Just prior to victory of American colonists at the Battles of Saratoga, the Continental Congress replaced Major General Philip Schuyler as Commander of the Northern Army with General Horatio Gates. Many colonial military units from New England had been reluctant to assist at Saratoga to serve under a “Dutch commander” but readily reported to serve under the English-born Gates.
The Colonial forces under Gates had been victorious at Saratoga.
Following the colonists’ victory, General Horatio Gates tried to use his influence with the New England representatives in the Continental Congress, particularly Samuel Adams, to have George Washington removed and Gates appointed to head the Continental Army. When it became apparent that a majority in Congress would not approve this idea, Adams was successful in getting Congress to appoint a War Board to supervise George Washington. Gates was appointed head of the War Board.
Gates proposed that the Continental Army invade Canada. He planned the invasion and received Congress’ approval without Washington’s knowledge. Gates appointed the Marquis de Lafayette commander of the Northern Department headquartered at Albany, and ordered him to command the invasion.
Lafayette was a loyal supporter of General George Washington and told Washington that he would refuse the appointment. Washington, however, advised Lafayette to proceed with plans for the invasion but told Lafayette that the invasion would not happen. Washington knew that a serious invasion of Canada would draw too many troops out of the United States and weaken their defense.
Washington also knew that an invasion of Canada would need to be mounted from Albany, and an invasion ordered by Gates, especially one Washington opposed, was unlikely to originate from Albany. A message to Governor George Clinton or General Philip Schuyler and the Van Rensselaers would end any invasion of Canada that Gates planned. Washington’s close confident and aide Colonel Alexander Hamilton could take care of that. Lafayette departed for Albany to arrange the invasion of Canada as Gates and the War Board had ordered.
Lafayette arrived in Albany on February 17, 1778. He met with Governor George Clinton and subsequently with Generals Schuyler, Benjamin Lincoln and Benedict Arnold and found that each of them opposed the invasion. They told him that money, food and supplies were lacking and that the War Board’s decision to invade Canada in the midst of winter was foolish. Lafayette found that neither Gates nor the War Board had any support in Albany.
Lafayette was successful in raising a small body of 1,200 men, but supplies were lacking. He found that area troops were owed $800,000 for previous service. He pressured Gates and the War Board to forward the money from Congress and was successful in obtaining half the amount owed.
While at Albany, Lafayette also received news that the British had heard of his planned invasion and were preparing for it. On February 23, Lafayette sent a letter to Washington saying that he knew that the whole continent including France and the British Army knew what he had been ordered to do and everyone was watching him. He said he found deceit everywhere and was losing faith in the undertaking.
Finally, the Continental Congress ordered Lafayette to delay the expedition, which effectively meant it was cancelled. Lafayette returned to join Washington at Valley Forge in April 1778 and was later replaced by Major General William Alexander, Lord Stirling, as commander of the Northern Department at Albany.
Lafayette Park near the State Capitol commemorates his command of the troops at Albany, his visit in 1784 on his way to Fort Schuyler, and his return visits in 1824-1825.
Illustrations, from above: George Washington and Lafayette at Mount Vernon in 1784 (by Rossiter and Mignot, 1859); a historic plaque at Lafayette Park, set in 1936; and a 1790 map of Albany, just 12 years after Lafayette was stationed there, by Simeon Dewitt.