Friday, December 9, 2016

“I desire you would remember the ladies…”: Angelica Schuyler, Mary Watts Johnson, and Military Intelligence

by Ian Mumpton and Danielle Funiciello

Abigail Adams wrote the title line of this post as a reminder to her husband that, “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.” In this case, it is a good reminder to historians when considering many aspects of the American Revolution. With few exceptions, the prominent women of the Revolution are mostly remembered today for the moral support they gave to the men in their lives. From Martha Washington to Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, these Founding Ladies are cast in the image of the Republican Mother. This role, however, while important, is far from the full story. In this post we will look at the work of two women, Angelica Schuyler Church, a Revolutionary, and Mary Watts Johnson, a Loyalist, both of whom engaged in the collection and transmission of important intelligence during the war.

Angelica Schuyler
On July 4th, 1776, twenty year old Angelica Schuyler wrote to her father, Philip Schuyler, who had just left Albany for Crown Point. The Schuylers’ frequent correspondence helped to keep family members close, even when they were separated by long distances. However, rather than simply regaling her father with news of day-to-day life or social interactions, it seems that Angelica Schuyler had taken on the role of collecting and transmitting military news and intelligence. In fact, her letter, as short as it is, contains vital information about all three fronts of the war in New York:

My Dear Papa, 
Time Passes very heavily here, we hear no news from the Army at Isle aux Noir [Noix] and the idea of a ministerial fleet is lost in our disgust of American perfidy. Mr. Matthews is condemned; and Wallace, Jones and Beach are confined; The fleet were to have attacked the city on the day on which the conspirators were to have assassinated our Worthy Generals. 
There is no more news; and what you will hear in the future I hope will be favourable to our Cause. 
Mama desires her love her Children join her in that request; adieu my dear papa I am with affection your                                                                                
                                                        Dutiful child Ange: Schuyler 
There has been a report in town that Sir John Johnson was dead, some person had told Lady Johnson and made her very unhappy; I desired a lady to tell her that he was not dead, but made no mention my name as I should not wish her to imagine herself under obligation to me; for that was only an act of humanity; if you approve of this I shall applaud myself for it; if not my future conduct must be improved by your example.
The first information which Angelica reported to her father was actually lack of news. Philip had left Albany for Crown Point at this time (he would arrive the day after this letter was sent) where he expected to meet General Sullivan with the troops under his command. Sullivan and Schuyler had been locked in a stalemate for the past week over Sullivan’s decision to encamp his troops at Isle aux Noix, north of Lake Champlain, rather than pulling them farther south where Philip felt them to be more secure. On the 25th of June (in a letter marked as being written at “1 O’clock A.M.”), Schuyler had written to Washington, saying:
Your Excellency will observe that General Sullivan intimates that farther than the Isle aux Noix he could not retreat without your Excellency’s or my Orders …I do not hesitate to say that I wish he had retreated, at least as far South as point au Fere or Isle la mott, as I am afraid that the Enemy will throw themselves between him and the broad part of Lake Champlain and render it extremely difficult, if not impossible to send on a Supply of provisions, as they can with light Cannon and even Wall pieces command the Waters from Shore to Shore in most places, for six Miles South of Isle au Noix and in many even with Musquetry.…I should not send [my orders] for a farther Retreat untill your pleasure could be known; but I trust I shall be justified in doing it, and yet I believe the Order will meet the Army on this Side of Isle au Noix.
A map of the border between Crown-controlled Canada
and the thirteen Revolutionary-controlled colonies
Despite receiving Washington’s assent and a letter from Sullivan indicating his intention to give in to the opinions of his subordinate officers, as of July 4th, Angelica- who had remained in Albany- reported to her father that no word had as yet been received there of Sullivan having begun his withdrawal, an issue which she was well aware would have been pressing on her father’s mind and which she took it upon herself to keep him apprised of.

