In the first days of August, 1777, Albany seemed doomed to be overrun by the British. General John Burgoyne had taken Crown Point, Fort Ticonderoga, Fort George, Fort Anne, Fort Edward and Fort Miller, the last substantial fortified place protecting the city from the north. To the west at Fort Stanwix, a siege was underway requiring many of General Philip Schyuler’s troops being sent to that fort’s defense from their camp on Van Schaick Island, now in the city of Cohoes.
Burgoyne however, had severely stretched his supply line. He was now having problems bringing up food and supplies over primitive roads that had been severely rutted and nearly destroyed by the Revolutionaries. He had to slow down to wait for food and had to keep his supply line protected all the way back to Canada, spreading his troops more thinly.
By retreating south from Fort Ticonderoga, the Colonial forces had prevented their own annihilation and Burgoyne was a long way from his home base and source of food, supplies and reinforcements. They had also bought time for their own reinforcements to arrive. Burgoyne’s Native American allies were starting to leave. By the first part of August only a few hundred remained out of what had been about 1,500, depriving Burgoyne of his best eyes and ears in the forest.
After a personal appeal from George Washington, General John Glover and his 1,200 man regiment of Massachusetts men started out to help Schuyler; other troops were also starting to respond now that the urgency was real.
On August 7, 1777, the Albany Committee of Safety, Protection and Correspondence issued a directive to Captain Price:
“You will proceed with … the Greatest Silence to … Geer Berg, and so to John Fonda’s, John Kelly’s and the neighborhood round about it and … destroy and secure all such Persons, as you find in arms against the State, and all such Persons, who have been concerned in Robbing and Pillaging a Number of Friends in that part of the County. Among the Robbers, the Committee have undoubted information that Andrew Palmetier and Gershom French are principals for the taking (dead or alive) apprehending & Securing of each or either of them a reward of One hundred Dollars will be paid by the Committee to the party apprehending them. You will assist all such Persons who propose to you to move their Families and effects to a place of Safety …”
On August 10th, Burgoyne sent German Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Baum with 1,500 men toward Bennington to obtain food and other supplies, including horses and wagons. He was also ordered to disarm colonials he encountered in Western New England. On that same day, General Phillip Schuyler received a message from John Hancock in Congress, summoning him and St. Clair to appear and explain the loss of Fort Ticonderoga. General Horatio Gates would be his replacement as Schuyler was blamed for the loss of Ticonderoga, the desertion of troops and the retreat. The Colonial troops had retreated to near Schuylerville and to Van Schaick Island, just north of Albany.
By August 15th, New Hampshire’s Colonel John Stark had raised 1,500 men to meet Baum. Together with other troops New Hampshire and Eastern New York, they met and defeated Baum on August 16th. Two hundred and seven of Baum’s troops were killed and 700 captured. The Americans lost 30 killed and about 40 wounded.
Also in August, Jonathan Potts, director of the General Hospital, requested three houses in Albany from the Committee to house wounded officers under his care. Major Henry Brockholst Livingston, Aide de Camp to General Schuyler, sent charges against prisoners to Albany with directions that the prisoners be sent to the Fleet Prison.
Housing was sought for persons who had fled to Albany for protection from outlying districts. Lieutenant Colonel Dirck Ten Broeck was requested to send out 100 men to apprehend “Robbers skulking in the woods in the East part of the Manor of Rensselaerwyck.” Leonard Gansevoort, secretary of the Committee, was directed to bring all of the Committee’s records to Kingston for safety and return immediately.
In Albany, two companies of rangers were ordered raised to patrol for robbers. Andrew Douw was authorized to seize wire owned by a Mr. Burch when Burch refused to part with it. Provisions were ordered for 100 men, which included “fatigue rum.” The Committee ordered that Patroon’s Island, the property of the estate of Cortland Schuyler, be appropriated for pasture for the cattle of people who had fled to the city for protection.
James Mather was found to be a dangerous disaffected person encouraging soldiers to desert. He was ordered to be “apprehended and put in close confinement and his family turned out of their house and the house locked up.”
Former Mayor Abraham Cuyler was again recaptured and recharged with “being not loyal to the cause.” He was allowed to leave for the city of New York. Each month about a half-dozen persons were apprehended for disloyalty and either forced to move away from Albany or sentenced to close confinement.
On August 19th, Horatio Gates took command of the Northern Army. He immediately sent messages to his supporters in the New England colonies, including Samuel Adams in Boston, requesting additional troops. His New England supporters now responded and several thousand troops were sent.
