World on Fire, or the Mystery of the Fall of Fort Schuyler 1781

April 30, 2022 Posted by: Ranger Eric O.
Fort Schuyler, or as most people call it Fort Stanwix, is famous for the Patriots successful 21-day defense of the fort against a combined force of British, Hessian, Tories and Indians. But, almost no one knows about the fall of the fort 1781. What happened in 1781 to cause the fall of the fort? Ah, that’s the mystery, which we’ll get to soon. But first we need to set the scene and give you what evidence we have, so that you can decide what you think is the true story.

1780 Fire at the Fort 
After several years full of raids, supply shortages, sieges, and desertions, to add to their problems a fire broke out in the wooden fort on the night of April 13, 1780. Lt. Col. Cornelius Van Dyck the commander at Fort Schuyler explained to Colonel Goose Van Schaick on 17 April:
“I am sorry I must inform you of an unlucky circumstance which happened to us on the night between the 13th & 14th Inst. & between the Hours of twelve & one, some Fire had unhappily lodged itself between the Chimney and the Chamber floor of the Guard House which caught so violently & it being on the Chamber so that the Guard did not perceive it until it had got so far that it was impossible to extinguish it, but consumed with the Snowshoes, and all the Arms, unfit for use belonging to the Garrison; we were necessiated (in order to save the rest of the Garrison from being consumed) to also haul down part of the rest of the Barracks, immediately in the morning I had all the Carpenters collected & employed who have now nearly again repaired the Barracks that were knock’d down and hope if nothing extraordinary falls in our way to have the Guard House also rebuilt by next saturday—This accident might have destroyed the whole Garrison had it not been for the Dexterity of the Officers & Soldiers who by taking down part of the Barracks, & the constant applying of Water (to that part which was on fire) which was conveyed thro the Sally Port prevented the fire from catching in any of the other buildings, not a man was hurt saving a few who lamed themselves by treading Nails in their feet”

Shortly after the fire, on May 22, 1780, twenty-seven men of the 1st New York regiment mutinied or deserted. Soldiers depending on how you interpret it. Lt. Abraham Hardenbergh and 40 Oneida Indians pursued the deserters and caught them at a river crossing. In the ensuing fight 13 deserters were killed and three were captured.
Tall grass surrounds the outside fort wall. A flag flies over it.

An Increasingly Bad Situation 
By November 1780 it got worse according to General Clinton, “I am distress’d about Fort Schuyler—how long we shall maintain that important Post,… At present there is not in store, one single Atom of either Beef, Flour, Rum, Hay or Grain…”

By the beginning of 1781 shortages of supplies were a problem for the army throughout the New York frontier. General Clinton explained to Washington, “…a general deficiency of every article necessary for the Troops is the melancholy Fact—I have repeatedly and in the most pressing terms applied to the State Agent in this department for the necessary Supplies particularly for Fort Schuyler—But instead of collecting a Quantity for that post, the Troops quartered in Schenectady—Saratoga and this place, have not been supplied with Flour scarcly half the Time.”

Then in April Clinton reported, “In my former Letters to Your Excellency, I have been under the painfull necessity of representing the disagreeable Nature of my Command in a department Distitute of every Necessary, or the means of procuring them. I have Just been enabled to throw into Fort Schuyler such a supply as will, with Oeconomy, last them ’till the Middle of May; but the remainder of the Troops, instead of being stationed at those Posts where they may be most usefull, I have been Obliged to Cantoon in those Places where they are most likely to be kept from starving; and if the Enemy should make an incursion on the Frontier, they would meet No opposition, as I could not command one day’s Provision to send a party in pursuit of them."

Washington replied in frustration, “Nothing gives me greater pain than being obliged to hear daily complaints, which I know are well grounded, from every quarter, and not having it in my power to redress them…I shall endeavour to have a further supply, purposely for Fort schuyler, sent to you in this month, as I observe it is barely provisioned to the middle of next.”

