Major General Philip Schuyler Historiography
Unless you live in New York’s Hudson Valley, you may not be aware of the American Revolutionary War contributions of Philip Schuyler. A member of the landed gentry, the Continental Congress named Schuyler as one of the first four Continental Army Major Generals in June 1775. Appointed the first Northern Department commander, Schuyler spent most of his wartime service protecting New York’s Northern frontier from British and Native American invasions.
Schuyler commanded the ill-fated 1775 Canadian invasion but due to ill health, left the battlefield command to Brig. Gen. Richard Montgomery and did not venture into Canada with army. Schuyler focused his efforts on supporting the army with supplies and constructed naval vessels for Lake Champlain. However, the 1775 invasion failed and the Schuyler’s military reputation suffered.
Schuyler’s warrior reputation continued to suffer. The British capture of Fort Ticonderoga 1775 further damaged Schuyler’s military reputation. Given dissent from New England members, Congress dismissed Schuyler for losing Fort Ti and replaced him with General Horatio Gates.
Over the next two years, Schuyler did not perform any command assignments and pursued a court marshal to clear his name. When the court eventually acquitted him with the highest honors, Schuyler resigned his military commission. However, he remained an unwavering Washington supporter, continued as a Northern Department Indian Commissioner, served in the Continental Congress and in the New York State legislature.
Negative views of his military talents dogged Schuyler throughout the war and afterward. Critics viewed him as overly cautious, treasonous and unwilling to fight. This was especially true of New Englanders who were wary of his aristocratic Dutch heritage. In addition, the New Englanders viewed Schuyler as supporting the New Yorker land claims over those of the Vermonter’s. Later in the war, Schuyler actually supported the Vermonters against the wishes of Governor George Clinton. This caused a permanent rift with Clinton.
In addition, for someone who was rumored to be a Tory, the British sure wanted him dead. Throughout the war, Schuyler lived under the threat of personal attack. In 1780, British agents attacked Schuyler’s house in the dead of night but were thwarted. For the rest of the war, American commanders provided Schuyler with a protective detail of Continental Army soldiers.
Historians have differing views of Schuyler and his contributions. George Bancroft, for whom the famous Bancroft history book awards are named, charged Schuyler with “cowardice” or “want of spirit”. On the other hand, the famous American historian, John Fiske cited Schuyler’s “Zeal for public service” and “…bravery and generosity he was like a paladin of some medieval romance”.
Interestingly, there are Native American accounts, which name a Mary Aaron or Hill as Schuyler’s Mohawk Mistress. No European sources cite this relationship. In addition, there are rumors that Schuyler’s wife, Catherine van Rensselaer Schuyler had an affair with British General John Bradstreet.[i]
While Schuyler did not win any battles, his claim to fame that was a good administrator and organizer. He kept northern New York from becoming loyalist and hindered General Burgoyne’s 1777 invasion long enough to allow Gates to win at Saratoga.
Given Schuyler’s lack of military victories, he is not well known and not on the Journal of the American Revolution’s “Top Ten” or “Bottom Ten” generals.[ii] Only four historians have penned full-length biographies of Philip Schuyler with the last one published over 30 years ago. A brief analysis is each biography is presented below listed in publication date order. More often a summary biography of Schuyler is published as part of larger works on Revolutionary War generals. Two examples of this genre are included following the full-length biographies as well as an example of how historians view Schuyler.
Allen, Paul. A History of the American Revolution. 2 vols. Thomas Murphy, Printer. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1819.
An early history of the American Revolution principally written by John Neal and Tobias Watkins under Allen’s name depicts Schuyler in a favorable light. Upon Schuyler’s 1775 appointment to Major General they write, “The command of the department could not have been given to a man better suited for its arduous duties, than was General Schuyler.”
Schuyler is characterized as possessing a “vigorous mind, indefatigable perseverance” and being “extremely popular” with New Yorkers. They remark on the wide range of patriotic duties from military to relations with Native Americans to fighting recurrent toryism. Finally, Schuyler is viewed as acting with magnanimity with respect to his dispute with Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates.
Lossing, Benson J. The Life and Times of Philip Schuyler. 2 vols. New York: Sheldon & Company, 1860.
A prolific historian with over 40 historical volumes, Benson Lossing is best know for his Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution first published in 1853. Lossing penned the first full-length biography of Philip Schuyler. A two-volume work is well researched and references primary sources, something unusual at the time. Volume I depicts Schuyler’s early life through death of General Richard Montgomery on January 1, 1776 at Quebec. Volume two starts with the American retreat from Canada and describes the remainder of Schuyler’s life.
