How A Madman Helped Save The Colonies

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As they prepared desperately to stop Burgoyne’s force which was much more powerful than their own, Schuyler and Arnold relied on the militia of the Mohawk Valley to handle St. Leger; but on August 6 the militia, under General Herkimer, was defeated by the Iroquois at the bloody ambush of Oriskany. Arnold volunteered to set out with a few regulars—no more could be spared—and try to enlist from the shattered militia of the valley the thousand additional men that would enable him to drive St. Leger back into the Canadian forests. “You will hear of my being victorious or no more.”

Cut off from the outside world, the garrison of Fort Stanwix did not hear that Arnold was endeavoring to save them, but St. Leger took care to notify them that Herkimer’s force had been stopped. Then three British officers appeared at the walls under a white flag, demanding a parley. They were blindfolded before they were led through the defenses, and only allowed to see again in a room where the blinds were drawn. Candles relieved the unnatural gloaming; a table was set with bottles of wine. For some minutes, the ritual of a social call was adhered to, and then Major Ancrum delivered his sinister message. The Indians were “very numerous and exasperated”; if the fort surrendered at once, the British could control them, but should resistance continue it would be impossible “to prevent them from executing their threats to march down the country and destroy the settlement with its inhabitants. In this case, not only men but women and children will experience the sad effects of their vengeance.”

“This garrison,” the patriot commandant replied, “is committed to our charge.… After you get out of it, you may turn round and look at its outside, but never expect to come in again, unless you come as a prisoner.”

The Tory officers who led the Indians thereupon signed a proclamation to the inhabitants of the valley: if the defenders of Stanwix adhered to their “mulish obstinacy,” the Iroquois would “put every soul to death—not only the garrison, hut the whole country—without any regard to age, sex, or friends; for which reason, it has become your indispensable duty to send a deputation of your principal people to oblige them immediately to what, in a very little time, they must be forced—the surrender of the garrison—in which case, we engage, on the faith of Christians, to protect you from the violence of the Indians.”

The resulting terror was so great that Arnold, whose name usually worked like magic on militia levies, was able to add only some hundred frontiersmen to the few regulars he led. The fighter who would take any risk that promised a faint chance of success, who had tried to capture the great fortress city of Quebec with a handful of men in a blinding blizzard, could not disagree when his officers voted to halt at German Flats (Herkimer, N.Y.) and await reinforcements from some direction which hope said must exist, even if it was not visible.

The crucial reinforcement arrived unheralded and unrecognized, raving and in irons.

The Tory officers had become so bold that they held a recruiting rally behind the American lines. The principal speaker was Ensign Walter Butler; he was captured with the madman, Hon Yost Schuyler. Arnold appointed a court-martial which sentenced them both to death as spies. After the verdict, a wave of sympathy swept Arnold’s local officers for Butler—they had been to school together—and Arnold was persuaded to send him to Albany for imprisonment.

But Hon Yost had no friends in Arnold’s army to save him from the gallows. He was allowed to twitch and writhe unpitied, until bursts of female wailing advanced through the countryside, and a gypsy-like woman threw herself at Arnold’s feet in an excess of grief and entreaty. Copious tears made pale valleys down her unwashed cheeks. Behind Hon Yost’s mother stood a stolid young man who looked like an Indian: Hon Yost’s brother, Nicholas.

As the madman seconded his mother’s pleas, Arnold noticed that a vein of shrewdness seemed to direct his ravings. Arnold, his light eyes burning with menace from his dark face, asked Hon Yost if he could use his special powers to make St. Leger’s Indians flee. Instantly the shouting ceased and the meeting got down to efficient business. Hon Yost expressed complete confidence in his ability to save Fort Stanwix; Nicholas agreed to remain as a hostage until the result was known. Having borrowed a musket, Hon Yost shot several holes through his clothes to give color to a story of a perilous escape from Arnold’s camp. He threw down the musket and disappeared with the tireless lope of an Indian.

To help things along, Arnold wrote a letter addressed to Stanwix’s commandant, hut designed to fall into British hands. The militia, he lied, had flocked to him to make his force irresistible. “Howe with the shattered remnant of his army are on board ship … in the Gull Stream becalmed, Burgoyne, 1 hear, this minute is retreating to Ty [Ticonderoga]. I have no doubt our army, which is near 15,000, will cut off his retreat.”