August 3, 1777 fell on a Sunday, just as it did yesterday. But that sultry Lord’s Day was far from peaceful in the Mohawk Valley of western New York. Instead, a motley regiment of some 700 Redcoats and Hessians marched with 1000 Oneida Indians on a fort the British Empire had formerly controlled. Inside squatted 750 rebels against that empire, desperately determined to prevail. And no wonder: that morning, they’d received a graphic preview of their fate if conquered when scouts stumbled across one of the fort’s suppliers. The man had been “wounded through the brain, stabbed in the right breast and scalped. He was alive when found and brought to the garrison, but died shortly after.”
And so the siege of Fort Stanwix commenced; these next three weeks mark its 237th anniversary. Here was no struggle over taxation without representation or of class against class, the motives historians often impute to Revolutionary Patriots. Rather, Stanwix’s defenders were fighting for their lives, families, homes—in a word, for freedom. Before it ended, a half-wit would outsmart the British commander, 200 militiamen marching to the fort’s relief would die, and the State would once again reveal itself as the enemy of all mankind.
From the beginning, the government of Great Britain seemed sure to win the Revolutionary War. It’s stunning that any Americans, let alone many, resisted the world’s mightiest army and navy: both forces intimidated civilians then as much as those of the USSA do now. And by the summer of 1777, as the Redcoats prepared to invade New England and New York from Canada, the government had ratcheted up the terror its troops inspired with two additions: Hessians and Indians.
George III’s administration had rented conscripts at so much per head from the princes of several German regions (so many came from Hesse that the Patriots called all such allies “Hessians”); George even paid a bonus for casualties, making Hessians worth more to their governments dead than alive. These wretched farmers and shopkeepers, whom their rulers snatched off the streets and shoved onto transports, tended to be physically large and imposing. The elaborate mustaches they sported in an age when civilized men shunned facial hair increased their reputation for ferocity.
As Jefferson noted in the Declaration, the Crown had also “[brought] on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” Eighteenth-century Americans regarded native peoples with the contempt and hatred that we do terrorists or cops, and for the same reason: that “undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” That these “Savages” were marching alongside His Majesty’s forces shocked New York and New England as much as it would shock us should the Feds hire perverts to grope us at airports. Oh, wait: they have, nor does such atrocity discomfit the sheeple. Anyway…
British bureaucrats studying maps of America had long fantasized that militarily isolating New England from the other colonies would squash the rebellion—and in the summer of 1777, London’s forces set out to do exactly that. One of the American officers charged with thwarting them, General Benedict Arnold, explains their strategy in my novel, Abducting Arnold: the government would “have an army under [British General Johnny] Burgoyne start down from Canada towards Albany, … secure Lake Champlain and Hudson’s River as they went. Another army’d sail down the St. Lawrence [River] to the backcountry in New York and then march east, towards Albany, subduing us—I mean, the rebels in the Mohawk Valley along the way. Then a third army under [British General William] Howe’s gonna sally up from … [New York] City here, crush the rebellion along Hudson’s River and meet the other two at Albany. Three arrows, you see, all aiming at the same heart.” Which, when Burgoyne could not break through the rebels’ lines, turned out to be a few miles short of Albany at Saratoga. There the Revolution’s most decisive battle would rage that October, the one that ensured the Patriots would eventually free themselves from imperial tyranny. In the meantime, Stanwix must not, could not fall to the government: if it did, the troops opposing Burgoyne would battle a second army on their flank—and that spelled certain victory for the government.
When that eastern arrow, flying along the Mohawk Valley, hit Stanwix, His Majesty’s troops demanded its surrender. The fort’s 750 defenders under Colonel Peter Gansevoort must have quailed at the 1700 warriors besieging them. Yet Gansevoort replied with the indomitable integrity so popular in the eighteenth century and so scarce today: “Sir:—In answer to your letter of today’s date, I have only to say, that it is my determined resolution, with the forces under my command to defend this fort, at every hazard, to the last extremity, in behalf of the United American States, who have placed me here to defend it against all their enemies. I have the honor to be, Sir, Your most obedient and humble servant, Peter Gansevoort, Col., Commanding Fort Stanwix.”
Meanwhile, 800 American militia were marching to save Stanwix. Leading them was another hero as staunch as Gansevoort. General Nicholas Herkimer’s hatred of tyranny ran in his blood: his grandfather had been a German Protestant who fled to England in the 1720s when Catholic France invaded Germany’s Palatinate. Nor was he alone: so many of these refugees sought sanctuary that the British government shipped them to the New World, specifically to the pine forests of New York. There, in the fascism our century dignifies as a “public-private partnership,” they produced turpentine, tar, masts and other maritime necessities for Britain’s navy. Their employer paid them subsistence wages.