After reporting on events in the North, Angelica next turned to a different front of the war effort, New York City, which was still reeling from the discovery of a Loyalist conspiracy which included plans to support a British invasion of New York by abducting (or, according to Revolutionary sources, assassinating) Washington and by sabotaging Revolutionary military infrastructure in the region. According to Angelica, “Mr. Matthews is condemned; and Wallace, Jones and Beach are confined; The fleet were to have attacked the city on the day on which the conspirators were to have assassinated our Worthy Generals.”  The reference is brief, mostly rumors coming out of New York, but Philip Schuyler was well aware of the importance of rumor, whether confirmed or spurious. Angelica’s report of the situation in New York neatly summarized the available intelligence. Only a week before, Thomas Hickey, a soldier on Washington’s Life Guard, had been executed for his role in the plot. The effect to the collective psyche of the Revolutionaries is evidenced by Angelica’s assertion that the British fleet was expected imminently, and had originally been assumed to be due to arrive in coordination with the plot.

The “ministerial fleet” was not far off at all. On the 11th of July- five days after Angelica’s report- Washington wrote to Philip Schuyler with the following intelligence:
Since my last General Howe’s Fleet from Halifax has arrived, in Number about 130 Sail. His Army is between 9 & 10 Thousand, being Joined by some of the Regiments from the West Indies, & having fallen in with Part of the Highland Troops in his Passage. He has landed his Men on Staten Island, which they Mean to secure, & is in daily Expectation of the Arrival of Lord Howe with one hundred & fifty Ships with a large & powerfull Reinforcemnt.
A 19th century image of the British fleet gathering off NYC in the Summer of 1776.
Having relayed the available military information, Angelica closed her letter with a brief personal touch, passing along the love and well wishes of the family. Below her signature, however, she added a post-script that, at first reading, appears to be purely social and personal in nature:
There has been a report in town that Sir John Johnson was dead, some person had told Lady Johnson and made her very unhappy; I desired a lady to tell her that he was not dead, but made no mention my name as I should not wish her to imagine herself under obligation to me; for that was only an act of humanity; if you approve of this I shall applaud myself for it; if not my future conduct must be improved by your example.
Under closer examination, this addition to the letter not only contains information about local rumor, but reveals Angelica as a young woman attempting to navigate the diverse demands placed on her. Lady Mary Watts Johnson was the young wife of Sir John Johnson, the son and heir of Sir William Johnson and lord of Johnstown and Johnson Hall, located on the western frontier of New York. Mary Johnson had also been Philip Schuyler’s prisoner since May, 1776, when he sent a force of soldiers to attempt to take John Johnson (then under parole) into custody as a threat to the Revolutionary movement in New York. While John Johnson escaped to Canada - accompanied by many of his tenants, who had no wish to be imprisoned in Albany themselves as Schuyler intended - Mary was pregnant, and already had two toddlers, making it impossible for her to escape with him. She therefore remained behind at the family’s home where she was captured by Revolutionary troops under the command of Col. Dayton. After being temporarily placed under armed guard in her home, Mary had been moved to house arrest in Albany, where she was living at the time of Angelica’s letter.

Angelica apparently felt that social expectations (and human decency) required her to communicate with her father’s prisoner to dispel rumors of her husband’s death; however she was also aware that her interactions, and more generally her father’s position in regards to Mary Johnson, required careful handling. On the one hand, while a prisoner and a loyalist, Mary Johnson was family; she and Philip Schuyler were first-cousins once removed. At twenty-three she was also an expectant mother with young children already in her care who now believed herself to be widowed. On the other hand, Philip considered her too dangerous to release, and hoped that her position as a hostage in Albany would induce her husband (whom he knew to be alive in Canada) to abstain from using his influence with the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee to threaten Revolutionary interests and settlements in Tryon County and Albany.

Schuyler was right to be apprehensive of Mary Watts Johnson. In fact, he seems to have underestimated her. After John Johnson’s escape to Canada, just days ahead of Schuyler’s soldiers, Lady Johnson arranged for supplies to meet him en route to Canada.  Philip was concerned that, if freed, she could pass information on to her husband in Canada, but even as a captive, Mary did carry on clandestine communications with her husband. Further, she was able to use the obvious discomfort of her captors to her advantage. She was, after all, a member of one of the most powerful families in New York, a mother with her third child on the way, and a relative of the commander of the Northern Department. To top it all off, the fact that she was a young woman of high class made her status as a prisoner awkward; as men conditioned to be deferential to such a lady, how were they to interact with her as a prisoner, especially with no proof of her involvement in her husband’s “nefarious” activities?

