DANIEL WEBB ... A General Webb of Deceit?
Or... How Blundering Hypochondriacs and Pompous Lords Lose Battles
January 4, 1757
"I mentioned Mr. Webb being ill; he was about a fortnight ago, Attacked with a very slight fit of palsy, which did not last a Minute, and to another would have been of very little Consequence, but all his People have died of that disease, and he is still low and down, and I cannot get his Spirits up; I am very much afraid, that he will be an infinite loss to the Service, for the Country is so immensely wide, we must have people we can depend on,..."
-John Campbell, Earl of Loudoun
August 7, 1757
"What a foolish figure a military man makes when he is left alone."
-General John St. Clair
If one is searching for causes of the fall of Fort William Henry ... look no further. The combination of John Campbell, Earl of Loudoun, General James Abercromby, and Brigadier General Daniel Webb was a disaster waiting to happen. Very much like the Three Stooges, if you will. Loudoun's untimely plan to assault Louisbourg in 1757 was further marred by the unfortunate circumstance of the British chain of command. Abercromby was to accompany Loudoun on the Louisbourg expedition; this left former Colonel and now Major General Webb next in line. Defense of the Hudson River valley (including Albany and access to Massachusetts via the Berkshires), against French excursions was to rest on the palsy-stricken soldier's shoulders. Woe to the English frontier!
Upon his arrival in New York on June 7, 1756, Webb did what Webb did best. He waited. Rather than move on to the British headquarters at Albany, Gen. Webb, as interim commander-in-chief, hung around New York for nine days waiting for Gen. Abercromby to arrive, presumably, to tell Webb what he ought to do next. Considering Major General Daniel Webb's age (56) and military experience (the Coldstream Guards, Dettingen, and the Battle of Fontenoy), it would have been a reasonable expectation that this recently promoted officer would have had some semblance of initiative, enough to at least find his own way to Albany.
A month after the arrival of Webb and Abercromby, Lord Loudoun made his American debut. While the change in command was being carried out, the French Canadians were busy trashing the western Mohawk Valley. Fort Bull had been destroyed the previous March, effectively cutting off the supply route to Fort Oswego on the shore of Lake Ontario and isolating the already undermanned garrison. During this phase of disorder, political bickering, and commandant relay race, there was but one officer who had wit enough to recognize the gravity of Oswego's circumstance and who was willing to act on it. (The ousted Gov. Shirley understood the peril, but acted tardily.) Lieutenant Colonel John Bradstreet, who had so speedily traversed the route from Albany to Oswego carrying supplies to the starved garrison, now hurried back to Albany, with a Canadian/Indian party attacking along the way. He arrived on July 12th, explained Oswego's vulnerability, and was all but ignored. Peculiar ... The bravery of Lt. Col. Bradstreet's unit was rewarded with the dismissal of 400 among them.
Four days later, the 16th, Abercromby held a council of war in Albany, to which Lt. Col. Bradstreet was not invited. With careful deliberation, a decision was reached ... Oswego needed reinforcement; a profound conclusion in light of Fort Bull's destruction four months prior and Bradstreet's urgent warning. This brings us back to the good Major General Webb and his trepidity. Abercromby ordered Webb to Oswego to reinforce and resupply. Considering the urgency of Oswego's plight, one would expect that Webb made all haste to reinforce the weakened garrison. On the contrary! Twelve days later, on the 28th of July, Lord Loudoun arrived in Albany to find General Webb still in town. Loudoun managed to push the reluctant Webb out of his nest and prod him on his way. He led his regiment all the way to Schenectady ... an impressive distance of 15 miles! Apparently as fond of Schenectady as he was of Albany, Webb was still here on the 6th of August. Ostensibly the delay was unavoidable as he needed provisions; but the goods were there all along. The problem, according to Webb, was that the conscientious (if not pugnacious) officer did not want to accept provisions from the "wrong" contractors! Surely, the half-starved troops at Oswego would have appreciated such attention to detail ... after all, one must know from where one's salt pork comes!
