Great Britain’s northern campaign of 1777 began with promise for the Redcoats but ended with humiliation. Masterminded by Lieutenant General John Burgoyne (1722–1792), the plan was to isolate rebellious New England by taking control of the Hudson River, Lake George, and Lake Champlain, allowing the British to command the corridor between New York City and Quebec.
After the July 5 capture of Fort Ticonderoga, Britain’s fortunes began to falter. A concerted Patriot effort to slow Burgoyne’s march south by destroying bridges, diverting streams, and downing trees across roads meant that the main element of his army advanced only about a mile each day. August witnessed the failure of the siege of Fort Stanwix and the defeat of British-allied Hessians near Bennington, Vermont. At battles near Saratoga, New York, on September 19 and October 7, Burgoyne resolved first to dig in and then finally to admit defeat.
Yet the campaign of 1777 taught Burgoyne that winning Americans’ hearts and minds could be even more difficult than winning battles. Burgoyne’s Native American allies did less than he hoped to assist him militarily and more than he feared to alienate civilians. This was especially true after reports emerged of the July 26 or 27 murder of young Jane McCrea (1752–1777). The daughter of a New Jersey Presbyterian minister, after her mother’s death she moved to live with her brother near Saratoga. Here she accepted a marriage proposal from Lieutenant David Jones, a Loyalist serving in Burgoyne’s army. Accounts of her death vary. Most agree that she had arrived near Fort Edward, abandoned by American troops, in order to rendezvous with her fiancé, when she fell victim to the tomahawk of a British-allied Huron named Wyandot Panther. Americans charged that Redcoats were paying Native Americans for Patriot scalps. Did McCrea’s Loyalist scalp look any different?
Reports of McCrea’s murder at the hands of Britain’s “savage” partners outraged Americans. One depicted the “hell-like cruelties” of Redcoats’ Indian allies who, operating in front of British regulars, “butchered the poor innocent girl, and scalped her in the sight of those very men who are continually preaching… the forbearance of their more than Christian king.” Major General Horatio Gates (1727–1806), realizing the story’s value, sent a letter to Burgoyne that baited a response. It appeared in seventeen of America’s nineteen active newspapers. Burgoyne’s reply, which acknowledged his pardoning of McCrea’s killer, appeared alongside Gates’s message in about half of these publications, nearly all of which favored the cause of independence.
Source: Pennsylvania Evening Post (Philadelphia), September 16, 1777.
Major General Horatio Gates to Lieutenant General John Burgoyne, September 2, 1777
Last night I had the honor to receive your excellency’s letter of the first instant. I am astonished you should mention inhumanity, or threaten retaliation. Nothing happened in the action at Bennington but what is common when works are carried by assault.
That the savages of America should in their warfare mangle and scalp the unhappy prisoners who fall into their hands, is neither new nor extraordinary, but that the famous Lieutenant General Burgoyne, in whom the fine gentleman is united with the soldier and the scholar, should hire the savages of America to scalp Europeans and the descendants of Europeans; nay more, that he should pay a price for each scalp so barbarously taken, is more than will be believed in Europe, until authenticated facts shall, in every Gazette, convince mankind of the truth of the horrid tale. Miss McCrea, a young lady lovely to the sight, of virtuous character and amiable disposition, engaged to be married to an officer in your army, was, with other women and children, taken out of a house near Fort Edward, carried into the woods, and there scalped and mangled in the most shocking manner. Two parents, with their six children, were all treated with the same inhumanity, while quietly residing in their once happy and peaceful dwelling. The miserable fate of Miss McCrea was particularly aggravated by her being dressed to receive her promised husband, but met her murderer employed by you. Upwards of one hundred men, women, and children have perished by the hands of ruffians, to whom, it is asserted, you have paid the price of blood.
Enclosed are letters from your wounded officers, prisoners in my hands. By them you will be informed of the generosity of their conquerors. Such money, clothing, attendants, and other necessaries which your excellency pleases to send to the prisoners, shall be faithfully delivered. The late Colonel Baum’s servant is at Bennington and would have come to your excellency’s camp, but when I offered him a flag, he was afraid to run the risk of being scalped, and declined going.
