The Battle of the Long Sault, Ch. 4: Plan Evaluation

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BATTLE OF THE LONG SAULT

CHAPTER 4. Montreal: Plan evaluation

The group of Montrealers that confronted Dollard des Ormeaux on the evening of March 20, 1660 for the investigation of his military plan comprised Governor de Maisonneuve, Lambert Closse, Charles le Moyne, and Dollard’s friends Claude de Brigeac, and Pierre de Belestre,  Dollard’s co-commander of the garrison of Montreal.

Dollard arrived at the appointed hour of 9:30 p.m. and was admitted by Claude de Brigeac.

“Dollard.”

“Claude — how does it look?”

“I don’t know –Maisonneuve wouldn’t permit Pierre or me in there with them… they’ve been here over two hours.” Unless it was an emergency, most of the town’s meetings, whether about supplies or military matters, took place at night. The daylight hours were too valuable, especially in spring and summer, to hold them during the day.

Dollard breathed a sigh of irritation.

“Two hours. They must be taking the plan apart.”

“Are you prepared Dollard?”

“I think so,” said Dollard.

“Where are the others?”

“Most are at Prud’homme’s drinking and eating, some are on the wall. How long have they been in there?”

“I just told you… two hours!”

“God! And you haven’t even been inside?”

“No. Just before we were to go in le Moyne whispered in his ear and Maisonneuve told us to stay out here. He said we could go in when you go 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 for your plan because we’re friends, find out they were 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 not…” his voice rising.

“Dollard, you’d better relax. Maisonneuve wants a military decision from Pierre and me and not an emotional one. Whatever personal feelings we have must be put aside. You’ll have to convince us of the value of the plan on its own merits.”

“I want just want to kill a few Mohawks. Everybody’s making it the siege of Troy.”

“If you continue in the attitude you’re displaying now you won’t only not go on this expedition, 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 de Brigeac.

“Fine. I’m ready. Where’s Pierre?”

“He just went to get some wood…thank God spring is coming.”

The side door opened and Pierre de Belestre entered with an armful of wood. Without turning, he kicked the door shut.

“Will you get the latch somebody? Hey, Dollard…ready for the sausage grinder?”

“I hear you’re to be objective” laughed Dollard.

“Oh, hell yes,” he said, and, dropping his voice and mimicking Maisonneuve,

“Commander de Belestre, what do you think of des Ormeaux’s plan?” Belestre switched back to is own voice.

“Well, Governor, considering the benefits that will accrue to me I think it’s a perfectly marvelous plan. Send him off with my blessings. I hope he gets adopted by the Mohawks. I hope they eat him.”

He dropped the wood on the floor with a thumping clatter.

“What an indigestible meal that would be,” said de Brigeac.

They laughed nervously as Dollard and Claude helped Pierre stack the wood near the hearth. Suddenly, there was a noise at the door and 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 of the discussion. Closse returned through the door. de Belestre moved close to Dollard.

“For God’s sake, don’t tell him about all the money we’ll make from the furs.”

“What?”

“He might think it’s your main objective!”

“What’s the matter with making some money?”

“Nothing. Just don’t make a big thing of it, will you?”

“All right,” growled Dol1ard , and he moved into the governor’s room.

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 entrusted with greater responsibility; who would accompany the Jesuits to the missions; should the foundry prepare more shot.

The other kind of meeting, the kind Dollard was to face now, dealt with critical questions, strategy rather than tactics. This was not the first time Dollard had been in one of these ‘sausage grinders’ but before he had been on the examining side of the meetings, asking questions of other officers who had ideas for the defense of the town. This was to be the first time one of his own ideas was scrutinized. In the past, being one of the junior officers, he had not even had much opportunity to interrogate people since the older soldiers, such as Closse and le Moyne, had such wide experience that their questions anticipated and obviated his. But Dollard had not spent his time in these meetings idly. He had observed, listened and learned.

As Dollard entered the room, he looked around quickly. Maisonneuve was behind his desk the eight-foot fireplace on the wall to his right. Flanking the fireplace, hidden behind sliding doors, as on some ships, were two-tiers of beds, to save space and ensure warmth. Also to his right was Charles le Moyne. The empty chair on the governor’s left was obviously for Closse, and two other chairs drawn alongside were for Claude de Brigeac and Pierre de Belestre. In front of Maisonneuve’s desk was a table with maps and paper, and in front of that a chair facing the committee, for Dollard.