On August 22nd, word was received that Brigadier General Barrimore Matthew “Barry” St. Ledger had been driven off from Fort Stanwix and troops dispatched there were returning to Albany. Gates now suddenly had 6,000 men, many provided from the New England states (Schuyler had been down to less than 2,000), with 1,200 more returning from Fort Stanwix. Washington also sent one of his best units, Colonel Daniel Morgan’s Kentucky Riflemen.
Shortly, Gates had over 10,000 men to Burgoyne’s 7,700 or less, and Burgoyne didn’t know it. Burgoyne waited about a month for his supplies to catch up. On September 7th for the first time, the Colonial Army marched north to meet Burgoyne at Saratoga.
To avoid problems with Schuyler’s close aides and the Albany troops, Gates at first assigned them all to General Benedict Arnold. Lieutenant Colonel Richard Varick and Major Henry Brockholst Livingston particularly despised Gates as it was known that Gates, through his supporters, especially Samuel Adams, had been rejecting promotions recommended by Schuyler to Congress.
In early September, the Albany Committee sent lumber and supplies to General Gates. General Schuyler donated substantial lumber from his lumber mill in Saratoga. Colonial Engineer-Colonel Thaddeus Kosciuszko was constructing defenses at Saratoga.
Under the direction of the Committee in Albany, the sloop Albany was seized as its owner Robert Hoakesly (a former member of the Committee) “went over to the enemy.” It was ordered used as a prison. Lieutenant Abraham J. Yates was ordered to take a party and apprehend John McComb, “a Person highly inimical to the Cause.” John J. Abbot was ordered “to keep the Town Clock in proper repair.” Expenses for a variety of officials and troops were paid. They resolved that all sick prisoners be put in one room and their irons taken off.
On September 10th, a festering conflict between Gates and Arnold erupted when Gates reassigned Colonel Abraham Wemple’s Second Albany Regiment, Colonel William B. Whiting’s Seventeenth Albany Regiment and Colonel Morris Graham’s Duchess and Ulster Regiment to Glover’s Brigade, which came under Gates’ own division. The reassignment and weakening of Arnold’s forces was seen as retribution for Arnold’s refusal to get rid of Henry Brockholst Livingston. Colonel Henry Beekman Livingston, commander of the Fourth New York Regiment of the Continental Line, remained with Arnold.
On September 17th, at about 11 am, Colonel Philip Van Cortlandt, commander of the Second New York Regiment returned from a reconnaissance trip with news that the British were advancing. Arnold requested permission to bring an unexpected attack circling from the left but after a minor engagement, Burgoyne withdrew.
On September 19, 1777, the battle began at Freeman’s Farm. The British attacked American defenses in three places with General Burgoyne attacking the center, General Simon Fraser attacking the American’s left flank and General Friedrich Adolf Riedesel attacking the right. The Americans were commanded on the field of battle by General Arnold supported by Generals Enoch Poor and Ebenezer Learned in the center and Morgan and Henry Dearborn on his left flank, opposing Fraser. The roar of the cannon and small arms from both sides was deafening and was described later as resembling the constant rolling of a drum.
The battlefield became a series of smaller battles with both sides advancing and then falling back, taking and retaking field-pieces (neither side was able to remove the field-pieces since most of the horses were dead). The battles occasionally broke into hand-to-hand combat. Poor reported that Arnold “rushed into the thickest of the fight with his usual recklessness, and at times acted like a madman.” The Americans not only held; they were inflicting serious damage on the British.
By 4:30 pm, the British situation had become so desperate that Burgoyne called for Reidesel to attack the American right. Reisdel was met by Learned’s Brigade comprised of Colonel John Bailey’s Second Massachusetts, Colonel Michael Jackson’s Eight Massachusetts, Colonel James Wesson’s Ninth Massachusetts and Colonel James Livingston’s New York (Albany) Regiment.
They fought for over four hours until darkness halted fighting. The British had made little advancement and had lost 160 dead, 364 wounded and 42 missing (566 total). The Americans had lost 63 dead, 212 wounded and 38 missing (313 total).
Following the battle, Gates took Morgan’s Kentucky Riflemen away from Arnold’s command and did not mention Arnold as playing any part in the battle in his report to Congress, unleashing another shouting match with Arnold. On September 22, the Albany Committee belatedly received a letter from General Gates telling them that General Burgoyne was ready to march on Albany. The Committee ordered General Ten Broeck and the volunteer Albany Militia to report promptly to Gates at Saratoga, joining the other Albany units already there.