The spring of 1781 brought an uptick in raids near Fort Schuyler. In a letter to Washington, General Clinton made a quick reference, without further details, to the loss of 17 men from the fort captured by the enemy in early March. He later gave an account of another raid near the fort in April: Yesterday I received an Express from Lt Colo. Cochran commanding Fort Schuyler; which informed me that on the 9th inst.[April 9, 1781] a small Scout from the Garrison had been fired upon by a Body of the Enemy by which two were killed and one wounded—our Party retired toward the Fort precipitately. the Enemy pursued and took two Prisoners—Col. Cochran immediately detatched a Company of light Infantry and one field piece: but the Enemy appeared so numerous that it was thought imprudent to pursue them thro’ the Woods, where they retired to—This accident, togather with that of the 2d Ulto[March 2, 1781] and a number of Men being furlowed by Coll Cortland have reduced the Number of the Garrison below, what was recommended by your Excellency, and the Scarcity of Provision, and Uncertainty of Supplies render it absolutely improper to send any Reinforcement at present. As soon as I am enabled to send an Escort of Provision, I shall order another Company up.”

Things had become desperate by early May 1781. General James Clinton wrote to Washington, I was flattered with Hopes of receiving a Supply, at least for Fort Schuyler, during the last month; but I have been disagreeably disappointed—not a Barrel has been received—the Garrison have been for some time past on half Allowance, and the Consequence of any further Delay must be an Evacuation of the Post, with the Loss of all the Stores &c…From the Spirit of Desertion which has already prevailed among the Troops, and their refractory Disposition, owing to the Treatment they receive, I have every reason to believe that they will either mutiny and repair to Albany in a Body; or go off to the Enemy,…Under these Circumstances, if no speedy Relief can be had, I beg leave to request your Excellency’s Directions, whether I should evacuate Fort Schuyler and endeavour to bring off the Stores, or order the Commanding Officer to hold out to the last Extreamity, and run all risks?”

Meanwhile another lost standing problem came to a head; the fort was falling apart. On May 12, 1781 a council of officers gathered to inspect and examine the works of said Garrison.” They reported that “1st…more than two thirds of the works broken down Occasioned by the late heavy rains, and assure that the remaining will be in the same condition in a few days. 2d that the only remaining strength is the outside Piquets on the Glacis.3d that an attempt to repair the works cannot be made with the small number of men now in Garrison,” Their suggestion was to begin at the foundation and thereby open the remaining part of the works which would prove very dangerous in Case of attack as no less than five or six hundred men under the direction of an Engineer, with a sufficient number of artificers, Waggons, Tools &c. would repair it in the course of the Summer.” 

The fort’s commander, Robert Cochran also reported, I have put the Garrison on half Allowance of Beef and added to each ration one Quarter of a pound of flour. The Genl. will doubtless conceive that it is much harder for Men to be cut short of their Allowance at this post than almost any Post on the Continent, as there is nothing to be got but what they draw from the public Store.”

Another Fire 1781
The following day [May 13th] at 3 o’clock in the afternoon Cochran had even worse news, “I am sorry to inform you that this day between the Hours of eleven and Twelve this Garrison took fire and Consumed every Barrack notwithstanding every exertion was made to extinguish the flames—I still remain in possession of the Works and have saved the Magazine with a Small part of the provisions, tho’ as the risque of our lives in my next shall give you every Particular.”

Captain Andrew Moodie, 2d Regt of Artillery, also described the fire’s devastation: “the disaster we have met with the Barracks and Bombproofs are entirely burnt down the Magazine and the other three Bombproofs in the Bastions excepted. Some part of the Stores deposited in the Larboratory are entirely consumed and an immediate supply is necissary… The rapidity of the fire was amazing every building was in flames in ten minutes after it was discovered. No endeavour was wanting to save the Stores and every thing has been saved that was possible is secured-- Lieut. Brewster and myself attended the Magazine and our endeavours has been blessed with success. I have only to regret that Mr Brewster has suffered much by over heating himself by being exposed to the fire & is very ill I am poorly by the reason.”

Later in the day on May 14th Cochran wrote another letter with more details, “This is the second I have wrote you this day on the unhappy occasion. About eleven oClock [AM] I took a walk at the Foot of the Glacis [earthen slope outside the fort’s walls] to examine some recruits who were exercising where I happened to meet a Majority of the officers that were off duty, and after a short time the Alarm was given that the Barracks were on fire. I immediately retired to the Fort and found the west Barracks all in flames the wind being westerly [so] in a few moments put the whole Barracks on fire which put it out of our power to prevent its Rapid progress-- The Magazine of ammunition is preserved with the utmost difficulty likewise we have saved provisions sufficient to last us Six Days on half allowance-- Being suspicious that the fire might be occasioned by some designed person I have thought proper to call a Court of inquiry to examine into the Matter the proceedings of which I inclose you.”

