Read Chapter XIX - The Pursuit of The Minute Boys of the Mohawk Valley, free online book, by James Otis, on ReadCentral.com.

No more than three hundred men were sent out to take advantage of the singular state of affairs which we, the scouts, had reported as existing in the British camp, and when I expressed surprise because of the small number ordered on duty, Sergeant Corney replied, contentedly: 

“If you an’ I told the truth, lad, as we know we did, then a detachment of three hundred is way off more than enough to take care of all St. Leger’s army in its present condition; but if we made a mistake, or if in some way it turned out to be a big trick intended for our undoin’, - though I don’t see how it can be, - then have men in plenty been taken from the garrison here.”

“All of which means that you’re entirely satisfied with everything this night?” I said, with a laugh, for the capture of the Tories had pleased me so thoroughly that my mouth was stretched in a grin nearly all the time.

“That’s about the size of it, lad, though in this case I couldn’t find anythin’ to be disgruntled with, however soreheaded I might be.  The colonel is sendin’ out men in plenty.”

It was Captain Jackman who led the force, and I knew full well that if it was possible to punish the Britishers he was the one above all others to tackle the job, for a braver, more cool-headed man I have never seen.

It is well that I make the story short, so far as our own movements were concerned, for what we said or did before visiting the enemy’s camp in force is of very little importance.

We set off within an hour after Sergeant Corney and I brought in the prisoners, and were marched boldly across the plain on a bee-line for the batteries without hearing a single note of alarm.  It seemed to me that even the noises of the orgy had died away.

Arriving at the batteries, Captain Jackman ordered thirty of his force to take possession of the guns and hold them until the last possible moment, in case the enemy rallied sufficiently to do anything toward caring for their own safety.

A few yards farther on, at the redoubts covering the batteries, thirty more men were left, and, since there was an ample supply of ammunition for the big guns as well as the small arms, we who were entering the encampment would have a fine support in case of trouble.

All these precautions were proper, and the captain would have been a poor soldier indeed had he failed to take them; but, as was soon shown, they were needless.

When we arrived near General St. Leger’s quarters we saw the last of the army fleeing as if panic-stricken in the direction of Oneida Lake, no longer preserving any semblance of military formation, but each man for himself, and, what was yet more puzzling, their Indian allies were in close pursuit, striking down laggards whenever the opportunity offered.

These so-called warriors of whom Thayendanega had been so proud, were taking Tory and British scalps as if they had been summoned for no other purpose, and during two or three minutes all our people stood as if suddenly turned into graven images, so much of astonishment and bewilderment was caused by the wonderful change in affairs.

Captain Jackman’s first act, after understanding that the enemy was actually in retreat, with their former allies harassing the fleeing men to the best of their ability, was to send a messenger in hot haste to the fort with the word that he counted on taking his entire force, save those left to hold the batteries and redoubts, in pursuit, and advising that nearly all the British equipment could be seized upon without fear of interruption.

Then we began the pursuit, and this, like the panic in the camp, was the oddest ever known.  British regulars and Tories running helter-skelter, casting aside their weapons and accoutrements lest they be impeded in the unreasoning flight, and close at their heels the savages, who fell upon every unarmed man they saw, sometimes killing him outright, but, in many cases which came under my personal observation, disabling and then scalping the poor wretch, leaving him to a lingering death.

More than once did the frightened soldiers flee toward us for protection, and again and again we lent them weapons with which to defend themselves against their late friends.

It is almost impossible to give any details of that pursuit, which was not brought to an end until we were close upon the shore of Oneida Lake, because it was all so confusing - more like the wildest kind of a foot-race, wherein each man was trying to gain the lead, and the hindermost frantic with fear.

It would have been strange indeed had our people been able to hold anything like a military formation.  Captain Jackman yelled himself hoarse trying to keep us together, and, when it seemed as if he was on the point of succeeding, some one would set off at a mad pace to save the life of a British soldier who had fallen at the mercy of a savage.

At first we turned our attention to taking prisoners; but before having left the main encampment a mile in the rear the Indians, eager for scalps, began to grow careless of what we might do, and then we paid off many an old score, although all could not have been settled had we slaughtered every last one of them.

During that time of pursuit we saw nothing of the leaders, and I had come to believe that they were among the first to flee, when suddenly the sergeant, in whose company Jacob and I had remained, pointed out amid the bushes what appeared to be a large portmanteau which had evidently been cast aside by some of the fugitives.

In the excitement of the chase either Jacob or I would have passed it by as being of no particular value when there were so many things to be picked up; but the old man was too good and experienced a soldier not to realize the possibilities of the find, and, heedless of all the wild scenes around him, he seized upon it, breaking the lock with a rock.