Lossing provides some interesting primary research. For example he references General John Glover’s letter book expressing support for Schuyler and his leadership during the 1777 Burgoyne invasion. Also unique for the period he provides footnotes tracing the origin of his quotes. In addition, Lossing procured interviews of Schuyler’s children to get physical descriptions and other information that only living persons can provide.
While modern scholarship is able to reference a larger number of primary sources, Lossing’s biography provides a solid perspective on Schuyler’s life and contributions. Many of Lossing’s perspectives are consistent with subsequent biographers and historians
Tuckerman, Bayard. Life of General Philip Schuyler, 1733-1804. First. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1903.
A Princeton professor in English Literature and biographer of Schuyler and Lafayette, Tuckerman attempts to rehabilitate Schuyler’s reputation as military leader. Tuckerman characterizes Schuyler not a combat soldier but a highly competent departmental commander emphasizing his quartermaster, commissary and recruiting officer skills.
Tuckerman argues that Schuyler beat Burgoyne with General Horatio Gates just getting the credit at the end. In a controversial decision at the time, Tuckerman credits Schuyler for sending Benedict Arnold with a relief force to Fort Stanwix while employing delaying tactics keeping Burgoyne from reaching Albany. Tuckerman notes that the New England militia was already on the way before Gates was named Northern Department Commander. In the end, Gates benefited from Schuyler’s defense in depth and delaying tactics while Patriot forces gathered at Saratoga.
Unfortunately Tuckerman’s book does not present his scholarship or go beyond Lossing’s biography. There are no footnotes or bibliography. It is best read for an introduction to colonial Dutch life in the Hudson Valley and an overview of Schuyler’s life. However, he provides a good summation, “Schuyler’ career was not brilliant but eminently useful.”
Gerlach, Don R. Philip Schuyler and the American Revolution in New York, 1733-1777. First. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964.
Gerlach is the only historian to master Schuyler’s papers and conduct extensive primary source research. Intended as the first of two volumes on Schuyler’s life, this volume starts with Schuyler’s childhood and goes through his June 1777 electoral loss to George Clinton in the New York State Governors race. Gerlach delves deeply into Hudson Valley politics and describes in detail, Schuyler’s role in the regional and national political discourse. The 1777 Burgoyne invasion is covered in the second volume.
As with previous biographers, Gerlach is a booster for Schuyler; rehabilitating his character and performance. In several places, he goes well above and overstates Schuyler’s contributions.
An interesting perspective in Gerlach’s book is Schuyler’s ambivalence towards independence. Gerlach concludes that Schuyler was conflicted between respect for authority and perceived British injustices.
Bush, Martin H. Revolutionary Enigma; a Re-Appraisal of General Philip Schuyler of New York. Empire State Historical Publications Series, No. 80. Port Washington, N.Y: I. J. Friedman, 1969.
Bush penned a more evenhanded view of Schuyler concluding that his character was both puzzling and contradictory. He portrays Schuyler a not a hero nor traitor, Bush points out that in the beginning Schuyler was not in favor of independence but supported his country and opposed British taxation. Until perceiving being slighted by Congress, he did do his military duty and served the Patriot cause. Bush does vindicate Schuyler for unsuccessful 1775 Canadian campaign and the loss of Fort Ti in 1777. He assigns blame for he losses on three factors: Congress for lack of resources, sectionalism and circumstances of war. Further Bush points out that Schuyler realized that the Canadian invasion was doomed but tried his best to make it successful.
However Bush faults Schuyler for not serving in Congress or the Army while waiting for a court martial to clear his name for the loss of Fort Ticonderoga. Eventually the court martial sat in judgment and exonerated Schuyler. Bush further criticizes Schuyler for resigning his commission and largely remaining on the sidelines. In the end, Bush concludes that Schuyler was not a lukewarm Patriot but was too focused on his honor and not enough on contributing to the war effort.
Gerlach, Don R. Proud Patriot: Philip Schuyler and the War of Independence, 1775-1783. 1st ed. A New York State Study. Syracuse, N.Y: Syracuse University Press, 1987.
Over 20 years after his first volume on Philip Schuyler, Don Gerlach published an account of Schuyler’s Revolutionary War years. A fellow aristocrat, Schuyler served as a Washington’s loyal subordinate and unwavering supporter. Schuyler retained Washington’s confidence even in the face of treasonous rumors and the loss of Ft. Ticonderoga. Politically, both Washington and Schuyler shared Federalist views and supported stronger national government.