Resolving the provisions crisis in Schenectady, Gen. Webb inched his away along the Mohawk River. Now ... it is true that the Mohawk Valley is a beautiful region, and it would be understandable that one would want to take in the valley sights, especially in summer. Since Webb appears to have had a penchant for long visits, perhaps this explains his slow travel? It seems, however, to have been an inopportune time for leisure; after all, there were those hungry troops at Oswego. Making some progress, he reached the German Palatinate settlements on the 14th of August. This was better ... he now only had approximately 100 miles to go. At this pace of 4.11 miles per day, he could be expected at Oswego sometime around the 7th of September, assuming of course, there would be no more provisional crises. As it were, the garrison at Oswego surrendered to General Marquis de Montcalm on August 14th, the same day Webb reached the German Flats. What a relief for Webb! He no longer had that taxing burden ... there were no starving troops needing provisions or reinforcements waiting for Webb's arrival. They were all either dead or captured.
Webb advanced as far as the carrying place between the Mohawk River and Wood Creek (near Fort Stanwix). Here he learned of a French advance in his direction. Now Webb did the other thing Webb did best. He ran. The predictably timid general "... was seized with panic, burned the forts, had trees thrown into Woods Creek in order to delay the enemy's advance, and without a moment's hesitation, made the rest of his way down the Mohawk to the settlement of German Flats, fifty miles distant." General Webb somehow made this return route in quicker time retreating than he did while advancing; at a truly remarkable pace!
The Oswego debacle was to have serious ramifications for the English. The immediate effect was the dissipation of any possible threat to French control of Lake Ontario. This meant two things of consequence; uncontested control of the lake gave France the upper hand in courting the western tribes, and it strengthened the lines of communication to her western outposts. Webb's shameful behavior had another effect, one that would be felt sharply a year later in the Hudson River valley. Disgusted with the Major General's cowardice, Iroquois "neutrality" now favored France; even the highly esteemed Sir William Johnson experienced the sting of Iroquoian snubbery. Meanwhile, Abercromby remained in Albany, Webb made his way back, and Lord Loudoun waged war against the Provincials. The blundering trio were at play in the fields of war.
A long planned objective of the English was an assault against Crown Point and Fort Ticonderoga. If England was to gain control of Lake George, a strike against the Lake Champlain fortresses was imperative. Nevertheless, Loudoun placed it on the backburner; his 'things to do' list. There were more pressing concerns ... like politics. (Lord Loudoun specialized in this particular art, so much so that he served as a great inspiration for certain rights being asserted by the founding fathers; not a favorable model either.) Ticonderoga could wait; the army needed a facelift! Loudoun issued orders that the provincials were to be incorporated into the regular units and rank was to be subordinated to regular officers. The outraged colonial officers balked at such a scheme and Provincial General Edward Winslow presented a very sound and reasonable explanation as to why these orders would violate the terms under which the militia had enlisted. Winslow, after having made his argument, proceeded to Lake George, apparently under the impression there was a war going on. The arrogant, hot-tempered Loudoun responded by declaring resistance to his orders was mutinous. He recalled Winslow's troops to Albany (on a false pretense), then discharged them! Now ... that's how to win a war! Thus far, Webb, Abercromby, and Loudoun had managed to lose a strategic fort, shore up France's control of the western interior and strengthen her lines of communication, alienate the provincial troops, get rid of many of the British army's finest, lose Iroquois support, sow the seeds for colonial revolution, and behave like spectators as the war raged on. All this in only a few months; imagine what they could have accomplished had they actually engaged the enemy!
Cut to the chase. 1757... New York's Hudson River valley, the English frontier. Loudoun and Abercromby, along with the main force of the British army are sailing the North Atlantic, threatening to destroy the Louisbourg fortress and exact revenge for Oswego. Defense of the valley necessitated the construction of two forts; one at the southern end of Lake George, the other at the great bend of the Hudson River. Fort William Henry and Fort Edward were to serve as protective barriers against a French invasion. With the two commanders far to the north, the task of defending the frontier fell to the ever vigilant third in line. Loudoun informed William Pitt on March 10th of his intentions to place another in command "... for the Security of this Country, for the defence of Fort William Henry, and Fort Edward, and the Security of the Magazines at Albany." That other commander would be Major General Webb, the military wonder who had handed the keys to the west to France the previous year. The nominal soldier was to repeat his philosophy previously demonstrated in the Mohawk Valley; when faced with an enemy ... run!