Then it was we learned that the apparently valueless case was none other than the writing-desk, or official portfolio, belonging to General St. Leger himself, and in it were not only private letters and documents, but all his correspondence and papers relating to the campaign, such as afterward served to show that the king’s officers had actually hired the Indians to murder those whom they called “rebels.”

“I reckon we’ve captured the prize of the day,” the sergeant said, gleefully, after making certain as to the contents of the case.  “This is of more value than a score of prisoners, although there’s far less satisfaction in seizin’ it.”

A moment later the old man began to understand that if he held on to the prize he would be left far behind in the chase by our people, because it was far too cumbersome to be carried at a rapid pace, and then he regretted having found it.

I believe that for a moment he had it in his mind to throw the heavy portfolio away, willing to lose what he believed to be the most valuable of all the plunder that might be found, rather than miss the excitement of the chase; but, fortunately, just then John Sammons came limping back with a wound in the leg which had been inflicted by a savage whom he afterward succeeded in killing.

“It’s the toughest kind of ill-fortune to be crippled just when the fun is the hottest,” he said, after explaining how the wound had been received.  “I can’t go on, an’ I don’t want to miss the show when the crazy Britishers an’ Tories arrive at the shore of the lake.”

“It looks pretty bad,” Sergeant Corney said, when he had made the most careless examination of the wound, and I was surprised to hear him speak in such a tone, for it was not his custom to make much ado over any injury, however severe.  “I reckon you’d better hobble back to the fort without delay, an’, once there, look well to it that you wash an’ bandage the leg well.”

“I s’pose I’ll have to go,” Sammons replied, with a sigh, and the sergeant made haste to add: 

“Of course you will, lad, an’ I’ve got here that which will ensure you a warm reception by Colonel Gansevoort.  Take this case to him, an’ you’ll be glad you had to go back.”

Then it was that I understood why the old man was so solicitous regarding John’s injury.

Sammons took up the bulky portfolio and limped back in the direction of the fort, the sergeant saying with a peculiar twinkle of the eyes as the lad passed beyond earshot: 

“Now I reckon there’s nothin’ to prevent us from goin’ on so long as do the others.  Strike out lively, lads; we’ve wasted too much time already!”

Then we tailed on behind the crowd of our people who howled and yelled as if at a fair, shooting at every bunch of feathers we saw amid the foliage, but making no effort to capture the fugitives lest we find ourselves so hampered that further advance would be out of the question.

There were many of our people who thought much as we did on that day, otherwise Fort Schuyler might have been crowded with prisoners before morning.

When we had finally come within sight of the lake, it was to find the foremost of our party drawn up in something approaching military order.  Captain Jackman had succeeded in bringing them to a halt while yet half a mile from the shore, and this was done because the British and Tories had made a stand while their boats, which had been left at that point when they marched to the investment of Fort Schuyler, could be put in sailing trim.

We of the American army were far too few in numbers to risk an action by pressing on, for, no matter how demoralized the enemy had become during the flight, it was more than probable they would fight with desperation now safety was within view.

More than one of our party cried out in anger because the captain displayed too much caution according to their ideas; but the cooler-headed, among whom was Sergeant Corney, declared that it would be the height of folly for us to throw ourselves upon at least a thousand men when no great good could come from such a venture, and much of disaster to the Cause might result.

The savages had no such reason for lagging, however, nor did they intend to fall upon their late friends in a manner which could involve them in a pitched battle; but yet they did a large amount of mischief without putting their precious bodies in danger.

Wherever a squad of the fugitives was withdrawn from the main body, making ready a boat, the painted fiends would swoop down upon it, performing their murderous work and getting away with a fresh supply of scalps before the victims’ friends could rush to their assistance.

I saw a boat laden with men, the greater number of whom were unarmed because of having thrown away their weapons during the flight, push off in company with several others; but the oarsmen of this particular craft were clumsy, and she drifted down the shore until beyond range of the remainder of the force.

Then it was that the feather-bedecked wolves began shooting at the helpless men until a full half of the crew were wounded, after which Thayendanega’s beauties swam out to her, killing and scalping all on board.

This is but a single instance of what the savages did during that mad retreat.  More than once had my rifle been emptied in behalf of some sore-beset soldier, and I even went so far in my sympathy for the white men that I saved the life of a Tory who would have been killed had we not come up in the nick of time.  After rescuing him, however, we turned the fellow over to a squad who were guarding twenty or more prisoners, thus making certain he would not be left at liberty to work mischief among our people.

The following brief account of the retreat was written and printed by one who took every care to learn all the truth regarding the affair, and I set it down here that he who reads may know I have not exaggerated the story for the purpose of shaming the enemy: 

“The Indians, it is said, made merry at the precipitate flight of the whites, who threw away their arms and knapsacks, so that nothing should impede their progress.  The savages also gratified their passion for murder and plunder by killing many of the retreating allies on the borders of the lake, and stripping them of every article of value.  They also plundered them of their boats, and, according to St. Leger, ’became more formidable than the enemy they had to expect.’”

