Read Chapter XIV - Mutiny of The Minute Boys of the Mohawk Valley, free online book, by James Otis, on

I had thought that we would never again be called upon to witness such a scene as that in General Herkimer’s encampment on the morning when those who, later, were the first to show the white feather, literally drove him into a place where he, as a soldier, knew it was not safe to venture until all the arrangements for a sortie from the fort were completed.

Now, however, it seemed to me that we were to be treated to a second dose of mutiny, and this one more serious than the first, for, in case these fools in the fort succeeded in badgering Colonel Gansevoort as the others had the general, then would nearly a thousand men be given over to the savage foe, whom we knew full well would show no mercy.

To me the strange part of it all was that these very simpletons who were howling so loudly for surrender would be among those counted as prisoners, and I failed utterly to understand how they could figure themselves as being better off in the power of Thayendanega’s wolves, than in the fort where they had a chance of fighting to the death.

Even to this day it seems so strange that I would not dare set it down as a fact unless those gentlemen who write history had spoken of it so plainly.

“You can make up your mind that those fellows who are lettin’ out the most noise are the ones who’ve got a cowardly streak in ’em somewhere,” Sergeant Corney said, when Jacob and I, having satisfied ourselves that mutiny was rife in the fort, went to him for the purpose of talking the matter over.

“The greater the cowards the less inclined they should be to surrender, as it seems to me,” I replied, in perplexity.

“Ay, lad, that’s the way it looks to a decent man; but sich fellows as these here who are makin’ a row, are the ones who’re always lookin’ ahead, thinkin’ matters may be bettered, an’ regardin’ not the possibility of their growin’ worse.  Here they are, like to come on short allowance, an’ obleeged to take their turn at bein’ shot at now an’ then, consequently, not havin’ the heart to endure even the lightest sufferin’, they say we can’t be any worse off, an’ ought to surrender.”

“But they know the nature of Thayendanega’s wolves as well as do you or I.”

“Yes, they did know yesterday; but now, because their stomachs are not quite full, they’re ready to admit that every redskin is an imitation angel.”

“Think you they can badger the colonel?” Jacob asked, thoughtfully, thus repeating my question in different words.

“I will say to you as I did to Noel, that they’re like to get the rough end of it before drivin’ him into a mistake.  We who are not inclined to be mutinous can help him out a good bit in this matter.”

“How?” I asked, in perplexity.

“By standin’ out stiffly against their fool talk, though there ain’t much chance you can convince ’em with words; but if one, or half a dozen, for that matter, gives me an openin’, I’ll see if the weight of my fist can’t beat some sense into them.”

It is not agreeable to set down the details of such a disgraceful scene as we witnessed during the next four and twenty hours, and more than painful to describe how the mutiny was finally checked.  It must be done, however, if I would write fairly the part which we Minute Boys of the Mohawk Valley took in the troubles and triumphs round-about Fort Schuyler; but I will give the story in as few words as possible.

It so chanced that during this day the rations dealt out to us were smaller than before, and this gave the fool croakers an opportunity of airing their grievances in fine style.

Those who should have been steadily attentive to their duties, with never a thought in their minds of anything save besting the motley crew that besieged us, began to talk openly of starvation, as if there was no question whatsoever but that we had come nearly to the end of our provisions, and thus, as I believe, they brought over to their way of thinking many who never would have listened to such wild talk, but for the fact that it seemed probable the hour of surrender must be near at hand.

I saw to it that none of the Minute Boys sided with these malcontents, while Sergeant Corney and Peter Sitz moved here and there throughout the day, trying to persuade the men to do only that which was for their own good, but without success.

The longer such talk ran through the garrison the stronger it became, until shortly before sunset the mutiny was so well advanced that the commandant could do no less than take serious notice of it, and it pleased me that he did not delay.

Save for the sentinels on the walls, the entire garrison was called out as for parade, and, having been clumsily formed in a hollow square, Colonel Gansevoort, surrounded by his staff of officers, undertook to still the rising tempest.

He began by saying that it was the opinion of himself and his staff that the men ought to know exactly the condition of affairs, lest they be led astray by idle fears, and to that end he called upon the quartermaster for a detailed statement of the amount of eatables then on hand.

When this had been given, and it required some time to read the entire list, he announced the number of men, women, and children which were inside the walls of the fort, figuring out that by slightly decreasing the size of the rations it would be possible to provide every person with food during three weeks at least.

True it is the supply was not large enough to admit of our gorging ourselves; but I dare venture to say that many there would have lived on much less had they been thrown upon their own resources in their own homes.

