Thursday, June 9, 2016

Welcome to the Northern Department

by Ian Mumpton

         Dear Sir
I do myself the Honor to inform Your Excellency of my Arrival at this Place early this Morning… Not one earthly thing for offence or defence has been done… About ten last night I arrived at the Landing place the north end of Lake George; a post occupied by a Captain and 100 men. A Centinel on being informed I was in the boat quitted his post to go and awake the guard, consisting of three men, in which he had no success. I walked up and came to another, a serjeant’s Guard. Here the centinel challenged, but suffered me to come up to him, the whole guard, like the first, in the soundest sleep. With a penknife only I could have cut off both guards, and then have set fire to the blockhouse, destroyed the stores, and starved the people here.

Major General Philip Schuyler, from a miniature by John Trumbull.
Philip Schuyler penned the above message to General Washington upon his first arrival at Fort Ticonderoga on July 18th, 1775, barely a month after being commissioned as a Major General in the Continental Army. What he found frustrated him, to say the least. Schuyler was already a man of military experience, having served as a provincial officer during the French and Indian War, and he expected high levels of professionalism from his men. Instead he found discipline lax, the department’s organization in shambles, the troops poorly equipped, ill, and underfed, and the general state of fortifications under his jurisdiction abysmal. He set out to rectify the situation, sending dozens of letters to other officers, military suppliers, and the Continental Congress. Elisha Phelps, the commissary at Albany, was ordered to send six grindstones to Ticonderoga, as well as nails and other building materials to put the garrison in order.

Embezzlement was another issue which Schuyler sought to address. Shortly after arriving at Ticonderoga, he issued a general order that, “All person whatever are strictly forbid from embezzling any of Colo. Skene’s Effects…at their peril.” Philip Skene was another former British officer, in this case a loyalist, whose nearby estate had been pillaged prior to Schuyler’s arrival. Schuyler similarly sought to end the embezzlement of supplies, ordering the commissaries to, “…pay great attention to the stores under their Care that they be not damaged by the weather  or other wise nor embezzled as a strict enquiry will be made from time to time by officers to inspect their proceedings.”

Schuyler also set an intelligence gathering network in place; identifying trustworthy and capable couriers tasked with conveying letters to Canada and returning with intelligence on the enemy.  Major Samuel Elmore at Crown Point was one of his subordinates charged with engaging “…a proper person to convey a Letter safely into Canada…[furthermore] any other intelligence You may receive from Canada You are immediately to communicate to me.”

Throughout all of this, Schuyler did not forget the underwhelming levels of discipline exhibited by the sentries who first greeted him at the Landing. Several of his orders specifically exhorted the troops of the Northern Army to show special diligence in their watch, including another letter to Elmore insisting that he, “… keep a small scout to the Westward lest any enemy should pass undiscovered and fall on our communication at the Landing or elsewhere- I have the fullest confidence that you will keep up strict discipline…”

Despite these early obstacles, Schuyler entertained an optimistic opinion of the troops under him, closing his report on the garrison by saying, “The officers and men are all good looking people, and decent in their deportment, and I really believe will make good soldiers as soon as I can get the better of this non-chalance of theirs. Bravery I believe they are far from wanting.”

You can read the original letter in its entirety here, through the National Archives.

This is the first of a series of posts focusing on Philip Schuyler’s military career during the American Revolution, so check back throughout the season for more Notes from the Northern Department!

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