Major General Philip Schuyler played a controversial, yet significant role in the Revolutionary War. He was one of the four major generals appointed by the Continental Congress in 1775 and he was placed in command of the Northern Department. Early on, he was tasked with planning and executing the Invasion of Canada, but his chronic health problems kept him from the field. Despite the failure of the campaign, his excellent logistical skills allowed him to keep the army supplied and later to escape from Canada. In 1777, his tactical moves slowed down the British invasion led by General John Burgoyne, which ultimately led to the British surrender at the end of the Saratoga Campaign. Daniel Webster, the renowned statesman, and orator referred to Schuyler as “second only to Washington in the service he rendered to the American Colonies.”
Facts About His Early Life, Education, and Family
Schuyler was born in Albany, New York on November 20, 1733, into a prominent family of Dutch ancestry. His father was Johannes “John” Schuyler and his mother was Cornelia van Cortlandt. She also came from a prominent New York family. Schuyler’s grandfather was the first mayor of Albany.
- His father died the day before his 8th birthday.
- He was tutored at home and in Albany schools as a boy.
- When he was 15, he was sent to a school in New Rochelle to be taught by a Swiss Huguenot, Reverend Stouppe. While he was at school, he learned French and met John Jay, who would be a lifelong friend.
- By the time he was 18 he had left school and returned to Albany. He learned the language of the Mohawk Indians and went on trading expeditions into Indian territory.
- He married Catherine van Rensselaer on September 17, 1755.
- They had 15 children. Eight survived to adulthood.
- His daughter, Elizabeth, married Alexander Hamilton on December 14, 1780, at the Schuyler estate.
Facts About His Early Career in Business and Politics
- He received a vast inheritance, which he expanded through land speculation and other means, including the development of a manufacturing center at his estate in Saratoga.
- He built the first flax mill for making linen in America.
- He was elected to the Provincial Assembly of New York in 1768. He represented Albany until 1775 and was closely associated with the Livingston’s and the Whig Party.
- He led the assembly’s opposition to the Coercive Acts and was elected as a delegate to the First Continental Congress.
Facts About His Role in the French and Indian War
Schuyler served in the Colonial Provincial Army during the French and Indian War. He was involved in the battles of Lake George, Oswego River, Fort Carillon (Ticonderoga), and Fort Frontenac. During the war, he gained significant experience in logistics, serving as a quartermaster responsible for procuring and transporting supplies to the armies.
In 1755 he was commissioned by the governor to raise a company to go with Major General William Johnson to attack Crown Point.
- After the Battle of Lake George on September 8, 1755, he was detailed to escort French prisoners back to Albany.
- He was primarily a quartermaster but did see combat at Fort Oswego and Ticonderoga.
- He established a military depot at Fort Edward.
In 1756, Governor William Shirley sent Colonel John Bradstreet to Oswego with provisions. Schuyler served under Bradstreet for the operation. During the expedition, Bradstreet’s troops were attacked by a French party. Schuyler saved the life of a Canadian who had been injured in the battle and left behind by his fellow Canadians.
- He also served under Colonel William Jonson, Colonel James Abercrombie, and General Sir Jeffrey Amherst.
- He resigned his commission in 1757 and sold provisions to the army, from which he made a substantial income.
- He returned to military service in 1758 as a deputy commissary with the rank of major.
- By 1759, he had risen to the rank of colonel.
- He operated out of Albany from 1759–1760 while he supplied General Jeffrey Amherst’s army.
He became friends with Bradstreet, and the two of them sailed to Britain in 1761 to settle Schuyler’s account with the war office. During the trip to England, he saw the English canal system in operation, and it would inspire him, later on, to help promote and design similar canals in the Hudson Valley.
Facts About His Life After the French and Indian War
After the war, he inherited thousands of acres throughout the Mohawk Valley and Hudson Valley. He also inherited the Schuyler homestead near West Troy, New York from his uncle, Phillip. He also inherited land in the area known as the Saratoga Patent.