Then he told how many times the big guns had been fired during the late assault, and stated that we had two hundred and fifty rounds of ammunition remaining for the cannon.  He claimed that it was possible for us to hold the fort even though we did not use the heavy weapons, and showed that we could yet put up as much of a fight as St. Leger’s army would be able to stomach.

After all these details, he described to the men what would likely be their fate in event of surrender, declaring that we had every reason and the ability to hold the fort if we were so minded, and urged us to be men rather than cowards.

It was a good speech, and one which should have put heart into the veriest white-livered militiaman that ever pretended to be a soldier; but, to my surprise, I could see on the faces of those who had talked surrender the loudest, an expression telling that the words passed by them as does the wind.

When we were dismissed the contention was greater than before the colonel spoke, and I began to believe it would have been better had he held his peace, for surely it seemed as if they believed his words of cheer were but proof that he shared their fears.

During the evening one of the bolder poltroons declared it was the duty of all the garrison, in order to save their lives, to force Colonel Gansevoort to do as they desired, and while the talk was the hottest Sergeant Corney “broke loose,” as he afterward expressed it.

“This lad an’ I,” he said, laying his hand on my shoulder, after attracting the attention of all within sound of his voice, “have within a short time seen just such scoundrelly curs as you are provin’ yourselves to be.  We have heard them cry out against a commander who was fitted to lead brave men, and their blood is not yet dry on the banks of the Oriskany.  They forced General Herkimer into an ambush against his better judgment, - against his will, - an’ at the first volley from Thayendanega’s painted wretches they turned tail.  Until that time I had thought an Indian was the meanest specimen of humanity on the face of the earth; but I have come to know different, an’ am yet gettin’ fresh proof.  If you talk so boldly of what St. Leger’s promises are worth, why don’t you put ’em to the test?  If you believe death by starvation awaits you here, an’ that all the heart of man can desire is to be found among yonder yellin’ imps, why don’t you make an exchange?  The garrison would be the stronger for your absence, an’ if it so be any man here wants to consort with the red wolves, I, who pride myself on never yet havin’ disobeyed a military order, will stand by an’ help him to leave the fort.”

For a moment after the old man ceased speaking I fully expected he would be set upon and ill-treated by those whom he had so severely lashed with his tongue.

That no move toward open violence was attempted simply gave proof that they were the cowards he had accused them of being; but I believed it was possible to see in their faces that his ironical advice might bear fruit, and so I told him when the opportunity came.

“More than one of them has had it in his mind to desert an’ go over to the enemy,” I said, whereupon he replied, as if the possibility gave him great satisfaction: 

“I wish they might!  It’s true I said more than I meant when declarin’ my willingness to help ’em get away; but I promise you, Noel Campbell, that my hand never will be raised to stop them, if they try any sich fool trick.”

When my lads were together in the barracks once more, and had settled down for the night, none of us having been detailed for guard-duty, the thought of what I fancied I saw on the faces of the mutineers troubled me not a little, and, instead of lying down to sleep with the majority of my comrades, I called Peter Sitz and Sergeant Corney aside, urging that one or the other go to Colonel Gansevoort for the purpose of telling him what it was possible some of the garrison might attempt to do before morning.

Peter Sitz claimed that, since he was not a soldier, he had no right to make what might seem to the commandant like a suggestion, and shoved all the responsibility on the sergeant.

The old man declared, as he had previously, that the men might do as they pleased; that if it was possible to stop them by a single word his lips should remain closed.

Whereupon I suggested that if the men should desert, in however small numbers, they might leave some portion of the fortification unguarded, which would work to the peril of all, and insisted, if the sergeant would not do what he might to prevent the desertion, it was at least our duty to so act that the remainder of the garrison would not be put in jeopardy because of their folly.

Not until I had spoken at some length would the old soldier give any heed, and then, upon a suggestion from Peter Sitz, he said: 

“This much I’m willin’ to do, an’ no more:  from now till mornin’ I’ll make it my business, although clearly I am goin’ beyond the bounds of ordinary duty, to move to an’ fro around the fort, an’ will summon the Minute Boys in case any point is left unguarded.”

Both Jacob and I proposed to share the labor with him; but he would have none of it.

“Stay where you are,” he said, “for I’m not minded you shall do that which may disgruntle the commandant.  When he learns that we took it upon ourselves to look after the safety of the garrison without orders from him, there’ll be a good chance for a row.  I’ll stand the brunt of it alone, without draggin’ you lads into the scrape.”

I knew from the expression on his face that any attempt at argument with him at the time would be useless, therefore held my peace; but had it in mind that by thus interfering he might be committing an offence such as the commandant would not readily forget.

