Skip to main content

ABERCROMBIE: LAURENTIAN TOWNSHIP PRESERVES MEMORY OF FAILED BRITISH GENERAL

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

The Township of Abercrombie, comprising Shawbridge, a part of Piedmont, the village of Ste. Adele, and Fourteen Island Lake, was named for General James Abercromby. Exactly why he should have been so honoured is a bit of a mystery. It could be someone’s sense of humour — an encrypted message to the future inviting us to look back and see that the victors in war are not always winners.

www.britishbattles.com)" title="Abercromby, on the field at Fort Carillon. (www.britishbattles.com)" />Abercromby, who spelled his name with a ‘y,’ as on some of the older maps, was one of the slew of British generals who played their parts during the Seven Years’ War. Running from 1756 to 1763, the war is considered by some historians as the first global conflict. It started as a result of frictions between the French and the English in the Ohio Valley. A young George Washington, interloping in French territory, surprised a French party under the command of Joseph Coulon de Villiers, Sieur de Jumonville. Jumonville had been sent from Fort Du Quesne to admonish Washington for violating the Peace Treaty of Aix la Chapelle, signed in Aachen, northwest Germany, in 1748.

When Washington’s men saw the surprised French going for their guns, they began to fire, but Jumonville managed to make his presence felt and calmed the two sides. Through his translator, he successfully communicated that he and his party were messengers representing the French authorities, and then he began to read a proclamation reminding them of the terms of the treaty. Each party was in a serious position of weakness — the French, because it was just a small group of messengers, and Washington’s party, because they were in French territory and could be easily overpowered at any time.

This should have been the end of the encounter, with Washington proclaiming his purpose in being there and both parties withdrawing with messages for each other’s commanders. However, as his translator repeated the proclamation in English, a Seneca chieftain named Half-King shot Jumonville in the head at point-blank range. In the mêlée that ensued, nine other members of the French party were shot dead and the rest, except for one, were taken prisoner.

The sole escapee returned to Fort Du Quesne, and the French responded by overwhelming Washington at his hastily erected Fort Necessity. They served him with a humiliating defeat but allowed him and his men to return to British territory unarmed and on foot. The humiliation cannot be overstated because the First Nations in the Ohio Valley were crucial allies to both European powers, and lacking any other means of evaluating these two warring European nations, they tended to back the stronger side.

In fact, Half-King had been wooed by the French, but had judged the English to be a stronger force. While he had been let into the French confidence, and knew, according to the French, that Jumonville was not leading a war party, he seems to have concluded either that the French desire for peace and discussion was a sign of weakness or that it was in the interest of his own people for the French and English to fight. As a result, he led Washington to the small French party and instigated the confrontation. His action precipitated the most widespread war that the world had yet seen, but he was equally disappointed in both parties after the French overwhelmed Fort Necessity and then let their captives go.

This remote skirmish inflated into a world conflict when the British decided to retaliate. Even though they had been at peace since the signing of the Treaty of Aix la Chapelle, they were trade rivals who were incapable of sharing territory. Their differences were not limited to the Ohio Valley, as France was England’s major competitor for a worldwide commercial empire, and the ensuing war would be one for European — and world — hegemony.

The European powers rapidly lined up against each other: The British, Prussians and Hanoverians stood against France, Austria, Sweden, Saxony, Russia, and eventually Spain. General Abercromby, who had achieved his status through political connections and had little field experience, was dispatched to oversee the English military operations in the colonies. The French sent more troops under the command of Marquis Louis Joseph de Montcalm. www.britishbattles.com)" title="Montcalm, on the field at Fort Carillon. (www.britishbattles.com)" />One of the first North American objectives of the English was to capture Fort Carillon (Fort Ticonderoga) situated at the southern end of Lake Champlain. Abercromby relied upon one of his most experienced generals, George Howe, to plan and execute the attack. Montcalm, the defender, had 4,000 troops, while Howe had 15,000. Howe and his troops travelled up Lake George, and then along the five miles of river and portages to Lake Champlain. Along the river they easily rooted out the advance parties and captured the small settlements of the French. The first real confrontation was with troops trying to return to Fort Carillon, and in the ensuing skirmish, Howe was killed.

The death of this crucial leader left Abercromby at a loss for what to do. He dallied so long that his troops nicknamed him Mrs. Nambie-Crombie. By the time he had finally resumed the advance, Montcalm had received reinforcements and ordered his men to pile up barriers of brush and fallen trees around Fort Carillon. Abercromby ordered the storming of these barricades, but neglected to await the arrival of his superior artillery.

As the battle progressed, the British troops were bogged down and slaughtered, losing 2,000 men and being forced to retreat. The French losses were 350 killed and wounded. Abercromby, overwrought and panic-stricken, signalled a retreat and withdrew, not simply along the five miles of river and portages that they had captured, but to the far end of Lake George.

When word of the catastrophe reached England, Abercromby was recalled and General Jeffrey Amherst was sent out in his place. Amherst would successfully push all the way to Montreal, taking it in 1760, the year after Wolfe had taken Quebec City.

Abercromby found himself a safe seat in Parliament from which he became a staunch supporter of the Stamp Tax and opponent of any opinion that favoured the colonists in their bid for independence. Today his name stares out at us from Laurentian maps as a goading reminder of one of Great Britain’s worst military blunders in the New World.

This article is from Joe Graham’s book Naming the Laurentians, and is the first in a series that will describe places around the province. He can be reached at joseph@doncaster.ca.

Abercromby, above, depicted on the field at Fort Carillon. From www.britishbattles.com.
Montcalm, above on the field at Fort Carillon. From www.britishbattles.com.