After a late-summer of preparations, too late in the fall of 1775, the Colonial Army mounted a two-pronged invasion of Canada. General Schuyler invaded Montreal from Fort Ticonderoga and General Benedict Arnold attacked Quebec.
Schuyler fell ill and was replaced by General Richard Montgomery. Montgomery took Montreal and then marched to assist Arnold at Quebec.
Arnold undertook a dramatic march through 350 miles of Maine wilderness and arrived at Quebec with only 675 exhausted survivors of the 1,100 who started the effort. Montgomery arrived with only 300 troops from his original force. With only 500 effective troops, they attacked Quebec on December 31 in the middle of a winter storm.
Montgomery was killed and Arnold wounded. The repulsed Americans maintained a blockade until spring and then retreated.
In January 1776, Philip Schuyler was advised that Sir John Johnson had barricaded his house and that 700 of his retainers, mostly Scottish Highlanders, were armed. Schuyler also heard that Johnson was trying to unite the seven nations of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) to attack the rebelling colonists. Unable to take defenders from Fort Ticonderoga, Schuyler asked for volunteers in Albany and marched to the Mohawk Valley at the head of 3,000 men, including members of Johnson’s own Tryon County Militia.
Schuyler met Johnson enroute and forced him and his followers to disarm. He took Johnson at his pledge not to take up arms against the rebelling colonists and to not tamper with Haudenosaunee relations. Forty loyalists were taken prisoner and imprisoned at Albany.
In February, Joseph Kingsley was brought before the Albany Committee of Safety and charged with being “in opposition to American Liberty in violation with the resolves of the Continental Congress.” The Committee ordered that Kingsley be disarmed and jailed unless he posted a bond for 50 pounds guaranteeing his future good behavior. John Dusenberge and James Lester were subsequently ordered to do the same.
In March, the Albany Committee posted a handbill notifying merchants that they were not to raise prices on goods in conformance with the resolves of the Continental Congress. They also passed a resolution that no one be allowed to move into Albany County unless they bring with them a letter from the county where they previously resided saying that they had behaved in a manner friendly to the patriot cause. Isaac Man was arrested and charged with speaking disrespectfully of the Continental Congress.
Throughout April, the Committee dealt with officers and enlisted men resigning from service. It had been a year since the attacks on Concord and Lexington, weather was improving and men were growing tired of the army and anxious to return home. Planting season had returned and their families might be without food if they didn’t return to their crops for planting season. The immediate urgency felt after the battles of Lexington and Concord was wearing off and the men were tired of poor food, unsanitary conditions, lack of proper clothing and army life in general. Many wanted to go home. An attack on Ticonderoga was not seen as imminent.
On April 7, 1776, Philip Schuyler and his daughters met Benjamin Franklin at the Albany docks. Franklin was on his way to review Continental defenses at Ticonderoga and to meet with American supporters in Canada to see if Canada would join with the colonies in opposition to Great Britain. Schuyler accompanied Franklin to Lake George and arranged for others to escort him to Canada.
In May, Schuyler heard that Sir John Johnson had violated his pledge not to assist the British, so he sent forces to arrest him. Johnson fled to Canada, where he raised a force of 1,000 men from among his retainers and Native American allies and was appointed a colonel in the British Army. He continued to try to incite the Haudenosaunee residing in Western New York to oppose the colonial insurrection.
On May 14th General Schuyler sent a letter requesting that the Albany Committee form a “Secret Committee,” which was done, with Walter Livingston as chairman. The Secret Committee was to barricade the Hudson River to prevent the British from sailing up to Albany. Secret Committee member Robert Yates hired workers and helped supervise the construction of “the Chain across the Hudson” at West Point.
Abraham C. Cuyler, the mayor of Albany appointed by the British authorities, and a former member of the Albany Safety Committee, refused to sign the Association’s pledge to ongoing revolution, was found to be “Unfriendly to the Cause of Freedom,” and was disarmed. He subsequently disappeared. His wife applied to the Committee for protection and the Committee resolved that if there were any future grounds of suspicion that Mayor Cuyler was hiding in his house, two members of the Committee would be sent to search for him.