With the expansion of his land holdings, he also expanded his business operations. He added a store, mills, and built several schooners to transport goods on the Hudson River. He named the first one Saratoga. He also expanded the workforce for his operations, adding tenant farmers and slaves.
- He was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1768.
- He supported the idea that the King and Parliament were infringing on the constitutional rights of the colonists as British subjects, but did not support the radical actions of groups like the Sons of Liberty.
- When it came to the dispute between New Hampshire and New York over the New Hampshire Grants, he sided with New York. His stance on the matter damaged his reputation in New England.
Facts About His Role in American Revolution
- Schuyler was given his commission as a major general primarily because one of them needed to be from New York. Lee and Ward outranked him.
- He was named commander of the Northern Department and tasked with planning and executing the Invasion of Canada.
- He established his headquarters in his hometown of Albany.
Schuyler disliked his troops and discussed this frequently in letters he wrote to George Washington. He looked down on them because he thought they were undisciplined and lazy. In turn, they disliked him because they perceived him as an arrogant aristocrat with an elitist attitude.
Facts About His Role in the Invasion of Canada
With the help of Benedict Arnold, Washington devised a two-pronged attack on Quebec. Schuyler’s army would cross over Lake George and Lake Champlain, and up the Richelieu River toward Montreal. After taking Montreal, Schuyler would move north to Quebec and attack from the south. Meanwhile, Arnold would lead an army across the wilderness and surprise the British by attacking Quebec from the east. Unfortunately, logistical delays and health issues plagued Schuyler, and he was forced to turn the field command over to Brigadier General Richard Montgomery.
- After he was named commander-in-chief of the Continental Army Washington left Philadelphia and headed to Boston to take command of the forces that had the British trapped in the city. Schuyler accompanied him from Philadelphia to New York.
- Schuyler planned to lead the expedition into Canada and take Montreal. Then he would lead his army north to Quebec, where he would meet up with Benedict Arnold’s army and capture the city.
- Schuyler was delayed for various reasons and Brigadier General Richard Montgomery proceeded to push ahead and begin the attack on Fort St. John in September.
- He eventually met up with Montgomery and directed the early days of the siege of the fort. However, Schuyler’s chronic sickness caused him to turn command over to Montgomery for the remainder of the operations in Canada.
- Before he left Canada, he wrote a circular letter that was sent out to people in Quebec. The letter explained Congress was intent on restoring the rights of every subject in the British empire, regardless of religious views.
- Schuyler left Fort St. John and returned to Fort Ticonderoga. From there he directed the acquisition and transportation of supplies and provisions for Montgomery’s army.
After Montgomery captured Montreal he gave his men the option of leaving the army and returning home. A significant number of them accepted the offer and made their way to Fort Ticonderoga where Schuyler was tasked with discharging them. There were so many that Schuyler took to discharging them in groups in order to speed up the process.
It was around this time that Schuyler ran into some trouble with the men from Connecticut. The prisoners captured at Fort St. John and Fort Chambly were sent to Fort Ticonderoga. They arrived at Crown Point in late November on two ships, but the water had turned to ice and prevented them from going any further.
A message was sent to Schuyler, asking for help and he instructed three captains from David Wooster’s regiment to take their men and go help the stranded ships. They refused to follow Schuyler’s orders. The next day, November 29, Schuyler issued a public order and called out the three captains for their refusal to provide assistance. The men were embarrassed by the public humiliation and were critical of Schuyler to their superiors.
Schuyler planned to return to Albany for the winter, but before he left Ticonderoga, he made arrangements that he felt would help facilitate the removal of the cannons, artillery, and military stores by Henry Knox. These weapons would be used to drive the British out of Massachusetts and end the Siege of Boston.
- Schuyler arrived at Albany on December 7 and stayed there through the rest of the winter of 1775-1776.
- On December 31, 1775, Montgomery and Arnold launched a failed attack on Quebec. Montgomery was killed and Arnold laid siege to the city.
- The Americans were forced to retreat from Canada late in May 1776. By then, they were under the command of General John Sullivan. Schuyler acquired the boats and canoes that helped them make their way back to Fort Ticonderoga.
