These anxieties were probably not far from the mind of Second Lieutenant Ephraim Shaler of the Twenty- Fifth Infantry when he left his unit’s new position to the right of the artillery and returned to its initial position on William Gage’s lane. The young officer checked on the cooks left there to prepare the next day’s meal and “just as I was about to leave the lane and go back to my regiment (it being at this time between one and two o’clock in the morning) I heard one of the most dreadful shrieks that ever fell on mortal ear and which seemed to come from one of the sentinels. I observed to an officer nearby that a sentinel had been shot with an arrow and the Indians were then tomahawking him, which I have no doubt was the fact, for not a gun had been fired.”
That silence, however, was only momentary before the first sentry discharged his musket, thereby raising the alarm. The assistant adjutant general, Major John Johnston, noted the time. It was 2:20 a.m.
On the edge of the woods the two British light companies moved rapidly to bag the remainder of the advance picket. They were now within a few hundred yards of the American line and still invisible. But as Clausewitiz disciple Helmuth von Moltke so famously observed: no campaign plan survives first contact with the enemy. For the British, neutralizing the pickets was the last thing that went according to plan that night.
Behind the light companies, some of Vincent’s staff officers came forward to the head of the column to watch the action. Completely heedless of Harvey’s “perfect order and profound silence” command, they began to cheer. Five companies back in the column, Lieutenant James FitzGibbon heard them and understood immediately what it meant: “The instant I heard their shout I considered our affair ruined.”
For the men in the ranks, constrained by the enforced silence, the outburst from the staff officers was both a welcome release from the tension and an invitation they could not resist. Section by section, company by company the troops began to cheer and yell “huzza!” And at least some of the men mimicked Indian war cries.
“The moment I heard the shout spread amongst the men,” FitzGibbon said, “I considered our situation very critical. For I was aware that it would be almost impossible to make the men silent again, and that consequently orders could not be heard or obeyed.” As Clausewitz warned, command and control of troops in a night action is crucial for success. FitzGibbon immediately told his company not to take up the shout and with the help of his three company sergeants, Joseph Buchanan, John Cole and Alexander Nicholl, “succeeded in keeping them silent and in good order,” for the moment at least.
The Irish subaltern was appalled at the behaviour of his fellow officers, considering them responsible for squandering a golden opportunity. “Never was surprise more complete – never was anything more brilliant than it would have been had we kept silence … but our officers began that which they should have watched with all their care to prevent; for they ought to have known that in darkness and noise, confusion must be inevitable. I think I could have killed some of them had I been near them at the moment.” Certainly any chance of a Paoli-style rout had evaporated.
On the other side, the sudden tumult was also having an effect. Ephraim Shaler, the Twenty-Fifth Infantry lieutenant, was standing less than 50 yards away when the roar began. Though he could see nothing in the dark, he was convinced by the yelling that he was surrounded “by all the Indians in Canada. The war whoop was given and the air seemed rent with the yell of Indians, which was quickly followed by every sentinel discharging his piece and retreating to the main guard.”
Some of Shaler’s countrymen claimed they distinctly heard Indians yelling and troops shouting, but Norton, who noted the troops were cheering loudly, made no mention of his small band of warriors taking any part. Of the dozens of accounts of the action from American officers, only one – that of Captain John Thornton of the Twentieth Infantry – appears to have got it right. “There were but few Indians with the British,” Thornton wrote, “but the latter set up the savage yell before the attack was made. This artifice was unworthy of regular troops and it excited no other sentiment but contempt among our soldiers.”
Back on the American line, Chandler’s acting ADC, Lieutenant Donald Fraser, was startled to discover the enemy – “British & Indians” – had penetrated American defences. “The first we knew was a horrid yell in Camp."