On the evening of June 5th, Mayor Cuyler, together with his brother Henry and about a dozen other Loyalists, held their annual dinner celebrating the birthday of the King of England at Cartwright’s Tavern. When they were overheard offering toasts to the King and “damnation to the enemies of the King,” Colonel Lansing was ordered to arrest them and they were apprehended. They were told to sign the Association’s pledge and when they refused they were ordered jailed. The Committee then seized the records of the city and, from this date on, the Committee would completely control the government of Albany.
In June, the seven loyalists being held in the jail, including former Mayor Cuyler, were exiled to Hartford, Connecticut and told to pay their own expenses for relocating. General Schuyler was furnished with more troops from Albany and Schenectady to go to German Flatts to deal with the Johnson and his Native American allies.
In early July of 1776 the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. Albany’s representative, Philip Livingston signed the document and forwarded copies to the New York Provincial Congress. On July 3rd, the British under Lord Howe landed unopposed on Staten Island.
On July 17th , 1776, the Albany Committee received a copy of the Declaration of Independence from Abraham Yates, Jr., Robert Yates and Matthew Adgate, Albany’s representatives to the Provincial Congress, then meeting at White Plains. In the communication, they referred to themselves as members of the Convention of the State of New York. (For the first time the Provincial Congress referred to itself as “the Convention of the State of New York” and the first time that New York was referred to as a “State.”)
The Declaration of Independence was ordered read from the steps of the Albany City Hall at Hudson Avenue and Broadway on July 19, 1776 at 11 a.m. where it was read by 24-year-old Matthew Vischer. In August, the Albany Committee authorized sloops to bring logs down to Poughkeepsie and the highlands. There they were used to construct the “Chain Across the Hudson,” a large chain supported by a series of rafts.
Following the taking of Staten Island in July, 1776, the British under General Sir William Howe engaged with the Continental Army under Washington in a series of battles for control over New York Harbor, the lower Hudson River, and New Jersey during which the British drove the colonials out of New York through that fall. Washington retreated with his forces across New Jersey, pursued by General Charles Cornwallis. The British would hold the city of New York, and it’s harbor, for the remainder of the war.
Meanwhile, the Revolutionary officials in Albany were busy with the region’s Loyalists. In October, 1776 the Committee received a letter from Hartford that two of the seven British sympathizers exiled there, including former Albany Mayor Abraham Cuyler and Benjamin Hilton, had escaped In November, Cuyler was apprehended and sent to the Convention of the State of New York to let them decide what to do with him. Jeremiah Van Rensselaer and Leonard Gansevoort were assigned to accompany him. The Committee also tried to obtain both lumber and glass for use at Ticonderoga and surrounding forts and also authorized the purchase of sloops for the Continental Army.
Also in November of 1776, a resolution was introduced stating that “the Wives of the Persons who have deserted their Country and fled to the Enemy are embezzling the Effects.” British sympathizers were refusing to sign Albany’s Oath of Allegiance (the Association) and disappearing, some to Canada. They were leaving their wives and children behind to quietly pack up their belongings and take them out. A previous resolution of the Albany Committee ordered that all Loyalists should have their possessions seized, but this resolution assumed that the entire family had departed. After two days of study, a resolution was introduced to order the effects of any family where the husband had refused to sign the Oath of Allegiance and disappeared, be seized and the family evicted. Leonard Gansevoort dissented.
General Horatio Gates “laid before the Committee a letter from the President of the Convention of the State to General Schuyler desiring him [Schuyler] to take over the management of obstructing Hudson’s River.” Gates was apparently trying to maneuver Schuyler out of his command at Ticonderoga and wanted the Committee to send this letter to Schuyler. The Committee sent it back to Gates and instructed him to send it to Schuyler himself.
There were continuing problems with members of the militia being discharged, dismissed, on leave without permission, and deserting. Whole companies were disbanding as their terms expired. The Albany Committee passed a new resolution ordering all who left service to repay any salaries paid to them while they served.
