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Fort Stanwix is known in history for its dramatic role during the British siege of August 1777. In defeating the designs of Barry St. Leger, it was able to contribute to the defeat of General Burgoyne, leading to new developments in the Revolution. Nevertheless, its significance cannot be fully appreciated without first realizing the strategic position it commanded on the frontier—first as a British post and later as an American possession. Located in central New York State, in an area commonly known as the Oneida Carrying Place, it became the connecting link between the several western posts on the Great Lakes and those posts on Lake Champlain and the Hudson River. Gen. Thomas Gage appreciated its strategic importance when he noted that, because of Fort Stanwix, the Mohawk River and all points eastward as far as Schenectady were well secured against any attempt by the French. In regard to the role it would play in supporting communications westward, Gage noted that the fort would give "assistance to every person going with stores [and] refreshments to the several posts . . . to Niagara." [1]

After the French and Indian War had ended and after fears of French incursions had subsided, there was no longer any need for a fully garrisoned fort. In recommending that Fort Stanwix be demilitarized, General Gage argued that the fort had ceased to serve its original purpose. He said that:

The use of Fort Stanwix was, that being Situated upon a Carrying Place, the Garrison assisted in the Transportation of the Boats and Stores: but as the Stores formerly demanded are now greatly reduced I am of opinion that the Service can be carried on in the Manner proposed, without being at the Expence of Supporting a Fort, and Maintaining a Garrison at so great a Distance. [2]

Soon after the outbreak of the Revolution, the fort's strategic importance was again realized. With the failure of the American campaign in Canada in 1776, Fort Stanwix along with all those posts on Lake Champlain and the Hudson River began to attract attention. Encouraged by their success in Canada, the British would almost certainly begin a drive southward to cut off the New England colonies. Gen. Philip Schuyler, who commanded the Northern Department, saw the possible consequences of an enemy drive eastward along the Mohawk Valley and the need to retain the loyalty of the Oneidas, the only family of the Six Nations of the Iroquois to remain neutral. Prompted by the fears of the inhabitants of Tryon County, he ordered the reopening of Fort Stanwix. [3]

During the Revolution, Fort Stanwix remained a frontier fort isolated from Albany and Schenectady, from which it received its direction and major supplies, by more than 90 miles. It found itself in the midst of Tories and unfriendly Iroquois. Because of this isolation it suffered more than its share of desertions. [4] In 1776 the post commander complained that he was "not able to get any publick intelligence, unless I make Particular application for it at some place more publick." To remedy the situation, he appointed a post rider to ride between Fort Stanwix and Albany once a week. His appeal for intelligence of any kind was almost desperate. [5]

General Schuyler was convinced that the enemy would one day make its strength felt by way of the Mohawk Valley, and he resisted any attempt to weaken that part of the country. He objected strenuously to a request from Gen. Horatio Gates to transfer troops from Fort Stanwix to the Champlain region. "I cannot think," he said, "of moving Colonel Dayton's Corps from Fort Stanwix. If I had any troops to spare I would strengthen that Quarter as all my Intelligence agrees that some Blow is Meditated." [6]

Schuyler worked feverishly to strengthen the fort with much-needed supplies. Unfortunately, the results were not always equal to the effort. Although Col. Peter Gansevoort, Jr., Commander of the 3 New York Regiment, found it "extremely pleasant and agreeable" when he first arrived, he soon showed his annoyance at the lack of progress being made to strengthen the fort. He complained that construction was moving very slowly. Only two months before the siege, he noted with some disgust that "Nothing of any importance [had] yet been done toward the Strengthening [of] the Fortifications which at present has little more than the name of a Fortification." [7]

By the time the siege got underway, the fort was still largely unprepared. While the garrison expanded to an approximate strength of 700 on the eve of the siege, the same could not be said for the heavy guns that were promised. Although ordnance supplies were being shipped daily to Fort Stanwix, Schuyler was finally compelled to admit to Washington that the garrison was weak and poorly supplied with cannon. [8] Meanwhile, the siege had come and gone, but the fort remained without adequate facilities and supplies.

In the final analysis, the British were largely to blame for their unsuccessful attempt against Fort Stanwix. Although they outnumbered the garrison, they had underestimated their task; by not bringing guns of a larger caliber with them, they missed an excellent opportunity. The problems they faced with a restless and uncertain ally in the Indian was another factor contributing to their defeat.

Although the records are silent, Fort Stanwix must have presented a chaotic scene during the siege. Sleeping quarters were inadequate to house the normal complement of 400 men. These facilities had been planned but never completed. On top of this, the garrison suddenly expanded to about 700 men just before the siege. Although supplies of all kinds were arriving daily, there were many shortages, from clothing and eating utensils to big guns. Faced with a shortage of normal day-to-day supplies, the men were forced to improvise, borrow, and share. They slept on floors and possibly in tents with little bedding and a minimum of comfort, sharing their cooking and eating utensils and wearing tattered clothes. Fortunately it was summer, but the cool nights of that region must have produced considerable discomfort.

Inadequate facilities and lack of supplies must have seemed intolerable at times, but they were not the only problems. The garrison during the siege was made up of Yorkers and Yankees, as well as continentals and militia. Such a combination must have produced more than the normal amount of factionalism and jealousies. Mistrust of the Tryon County militia (whose members, after all, did come from an area where loyalties were divided) was inevitable, and must have added fuel to the fire.

The siege went on for 22 days under these conditions. In the final analysis, the fact that the siege was finally raised with the loss of so few men must be credited to the bravery, courage, and in genuity of the garrison.

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Last Updated: 26-Dec-2008