- In the summer of 1776, he supervised the defense of Fort Ticonderoga and the construction of a navy at Skenesborough. He was assisted by General Horatio Gates, who was also his rival for command of the Northern Department.
- Although Sir Guy Carleton defeated Benedict Arnold’s fleet at the Battle of Valcour Island, Carleton would not risk attacking Ticonderoga with winter coming on, since Schuyler had made the effort to improve its defenses. Carleton fell back to Montreal, and New York remained under the control of the Americans through the winter of 1776.
Trouble with Horatio Gates and the Continental Congress
- Schuyler faced a significant amount of criticism in Congress for his alleged failures in the Canada Campaign, and he took the criticism personally.
- On January 9, 1777, Congress dismissed Dr. Samuel Stringer. Stringer was the Director of Hospitals in the Northern Department. Schuyler protested the move because he was not consulted.
- He was reprimanded for his remarks to Congress in March 1777 and Congress sent Horatio Gates to take command of the American forces at Ticonderoga.
It was unclear who was supposed to be in command of the Northern Department — Schuyler or Gates — so Schuyler met with George Washington in early April and then went to Philadelphia to meet with Congress to clarify the situation. It was determined that Schuyler was in command, and Gates was his subordinate. Gates left the Northern Department and rushed to Philadelphia to make his case to Congress against Schuyler while Schuyler returned to the north.
Battle of Saratoga
- In July 1777, Major General Arthur St. Clair evacuated Fort Ticonderoga, which allowed General John Burgoyne to capture it unopposed. Congress was furious with Schuyler for allowing St. Clair to leave the fort unprotected, especially the faction that favored Gates.
- However, by removing the troops, Schuyler was able to draw Burgoyne from Skenesborough down the Hudson River, which turned into a logistical nightmare for the British.
- Schuyler sent a force under the command of Benedict Arnold to help end the British siege of Fort Stanwix. Arnold only had about 700 men with him, but the British, under the command of Brigadier General Barry St. Leger, believed he had around 3,000. By the time St. Leger abandoned the siege, it was too late for him to provide support to Burgoyne at Saratoga.
- Congress replaced Schuyler with Horatio Gates on August 4, 1777.
- As the British approached the Schuyler homestead in Saratoga, Catherine had the crops burned, so the British could not use them.
- After the British surrender, General Burgoyne was held as a prisoner-of-war at Schuyler’s home in Albany. Although the British had destroyed a significant number of Schuyler’s farms and land on the march to Saratoga, Schuyler treated Burgoyne well.
Resignation from the Continental Army
Schuyler demanded the charges against him of incompetence and dereliction of duty be heard before a military court. He was found innocent of all charges in October 1778. Unfortunately, the damage to his reputation had been done. He resigned from military service in April 1779.
Facts About His Role After He Resigned from the Army
Due to his relationship with the tribes of the Six Nations, he remained on the Board of Commissioners for Indian Affairs, and despite his issues with the Continental Congress, Schuyler remained close with George Washington. In fact, the Washingtons were godparents to Schuyler’s youngest daughter, Catharine, who was baptized in 1781.
- He was elected to the Continental Congress again in 1779.
- He advised Washington about General John Sullivan’s expedition into Iroquois territory in 1779.
- From April to August 1780, he assisted in the reorganization of the army staff departments and helped work out the details for cooperating with the French forces.
Schuyler’s ability to negotiate with the Indians created problems for the British because they were also trying to create alliances with them. The British tried to kidnap Schuyler several times, in an effort to eliminate his influence over the Indians.
In the summer of 1781, Walter Meyer, who was a Tory, led a group made up of Tories, Canadians, and Indians and attempted to kidnap Schuyler. Meyer and his gang forced a local laborer to tell them about the situation at Schyler’s house. However, after he was let go he informed Schuyler of the plot. Although the gang was able to force its way into the house, it was scared off when Schuyler opened an upstairs window and yelled for help. The gang did kidnap three of Schuyler’s guards, who were later returned in a prisoner exchange. Schuyler showed his thanks to the guards by giving each of them a farm in Saratoga.