The winter of 1776-1777 saw General Horatio Gates, General Benedict Arnold, Colonel Morgan Lewis, and Colonel John Brown winter in Albany to plan the upcoming campaign with General Philip Schuyler. General George Washington visited Schuyler at Albany (resulting in a street in Albany being named Washington Street because Schuyler and Washington had walked along it on their way to dinner).
In December 1776, the Committee met and passed a resolution saying, “That whatever Person shall hereafter refuse to receive in payment, the Continental Currency and the Currency of this State, shall upon Conviction thereof be apprehended and put in Close Confinement.”
Future Supreme Court Justice John Jay was present at this meeting and reported later that the Committee also accused Peter Van Schaick and his brother Henry, as well as two others, as suspected of being loyal to the King and were ordered to report to the Committee and sign the Oath of Allegiance or be exiled to Boston.
Also, Stephen du Colon had previously been suspected of being a person “disaffected to the American Cause.” He was ordered to sign the Oath of Allegiance and post a 100-pound bond. He had not been seen for some time and his wife and relatives had been removing their personal effects. The Committee ordered the effects seized and du Colon given six weeks to post 100 pounds in cash. If he did not, the effects were ordered sold at public auction.
January brought the first charges of counterfeiting, as Jacob Wakely was apprehended for changing a 40 shilling bill to a 40 dollar bill. The Committee paid the expenses of military actions referred to as “Alarms to the Westward” and “Alarm to the North,” including bills for vegetables, pay and guards for prisoners.
In the “Alarm to the North,” General Abraham Ten Broeck, Major Coenraedt Ten Eyck, Major Volkert Veeder and Lt. Colonel Henry Quackenbush reported that their men had marched to Fort Edward but were surprised to find that they were the only units that responded. Attrition in the Colonial forces was high and the cost of maintaining troops for almost two years was a large financial burden. The Committee was being forced to cut back in troops to save on salaries.
Abraham Yates advised the Committee that, “William Livingston of Livingston Manor had been arrested as a dangerous Enemy to the Liberties of America.” The Committee found that Lord Howe’s Oath of Allegiance (to Britain) had been propagated throughout the city. They ordered a search of the Albany printer’s office (the office of the publishers of Albany’s only newspaper, the Gazette, founded in 1771) to see if the document had been printed there. The printers denied that they had printed the oath but refused to deny it under oath. Thereupon their presses and equipment were seized and the publishers driven from the city. William Livingston signed the Albany oath and returned home.
The military threat suddenly became very real as travelers brought news that British General John Burgoyne was building an invasion force and Albany was to be his target. Alarm swept all of Albany.
In January 1777, with the knowledge that an attack from Canada was imminent, the Committee drafted and had each member sign an oath of secrecy in which each member pledged to keep the names of all members and any comments or actions made in the Committee secret.
At about this time, Washington defeated the British at Trenton and Princeton, but the British proceeded with their planned attack on Albany. Burgoyne was to attack down Lake Champlain with 10,000 troops, British General Barry St. Ledger was to cross Lake Ontario and attack Oswego and then proceed against Albany from the west; General Howe was to proceed up the Hudson from the occupied city of New York and attack Albany from the south. Howe, however, instead proceeded against the colonial stronghold at Philadelphia.
In February, the Continental Congress, always at odds over the appointment of General Philip Schuyler as Commander of the Northern Department, heard arguments from supporters of General Horatio Gates that Schuyler was an ineffective leader. They tried to blame him for the dwindling army. His detractors blamed his lack of troops on defections and said that his troops and other New England contingents left because they did not trust his leadership.
Since Albany had been part of a Dutch colony taken over by the English, there had never been a lot of love between the former New Netherland and the New England colonies. John Adams of Boston voiced his dislike of the Dutch, “with all the opulence and splendor of this city [New York], there is little good breeding to be found … At their entertainment, there is no conversation that is agreeable. There is no modesty, no attention to one another. They talk very loud, very fast, and all together.”
