Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales, Vol I: American by Charles Morris
Historical Tales, Vol I: American by  Charles Morris

The Siege of Fort Schuyler

All was terror in the valley of the Mohawk, for its fertile fields and happy homes were threatened with the horrors of Indian warfare. All New York State, indeed, was in danger. The hopes of American liberty were in danger. The deadliest peril threatened the patriotic cause; for General Burgoyne, with an army of more than seven thousand men, was encamped at St. John's, at the foot of Lake Champlain, prepared to sweep down that lake and Lake George, march to the valley of the upper Hudson, driving the feeble colonial forces from his path, and by joining with a force sent up the Hudson from New York City, cut off New England from the remaining colonies and hold this hot-bed of rebellion at his mercy. It was a well-devised and threatening scheme. How disastrously for the royalists it ended all readers of history know. With this great enterprise, however, we are not here concerned, but with a side issue of Burgoyne's march whose romantic incidents fit it for our pages.

On the Mohawk River, at the head of boat-navigation, stood a fort, built in 1758, and named Fort Stanwix; repaired in 1776, and named Fort Schuyler. The possession of this fort was important to General Burgoyne's plan. Its defence was of vital moment to the inhabitants of the Mohawk Valley. Interest for the time being centred round this outpost of the then almost unbroken wilderness.

On one side Lieutenant-Colonel St. Leger was despatched, at the head of seven hundred rangers, to sail up the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario to Oswego, and from that point to march southward, rousing and gathering the Indians as he went, capture Fort Schuyler, sweep the valley of the Mohawk with the aid of his savage allies, and join Burgoyne at Albany when his triumphant march should have reached that point.

On the other side no small degree of haste and consternation prevailed. Colonel Gansevoort had been placed in command at the fort with a garrison of seven hundred and fifty men. But he found it in a state of perilous dilapidation. Originally a strong square fortification, with bomb-proof bastions, glacis, covered way, and ditch outside the ramparts, it had been allowed to fall into decay, and strenuous efforts were needed to bring it into condition for defence.

Meanwhile, news of the coming danger had spread widely throughout the Mohawk Valley, and everywhere the most lively alarm prevailed. An Oneida Indian brought the news to the fort, and from there it made its way rapidly through the valley. Consternation was wide-spread. It was too late to look for aid to a distance. The people were in too great a panic to trust to themselves. That the rotten timbers of the old fort could resist assault seemed very doubtful. If they went down, and Brant with his Indians swept the valley, for what horrors might they not look? It is not surprising that, for the time, fear drove valor from almost every heart in the imperilled region.

Up Lake Oneida came the enemy, now seventeen hundred strong, St. Leger with his rangers having been joined by Johnson, Butler, and Brant with their Tories and Indians. Every tribe of the Iroquois had joined the invaders with the exception of the Oneidas, who remained faithful to the colonists.

On the 2d of August, 1777, Brent with his savage followers reached and invested the fort, the plumed and moccasined foe suddenly breaking from the forest, and with their wild war-whoops seeking to intimidate the beleaguered garrison. On the next day came St. Leger with his whole force. On the 4th the siege commenced. Bombs were planted and threw their shells into the fort; the Indians, concealed behind bushes and trees, picked off with their arrows the men who were diligently employed in strengthening the parapets; and during the evening the savages, spreading through the woods, sought, by frightful yells, to drive all courage from the hearts of the defenders.

Meanwhile, aid was approaching. The valor of the patriots, which fled at the first threat of danger, had returned. The enemy was now almost at their doors; their helpless families might soon be at the mercy of the ruthless savages; when General Herkimer, a valiant veteran, called for recruits, armed men flocked in numbers to his standard. He was quickly at the head of more than eight hundred men. He sent a messenger to the fort, telling Gansevoort of his approach, and bidding him to discharge three signal-guns to show that the tidings had reached him. His small army was called to a halt within hearing of the guns of the fort, as he deemed it the part of prudence to await the signal before advancing on the foe.