Not surprisingly, the bureaucrats in charge hadn’t done their homework: it was pines in the American South that best suited naval requirements. London shuttered its “enterprise,” abandoning the families it had posted to the northern wilderness. Which was the happiest of outcomes as it left the Palatine Protestants free to cultivate the land—and prosper.
Now one of their grandchildren, General Nicholas Herkimer, led his neighbors in rebellion against the empire that had indentured his family. He sent messengers to the fort; they slipped through a swamp the Redcoats had dismissed as impenetrable to tell Gansevoort that help was on the way. Herkimer directed Gansevoort to attack the enemy from the fort while he struck their rear and to fire a cannon when ready.
But as Herkimer awaited that signal, his officers grew restive, as militia so often did: men who’d left crops and cattle craved immediate action so they could hasten home. When several officers hinted that Herkimer’s hesitation came from cowardice, the general, whose biographers invariably describe him as “calm,” lost his serenity for once and angrily embarked. British scouts immediately reported this development; His Majesty’s commander detached troops to ambush Herkimer’s column. They killed perhaps 200 Patriots and captured many more. Herkimer himself took a ball in the leg as the skirmish began. He called for his saddle to be situated under a tree and from this makeshift headquarters calmly issued orders while puffing at his pipe. Afterwards, a surgeon amputated his wounded leg, the usual treatment then. The patient survived for only a few days. He died calmly reading Psalm 38 (“…My wounds stink and are corrupt because of my foolishness…”).
When General Benedict Arnold learned of Stanwix’s danger and Herkimer’s failure, he instantly grasped the implications of losing the fort. Arnold was not only the most astute and enterprising strategist of the war, he was also the Patriots’ most renowned military hero. A colleague says of him in Abducting Arnold that he’s as “brave a man as ever lived, a fine spirited fellow and active general, not like them others that talk so big and tell you all the congressmen they know, but you needa light a bonfire under ’em afore they’ll shuffle onto a battlefield. He’s so strong and confident and—and, I don’t know, seems like he can work miracles. You feel better just being near him. Feel like you could do miracles, too.” Despite the fear of scalping that nigh paralyzed New York’s frontier that summer, the miracle-worker soon recruited nearly 1000 men to march on the beleaguered fort with him.
One of Stanwix’s officers reports that “the news of the approach of General Arnold, to relieve the fort, having reached the enemy, the Indians being already extremely disaffected, in conseqence [sic] of the ill success of the siege, and … the mulish obstinacy … of the garrison, could not readily be overcome, on the 22nd of August the siege was suddenly abandoned, after it had been carried on twenty days.”
That “sudden abandonment” owed much to one of Arnold’s typically clever ploys. He’d learned that Hon‑Yost Schuyler, “proprietor of a handsome estate in the vicinity” but loyal to the British Empire nonetheless, had been “taken up as a spy.” Hon‑Yost was so eccentric, perhaps even deranged, that the Indians revered him as a prophet. Arnold decreed that the prisoner “should be liberated and his estate secured to him on the condition that he would return to the enemy and make such exaggerated report of General Arnold’s force as to alarm and put [the Indians] to flight. Several friendly Indians being present, one of their head men advised that … [Schuyler’s] coat should be shot through in two or three places to add credibility to his story.”
Travelling ahead of Arnold and his forces, “…the impostor proceeded directly to the Indian camp, where he was well known, and informed…that he himself [had] narrowly escaped, several shots having passed through his coat, and that General Arnold with a vast force was advancing rapidly towards them…”
Arnold’s subterfuge succeeded beautifully on natives coveting plunder, with no interest in a siege. Sitting outside a fort day after day, watching the Yankees inside eat up and wear out supplies the government’s officers had promised they could haul home, was not their idea of war. Hon-Yost’s story finished them. They vanished into the forest, spooking the Redcoats until they deserted too, lifting the siege.
Thanks to Gansevoort’s implacable courage and Benedict Arnold’s brilliance, the Patriots held Stanwix and, eventually, Saratoga. As we defend liberty, may God grant us the same dedication, wit, and boldness.
Read more about the campaign for Saratoga, Benedict Arnold, and the American Revolution in Becky Akers’ historical thriller, Abducting Arnold.