Read Chapter XVII - Perplexing Scenes of The Minute Boys of the Mohawk Valley, free online book, by James Otis, on

Surely if ever a boy had been warned of coming danger I was that one, and the great fear in my mind was lest at the critical moment I fail to do my duty.

It seemed as if the commandant had much the same as told me he was depending upon the Minute Boys to bring him word of the first sign or sound of danger, and I was nervously afraid lest, by some unlucky chance, I might disappoint him.

After having dwelt upon the matter for half an hour or more, giving undue prominence to my own responsibility, I aroused Jacob, who was sleeping in an angle of the wall hard by, and repeated to him the substance of the conversations with Colonel Gansevoort and Sergeant Corney.

“Well, I don’t know why we should be in a better position than any other to know what may be goin’ on,” he said, rubbing his eyes sleepily.  “If the sergeant has the rights of it, an’ the savages are done with the siege, then we’re not likely to see much from this point.”

“But we’re not certain the old man knows better than any one else; he has figured it out to suit himself, without havin’ definite knowledge.  The commandant has much the same as praised our company, an’ we must see to it that he has no cause to blame.”

By this time Jacob was fully awake, and he set out along such portion of the wall as was under our charge, straining his eyes in the direction of the Indian encampment, but without seeing anything whatsoever.  Not a camp-fire was burning, and I failed to hear even the howling of a dog, which was something so unusual as to cause us no little surprise.

“Can it be that Thayendanega’s gang has deserted General St. Leger?” I asked, in a whisper.  “The sergeant will have it that they are done with the siege, in which case it wouldn’t be surprisin’ if they had sneaked away.”

“There’s no such good news as that,” Jacob said, with a laugh; “but I’m puzzled to make out why they’re so quiet.”

Had we been left to our own counsels ten minutes longer I believe I might have been tempted to waken the sergeant, which would have given him an opportunity to laugh at us because we had grown nervous over the absence of all danger-signs; but just then Peter Sitz approached, and I whispered to my comrade in a tone of relief that he and I were not the only nervous members of the garrison.

“It seems as if all hands had it in mind that we need lookin’ after,” Jacob replied, grimly, and then his father asked if we had seen anything unusual since the powwow came to an end.

“It’s what we’ve neither seen nor heard that’s puzzlin’ us, sir,” my comrade said, and then he called his father’s attention to the remarkable quiet which reigned where, ordinarily, noises of some kind could be heard during every hour of the night.

Master Sitz appeared decidedly disturbed in mind, yet he made no comment, and, after listening in vain five minutes or more, he walked away without giving heed to us.

It really appeared, before that long night had come to an end, as if every officer in the fort suspected something might be wrong, and, what seemed yet more strange to me, they all came directly to our post, instead of visiting those sentinels who, if the savages had really cut loose from St. Leger, should have been in the best positions to hear or see the first signs of the expected assault.

I have set all this down at considerable length because, in view of what finally occurred, it was much as if our people had a premonition of that which was to come.

The night passed without alarm, and I am willing to take my oath that if any animal as large as a dog had passed within an hundred yards of the sally-port we would have seen it.

The entire garrison, even including women and children, was astir when the first gray light of coming day appeared in the eastern sky, and as each man came out upon the parade-ground I noted the fact that he had all his weapons with him.

Of course these details are of no particular importance, and yet I have set them down in order to show how strong was the belief of every person in the fort that something unusual was about to happen, although, with the exception of the powwow held in St. Leger’s camp the evening previous, we had seen nothing to betoken especial activity on the part of the enemy.

It was early in the morning; the men had not yet broken their fast, when one of the sentinels shouted: 

“Here they come!  Here they come!”

I expected to see every man spring toward the walls in order to learn for himself what had caused the alarm, and at any other time they would have done so; but so great was the sense of impending danger that instinctively the garrison formed in line ready for orders.

I had not yet been relieved from duty, and therefore remained where it was possible to have a fairly good view of all the encampments occupied by the enemy.

Near the quarters of the British regulars I could see the men drawn up in line as if making ready to advance, and in the Tory camp there was a bustle and confusion such as might have been made by half-baked soldiers, while trying to copy after those who knew their business; but the Indians gave no signs of life, save as their squaws went about the ordinary camp work.

