In the summer of 1776, the 3rd New Jersey regiment occupied several outposts in the valley of the Mohawk River on the New York frontier. 1st Lieutenant William McMichael was based at Fort Schuyler, and on August 14th he deserted, apparently with the intention of going over to the enemy, and was later killed by Indians.
I have been curious about Lt. McMichael since coming across the brief entries for his name in Heitman's and Stryker's registers of officers in the Revolution. I am not certain that I have learned much more with any certainty since delving into his story, but what follows [in 2 parts] is the documentation I have found, along with what it may suggest as to his actions and their possible motives.
William McMichael was enlisted on February 7th, 1776 as 1st Lieutenant of Captain Ross's 5th Company in the 3rd New Jersey Regiment (1st establishment). His name appears on a list of the officers of the regiment published in the Pennsylvania Gazette on February 21st, 1776.
I have not been able to determine his place of origin, nor whether he was any relation to diarist Lt. James McMichael of the Pennsylvania Line, Edward McMichael of Philadelphia, who supposedly served as Captain with the British Guides and Pioneers after deserting from the patriot forces (but see below), or Ensign William McMichael of the Pennsylvania Loyalists who previously served in the 13th Pennsylvania.
Edward McMichael is sometimes identified as a Lieutenant at Fort Schuyler in 1776, and a reprinted intelligence report from Oswego attributed to Lieutenant Edward McMichael in the patriot service in the area at this time.
"Was informed at Oswego that Three regiments of Ministerial Troops had arrived at Oswegatchie, at which place they were joined by a number of Tories and Indians, under the command of Colonel Johnson, and were to embark immediately on two armed vessels, bateaux and canoes, and proceed to Oswego, at which place they were to be joined by Colonel Butler, with all the Indians under his command, and likewise with Colonel Caldwell, and what regulars could be spared from Niagara. They intended repairing Oswego Fort, as soon as possible, in order that they might hold a treaty with the Indians, and be able to defend themselves against any attack."
It would be too much of a coincidence, though for there to be two Lieutentant McMichaels who deserted to the enemy in August from the same place, as this list implies, so it is more likely that the actions of the one have been attributed to the other. Alternatively, William McMichael may also have used the name Edward, as there is no record for a Lieutenant Edward McMichael in Heitman's register.
The best contemporary source of information about the actions of Lieutenant William McMichael comes from the journal of a fellow officer, Lieutenant Ebenezer Elmer of the 3rd New Jersey.
[Friday August 2nd, 1776, German Flats] "Lt. Wm. McMichael came down here to day from Fort Stanwix; he being just returned from Oswego, where he had been on a scouting party, and finding the Colonel and the General were down here, he proceeded right on."
These remarks would tend to reinforce the possibility that it was Lieutenant William McMichael, and not another named Edward, who forwarded the intelligence from Oswego. Elmer's next mention of him, however, firmly establishes that William McMichael intended to desert to he enemy.
[Wednesday, August 14th, 1776, German Flats] "...I became acquainted with a most shocking affair between Lt. McMichael, volunteer Smith, Sgt. Newcastle of our Battalion, Alex. Stewart, one Ridley, a clerk of Major Lundie's, and one more, in a secret plot, endevouring to go off to the enemy. some of whom it is supposed, are already gone. Ensign Kinney was immediately sent on express to Col. Dayton at Fort Schuyler, as McMichael set out from here last night with a pretense to go there. How it may turn out I cannot tell; they have without any doubt acted a very dastardly, treacherous and devilish part."
[Thursday, August 15th, 1776] "Lieutenant Daniel Pierson came down this forenoon as an express from Col. Dayton at Fort Schuyler, informing us that Lieutenant McMichael, with volunteer Smith and Ridley, set out from there yesterday at about 12 oclock, and were no doubt making the best of their way for the enemy. That as soon as Col. Dayton became acquainted with the matter by Mr. Kinney, which was almost night, he offered a reward of twenty dollars a head for them, dead or alive. Upon which Captain Reading, Lt. Loyd and Ballard, with about 30 men, set out immediately upon the scout after them."
Desertion was a chronic problem in 1776 and not only for Dayton's regiment, but an officer conspiring with enlisted men to desert to the enemy was something different. The timing of this defection, barely a month after the Declaration of Independance, may be significant, as there were a number of former patriots who were willing to take up arms to defend their Liberties but not to make a final break with the Crown.
Elmer's journal describes the pursuit, and how the hunters became the hunted as they went beyond the relative safety of their garrisons. We will pick up that part of the story in a subsequent post.