Unfortunately for the brave Herkimer, his men, lately over-timid, were now over-bold. His officers demanded to be led at once to the fort. Two of them, Cox and Paris by name, were impertinent in their demands, charging the veteran with cowardice.

"I am placed over you as a father and guardian," answered Herkimer, calmly, "and shall not lead you into difficulties, from which I may not be able to extricate you."

But their importunities and taunts continued, and at length the brave old man, angered by their insults, gave the word "March on!" He continued, "You, who want to fight so badly now, will be the first to run when you smell burnt powder."

On they marched, in tumultuous haste, and with the lack of discipline of untrained militia. It was now August 6, two days after the beginning of the siege. Indian scouts lurked everywhere in the forest, and the movements of the patriot army were closely watched. St. Leger was informed of their near approach, and at once took steps to intercept their advance.

Heedless of this, and of the cautious words of their commander, the vanguard pressed hastily on, winding along the road, and at length entering a deep curving ravine, over whose marshy bottom the road way was carried by a causeway of earth and logs. The borders of the ravine were heavily timbered, while a thick growth of underwood masked its sloping sides.

Utterly without precaution, the militia pushed forward into this doubtful passage, until the whole body, with the exception of the rear-guard, had entered it. Behind them came the baggage-wagons. All was silent, unnaturally silent, for not even the chirp of a squirrel nor the rustle of a prowling ground-animal broke the stillness. The fort was not far distant. The hurrying provincials hoped soon to join their beleaguered friends.

Suddenly, from the wooded hill to the west, around which the ravine curved in a semicircle, rose a frightful sound,—the Indian war-whoop from hundreds of savage throats. Hardly had it fallen on the startled ears of the patriots when the sharp crack of musketry followed, and leaden missiles were hurled into the crowded ranks. Arrows accompanied them, and spears and tomahawks came hurtling through the air hurled with deadly aim.

The patriot army had fallen into a dangerous ambuscade. Herkimer's prediction was fulfilled. The rear-guard, on hearing the warlike sounds in front, turned in panic flight, leaving their comrades to their fate. No one can regret to hear that they were pursued by the Indians, and suffered more than if they had stood their ground.

As for the remainder of the force, flight was impossible. They had entered a trap. It was fight or fall. Bullets, arrows, war-axes hurtled through their ranks. Frightful yells still filled the air. Many fell where they stood. Herkimer was severely wounded, his horse being killed and his own leg shattered. But, with a composure and cool courage that have rarely been emulated, he ordered the saddle to be taken from his horse and placed against a large beech-tree near by. Here seated, with his men falling and the bullets of the enemy whistling perilously near, he steadily gave his orders while many of those who had called him coward were in full flight. During the heat of the action he took his tinder box from his pocket, calmly lighted his pipe, and sat smoking as composedly as though by his own fireside. A striking spectacle, that old man, sitting in the midst of hottest battle, with the life blood oozing from his shattered leg, smoking and giving his orders with the quiet composure of one on dress-parade! It is one of the most imposing pictures in the portrait-gallery of American history.

The battle went on. If it was to be fight or fall, the brave frontiersmen decided it should be fight. Great confusion reigned at first, but courage soon returned, and though men fell in numbers, the survivors stood their ground like veterans. For nearly an hour the fierce affray continued. The enemy surrounded the provincials on all sides, and were pressing step by step closer. The whole force might have been slain or captured, but for a wise suggestion of one of their number and an admirable change in their line of battle. Each small group was formed into a circle, and thus they met the enemy at all points. This greatly increased their defensive powers. So destructive now became their fire that the British soldiers rushed upon them in rage, seeking to break their line by a bayonet charge. They were boldly met, and a hand-to-hand death-struggle began.

