“A Very Handsom Retreet”: Lt. Colonel Nathan Whiting and the Fighting Retreat that Decided the Battle of Lake George

This is a post from September 2016. It focuses on a critical military action that occurred during the Battle of Lake George, 264 years ago, today:

When analyzing the key actions of a military engagement in order to pinpoint a decisive moment or turning point, one does not usually come across a retreat and/or rout that actually attributed to the success of an army. However, during the late morning of September 8, 1755, roughly three miles south of Lake George in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, a contingent of men from Connecticut and Massachusetts, and their Mohawk allies conducted quite possibly the first ever organized fighting retreat in American military history – one that would turn the tide of battle and save their army from potential destruction. It is easy for a maneuver like this to be overlooked, but without the crucial time bought for William Johnson’s provincial army at its encampment along the southern shore of the lake by Lt. Colonel Nathan Whiting’s courageous New Englanders, Baron de Dieskau’s French army may well have emerged victorious during the Battle of Lake George and subsequently pushed their way to Albany’s doorstep.

Around eight o’clock in the morning, September 8, 1755, a column of men 1,200 strong was marched out of William Johnson’s camp at the southern end of Lake George. The column’s destination was Fort Lyman, roughly fourteen miles to the south located beside the Hudson River (present-day Fort Edward, NY). There, intelligence gathered by Johnson’s army had placed the 1,500 strong French force led by Jean-Armand, Baron de Dieskau, which was believed to be preparing an assault against the 500 man garrison of New Hampshire and New York provincials.

The contingent of reinforcements dispatched from the English camp was under the overall command of Colonel Ephraim Williams, 3rd Massachusetts Provincial Regiment, and was comprised of his own regiment, 200 Mohawk Indians, and another 500 men of the 2nd Connecticut Provincial Regiment led by Lt. Colonel Nathan Whiting. The column marched south down the military road with the Mohawk at its head, followed by the Massachusetts men, and Whiting’s regiment taking up the rear.

Nathan Whiting, born in 1724 and a resident of Windham, was 31-years-old in 1755 and one of William Johnson’s youngest field officers. He was a graduate of Yale and a veteran of the Louisbourg expedition during King George’s War – service which earned him a lieutenant’s commission in His Majesty’s Forces. When hostilities between England and France erupted in 1754 he was commissioned as the 2nd Connecticut Provincial Regiment’s lieutenant colonel and was sent to Albany to serve as part of the Crown Point Expedition, an offensive designed to oust the French from the Lake Champlain-Lake George-Hudson River corridor. The regiment’s colonel, Elizur Goodrich, was ill and bedridden during the Battle of Lake George, so Whiting served as the unit’s field commander during his absence. Whiting was a loyal officer and earnestly dedicated to the cause in which he was fighting for. Before reaching the southern shore of the lake on August 28, he penned a heartfelt letter to his wife that epitomized his character: “… [P]ray make your Self as easy as possible[.] I know your D[aily] prayers are for my preservation[.] Let it be an article of them that it not be obtained by any unworthy means, but in the prosecution of the Duty I owe at this time to my Self, my Country & my God.”[1]

About two hours or so and three miles into the march to Fort Lyman, the forward ranks of Ephraim Williams’s column of reinforcements were ambushed by Dieskau’s native allies, Canadian militia, and regular grenadiers of the Regiments of Languedoc and La Reine. The French outside of Fort Lyman had earlier uncovered dispatches from a dead courier that was sent to inform the English outpost that reinforcements were going to be sent from the lake encampment to assist it in case of an attack. Using this intelligence, Dieskau marched his army up the military road towards Lake George and prepared an ambush to surprise the oncoming party of reinforcements. Although the ambuscade was initiated prematurely before the entire column could march into Dieskau’s hook-like formation, it still succeeded in throwing the English force into confusion and sent it scurrying back up the road to Lake George. Both Ephraim Williams and Chief Hendrick (commanding the Mohawk contingent) were killed during the confrontation and all order was lost, leaving Whiting, who was now the highest ranking officer on the field, to try to prevent a disaster.

The Bloody Morning Scout, 10:00 a.m. Map by Nicholas Chavez.

The 2nd Connecticut was spared from being involved in the ambush because of their distance to the rear of the column. However, they were met with the sights and sounds of the maelstrom unfolding ahead of them as panic-stricken men streamed through their ranks along the military road. Knowing that an all-out rout would spell disaster for Johnson and the rest of the army at the lake – which was surely Dieskau’s next target – Whiting ordered his Connecticut men to take to the woods surrounding the road and use every bit of cover possible to hold back the onrushing enemy. Rallying a handful of Bay Staters and Mohawks, they too rejoined the fighting. If Whiting could not stand and fight, he was going to run and fight in order to buy time for the rest of the army to prepare to meet the inevitable assault heading its way. With tremendous tenacity, the brave band of New Englanders and their native allies returned fire at every opportunity. They loaded, discharged their firelocks, and then ran to the next available form of concealment, repeating the process again and again. Their resistance forced Dieskau to slow his pursuit and even gave his Indians the chance to break ranks and leave the fight or return to the morning’s engagement site to plunder.

