Monday, February 26, 2018

Van Schaick Mansion: Planning the Defense of Albany

In 1777 the British strategy to win the war known on this side of the Atlantic as the Revolutionary War was to capture Albany, New York, and split the New England colonies from the rest of the American seaboard. They thought this divide-and conquer strategy would end the revolt before the French decided to enter the war. The British estimated that 40 percent of the people in the colony of New York supported the British and they would be easy to control.

John Burgoyne would launch the campaign from Quebec, Canada, and drive down the Hudson River valley. Barry St. Leger would lead the western offensive, advancing from Fort Oswego on Lake Ontario to Fort Stanwix and then along the Mohawk River Valley. William Howe would sail his troops up the Hudson River from New York City. The three British Generals would converge at the confluence of the Mohawk and Hudson rivers, drive a few miles south to Albany, and capture the city.

British strategy for 1777 versus what actually happened; created
using Google Maps and Microsoft Powerpoint

The Americans did not have good intelligence as to what the British plans were. Gen. Washington was at Morristown, New Jersey, in an attempt to watch the wily Howe. Would he support Burgoyne or attack Philadelphia? In Washington: A Life,  Ron Chernow describes Washington's dilemma:

"General Howe commanded an army double or treble the size of his own, keeping him in an agony of suspense. Would the British general suddenly lunge north to hook up with General Burgoyne, who was then marching south from Canada? Or would he head for Philadelphia by sea or land to exploit the propaganda triumph of expelling the Continental Congress from the city?"[1]

To combat the Howe threat, Washington stationed a part of his army in Middlebrook, New Jersey, while the the rest of his troops remained in Morristown. After Ticonderoga fell to Burgoyne, Washington felt sure sure Howe would indeed sail up the Hudson in support of Burgoyne. Instead Howe's troops sailed from Sandy Hook, New Jersey, and disappeared in the Atlantic Ocean. Washington began concentrating on protecting Philadelphia. As a result he played little part in the ensuing defense of Albany except providing help in the planning and sorting out the differences between officers of the Northern Department and soothing the ill will a planned change in leadership would engender.

After Buygoyne captured forts Ticonderoga and William Henry, Philip Schuyler, commanding officer of the Northern Department, retreated to Van Schaick Island with 5,000 hungry and poorly equipped men. The island sat at the confluence of the Mohawk and Hudson rivers. The Mohawk was the main route for east-west travel and the Hudson, the primary route for north-south travel. The island was in a superior strategic position. Schuyler established his headquarters at Van Schaick mansion, a large house built by Goosen Geritge Van Schaick in 1735.

Schuyler was respected by his peers but had a difficult relationship with his enlisted men. His Dutch surname held no appeal for colonists of English descent. As a result, he was ordered to turn over command of the Northern Department to Gen. Horatio Gates. The public, enlisted troops and militia men loved Gates. He caroused with his troops and was not as aloof as many other generals. Like many other officers, Schuyler did not approve of his authority or management style, but accepted the change of command.

At the Van Schaick Mansion, George Washington[1], Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold developed the plans to defend Albany from Burgoyne. The initial plan was to engage Burgoyne at the first ford of the Mohawk on Van Hoever's (Havers) Island, now known as Peebles Island), and fortifications were constructed there. After St. Leger, commanding officer of the British western force lifted the siege at Fort Stanwix and a portion of Burgoyne's troops were defeated at Bennington, Vermont, the American prospects changed. Gen. Stark, the hero of Bennington traveled to Van Schaick Island to file his report. When he learned Gates was in charged of the Northern Department, he refused to serve under him.

Washington sent George Clinton, the governor of New York and a brigadier general who outranked the other officers, to Van Schaick Island to calm the factious generals. He stayed at the mansion for four days -- from 22 to 27 August and plans were finalized to move the Continental troops north.

Van Schaick Mansion, Green Island, New York; personal collection

As Burgoyne troops continued marching south and spreading a path of destruction along the Hudson River, word spread there would be a great battle north of Albany. More Continental Army troops, including Morgan's Riflemen, with which my four times great grandfather, Benjamin Jennings, served as well as militia men from neighboring colonies came to Van Schaick Island. Soon there was upwards of 6,000 to 8,000 American men preparing to fight Burgoyne. American morale was boosted by the battles at Oriskany and Bennington. Gates marched his troops north and meet Burgoyne in Stillwater where the Americans won the battles of Saratoga and turned the tide of the war.

The mansion where the war plans were developed was built in 1735 by Goosen Gertige Van Schaick. The location of the island at the confluence of the Hudson and Mohawk rivers on which the house was located made it an ideal military stronghold. It served as headquarters during the French and Indian Wars in 1755 and in the American Revolution beginning in 1777.

The Van Schaick Mansion is now owned by the Peter Gansevoort Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). DAR conducts open houses once a month on Sundays in June through October. I cannot wait to tour the mansion.

[1] Legend has it that Washington, during one of his visits to the mansion, carved his initials in an upstairs window. 

Morgan's Rifle Corps Travel North to Saratoga
Morgan's Rifle Corps Established and the Fog of War
Benjamin Jennings (c1740-1815): A Morgan's Rifleman
British Surrender at Saratoga
Revolutionary War Soldier

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