Because everything had been so suspiciously quiet in this last quarter during the night, I more than half expected to discover that they had withdrawn under cover of darkness; but the presence of the women and children told I was mistaken.  Unless the entire gang had spent the night with the white men, however, it was positive these exceedingly brave warriors of whom Thayendanega boasted, had no idea of continuing the part of allies during this day at least.

A plentiful supply of ammunition was dealt out to our men, and the big guns were served as if our magazine was filled to overflowing, after which the garrison went to quarters, Reuben Cox being the happiest member of the army, for he believed the time was near at hand when it might be possible for him to wipe out some of the stain which rested upon him.

The Minute Boys were ordered to remain at their post over the sally-port, much to my disappointment, for if the Indians did not take part in the assault, which we had every reason to believe was near at hand, then would our duties be so light that we could not hope to win much credit.

Do not let it be supposed that I had become a swash-buckler of a soldier.  The cold chill of fear still crept up and down my spine whenever I thought of taking part in an engagement; but I was becoming so nearly a man as to desire, in case it became necessary to fight, that I might gain some honor for standing stiffly when really my heart was faint.

We remained at quarters a full half-hour, expecting each instant to see the long lines of soldiers emerge from amid the fringe of foliage which partially screened their encampment, and yet the advance was delayed.

“What’s the matter?” Jacob asked, nervously, as he pressed close to my side.

“I wish I knew, lad,” was my reply, in a voice that was not overly steady.  “This waitin’ while others are gettin’ ready to try to kill a fellow is not to my likin’.”

“I had rather have a full hour of hot fightin’ than such idleness, when we know that soon the bullets will be whistlin’ around our ears,” Jacob replied, and just then John Sammons came up, as he said: 

“I reckon they’re goin’ to bring their siege-guns with ’em this time.  It looks to me much as if a big crowd was gatherin’ in the rear of the line.”

Then it was that we could see the Tories running to and fro, each man for himself, and in a twinkling the line of regulars melted away.  There was no longer any semblance of military formation to be seen, and yet certain it was that a few moments previous the enemy was nearly ready for an assault.

We lads were not the only ones who felt disturbed because of this strange behavior on the part of the enemy.  I could see that Colonel Gansevoort and all his officers were on that portion of the wall nearest the British camp, gazing earnestly toward it, while our men moved about uneasily, as if having forgotten that they had been sent to their several posts of duty.

Strain our eyes as we might, it was impossible to make so much as a guess regarding what could be the cause of the odd proceedings, and it was in my mind to go in search of Sergeant Corney to ask his opinion of the situation, when John Sammons cried, suddenly: 

“Look there!  The sneaks are comin’ out at last!  I reckon the Britishers have been waitin’ for ’em!”

But one glance was sufficient to show me that John had spoken truly.  From the lodges I could see troops of savages pouring forth with every token of excitement, like a swarm of hornets, and that something unusual was afoot might be told by the fact that no effort was made to keep beyond range of our guns, as the befeathered and painted horde went swiftly toward St. Leger’s quarters.

I was determined that my company should remain at its post, no matter what might happen, until we got the word that it was no longer needed, there fore neither Jacob nor I could hear the speculations of the men as to what had happened in the enemy’s encampment; but after a time Sergeant Corney came along as if looking for us, and, on seeing the Minute Boys standing in rank while all the remainder of the garrison were flitting here and there like flies on the scent of molasses, he said, grimly: 

“Here’s a sight I never expected to see in this blessed country where private soldiers have the habit of commandin’ their superiors!  Why ain’t you lads huntin’ ‘round to find out what’s goin’ on?”

“We were ordered here, an’ to be ready for action,” I replied, not a little pleased to hear the old soldier’s tone of approval.  “This company will stay where it is until I have permission to break ranks.”

“It don’t seem to be the military fashion for Americans to obey a command so strictly, an’ I’m afraid you’re settin’ a bad example to them who demand that a list of the supplies be read to ’em whenever they’re feelin’ a bit out of sorts.  There’s a chance I’ll grow proud of havin’ licked you into shape if you don’t change your ways mighty quick.”