After being informed about the fire, General James Clinton expressed his suspicions about the fire to Cochran in a May 16th letter, “I cannot find words to express my surprise at the unexpected accident or how a fire should break out in the middle of noon day in a Garrison where the Troops Could not possibly be absent after a most violent and incessant rain of several days and be permited to do so much damage—I am sorry to say that the several circumstances which accompanied this melancholy affair affords plausible ground for suspicion that it was not the Effect of mere accident. I hope when it comes to be examined in a Clear point of view such light may be thrown upon it as will remove the suspicion for which there appears too much reasons.”

An intercepted British spy report also mentioned that people had doubts about the fire. “25th May—Fort Stanwix is entirely consumed by Fire, except two small Bastions—some say by Accident but it is generally thought the Soldiers done it on purpose as their Allowance is short provisions stopt from going there”

Court of Inquiry
The day after the fire on May 14th, a court of inquiry met, at what was left of the fort, to investigate the devastating fire. The court was made up of two captains, two lieutenants and one ensign. According to the letter sent by General Clinton to Washington, the court interviewed two witnesses. The first witness was David Pettic, a mattross who acted as an artillery gunner’s assistant. He stated that, “this morning about Ten oClock he had the brands of the Cole pit put out with water at the Pit and then brought them in the Garrison. and knocked off all the Cole and piled them up in his Room which was occupied by the Artificers, and suppose the Barracks took fire from the brands.”This testimony will require a bit of interpretation and explanation. He mentions “brands of the Cole pit.”

Looking in the Oxford English Dictionary the definition that best seems to fit for “brand” is, “a piece of wood that is or has been burning.” “Cole” is a slang or alternative spelling of coal. Though I think he really is referring to charcoal, the black carbon residue obtained from partially burned wood. An “artificer” was a craftsman like a blacksmith or carpenter who worked for the army usually with the artillery or quartermasters.

Here is my interpretation of the testimony for modern readers. David Pettic, a mattross [lower ranking artilleryman] had taken some burned pieces of wood [brands]. He poured water over the burnt pieces of wood. [brands]. He took these pieces of wood [brands] from a place outside the fort where men were making charcoal [cole pit]. He brought this wood into the fort [garrison]. He knocked off the charred outer part of the wood [cole]. Then he piled up either the charcoal or more likely the inner uncharred portion of the wood. He did this inside his barracks room which he shared with craftsmen who worked for the army [arificers]. He assumed the fire started in the barracks from an ember in the wood [brands] that he had brought in from the charcoal pit.

It seems to be a plausible explanation, but why would you bring brands from the charcoal pit into a wooden barracks room in a wooden fort? Obviously he wanted firewood. The carbonized wood from the pit would make a good fire. Perhaps he couldn’t use the fort’s stockpile. Also there probably wasn’t any firewood near the fort because it had been cleared away to open fields of fire for the forts cannon. Plus over the years of the fort’s operation countless soldiers took away the firewood that was closest to the fort.

The second testimony came from Charles Williams, a soldier in the Second New York Regiment. He stated, “that he was in the Room next to the Room where the fire took and that it was occupied by the Artificers, the deponant farther says that from the time he discovered the fire first he judges the whole of the west Barracks was on fire in less than five minutes which occasioned the whole to be consumed by the fire except the Bombproofs under the Bastions.” 

Williams doesn’t really give us more information. He stated that the artificers were in the barracks room next to his. He also claims that room was where the fire started. He also stated that it only took five minutes for the entire west barracks to be engulfed in flames. The only part of the fort that wasn’t burned was the bombproofs which were rooms in the corners of the fort known as the bastions. The bombproofs were covered with earth which is why they didn’t burn. Bombproofs were used as places of refuge during a bombardment. Ammunition for the cannon in bastion could also be stored there.

Interestingly, the court of inquiry doesn’t come to any conclusion regarding the fire. They merely recorded the testimony of two men. One man was in the room where the fire started but he didn’t see the fire start. He just assumes how it started. The second man was in the room next door and just testifies that the fire spread quickly.

