And Peggy...The Schuyler Sisters Ninja!
August 7, 2018
On this day 237 years ago, Peggy rushed into the fray of an attempted kidnapping of her father to save her baby sister.
When a band of armed Loyalists stampeded the back gate of their Albany Mansion, Peggy, Angelica, Eliza, their mother, General Schuyler, and the small herd of younger Schuyler siblings and Angelica’s toddlers—raced upstairs to bar themselves in the master bedroom. Schuyler grabbed the weapons he’d hidden there, prepared to fight off any assailant who broke down the door. Only then did they realize that in their haste and alarm, no one had the littlest Schuyler, five-month-old Caty.
She’d been left, lying in a cradle downstairs amid the desperate fighting between Schuyler’s handful of guards and 20-plus Loyalists intent on capturing him. If they couldn’t nab Schuyler, making off with his youngest daughter—as hostage and leverage against him—might do just as well.
Peggy dared the rescue.
Let me give you a little context first of why the Loyalists wanted Schuyler so very badly. So you know the full danger Peggy faced.
In 1781, Philip Schuyler was no longer the commanding general of the Northern Army. But he remained as critically important to the Patriot cause as he was during his military leadership. This was a critical year in our Revolution. Rochambeau had finally come with his French Army and in the early months of 1781, he and Washington were negotiating their joint battle-plans. At that point, George Washington was still convinced liberating NYC was the key to winning the war.
Because Congress was broke, Schuyler had to use his own money to stabilize the Patriot-held areas of New York and to buy Washington precious time. Schuyler procured and shipped 1,000 barrels of flour to Washington’s starving troops. He had his Saratoga workers built bateaux needed to move the Continental Army soldiers. He stopped an impending mutiny of troops protecting Albany and the upper regions of New York by giving them back pay, grain, and meat. And he provided food and clothing for our allies, the Oneida and Tuscarora, whose villages had been decimated by the other four nations of Iroquois in retribution for their loyalty to Americans.
Perhaps most important, though, was the brilliant spy-ring Schuyler had pieced together and ran out of his Albany home. Because of growing up along the frontier and with Iroquois and French Canadians, Schuyler was able to create an intricate network of double agents posing as Loyalists, French Canadians gathering intelligence in Montreal and Quebec, and Oneida scouts and messengers. Through these spies, Schuyler had been able to keep tabs on British troop movements and plans to attempt yet another invasion of upstate New York. He’d interrupted their campaign to seduce Vermonters, whose allegiance to the Continentals was thin. He’d confused and delayed the Redcoats by creating false correspondence to mislead them about Washington and Rochambeau’s plans. And within Albany, he had unearthed multiple conspiracies and arrested many Loyalists.
He was such an obvious thorn in the side of the British, Washington sent a guard to protect Schuyler, writing, “I have no doubt from the various and essential services you have rendered your Country, you must be extremely obnoxious to the Enemy.”
Indeed. The Brits put a price on Schuyler’s head, promising 200 Guineas to whomever could capture and deliver him to Canada.
By June, Schuyler was aware of that bounty on him. A Loyalist neighbor, grateful to Schuyler for past favors before the war, warned him of it. There were increasing reports of the infamous Robert Rogers and his King’s Rangers lurking around Saratoga and the outskirts of Albany. Skirmishes and attacks by Loyalist bands on outlying villages were on the increase. A militia officer who lived near the Schuyler’s Saratoga farm was dragged away from his home by Loyalists, who perhaps had expected to have found Schuyler at his country estate.
August 7, 1781: the evening was hot. The Schuylers took their dinner in the wide front hall with its doors wide open to catch the breezes off the Hudson River, despite reports of mounting threats to their safety. Hamilton had left to rejoin the army, and Eliza, a few months pregnant, was sitting with her parents, her younger brothers and sisters, plus a very pregnant Angelica with her own infant daughter and first-born son, 3-year-old Philip, AND PEGGY.
Shouts at the back gate and courtyard startled the happy family scene. Four of Schuyler’s guards rushed to the kitchen area and several enslaved servants dashed up from the basement to grab muskets left by the back door, placed there in anticipation of trouble. BUT the Brown Besses were not loaded as they were supposed to be. Little Philip had noticed them a few days earlier and tried to play with one, terrifying Angelica, who demanded the muskets be emptied for his safety.
So most of the family’s protectors were left to fight with their bare hands against well-armed and determined invaders.
The kidnappers surrounded the house and pushed their way into the first floor just as the Schuyler family scrambled up the sweeping staircase to the second floor…leaving baby Caty behind in her cradle.
I paint Peggy’s harrowing rescue of her sister in Chapter Twenty of HAMILTON AND PEGGY! I don’t want to give away too much with the hope you’ll read it—history handed me a great scene!
But I will tell you that such quick-witted bravery and devotion to those she loved—no matter the danger to herself—is entirely in keeping with Peggy’s personality. Called “spritely,” “a wicked wit,” even “wild” by Ben Franklin, Peggy was also a courageous and unflinching nurse—traveling during the war into the wilds of New York’s frontier forests to help tend her father when he was stricken with gout. She rode toward the enemy with her mother to gather whatever supplies and crops they could from their Saratoga farm as Burgoyne’s legions marched toward Albany. She was the sister her parents most trusted to safeguard the younger siblings.
But Peggy would need more than raw gutsiness to save Caty that fateful evening. She’d need to keep her wits even as she hurried. She must make her way downstairs unnoticed, somehow slip through two dozen men flailing at each other with the intent to kill— quickly enough, silently enough—to scoop up her baby sister before being seen and apprehended. And then she must retrace her path through the fighting to make it back upstairs unharmed! In tight stays and rustling, wide heavy skirts, BTW.
The scene was so chaotic, the fighting so intense, legend grew that one of the Iroquois Loyalists hurled a tomahawk at Peggy as she desperately flew back up the stairs clutching her baby sister in her arms. There is a gash in the banister that many a visitor to the historic mansion have touched and marveled at. In truth, it’s unlikely that deep cut in the wood came from a thrown tomahawk, so I don’t include it in my book. The rumored detail also feels fueled by that century’s deep-seated prejudices and fear of American Indians.
But trust me, the terror of those frenetic moments, the heat of battle, the life-threatening aspect of Peggy’s wild dash to save her baby sister need no embellishment!
Peggy Schuyler—always by her sisters’ side!