It looks different from this side, thought Dollard.

The men took their places.

“Sit down please, Commander,” said Maisonneuve.

“As in the past, we will proceed as follows:

First, Commander des Ormeaux will outline his plan;
second, he will justify it on military grounds;
third, we will voice our objections, if any, and pose questions;
fourth, he will rebut our objections and answer our questions;
fifth, we shall ask the commander to leave us while we consider the matter; and
finally, we shall deliver our verdict.

Agreeable, gentlemen?”

A chorus of ‘Sirs’ responded.

“Commander, you may proceed,” said the governor, who settled back in his chair to listen.

“Governor Maisonneuve, gentlemen: you know the history of Montreal far better than I, and the problems attendant to the lack of a good French regiment is well known. From whatever causes, militarily we are in an untenable position.”

“More than 500 people have come to Montreal since governor Maisonneuve first carried the cross up to Mount Royal in 1642. More, of course, have been born here. We are now, eighteen years later, reduced to three hundred and seventy persons, only fifty of whom are heads of families like M. Closse and M. le Moyne, and only one hundred and seventy of whom are able to fight under any circumstances.”

“Should the policy of neglect that is currently followed by those in authority in France continue, it is clear that Montreal will gradually see its citizens fall one by one to the Iroquois.”

Maisonneuve’s eyes held on Dollard but a slight twitch in his lip betrayed concern.

“Add to this the problem of safe passage on the rivers. The Ottawa River is hardly navigable anymore because of the vicious attacks by Iroquois warriors who not only make ordinary transportation difficult but make our fur trade practically impossible. Every time our traders go up the Ottawa it is a good bet they will not return.”

“What remains of our Huron allies? Most were massacred with Father Brebeauf in the Huron villages at Saint Marie about a decade ago. But what of the remaining ones, the ones who still have the courage to trade on the river? They have their canoes ambushed because they are too busy with the heavy craft and the currents in the rapids to reply to the guns of the Iroquois thieves.”

“The Mohawks and Onondagas thrive on our helplessness; they attack our people and steal our furs. We get no revenue, we lose lives and the fear of the next expedition grows. Since we do not attack the Iroquois, they grow bolder. We have lost men who have simply opened their doors only to find a screaming Iroquois with a hatchet right in the center of our colony. The Iroquois no longer fear or even respect us. Militarily they are correct, for our tactics do not vary.”

“I do not question that these tactics were necessary before, but I submit that no change of military plan can only lead to our destruction.”

Maisonneuve sighed imperceptibly. He had heard all this before and he was annoyed at being reminded of his long-time military strategy. He, himself, had long wanted to attack but his supporters in Paris forbade it. Montreal was not supported by the government of France but by interested religious laymen who tried to raise money on their own. The gap between what he wanted to do and what he had been permitted to do produced a constant stress that was always felt by this calm and thoughtful leader. Being reminded of circumstances he couldn’t control was uncomfortable.

“My plan is not dangerous,” Dollard continued.

“The idea is to go up the Ottawa River, select a spot the Iroquois are certain to pass — the Long Sault is perfect– set ourselves up in ambush and wait for the enemy. All of my men are volunteers, unmarried, and practically all are expert marksmen. And even those who aren’t expert will seem so when compared to the savages.”

No one spoke. Dollard took out a piece of paper from his jacket and unfolded it.

“Militarily my purposes are several.”

He looked down at the paper and began to read:

“‘This action is proposed, first, to eliminate the Iroquois blockade of the Ottawa River.”

He raised his head and spoke directly to Maisonneuve:

“We’ll throw the Iroquois off balance by this kind of petit guerre — even if we don’t repeat the tactic for some time, the Iroquois will live in fear that we might.”

His eyes returned to the paper.

“‘Second, to safeguard the return of Pierre Esprit Radisson and Menard Chouart de Groseilliers, our best and most experienced traders, who are expected in the spring following this winter’s expedition to the Nez-Perce Indians.

“Third, to provide some relief for the men from the annoyance of military inactivity — or at least military activity initiated by ourselves.”

