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Retired history teacher puts spotlight on 1780, the year of the Great Burning

FORT ANN

It was a clear, cold October night in 1780.

More than five years after the start of the Revolutionary War.

Fort Anne, left poorly manned by Capt. Adiel Sherwood and only 74 soldiers, was vulnerable.

“The gate on Fort Anne was not even hooked by hinges. It was picked up and moved in and out,” said Patrick Niles, a retired history teacher.

Sherwood was having dinner in Fort Edward when he received word that the British were on their way, led by British Maj. Christopher Carleton.

Carleton’s raid destroyed Fort Anne, and Fort George in Lake George, and burned homes down through Kingsbury, Queensbury, Sandy Hill, Fort Edward and into what is now Gansevoort.

The event was known as Carleton’s Raid or the Great Burning of 1780.

“Nobody’s written anything on it. Nobody talks about it,” Niles said. “I’d heard about the Great Burning, but never understood what it was.”

Niles was instrumental in erecting a new historical marker in the pocket park in Fort Ann to commemorate Carleton’s Raid. The historical marker was provided by the William G. Pomeroy Foundation and awarded to the Washington County Historical Society, of which Niles is a trustee.

Niles became interested in the subject when he started studying the history of Charlotte County, which was made up of what is now Washington, Warren and Essex counties.

His research led to the new marker, which was dedicated in a ceremony on Oct. 11, exactly 241 years after Christopher Carleton set Fort Anne ablaze.

“We’re pretty much defenseless up here. We just don’t have the men,” Niles said. “We’ve got George Clinton, who is the governor, and he’s trying like crazy to stamp out this fire and stamp out that fire, and he just can’t do it. He just doesn’t have enough men.”

The British were in upstate New York to make it more difficult for the American army to invade through the Champlain Valley.

Carleton’s Raid was considered by the British to be a diversion from the larger raid led by John Johnson across the Mohawk Valley, according to Niles.

Carleton’s raid

Carleton was born to a military family in Newcastle, England, in 1749. He was orphaned at age 4 when his parents were lost at sea, according to the book, “No Turning Point, the Saratoga Campaign in Perspective,” by Theodore Corbett.

Carleton entered the army at age 12, having been brought up by his uncles, Guy Carleton, the governor of Canada, and Thomas Carleton, the first governor of New Brunswick, Corbett writes. He came to Canada as an ensign of the 31st Regiment.

“In the early 1770s he lived as an Indian at the Kahnawake and Kanesetake missions and learned their language,” Corbett writes. “He was not only involved in village politics, but he dressed as they did, had his body tattooed, and had a ring placed through his nose, and took an Indian wife. He claimed this was the happiest time in his life.”

When the American Revolution broke out, he was sent back to England, then back to Canada in May 1776, part of the relief force that his uncle used to drive the rebels from Canada, according to the book.

Carleton raided into Vermont in 1778, ending that attack with the burning of Skenesborough, which is now called Whitehall.

That raid saw the destruction of six sawmills and one grist mill, 38 homes and 33 barns. About 1,500 tons of hay and a great quantity of wheat and Indian corn were destroyed. Cattle were also destroyed.

On Oct. 10, 1780, Carleton assembled the greatest invasion force thus far of the post-Gen. John Burgoyne era.

“It consisted of 518 British and German regulars, 150 Loyalists, 108 mission Indians, and 30 Fort Hunter Mohawks,” Corbett writes. “Eight ships and twenty-six boats bore Carleton’s force.”

Fort Anne was undermanned and in decrepit condition, according to the “Journal of the American Revolution” website.

Sherwood surrendered and was taken prisoner along with the militiamen.

The next morning, Carleton’s invaders advanced toward Fort George at the southern end of Lake George. The encounter at Bloody Pond resulted in 27 troops killed. Eight were captured and 13 fled into the woods, according to the website. The fort’s commander, Capt. John Chipman, surrendered Fort George, which was subsequently plundered by Indians.

Carleton’s force then trekked northward along the west side of Lake George to Crown Point.

The devastation

Carleton’s Raid was devastating to those in its path.

“Immediately afterwards some of the frightened inhabitants of Kingsbury came rushing down the hill north of Fort Edward, with such household goods as they could bring with them, seeking the protection of the post. They reported the enemy only four miles away, and the smoke of burning houses could plainly be seen from the fort,” according to the book, “History of Washington County.”

Asa Fitch’s book, “Their Own Voices, Oral Accounts of Early Settlers in Washington County, New York,” details the devastation by those who were present in 1780.

Fitch recorded the memories of Jacob Bitely, who said 1780 was designated the year of the “Great Burning.”

“They fell upon us and burned every house and barn on the west side of the river from Sandy Hill to Fort Miller,” Bitely recalled in Asa Fitch’s book. “This took place the same time that Carleton came down and took Fort Ann and Fort George. Carleton stopped overnight in Kingsbury.

“The afternoon sun might have been an hour high when we saw the smoke of the houses they were burning in Kingsbury,” Bitely continued. “At the same time, we saw the people rushing down the road on the east side of the river, men, women and children. Some of the folks crossed over to tell us that all Kingsbury was in flames and that all the folks on the east side of the river were flying from their homes.”

Bitely’s family fled to Schuylerville. His father rode back to their home the next morning, but it was gone.

“He at once perceived all our buildings were in ashes, and all our grain and hay was consumed,” Bitely recalled in Fitch’s book.

Carleton’s raiders also killed all their cattle and hogs.

“I think the war in upstate New York is not known,” Niles said. “I think the Mohawk Valley did a lot of writing on it so it’s a little bit more. They also considered the Mohawk Valley the breadbasket for the American Revolution.”

Local historians have not written a lot about the Great Burning, something Niles would like to remedy. The incident changed the landscape of the area.

“If you look at the architecture,” Niles said, “there are very few houses … through this area that date back to before 1780.”

Gretta Hochsprung can be reached at 518-742-3206 or ghochsprung@poststar.com.

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