The Battle of the Long Sault, Ch. 2: Pitch the Plan

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THE BATTLE OF THE LONG SAULT

CHAPTER 2. Pitch the plan: March 16, 1660.

One month before the attack on Martine, Adam Dollard had marched from the watchtower on the frigid night of March 16th, 1660, to convince the governor of Montreal to start a war.

He moved quickly down the narrow roadway, one of only three in the town. He squinted to see in narrow alleys, his gaze led by slim shafts of light from the barred windows. He stayed in the center of the path, keeping space on either side for reaction time.

The houses were huddled together like children just out of the water. Long icicles were firming up for the night on their wooden overhangs. Dollard’s eyes scanned the massive, Breton-style buildings as he walked along the late-winter, snow-packed path, aware that the Iroquois could hide in woodpiles or doorways, waiting for inattentive Frenchmen.

“Damn cold,” he thought.

“In France, it’s politics. Here you can freeze to death on the palisade. But it amounts to the same thing as Paris–I still can’t get into action. I’m supposed to be a soldier, but I’m a glorified caretaker here. Damn!”

He kicked a piece of ice out of his path.

Governor Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve owned a spacious house, but he had loaned it to the Black Robes. He didn’t mind. He actually preferred it with his ascetic frame of mind. Now, he lived and worked in a typical two-storey, a massive, squared, stone building, more like a small fort than a house.

Dollard knocked on the large wooden door and was admitted by his friend Claude de Brigeac, a garrison commander, like himself and Maisonneuve’s secretary. Snow swirled through the door, and the wind slammed it.

“Infernal winter!… Thanks, Claude.”

“Cold, Dollard?”

The secretary laughed with mock malice. Dollard’s first name was Adam, but nobody ever used it.

“How would you know? You spend your life indoors.” Dollard growled, smacking his leather-gloved hands together and stomping his feet as he walked over the to the fireplace. “I had a fire going in the bastion, but de Belestre relieved me, so he gets the benefit of it.”

He nodded his head towards the door.

“How does it look?”

“Maisonneuve wouldn’t permit Pierre or me in with them. They’ve been talking for two hours,” said de Brigeac.

“God, and you haven’t even been inside?”

“No, he said we could go in when you went in.”

“What the hell’s going on?”

“I think he wants to judge us as well as you.”

“What do you mean?”

“He doesn’t want us pushing your plan because we’re friends, find out they’re against it and then watch us reverse our opinion and back off because we thought it prudent in front of our superiors.”

“Well, that’s bullsh…” his voice rising.

“Hey, you’d better calm down!” He looked anxiously at the governor’s door. “Maisonneuve wants a military decision from Pierre and me, not an emotional one.”

“Yes, but the plan is good on its face…” said Dollard

“Right!” said Claude. ” But you are missing the point. Whatever personal feelings we have we have to put aside. We buy it, but you’ll have to convince them as well as us of the value of your plan on its own merits.”

“I just want to kill a few Mohawks. Everybody’s making it the siege of Troy. How long have they been in there?”

“I told you. Two hours. If you continue with the attitude you’re displaying now, not only will you not get this commission, you’ll be relieved of your command. I’m warning you.”

Dollard listened to his friend’s reproof and sighed.

“I haven’t spent fourteen hours a day with him for a year for nothing,” said Pierre.

Dollard’s shoulders slumped.

“Fine. I’m ready.

“I think it will be only a few minutes more. They started late. He was writing Paris for more troops.”

“Shoot!” said Dollard. “They’ve been asking since Champlain got here fifty years ago. Those prancing aristocrats don’t give a damn about us. Either they’re fighting Spain or Holland or having dress balls.”

“He doesn’t get money from the king, he gets it from those pious Catholic laymen who want to convert the savages,” said de Brigeac.

“Anyway, he got us to come here during the last couple of years, didn’t he?”

He walked to the fire with a tin cup of brandy for Dollard, who took off his lynx coat, threw it on a three-cornered wooden stool, and accepted the drink, raising it to his mouth with a nod of thanks.

“Yes, but there aren’t enough of us.”

In his eagerness to speak, he spilled a little and slapped his chest in exasperation to remove it.

“Hell, Martin and Couture got killed just last month. We need replacements just to stay even…”

The front door opened, and Pierre de Belestre entered with an armful of firewood. He kicked the door shut without turning.

“Get the latch, somebody,” he said. “Hey Dollard, ready for the sausage grinder?”

“I hear you are to be objective,” laughed Dollard.

“Oh, hell, yes,” replied de Belestre. Dropping his voice, he imitated Maisonneuve.

“Commander Belestre, what do you think of M. des Ormeaux’s plan?” Switching back to his own voice he said:

“Well, governor, considering that when he goes, I’ll be the senior garrison commander, I think it’s a perfectly marvelous plan! Send him off with my blessing. I hope he gets adopted by the Iroquois. I hope they eat him.”

