Read Chapter XII - In the Fort of The Minute Boys of the Mohawk Valley, free online book, by James Otis, on

Everything was in our favor on this night, otherwise Sergeant Corney’s attempt would not have been the simple matter which it appears as set down by me.

True it is we had previously visited the fort, and that while many of the enemy’s sentinels were on the alert; but because a task has once been done is no proof that it may be accomplished a second time.  In fact, it is by trying a hazardous venture again and again that it becomes yet more dangerous, or, in other words, “The pitcher that goes often to the well will one day return broken.”

I question if there could have been found in the entire Mohawk Valley a man who would have performed the task better than did Sergeant Corney.  The night was not particularly dark, and we who were watching from the undergrowth knew exactly where to look for him, but yet there were many times when I failed utterly to distinguish his form, although, as I have already said, there was nothing in the way of vegetation to screen his movements.

Only when he half-raised himself to make certain he was advancing in a direct course could we see him, and when, after perhaps twenty minutes of such stealthy approach, the deeper shadow cast by the fortification itself had been gained, he was entirely lost to our view.

Then was come the time when I feared most for his safety, although, if the sentinel had failed to see him making his way across the open space, we might have reasonable hope that the remainder of his scheme, less dangerous, could be worked without mishap.

It seemed to me as if an hour elapsed from the time he disappeared before we saw any sign of him again.  The minutes passed laggingly, although while there was no outcry we knew full well he had come to no harm; but yet I trembled with anxiety until we finally saw a figure upon the wall waving its arms, and I said to Jacob: 

“That is the signal for us to advance.”

“Advance where?” he asked, in perplexity.  “Surely it is not possible for us to get in at any point.”

“We can at least hold communication with those inside if we creep to the new portion of the fort, which as yet is only a stockade - the same place where the sergeant and I had converse with Colonel Gansevoort.”

It appears, as I finally learned, that the sergeant believed I would have sufficient sense to understand it was at this place we must effect an entrance, if anywhere, and I ought to have known at the time, for, after waving his arms to attract attention, he walked along the wall, disappearing near what was known as the “horn-works,” which as yet were enclosed only by a stockade of logs.

To summon the Minute Boys and bring them to the edge of the clearing was but the work of a few moments, and then was done that which I venture to say has seldom been accomplished during such a siege as was then in progress.

For an armed party of nearly thirty to cross an open plain, supposedly under the very eyes of the enemy’s sentinels, without being discovered, is something of which to boast, yet we Minute Boys of the Mohawk Valley did it without raising an alarm.

When the foremost of us, among whom I was, gained that portion of the fortification of which I have already spoken, the sergeant was lowering a long ladder over the stockade, and up this we clambered without delay, the entire party getting inside the fort within two minutes after the ascent was begun.

What a time of congratulation that was!  The garrison pressed around to praise us and pat themselves on the head, because we had come at what was, for them, an opportune time.  Not only was the fort reinforced by no inconsiderable number, but we brought with us fairly good information as to the condition of affairs in the enemy’s camp.

The men were yet praising and thanking us for having come at such a time, when an officer approached with the word that Colonel Gansevoort wished to speak with the leaders of the party.

“That means you, Noel,” the sergeant said, patting me on the shoulder.  “The colonel quite rightly believes that we can give him valuable information, an’ is eager to have it.”

“But I am not the leader of the party,” I said, finding time to be a bit bashful, now that the imminent danger was passed.

“Who is, if not the captain of the company?” the old man asked, with a smile.

“You, an’ you always were when we were at home, Sergeant Corney, therefore are you doubly the leader now, after having brought us safely in from the encampment.”

The old soldier flatly refused to present himself as being in command of the Minute Boys, and there is no saying how long we might have wrangled among ourselves had not Colonel Willett, impatient to see us, come up just at that moment.

After asking a few questions, he settled the matter by saying: 

“If you lads who have accomplished so much which men might well have feared to attempt, are not willing that one should have more praise than another, let all those who have been in command at different times present themselves to Colonel Gansevoort, and then, mayhap, we shall hear that for which we are so eager.”