General Ten Broeck marched to Saratoga with 1,845 men, virtually every remaining male resident of Albany and the surrounding Van Rensselaer Manor (“all the [male] inhabitants of the City of Albany between the ages of 16 to 60”). Although these Albany troops were promised to Arnold, upon reaching Saratoga they were assigned to Glover.
Arnold was incensed.
Almost every able-bodied male resident of Albany was now at Saratoga.
The Albany Safety Committee authorized the seizure of all boards for use by the Army. Women and children were sent to Albany by General Gates, the Committee provided them with provisions and housing. Gates ordered the Albany Committee to destroy all sloops if Albany was taken. Thirty Albany surgeons were operating out of a make-shift hospital in Albany, treating casualties.
Albany’s Dr. James Thacher, one of the thirty surgeons, found himself almost overwhelmed with casualties. He wrote, “A military hospital is a fine field for professional improvement.”
Following the September 19th battle, Burgoyne made a serious mistake by waiting until October 7th to launch his second attack. During this time reinforcements, including the Albany Militia, continued to arrive at Saratoga increasing Gate’s force now to about 12,000 while Burgoyne was dropping to about 7,000. Burgoyne was also running out of food and supplies as his long supply line faltered.
Meanwhile on the American side, Gates announced a new alignment of the Continental Army, completely eliminating Arnold from command.
In part to relive pressure on Burgoyne, on October 6, 1777 the British under General Sir Henry Clinton captured Fort Clinton and Fort Montgomery in the Hudson River Highlands near West Point and then took apart the chain colonials has built across the Hudson River. Over the next week they raided to the north. On October 13, the New York State capitol, then at Kingston, was burned by the British.
Meanwhile, on October 7, Burgoyne began his second major offensive, sending 2,100 of his men (1,500 regulars, 100 Canadians, 450 Loyalists and the remaining 50 Indians) against the American left flank near the woods to avoid a direct confrontation into the middle of the American line. Burgoyne’s remaining troops would form a defensive line.
Burgoyne, Fraser and Riesdel again commanded the three attacking components. American Generals Poor and Morgan would bear the brunt of the fighting with Learned supporting them and General Abraham Ten Broeck’s Albany Militia directly behind. Benedict Arnold, after a fight with Gates, defiantly rode out and played a critical role, taking command wherever the fighting was the most intense.
The British tried to attack the Americans on the left, but the area was wooded and the trees protected the Americans against the British artillery. Cannonballs were bouncing off trees. The Americans, behind the protection of the trees, sent volley after volley into the attacking British.
The British attack faltered and they withdrew a short distance to regroup. Suddenly Benedict Arnold ordered the American troops to abandon their secure fortifications in the woods and attack. James Wilkerson was ordered to go to the rear and bring up General Ten Broeck and the Albany Militia to participate in the attack.
The Americans attacked, surprising the British who were not yet regrouped and began to inflict heavy casualties. James Wilkerson said that upon his return with General Ten Broeck, he was shocked to find the damage already inflicted on the British.
When Ten Broeck and his 1,845-man militia marched onto the field and down the hill the British were already faltering, but the sight of almost 2,000 fresh troops startled Burgoyne and had a depressing effect on the entire British force. They had started with about 2,100 on the left and had already lost about a third of these to casualties.
They were now hugely outnumbered.
It had been 52 minutes since the main fighting had begun and the British were now in full retreat, falling back behind their defensive line. The British had lost 184 killed, 264 wounded and 183 taken prisoner (631 total casualties). The Americans lost about 30 dead and 100 wounded.
On October 9th, Dr. Treat notified the Albany Committee that a large number of wounded soldiers would be sent down, as his facility was overcrowded. Dr. Treat was authorized to take over any vacant house in Albany . Some Albany residents had fled south toward Kingston.
All wagons were ordered forwarded to Saratoga. Letters were sent to Coxsackie, Kinderhook, Claverack and Livingston Manor requesting residents to assemble along the banks of the Hudson River and send all flour and public stores and cattle to Albany to be forwarded to Saratoga to feed the army. Troops continued to flow into Saratoga from south of Albany but also Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and other parts of New England.
Also on October 9th Burgoyne began his retreat back toward Fort Edward. By the 12th his army had been cut off from retreat to the north by General John Stark, who was now the hero of the Battle of Bennington. He had refused to fight at Saratoga, but who now returned with 1,000 troops and constructed a battery on the west side of the Hudson River between Burgoyne and the fort at the southern end of Lake George. Burgoyne was trapped.