“I don’t fancy you came here just to see why we stayed on duty,” Jacob said, with a laugh, which told me he was well pleased with what the old man had said.

“I’m free to admit that I didn’t expect to see anythin’ quite so soldierly in this ‘ere fort, an’ that’s the fact.  I had been detailed to hang ’round headquarters till the scrimmage began, but was given liberty to do as I pleased five minutes ago, consequently I came here to find out why the fight ain’t on.”

“We’re expectin’ you to answer that question, sergeant.  You’ve never been backward in findin’ fault with the ways of American soldiers, an’ now perhaps you can tell what’s gone wrong with the Britishers?”

“I wish I knew, lad, an’ that’s the fact!  It looks as if they’d clean forgot we’re waitin’ for ’em, an’ as for them precious babies of Thayendanega’s, they’ve gone out of their heads completely.  It’s a puzzle all ‘round, an’ I reckon the commandant is as much in the dark as are the rest of us.”

“Can’t you make a guess?” Jacob asked, impatiently.

“Not a bit of it, lad; but it’s certain there’s trouble of some kind at Barry St. Leger’s quarters, an’ I’m of the mind to find out, if you an’ Jacob want to stir yourselves a bit.”

“How do you count on doin’ it?” I asked in surprise, half-inclined to believe the old man was joking.

“Look at the Indian encampment; do you think there’s anybody nearabout that place who’s keepin’ an eye on this ’ere fort?”

“Even the squaws have gone over to the British quarters; they’ve been paddlin’ across the river for the last half-hour,” Jacob replied, and as a matter of fact I failed to see a living being outside the lodges, search with my eyes as I might.

“An’ it’s much the same over yonder,” Sergeant Corney said, as he pointed to the other encampments.  “Every blessed one of us might sneak out an’ not attract any attention from them as are supposed to be besiegin’ us.”

“Well?” I asked, as the old man paused.

“Well, if you an’ Jacob feel like havin’ a look around, I’ll ask the commandant’s permission to do a little scoutin’ on our own account, agreein’, in case we’re laid by the heels, not to expect any help from this ’ere garrison.”

“Do you mean to go outside the fort?” John Sammons asked, his eyes opening wide in surprise.

“You’ve guessed it the first time,” Sergeant Corney replied, with a laugh, and I said, in a tone of conviction: 

“The commandant never will give you permission.  I heard him refuse Reuben Cox most emphatically.”

“But that was when everythin’ seemed to be runnin’ smooth, an’ Cox only wanted to get himself killed.  Now I’ll go bail that Colonel Gansevoort is more eager than we to know the meanin’ of this queer business, an’ will jump at the plan.”

“You’ll know better after you’ve asked him,” I suggested.  “If he gives permission, Jacob an’ I are with you.”

The old man sauntered away as if he had nothing of importance to do, and with a look on his face which told that he was certain of getting the desired permission without very much difficulty.

The thought was in my mind that he would receive a very decided answer from the commandant without delay, and after a fashion that would not be pleasing to him, for it seemed to me that no sane officer could sanction an attempt to send out scouts across the open plain in the clear light of day, therefore one can imagine somewhat of my surprise when word came for Jacob and me to report at headquarters without delay.

“Can it be possible that Colonel Gansevoort is seriously thinkin’ of allowin’ the sergeant to leave the fort in the daytime?” I asked of my comrade, as we went rapidly across the parade-ground to obey the summons.

“It looks like it, for a fact, else why should we have been sent for?  I’m beginnin’ to think, Noel, that you said ‘yes’ to his wild scheme too quickly.  There won’t be any child’s play in tryin’ to get from the fort to where we can find the first show of cover.”

“Meanin’ that you’re not willin’ to make the venture?” I asked, quickly, hoping my comrade would flatly refuse to go, for, now that the venture seemed countenanced by Colonel Gansevoort, I was growing mighty weak-kneed.

“I would stick my nose into a good deal of danger before bein’ willin’ to go back on a promise made to the sergeant,” Jacob replied, thoughtfully.  “If he has told the commandant that we are minded to go, there’s nothin’ for it but to tackle the job.”

I was decidedly disappointed by the reply, and yet could make no protest, since I was the one who had spoken for us both when the old man broached the subject, and in silence we walked on until having come to the door of the colonel’s quarters.