I am free to admit that it was childish in any of us to hang back at such a moment, but, thanks to Colonel Willett, the matter was arranged as he suggested, Sergeant Corney, John Sammons, Jacob, and I going to the commandant’s quarters, escorted by the colonel and the messenger who had been sent for us.

There was no real occasion for us to have been timid regarding the interview with the commandant of Fort Schuyler, for a more pleasantly spoken, neighborly-like man it was never my good fortune to come in contact with.

One would have said that he was interested personally in each and every one of us, from the questions he asked concerning our having organized a company of Minute Boys, how we had been drilled, and such like homely matters.

Then, having shown himself to be a friend, as it were, he began getting that information which was necessary for the safety of the garrison.  First he was eager to learn regarding the battle of Oriskany, for those inside the fort knew nothing whatsoever of that disastrous ambush, save such as could be guessed by the reports of the firearms and the bearing of the Indians after they beat a retreat.

Sergeant Corney flatly refused to tell the story, insisting that I was the better able to do so, and, in the presence of Colonel Gansevoort and all his principal officers, I related the events of that day when an able soldier and a brave man was forced by the prating of cowards to lead his soldiers where he knew, almost beyond a peradventure, he had no hope of winning a victory.

Then Jacob and I in turn gave an account of what had been done, bringing our story up to the time when Sergeant Corney took the lead in the attempt to gain the fort, and the old man could not well refuse to describe what he had seen that night regarding the disposition of the enemy’s forces.

That Colonel Gansevoort and his officers were deeply interested in our recital may be understood by the fact that day had fully come before we were at an end of our stories, and yet never one of them had shown the slightest impatience or a desire to cut us short.

“I know of no greater favor which could have been done the garrison, save that of bringing in additional stores and larger reinforcements, than what has come to us through you,” Colonel Gansevoort said, when we had imparted all our information.  “I hope you will not regret having made this effort to aid us, and, if it so be an opportunity ever offers, I will see to it that, so far as is within my power, the Minute Boys of the Mohawk Valley shall receive substantial credit from their country-men because of services rendered.  We will give you as good quarters as we have; but if the rations seem scanty now and then, you must remember that we are not in position to get all we may require in the way of eatables.”

“Will you answer me one question, sir, an’ not deem it impertinent?” Sergeant Corney asked, with a degree of humility such as I had never before seen him exhibit.

“An hundred if you please.  We can hardly refuse anything to those who have given us so much encouragement this night as have you and your comrades.”

“I would like to know, sir, simply from curiosity, an’ not because it would make any difference with my desire to go or stay, if you have a good show of holdin’ the fort against so strong a force as is under St. Leger’s command?”

“I believe we have,” the colonel replied, thoughtfully.  “At all events, I promise you that we will not surrender; but, if the worst comes to the worst, I shall sally out at night with the idea of cutting my way through the enemy’s lines.  Our provisions are running low; the enemy has advanced by parallels within an hundred and fifty yards, and the store of ammunition is by no means as great as we could wish.  Our only hope is that General Schuyler may be able to succor us.”

“If a company of thirty boys can move through Thayendanega’s camp, spy upon the British, and force their way into this fort unharmed, then of a surety can I do half as much,” Colonel Willett said, vehemently.  “I will undertake to make my way to General Schuyler, setting out when another night shall have come.”

“And I will go with you!” an officer, whom I afterward came to know was Lieutenant Stockwell cried heartily, whereupon the sergeant, puffed up because of what we had already done, declared that Jacob, he, and I would act as messengers.

“It is enough for you to have shown us that the task can be accomplished,” Colonel Willett said with a smile.  “I have been the first to volunteer for such service, and claim the right to go.”

At this point the commandant suggested in the most friendly manner that perhaps we who had lately arrived might be in need of food, and I fancied he made this suggestion in order to be rid of us while he and his officers discussed the proposition.

At all events, we left headquarters and were conducted by Lieutenant Stockwell to a portion of the barracks which was set aside especially for the Minute Boys, to the end that we might all be together.