I don’t know if there were any more witnesses. This is all that appears in the existing documentation. But it seems that from this testimony it is decided that the cause of the fire was an accident. At least that’s what General James Clinton says in his letter to General Washington on May 17, 1781, “By the Proceedings of the Court of Inquiry it appears that the loss of the Barracks was occasioned by Accident, however suspicious it appeared at first View, a Circumstance which affords me singular Pleasure.” He also felt that the fire had to be an accident because of “The Distruction of a considerable Quantity of Officers & Soldiers Baggage, in some measure reconciles the Supposition.” Obviously they wouldn’t have burned the fort down on purpose if they knew they’d lose their personal possessions.
A person stands behind a blackened, fiery metal pit. They hold a long piece of metal to the flames in front of them.

Accident or Arson?

So what do you think? Was it an accident or was it arson?

Traditionally the National Park Service has described the last days of Fort Stanwix/Schuyler as follows: “In the spring of 1781, a combination of heavy rains and fire destroyed much of what was left of the fort's defenses and barracks. The Americans were now faced with having to completely rebuild the fort, without the resources to do it. General Washington reluctantly agreed to abandon the site.” This interpretation is historically correct, but avoids bringing up any controversy about the origins of the fire.

Remember history isn’t set in stone. It’s someone’s interpretation of what happened based on surviving documentation. Historians will have different interpretations based on their own prejudices. Plus you can never be sure of the prejudices of the witnesses. Additionally, not all the information may have survived for historians to ponder over. Supposedly Napoleon said that History was a set of lies agreed upon. So go back and look at the evidence and come to your own conclusion. I’ll give you my interpretation below. Then I’ll conclude with what happened after the fire.

The Author's Opinion
I think a soldier or group of soldiers purposely set fire to the fort because they didn’t want to stay there any longer. Troops assigned to Fort Schuyler stayed there for months. Winter service in upstate New York would have been especially harsh. Most of the time Fort Schuyler was an isolated boring place, far away from civilization with few diversions.

But besides the tedium, there was a lingering fear. Being on the frontier there always was the threat of an Indian attack. Except for the 1777 siege there was no direct attack on the fort. However, outside the security of the fort’s walls, men were attacked, captured, killed or maimed. Most importantly, the fort was never properly supplied. And at one point the soldiers had to share their limited rations with their Oneida Indian allies. Hungry men did not make for good morale. We know morale among the garrison was poor because of the desertions and mutinies. Everything seems to come to a head in early 1781. The wooden fort was also falling apart. Then on the day before the fire, the soldiers’ beef ration was cut in half.

I probably would not have suspected arson except for the fact that numerous people including the fort’s commander and his boss all suspected arson. For one thing the fire broke out in a barracks room in the middle of the day and no one noticed it until an entire building was engulfed in flames. How could a garrison of hundreds of men miss it? Of course many of the men were outside drilling but there had to be some people in the fort. The smell of wood smoke would not have been anything unusual at the time, but you’d think somebody would have noticed smoke coming from an unusual place. General Clinton was willing to accept that it wasn’t arson because officers and soldiers lost their baggage in the fire. But I doubt a disgruntled soldier would think that far in advance. Plus if you secured your possessions before the fire it might be questioned.

The Court of Inquiry also seems odd. There were only two witnesses who really don’t tell you much. Plus the court never discloses any conclusion or opinion. General Clinton, the overall commander in the region, was more than willing to accept that it was an accident because arson by your own soldiers would certainly be looked on as a blot on his record. If a soldier or soldiers set the fire, because they were unhappy with their situation at the fort and they wanted to be relieved from serving there; they got their wish. So that’s my opinion but you might see it differently.

After the Fire
Three days after the fire on May 16th General Clinton in Albany received news of the fire and wrote to Cochran, the commander of Fort Schuyler about their next move, “I have written to his Excellency on the subject and requested his farther orders which I expect in a few days in the mean time I would request that you keep possession of the works, and endeavour to shelter the Troops in the best manner possible, that you collect all the Nails Hinges &c. &c. of the ruins and Suffer nothing to be lost that is in your power to save—Colo. Cortlandt has my orders to afford you all the assistance in his power which time and circumstances will admit.” 

