Last week we left the British army under General Barry St. Leger, comprised mostly of New York Loyalist militia and Iroquois warriors under Sir John Johnson and Joseph Brant, preparing to besiege Fort Stanwix. They faced a garrison commanded by Colonel Peter Gansevoort and Lieutenant Colonel Marinus Willett with about 750 Continentals and militia. St. Leger’s force far outnumbered the garrison and there did not seem to be any hope of the retreating Continental Army sending any relief anytime soon.
This, however, is where home-court advantage really matters. There were still a great many local patriot militia in the area. General Nicholas Herkimer mustered his militia at Fort Dayton, in what is today known as Herkimer, New York, about thirty miles from Fort Stanwix.
Battle of Oriskany
General Herkimer assembled a militia force of a little over 700 men to march to Fort Stanwix and relieve the siege. With the militia were several dozen Oneida warriors, perhaps as many as one hundred. While the Oneida continued to profess neutrality, they were on friendly terms with the local patriots and deemed the invasion of their land by the St. Leger Expedition as an act of war against the Oneida tribe.
Herkimer was reluctant to advance. Even if his relief force reached Fort Stanwix and combined with the garrison already there and under siege, their combined force was still smaller than the nearly 2000 enemy soldiers, many of whom were fearsome native warriors who fought ferociously and did not take prisoners. Of further concern, he had tried to send instructions to the fort to signal the relief column. The plan was that the garrison would sally out and attack the besieging force at the same time the relief column was attacking. If the garrison did not get his message, Herkimer’s relief column might have to face the much larger enemy force on their own.
|General Herkimer at Oriskany (from Wikimedia)|
His officers and men, however, would have none of that. These men were ready for a fight. Waiting around, possibly for weeks might allow the fort to fall. Even worse, native warriors loyal to the crown were already beginning to launch small raids on isolated farmhouses and villages where their wives and children lived. These raids would only get worse if the militia did not act now. The militiamen pushed back at Herkimer, implying that he was a coward or a traitor if he did not attack. By some accounts, they brought up the fact that Herkimer’s brother was fighting with the enemy and that he perhaps shared his brother’s loyalist tendencies. In the end, Herkimer probably realized that his men were marching forward with or without him, so he led his men forward.
Back in the British lines, Joseph Brant received word from his sister, who was still living among the patriots, that a group of about 800 had marched to relieve Fort Stanwix. General St. Leger kept most of his regulars around the fort, but sent most of his army’s Tory militia and native warriors to attack the relief column. Sir John Johnson was given command of this force, but Joseph Brant effectively commanded the bulk of the force made up of native warriors.
The British identified a spot along the King’s Highway from Fort Dayton, about six miles from Fort Stanwix. The highway itself was a rough dirt trail cut through the heavily wooded area. The location they chose was a point where the trail dipped into a ravine, and where two streams created a low marshy area. This was near the Oneida village of Oriskany.
The plan was to wait until the patriot column was entirely in the ravine. Johnson’s Royal Yorker militia would remain hidden in the center of the line and would stop the enemy column. Native warriors would be hidden in the woods on both sides of the trail and would fall on the patriot militia in hand to hand combat. Brant would take another small force of natives behind the column to capture the baggage wagons and cut off retreat. With this, the British force would have effectively surrounded the enemy and would gradually wipe them out in a battle where they would take no prisoners.
By mid-morning the British ambush was in place and the American column was beginning to enter the ravine. Many of the newly appointed Indian chiefs were relatively young warriors without much experience, at least in larger battles. They did not wait for the signal, but instead gave a battle cry and rushed their warriors against the head of the column before all the Americans had entered the ravine. This prevented the British from surrounding the entire column and cutting them off from retreat.
|Battle of Oriskany (from Old Print Shop)|
The brutality was not simply between natives and militia. Many of the militia on both sides knew each other. Both had lived together in Tryon County as neighbors before the war. Many of them even had family in the enemy camp. For many, the years of fighting, bullying and atrocities by both sides had grown into a red hot hatred of their opponents. The battle brought out years of frustrated anger at the other side. The combat took on a ferocity rarely equaled in this war, and the idea of surrender or taking prisoners was not a consideration.
