Last week, we covered the British capture and destruction of Fort Ann and Fort George, as well as the raid on Ballston, near Albany. Those actions were primarily designed to distract from another ongoing raid taking place further to the south.
Sir John Johnson, along with Mohawk Chief and British Captain Joseph Brant, and Seneca Chief Cornplanter, led a combined force of around 1000 men. They were a mix of Indians, Loyalists and some British regulars. Among them were some German Jaegers and Butler’s Rangers. They also brought with them two small mortars and a brass three-pound cannon.
Johnson was the son of William Johnson, who had been the British Indian agent for decades before the Revolution. He lived in upstate New York and grew up living along the Mohawk River. As a teenager, he moved to Philadelphia to continue his education. He saw his first military service during the French and Indian War when at age 13, he accompanied his father to the fight the French at Lake George. During Pontiac’s Rebellion, Johnson led an expedition into the Ohio country.
In the mid-60’s, Johnson embarked on a grand tour of Europe. While in London, the King knighted him Sir John. His father died just before the Revolution began. Johnson inherited expansive estates in New York, over 200,000 acres, along with his father’s baronetcy and as Indian agent for the Iroquois.
In 1779 Governor Haldimand tasked Johnson with putting together a force to challenge the Sullivan Expedition in New York. By the time Johnson assembled his force in late September, the expedition had already run its course. Haldimand, however, did not blame Johnson for any delays. He had managed to assemble his force in a matter of weeks. It was the British who feared an American attack on Niagara that delayed any counter-offensive into New York.
Instead, Johnson spent the winter of 1779-80 planning for raids the following year. Johnson led a successful raid in the spring, including his home of Johnstown, in an attempt to rescue loyalists still in New York, who the patriots had threatened to arrest and send to Albany. I discussed these spring raids back in Episode 250.
Over the summer of 1780 Johnson worked to recruit a second battalion of the King’s Royal Regiment from among the loyalist refugees in Montreal. One purpose of his fall raid was to wipe out the Oneida crops and villages in New York. Unlike most of the Iroquois, the Oneida had mostly sided with the patriots.
Johnson assembled his force under great secrecy. Even several of his top officers were left in the dark. He left Montreal for Carlton Island on September 11, where he would assemble his army. He would connect, not only with his other loyalist and regular soldiers, but also with the native soldiers under Joseph Brant and Cornplanter.
Part of the plan was that Colonel Christopher Carleton would lead his forces near Lake George to distract the patriot armies near Albany, raids I discussed in my last episode. At the same time, Johnson would take his large force to destroy the towns and crops about 70 miles further to the west.
Delays, mostly due to illness, delayed the departure from Carleton Island until October 6. By that time, Carleton had already begun his raid. It would take Johnson another eleven days to reach his targets in the Schoharie Valley.
The raiders’ primary goal was to destroy the food reserves from the fall harvests, not only of the Oneida, but for all the patriot communities that remained in the region. They would also destroy the houses, barns, and any other infrastructure that they could.
The raiders made no secret of their plans. They informed local Tories in the region to be prepared to join them, offering bounties and a share of seized property to those who provided assistance. Of course, word leaked to patriot leaders, who did their best to prepare to defend against the attacks.
The British forces moved down the Charlotte River, an eastern branch of the Susquehanna River. They entered the Schoharie Valley in Upstate New York, where they faced three small forts to contest their attack.
By this time the region was used to the many raids that swept across the region. Most of the forts were simply houses that had been reinforced to defend against smaller raids. Usually, if the locals could make it inside the forts, the raiders would bypass them and focus on the property outside the forts.. The three unnamed forts were simply referenced as the upper fort, the middle fort, and the lower fort.
By late on October 16, the British camped within a few miles of the forts. The following morning, they bypassed the upper fort, and moved toward the middle fort, which seemed to be the most vulnerable of the three. They arrived at the fort just before daylight. The upper fort, which had detected the enemy, fired a signal gun to warn the other two forts of the enemy’s approach.
The Middle fort was under the command of a Continental officer, Major Melancthon Wooley. His garrison consisted of about 150 Continental soldiers and about 50 militia who had rallied to the fort upon receiving word of the imminent attack. The enemy outnumbered them by about five-to-one, and had the cannon and mortars to launch a deadly attack.