Although Schuyler’s family had been in Albany for over 100 years, he was seen as a “Dutchman” while the other northeastern colonies were English. Boston’s Samuel Adams, always a Schuyler detractor, wrote to his cousin John Adams, “General Gates is here. How shall we make him head of that army?”
The New England states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island wanted a leader of English descent. They were slow to send troops to Schuyler.
Schuyler was upset because the Continental Congress had overridden his appointment of Doctor Samuel Stringer as chief medical officer for the Northern Department and appointed Dr. Jonathan Potts. They had also replaced Schuyler’s nephew Walter Livingston as deputy commissary with Joseph Trumball, both of whom were English and friends of Gates. Both Stringer and Walter Livingston were members of Albany’s Committee of Safety.
The English colonies of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey and Pennsylvania supported Gates. Samuel Adams led the effort to remove Schuyler. Adams was also not a big supporter of Washington, a Virginian, and he and his supporters in Congress frequently meddled in Washington’s decisions. Virginia, North Carolina, Delaware and New York supported Schuyler, as did General Washington. New Hampshire and Georgia were divided. As long as Schuyler was in command, he could not depend on much outside help from the surrounding New England states.
Gates saw a political opportunity and supported the creation of the state of Vermont, carving the New Hampshire Grants from New York to win over the representatives from New Hampshire. Vermont had declared itself independent of both Congress and the British in January 1777. (Although initially supporting the Revolution, they eventually adopted a neutral position which created a haven for deserters from both armies and set the stage for the Haldimand Affair in the 1780s, when some Green Mountain Boys, including Ethan Allen, negotiated secretly with the British to restore Crown rule.)
The Continental Congress appointed Gates in charge of troops at Ticonderoga. Hearing of this Schuyler demanded a hearing before Congress. At the hearing, Schuyler explained his situation. He told of the difficulty moving men and supplies to Ticonderoga from Albany. He said that he could not get support from British occupied city of New York. He argued that he was not receiving adequate support from the New England colonies and reminded the Continental Congress that most of the cost of raising and supplying his army had come at his own personal expense, for which he had not been compensated. The Continental Congress rescinded their appointment of Gates and reinstated Schuyler as Commander of the Northern Department.
Schuyler returned to Albany and appointed General Arthur St. Clair to command Fort Ticonderoga. Gates and his supporters had roundly criticized Schuyler for spending so much of his time in Albany, but Gates had also set up his headquarters in Albany preferring not to deal with the black flies and mosquitoes north of Albany in the spring.
In March, 1777, the Albany Safety Committee, preparing for the rumored British attack, addressed the problem of fire in the city resolving, “That the ordering and arranging of every Man who shall appear where a fire may happen (except such Persons as may belong to the Fire Company and Fire Engines) shall be left to the sole direction of the Committee … to place … at such convenient places to Convey Water.”
The Committee also ordered that “all Officers of the Crown of Great Britain either on full or half pay be summoned and sent to the State Convention to have them exchanged” with Great Britain [for American prisoners]. Henry Bogert, Gose Van Schaick and John Ten Broeck were ordered to sound and examine the Hudson River at Grote Imboght and report to General Schuyler. This was part of the engineering evaluation leading to construction of the chain across the Hudson. Also, an order was given to seize any boards available and forward them to General Schuyler at Ticonderoga.
In April, communications became much more urgent as the British invasion became more apparent. Two more companies of paid militia were called up in the Colony of Rensselaerwyck. Assistance was requested from Massachusetts. On April 20th the Committee met with General Gates. That same day, the first New York State Constitution was adopted by the Convention of Representatives of the State of New York in Kingston and New York State officially came into existence.
On April 30th, a committee that included Colonel Philip Schuyler assisted Colonel Lansing in sending forth troops to Lake George. Now that the need was urgent, the Albany men were responding with renewed vigor. Troops began to flow back to the colonial forces surrounding Lake George.
In May, the Albany Committee received a communication from Major General Philip Schuyler who was in Philadelphia at the Continental Congress. The New York Congress had elected Schuyler and William Duer as the new representatives from New York. Schuyler sent directions to Philip Van Rensselaer at Albany to remove all windowpanes and have the lead frames melted down into musket balls at the Patroon’s foundry and immediately sent to Saratoga (now Schuylerville).