At this moment a heavy thunder-peal broke from the darkening skies. Down poured the rain in drenching showers. Lightning filled the air. Crash after crash of thunder rolled through the sky. Checked in their blood-thirst by the fury of the elements, the combatants hastily separated and ran for the shelter of the trees, vanquished by water where fire had failed to overcome their rage.

The affair so far had not been unlike that of Braddock's defeat, some twenty years before. But these were American militia, not British regulars, frontiersmen who knew too much of Indian fighting to stand in their ranks and be shot down. They had long since taken to the trees, and fought the savages in their own way. To this, perhaps, may be ascribed the difference in result from that of the Braddock fight.

After the rain, the patriots gained better ground and adopted new and useful tactics. Before, when the Indians noticed a shot from behind a tree, they would rush forward and tomahawk the unlucky provincial before he could reload. But now two men were placed behind each tree, so that when the whooping savage sprang forward with his tomahawk a second bullet was ready to welcome him. The fire from the American side now grew so destructive that the Indians began to give way.

A body of Johnson's Greens came up to their support. These were mostly loyalist refugees from the Mohawk Valley, to whom the patriot militia bore the bitterest enmity. Recognizing them, the maddened provincials leaped upon them with tiger-like rage, and a hand-to-hand contest began, in which knives and bayonets took the place of bullets, and the contest grew brutally ferocious.

At this moment a firing was heard in the direction of the fort. New hope sprung into the hearts of the patriots. Was aid coming to them from the garrison? It seemed so, indeed, for soon a body of men in Continental uniform came marching briskly towards them. It was a ruse on the part of the enemy which might have proved fatal. These men were Johnson Green's disguised as Continentals. A chance revealed their character. One of the patriots seeing an acquaintance among them, ran up to shake hands with him. He was seized and dragged into their ranks. Captain Gardenier, perceiving this, sprang forward, spear in hand, and released his man; but found himself in a moment engaged in a fierce combat, in which he killed two of his antagonists and wounded another, but was himself seriously hurt.

"For God's sake, captain," cried some of the militia, "you are killing our own men!"

"They are not our own men, they are Tories!" yelled back the captain. "Fire away!"

Fire they did, and with such deadly effect that numbers of the disguised Tories fell, and nearly as many Indians. In an instant the battle was violently raging again, with roar of rifles, clash of steel, yells of combatants, and the wild war-whoops of the savages.

But the Indians by this time had enough of it. The stubborn defence of the provincials had sadly thinned their ranks, and seeing the Tories falling back, they raised their cry of retreat, "Oonah! Oonah!" and at once broke and fled. The Tories and regulars, dismayed by their flight, quickly followed, the bullets of the provincials adding wings to their speed.

Thus ended one of the hottest and most deadly, for the numbers engaged, of the battles of the Revolution. Of the provincials, less than half of them ever saw their homes again. The loss of the enemy was probably still heavier. General Herkimer died ten days after the battle. The militia, despite the well-laid ambuscade into which they had marched, were the victors, but they had been so severely handled that they were unable to accomplish their design, the relief of the fort.

As for the garrison, they had not been idle during the battle. The sound of the combat had been borne to their ears, and immediately after the cessation of the rain Colonel Willett made a sally from the fort, at the head of two hundred and fifty men. The camp of the enemy had been depleted for the battle, and the sortie proved highly successful. The remnants of Johnson's regiment were soon driven from their camp. The Indian encampment beyond was demolished, its savage guards flying in terror from "the Devil," by which expressive name they called Colonel Willett. Wagons were hurried from the fort, camp equipage, British flags, papers, and the effects of the officers loaded into them, and twenty-one loads of this useful spoil triumphantly carried off. As the victorious force was returning, Colonel St. Leger appeared, with a strong body of men, across the river, just in time to be saluted by a shower of bullets, the provincials then retiring, without the loss of a man. The setting sun that day cast its last rays on five British standards, displayed from the walls of the fort, with the stars and stripes floating proudly above them. The day had ended triumphantly for the provincials, though it proved unsuccessful in its main object; for the fort was still invested, and the rescuing force were in no condition to come to its aid.