“Rations shall be served you at once,” the lieutenant said, as he turned to leave us, and, although he kept his word, it was past noon before we had an opportunity to break our fast, because it seemed as if nearly every man in the garrison was eager to hold personal converse with us in order to learn what he might concerning the besieging army.

No matter however much we as a company might succeed in doing in the future, certain it is we could not be petted or praised more than we were during that first day in the fort.

We had not accomplished anything remarkable, so far as I could see; aided by all the circumstances, and particularly by the fact that St. Leger’s force had concluded to hold a powwow with the Indians on that certain night, we had come across the plain when, at another time and under other conditions, we might have made an hundred attempts without succeeding.

It was, as Sergeant Corney would put it, the fortune of war, or the accident of war, which enabled us to do as we had done, and only the old soldier himself could take personal credit for our being there.

If the garrison was on short allowance, we never would have suspected it during the first four and twenty hours of our stay, for every man inside the walls who had anything in the way of food which he thought might tempt our appetites, offered it to us, and the wonder of it all is that we were not so puffed up with pride as to behave very foolishly.

Late in the afternoon, on the day after we arrived, Colonel Willett came to our quarters, and, sitting down among us regardless of his rank and high attainments as a military officer, talked in the most neighborly fashion with us concerning the surrounding country, the different routes we had pursued when coming to or going from the fort, and, particularly, concerning what we might have heard regarding the movements of the enemy between Fort Schuyler and Oswego.

Of course to this last question we could give no satisfactory reply; but certain it is that he gained very much of useful information which would serve him in his attempt to reach General Schuyler.  Having come to an end of his inquiries, he told us that it had been determined between himself and the commandant that on the next stormy night he and Lieutenant Stockwell would make an effort to leave the fort on their way to Stillwater, where it seems he believed the general would be found.

Sergeant Corney begged hard to be allowed to accompany the two officers, but the colonel said, laughingly: 

“You will remain where you are, sir, unless it is in your mind to leave here because of the danger which threatens.  Already have you done enough in the way of scouting.”

“I hope you do not think, sir, that I would run away because of anythin’ like that?”

“No, my man, I am quite certain you never would; but you are not to gain all the credit in this siege, for I count on taking some of it myself, unless, peradventure, the enemy treat me worse than they did you.”

Then the colonel left us, and right glad was I that he had not accepted the sergeant’s offer, for I might in some way have been dragged into the venture, and of a verity I had had enough in that line of work to last me so long as I might live.  It is all very well when a fellow is beyond reach of danger to speculate upon what might be done to gain a name for himself; but quite another matter to take his life in his hand any oftener than may be absolutely necessary.

On the following morning I presented myself to the commandant with a complaint, having been prompted thereto by Sergeant Corney.  We had not yet been assigned to any duty, and each member of the garrison seemed particularly averse to allowing us to even help ourselves.

There was not a member of our company who wished to remain there idle, and I visited headquarters to ask that we might be called upon for the regular garrison work, the same as if we were enlisted men.

Colonel Gansevoort very kindly assured me that there was no real reason why we should do duty while the force was so large; but promised, if we insisted upon it, to consider us when making a detail, exactly as he would any of the others.

Colonel Willett had not long to wait before beginning his perilous journey.  By noon of the second day after our arrival the wind veered around into the south, bringing heavy clouds across the sky, and even the poorest weather prophets among us knew that a summer storm was close at hand.

Once during the afternoon the colonel passed near where I was furbishing up my rifle, and halted to say: 

“The lieutenant and I count on leaving the fort shortly before midnight.  If you and your friends have any desire to see us set out, go down to the new works at about that time.”

By the “new works” he meant the stockade over which we had come, and I hastened to impart the information to Sergeant Corney and Jacob, knowing full well that they would be as interested in the venture as was I.

The volunteer messengers could not have asked for a better night.  When the day had come to an end the storm burst with no inconsiderable fury, and it was safe to predict that it would not clear away before sunrise.