Action was taken to dismantle the bridge over the Normanskill Creek (at what is today Delaware Avenue in Albany) to hinder an attack from the west. The highway leading north out of Albany was torn up and small bridges destroyed. Pumps and lowering devices on wells were ordered repaired in case they were needed to fight fires. The Fort Frederick at the top of State Street was made ready. Refugees from outlying areas flowed into Albany and some Albany families headed south down the Hudson.
On June 20, 1777, Burgoyne got underway, leaving Montreal and sailing down Lake Champlain in British warships with 3,981 British, 3,116 Germans and 500 Native American allies – over 7,500 troops in all. Ticonderoga’s commander General St. Clair, first saw the invading armada on June 30th. At that time, he commanded 2,546 men and about 450 of these were considered “unfit for duty” due to sickness or injury. At the same time, British General St. Ledger and about 2,000 troops, including Sir John Johnson and his company of western New York loyalists and 800 Native allies, invaded Oswego and laid siege to Fort Stanwix. Stanwix was defended by just 550 New York troops commanded by Albany’s Colonel Peter Gansevoort.
By July 3, the British had hauled cannon up Mount Defiance, located between Lake George and Lake Champlain, overlooking Fort Ticonderoga. British officers could see everything inside the fort and could see strong and weak points and count American defenders. St. Clair felt that defending Ticonderoga was futile and quickly abandoned the fort the next night. This sudden surrender shocked everyone supporting the American cause, created outrage in the Continental Congress, and fear in Albany.
Colonel Pierce Long led one of the first units retreating down Lake George, with women, invalids and noncombatants escorted by his New Hampshire troops. He arrived at Fort Anne with support from Colonel Henry Van Rensselaer and 400 recruits from Albany, who had been stationed at Fort George, the uncompleted fort at the southern end of Lake George. Together they prepared to stand against the Burgoyne’s advancing forces at Fort Anne.
Burgoyne sent Colonel John Hill to take the fort. In a heavy downpour, Long and Van Rensselaer were able to surround Hill and subjected the British to two hours of “a heavy and well directed fire” before both sides were forced to withdraw for lack of ammunition. The colonists were advised that a British relief party of 2,000 regulars were coming up, so they burned the fort and retreated to Fort Edward, the last major fort in the way of Burgoyne’s attack on Albany.
On July 7, 1777, Schuyler learned for the first time of the abandonment of Ticonderoga. He ordered St. Clair to meet him immediately at Fort Edward where he assumed command of the army himself.
Schuyler was meanwhile trying to rally the troops, sending money to Seth Warner to pay his men, purchasing cattle, trying to replace carpenter’s tools lost at Ticonderoga, trying to find wagons and weapons. He sent a message to Albany’s Major Abraham Yates, who was commanding Fort George with his Albany troops, ordering him to send all of his tools and cannon south and to abandon the fort if challenged. Schuyler ordered a “scorched earth” policy, destroying anything the enemy could use as he retreated toward Albany.
On July 10th, Schuyler wrote to General Ten Broeck at Albany saying that if the enemy would give him three or four more days after St. Clair arrived, “they will not see Albany this campaign.” It was obvious that Schuyler’s plan was to delay and obstruct the more superior force and prevent them from capturing Albany until winter would force their withdrawal. On July 12th Schuyler had 1,500 men but nowhere to shelter them.
On July 17, Burgoyne was joined by 500 Ottawas, Senecas and other Iroquois warriors who saw the British were winning the war, and were drawn both by opportunities to plunder and by the British offer of a bounty for American scalps. Albany surgeon James Thacher, stationed at Fort Anne, described a scalping: “with a knife they make a circular cut from the forehead, quite round, just above the ears, then taking hold of the skin with their teeth, they tear off the whole hairy scalp in an instant.”