The investment, indeed, was so close that the garrison knew nothing of the result of the battle. St. Leger took advantage of this, and sent a white flag to the fort with false information, declaring that the relief-party had been annihilated, that Burgoyne had reached and captured Albany, and that, unless the fort was surrendered, he could not much longer restrain the Indians from devastating the valley settlements with fire and tomahawk.

This story Gansevoort did not half believe, and answered the messenger with words of severe reprobation for his threat of an Indian foray.

"After you get out of this fort," he concluded, "you may turn around and look at its outside, but never expect to come in again, unless as a prisoner. Before I would consent to deliver this garrison to such a murdering set as your army, by your own account, consists of, I would suffer my body to be filled with splinters and set on fire, as you know has at times been practised by such hordes of women-and children-killers as belong to your army."

After such a message there was no longer question of surrender, and the siege was strongly pushed. The enemy, finding that their guns had little effect on the sod-work of the fort, began a series of approaches by sapping and mining. Colonel Gansevoort, on his part, took an important step. Fearing that his stock of food and ammunition might give out, he determined to send a message to General Schuyler, asking for succor.

Colonel Willet volunteered for this service, Lieutenant Stockwell joining him. The night chosen was a dark and stormy one. Shower followed shower. The sentinels of the enemy were not likely to be on the alert. Leaving the fort at the sally-port at ten o'clock, the two messengers crept on hands and knees along a morass till they reached the river. This they crossed on a log, and entered a dense wood which lay beyond. No sentinel had seen them. But they lost their way in the darkness, and straggled on blindly until the barking of a dog told them that they were near an Indian camp.

Progress was now dangerous. Advance or retreat alike might throw them into the hands of the savage foe. For several hours they stood still, in a most annoying and perilous situation. The night passed; dawn was at hand; fortunately now the clouds broke the morning-star shone in the east, and with this as a guide they resumed their journey. Their expedition was still a dangerous one. The enemy might strike their trail in the morning light. To break this they now and then walked in the bed of a stream. They had set out on the night of the 10th. All day of the 11th they pushed on, with a small store of crackers and cheese as their only food. Another night and day passed. On the afternoon of the 12th, nearly worn out with hardship, they reached the settlement of the German Flats. Here horses were procured, and they rode at full speed to General Schuyler's head-quarters at Stillwater.

Schuyler had already heard of Herkimer's failure, and was laying plans for the relief of the fort. His purpose was opposed by many of his officers, who were filled with fear of the coming of Burgoyne. Schuyler was pacing the floor in anxious thought when he heard the low remark,—

"He means to weaken the army."

Schuyler turned towards the speaker, so angry that he bit into pieces a pipe he was smoking, and exclaimed,—

"Gentlemen, I shall take the responsibility; where is the brigadier that will take command of the relief? I shall beat up for volunteers to-morrow."

General Arnold, one of the boldest and most impulsive men in the army, immediately asked for the command. The next morning the drums beat, and before noon eight hundred volunteers were enrolled. Arnold at once advanced, but, feeling that his force was too weak, stopped at Fort Dayton till reinforcements could reach him.

And now occurred one of the most striking events in the history of the war, that of the defeat of an invading army by stratagem without sight of soldier or musket. It is to be told from two points of view, that of the garrison, and that of the army of relief. As regards the garrison, its situation was becoming critical. St. Leger's parallels were approaching the fort. The store of provisions was running low. Many of the garrison began to hint at surrender, fearing massacre by the Indians should the fort be taken by assault. Gansevoort, despairing of further successful resistance, had decided upon a desperate attempt to cut through the enemy's lines. Suddenly, on the 22d, there came a sudden lull in the siege. The guns ceased their fire; quick and confused movements could be seen; there were signs of flight. Away went the besiegers, Indians and whites alike, in panic disarray, and with such haste that their tents, artillery, and camp equipage were left behind. The astonished garrison sallied forth to find not a foeman in the field, yet not a sign to show what mysterious influence had caused this headlong flight. It was not from the face of an enemy, for no enemy was visible, and the mystery was too deep for the garrison to fathom.