The sentinel on duty there had evidently received orders concerning us, for he announced that we were to go in at once, and I pushed Jacob ahead as we entered the apartment where Sergeant Corney was standing in a soldierly attitude in front of the commandant.

We were not called on to wait many seconds before learning the reason for the summons, since Colonel Gansevoort jumped into the subject by saying: 

“So you lads are keen for a hazardous venture, eh?”

I would have given much if at that moment I could have called up sufficient courage to say that I was well content to remain within the walls of the fort; but instead of boldly declaring myself I remained silent until Jacob said, with only a faint show of enthusiasm: 

“We told Sergeant Corney that we would go with him to find out what may be the trouble in General St. Leger’s camp, if so be you gave permission, sir.”

Now was I fully committed to a matter which was by no means to my liking, and, with a certain sense of being ill-treated, I listened to that which followed.

“Under almost any other circumstances I would flatly refuse permission for any man to leave the fort; but now it seems as if it was of the highest importance we should know what is taking place in the enemy’s camp.  Whatever it may be is of such a serious nature as to attract the attention of the entire encampment so entirely that no attention whatsoever appears to be paid to us.  I believe that, by leaving through the horn-works, you can make your way to the rear of the British encampment without incurring any very grave danger, and if it is the desire of you lads to go with the sergeant you have my permission.”

It was just what I didn’t want, but, under the circumstances, I could do no less than look as if he had granted us the greatest favor possible, and at the same moment it would have done me solid good had I been able to kick the sergeant with sufficient vigor to convince him that he had made an ass of himself.

Then the colonel, after receiving our thanks for permission to run our heads into unnecessary danger, went on to explain what he would have us do in case we lived long enough to get an idea of that which was going on in the enemy’s camp.

As he had already said, we were to scale the stockade in the horn-works, and then, making a detour to the westward, gain the cover of such shelter as might be found on the high lands, working well toward the ruins of Fort Newport before trying to strike across to and behind the line of earthworks which St. Leger had caused to be thrown up early in the siege.

He had laid out a long journey for us, and one that might not be performed before nightfall; but it had the merit of being comparatively safe until we were in the vicinity of the British encampment.

The interview was brought to a close within five minutes after it had begun, and then we were at liberty to make our preparations for that which might result in our death by torture, for it was certain that if the Indians laid hands on another man from the fort they would take good care he was neither rescued nor killed until they had worked their cruel will upon him.

Sergeant Corney was inclined to boast of having succeeded when I had declared he must fail, and would have congratulated himself in great shape while we were crossing the parade-ground on our way to the barracks, but that I said, curtly: 

“That man who exerts himself to go into danger will one day find himself in a box from which his best friends can’t extricate him.”

“Which is the same as sayin’ that you’ve changed your mind about goin’ out scoutin’?” he cried sharply, looking me squarely in the face.  “There is no reason why you should go if the job isn’t to your likin’.”

“Both Jacob an’ I must keep on with you, or write ourselves down as cowards; but at the same time we have the right to think it a foolish venture.”

The words had no sooner escaped my lips than I regretted having spoken, and without delay I hastened to make amends by explaining that I was in truth frightened at the idea of venturing into that nest of snakes from which we had once barely gotten away with our lives.

The old man must have understood that I spoke rather from nervousness than because I was really in anger, and immediately he acted as if nothing unpleasant had been said, but began to discuss the question of whether it would be wise to burden ourselves with weapons when, if brought to bay, we could not hope to fight our way through.

Before we had more than gained the barracks half the men in the fortification had some knowledge of our intentions, and we were overwhelmed alike with questions and suggestions.

But very few minutes were needed in which to make ready for the venture, and when we came out of the barracks all three of us had rifles strapped upon our backs in such a manner that they would not interfere with our movements in case it became necessary to trust to the fleetness of our feet.  Three rounds of ammunition for each one, sufficient corn bread to make a single meal, and hunting-knives, completed the outfit.

It would have pleased us better had we been allowed to depart unaided; but a full half of the garrison appeared to think it absolutely necessary to go with us to the very limits of the fort, and if good wishes are of any avail at such a time, then were we certain of returning in good condition.