On July 24, 1777, a party of Indian warriors and some British soldiers, about 500 strong, attacked what were probably Albany troops near Fort Edward. They killed a lieutenant and nine privates. According to reports, when colonial reinforcements came up, they found the dead lying naked and scalped with their hands and noses cut off. Everything possible had been taken. The same day, five men, three women, and three children were killed and scalped at the farm of John Allen.
News of the attack arrived three days later from a Black man who arrived at Fort Edward. A small force of Albany County troops remained at the fort under the command of Lieutenant Tobias Van Vechten. A nervous Albany sentry stood guard awaiting the return of Van Vechten who was out on patrol with a small force. A later letter to Albany described the scene:
“We have just had a brush with the enemy at Fort Edward in which Lt. Van Vechten was most inhumanly butcher’d and Scalped, two serjeants and two privates were likewise killed and scalped – one of the latter had both his hands cut off.”
The warriors then proceeded to a house occupied by two women, Loyalist sympathizers. One, Mrs. McNeil, was a cousin of British Brigadier General Simon Frasier and the other, Jane McCrea, was betrothed to British soldier David Jones. Apparently feeling they were safe due to their British relationships, they did not flee to Albany with other local residents. What happened next has been the subject of much controversy since, but near the site where Lieutenant Van Vechten had been killed, Jane McCrea was killed and scalped.
The British and their allies wreaked havoc against the civilian population, killing at random and looting everything possible. The colonists were having difficulty sending scouts to reconnoiter Burgoyne’s troops because the woods were teeming with hostile forces. Schuyler wrote to the Albany Committee trying to calm them and deploring that “a little skirmish we had near Fort Edward should have struck such a panic as to induce my fellow-citizens to leave their habitations.”
Hearing that 400 Native warriors were closing in on his rear, Schuyler ordered a withdrawal to Fort Miller and, in a rear guard action, three men were killed and three captured. Burgoyne’s advancing army found the three captives. One, an officer, was naked and scalped with the soles of his feet sliced off. Burgoyne’s surgeon Dr. Wasmus suspected that this horror had been performed before the man was dead. A second, a lieutenant, had been tied to a tree, cut into quarters and scalped. The third was scalped.
Such was the terror that Dr. Leonard, serving with the troops, committed suicide, a Mrs. Rankin tried to commit suicide by cutting her throat with a pair of shears but survived. The atrocities continued day after day. Schuyler ordered a retreat to Saratoga (Old Saratoga, where the Schuyler plantation was located, now Schuylerville) with the enemy nipping at his heels. It’s estimated he lost about 20 soldiers per day as they fell back. Two brigades of New Hampshire troops left and went home, 600 Massachusetts troops refused to stay another day.
Meanwhile, on August 3, 1777, General Nicholas Herkimer and 800 members of the Tryon County Militia set out to reinforce Fort Stanwix. St. Ledger sent his forces against Herkimer, and in a ferocious and bloody six-hour fight, they fought to a standoff, each side losing several hundred killed or wounded. Schuyler received notice that Herkimer’s men had been “cut to pieces.”
Over the objections of his other commanders, Schuyler ordered General Ebenezer Learned’s brigade to reinforce Fort Stanwix. Six hundred men marched from Van Schaick Island, now in the city of Cohoes, seriously depleting his already small force about to face the brunt of the British Empire.
On this darkest day however, things began to turn.
This article is part of a short series about the experience of Albany, NY during the American Revolution. You can read the entire series here.
Illustrations: Brigadier-General Richard Montgomery’s troops prepare to embark for the invasion of Canada from Crown Point, New York, from a 1902 drawing by Sydney Adamson; half-tone plate engraved by J.W. Evans (courtesy Library of Congress); 1770 map of Albany by Robert Yates; Portrait of Abraham Yates Jr., member of the Continental Congress (courtesy New York Public Library); General Horatio Gates (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution); detail of a 1780 map showing the area of John Burgoyne’s 1777 Saratoga campaign during the American Revolution showing the area around Fort Ticonderoga, including the roads and approaches used by the British and American forces before and after the British retook Ticonderoga; and a map of American and British troop movements during Burgoyne’s Campaign of 1777 (National Park Service map).