Early in the fighting, General Herkimer took a shot in the leg. To make matters worse, his horse was also shot and fell on his injured leg. Herkimer refused to be carried from the field, but instead lay under a tree on a nearby hill and continued to direct his men.
As the battle raged, a fierce thunderstorm poured onto the battlefield. This forced both sides to take shelter temporarily and created a lull in the fighting. The Americans took advantage of the lull to regroup on a small hill where they could form a better defensive perimeter. They also adapted their tactics. Many of the American militia were armed with rifles and had been shooting independently. The Indians took advantage of this tactic by waiting until a soldier fired and identified his position by a puff of smoke from his rifle. An Indian warrior would then charge the soldier and kill him in hand to hand combat before he could reload. The officers instructed their militia to stay in pairs, so that only one man would fire at a time. The other would always have a loaded weapon so that if an Indian rushed them, they could shoot down the attacker.
At one point, several dozen loyalist militia arrived as reinforcements. British officers instructed them to turn their coats inside out and pose as patriot militia and march into the enemy lines. This almost worked, until one of the patriot officers recognized a former neighbor who he knew to be a loyalist and had his men open fire on them.
Raid from Fort Stanwix
As the battle of Oriskany, as it was later called, raged, the garrison inside Fort Stanwix had received Herkimer’s orders and could hear the gunfire a few miles away. The fort’s second in command, Colonel Willet, organized a raiding party of his own. About 250 men left the fort to raid the nearby enemy camps.
The Americans found the camps nearly abandoned. They chased off the guards as well as the wives and children of the native warriors. The Americans plundered the camps for food, supplies, and anything of value. They stole or destroyed everything they could. The British regulars did engage with the raiding force and there was some considerable gunfire. The sound of gunfire near the camp concerned the British forces engaged at Oriskany that another battle was taking place back at the fort while their forces were divided.
By early afternoon, word of the raids on their camps reached soldiers still fighting at Oriskany. The native forces at Oriskany began to fade back into the forest and make their way back to the fort. The loyalist militia, seeing their allies leave the field, pulled back themselves. This allowed the patriot forces to withdraw as well. The bloodied remnants of Herkimer’s militia army returned to Fort Dayton.
|Hanyery, Oneida Chief at Oriskany (from Oneida Nation)|
The British casualties were relatively light, and mostly among the Indians. The British only listed seven killed, with a few dozen wounded, captured or missing. It is likely that most of the missing were dead as the British left the field in a hurry and could not look for bodies in the heavily wooded underbush. The native casualties were not reported but were likely in the dozens.
So the battle of Oriskany was a tactical victory for the British. Although they did not entirely wipe out the relief column, they had inflicted massive casualties and forced it to withdraw. St. Leger could continue his siege of the beleaguered and isolated Fort Stanwix.
The battle, however, did not go over well with the Indian forces that made up the majority of St. Leger’s army. The warriors had joined with the understanding that the British regulars and provincial militia would do most of the fighting and that the natives would be in more of a support role. At Oriskany, St. Leger had kept his regulars at Fort Stanwix and allowed the natives to do most of the fighting.
Probably of greater significance was the raid on their camps while they were fighting. Many of the Indians had lost most of their possessions in that raid. This was a matter of life and death. Warriors who spent the summer season fighting relied on what they captured to provide them and their families with food and other necessities to get through the next winter. The loss of their possessions could very well mean their death from starvation or exposure if they could not replace them before winter.
Further, the siege of the fort did not seem to be ready to end anytime soon. Brant had recommended that they pursue and continue to attack the retreating American relief column. St. Leger refused to accept the recommendation and ordered the natives back to besieging the fort.
|Mohawk Valley (from Rev War US)|
The battle of Oriskany would have a greater long term impact on the Iroquois more generally. Brant, as a Mohawk chief, was upset that the Oneida, his fellow Iroquois, had fought with the patriots against his warriors in the battle. Brant sent the Oneida a bloody hatchet, indicating he considered his Mohawk at war with his former allies.