He dropped the wood on the floor with a rolling thump.

“He’d give them indigestion,” said Brigeac. They laughed as Dollard and Claude helped Pierre stack the wood near the hearth.

The noise of the office door opening caused all three men turned to face Lambert Closse.

“Gentlemen.” Said Closse.

It was an order but softly couched and it was to set the tone for the discussion. He turned back into the office. Pierre Belestre moved toward Dollard.

“For God’s sake, don’t mention all the money we’ll make from the furs!”

“What? Why not?”

“He might think it’s the main objective!

“It’s not remotely the main objective,” said Dollard.

“I know, but still…”

“And what the hell’s the matter with making some money? This place is going bankrupt!”

“Nothing… just don’t make a big thing of it,” said Belestre.

“All right,” said Dollard irritably. And he moved into the governor’s room.

Maisonneuve stood some feet into the room. He was 48 years old, just under six feet, robust, with a beard that covered a pockmarked face from a childhood illness. He was an impressive man, and he commanded respect: he had created Montreal, and his wealth helped sustain the settlement.

Dollard calmed himself.

“Come in, Dollard. Anything on the watch?”

“No, sir. Everything’s quiet.”

“Good. Perhaps the Iroquois will stay in their longhouses until summer, eh? Come in, come in.”

Dollard excused himself as he passed Maisonneuve in the doorway and into the room arranged as an office. The appointments were utilitarian, and with a few exceptions made of the surrounding woods of the forest. The fireplace had a large iron swivel with a hook that held a huge kettle. On the mantelpiece sat candles, an urn, a flat iron, some books.

Dollard stood stiffly until the governor closed the door.

“Be easy, Dollard. Sit. You are not on guard.”

“In Montreal, I am always so.”

His voice betrayed a slight belligerence.

Maisonneuve glanced over. He had seen this tendency in Dollard before. It didn’t worry him; most of his senior officers were no longer able to disguise their frustration.

“I meant be easy — sit.”

All the men sat down in front of the enormous fireplace with flanking built-in beds so that the heat of the fire would warm the sleeping occupants. The group that faced Dollard comprised Maisonneuve, Lambert Closse, Charles le Moyne, and Dollard’s friends Claude Brigeac and Pierre Belestre.

There were two kinds of meetings. The first was the usual late night tactical discussions of the day-to-day operation and defense of the fort: how often should the guard be changed in the cold of winter; who could be trusted with more responsibility; who would accompany the Jesuits to the missions; should the foundry prepare more shot.

“Sorry to keep you waiting. What’s on your mind, Commander?”

“I have a plan for attacking the Iroquois.” He hadn’t meant to be so blunt.

Maisonneuve blinked once. He put his elbow on his knee, which was lifted to the edge of the desk, and rolled the flat of his hand on his chin. He said nothing. The governor was accustomed to hearing plans concocted by his officers. Some, like those offered by Lambert Closse and Charles Le Moyne he almost always accepted, so militarily astute had they proven to be. Dollard was less experienced, but he was a tough soldier and an inventive tactician. Maisonneuve listened.

Dollard had come in prepared to be calm and orderly in his outline of the plan, but his eagerness, repressed by months of secrecy, and lifted by his natural enthusiasm had made him explosive. He tried to speak deliberately, but his voice rose with his argument.

“Remaining in our fort permits the Iroquois to strangle us slowly. Their blockade of the Ottawa River is working to perfection!”

The governor rolled his hand and looked straight at the soldier but said nothing.

“If we don’t get furs this spring we might as well go back to France. It’s been four years since we had any deliveries. Also…” Dollard rushed on caught up in the enthusiasm of his plan.

“…Radisson says that the Iroquois hunters are low on ammunition in the spring from the hunt — and they have jammed guns and full canoes and …”

Maisonneuve, who had been smiling, motioned him to stop. By this time Dollard was standing up, waving his arms and gesturing emphatically. He hadn’t realized that his excitement had carried him to his feet.

“Oh — excuse me, Governor.”

“Not at all, Dollard.”

Maisonneuve waited a moment while Dollard composed himself.

“Your plan?”

Dollard got up again.

“Sir, my plan is to wage a petite guerre against the Iroquois in exactly the same manner as they attack us.”

“Yes?”

“I’ll go up the Ottawa until I find a suitable place for an ambush. We’ll surprise the Iroquois, give them some of their own treatment.”

Maisonneuve breathed heavily.

“Who are the men?”

“I have a list. Sixteen volunteers.”

The governor took the list, leaned back in his chair and scanned it. He held it lightly between the thumb and forefinger of both hands and rattled it by pulling it taut, then releasing, pulling taut and releasing. The act itself seemed to Dollard like an evaluation.

“This is an extremely dangerous enterprise, Dollard. We have not taken the initiative often before…”

“Exactly. They won’t be expecting it.”