- He served as the first Surveyor-General of New York from 1781-1784.
- He supported the ratification of the Constitution.
- He reversed course on the dispute over the New Hampshire Grants and supported New York dropping its claims to the territory, which helped pave the way for the New Hampshire Grants to become the state of Vermont.
- He was elected as one of New York’s first senators in 1789.
- He lost his re-election bid to Aaron Burr in 1791. Burr was backed by the Livingston and Clinton families, who were political enemies of Schuyler. The defeat infuriated his son-in-law, Alexander Hamilton, who had backed Schuyler. It was one of the first disputes between Burr and Hamilton that eventually led to their fateful duel.
- Schuyler reclaimed the seat in 1797 due to Hamilton’s backing and control of state politics.
- He retired in 1798 due to poor health and lived out his remaining years with his family in Albany.
Catherine passed away in 1803, and Schuyler was dealt another blow in July 1804 when he learned about Hamilton’s death after his duel with Aaron Burr. After her husband’s death, Elizabeth visited her father at Albany late in the summer of 1804. She returned to New York in November and her father passed away two weeks later.
- He died on November 18, 1804.
- He was buried with full military honors in the vault of General Abraham Ten Broeck.
- His remains were re-interred in the Albany Rural Cemetery.
Significance of His Role in the American Revolution
Schuyler’s qualifications were questionable from the beginning because he had never held independent command before, but he helped negotiate neutrality with the tribes of the Six Nations and explored all options to secure equipment and provisions for his army.
Unfortunately, his military actions during the Revolutionary War were filled with controversy and were hampered by his bouts with pleurisy, gout, and fever. He was one of the few high-ranking American officers of the war that did not see action in any major battles.
Although he had his own limitations, Congress failed him in many ways, especially when it came to sending men and equipment. However, he was unpopular with the troops and openly argued with members of the Continental Congress.
- At the Siege of Fort St. John, he chose difficult terrain to launch an attack and then turned the command of the expedition over to Montgomery. Montgomery and Arnold nearly conquered Canada, but Ethan Allen was captured at the Battle of Montreal, and Montgomery was killed at the Battle of Quebec.
- He understood the strategic importance of Lake Champlain and constructed a fleet of ships to help defend it.
- Schuyler worked to save the northern army from disaster during its retreat in the spring of 1776 but was blamed for the failure of the Invasion of Canada.
- He failed to gauge the strength of Burgoyne’s army in 1777 which contributed to the British capturing Fort Ticonderoga even though abandoning the fort was likely a sound strategy.
- Under his leadership, the morale of his troops fell, and Congress had little choice other than to replace him with Gates.
- Although he was not a brilliant leader on the battlefield, he made significant contributions to the war effort in the north through his negotiations with the Six Nations and his strategic moves that set the northern army up for victory over the British at Saratoga.
Facts About His Legacy
Schuyler helped design a canal system and contributed to the design of the Champlain Canal, which connected the Hudson River with Lake Champlain, and the Erie Canal, which connected the Hudson with Lake Erie at Buffalo. For his role in the development of the canals, he was called “the father of the canal system of the United States.”
In 1791, Elkanah Watson proposed a canal to connect the Hudson River with the Great Lakes. He met with Schuyler, who thought highly of the idea and supported it in the New York state legislature. Schuyler took the same concept and applied it to the corridor between the Hudson and Lake Champlain. In 1792, the Western Inland Lock & Navigation Company and the Northern Inland Lock and & Navigation Company were chartered. Schuyler was the president of both companies.
- He served on the New York Board of Regents, starting in 1784.
- He co-founded Union College in Schenectady, New York.
- His son, Philip Jeremiah Schuyler, served in the U.S. House of Representatives.
- His daughter, Margarita, married Stephen Van Rensselaer III, the Eighth Patroon of Rensselaerswyck.
- In 1871, a 36-foot tall monument was erected in his memory.