Had I been going on the venture I would have set out much before the appointed time, because while the rain came down so furiously there was little chance the enemy’s sentinels could see what might be going on at the southerly end of the fortification, and it seemed as if my opinion was shared by Colonel Willett, for he and the lieutenant were ready to leave at about ten o’clock.

I considered it very friendly in him to send us word as to his change of plans, that we might not miss seeing them set forth, and thus it was we beheld the two brave men as they imperilled their lives voluntarily and solely in the hope of aiding their comrades.

They carried no weapons save spears, wore no clothing except what was absolutely necessary for comfort, and, stripped to the lightest possible marching trim, they went out into the blackness of the night like true heroes, with a smile and a jest upon their lips.

There were not above twenty of us who witnessed the departure, but it is safe to say that no more fervent prayers for their safety could have been offered up if the whole garrison had bent the knee.

The darkness of night had literally swallowed them up, and the downpour of rain drowned every noise that might have been made by their advance.  It was a brave venture, more particularly because, without chance of being accused in the slightest degree of cowardice, they might have yielded their places to others.

During half an hour or more we remained exposed to the storm, as we listened with painful intentness for some sound which should tell us that they had been discovered, and when at the end of that time we had heard nothing, it was believed they were on their way in safety.

Later in the day we learned that it was Colonel Willett’s intention to push on to German Flats, and there, procuring horses, ride at full speed down the valley to General Schuyler’s headquarters.

Having once got clear of the fort and its vicinity, as we believed to be the fact, the only thing which might prove the undoing of the venture was that the general had gone to some other section of the country, and they would not succeed in finding him until St. Leger had accomplished his purpose.

Well, we settled down to garrison duty, taking our turn with the squads of from fifty to an hundred men who remained constantly on the alert to shoot such of the enemy as might be sufficiently obliging as to show themselves, and ready to give warning of any signs of an attack.

This last was not believed probable.  The officers of the garrison argued that neither the Indians nor the Tories could be depended upon to make a direct assault on such a fortification as Fort Schuyler, and that all St. Leger’s efforts would be directed toward advancing his parallels until he was sufficiently near to mine.

And yet how true is the old maxim that “it is always the unexpected which happens!”

On the third morning after we had entered the fort Sergeant Corney and I were on duty as sharpshooters, and, before we had been upon the walls many moments, I called his attention to what seemed like an unusual hurrying to and fro on the part of the enemy.  It was as if they were making ready for some important movement, and, according to my way of thinking, that could only mean an assault, improbable as our officers believed it to be.

As a matter of course, we gave immediate information to the officer of the day of what we fancied had been discovered, and within half an hour more there could no longer be any doubt but that St. Leger had made up his mind to see what might be accomplished by a direct attack.

I was disposed to make light of the matter, not believing it possible the enemy could effect anything of importance, but lost somewhat of my confidence on observing the grave expression on the faces of the officers.

“What is it?” I asked of Sergeant Corney.  “Do they fancy for a moment that, even though the Indians should be willing to take part in the assault, the fort could be carried?”

“No, lad, I reckon they’re not sich fools as that; but it has come to my ears that ammunition for the cannon is runnin’ mighty low, an’ to repel an attack, even though there be no danger come from it, will be a serious matter.”

Even then I failed to understand what the old soldier meant, and asked him to explain more fully, which he did.

Then I came to realize that to expend our ammunition for the big guns at that time might result disastrously for us later, when, the parallels having been brought nearer, an assault would be vastly more menacing.

However, St. Leger had the right to do whatsoever he might, and he could not have chosen a wiser course had he known exactly the amount of powder in our magazine.

The gunners were sent to their stations, the remainder of the force disposed here or there as they might be the most useful, we Minute Boys being stationed near the sally-port, which, as Sergeant Corney said, was a great compliment, because at about that place might the hottest work be expected.

It was not pleasant, this making ready for a battle.  When we went into action with General Herkimer it was done quickly; we suspected something of the kind might happen, but were not certain of it.  Now there could be no question but that, in a short time at the most, we would be striving to kill human beings, and unable, except at the cost of being branded as cowards, to do anything toward saving our own lives.