Lady Mary Watts Johnson
This discomfort resulted in a surprisingly lax watch being kept over Mary and her family. After Johnson Hall was occupied by soldiers under Col. Dayton, a Capt. Bloomfield was sent to inform her that she was to be removed to Albany and her home searched, at which news she burst into tears to such a degree that Bloomfield, “…thought it proper to leave her alone.” While there is no reason to doubt that the stress and anxiety of the situation elicited a genuine emotional response, in this case, there is speculation from historians that Lady Johnson may have used the opportunity to hide some of her husband’s documents. This was not the only time that Bloomfield and his troops left Mary Johnson without a close watch. She was again given a surprising amount of distance when her escort stopped in Schenectady, where she apparently was able to meet with a number of leading loyalists- whom Bloomfield describes as "...a pack of Tories,"- from the surrounding area. Again, Bloomfield and his troops were uncertain to what degree they could restrict her activities beyond bringing her to Albany. When the party was waylaid by loyalists on the road, Mary Johnson and her retinue managed to ride on ahead a good distance before Bloomfield and his men could catch up.

After arriving in Albany, Mary Johnson became an even more persistent thorn in Schuyler’s side. During her time in Albany, she was able to continue correspondence with her husband through a network of Native American and White couriers, through whom she was able to share information about Revolutionary activity in Albany. She was also able to keep her family apprised of her own precarious situation. As a hostage meant to insure the good behavior of her husband, Mary was living with an inherent threat over her head. According to Mary, Philip Schuyler threatened on at least two occasions to turn her over, “to the enraged populace” at the first sign of British movement against Albany. Finally, in 1777, after Philip Schuyler turned her charge over to the Albany Committee of Safety (who in turn attempted to send her to the Tryon County Committee only to be rebuffed), and after the birth of her third child, Mary Johnson received permission to travel with her family to Fishkill to petition for parole. While her parole was denied, she, her three infant children, her sister, a nurse, and two servants escaped from that place in disguise, travelling over seventy miles in the middle of February, and crossing into British lines just outside of NYC where she was reunited with John Johnson.

As Linda K. Kerber wrote on the subject of women during the Revolution, “…there were at least two wars, a men’s war and a women’s war (just as there was a soldier’s war and a civilian’s war).”  While they devoted their efforts to opposing causes and found themselves in very different situations, Angelica Schuyler and Mary Johnson are evidence of this. Despite the fact that military matters were the prerogative of the masculine world, the correspondence of both women reveal an ability and willingness to wade into that world when the situation called for it. Mary Johnson did not necessarily choose to become adept at managing clandestine correspondence, or to coordinate a seventy mile escape in the middle of the winter with her children at her side, but when the situation of her captivity, threats to herself and her family, and the exigencies of war called for it, she was able to use her established position as an upper-class women to outmaneuver her captors while assisting her husband’s efforts against the rebellion.

Angelica Schuyler, on the other hand, seems to have actively pursued her role. The letter to her father cited above reveals her to be a young woman eager to use her sharp intellect and ability to gauge situations and people in the service of the Revolution. Her writing makes no apology for a lack of concern for domestic topics; instead she turns with enthusiasm and strong language to extremely specific military news. Even in the uncertainty of the post-script regarding Mary Johnson, Angelica Schuyler reports taking independent action on a matter of importance, writing only that “…if you approve of this I shall applaud myself for it; if not my future conduct must be improved by your example.”

While these women are strong examples, it would be a mistake to assume that they are special exceptions in history. Abigail Adams asked her husband to “remember the ladies” because the actions of ladies were not often remembered at that time. We must also do some remembering. We must remember that our history of women in the Revolution was first written by men in (and shortly after) the Revolution. It was based on the ideals of the time, and these ideals did not take into account that these women were at war, just as their husbands and fathers were at war. Women like Mary Johnson may not have chosen the path of most resistance if it was not forced upon them; others, like Angelica Schuyler, actively pursued a level of involvement at a time of peril. Either way, the results of the war affected them as much as it did the men in their lives, and many women worked within the social structures of their time to fight their own war.

Looking to delve deeper into the history of these Revolutionary ladies? There’s no better place to start than Schuyler Mansion, home to a fascinatingly diverse group of women over the years. We will open again for regular visitation in May, but check out the Friends of SchuylerMansion website, our NYS Parks page, and our Facebook page for more information about upcoming events and tour times. For further reading, check out Linda K. Kerber's Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America at your local library. Mary Watts Johnson's appeal to George Washington is preserved in the library of Congress and can be read online here.

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