Nearly out of food, Burgoyne surrendered on the 16th. At the time of surrender, he was down to 5,895 troops. The Americans now had an estimated 16,000. Gates had never left his command headquarters during the entire fight; Benedict Arnold had been the most conspicuous front-line commander during the battle.
On October 20th , Nicholas Van Rensselaer, brother of commissary officer Philip Van Rensselaer, brought the news of the Continental Army’s victory to a jubilant Albany. He also brought with him a message from Gates ordering the Albany Committee not to sink the sloops and advised them that he felt that he had sufficient troops at Saratoga. Sloops were impressed to ship firewood to Saratoga and evacuate the wounded.
The surrender of Burgoyne was greeted with a large celebration in Albany with the firing of cannon, pealing of all church bells, the roasting of an ox and a large bonfire.
Despite the fact that the British had burned down his Saratoga home and lumber mill, Philip Schuyler accompanied Burgoyne and his headquarters staff to Albany. Schuyler also assisted wounded British Major-General Sir John Hugh Bevil Aceland and his wife, as well as Baroness Frederika Charlotte Riesdel and her children. On October 20, the party reached Albany where the entire city turned out to witness the procession. Schuyler hosted the prisoners at his home until they were transferred to Boston and shipped back to England.
Following the surrender, the various units of militia were discharged. Gates and most of the regulars from the Continental Army camped at Albany where they received fresh supplies and clothing. Morgan’s Riflemen and Poor’s Brigade departed to join Washington at Valley Forge. Gates would not bother to notify Washington of his victory, bypassing Washington and directly notifying Adams and his friends in Congress.
General John Nixon’s brigade was ordered billeted in Albany. At about the same time, a small British force under General John Vaughan burned down the village of Esopus and proceeded up to the Livingston Manor, just south of Albany and burned down the Livingston home. Eight Livingstons had fought at Saratoga.
Gates was not quick to release a substantial portion of his army to assist Washington and instead kept them billeted in Albany. Washington dispatched his aide Alexander Hamilton to procure the needed troops. Hamilton rode 150 miles in three days and with some difficulty was able to procure 2,200 Continental soldiers from Gates. While in Albany, Hamilton had been a guest of Philip Schuyler and had stayed at Schuyler’s home. Hamilton had been a big hit with Schuyler’s daughters.
On October 31 st the secretary of the Committee of Safety was directed to send a letter to Abraham Yates at the New York State Assembly in Kingston, requesting the return of the Committee’s records. During this time about a dozen Tories in confinement were released on bond, and sent to the city of New York or Canada.
In November 1777, John Van Ness delivered a prisoner, David Michael, to the Committee. Michael had confessed to robbery and murder of Abraham Van Ness, son of John Van Ness. General Gates sent a list of prisoners he had ordered held, together with a list of their crimes. A committee of two, Jeremiah Van Rensselaer and John Tayler were appointed, together with two colonels, to investigate the charges. The Committee also resolved that visitors be allowed to speak to the prisoners through the “Hole of the Door” in the presence and hearing of a guard. Each alderman was ordered to see that the pumps, wells and bridges in his district be repaired.
Philip Van Rensselaer was requested to replace the lead taken from the windows of houses in the city. The bridge over Normanskill Creek was ordered rebuilt and the road leading north out of Albany was ordered repaired. People were confined for pillaging abandoned houses. Lack of salt was causing problems, as food could not be preserved.
In December, the Committee decided to investigate whether Flora, an enslaved Black woman claimed by previously jailed Tory William Gilliland as his property, was free as she asserted. Before the case could be heard however, Gilliland was re-arrested and jailed again for violating his bond by allegedly making statements against the Continental Congress. The Committee also ordered that Albany’s fire department put all fire engines and fire instruments into proper working order. Representatives of the Albany Committee, 102 strong, were re-elected; 40 attended the meeting. John Barclay was re-elected chairman of the Committee.
Also in December, France notified Benjamin Franklin that following the victory at Saratoga, they would enter into a treaty with the Colonists to assist them against the British.
In January 1778, two British soldiers who had been taken prisoner, Henry Ramsey and James Darbin, petitioned to be allowed to remain in Albany and pursue their occupation. Prisoners were interred at the city’s Fort Frederick and at the prison behind the City Hall, as well as on the sloop Albany. In January the warden appeared before the Committee and told of an attempted prison escape as the prisoners had tried to break down the wall.
The State Congress and the Albany Committee began an effort to control the supply and escalating prices of basic commodities, such as firewood, salt, lumber, wheat and other grain. It was ordered that no wheat be used to make liquor. Commodities disappeared after the prices were fixed and the Committee began to impound crops, as well as sleighs and wagons to transport them to the troops. This compounded the problem, as farmers refused to bring crops into Albany for fear that they would have their crops, wagons or sleighs impounded. People in Albany started to go hungry.