Woolsey had sent out a reconnaissance force of about 40 men, who discovered the enemy’s approach and retreated back to the fort. When he saw the size of the force and the artillery arrayed against him, Major Woolsey was inclined to surrender. He had only limited ammunition and could not hold out for very long.
Colonel Johnson sent out a messenger, an officer from the Tory regiment Butler’s Rangers, under a flag of truce to demand the fort’s surrender. Before the messenger got within speaking distance, a rifle ball whizzed over his head, forcing the party to retreat. Captain Timothy Murphy had fired over their heads to prevent the British from giving terms to his commander, Major Woolsey.
Murphy was a long time veteran of the war. He had enlisted in a Pennsylvania Regiment in June of 1775. He was one of the very few regiments from outside of New England to participate in the Siege of Boston that year. After the battle of Long Island, he was promoted to sergeant and also fought at the battles of Trenton and Princeton.
His abilities as a sharpshooter allowed him to transfer into the rifle corps under Daniel Morgan. He fought in the campaign that forced the British surrender at Saratoga. By some accounts, he is the man who killed General Simon Frasier at Bemis Heights. He then transferred back to spend the winter at Valley Forge. In July of 1778, General Washington ordered Murphy’s company of riflemen to the New York frontier. He was stationed in the Schoharie Valley ,and later participated in the Sullivan Campaign to wipe out the Iroquois villages that were providing cover to Tory raiding parties.
In 1779, Murphy’s enlistment in the Continental Army ended. He stayed in the Schoharie Valley and continued the fight as a militia officer. He also married a local woman, Peggy Feeck who was with him at the Middle Fort.
In the spring of 1780, Murphy and another man were ambushed and taken prisoner by Indians. They managed to free themselves and kill their captors. As he faced capture once again at the Middle Fort, Murphy was determined not to surrender. That is why he fired on the flag of truce without orders from Major Woolsey.
His commander, Major Woolsey, was determined to receive the surrender terms and ordered Murphy not to fire again. Murphy retorted “I’ll die before they have me prisoner.” Woolsey ordered someone to raise a white flag of surrender for the fort, but Murphy threatened to shoot any man who tried to do it. When the British attempted to approach for a third time under a flag of truce, Murphy fired again.
Woolsey threatened to shoot Murphy on the spot, or have him arrested, but none of the men in the garrison were willing to try it. Frustrated that he could not command the garrison and surrender, Woolsey retreated to the basement of the stone house inside the fort and prepared for it to be overrun by the British. When second-in-command Colonel Peter Vrooman went to find Woolsey, the Colonel complained that the garrison would not obey his commands, and he told Vrooman to take command and prepare for the British attack.
The British attackers, however, had no plans for a lengthy siege, and had no desire to storm the fort. After attempting for several hours to compel the fort’s surrender, Colonel Johnson simply moved on, making a nominal attack on the Lower Fort and continuing his rampage of burning the homes and crops of locals who had not committed to the loyalist cause. Colonel Johnson later reported burning 600,000 bushels of grain. The Americans also noted the destruction of 200 buildings, including several churches.
In the end the garrison suffered only one killed and two wounded, one of whom later died from his wounds.
As Colonel Johnson continued his raid across the Mohawk Valley, he deployed about one hundred loyalists and Indians across the river to the north shore. Colonel John Brown, who was in command of Fort Paris nearby, learned about this smaller party that was apart from the main force, and attacked them with about 400 militia.
When Arnold received the promotion, Brown resigned his commission from the Continental Army in disgust. Brown continued to serve as a militia officer. During the Saratoga campaign, Brown led the raid on Fort Ticonderoga, by that time behind British lines.
In 1780, Brown was serving in New York under the command of Militia General Robert Van Rensselaer. Van Rensselaer was not really a military man. He was from a wealthy and influential family. The Van Rensselaer’s had been wealthy Dutch merchants in the region for generations. He also had ancestors from the Livingston and Schuyler families. His older sister, Catherine was the wife of General Philip Schuyler.
Robert was a committed patriot, having served in the New York Provincial Congress in 1775, and as a legislator in the New York State assembly since its founding in 1777. Despite the lack of any military experience, he received a commission as a colonel in the state militia in 1775. Several months before the fall action began in 1780, he received a promotion to brigadier general, again with almost no military experience.