Obelisk dedicated to Col. Ephraim Williams near the spot of his death during the Bloody Morning Scout. Author’s photo.

Whiting’s fighting retreat was achieving its intended goals. Back at the Lake George encampment the fighting could clearly be heard inching closer and closer. Having the necessary time needed to prepare a defensive position, Johnson ordered his men to throw up a makeshift breastwork of logs and whatever else could be found. Artillery was planted aiming down the military road and a body of men from Lt. Colonel Edward Cole’s 1st Rhode Island Provincial Regiment was ordered forward to aid Whiting. The added strength brought Dieskau’s army to a near halt. For well over an hour the men of Whiting’s fighting retreat fought desperately against their relentless foe, refusing stubbornly to give up every inch of ground over the three miles from the ambush site to the lakeshore encampment. In the words of Lt. Colonel Seth Pomeroy of the 3rd Massachusetts, who was fortunate enough to have been ordered to remain behind in camp, Whiting’s men made a “very handsom retreet.” [2]

It was nearing noon when, in Pomeroy’s words, the rearguard, “Came within about ¾ of a mile of our Camp there was ye Last Fire our men gave our enemies which kill’d grate numbers of them [as they were] Sean to Drop as Pigons….”[3] Emerging from the wood line into the clearing made by Johnson’s camp, Whiting and his men caught the first glance of what their courageous actions had accomplished that morning. There in front of them the entire army waited to meet the oncoming enemy behind a long line of newly built breastworks.

For four hours Dieskau attempted to break the English lines, not once even coming close to reaching their defenses.  By nightfall the French army was in full retreat (without its commander, who was left behind on the field wounded) back to Carillon to the north, and William Johnson and his army could finally declare the Battle of Lake George a victory for His Majesty King George II. The southern shore of the lake was still in British hands, and the road south to Albany was again secure. Plans were made to build a large permanent fortification at the site of Johnson’s encampment, and by the end of the month construction of what would come to be christened Fort William Henry began.

Despite the tremendous leadership and collective effort of many officers during the battle, Johnson took all the credit for himself – even though he was wounded early in the fighting and had missed most of it. His second-in-command, Major General Phineas Lyman of Connecticut, who had commanded the army during the fighting after Johnson’s wounding, was not mentioned in the general’s report to the royal governors the following day. Also omitted from this were Nathan Whiting and his men who desperately fought to buy time for the army to prepare the defenses that proved so crucial to deciding the outcome of the battle. It is impossible that Johnson simply did not know what had transpired in the forests south of Lake George that morning – he would have clearly heard the sound of musket fire slowly progressing towards his camp. He mentioned in his report hearing the, “… heavy firing, and all the Marks of a Warm Engagement….”[4] His failure to include the service of Lyman and Whiting in his recollections was nothing more than a want of glory and a personal vendetta that he seemed to hold against Connecticut’s officers. For his victory at the Battle of Lake George, Johnson was later knighted – an honor that would have been better bestowed upon others.

An already underappreciated event in America’s colonial history, the English victory at the Battle of Lake George halted Dieskau’s offensive into New York’s interior and quite possibly saved Albany and everything north of it from falling into the hands of France and being cut off from the rest of the colonies. In my opinion, had the battle been lost by the English its consequences would have been far greater than Braddock’s Defeat along the Monongahela. Not only was the Ohio River Valley already lost that summer, but if the British were also ousted from Lake George then the major water “highway” north into Canada would have been lost as well. This would have given France a direct route south into New York’s interior and even an avenue of approach towards New York City via the Hudson River. Many more would have been in danger following that summer than just the frontier settlers of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. So if these observations are at least in some part accurate, then the significance of the English victory along the southern shore of Lake George cannot be understated. If this truly was one of the more strategically significant battles of the French and Indian War, then Nathan Whiting’s fighting retreat made the victory possible. It was the decisive action of the Battle of Lake George and quite possibly the first ever successfully organized fighting retreat in American Military History.

[1] Nathan Whiting, “The Letters of Colonel Nathan Whiting,” in The Papers of the New Haven Colony Historical Society, vol. 6 (New Haven, CT: New Haven Colony Historical Society, 1900), 137.

[2] Seth Pomeroy, The Journals and Papers of Seth Pomeroy: Sometime General in the Colonial Service (New York: Society of Colonial Wars in the State of New York, 1926), 114.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Milton W. Hamilton, “Battle Report: General William Johnson’s Letter to the Governors, Lake George, September 9-10, 1755,” in Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, vol. 74 (Worcester, MA: Published by the Society, 1965), 22.

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