To learn the cause of this strange event we must return to Arnold and his stratagem. He had, on learning the peril of the fort, been about to advance despite the smallness of his force, when an opportunity occurred to send terror in advance of his march. There were in his hands several Tory prisoners, among them an ignorant, coarse, half-idiotic fellow named Hon-Yost Schuyler, who had been condemned to death for treason. His mother pleaded for his life, casting herself on her knees before Arnold, and imploring for her son with tears and entreaties. She found him at first inexorable, but he changed his tone and appeared to soften as a fortunate idea came to his mind.

Her son's life should be spared, but upon conditions. These were, that he should go to Fort Schuyler and, by stories of the immense force upon the march, endeavor to alarm St. Leger. Hon-Yost readily consented, leaving his brother as a hostage in Arnold's hands.

The seemingly foolish fellow was far from being an idiot. Before leaving the camp he had several bullet-holes shot through his coat. He arranged also with a friendly Oneida Indian to follow and confirm his tale. Thus prepared, he set out for St. Leger's camp. Reaching it, he ran breathlessly among the Indians, seemingly in a state of terror. Many of the savages knew him, and he was eagerly questioned as to what had happened.

The Americans were coming, he replied; numbers of them, hosts of them; he had barely escaped with his life; he had been riddled with bullets. He pointed to his coat in evidence. How many were there? he was asked. Hon-Yost, in reply, shook his head mysteriously, and pointed to the leaves on the trees.

His seeming alarm communicated itself to the Indians. They had been severely dealt with at Oriskany. The present siege dragged on. They were dissatisfied. While the chiefs debated and talked of flight, the Oneida appeared with several others of his tribe whom he had picked up on the way. These told the same story. A bird had brought them the news. The valley was swarming with soldiers. The army of Burgoyne had been cut to pieces, said one. Arnold had three thousand men, said another. Others pointed to the leaves, as Hon-Yost had done, and meaningly shook their heads.

The panic spread among the Indians. St. Leger stormed at them; Johnson pleaded with them; but all in vain. Drink was offered them, but they refused it. "The pow-wow said we must go," was their answer to every remonstrance, and go they did.

"You said there would be no fighting for us Indians," said a chief. "We might go down and smoke our pipes. But many of our warriors have been killed, and you mean to sacrifice us all."

Oaths and persuasions proved alike useless. The council broke up and the Indians took to flight. Their panic communicated itself to the whites. Dropping everything but their muskets, they fled in terror for their boats on Oneida Lake, with such haste that many of them threw away arms and knapsacks in their mad flight.

The Indians, who had started the panic, grew merry on seeing the wild terror of their late allies. They ran behind them, shouting, "They are coming, they are coming!" and thus added wings to their flight. They robbed, stripped, and even killed many of them, plundered them of their boats, and proved a more formidable foe than the enemy from whom they fled.

Half-starved and empty-handed, the whites hurried to Oswego and took boat on the lake for Montreal, while their Indian allies, who had proved of more harm than good, went merrily home to their villages, looking upon the flight as a stupendous joke.

When Arnold, hearing of what had happened, hurried to the fort, the enemy had utterly vanished, except a few whom Gansevoort's men had brought in as prisoners. Hon-Yost soon came back, having taken the first opportunity to slip away from the flying horde. He had amply won his pardon.

Thus ended the siege of Fort Schuyler; in its way, considering the numbers engaged, the most desperate and bloody struggle of the Revolution, and of the greatest utility as an aid to the subsequent defeat of Burgoyne. As regards its singular termination, it is without parallel in the history of American wars. Hon-Yost had proved himself the most surprising idiot on record.

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