The Confused Intelligencer, OR Rumor Has it That's What We're Attacking Them For

November 13, 2022 Posted by: Ranger Bill & Ranger Kelly

Rows of soldiers marching inside the fort. They are in lines carrying their muskets. Photo Credit: M. Huchko/National Park Service

“A rumor without a leg to stand on will get around some other way.” - John Tudor

Have you ever played the game "telephone," where someone shares a secret and then it's passed down the line? Have you ever gossiped around the proverbial "water cooler" and ended up causing more damage than good? Well, the good news is you're not the first person to do that!

People in the 18th C were no different than us. And the proverbial rumor mill has been in existence for centuries, as proven by the following dramatic letter from the French & Indian War. Despite the exaggerated language, none of the "intelligence" passed along to the then commander of the fort, Major Clephane of the 78th Highlanders, proved to be true.

A Letter from Thomas Butler to James Clephane:
[Fort Stanwix] 9th April 1759

Saturday last an Oneida Indian was sent here with an [message] that the four Indians we sent from this place to Swegatia the 28th Janry. last was returned to their Castle; and likewise that there was a Scalping party out from Sweatia which we might expect here in a few days.
Yesterday a squa from Oneida, told me she was come from the let us know that a french army was at the ossego falls on their way to Attack this place, -
The same evening the four Conessarago Indians from Sweatia Arrived here they Confirm that the scalping party is out & may be soon expected; about fourteen in number, - But know nothing of the Army further then that there were a number of French and Indians, assembled at Sweagatia; But has not the look of an Army, -
This day a young Indian lad on horseback Came express from Oneida; sent by Seonado, tells me that some Onondaga’s mett with a party of French Indians who told the Onondaga’s that foure days ago the French Army was then crossing over at ossego falls, that upon their approach to this place, they were to Devide their light Troops to Cut the Communication from below: while the others attacked the place, this Is all I could learn about them - The news the scout brings is not Matereall they are to go tomorrow for Sir William Johnsons -

I am
Sir & [T]B
Commander in Chief
Fort Stanwix

Said letter was referenced in the 78th Highlanders’ Orderly Book, but acknowledged as most likely untrue. However, all the soldiers were told to remain wary and as a response, work around the outside of the fort was limited until further notice:

Apr. 8, 1759 ...This afternoon an Alarm that a French Army were at Oswego Falls approaching upon the Intention of taking this Place, And upon a Little Examination with Respect to the Certainty of the Above Intelligence, We found it was Occasioned by a Quarrel Among themselves & is Leikly [sic: likely] to prove an Arrant falsehood. After Order’s: The Major Expects that as the Men may judge they have Reason to be Cautious, That no Man dare go further from the Fort than to the baker’s house on the Right hand, the Great Gate & to Elder’s Hutt on the left; or Colin’s in The front, or further that the Well out of the Sally Port on any Pretence Whatever.

Luckily for the soldiers stationed at the fort during the French & Indian War, this particular threat never panned out. But in other instances, untrue military "intellegence" can make or break the mission. A perfect example of this is the case of Lt. Colonel Barry St. Leger and his allied forces. Tasked with taking Fort Stanwix/Schuyler from the Americans in 1777 and to join forces with General John Burgoyne after that, St. Leger severely underestimated the new American fort's defenses. As a result, he came unprepared to take the garrison from American hands. 

Below are St. Leger's accounts of what occured in the weeks leading up to the Siege of Fort Schuyler and the accounts left by another officer in his contingent, Daniel Claus. 

St. Leger to Canadian Gov. Sir Guy Carleton, Circa 1777:
The accounts we received in Canada concerning Fort Stanwix were the most erroneous that can be conceived. Instead of the unsuitable and unfinished work we were taught to expect, I found it a respectable fortress strongly garrisoned with 700 men…four Bastions fraised and picketed…a good ditch with Pickets.” In addition the fort had a compliment of artillery that “we were not masters of.
St. Leger also notes, of the fort’s artillery, that “Three nines, four sixes, two threes with a considerable number of wall pieces were…made use of during the siege.”


October 16 1777 - Colonel Daniel Claus's Letter to Secretary Knox at London Documents Relating to the Colonial History of New York, Volume 8, page 718:
…Some time before our march I informed myself of Sir Guy Carleton, of the state of Fort Stanwix was in; he told me that by the latest accounts from Colonel Butler, there were sixty men in a picketed place. Determined to be sure, I dispatch one John Hare, an active Indian officer, with the Mohawk Chief John Odiseruney, to collect a small party of Indians a Swegachy and reconnoitre Fort Stanwix, as well as possible and bring off some prisoners if they could...

Between Sixty and Seventy Leagues from Montreal my reconnoitering party returned and met me with five prisoners (one lieutenant) and four scalps, having defeated a work party of sixteen rebels as they were cutting sod towards repairing and finishing the old fort, which is a regular square, and garrisoned by upwards of six hundred men, the repairs far advanced and the rebels expecting us, and were acquainted with our strength and our route. I immediately forwarded the prisoners to the Brigadier who was about fifteen leagues in our rear. On his arrival within a few leagues of Buck Island he sent for me, and talking over the intelligence the rebel prisoners gave, he owned that if they intended to defend themselves in that fort our artillery was not sufficient to take it. However, he said, he is determined to get the truth out of these fellows. I told him that having examined them separately they agreed in their story. And here the Brigadier still had an opportunity and time of sending for a better train of artillery and wait for the junction of the Chasseurs, (Jaegars) which must have secured us success, as every one will allow. However he was still full of his alert, making little of the prisoners' intelligence.


If the rumors St. Leger had been told had been weighed thoroughly and his forces brought the equipment they needed to properly besige the fort, do you think the outcome would've turned out differently?

Photo Credit: M. Colangelo/National Park ServiceLooking at the fort in the distance, a crew of about 6 cannoneers aims at the fort. A cloud of smoke explodes around them.

militaryhistory, FortStanwix

Last updated: April 9, 2022

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