He then wrote to Col. Cortlandt, “I am at a loss how to act in this case untill I receive his Excellencys Directions—I think it best that the Mortar & Cannon and Military Stores should be left at Fort Herkermer as it will be easy to have these transported either up or down the River as occasion my require. You will proceed with the provisions to the Garrison and afford them every assistance in your power which time and Circumstances will admit” The same day General James Clinton wrote to Washington: I would intreat your further Directions in my present critical Situation.”

He also wrote to his brother New York Governor George Clinton requesting him to meet with Washington and give him further details about the situation at Fort Schuyler. Four days after the fire but only one day after writing to Washington, General Clinton wrote to Washington again: “I am anxious to receive your Excellency’s Answer to this & my former Letters, as, if the Barracks are to be rebuilt, a number of Articles will be immediately wanting; together with a skillful Person to superintend the Work which from Accounts I have reason to believe are in a ruinous State.”

That same day Governor George Clinton wrote to Washington: “The Destruction of the Barracks at Fort Schuyler is a Loss which I fear cannot be easily repaired in our present situation and I find it is my Brothers Opinion which he informs me is supported by the concurrent Sentiments of the principal People of Albany, that it would be more eligible to abolish the Works, remove the Artillery & Stores and take Post at the German Flatts than attempt it. It is conceived that a Post established at that Place would afford greater Security to the frontier Settlements & be supported with less expence & difficulty; and it is alledged that the great Object of maintaining a Post at the former Place is removed by the friendly Indians having abandoned their Settlements in it’s vicinity & retreated to Schenectady.” 

Washington received the letters on May 18th when he wrote the following in his diary: “18th. Received Letters from Generals Schuyler and Clinton giving an acct. of the threatened Invasion of the Northern Frontier of this State from Canada, and of the unfavourable prospects from Vermont and of the destruction of the Post of Fort Schuyler—the indefensible State of the Works occasioned thereby & submitting for considn. the propriety of removing the Garrison to the German Flatts which he (that is Clinton) was requested to do if it appear’d to be the sense of the Governor & other principal Gentn. of the State that it would be eligable.” 

Washington was not pleased with the destruction of the fort writing to Governor Clinton on the 18th, “I am extremely unhappy at the intelligence from Ft Schuyler—What I have thought advisiable to be done at this moment, Your Excellency will see by my Letter to Gen. Clinton, which I have left unsealed for your perusal.”

The unsealed letter to General James Clinton passed the final decision back to the people closer to the situation, the Clinton brothers, Governor George and General James: “I am exceedingly sorry for the unfortunate accident at Fort Schuyler—that with the destruction of the Works by Rain seem to make it necessary to abandon that valuable post. I however leave the determination upon that point to the Governor and yourself, as I do every measure which the necessity of the moment may dictate.” 

General James Clinton, trying to avoid full responsibility for the final decision regarding the fort, consulted with many local officials. He then wrote to Washington on May 22nd, “agreeable to the Governors Advice I consulted Generals Rensselaer and Gansevoort, the Mayor in Council, and several other Gentlemen whom I could confide in respecting the abandoning Fort Schuyler, and establishing a Post at the German Flatts, who were unanimous in opinion that under our present Circumstance the Fort Should be evacuated and the Garrison removed to Fort Herkermer. I have this day given over accordingly as will appear by a Copy of a Letter herewith inclosed to Colo. Cochran --If we errect works at the German Flatts an Engineer will be much wanted for that Purpose. …Colo. Cortlandt’s Regiment with part of the new Levies will be for a Considerable time employed to assist in the evacuation of Fort Schuyler.
James Clinton"

General Washington then reported to the President of the Continental Congress on May 27, 1781, “There has been a necessity of abandoning the Post of Fort Schuyler and removing the Garrison and Stores to the German Flats. The Barracks had been the beginning of this month consumed in fire, and the works so exceedingly damaged by the heavy rain storm, that they were rendered indefensible, nor could they be repaired in any reasonable time by the number of Men who can by spared as a Garrison. Brigr Genl Clinton recommended the evacuation of the Post as the only alternative, to which I the more readily consented, as it had been for some time past the opinion of the Officers best acquainted with that part of the Country that a post at the German Flats would be more easily supported, and equally advantageous as to the security of the Frontier.”