Van Rensselaer ordered Brown to take command of Fort Paris, near Stone Arabia, after receiving word of Johnson’s imminent attack in the area. Brown had command of 250-300 men at Fort Paris. He managed to get that number up to nearly 400 with the addition of local militia and set out after the smaller party of loyalists believed to be near the village of Stone Arabia.
On the morning of October 19, Colonel Brown led his force in search of the smaller force of loyalists who had deployed to destroy local crops and buildings. He encountered the enemy near Stone Arabia and almost immediately charged forward to attack. As it turned out, Brown did not encounter a force of 100 loyalists but the entire army of about 900. The larger enemy force quickly turned both of the American flanks and nearly surrounded them.
Brown remained conspicuous on his horse, trying to rally the men. He was shot and killed. Between 30 and 45 others were also killed in the attack. Local stories later reported that the Tories scalped and mutilated the bodies of the dead, and stripped them of their clothing.
The survivors scattered and tried to hide from the enemy. Some took refuge in a nearby farmhouse. Indians who were with the Tories set the house on fire and burned the occupants. Some of the force managed to return to Fort Paris. A few made it to nearby Fort Keyser, which the enemy considered attacking, but then moved on, thinking it too well defended.
Some of the Americans who fled the battle moved south and encountered the larger force of New York Militia under General Van Rensselaer. The general was leading a larger force from Albany. After joining up with more local militia and a company of Oneida warriors, Van Rensselaer had a force of about 1500 men.
After learning from the survivors that Colonel Brown had been killed, Van Rensselaer moved his force in pursuit of the enemy. His army halted however, to contend with a small guard of about 40 loyalists preventing them from fording a river. Eventually, the enemy pulled back in the face of superior numbers.
As the army attempted to ford a river, Van Rensselaer rode off to Fort Plain, where he had an early dinner with Governor George Clinton. Many of his officers were critical of the fact that General Van Rensselaer had left his army during this critical time and delayed the advance on the enemy. The head of the Oneida detachment, Lieutenant Colonel Louis Atayataronghta of the Continental Army, accused Van Rensselaer of being a Tory for his dereliction of duty.
Van Rensselaer divided his force into three columns to march north in search of the enemy. The British under Johnson learned of the approaching enemy. Having already fought a battle against Colonel Brown’s forces that morning, they prepared for a second battle that afternoon. Johnson deployed his forces in a defensive position on a peninsula created by a bend in the river, near an area known as Klock’s Field.
One of the American columns began an attack across an open field against British regulars directly under the command of Colonel Johnson. Another column, which included the Oneida Indians, attacked a loyalist force consisting of Hessian Jaegers and Mohawk warriors under Joseph Brant. Since the battle began late in the day, the fighting before dusk only lasted less than an hour. After dark, General Van Rensselaer ordered an end to the fighting and to prepare to renew the attack in the morning. He then withdrew several miles back to Fox’s Fort.
The following morning, the Americans had found that the British had withdrawn, leaving burning campfires. Some of the soldiers wanted to pursue, but their leaders wanted to wait until Van Rensselaer caught up with them. Otherwise, their smaller force might run into a larger ambush and suffer a fate similar to Colonel Brown. After waiting some time, they learned that the main force under Van Rensselaer was not advancing toward them, but was already on its way back to Albany. The British forces under Johnson continued to withdraw back to Niagara, burning crops and houses as they went.
Technically the battle was considered an American victory because they held the field. But the British forces being permitted to escape after a destructive raid upset many locals. Later backlash against Van Rensselaer’s tentative advance and speedy retreat leveled charges that he must be a secret tory. He faced a court martial several months later, but was acquitted.
The Johnson Expedition managed to inflict a great deal of property damage. There are also a great many accounts among the patriots of atrocities committed, not only by Indians, but also the loyalists who were former neighbors in New York. Numerous stories of the murder of women and children, taking scalps and mutilating bodies. Even if some of the stories were exaggerated, the raids only increased the bitter sentiments on both sides of this increasingly brutal struggle.
Next time: we head out west again to look at Colonel Augustin de la Balme’s attempt to capture Detroit.
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