If any number of men should desert on this night, there could not be any question but that we, having had an inkling of it, might justly be held accountable, but yet I was not pleased at the thought of doing or suffering to be done that which the old soldier had set his face against.

However, as has been said, I could have done nothing to change matters save by going to the commandant, and therefore remained in the barracks, mightily uncomfortable in mind, but trying my best at holding conversation with Jacob on indifferent subjects.

The majority of my company had no idea of what might be done that night, therefore they lay down to sleep as usual, Jacob and I seeking the open air after we found it was impossible to take interest in any subject save that which lay, just at that time, nearest our hearts.

We paced to and fro in front of the barracks, taking good care not to disturb the sleepers, until perhaps half an hour before midnight, and then the sergeant came up, looking much like a man who has just settled a very disagreeable question.

“Well, it’s done,” he said, abruptly, “an’ to-morrow at this time I reckon there’ll be less fools in the world.”

“What do you mean?” I cried, excitedly, for, although expecting to hear that a certain number of men had deserted, I could not but feel astonishment when the suspicions thus became a certainty.

“Five of the cowards have deserted, countin’ that St. Leger will receive ’em with open arms.  They had a good deal to say about the need of somethin’ to fill up their stomachs, an’ I reckon that within four an’ twenty hours sich a question as that won’t give ’em any further trouble.”

“How did they go?” Jacob asked, eagerly.

“Out through the horn-works, an’ over the stockade.”

“How did it happen that only five started?”

“The rest of the mutinous ones were not quite sich fools when it came to the last pinch, an’ I’m allowin’ we’re well rid of those who have gone, save that they can carry information to St. Leger of a kind he’ll be glad to receive.”

That was a possibility which I had failed to realize until this moment, and immediately the knowledge came I understood clearly that it was our duty to have notified the commandant at once of what we suspected, for, if the enemy learned that we were on short allowance and with a scarcity of ammunition, as he certainly would from these men who were bound to make matters appear as bad as possible, we might expect more than one vigorous assault within a very short time.

“Did you stand quietly by while they went?” Jacob asked, in a tone of reproach.

“I wasn’t quite sich a fool as that, lad, even though I did advise ’em to go.  I kept my eye on the gang, however, an’ was hidden in the horn-works when they made the final plans.  Those who had been left behind seemed to be frightened, an’ I reckon there’ll be less show of mutiny in this ’ere fort to-morrow mornin’ than we’ve seen in the past four an’ twenty hours.”

Jacob and I would have insisted that the old soldier tell us more regarding the desertion, although it was evident he had imparted all the information at his command; but he, bent on getting some rest before morning, entered the barracks, and we could hardly do better than follow him.

Although it had not seemed possible I would close my eyes in slumber that night, with so much which was disagreeable to keep me awake, I did fall asleep, and that right soon after I lay down by the side of Jacob.

We were astir very early next morning, through some whim of Sergeant Corney’s, who insisted that the Minute Boys should be the first to make an appearance, and I left the barracks fully expecting to find a scene of confusion outside.

Matters were much as they had been the night previous, and I came to the conclusion, that as yet the commandant was ignorant of the fact that five of his men had gone over to the enemy.

However that may have been, no signs of disquietude among the officers were apparent until the sun was two hours or more high, and then half a dozen men belonging to the same company as those who had deserted, were summoned to headquarters.

“You might save the commandant a good bit of trouble by telling him what you know,” Jacob suggested to Sergeant Corney, and the latter replied, grimly: 

“I’m not sich a fool.  It’s one thing to let a lot of sneaks get away when you think the garrison will be the better off without ’em, an’ quite another to own up to your superior officer that you’ve winked at desertion.  I’ll keep a close tongue in my head, an’ so will them as are my friends.”

With this the old man walked away, leaving us gazing at each other in something very like astonishment, for we understood by his tone that he was much the same as threatening us in case we should take it upon ourselves to tell what we knew regarding the matter.

Before ten o’clock all of the garrison were aware that five of the force had deserted, and those men who had been loudest spoken regarding the wisdom of surrendering, were now moving about very uneasily, doubtless fearing they might be called upon to answer for some of the unsoldierly remarks in which they had indulged.

There was no real confusion in the fort, but a general air of disquietude and apprehension, which I thought quite wholesome, since it caused every man to do his duty more promptly and more thoroughly than I had ever seen it done.

When those who had been summoned to headquarters appeared on the parade-ground once more, they were surrounded by eager comrades, all anxious to know what had been said to them; but they could give very little definite information, and were unwilling to talk openly regarding the matter, for the reason, as I fancied, that some of them, being privy to the desertion, had denied such fact to the officers.

