by Theresa St John
From the moment I stepped foot on the grounds of Fort Ontario, I was overcome with the single thought of how many troops must have struggled for freedom here. I had no real idea about how many battles had been fought, nor how these wars had folded over each other, leaving no breathing room in between. It’s June and I’m here to witness one of the fort’s most important re-enactments. Many of us stand side by side on a hill in front of the structure, overlooking the action below. We’ve stepped back into the days of America’s historic French and Indian War.
Fort Ontario, in Oswego, New York, was important for many reasons. The fact that it served as the entryway to Lake Ontario and the Great Lakes made it a perfect passageway, moving heavy artillery and troops along the route between the Great Lakes and the entire Eastern Seaboard. It’s the fourth and final war that erupts between the French and British Empires at the fort in 1754. The first Fort Ontario appeared as an eight-pointed star. It was built with 18–inch thick log stakes, on the bluffs at the east side of Lake Ontario’s entrance. Major General William Shirley believed that control of the harbor could be best served here. The structure was impressive, sometimes referred to as “The Fort of Six Nations.” Wooden barracks were built for the soldiers, tucked into the angles of the fort itself. A long, narrow structure was built as well, it’s platform utilized by the fort’s troops, enabling them to fire small arms over the thick walls, into the enemy presence below.
There must be hundreds of spectators here today. We watch the bloody scene from above the battle. Both British and French troops march toward each other, raise their weapons and fire. Smoke billows from both sides and when it begins to clear, we see fallen soldiers, wounded and dead in front of us. And the fighting continues. There are two young French girls standing next to us. They’re not yet teenagers. One of them begins to cry. “No, Papa! No, No, Papa! ” she screams. I look over and study her closely, not sure if she is acting, or if this is the first time she has attended a re-enactment and she believes her father has just been shot. Either way, her cries of alarm are moving. Too many young girls and boys lost their loved ones during that war.
Men in uniform talk to us. They walk along the top of the grassy hill in front of us, explaining the history here, even as the battle continues below. We learn little pieces of this war surrounding Fort Oswego, Fort George and Fort Ontario. The men speak to us of harsh winters, especially during 1755-56. They tell us this was a season of desperation, as Oswego’s troops were cut off from Albany and much needed deliveries of supplies or communication from the rest of the country was scant. All three forts were poorly constructed and vulnerable to enemy fire. Men were lost to disease, starvation and spoiled water. There were very few left to guard the forts against the French and most were so weak, their efforts, though valiant, were pitifully lacking. Some reports state that 300 or more men and women perished in this terrible winter season. Spring came and the battle still raged. The newly arrived French commander-in-chief chose to attack a smaller fort that had been constructed to support Oswego. In a surprise assault, the garrison was slaughtered and the post was blown up. This action caused another interruption in help of any sort reaching the area. Marching onward, Fort Ontario is also destroyed by the French, during the spring of 1756.
In addition to being factual, this French and Indian War re-enactment was quite emotional. Many of us stood quietly in groups, as the event came to an end and soldiers moved away, towards their encampments. You could have heard a pin drop. The history in the making of America is a rich and often bloody one. On this day, we were left thinking about the troops and their families, how strong they must have been in those hot summers and bone-chilling winters. We grieved over their loss of life and were grateful for their fierce belief that this country would, indeed, be a great one.
Because it is.