How A Madman Helped Save The Colonies

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August 22, 1777. The militia had marched and been defeated. Behind the stockades of the New York frontier, many widows wept, not for their dead husbands only but for their still living children. The invader, Lieutenant Colonel Barry St. Leger of His Majesty’s Thirty-fourth Foot, did not lead a civilized army; his troops were largely cruel Iroquois. In star-shaped Fort Stanwix on the banks of the Mohawk a few militiamen remained in arms, but a tunnel dug under the direction of British engineers approached the mud walls to the sound of scalping knives being sharpened. Casting around for a source hope, the settlers found no comfort in the fact that Hon Yost Schuyler, a hall-insane Tory in leathers, was raving by the hostile council fires.

Three weeks before, the fort’s 750 defenders had watched 800 Tories and British regulars and roughly a thousand Indians surround the wilderness clearing in which Stanwix stood. That night great shadows of primeval trees, thrown by a hundred campfires, flickered and interwove. If, as a patriot looked over the walls, his head was silhouetted against one of the encircling fires, muskets cracked.

At the present site of Rome, New York, but then far beyond the confines of ordinary settlement, Stanwix guarded a wilderness entry to the embattled colonies. Northward ran Wood Creek, the narrow watercourse through almost unbroken forest down which St. Leger had traveled from Canada; eastward the Mohawk stretched 110 miles to Albany and the populous Hudson Valley.

For a century and a half, settlement on the Mohawk had been impeded by the Iroquois nations that were now besieging Stanwix. The few villages huddled around stockades into which the inhabitants could flee with their cattle when war whoops sounded. Yet mansions stood by themselves surrounded with ornamental grounds, for the great families of the region had little to fear from the Indians. They had achieved their eminence through control of the Indians, whom they had now persuaded to join the Tory cause. St. Leger’s Iroquois irregulars were commanded by members of the Johnson and Butler dynasties, one of them, Sir John Johnson, both a Mohawk chief and a British baronet.

 
 

These were cultured gentlemen, often educated in Europe. Associated with them in the Indian command was Hon Yost Schuyler, one of the coarsest and most disreputable inhabitants of the valley. Good patriot blood flowed in his veins—his father was a cousin of General Philip Schuyler, his mother a sister of General Herkimer—but Hon Yost’s parents, in the manner of frontier black sheep, had found their most congenial society among the Indians. As poor according to European standards as the tribesmen among whom they lived, these renegade Schuylers would have fallen into complete insignificance had they not had the good fortune to produce in Hon Yost a son who was considered mad. Rising to strange exaltations, raving in unknown tongues, he appeared to the Indians to be in special contact with the supernatural powers, a prophet who spoke for the Great Spirit.

Hon Yost had adopted the manner and dress of his admirers. Adherents of the patriot cause despised him for this and for everything, but the Tory aristocrats employed the awe he inspired to increase their influence over the tribes; his lunacy was tempered by the ability to make his inner voices serve the interests of his friends. Prophesying to order, the madman was one of George III’s more useful American supporters. He was to become, against his will, even more useful to the United States.

The invasion in which he was engaged was an added menace in a situation which had already cast gloom over the thirteen revolting colonies. The British seemed about to cut the nation in half at the Hudson River. St. Leger was scheduled to join up with a much larger British force that General Burgoyne had already led from Canada via Lake Champlain. The northern American army, commanded by General Philip Schuyler, was falling back before Burgoyne; it had not even attempted to defend Fort Ticonderoga, on which all defense plans had been based. Nor could Washington come to the rescue with the Continental Army, for he had to watch a third British force, under General Howe, that was based on New York City and might march up the Hudson to join the other two.

If St. Leger overwhelmed Stanwix, as seemed probable since his army so outnumbered the defenders, he could sweep on to Albany, cutting General Schuyler’s supply lines and leaving him in the wilderness north of that city at the mercy of Burgoyne. Schuyler having been defeated, St. Leger and Burgoyne could march down the Hudson towards Howe, giving Washington the choice of abandoning the strategically invaluable river or being himself caught in a pincers.

Even before St. Leger had appeared from the forest, Washington had been in despair at Burgoyne’s seemingly irresistible advance. The best he could suggest was that Schuyler’s command be reinforced by one general: Benedict Arnold. The treason that was to change Arnold’s fame to infamy lay in the unforeseeable future; he was the most brilliant combat officer either side boasted, and miracles could be expected of him, as he had done miracles before.