The Mohawk would burn an Oneida village in retaliation. The Oneida dropped their neutrality completely and threw in with the patriots, attacking Mohawk and Seneca villages in Western New York. Eventually, the smaller number of Mohawk and Seneca in New York would have to move north to Canada where there were larger tribes that could defend against Oneida raids. This civil war, however, marked the end of centuries of Iroquois cooperation and confederation.
On August 8, two days after the battle of Oriskany, General Schuyler received word that Herkimer’s relief column had failed to take the fort and had retreated with heavy casualties. Schuyler held a council of war to discuss the fate of Fort Stanwix. The majority of the Continental leadership present believed that Fort Stanwix would go the way of Fort Ticonderoga and fall to the British.
You have to remember, at this time Schuyler and his Continentals were trying to find some way to stop General Burgoyne’s much larger army from reaching Albany. Schuyler’s army was already smaller than Burgoyne’s. He could not afford to divide his forces and send thousands of Continentals off to the west to rescue the outpost at Fort Stanwix. Most of his officers agreed.
|Gen. Herkimer at Oriskany |
Among the dissenters was the newly arrived Major General Benedict Arnold, whom Washington had sent to supplement the leadership in the northern army. Arnold had arrived at Fort Edward on July 24. Schuyler had given him command of one wing of the northern army, while retaining command of the other wing for himself. Over the next couple of weeks, Arnold had used his men to chop down large trees to cover the road from Fort Ann, forcing the British to spend days clearing the roads, and reducing the British advance to about one mile per day as the Continentals awaited more reinforcements.
At the council of war, Arnold argued that if St. Leger took Fort Stanwix, the British would capture the Mohawk Valley and their Indian allies would ravage the people there. St. Leger’s advancing army would inevitably force the Continentals to divide their defenses to prevent St. Leger from joining up with Burgoyne. Better to do it now when they could rely on the help of the Fort Stanwix garrison to defeat St. Leger.
Schuyler asked for a brigadier general to lead a relief force. When none of them volunteered, Arnold offered to give up the command of his wing of the army in order to lead the relief force himself. On August 13, Arnold set out with 900 Continentals to relieve Fort Stanwix.
His first stop was German Flatts, a small down a few miles south of Fort Dayton and a little over thirty miles from Fort Stanwix. There, he tried to recruit a larger army by reaching out to the local militia and to the Tuscarora and Oneida tribes. But this was just a week after the Battle of Oriskany, and these groups were still licking their wounds. Arnold remained in German Flatts for a few days, attempting to recruit a larger army, but only collected about 100 militia.
Aronold could not wait forever. St. Leger was slowly digging zig zag trenches ever closer to Fort Stanwix’s walls. Within a few days, his guns would be close enough to take down the walls and breach the fort itself. If Arnold was going to save the fort, he would have to act soon.
On August 20, Arnold tried a bit of bluster to get St. Leger to give up the siege. First he issued a proclamation that, in light of what the British had done at Oriskany, if St. Leger did not surrender within ten days, his army would receive no mercy.
|Benedict Arnold |
Arnold agreed, on the condition that Schuyler go into the American lines and warn them that the Americans were coming with thousands of soldiers to wipe out the British garrison. They took Schuyler’s jacket, shot it full of holes and then sent him to Fort Stanwix. To ensure he went through with his mission, Arnold held his brother as a hostage and sent an Oneida scout to follow Schuyler to the fort.
Many of the local Mohawk knew Schuyler. According to some stories they already thought he was protected by the gods. I guess anyone who could survive as a half-wit in that rough country must have some divine protection. When they saw his bullet ridden coat and not a mark on him, this only furthered their view. True to his word, Schuyler told the Mohawk that Arnold, who they called Dark Eagle and already feared as a military leader, said that he was approaching with a large army with as many men as there were trees in the forest. The warriors took him to St. Leger where he said Arnold had a force of about 2000, or more than double his actual numbers, and that he would be at Fort Stanwix within 24 hours.
