This Day in History: Little-known Revolutionary War hero Peter Gansevoort
On this day in 1749, Revolutionary War hero Peter Gansevoort is born. But for him, would Americans have lost the Battle of Saratoga? He held an important fort at a critical moment, sidetracking British reinforcements that might otherwise have shown up at that battle.
The American victory at Saratoga was important: It encouraged the French to join the war as our allies.
Little is known about Gansevoort’s early years, although we know that he had (at best) limited military experience when the American Revolution began. That didn’t stop him from joining the Continental Army in 1775! Nevertheless, he is best remembered for something that he did two years later: He refused to surrender Fort Schuyler to the British.
In August 1777, British Lt. Colonel Barry St. Leger was working his way past Fort Schuyler, then commanded by Gansevoort. St. Leger’s ultimate goal was to rendezvous with General John Burgoyne, then on a campaign to isolate the New England colonies from the others. Fort Schuyler stood in St. Leger’s way! He laid siege to it in early August.
Gansevoort refused to surrender, even when American reinforcements failed to arrive. Gansevoort told St. Leger that he was “determined to defend [the fort] to the last extremity, against all enemies whatsoever, without any concern for the consequences of doing [my] duty”!
The British spent two weeks firing at the fort. They diverted the local water supply so as to deprive Gansevoort’s men of water. And they began digging trenches that enabled them to move closer and closer to Fort Schuyler. But they had another problem on their hands: Their Indian allies were becoming restless. Thanks to a trick implemented by Benedict Arnold, those Indians were also worried that a large force of American reinforcements was coming. They decided to cut their losses and leave. Unsurprisingly, the British siege crumbled.
“Gansevoort has proved,” John Adams would remark, “that it is possible to hold a Post.” The Continental Congress, too, formally thanked Gansevoort and his men “for the bravery and perseverance which they have so conspicuously manifested in the defence of Fort Schuyler.”
Not bad for a guy who joined the Army with no military experience to speak of?!
After the war, Gansevoort served in a variety of public capacities, but his service in 1777 had left its mark. In fact, John Adams once wrote of his feeling that many Continental soldiers were too little recognized for their great character—and he thought Gansevoort was one of these!
“You are daily looking out for Some great military Character,” Adams wrote to Benjamin Rush in 1778. “Have you found none? Let me intreat you my Friend to look back on the Course of this War, and especially through the last Campaign, and then tell me, whether many Countries of the World, have ever furnished more, and greater Examples of Fortitude, Valour, and skill, than our little states have produced. We dont attend enough to our Heroes . . . . Barton, Meigs, Green, Smith, Willett, Gansevort, Harkemer, Starks, Arnold, Gates, and many, many others, have exhibited to our View, a series of Actions, which all the Exertions and Skill of our Enemies, have never equalled in the present Contest.”
“We dont attend enough to our Heroes”? Sadly, still too often true today.
John C. Fredriksen, Revolutionary War Almanac (2006)
Journals of the Continental Congress (Oct. 4, 1777)
Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams (Sept. 2, 1777)
Letter from John Adams to Benjamin Rush (Feb. 8, 1778)
Richard M. Ketchum, Saratoga: Turning Point of America’s Revolutionary War (1997)
Terry M. Mays, Historical Dictionary of the American Revolution (2d ed. 2009)