An appeal was made for help for the poor. Many people had fled their homes for protection; many had their crops seized, houses had been burned; women and children were without subsistence with husbands in the army, some were now widows. George Palmer was directed to take 200 pounds and assist “the ruined Settlers on the frontiers of this State.” John Rogers was empowered to seize the effects of “any person who had gone over to the enemy.”
Now that the threat had subsided, prisoners held for disloyalty were released on bail.
In March 1778, Mr. Whitesides of the Safety Committee of Cambridge informed the Albany Committee that some of the residents of Cambridge had been flogged by British troops and forced to sign an oath of allegiance to the King. Cannons were removed from Ticonderoga and brought to Albany.
It was reported that “two regular soldiers and several Negroes had gone to New York” (then under British occupation) in a bateau probably to seek asylum. Once there, they were immediately apprehended and examined.
The Committee ordered that the two soldiers, together with the enslaved men, described as Mr. Lansing’s Jack, Mr. Van Rensselaer’s Andrew and Rob, Mr. Stevenson’s Tome, Mr. Hogan’s Tom, Mr. Rosenboom’s Jem, Mr. Veeder’s Jeremy, and some others, be put in confinement until further orders.
After a trial, the Committee found that “the said Negroes had combined with the said Charles Stevenson to go to New York and (seek asylum with the British).” Tom, Jem, Andrew and Jeremy were ordered held until their masters could sell them out of state. Jack, Tome and Rob were ordered “to be publickly Whipped, and receive fifty lashes on the bare back.”
In April, the Albany Committee received a letter from the Marquis de Lafayette, now stationed at Albany, requesting that all prisoners of war and deserters be held in a place of security. The Committee requested that the governor authorize the raising of two companies of rangers to seek out robbers and persons plundering homes. The Committee also requested that troops be removed from the city of Albany.
The city of Albany was reincorporated under the new State Constitution on April 20, 1778. The last recorded meeting of the Albany Committee was June 8, 1778. Of the several County Committees of Safety, Protection and Correspondence, only the minutes of Albany’s Committee and a partial list from Schenectady remain.
In June 1778, a combined force of British Loyalist and Native American allies from British-controlled Fort Niagara made a 300-mile trip south through central New York and Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, destroying and plundering settlements and taking 227 scalps.
In early 1779, Loyalists and Indian Allies under Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea) undertook a campaign of terror in central Pennsylvania and the Mohawk and Schoharie regions of New York. In November, they attacked east to German Flatts and Cherry Valley only 50 miles west of Albany. Partly in response, the colonists sent an army under the command of General John Sullivan against them. This punitive Sullivan-Clinton Campaign pushed through the middle of New York, destroying Indigenous villages and their crops, and killing many.
Remembering his experience with lack of support from New England troops, General Philip Schuyler became one of the strongest advocates of a new federal government with powers to tax, raise a national army, create a national currency and regulate interstate trade. He despised the idea of a volunteer army provided at the whim of each state.
He would also not forget the opposition he had received from Samuel Adams and John Adams while Schuyler was in the midst of battle.
When the call went out in 1788 for representatives to attend a convention in Philadelphia to unite the colonies and form a new country with a new national constitution, Schuyler supported an appointment for his son-in-law, Alexander Hamilton, to become one of New York’s three representatives. Hamilton, Schuyler and their relatives the Van Rensselaers would be among the strongest and first supporters of the new federal constitution.
Following the Revolutionary War, Albany renamed several of its streets. King Street became Lion Street and then Washington Avenue; Duke Street became Eagle; and Queen Street became Elk.
(Most of the soldiers mentioned and Committee of Safety members from Albany are buried at Albany Rural Cemetery. Throughout the 1800s most of Albany’s small church cemeteries and municipal cemeteries were closed and all remains removed to Albany Rural, however most records from these small cemeteries are missing.)
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, from above: A later painting of the surrender of Burgoyne at the Battle of Saratoga (unknown source); General John Stark’s statue at the Bennington Battle Monument; a map of the Northern Campaign of 1777; a map from Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution by Benson J. Lossing showing the Battles of Saratoga; Battle of Saratoga map from Oct. 10th based on a sketch by an American officer; and Schuyler’s mansion in Albany, site of marriage between Alexander Hamilton and Philip Schuyler’s daughter (watercolor drawing by Philip Hooker in 1818).