While many soldiers who deserted while serving at Fort Schuyler (Stanwix) probably left simply because of the harsh conditions, those who attempted it in 1778 may have had other motivations. Throughout the Revolution, the British attempted to destroy Continental forces by sending British agents or disaffected American prisoners amongst them urging them to desert or mutiny. Most of these plots failed because the British did not understand that just because the troops were upset with their lot as soldiers, it didn’t necessarily mean they had given up on the cause of Independence.
A similar British espionage attempt amongst the garrison of the 3rd New York Regiment in the early summer of 1778 was also a failure. Perhaps this is why the incident has been completely overlooked in all aspects of historic writings, studies and histories of the fort and its garrisons during the Revolution.
Even with its failure however, at the time the situation was not taken lightly. The possibility that it might have succeeded, along with the possibility that it could happen again was a major reason that Gansevoort dealt so harshly with the five soldiers who attempted to desert in July of 1778, and ordered their execution (the incident portrayed in our movie in the Gregg building).
The potential “conspiracy” first came to Gansevoort’s attention on June 3rd, when he received a letter from Lt. Col. Willett in Schenectady. Willett wrote that Capt. Swartwout had recruited “a suspicious person” for the artillery detachment at the fort. The same day, Gansevoort also received a letter from Capt. Richard Varick, one of Gen. Schuyler’s staff officers. Varick echoed Willett’s concerns and also stated his feelings that “the suspicious person” should not have access to any information concerning the fort’s artillery and other military stores. Varick also stated that an American officer, Maj. Daniel Hamill, had been detained because of his connection with the man in question.
This “suspicious person” was Samuel Geake. Both he and Maj. Hamill had been captured in October of 1777 when Ft. Montgomery had fallen to the British. The fact that both of them were Irishmen also had a direct bearing on their part in this attempted British “conspiracy”.
While in prison in New York City, Maj. Hamill (a lukewarm patriot at best) had gotten on good terms with the British and brought Geake before the British Lord Rawdon, an Irish officer who had plans to raise an “Irish Brigade” from Irishmen in the 13 colonies (Hamill had been promised a Lt. Colonel’s commission in this unit). Later testimony against Geake would state that Geake said that “Lord Rawdon advised him to inlist in the Artillery and endeavor to engage as many Men as he could (particularly Irishmen) to desert.”
According to the testimony, Lord Rawdon had also “desired him (Geake) to enquire into the State of…Fort Schuyler, particularly as to Ammunition, Provisions, Number of Men…and to get as many Men as he could there to join him…spike up the Cannon, and push for Philadelphia, where he was to receive a sum of Money…and a Lieutenancy in his (Rawdon’s) Brigade. “
Upon their release, Hamill and Geake concocted a story that they had been able to escape from prison. They then moved up the Hudson Valley to Poughkeepsie, passing on Lord Rawdon’s offer to the American troops they encountered. At Poughkeepsie, Geake enlisted under Capt. Swartwout, with the understanding that he (Geake) would join the artillery detachment at the fort. Unfortunately for Maj. Hamill, he was recognized by a soldier who had been a prisoner at the same time and remembered Hamill having been on very friendly terms with the British during their imprisonment. This led to Hamill being detained, as mentioned in Capt. Varrick’s letter to Gansevoort.
It is not known when in June Geake arrived at the fort, but by June 16 Col. Gansevoort had decided to end any potential plot that might be in motion. Possibly due to Willett and Varick’s letters of warning, Geake was not enlisted into the artillery, but Capt. Aaorson’s company of the 3rd New York. Gansevoort met with the 1st Sergeant of the company and asked him to pose as a potential deserter, win Geake’s trust and then expose any plots of mutiny or desertion. The sergeant, Jonathan Kertel, enlisted the aid of fellow sergeant Frances Jackson and they began meeting with Geake and professing their dissatisfaction with life at the garrison.
Sgt. Kertel later testified that ..”Afterwards at tattoo beating this deponent (Kertel) Geak, Henry (John Henry, a soldier in the artillery detachment) and Serjeant Jackson met behind the barracks in a little Room where they agreed to stand true to each other, and signed a paper drawn up for the purpose…” Being a time when a man’s oath carried the same weight as a legal document, Kertel further testified that “It was agreed by them all to bind themselves to each other by a solemn Oath on the Bible…and Serjeant Jackson was sent out for a bible…” Jackson instead went to the guard house “… for a file of men and took Henry…and Geak to the Guard House.”
Geake was given a death sentence but this needed final approval from Gen. Washington. Since Geake’s testimony helped reinforce the case building against Maj. Hamill, Washington asked Gansevoort to confine Geake instead, so that he could be used as a witness against Hamill. New York Governor George Clinton wrote Washington in September that due to Geake’s testimony at the fort, Hamill had been put in close confinement.
While Hamill’s story has no direct bearing on the events at the fort, it is worthwhile to look at as an example of the lengths someone was willing to go to preserve themselves and their families during the war. As mentioned earlier, Hamill was a lukewarm patriot at best and seems to have been a Loyalist at heart.
While in prison, he informed the British that he had joined the “Rebels” only because he feared reprisals against his family. During their trip up the Hudson River, Hamill informed Geake that he had no intention of actually carrying out Rawdon’s scheme of encouraging Americans to desert. When Geake offered to lay the whole plot before Governor Clinton however, Hamill dissuaded him from doing it. Still awaiting trial in 1779, Hamill managed to escape from confinement and rejoined the British. He then served as a clerk in the British fuel office (probably in New York City) and went to London in 1784.
At this time it is unknown what happened to Geake after his arrest and confinement. Hamill’s escape rendered Geake’s testimony useless, so perhaps his death sentence was reinstated. But at this time he has disappeared from history.
So British plans to instill mass desertion and mutiny in upstate New York were quickly crushed, but it did have lasting effects. Gansevoort feared that additional mutineers might remain undiscovered in the garrison, which is why he dealt so quickly and harshly with the captured deserters in July (in that case not even waiting for Washington’s permission to carry out the execution). He also knew that if soldiers did garrison duty for too long they grew bored and more susceptible to the temptations of desertion and mutiny that British agents like Geake offered. This was one of the motivations behind his constant requests throughout 1778 that his regiment be reassigned.
So while the incident is hardly even a “footnote to history” at this time, those involved in it then understood the implications if Geake had succeeded and took the failed plot very seriously. They knew that just because the pot had failed once didn’t mean that it wouldn’t be tried again and possibly succeed in the future.
- Mahoney, Harry Thayer, and Mahoney, Marjorie Locke, Gallantry in Action: A Biographic Dictionary of Espionage in the American Revolution, University of America Press, Lanham, 1999.
- The State of New York, The Military Papers of General Peter Gansevoort, James B. Lyon, State Publisher: Albany, 1907.
- The State of New York, The Papers of Governor George Clinton, Vol. IV, James B. Lyon, State Publisher: Albany, 1900.