Gerlach emphasizes that Schuyler significantly assisted the Patriot cause after his 1779 resignation of his military commission. He served as a Northern Department Indian Commissioners, supported the Continental Army while serving on the Continental Congress, provided valuable intelligence and constructed landing boats for a proposed New York City attack.
Gerlach ends with describing Schuyler’s poignant farewell by seven Rhode Island officers in a setting like the famous Washington farewell at Fraunces Tavern in New York City.
Billias, George Athan, ed. George Washington’s Generals and Opponents: Their Exploits and Leadership. 1st Da Capo Press ed. New York: Da Capo Press, 1994.
The chapter on Philip Schuyler is written by John H. G. Pell, a former long time president of the Fort Ticonderoga Association and author of a biography on Ethan Allen. Pell emphasizes the great relationship between Schuyler and Washington. They both were physically imposing men, wealthy aristocrats and both lamented the lack of discipline in the New England troops.
Pell emphasizes Schuyler’s management and logistics capabilities and rates him as the perfect commander for delaying the 1777 advance from Canada of Gen. John Burgoyne. Like other biographers, he assigns much of the credit for the win at Saratoga to Schuyler and not Gates.
He also speaks to Schuyler’s alleged treason that has been surmised by later historians based upon testimony by a British officer Major Ackland. Captured at Saratoga, Major Ackland spoke to General Henry Clinton and indicated that based upon discussions after the Patriot victory at Saratoga that Schuyler would give up the Patriot cause if Parliament would agree to no taxes. This testimony is cited in the Clinton memoirs. However, Pell points out that Clinton bent several truths in his memoirs. Pell concludes that there is no corroborating evidence and that Clinton is not credible.
Pell notes that Schuyler continued to serve the Patriot cause even though he resigned his major general’s commission in 1779. He concludes that protecting the vital Hudson valley from being captured by the British and splitting the colonies was Schuyler’s major revolutionary contribution.
Headley, J.T. Washington and His Generals. Home Library. New York: A. L. Burt Company, n.d.
Headley describes Philip Schuyler and George Clinton as the “chief props of the colonies” and concludes that “right nobly did they maintain it”. Differing from other historians, Headley believes that Schuyler was an unfaltering patriot from the outset of the hostilities. In addition, Schuyler’s responsibilities were broad and extensive as Congress recognized only his military skills, but his Native American diplomatic acumen, political followership as well as his organizing and supply capabilities.
Headley firmly concludes that Schuyler really won the Saratoga campaign, “The appointment of Gates, there is cause to fear, was made in order to give him laurels which were already prepared for another.” Further Headley points out Schuyler’s continued selfless support of the Patriot cause after being relieved of command and contrasts this with Gates intrigue to supplant Washington.
At the end of his biographical essay, there is a summary of Schuyler’s character. His character attributes are energy, industry, and leadership shinning more in the “cabinet than the field”. In one of the most important character traits in the pre-Civil War era, Headley ends with noting that Schuyler manumitted his slaves at his death.
Historian’s views of Schuyler
Higginbotham, Don. The War of American Independence Miliatary Attitudes, Politicies and Practice, 1763-1789. Norwalk, Connecticut: The Easton Press, 1971.
Higginbotham describes Schuyler having only “faint military history. The only reason that the Continental Congress selected Schuyler as one of the first four Continental Army major generals was due to his family connections and was to add “luster’ to the general officer corps.
In Higginbotham’s view, Schuyler lived as a wealthy aristocrat but unlike Washington, he was out of touch with the common man. Further he was not an aggressive, not a very competent military commander. Higginbotham surmises that if Richard Montgomery supplanted Schuyler as Northern commander, the 1775 Canadian invasion would have been successful. Lastly, unlike Schuyler’s biographers, Higginbotham concludes that it was good that Gates succeeded Schuyler before the climatic battle of Saratoga.
Memoirs and Papers
Schuyler papers are located in multiple locations including the New York Public Library, the New York State Library, the New York Historical Society, the Henry Huntington Library and the Albany Institute of History and Art.
Top Ten Generals, https://allthingsliberty.com/2013/08/top-10-continental-army-generals/
Worst Ten Generals, https://allthingsliberty.com/2013/10/10-worst-continental-army-generals/