To follow up, the Oneida scout that had followed Schuyler to the fort also talked to the Mohawk warriors, convincing them that Arnold was focused on the British regulars and the militia, that he would not take out his vengeance on the Mohawk if they stood down. The Mohawk also brought this warrior to St. Leger. He not only confirmed Schuyler’s story that Arnold would arrive within a day, but that his force was much larger than the 2000 men Schuyler had said were under Arnold’s command.
With this news, the Mohawk, who were already unhappy with the siege, insisted that they leave immediately. St. Leger attempted to get them to stay another day so that he could verify the stories, but the Indians would have none of it. They were going to leave immediately.
As they departed, the Mohawk felt the British promises made to them had fallen short. Many turned against their allies. Since the Americans had looted the Indian camps, the warriors looted the British camps, stealing liquor, clothing, and other supplies. Fear of Arnold’s approaching army and the attack of their own Mohawk allies, led the rest of St. Leger’s army to panic and run away. This was not just a retreat, the army abandoned its tents, most of its supplies, and its field artillery as the frightened soldiers fled back to Fort Oswego on the shore of Lake Ontario. As the army fled, drunken Mohawk warriors killed and scalped any of their former allies who fell into their hands. Some of the besieging army, fearing for their lives, ran to Fort Stanwix and surrendered as prisoners.
Thus ended the Siege of Fort Stanwix on August 22. St. Leger tried to make the best story out of what happened. He reported later that his army withdrew in the face of 3000 Continentals sent to break the siege. He said they would retrace their advance back to Montreal, and then move down Lake Champlain to rejoin Burgoyne’s army from that direction.
Arnold was still more than a day’s march away when he received word that St. Leger’s army was fleeing in disarray. He pushed his men to arrive on the evening of August 23. Arnold immediately sent out a 500 man force to pursue the fleeing British, but heavy rains slowed the pursuit.
Although St. Leger soon learned that Arnold had nowhere near the number of soldiers that had been reported, there was no way at that point to re-engage since the native allies were in no mood to go back and his regulars and militia had abandoned their artillery and supplies.
Arnold left about half the garrison at Fort Stanwix. He took the rest along with his relief column and rushed back to Fort Edward to join the main northern army in its efforts to halt Burgoyne’s Army.
But before we can get to that next chapter of the Saratoga campaign, we are going to return south next week as General Sullivan attacks the British garrison at Staten Island.
- - -
Next Episode 153 Staten Island and Satauket
Previous Episode 151 The St. Leger Expedition
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Sawyer, William The 1777 Siege of Fort Schuyler:
Sawyer, William The Battle at Oriska https://www.nps.gov/fost/learn/historyculture/the-battle-at-oriska.htm
Bleiweiss, Sam “The Downfall of the Iroquis” Emery Endeavors in History, 2013:
Iroquois History: https://www.tolatsga.org/iro.html
Nicholas Herkimer: https://www.battlefields.org/learn/biographies/nicholas-herkimer
Shannon, Thomas The Palatine Roots of an Early American Hero, October 3, 2016:
Scott, John Albert. “JOSEPH BRANT AT FORT STANWIX AND ORISKANY.” New York History, vol. 19, no. 4, 1938, pp. 399–406:. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23134619
Jacobson, Edna L. “THE HERKIMER FAMILY AND BATTLE OF ORISKANY PORTFOLIO.” New York History, vol. 29, no. 3, 1948, pp. 342–348. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43460298
Bryce, P. H. “SIR JOHN JOHNSON: BARONET; SUPERINTENDENT-GENERAL OF INDIAN AFFAIRS 1743-1830.” The Quarterly Journal of the New York State Historical Association, vol. 9, no. 3, 1928, pp. 233–271. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43565223
Walker, Mabel Gregory. “Sir John Johnson.” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, vol. 3, no. 3, 1916, pp. 318–346. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1892244
Nare, Joshua Fort Stanwix: Untenable, or the Key to Defending the Mohawk Valley? Lynchburg: Liberty University Master's Thesis, 2010:
Drums Along the Mohawk: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0031252
(from archive.org unless noted)
Bird, Harrison March To Saratoga General Burgoyne And The American Campaign 1777,
Oxford Univ. Press, 1963
Brandow, John H. The Story of Old Saratoga; the Burgoyne Campaign, to Which is Added New York's Share in the Revolution, Brandow Printing, 1919.