"We are, I presume to Act on the Defensive. We take our Camp at Fort Edward which is the best Situation and Securest manner of Posting Ourselves? Can any demonstrations be made toward Wood Creek?"
-Webb to Loudoun
"Act Offensively or Defensively, as the situation, or Intelligence of the Enemy will Permit."
-Loudoun to Webb
Sounds like Loudoun and Webb planned to take charge and make themselves the undisputed Masters of Lake George ...
In April, while in Albany (recuperating?), Webb received intelligence of a concentration of troops at Fort Ticonderoga/Carillon. Did he call for troops from New England or the Mohawk Valley to reinforce Fort William Henry? Did he prepare for a proper defense? Did he even go to Fort William Henry? No, but he did mention it in a letter to Loudoun. By the end of June, Webb was apparently ready to get the show on the road, arriving at Fort Edward on the 24th. In early July he was informed of an impending attack against the fort at Lake George. Again ... he waited. After a month's time at Fort Edward, on the 25th of July, Webb finally made his way to Fort William Henry, only 17 miles away, for inspection. With him was Lt. Col. John Young of the Royal Americans. The fort was surveyed, recommendations were made regarding the deployment of troops to the southeast of the fort, and Captain Israel Putnam and a party of rangers were sent to reconnoiter the southern portion of Lake George.
Webb knew an attack on Fort William Henry was imminent, he knew the Mohawk River valley was free of such a threat, and he knew there were available troops from New England. There were, in fact, thousands of New York and New England militia kept in a state of alertness for such a possibility. Could he have amassed these reinforcements at Fort William Henry and strengthened the British presence at Lake George? Could he have kept the army of New France on its toes by sending a strong force to harass, even bluff an offensive against Ticonderoga? Could he have positioned the bulk of his own force at the lake? Yes ... he could have, but that wasn't Webb's style. Consistent with his lack of succor, he waited as if there were nothing better to do on the lake; as if nothing of consequence was at stake.
The 28th of July ... Fort William Henry. Captain Putnam returns with disturbing news for Webb. He has discovered the enemy moving towards Fort William Henry at a distance of only 16 miles away. Now Webb was stirred to action. Montcalm's appearance (no surprise to anyone but Webb) so near to Fort William Henry "... struck Webb with such panic, that he resolved to retire to Fort Edward that same night," but was persuaded to wait until morning. Monro requested reinforcement and explained to the Major General that the French did indeed have the nature for war, as well as other considerations not subordinate to Webb's fears, i.e., there were only 1100 men fit for duty at the fort, the locale of Fort William Henry made it a must see for a French advancement, Montcalm's army vastly outnumbered the disease ridden English garrison, and Webb ought to lend a helping hand;
"Because if they are repuls'd, in their Attempt, upon Fort William Henry, the affair will be over; But if they take it, I wont Say the taking of Fort Edward will be the Consequence, but I think it will be a great step toward it. As they will then have a road to bring their Cannon."
Apparently unmoved by Monro's argument, General Webb promised only 200 Royal Americans regulars under the command of Lt. Col. Young and 800 Massachusetts Provincials led by Col. Frye. Even this rather small concession was made still smaller by Webb's withholding of the reinforcements until the 2nd of August, the eve of Montcalm's investment of Fort William Henry. This delay denied Col. Monro the much needed manpower of 1,000 troops; men who were thus unavailable to help strengthen the breastworks of the encampment. Early on the morning of July 29th, Webb promptly removed himself and the main body of his troops to Fort Edward, wished Col. Monro 'good luck' ... and high tailed it out of there! He may as well have flown the flag of Gonzalez ..." Come and take it!" Thus, Monro was left to put out the French fire with 2,372 men of which only 1,100 were fit for the fight. Montcalm was advancing with over 7,600 ... though the English believed the numbers to be even higher. Webb sat at Fort Edward with 3,500 troops protecting him as he frantically penned 11th hour letters to colonial governors begging for reinforcements; letters he should have written weeks, if not months, earlier. Why the stronger, farther, and in this case, secondary fort required greater troop presence and superior artillery is hard to fathom ... until one considers its commander.
