We tend to see concern over “bad optics” and disastrous PR moments as products of the era of the 24-hour news cycle and social media. That assumes — wrongly — that only the past couple of generations have lived in a mass-media environment. Things moved much more slowly in the 18th century, of course, but newspapers and pamphlets had at least as much impact in that era as any Facebook meme or Twitter storm has now. Actually, a lot more impact.
An incident during British General John Burgoyne’s Revolutionary War invasion of upstate New York in 1777 created a firestorm of controversy that may well have cost him the campaign — and the British their Empire in North America: The killing of Jane McCrae.
Jane McCrae was a 25-year-old American woman whose family was divided by the civil war that had broken out in New York Colony between Loyalists and Patriots. She was seeking to join her fiancé, who was a member of a Loyalist militia stationed at Fort Ticonderoga, which the British had recaptured from the Americans as Burgoyne marched down from Canada in a bid to split the New England colonies (or now independent states) off from the rest of the American colonies.
On July 27, 1777, at the village of Fort Edward, south of Lake George, she was captured by Indians who were acting as advance scouts and raiders for Burgoyne’s army. Gentleman Johnny, as he was known, had recruited a substantial number of native auxiliaries. Some were Iroquois from the region, who had an immediate stake in the outcome of the campaign; others were tribesmen from the distant Great Lakes who were primarily out for loot and martial glory.
The Indians were critical to Burgoyne’s campaign, which wended its way through lakes and forests, still almost as much of a wilderness as the region had been 20 years before, when it was a battleground of the French and Indian War. They destabilized the American forces with raids and captured prisoners that provided invaluable intelligence. They were the eyes, ears, and lightning-quick fists of the British invasion force.
As historian Nathaniel Philbrick notes, General Benedict Arnold, then the most active and effective officer serving the Patriot cause, reported: “the woods being so full of Indians… it is almost impossible for small parties to escape them.”
Those Indians attacked an American picket at Fort Edward. A lieutenant and five privates were killed and four were wounded. Jane McCrea and Sarah McNeil were found in in a house in the village of Fort Edward, captured, and taken toward the British encampment. McNeil made it there; McCrae did not. Accounts vary as to what happened to Jane McCrea. Was she tomahawked after an argument between warriors over who would claim the bounty for her capture? Or was she, as the Wyandot warrior Panther claimed, killed by fire from American troops? It scarcely mattered. McCrea was dead — and scalped — and Burgoyne had a problem on his hands.
The general was genuinely outraged by the killing, and seems to have believed it was a deliberate slaying by Panther and other warriors. He demanded punishment. However, General Simon Fraser, a salty and tough Scotsman, persuaded his commander that punishment would severely alienate the Indians, who might leave the command and even exact vengeance on British troops.
So, nothing was done.
The American propaganda machine knew a gift when it got one, and accounts of the death of Jane McCrea spread like wildfire. Her beauty grew in the telling, and the fact that she was of Loyalist sentiment gave the tale a delicious twist of tragic irony. Militia recruitment jumped and fresh troops poured in to the Patriot Northern Army. The will to resist the British was stiffened, and the British government’s claim to be fighting a civilized war on behalf of law and order was sorely undermined.
The propaganda was effective because it fell in fertile soil. Philbrick:
In the days and weeks ahead, the death and scalping of Jane McCrea became a permanent fixture in the folklore of the Revolution. However, even without the scalping of McCrae, Burgoyne had managed to touch something deep within the collective psyche of the region. Well before the fall of Ticonderoga, Burgoyne’s use of native warriors had angered and horrified New Englanders, whose fear of wilderness war reached back to the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1620…
A long and traumatizing history of Frontier Partisan warfare imparted great urgency to the effort to stop Burgoyne’s invasion.
Gentleman Johnny was not unconscious of all this, and he was, after all, a civilized general. He sought to walk a razor’s edge with his native auxiliaries in an “effort… to keep up their terror and avoid their cruelty,” as he put it. Ultimately, this course was doomed to fail, and Burgoyne ended up with the negative effects of their cruelty and completely lost any benefit — along with the allies themselves.
On August 5, 1777, the warriors from the Great Lakes, tired of the general’s insistence that they temper their behavior, told him they were going home. They’d had their fun, and this “civilized warfare” bullshit was growing tiresome. Philbrick:
It was extremely ironic. Just as the outrage over the death of Jane McCrae was reaching its peak throughout the region, Burgoyne lost the majority of his Indians.
The loss was significant. The British general lost much of his army’s mobility and most of his his scouting corps with the departure of the tribesmen, and it wouldn’t be long before he found himself confronted by an emboldened American force, freed of harassment by by wilderness warriors, ready to confront him in the decisive Battle of Saratoga.
Note: Nathaniel Philbrick’s “Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution,” is — like everything that ace historian and fine storyteller has produced — excellent.