It was late in the afternoon before Captain Jackman gave us the word to turn back.  He would have returned sooner, but our men pleaded for permission to watch the fugitives until they had embarked, and he could hardly do otherwise than remain.

A happy, light-hearted company it was that marched back to what had been the British encampment, there to find many of those we had left in the fort busily engaged hauling in the plunder abandoned by his Majesty’s valiant army, to the fortification.

Now we had ammunition in plenty, both for our own guns and those we brought in from the batteries, while there was such a store of provisions that the wagons were kept busy during the entire night transporting it.

We feasted from sunset until sunrise, much after the fashion of the savages, for it made a fellow feel good to know from actual test that there was no longer any need of saving every scrap of food against that day when it might be necessary to fight and fast at the same time.

Even though we had not thus made merry, I question if there was a man among us, from the highest to the lowest, who could have closed his eyes in slumber.  The relief of mind was so great, and the wonderment because of what had happened so overpowering, that we were able to do nothing save discuss the matter again and again, but without coming to any satisfactory solution of the riddle.

The Tory encampment, which was a long distance westward from St. Leger’s quarters, presented the same scene of confusion and evidences of hasty departure as had the British, and from there we got a large quantity of plunder; but in the Indian camp was nothing left but the lodges, and these we carted into the fort, although they would be of little value to us.  It was satisfying to despoil Thayendanega’s snakes, even though only to a slight extent.

When another day had come Colonel Gansevoort brought all us merrymakers up with a sharp turn, by forcing us to perform military duty once more.  The stores of the British and Tories had all been brought in, and then we were called upon to level the earthworks which had been thrown up at the beginning of the siege, lest General Burgoyne, who had been reported as possibly coming our way, might be able to turn them to his own advantage and our discomfiture.

It was downright hard work to handle shovel and pick hour after hour under the burning rays of the summer sun; but no fellow cared to show himself indolent after having had such rare good fortune, and we petitioned the commandant to let us continue the labor throughout the night, to the end that it might the sooner be performed.

Within six and thirty hours after we had returned from the pursuit matters were so far straightened that we had nothing save ordinary garrison duty to perform, and we lounged around discussing the exciting and mysterious events which we had witnessed, until I dare venture to say that every man was absolutely weary with so much tongue-wagging.

Messengers had been sent on the road toward Stillwater to learn, if possible, what had caused such a panic among the enemy, and Sergeant Corney said to Jacob and me while we were waiting with whatsoever of patience we could command for some definite information to be brought in: 

“We must get out of this, lads, within four an’ twenty hours after the matter has been made plain, an’ we know somewhat concernin’ the movements of our friends on the outside.”

“How surprised the people of Cherry Valley will be when they hear all that we can tell them!” Jacob said, as if speaking to himself.

“An’ is it in your mind, lad, that we’re to go back there rather than anywhere else?”

“Where else could we go?” I asked, in surprise.

“I’ve been thinkin’ that we might do our people at home more good by marchin’ the Minute Boys to where they could be of real service, than goin’ back to let ’em loaf ’round the settlement.”

At that moment the old soldier was called away to attend to some duty, and Jacob and I had ample food for thought as we turned over in mind what he had said.

Before the day had come to an end we had reinforcements - when we no longer needed them - in plenty.  Company after company of soldiers marched in from the direction of Stillwater, and through the earliest arrivals we learned that twelve hundred men, under General Benedict Arnold, had been sent to our relief.

To our great joy, they could give valuable information regarding the strange behavior of St. Leger’s army, and by putting together this and that bit of news we had a fairly good solution to the puzzle before the arrival of General Arnold, who came with a small force twenty hours behind the main body.

And this is the story as we heard it from one source and another until there could be no question but that we had all the facts with no embellishments: 

Colonel Willett and Lieutenant Stockwell succeeded in getting past the several encampments without being discovered, and made their way to German Flats.  There they procured horses, and rode at full speed until arriving at the headquarters of General Schuyler at Stillwater.

Now it must be understood that when General Washington heard the news of the fall of Ticonderoga, he sent General Benedict Arnold with as many troops as could be gathered, to strengthen the northern army.  General Arnold arrived at Stillwater nearabout three weeks before Colonel Willett rode into that place with the request that assistance be sent as soon as possible to Fort Schuyler.

Now it seems, as I have heard it said by those who knew, and, later, have seen it printed, that immediately the messengers from the besieged fort stated the purpose of their coming, General Schuyler, eager to send Colonel Gansevoort all the succor he might, called a council of war to decide upon what should be done, when, greatly to his surprise, he found that the members of his staff were bitterly opposed to weakening the force then at Stillwater by sending any away, even on so important a mission as that of aiding the beleaguered garrison.