Clay, Steven E. Staff Ride Handbook for the Saratoga Campaign, 13 June to 8 November 1777, Combat Studies Institute Press, 2018 (US Army Website):.
Digby, William The British Invasion from the North: The Campaigns of Generals Carleton and Burgoyne from Canada, Joel Munsell’s Sons, 1887.
Hudleston, Francis J. Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne: misadventures of an English general in the Revolution, Bobbs-Merrill Co. 1927.
Luzader, John Decision on the Hudson, National Park Service, 1975.
Robertaccio, Joseph (ed) Documents Relating to the Battle of Oriskany and the Siege of Fort Stanwix, self-published, 2013 (PDF from Fort Plank).
Roberts, Ellis H. The Battle of Oriskany: Its Place in History, Utica: Roberts H. Ellis & Co. 1877.
Stone, William Leete (ed) Orderly book of Sir John Johnson during the Oriskany Campaign, 1776-1777, Albany: J. Munsell's Sons, 1882.
Stone, William Leete, The Campaign of Lieut. Gen. John Burgoyne and the expedition of Lieut. Col. Barry St. Leger, Albany, NY: Joel Munsell, 1877.
Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe Historical Considerations on the Siege and Defence of Fort Stanwix, in 1776 , New-York Historical Society, 1846.
Stone, William L. Border Wars of the American Revolution, Vol. 1, Harper & Brothers, 1845.
Tracy, Marion Emma Fort Stanwix and our Flag, Utica, N.Y., The Utica Deutsche zeitung printing house, 1914.
Walworth, Ellen H. Battles of Saratoga, 1777; the Saratoga Monument Association, 1856-1891, Joel Munsell’s Sons, 1891.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Boehlert, Paul A. The Battle of Oriskany and General Nicholas Herkimer: Revolution in the Mohawk Valley, History Press, 2013
Cooney, Michael Neither Rebel Nor Tory: Hanyost Schuyler & The Siege of Fort Stanwix, Createspace Publishing, 2007.
Furneaux, Rupert The Battle of Saratoga, Stein and Day 1971.
Kelsay, Isabel Thompson Joseph Brant, 1743-1807, Man of Two Worlds, Syracuse Univ. Press, 1984.
Ketchum, Richard M. Saratoga, Turning Point of America’s Revolutionary War, Henry Holt & Co, 1997.
Logusz, Michael O. With Musket and Tomahawk, The Saratoga Campaign and the Wilderness War of 1777, Casemate Publishing, 2010.
Logusz, Michael O. With Musket and Tomahawk. Volume II: The Mohawk Valley Campaign in the Wilderness War of 1777, Casemate Publishing, 2012 (book recommendation of the week).
Lowenthal, William Days of Siege: A Journal of the Siege of Fort Stanwix in 1777, Eastern Acorn Press, 1983.
Luzader, John F. Saratoga: A Military History of the Decisive Campaign of the American Revolution, Casemate Publishers, 2008
Mintz, Max M. The Generals of Saratoga: John Burgoyne and Horatio Gates, Yale Univ. Press, 1990.
Randall, Willard Sterne Benedict Arnold Patriot and Traitor, Dorsett Press, 1990.
Ranzan, David A and Matthew J. Hollis (eds) Hero of Fort Schuyler: Selected Revolutionary War Correspondence of Brigadier General Peter Gansevoort, Jr., McFarland, 2014.
Watt, Gavin K. Rebellion in the Mohawk Valley: The St. Leger Expedition of 1777, Dundern, 2002.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.