Once on the plain outside the stockaded portion of the works, Sergeant Corney led the way by going in a southerly direction for a distance of an hundred yards or more, and then striking sharply off toward the west, where was to be found the nearest cover.

Having gained the line of foliage which fringed the high tract of land, it was possible to march off at a smart pace without need of taking particular heed to our steps, and we travelled rapidly until having arrived at a point midway between our starting-place and the ruins of Fort Newport.

“Here’s where I allow we’ll be wise to change the commandant’s plan a bit,” the old man said, coming to a halt for the first time since we set out.  “We can’t gain very much in lengthenin’ the journey by three or four miles, an’ I’m in favor of strikin’ across to the hill from here?”

The statement was made in the form of a question, and I replied that it suited me to do as he thought best, for when Colonel Gansevoort mapped out the route I believed he was sending us on a longer detour than was necessary.

We crossed the Albany road at that point where it bends in toward the hill, walking at our best pace, and, once behind the elevation, were screened from view of the enemy’s camp.

While we were going over the open country I kept my eyes fixed upon the British batteries and the redoubts thrown up to cover them, but failed to see any signs of human life.  That the enemy had abandoned these posts even for a few moments seemed incredible, and yet it was all of the same piece with what we could see in their camp.

Sergeant Corney led us directly into the redoubts which had made so much trouble for us in the fort, and, had we been disposed, we might have loaded ourselves down with plunder of every description, for the belongings of the men were strewn about as if cast aside in great haste.

It was not safe to remain many moments where we were; in fact, I came near to believing the sergeant had lost his wits when he led us into the British nest, and we hurried out of the works, going directly toward St. Leger’s quarters until we were sufficiently near to see men moving about excitedly, when he struck off for the rear of the encampment, where could be found such cover as stout bushes and small fir-trees would afford.

We had advanced boldly on this last stage of the journey, emboldened to do so by the evidences of panic, or something near akin to it, which we saw on every hand, and trusting to the possibility that if seen it would be believed that we belonged to the encampment.

The sun was yet an hour high in the heavens when we found a hiding-place overlooking the camp, and so easy of accomplishment had been our task, with nothing of danger attaching to it, that I was heartily ashamed of having displayed ill-temper in the sergeant’s presence.

Neither of us spoke when we were finally come to where we could have a fairly good view of the scene of confusion.  The surprise at what we saw, and the perplexity because of it, was so great that we could do no more or no less than stare in bewilderment at this army, every member of which appeared to have suddenly been deprived of his reason.

The foremost scene which met our wondering gaze was a group composed of General St. Leger himself, Sir John Johnson, Thayendanega, and a dozen or more leading sachems of the Six Nations.

These men were too far away to admit of our hearing the spirited conversation which was going on.  It appeared to me at times that the commander was pleading for some favor, and, again, that he threatened; but the savages seemed to give little heed to his words.

Then Sir John talked for several moments, apparently appealing to each of his companions in turn, whereupon one of the sachems spoke excitedly, using more gestures than I ever saw one of the scoundrels employ, and when he was come to an end all the savages save Thayendanega stalked off as if in a rage.

Our stupefaction was complete when General St. Leger made a peculiar gesture, and straightway two soldiers led forward a half-grown man whose vacant look proclaimed him to be one of those unfortunates whom God has deprived of wits, and in his wake came three Oneida Indians.

It was enough to make a fellow lose a full year’s growth, thus seeing his Majesty’s general in such company; but when the Oneidas appeared my surprise gave way to fear.

We had always counted, and with good cause, on these Indians being friendly to our people who were struggling to throw off the yoke which the king had put upon us, yet the fact that they were in the encampment, apparently on friendly terms with our enemies, seemed to betoken still more trouble and misery for us of the valley.

Jacob gripped my hand tightly as the Oneidas appeared, and I could see the corners of the sergeant’s mouth twitching as if he had suddenly lost that feeling of security which had been so strong upon him until this moment.

Then the foolish man began to tell a long story to the general, the Indians added a word now and then, and even Thayendanega began to wear a troubled look.

It was all so strange and unnatural that I pinched my own arm more than once to make certain I was not in a dream.