When I know what surgeon and attendants your excellency is desirous of sending to Bennington, I shall dispatch an officer to your lines, to conduct them to my camp.
Lieutenant General John Burgoyne to Major General Horatio Gates, September 6, 1777
I received your letter of the second instant, and in consequence of your compliance with my proposal of sending a surgeon to visit the wounded officers in your hands, and some servants to carry money and necessaries to their masters, and to remain with them, I have now to desire the favor of you to dispatch the officer you design with a drum and a flag of truce, so that he may arrive at Stillwater about noon, on the ninth, and he shall be met there by the persons he is to conduct, accompanied also by a drum and flag of truce. I trust, sir, that it is understood between us that the surgeon shall have safe conduct to my outposts, when his visit shall be made, and he shall request it, and you may be assured on my part, that your officer shall meet with security and civility.
I have hesitated, sir, upon answering the other paragraphs of your letter. I disdain to justify myself against the rhapsodies of fiction and calumny, which, from the first of this contest, it has been an unvaried American policy to propagate…. I am induced to deviate from this general rule, in the present instance, lest my silence should be construed an acknowledgment of the truth of your allegations, and a pretense be thence taken for exercising future barbarities by the American troops.
Upon this motive, and upon this only, I condescend to inform you that I would not be conscious of the acts you presume to impute to me, for the whole continent of America, though the wealth of worlds were in its bowels, and a paradise upon its surface.
It has happened that all my transactions with the Indian nations, last year and this, have been open, clearly heard, distinctly understood, accurately minuted, by very numerous and, in many parts, very unprejudiced audiences. So diametrically opposite to truth is your assertion that I have paid a price for scalps that one of the first regulations established by me at the great council in May, and repeated, and enforced, and invariably adhered to since, was, that the Indians should receive compensation for prisoners, because it would prevent cruelties, and that not only such compensation should be withheld, but strict account demanded for scalps. These pledges of conquest, for such you well know they will ever esteem them, were solemnly and peremptorily prohibited to be taken from the wounded and even the dying, and the persons of aged men, women, children, and prisoners were pronounced sacred even in assaults.
In regard to Miss McCrea, her fall wanted not of the tragic display you have labored to give it, to make it as sincerely abhorred and lamented by me as it can be by the tenderest of her friends. The fact was no premeditated barbarity. On the contrary, two chiefs, who had brought her off for the purpose of security, not of violence to her person, disputed which should be her guard; and in a fit of savage passion in the one from whose hands she was snatched, the unhappy woman became the victim. Upon the first intelligence of this event, I obliged the Indians to deliver the murderer into my hands; and though to have punished him by our laws or principles of justice, would have been perhaps unprecedented, he certainly should have suffered an ignominious death, had I not been convinced by circumstances and observation, beyond the possibility of a doubt, that a pardon under the terms which I prescribed, and they accepted, would be more efficacious than an execution to prevent similar mischiefs.
The above instance excepted, your intelligence respecting cruelties of the Indians is false.
You seem to threaten me with European publications, which affects me as little as any other threats you could make; but in regard to American publications, whether your charge against me, which I acquit you of believing, was penned from a Gazette, or for a Gazette, I desire, and demand from you as a man of honor, that should it appear in print at all, this answer may follow it.
- 1. September 1, 1777.
- 2. This August 16, 1777 battle, which took place in New York about ten miles from Bennington, Vermont, resulted in an American victory in which about two-thirds of Burgoyne’s troops were killed or captured.
- 3. On July 25 or 26, 1777, not far from Fort Edward near Argyle, New York, a group of Native Americans reportedly descended on the farm of John and Eva Allen, scalping them and their three children as well as three enslaved people and Eva’s unmarried sister, Catherine Kilmer.
- 4. Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Baum (1727–1777) of Brunswick died at the Battle of Bennington.
- 5. A white flag of truce, which, according to the rules of war, would have assured him safe passage.
- 6. September 2, 1777.
- 7. In a manner commanding unquestioning obedience.
- 8. Shameful, disgraceful, and dishonorable.