It is interesting to note Webb's promise in a letter to Lord Loudoun, dated August 1, 1757 that he would;
"upon any Intelligence of the near approach of the Body of the Enemy, move up with the Remainder of the Army and endeavour to dispute their Landing, or make a Stand with the whole on some advantageous Ground, after having thrown a sufficient Garrison into each of the Forts."
So he promised to move against the enemy, oppose their landing, and to sufficiently garrison both forts. Did he keep his promise? No. Does this make him a deceitful officer? Maybe. The day after the letter to Loudoun, Webb rejected Monro's pleas for significant reinforcement on the claim that he lacked adequate information. Interesting ... All the more so when one considers that he ordered George Bartram, his aide-de-camp, to send a dispatch to Captain Christie at Albany with the warning that the "... enemy is landed with a large army to attack Fort William Henry" ; written on the 28th of July, the same day he claimed to have no proof of the enemy's advance sufficient to grant Monro's request for reinforcements. He further compounded his deception by sending mixed messages. As late as the 6th of August, Bartram was instructed to write, "We have ... three Armies of five thousand Men in different parts of the woods. We shall set out in the night with the whole join'd together and make no doubt of cutting the enemy entirely off ... P.S. We shall bring a field train." Yet two days earlier, Webb had instructed Bartram to advise Col. Monro "... to make the best terms ..." left in his power. So ... what gives? Was Webb woefully wanting in his will to wage war? (Sorry!) Whatever his motivation, Webb certainly left the Fort William Henry defenders in suspense and confusion. An anonymous writer at Fort William Henry had this to say regarding Webb's infamous surrender recommendation;
"Before the appearance of this Letter, we were constantly animated with the Thoughts of the General's speedy arrival, and a large body of Troops to our assistance; Yet, when undeceived, not a single man seem'd daunted, nor was there the least mention made of Capitulation until it was impossible to defend the Fort twenty-four hours longer..."
-Transactions at Fort William Henry, August 3-9, 1757
The details of the siege and subsequent massacre are familiar enough; but what of Webb? While the poor souls at Fort William Henry fought bravely (so much so that the Honors of War granted to Col. Monro and his troops by the Marquis de Montcalm remains the first and last time such was granted in North America by France), Webb cowered at Fort Edward. By the time of the capitulation, 7,000 men had converged at the Hudson River. The rapid response by so many volunteers further highlights Webb's incompetence. These men were available all along ... all General Webb had to do was ask! It is a wonder that the good general did not meet up with an 'accident' while in the company of his own troops.
Col. Monro condemned Webb's actions shortly thereafter in Albany. The misfit soldier was recalled to England and reassigned. His reputation was ruined, but not his career. He continued in service and received at least two promotions! In June 1759, less than two years after the Fort William Henry siege, Webb was booted up to Major General of Cavalry. Two years later, June 1761, he somehow managed the rank of Lieutenant General. Apparently the good sir remained in favor with men of influence. Such was not the case among his fellow officers. Writing from a British camp near Geissen, Germany to General Jeffrey Amherst he complained, "I have been, as you know, treated like a dog and I have room for complaint against some of your friends."
Unbelievably, following his fine performance at Lake George, Webb had a rare show of nerve. He formed a group of officers whose purpose was opposition to Lord Loudoun. A major complaint made by Webb and his fellow connivers was that Englishmen stood not a chance to obtain positions of high command while Scots were in the picture! As for Loudoun, he too was recalled, but not excluded from command (as was Webb). The reason? ... he was a noble.
These two officers inspired William Pitt to address the House of Commons in 1758 with "the finest Oration" ever made in the "English Senate." Pitt angrily denounced the military's "Want of Application to Geography, the different Arts of War and Military Discipline; their Insolence to their inferior Officers, and Tyranny over the common Men" ... He condemned their "Extravagance, Idleness and Luxury" and lamented that "scarce a Man could be found with whom the Execution of any one Plan in which there was the least Appearance of Danger, could with Confidence be trusted ... few seem to be affected with any other Zeal than that of aspiring to the highest Posts, and grasping the largest Salaries."
All's fair in war!
Next Segment: FORT WILLIAM HENRY ... The Siege & Massacre
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Note: Although we have tried mightily to stay objective when writing these History Pages, we have made no such attempt with this one about Webb. The evidence of his incompetence is simply too strong!