Well, by noon it seemed as if the matter had entirely blown over.  Everything went along much as on the day previous, save that, according to my idea, there was a more healthy tone among the men, because we no longer heard talk of surrender, and I suggested that perhaps Colonel Gansevoort was as glad to be rid of his mutinous soldiers as Sergeant Corney had been to see them depart.

It goes without saying that all of us, whether on duty or not, kept a sharper lookout over the enemy’s encampment than ever before, for there was good reason to expect that St. Leger would order another assault; but not one of us dreamed of that horrible spectacle which was to be presented, much as if Thayendanega’s murderers were of a mind to give would-be deserters such a lesson as could never be forgotten.

The afternoon passed quietly and without unusual incident; but when the sun was just about to set we observed the Indians crossing the river from their encampment to the meadow at a point near the creek, where it was possible for us to hold them in plain view, while they were yet beyond range of any except the heavier guns, which could not be brought to bear upon them.

The first movement was made by a party of a dozen or more, who seemed to be carrying heavy burdens on their backs, and this was such an unusual thing for a redskin to do that we were keenly curious.

This first squad was followed by a veritable swarm of the painted murderers, and I said nervously to Sergeant Corney, who was standing near me at the moment: 

“The savages are goin’ to try their hand at an assault, an’ we’re like to have warm work before mornin’.”

“There’s little fear anything of that kind will happen, lad.  The painted devil never lived who was willin’ to stand up an’ fight face to face, man-fashion.”

“Then why are they goin’ out of their encampment like a swarm of bees?”

“There’s some mischief afoot, though what it is I can’t rightly make out.  Perhaps St. Leger has summoned ’em to another powwow, in order that they may know of our condition, as has been told by the deserters.”

In a very few moments it was positive that this guess was not correct, for, instead of crossing the creek to approach the British encampment, the Indians halted when they were about midway between the fort, the camps of the British soldiers, and the quarters of the Tories.

It was at a point where every man on either side could see what was being done, and yet so far away that, save by a sortie, no one could molest them.

I dare venture to say that every man in the garrison, save perhaps the officers, was watching intently the movements of Thayendanega’s gang, and it was as if the knowledge of what was about to be done burst upon us all at the same instant.

A low murmur of horror involuntarily came from our lips, and men said in whispers, one to another, the blood suddenly leaving their bronzed faces: 

“The Indians are going to torture prisoners!”

By this time we could see that two stout posts had been set firmly in the earth, and around them were heaped piles of light wood, such as the squaws and children were bringing up in great quantities.

Thayendanega’s bloodthirsty crew was bent on showing us what would be our fate if we fell into their clutches.

When the first shock of horror had passed away in a measure, there came the question as to who might be the victims, and then those who had talked mutiny and urged their fellows on to rankest insubordination turned pale as death, while many of them walked totteringly away as if unable to control their limbs.  We all believed, and with good reason, that those unfortunates who were to suffer death at the hands of the most cruel-minded men God ever made, were none other than the deserters from our ranks.

During the assault not one of the garrison had been taken prisoner, and certain it was that the besiegers had not left the vicinity of the fort for such length of time as would be sufficient to enable them to procure captives elsewhere, therefore did we know beyond a peradventure who the victims would be, but why only two were to suffer was something at which we could not even so much as guess.

I saw Colonel Gansevoort and several of the officers come out from headquarters, having most likely been informed as to what was going on, and, when they stood where it was possible to have an unobstructed view of the horrible preparations, the entire garrison of Fort Schuyler were assembled as spectators.

“Cannot something be done for the poor fellows?” I heard a man behind me ask in a quavering tone, and, turning, I saw one who had declared most vehemently but a few hours previous that if we would surrender the fort we could be assured beyond question of such treatment as civilized people give to prisoners of war.

No one answered his question, and in a whisper I repeated it to Sergeant Corney, whereupon he shook his head decidedly.

“The commander who would make a sortie for the purpose of savin’ only two lives would be guilty of criminal folly,” the old soldier said, emphatically.  “If those who are to suffer were Colonel Gansevoort’s nearest friends, still must he remain here idle rather than put in jeopardy all the garrison.  As it is, those painted devils are givin’ us sich a lesson as will cause every man here to fight until the death, rather than so much as hint that we might trust to the enemy’s promises.  It’s a harsh remedy - the harshest man could imagine; but yet there are an hundred or more lookin’ on at this minute who need it.”

I cannot make the feeblest attempt at describing the horror which took possession of me as I realized that we could make no effort toward saving the unfortunate men, who were not the less to be pitied because they had brought about their own misery, and, unable longer to gaze at what was so soon to be such a terrible scene, I turned away with a mind to shut myself up in the barracks.