Here is what I have seen printed regarding the matter, and I will copy it lest any one think I may have imagined some portion of this contention, which, as we look at the situation now, seems so improbable, for one can hardly believe that any officer in the patriot army would have refused at such a time to aid those who were so sorely pressed as were Gansevoort’s troops: 

 “General Schuyler understood the importance of rescuing the stronghold and its brave garrison, and called a council of war; but he was bitterly opposed by his officers, one of whom presently said to another, in an audible whisper: 

“‘He only wants to weaken the army!’

“At this vile accusation the indignant general set his teeth so hard as to bite through the stem of the pipe he was smoking, which fell on the floor and was smashed.

“‘Enough!’ he cried.  ’I assume the whole responsibility.  Where is the brigadier who will go?’

“The brigadiers all sat in sullen silence, and Arnold, who had been brooding over his private grievances, suddenly jumped up.

“‘Here!’ said he.  ’Washington sent me here to make myself useful.  I will go.’

“The commander gratefully seized him by the hand, and the drum beat for volunteers.  Arnold’s unpopularity in New England was mainly with the politicians.  It did not extend to the common soldiers, who admired his impulsive bravery and had unbounded faith in his resources as a leader.  Accordingly twelve hundred Massachusetts men were easily enlisted in the course of the next forenoon, and the expedition started up the Mohawk Valley.

“Arnold pushed on with characteristic energy, but the natural difficulties of the road were such that after a week of hard work he had only reached the German Flats, where he was still more than twenty miles from Fort Schuyler.  Believing that no time should be lost, and that everything should be done to encourage the garrison and dishearten the enemy, he had recourse to a stratagem, which succeeded beyond his utmost anticipation.

“A party of Tory spies had just been arrested in the neighborhood, and among them was a certain Yan Yost Cuyler, a queer, half-witted fellow not devoid of cunning, whom the Indians regarded with that mysterious awe with which fools and lunatics are wont to inspire them, as creatures possessed with a devil.

“Yan Yost was summarily condemned to death, and his brother and gipsy-like mother, in wild alarm, hastened to the camp to plead for his life.  Arnold for awhile was inexorable, but presently offered to pardon the culprit on condition that he should go and spread a panic in the camp of St. Leger.

“Yan Yost joyfully consented, and started off forthwith, while his brother was detained as a hostage, to be hanged in case of his failure.  To make the matter still surer, some friendly Oneidas were sent along to keep an eye upon him and act in concert with him.

“Next day St. Leger’s scouts, as they stole through the forest, began to hear rumors that Burgoyne had been totally defeated, and that a great American army was coming up the valley of the Mohawk.  They carried back these rumors to the camp, and, while officers and soldiers were standing about in anxious consultation, Yan Yost came running in, with a dozen bullet-holes in his coat and terror in his face, and said that he had barely escaped with his life from the resistless American host which was close at hand.

“As many knew him for a Tory, his tale found ready belief, and, when interrogated as to the numbers of the advancing host, he gave a warning frown and pointed significantly to the countless leaves that fluttered on the branches overhead.”

“The council of chiefs at the powwow at once resolved upon flight, and told St. Leger so.  He sent for and questioned Yan Yost, who told him that Arnold, with two thousand men, would be upon him in twenty-four hours.

“At that moment, according to arrangements, the friendly Oneida who had taken a circuitous route approached the camp from another direction with a belt.  On his way he met two or three straggling Indians of his tribe, who joined him, and they all confirmed the story of Yan Yost.  They pretended that a bird had brought them the news that the valley below was swarming with warriors.

“One said that the army of Burgoyne was cut in pieces, and another told St. Leger that Arnold had three thousand men near at hand.  They shook their heads mysteriously when questioned about the numbers of the enemy, and pointed, like Yan Yost, upward to the leaves.

“The savages, now thoroughly alarmed, prepared to flee.  St. Leger tried every means, by offers of bribes and promises, to induce them to remain, but the panic and suspicion of foul play had determined them to go.  He tried to make them drunk, but they refused to drink.  He then besought them to take the rear of his army in retreating; this they refused, and indignantly said: 

“’You mean to sacrifice us.  When you marched down, you said there would be no fighting for us Indians; we might go down and smoke our pipes; whereas numbers of our warriors have been killed, and you mean to sacrifice us also.’

“Nothing more was needed to complete the panic.  It was in vain that Sir John and St. Leger coaxed and threatened the savages.  They were already filled with fear, and while a certain number deliberately ran away, taking their squaws with them, others drank rum until they were drunk, and began to assault the officers.”

That is the story as has been set down by others, and I have already told what we ourselves saw.  All which seemed so unaccountable to us at that time, would have been as plain as the sun at noon-day had we possessed the key to the seeming riddle.