Tuesday, September 21, 2010

An Aside on Research

A few days ago, I posted a description of the first inaugural skirmish in the American invasion of Canada. For good or ill, the post was just a straightforward description of the skirmish itself. I didn't present a long list of sources or explain how and why my account differed from those of others. Because I intend to continue with this style of post for other incidents in the campaign, I feel I should provide a bit of background information.

When researching a project I rely more on online sources than print ones. In particular, I search Google Books, the Internet Archive, and lists of journals. I then make a library of .pdf files and "copy" and "paste" the relevant text into a single electronic document. Below is a listing of the first-hand accounts of the inaugural skirmish in the invasion of Canada. All of these were found in online, out-of-copyright books or Peter Force's American Archives.

  • Richard Montgomery, general. Letter dated September 5 (but, when compared to other accounts, probably was not written before September 7).
  • Benjamin Trumbull, soldier. Journal entry dated September 6, 1775
  • Rudolphus Ritzema, officer. Journal entry dated September 6, 1775
  • Philip Schuyler, general. Letter dated September 8, 1775
  • Anonymous. Letter dated September 8, 1775
  • James Van Rensselaer, officer. Letter dated September 14, 1775
  • Anonymous. Letter dated September 16, 1775
  • Philip Schuyler, general. Letter dated September 20, 1775
  • [Guillaume?] de Lorimier, officer. Memorial dated December 1, 1777
  • Guillaume de Lorimier, officer. Undated memoir.

Next, I do a little bit of writing, and try to establish what I want to say. I don't trust (with good reason) this initial take on the material, so I then read (and re-read) everything again. Reading and reflection on the source material gets spread out over months. The final write-up happens in an evening.

The product of these efforts is not exactly serious scholarship, but it's also not exactly inconsequential. My descriptions are grounded in primary sources, but my method of researching events is crude, and my writing lacks polish. Both strengths and weaknesses are in evidence when comparisons are made with typical military histories. By way of an example, consider the following description of this inaugural skirmish in Boatner's Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Boatner's account is admirable in how he engages the interest of the reader with remarkably economical prose. However, the account also relies on some dubious sources, and my numbers in brackets refer to critical comments that follow.

“When the Americans approached on 5 Sept. [1], the place was defended by 200 regulars, several cannon [2], a small Indian contingent, and the British were building two 60-foot, 12-gun vessels. Maj. Chas. Preston was in command of the post…

“Montgomery’s command comprised about 1,200 men and a few cannon [3]; their advance was made in a small fleet of two sailing vessels (the sloop Enterprise and schooner Liberty), gondolas, bateaux, rowing galleys, piraguas, and canoes [4]. (Ward, W.O.R., 150) Troops involved were most of Waterbury’s Conn. Regt., four companies of Ritzema’s 4th N.Y. [5], and Mott’s small artillery section. (Ibid.)

“Schuyler caught up with his aggressive subordinate the morning of 4 Sept., (surprisingly) approved his action, and that night the invaders were at Ile aux Noix. Although the expected Canadian allies did not appear to reinforce them [6], Schuyler stripped his men of baggage and pushed toward St. Johns. Landing a mile and a half away, the Americans were advancing through the swamps to attack when a flank patrol was ambushed by 100 Indians under the command of a N.Y. Tory (Capt. Tice). A skirmish developed in the dense underbrush; the Indians were driven off, but the Americans lost 16 men and did not pursue. That night a man who was apparently sympathetic to the American cause visited Schuyler’s entrenched camp and convinced him that St. Johns was too strongly held for him to capture.” [7]


1. Taken as a whole, the first-hand accounts listed above clearly indicate that the skirmish was on the 6th. The journals maintained by Ritzema and Trumbull are particularly convincing.

2. The British were stronger than stated. Compare, for example, this document, and this one with this rather detailed listing of British troop totals. The British also had considerably more than "several cannon."

3. Schuyler claimed to have had fewer than 1,000 men with him on the 6th. The "few cannon" did not include field pieces. From Ritzema's journal, entry dated September 6: “The General ordered the whole army without one Piece of Artillery, save two twelve Pounders in the Bows of the Gondolas, to embark for St Johns.”

4. Ritzema's journal, quoted above, in combination with this document, indicate that the Liberty and the Enterprise did not accompany this expedition. Rather, the only armed vessels were the Hancock and the Schuyler. Boatner might have noted, but did not, that the British also had the service of a variety of small vessels.

5. Ritzema's command consisted of five (not four) companies of the 1st (not 4th) New York. See this document, and his journal entry for September 4.

6. I have seen no evidence that a rendezvous was planned between Canadian and American forces at L'Île-aux-Noix. Certainly it would’ve been difficult for Canadians to get there in large numbers, as Fort Saint-Jean sat astride the only route. It wasn’t until the 5th that Schuyler announced his arrival in Canada (see here and here) and sent envoys to his Canadian supporters.

7. The man was Moses Hazen (compare this document with this one). Schuyler had long known that the fort was quite strong (see, for example, here), and it was not the cause of the American return to L'Île-aux-Noix. The true causes of the retreat can be found here, here, and in Ritzema's journal.


  1. "Not exactly serious scholarship"....

    AD, I think you do yourself a disservice! Your blog is very much that. I'm beginning to look at Schyler as I have an Old Glory figure of him to paint soon, so am enjoying looking him up on your blog.

    Best wishes


  2. Thanks, Giles.

    I have a lot of respect for what Schuyler was able to accomplish, but this campaign had a way of really bringing out the worst in people. Schuyler had to discharge a large part of his army because of sickness, and because few perished from their maladies, he was convinced that many were faking their complaints. The linked report describes how low he sank to discourage men from claiming illness.