- Historic Sites
How A Madman Helped Save The Colonies
Fort Stanwix was doomed—until the Iroquois heard the ravings of Hon Yost Schuyler
February 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 2
At Stanwix, the situation had become desperate. Zigzagging forward, always at an angle that frustrated colonial marksmen, a British trench had advanced to within 150 yards of the northwest bastion. There the trench stopped, but continuing activity indicated that the enemy was digging a tunnel to place mines beneath the wall. When night fell, Ely Pixley and Ely Stiles dropped silently from the patriot ramparts, crawled past Indian sentries, and hurried eastward to report that help must come at once or it would be too late. Somewhere in the blind forest they passed Hon Yost, now accompanied by some Oneidas sympathetic to the patriot cause. Neither party saw the other.
When Pixley and Stiles beat on Arnold’s door, his force was still hardly more than hall of St. Leger’s. However, he “determined to hazard a battle rather than suffer the garrison to fall a sacrifice.” Before his little army lay thirty miles of wagon track and corduroy bridges so hemmed in with virgin forest, so thick with underbrush, so dark even at noonday, that the most painstaking care might not save these alert soldiers from ambush.
On the morning of August 22, St. Leger, surrounded with officers, chiefs and’ interpreters, was happily surveying the approach to Stanwix for the best spot from which to ambush Arnold; it was an embarrassment of riches. He received scornfully Indian runners who came from his camp with rumors that kept increasing the size of Arnold’s command. Only when a terrified Iroquois reported that “Burgoyne’s army was cut in pieces and Arnold was advancing with 3,000 men” did St. Leger, as he remembered, begin “to suspect cowardice in some and treason in others.” He hurried back to his encampment.
During St. Leger’s absence, Hon Yost had burst into an Indian council, raving so loudly that it was clear he brought an all-important message from the Great Spirit. At first, no sense could be made of his babbling; then he pointed to the holes in his clothes and gave an account of his own escape. Only when anticipation was at fever heat did he begin to report on Arnold’s army. Its might augmented as prophecy fell increasingly upon him, until he asked his hearers to count the leaves on the trees. Arnold’s force was even more numerous; the tribes were doomed if this army once descended on them.
At a prearranged cue—Hon Yost had staged his production with care—an Oneida appeared matter-of-factly with a belt of wampum, which he said was from Arnold. He announced that the great Christian war chief had no quarrel with the Indians; if they would desert the British, they would not be harmed. Then the woods seemed to open. One after another, Oneidas rushed in, each with a more grievous tale. The last told of a talking bird which had croaked from a dead tree that the Indians had better flee before it was too late.
St. Leger had Hon Yost brought before him, but could not terrify the madman out of his ravings. A hastily called council of chiefs broke up at the news that 200 Indians had already deserted. Then an Iroquois deputation demanded immediate retreat; Arnold’s army, as numerous as the stars, was within two miles. (Arnold was still at German Flats, preparing to march.)
Now certain that treason was afoot, the British commander refused to withdraw. At this, the Indians rioted, rifled the officers’ baggage, seized the royal supply of rum, and became, so St. Leger remembered, “more dreadful than the enemy.” There was no time to dismount cannon, pitch tents, or even awaken a sleeping bombardier. The invaders lurched for the forest.
Whooping horribly, the Iroquois encircled their fleeing allies; they killed and scalped stragglers. Nor were regulars who kept a semblance of formation saved from aboriginal tricks. An Indian would rush up to a platoon and shout that Arnold was just behind the nearest clump of trees. Taking off like sprinters, the soldiers jettisoned their packs, which the Indians plundered at their leisure. The British officers became frantic with humiliation and rage. They bandied recriminations, and would have skewered each other on their swords had they not been separated by the efforts of the Indian chiefs.
Hon Yost savored the excitement and encouraged the confusion—he was not above a little plundering himself—but he did not forget that his brother was a hostage. Eventually he abandoned the rout and vanished into the wilderness.
The madman had already vanquished the British when Arnold’s troops set out grimly on the march they believed would throw them against terrible odds. After they had gone ten miles, a messenger appeared from Stanwix. He told how the defenders had become conscious of a strange hush in the British camp. When a cannonading induced no reply, a detail cautiously explored the deserted tents where dishes were still in place, the silent battlements where ammunition lay ready. They happened at last on the sleeping bombardier, but he was as puzzled as they. Evening had fallen before Hon Yost danced across the clearing to say that Arnold was on the march.
Even then the defenders of Fort Stanwix, who had been nerving themselves for a last-ditch fight, did not realize the incredible truth that victory had come—through the ravings of a madman.