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This Day in History: Benedict Arnold saves the day

On this day in 1777, the British siege of Fort Schuyler crumbles. You won’t believe what Benedict Arnold—not yet a traitor—did to finally bring that 3-week siege to an end.

Earlier attempts to rescue the besieged Americans had fallen apart. Notably, Brigadier General Nicholas Herkimer’s rescue effort had gone awry when he and his men got sidetracked by the bloody Battle of Oriskany. Herkimer won, but at great cost. (See August 5 history post.)

Meanwhile, Fort Schuyler’s commander, Peter Gansevoort, was left to fend for himself. You won’t be surprised to hear that he wasn’t one to give up! When British Lieutenant Colonel Barry St. Leger demanded his surrender, he defiantly refused. He 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 his duty”!

The British spent the next two weeks firing at the fort. They diverted the local water supply so as to deprive those in the fort 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. They’d been promised a quick victory, not a long siege.

In the meantime, a new force of Americans had been dispatched to help. Major General Benedict Arnold had roughly 1,000 men to combat the British forces at the fort. (The exact size of the combined British-Indian force is hard to pin down, but it was probably between 1,500 and 1,700.) Arnold was obviously outnumbered, so he decided to outsmart the British instead. He planned to take advantage of the discontent among the Indians at the siege.

Arnold struck a deal with Hon Yost Schuyler, a local Loyalist who had been captured. Schuyler’s job was to convince the Indians that a large American force was en route. In return, Arnold would give Schuyler his freedom. Arnold held Schuyler’s brother as a captive to ensure that Schuyler kept his end of the deal.

Schuyler was particularly suited to the task. Historian Richard Ketchum explains: “What lent credibility to this unlikely-seeming plan was that Hon Yost, who was given to raving in unknown tongues, was looked upon by the Indians as one who was in touch with supernatural powers—a prophet who spoke for the Great Spirit.”

Hon Yost did his work admirably. He shot holes in his clothes to convince the Indians that he’d barely escaped the Americans. And he convinced them that Arnold’s force was massive and bearing down on them quickly! Apparently, the size of the force kept growing as Hon Yost told and re-told his story, but no one seemed to notice the inconsistencies. Soon, the general belief was that the arrival of 3,000 American troops and ten cannon was imminent—and that Americans had recently routed British General John Burgoyne to boot.

The Indians decided to cut their losses and leave, thus causing the British siege to crumble. The victory proved important: It prevented St. Leger’s forces from combining with Burgoyne at the Battle of Saratoga. Americans would ultimately win at Saratoga, convincing the French to join in the Revolution as our allies.

Benedict Arnold would later turn traitor, as we all know, but one has to wonder where we’d be without some of his early victories.

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