Prideaux and Johnson embarked in a fleet of boats and bateaux and began rowing west along the south shore of Lake Ontario. Evading French naval forces, they landed on three miles from Fort Niagara at the mouth of Little Swamp River on July 6.

Having achieved the element of surprise he desired, Prideaux had the boats portaged through the woods to a ravine south of the fort known as La Belle-Famille. Moving down the ravine to the Niagara River, his men began transporting artillery to the west bank.

The Battle of Fort Niagara Begins:

Moving his guns to Montreal Point, Prideaux began construction of a battery on July 7. The next day, other elements of his command began building siege lines opposite Fort Niagara's eastern defenses. As the British tightened the noose around the fort, Pouchot dispatched messengers south to Captain François-Marie Le Marchand de Lignery asking him to bring a relief force to Niagara. Though he had refused a surrender demand from Prideaux, Pouchot was unable to keep his contingent of Niagara Seneca from negotiating with the British-allied Iroquois.

These talks ultimately led to the Seneca leaving the fort under a flag of truce. As Prideaux's men pushed their siege lines closer, Pouchot anxiously awaited word of Lignery's approach. On July 17, the battery at Montreal Point was completed and British howitzers opened fire on the fort. Three days later, Prideaux was killed when one of the mortars burst and part of the exploding barrel struck his head. With the general's death, Johnson assumed command, though some of the regular officers, including the 44th's Lieutenant Colonel Eyre Massey, were initially resistant.

No Relief for Fort Niagara:

Before the dispute could be fully resolved, news arrived in the British camp that Lignery was approaching with 1,300-1,600 men. Marching out with 450 regulars, Massey reinforced a colonial force of around 100 and built an abatis barrier across the portage road at La Belle-Famille. Though Pouchot had advised Lignery to advance along the west bank, he insisted on using the portage road. On July 24, the relief column encountered Massey's force and around 600 Iroquois. Advancing on the abatis, Lignery's men were routed when British troops appeared on their flanks and opened with a devastating fire.

As the French retreated in disarray they were set upon by the Iroquois who inflicted heavy losses. Among the multitude of French wounded was Lignery who was taken prisoner. Unaware of the fighting at La Belle-Famille, Pouchot continued his defense of Fort Niagara. Initially refusing to believe reports that Lignery had been defeated, he continued to resist.

In an effort to convince the French commander, one of his officers was escorted into the British camp to meet with the wounded Lignery. Accepting the truth, Pouchot surrendered on July 26.

Aftermath of the Battle of Fort Niagara:

In the Battle of Fort Niagara, the British sustained 239 killed and wounded while the French incurred 109 killed and wounded as well as 377 captured. Though he had wished to be allowed to depart for Montreal with the honors of war, Pouchot and his command were instead taken to Albany, NY as prisoners of war. The victory at Fort Niagara was the first of several for British forces in North America in 1759. As Johnson was securing Pouchot's surrender, Amherst's forces to the east were taking Fort Carillon before advancing on Fort St. Frederic (Crown Point). The highlight of the campaign season came in September when Wolfe's men won the Battle of Quebec.

 

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Hickman, Kennedy. "French & Indian War: Battle of Fort Niagara." ThoughtCo, Feb. 18, 2016, thoughtco.com/french-indian-war-battle-fort-niagara-2360967. Hickman, Kennedy. (2016, February 18). French & Indian War: Battle of Fort Niagara. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/french-indian-war-battle-fort-niagara-2360967 Hickman, Kennedy. "French & Indian War: Battle of Fort Niagara." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/french-indian-war-battle-fort-niagara-2360967 (accessed December 15, 2017).