Dollard looked up again, found le Moyne’s face and continued:

“It is hard on the men to wonder whether the furs will get through — especially when they have no say in the matter.”

le Moyne’s eyes seemed to indicate to Dollard that he was sympathetic but the man’s face was expressionless. Dollard swallowed and he returned to his paper.

“Fourth, to keep for ourselves the furs and profits from them should the Iroquois we encounter be hunters or stealers of furs.’”

Dollard shot a quick look to de Brigeac who remained impassive. Dollard turned his gaze back to Maisonneuve. He stopped reading and spoke directly–

“We have had only a few canoes of furs in four years… it is intolerable. If the Mohawks do not kill us they will bankrupt us.”

“We know the Iroquois will be returning from the winter hunt…that they travel in small groups…and that they will be short of arms and supplies from the winter.”

“To this we add the difficulty they’ll have trying to maneuver their canoes through the rapids and we can’t fail. It is simply taking their tactic of attacking our canoes which has been so successful for them, and reversing it. This is the plan and the reasons for it.”

Dollard sat down. He looked at each of the men who said nothing; they were waiting for the governor to speak.

“Monsieur le Moyne, will you begin the appraisal ?” said Maisonneuve.

“I have to agree with the Commander’s assessment of our military position. I have bridled under its restrictions much longer than he has,” said le Moyne, smiling.

At thirty-four, le Moyne was not slowing down, nor would he until at sixty, when, worn out from a harsh life of work and battle, he would die, leaving ten sons, one of whom would become the governor of New Orleans, a small fortune, and the seignory of Longueuil, a composite of areas which totaled a fabulous amount of land.

In 1646 he had come to Montreal and immediately began to distinguish himself. He learned the Indian mind, manners and language; he became a clerk, which experience was to aid him in his warehousing later. And he was a soldier even then in his teens; only weeks after his arrival he captured Iroquois prisoners. He was to do the same often, including in1655 when he and Lambert Closse took five braves and a chief.

In 1651, he miraculously escaped death during an Iroquois slaughter in which several others died. The only other survivor was Jean Chicot who had been scalped, who enjoyed disproving the common belief, expressed usually in the tavern, that scalping and killing were necessarily synonymous.

Once he was almost killed when he and others faced an attack by one hundred and sixty Iroquois. By some idiocy none of the other settlers had taken their guns with them. This was a carelessness which occurred too often for the ferocity of life at the time and was reflective of either gross indifference to the situation, a reckless bravery, or stupidity of monumental proportions. le Moyne was completely alone with a musket against this force until a woman named Celles Duclos ran from the fort carrying enough weapons for him to repel the attack and escape capture. Duclos loading and le Moyne firing scattered the astonished Indians.

This then was one of the men to judge the des Ormeaux plan: tough-minded, realistic and, in the true sense, heroic. These were extraordinary men; new Achilles come to life in the wilderness of the New World; soldiers, husbands, fathers, explorers, traders. All in the service of God and France, although it was true that the worse France treated them the higher the honor of God was rated.

So, when le Moyne said, ‘I have to agree with the Commander’s assessment of our position.’ Dollard breathed easier. His heart beat faster, but his breathing, as if relieved of a great pressure, came easier.

“Of course there are problems,” said le Moyne almost immediately.

Dollard’s heart hit the pit of his stomach and he almost groaned from the contact.

“The first one is the question of manpower,” le Moyne continued.

“Assuming for the moment the value of the plan, we are talking about taking seventeen men and removing them from the fort’s defense for perhaps two months.”

“Two months!” Dollard thought.

“No, a few weeks at most.” But he did not speak.

“Major Closse, what is the strength of our force at the moment?” asked le Moyne.

“Roughly one hundred and thirty able bodied men, although not all in the town or all capable of fighting at any one time. I’d say one hundred and ten at the most,” answered Closse.

“Minus seventeen, leaves about ninety for the defense of Montreal,” said le Moyne.

Dollard blanched. He had estimated one hundred or more men left in town. One hundred seemed so many more than ninety that the difference appeared overwhelming.

“What do you say to the objection that the removal of seventeen men might seriously damage our ability to defend the town, Commander des Ormeaux?” asked le Moyne.

The tone in le Moyne’s voice let the young man know he must answer satisfactorily.