Fort Stanwix/Fort Schuyler was abandoned. Its strategic location would still bring people back to the site, but there would no longer be a garrison of soldiers stationed at the site. Eventually the city of Rome, N.Y. would be built over the ruins of the fort. The Bicentennial of the American Revolution led to an archaeological dig which rediscovered the remains of the fort. Soon after a replica fort was constructed as part of the National Park Service.

Special thanks to "Uncle" Eric Olsen and
Morristown National Historical Park for the information in this post. 
Looking from the level of a wooden floor to chair to the right of you and a brick fireplace in front.


National Park Service website Fort Stanwix –

Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, by Mark Mayo Boatner III, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, 1966, 1974, 1994The following letters from the Washington Papers on Founders online were used.

George Washington from George Clinton, 24 September 1778, enclosure, Peter Bellinger to George Clinton
To George Washington from Officers of the 3d New York Regiment, 13 August 1778
General Orders, 8 May 1779
George Washington to Timothy Pickering, 4 May 1781
George Washington from James Clinton, 12 November 1780
George Washington from Major General Philip Schuyler, 1–7 March 1779
George Washington from Goose Van Schaick, 29 July 1780
George Washington from James Clinton, 4 May 1781
George Washington from James Clinton, 15 January 1781 enclosed letter from Isaac Stoutenburgh to James Clinton
George Washington from Colonel Peter Gansevoort, 18 August 1778
General Orders, 8 May 1779
Footnote number 1 in George Washington to Colonel Goose Van Schaick, 3 August 1779
George Washington from Colonel Goose Van Schaick, 1 May 1780, footnote 1, Lt. Col.George Washington from Goose Van Schaick, 29 July 1780
Fold3 Pension application of Thomas Lodowick S11538 – October 16, 1832
Historical Register of the Officers of the Continental Army During The War of the Revolution April, 1775 to December 1783, New, Revised and Enlarged Edition, by Francis B. Heitman, The rare Book Shop Publishing Company, Inc. ,Washington, D.C., 1914
Cornelius Van Dyck to Colonel Goose Van Schaick
George Washington from Goose Van Schaick, 29 July 1780
George Washington from James Clinton, 12 November 1780
George Washington from James Clinton, 15 January 1781
George Washington from James Clinton, 5 April 1781
George Washington to James Clinton, 12 April 1781
George Washington from James Clinton, 16 April 1781
George Washington from James Clinton, 4 May 1781
Washington Diary May 1781
Enclosure To George Washington from James Clinton, 16 May 1781
12 May 1781, At a Council of officers in Garrison at Fort Schuyler held on Saturday the 12th of May one thousand Seven hundred and Eighty one to inspect and examine the works of said Garrison.
Robert Cochran Enclosure To George Washington from James Clinton, 16 May 1781
Fort Schuyler May 13 1781
Enclosure To George Washington from James Clinton, 16 May 1781, Fort Schuyler May 14th 1781 3 oClock P.M.
Robert Cochran Enclosure To James Clinton to George Washington , 17 May 1781
Captain Andrew Moodie, 2d Regt of Artillery, Enclosure To George Washington from James Clinton, 17 May 1781
Enclosure Of James Clinton in To George Washington from James Clinton, 16 May 1781
Enclosure To George Washington from James Clinton, 30 May 1781
Enclosure To George Washington from James Clinton, 17 May 1781, 14 May 1781 At a Court of Inquiry held at Fort Schuyler by order of Lieut. Colo. Cochran, to Inquire in what manner the said Garrison Took fire May 14. 1781.
To George Washington from James Clinton, 17 May 1781

After the Fire
Enclosure To George Washington from James Clinton, 16 May 1781
To George Washington from James Clinton, 16 May 1781
To George Washington from James Clinton, 17 May 1781
To George Washington from George Clinton, 17 May 1781
Washington Diary May 1781
From George Washington to George Clinton, 18 May 1781
From George Washington to James Clinton, 18 May 1781
To George Washington from James Clinton, 22 May 1781
From George Washington to Samuel Huntington, 27 May 1781
From George Washington to James Clinton, 28 May 1781

Last updated: March 26, 2022

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