Maisonneuve ignored Dollard’s interruption. He relied on the enthusiasm of his soldiers. He was also aware of their growing impatience at the lack of flexibility of the general military plan.

“You are familiar, Dollard, with what happened in 1644?”

That infamous incident was a topic of great discussion because it was central to the issue of the defense of Montreal. It was always used as the final word against the argument of an aggressive war against the Iroquois. Dollard knew this was coming.

In 1644, only two years after Ville Marie, as Montreal was then called, was founded, Maisonneuve had complaints about his leadership. Many urged him to go into the forest to meet the Iroquois on their own ground. They grumbled that the Iroquois were killing off the French with impunity.

Maisonneuve knew the folly of this approach. His people were settlers, not soldiers. The Indians did not conform to the formal European manner of warfare. They did not put their men in colorful uniforms and line them up in a row to meet other men in colorful uniforms lined up on the other side of an open field. The Indians moved among the trees like cougars, concealing themselves until a small group or an individual had committed himself to a clearing in the forest. Then they struck.

Finally, the murmuring became too constant and widespread: some even called the governor’s personal valor into question. Maisonneuve knew his value as a commander was useless unless respected so one day in March when the guard dogs flushed several Mohawks, and the citizens scrambled around his office hollering for a chance to pursue them, Maisonneuve agreed.

He led thirty Frenchmen to the woods. Almost immediately Maisonneuve saw the trap.

When the group was twenty feet in the forest 200 Mohawks rose up from behind the rocks and moved out from behind the trees. Screaming and yelling, they began shooting arrows and firing their muskets.

Some Frenchmen, overwhelmed by the ferocity and surprise of the attack and totally inexperienced in the woods, were paralyzed with fear. The Mohawks came on. Maisonneuve ordered firing. The men responded and for a few moments the firing volley sent the Mohawks back. But as their ammunition ran low, the French began to retreat.

Firing and shouting, the governor herded the men back. In their excitement most had not worn the animal gut webs– snowshoes– and they stumbled and fell in the deep snow.

Sensing a slaughter, the Mohawks closed in. The Frenchmen moved, their feet reached out, felt secure, then suddenly the thin-crusted snow gave way, and they were imbedded to their knees.

Terrified, they were helpless against the advancing Indians whose feet were clad in snowshoes.

A trail used for drawing logs from the woods to the town provided a margin. The men scrambled down this snow-sluice to the gates of the fort, their governor held the rear, firing at the Mohawks, and the men on the palisade provided fire cover. Maisonneuve was the last inside and narrowly missed death at the hands of a Mohawk whose hatchet split his gun stock.

He saved himself by shooting the brave in the stomach with his pistol as he was pulled into the fort.

Three French died, six more were wounded. Chastened, and grateful for Maisonneuve’s life, the men apologized, and they dropped the subject of attacking the Iroquois in the forest. It stayed dropped.

“I respectfully point out that the circumstances are different now,” said Dollard, “that was sixteen years ago, and we have failed to take the offensive since. For an army to do that is unthinkable … I’m sorry, sir. I did not mean that as a reflection on your leadership… I know the people in France dictate…” “

“The plan must meet the usual military standards,” said Maisonneuve abruptly.

“Return in four days–on the twentieth –and be prepared to defend your proposal.”

“Yes, sir,” said Dollard. “Thank you, sir.” He saluted and left the room.

Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve stood looking at the fire. The sparks cracked, hundreds of tiny flares of light rose up, danced in space over the flames, then swiftly died. They were hurled up against the stone or were lifted for a brief angry life in the air the chimney.

Maisonneuve, hypnotized by the flames, thought of Montreal eighteen years earlier. The night they arrived the pioneers decorated a makeshift altar with glass flasks full of fireflies; they sat and watched the fluttering light source and were lulled into a deep contentment. There was a beguiling aroma of spruce and fir mixed with wild cherry blossoms. They heard the river bump the shore, and they saw the giant elms and oaks silently rocking in the night air. Somewhere in the camp someone was playing a provincial air on a flute. All of this was on the periphery of their consciousness as it came back to the governor now.

Suddenly the fire cracked like a musket shot. Maisonneuve, startled, was brought back to the present. He had often told Paris that, without proper support, the venture might fail. At the time, Virginia had around 30,000 British citizens, the Dutch colony at New Amsterdam and Albany almost as many. New France had only 3,000 and would soon be eclipsed in trade and influence by the other countries if they weren’t annihilated by the Iroquois. And the Iroquois was getting guns from the Dutch and British.

Montreal had a religious mandate and Trois-Rivieres and Quebec concentrated on settlement, exploration and trade. But Maisonneuve needed a military success, now obviously to be made with his meager resources, without the assistance of France. Timing was critical, and so was the question of whether or not he could spare seventeen men for weeks or possibly — and he had to consider the possibility — forever.

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