“The danger lies, I think”, replied Dollard, “is not in the few men who are here, since we know our fort can be sentried by eight men and defended by forty. The danger lies in our everlasting policy of simply waiting for death to come for us. The Iroquois will keep it up unless we initiate attack. I do not delude myself that this plan is the answer to our problems. It is merely an ambush which will shake the Iroquois from their belief that they may attack us at will.”

“As for the dangerous nature of the mission I think it not very: if the Iroquois we meet are warriors our surprise and good shooting will be sufficient; if they are hunters their weapons will be empty from the hunt and their canoes will be full. With this combination in the rapids they will certainly fall to us.”

Maisonneuve had been leaning his elbow on the arm of his chair and holding his index finger across his lips. He was turning his head slightly to the left and right creating with his finger the effect of a saw on his mouth. Now he drew his hand away and, pointing for emphasis, said:

“Have you considered the incident of 1644?”

Dollard turned to the governor.

“Yes sir, I have. I grant the validity of the event as a caution, but the two plans are hardly the same. You were under pressure from ill-trained, and apparently loose-thinking men. Unprepared, they fell into a trap. They were not prepared physically, mentally or even sartorially. Most had no snow-shoes for the fight, if I rightly recall the reports. My men will be prepared in every way.”

“Also, you lacked the element of surprise since it was you who were first under attack. We will be doing the attacking this time.”

“And we shall not merely have the tactical surprise that is so necessary in fighting these Indians, but we will have a cumulative surprise which has been building. The Iroquois have observed our strategy and now frankly and factually tell their councils that the French never leave their fort to fight, never change strategy. To follow this policy forever can only lead to our deaths.”

“For all of these reasons, sir, I feel our plan will be successful.”

Claude de Brigeac had been sitting quietly; now he moved as if to speak and with a wave of his hand Maisonneuve gave him leave.

“Commander des Ormeaux,” he said, taking the cue from le Moyne, “Do you see any weakness in the plan?”

“Well,” replied Dollard,”it is true my men do not have the vast experience of Messrs. Closse, le Moyne or Radisson, but many can handle themselves in the woods like any Mohawk. The one area where we might have some difficulty is with the canoes. Not everyone in our group has great skill with these craft but enough of us do so that we can distribute the weaknesses in the center of the canoes and not have that fact harm us.”

Lambert Closse had said nothing since replying to le Moyne. He listened carefully and watched Dollard’s cool attitude. Finally, Maisonneuve called on him.

“Major Closse, have you anything to say?”

Whatever this man said it was going to be influential. Aside from the capture of Iroquois with le Moyne and the occasion when he took sixteen men to a two-hour defense of the Hotel Dieu, Lambert Closse filled the letters of the Jesuits as a brilliant soldier. He was the sergeant-major of the garrison which meant he was Dollard’s immediate superior. Like most he supplemented his income by becoming a fur trader, partly out of his own desire and partly because he received menial wages like others in New France.

He was born in the Ardennes in 1618, where he received a liberal education at the hands of the Jesuits. Practically everything the man did carried with it a quality of the extraordinary. He could foresee and forestall most Iroquois ruses in battle. His will power was his most powerful quality: he could never countenance defeat and he was able to keep his soldiers at such a pitch of excitement that they seemed always ready, never surprised by a sudden attack.

Once, to a man who suggested as tactfully as possible that Closse would get himself killed by racing around the country and throwing himself into wars, he replied,

“I came here only in order to die for the sake of God while serving him in the profession of arms. If I did not think to die here I would leave the country and go and serve against the Turks and not be deprived of that glory.”

His dedication to God, although exceptional in its intensity, was common to many in New France; he had once thought of becoming a Jesuit and refrained from doing so only because he felt his qualities better suited to serving God with a musket than with a cross. When he was finally killed in a fight with the Iroquois, the eulogy at his funeral spoke volumes:

“He was a man whose piety was no whit inferior to his valor, and who possessed extraordinary presence of mind in the field
of battle. He justly won the credit of saving Montreal both by his might and his reputation. It was deemed advisable to keep
his death concealed from the enemy for fear they might take advantage of it. This eulogy we owed his memory since Montreal
owed him its life.”

Dollard winced as he waited for Closse’s comments.

“Governor, I think the plan is a good one and I would like to go along.”

This sudden announcement brought a mixed feeling to Dollard: he was happy because if le Moyne agreed, Maisonneuve’s agreement to the plan was certain, but he was shaken by Closse’s expression of desire to join the force. That was complimentary but it meant one thing, surely: the command would go to Closse, not to himself.

“I would only ask that the venture be postponed until after seeding,” continued Closse.

“I agree” said le Moyne.

“The plan is sound, not too ambitious, and seems well organized. I, too, would go if it were to be postponed. The seeding is paramount—the season here is not so long as in France and we need the harvest for sustenance. It is as simple as that.”

Dollard’s mind raced. From leading the expedition he was rapidly falling down the chain of command. He had a sudden incredible thought that the plan would go ahead, everybody in Montreal would go and he would be left to defend the nuns at the Hotel Dieu.

“Ahhh … as much as I would like Major Closse and M. le Moyne to accompany us…”

These two men burst out laughing. Even Dollard smiled.

“…I fear a delay would ruin the plan. If we wait until seeding is completed we have waited too long: the Iroquois hunters will be back in their longhouses, their warriors will have already killed whatever Hurons might attempt the voyages.”

“Perhaps even Radisson and Grosseillers would be killed and their furs taken. They will have had time to return to the Dutch and will be well armed against us. They would then have the best spots on the river! We would not be able to dislodge them and unblock the river, and another summer of poverty would be upon us. Also, my men are ready now and we can be back, in two weeks or three, not two months as was suggested, and in any case probably in time for seeding, or at least the best part of it.”

As soon as he said it he regretted it since if the seeding argument was accepted, what was to prevent Closse and le Moyne from coming?

Maisonneuve faced the question bluntly.

“That is persuasive, but if you wait you can be commanded by a more experienced man.”

Dollard did not flinch.

“I am a capable commander.”

The governor smiled.

“Are there other questions?”

Lambert Closse had one:

“If you see the enemy is much stronger than your company, what will you do?”

“I will not attack,” said Dollard, “unless that strength is simply in numbers which we will reduce or eliminate by our ambush.”

It was the right answer. As these soldiers had learned, New France warfare had its own rules and discretion was a major one. Surprise was absolutely necessary; courage and daring more so than in the field became more individual as every man ‘took up his tree’; patience was of the utmost importance. But if discretion was lacking, though all the other elements be right, this could lose the day and lives. Montreal could not afford to lose 17 men, ten per cent of the whole population.

“Commander des Ormeaux, will you absent yourself for a few moments, please?” asked Maisonneuve.

Dollard stood up, saluted and left the room, not daring to glance at Pierre de Belestre and Claude de Brigeac, who, in any case, avoided looking at their departing friend.

After Dollard des Ormeaux had left the room, Maisonneuve asked each man his opinion.

“Let them go,” said Closse.

” There is truth in his reasoning to leave soon. I would go too but I must do the seeding. It is one thing to attack an enemy for an hour, quite another to miss the seeding for our families and our future. ”

“That’s right,” said le Moyne.

“Also, Lambert, if we go Dollard might as well not.”

He winked at his friend and they laughed.

“I am in agreement,” said de Belestre.

“And I,” said de Brigeac. “In the face of our weakness some doubtless would call it an ‘absurd enterprise’ but I understand that has been said to our governor before.”

They all laughed.

When Maisonneuve told the governor of Quebec, De Montmagny, that he would establish Montreal, the governor had tried to dissuade him, partly because his own authority would then be dissipated but mainly because of the Iroquois wars. He told Maisonneuve that the enterprise would never succeed, and that it should be named the ‘absurd enterprise’ so that all might realize that this pious folly was in the hands of God.

For Maisonneuve that clinched it.

“Agreed,” he said. “They can go.”

The news filled Dollard with joy and he could scarcely conceal his enthusiasm as they all toasted the venture moments later in Maisonneuve’s office. Before they had time to refill his glass he excused himself.

“With your permission, gentlemen, I must get to Prud’homme’s tavern…my men are waiting word.”

They laughed and Maisonneuve said,

“Well then, Adam Dollard Sieur des Ormeaux, to your companions!”

Dollard saluted, turned, walked two steps and then ran to the door, slamming it. The laughter inside covered the wild whoop that the runner emitted en route to the tavern.

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