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Reading 2: The Battle of Oriskany
When the Revolutionary War broke out, the New York Rebels recognized the importance of the Oneida Carry and the fertile Mohawk River Valley. They rebuilt the ruined Fort Stanwix at the urging of General Philip Schuyler of Albany. Colonel Peter Gansevoort took command of the fort in the spring of 1777 and garrisoned it with about 700 New York and Massachusetts infantry soldiers.
In July 1777, General Barry St. Leger left Canada and arrived at Oswego, New York. St. Leger was ordered to move east and join Burgoyne. He left Oswego on July 26 in command of a force of 700 to 800 British regulars, Canadians, Mohawk Valley Tories (commanded by Sir John Johnson and Colonel John Butler), and Hanau (German) mercenaries. These soldiers were joined by approximately 800 American Indian Tories, mostly from the Mohawk and Seneca tribes, under the command of Joseph Brant. Fort Stanwix, which had been renamed Fort Schuyler by the Rebels, blocked St. Leger's path. St. Leger's advance troops arrived at the fort on August 2nd and decided it was too strong and well-garrisoned to attack. After Gansevoort rejected his demand to surrender on August 3, St. Leger prepared for a siege.
General Nicholas Herkimer, hearing about St. Leger's invasion and the siege of Fort Schuyler, assembled approximately 800 Rebel militia troops from Tryon County and some Oneida scouts. He set out on August 4th from Fort Dayton (30 miles east of Fort Schuyler) to reinforce Gansevoort and relieve the siege.
Molly Brant, the common law Mohawk wife of Sir William Johnson and sister of Joseph Brant, sent word to St. Leger on August 5th that the relief force was only 10 to 12 miles away from Fort Schuyler. St. Leger dispatched a detachment of Mohawk Valley Tories and Indian allies under the command of Joseph Brant, John Butler's Tory Rangers, and part of Sir John Johnson's Royal Greens to ambush the Rebel militia before it could reach Fort Schuyler.
The Tories chose an ambush point 6 miles east of Fort Schuyler, not far from the Oneida village of Oriska. Dense virgin forest provided excellent concealment for forces around a ravine where an old military road descended to cross marshy little Oriska Creek. Butler's Rangers and Johnson's Greens were deployed to hit the head of the column while the Indians attacked the flanks and rear. The idea was to surround the column in a U-shaped pocket and close the open end of the trap.
On the morning of August 6, 1777, General Nicholas Herkimer was supposed to join the attack against the British siege camp upon hearing three cannon shots from Gansevoort. Pushed by his junior officers to move his troops immediately and accused of being a Tory for delaying, Herkimer decided to march his troops to the fort without waiting for the signal.
Oneida scouts out front and to the sides of the Rebel militia detected no enemy so General Herkimer led the vanguard of 600 men into the ravine. Fifteen supply wagons followed, and then the 200 soldiers of the rearguard. At approximately 10:00 a.m., as Herkimer completed crossing the ravine, the Seneca Tories attacked. They were slightly premature, because the final 200 militia troops of the rearguard were not yet in the ravine. Nonetheless, the first volley, coming from all sides, was devastating to the Rebel militia. General Herkimer was shot through the right leg and his horse was killed. The militia defended themselves in a desperate, disorganized manner. Brant's men engaged in hand-to-hand combat, using knives, hatchets, clubs, and spears to attack the Rebels. The battlefield was littered with dead, dying, and wounded soldiers. The 200 Rebel troops not caught in the trap fled from the ravine, only to be followed and attacked by Joseph Brant and other Mohawks.
Seneca war chief Blacksnake described the battle years later:
We met the enemy at the place near a small creek. They had 3 cannons and we none. We had tomahawks and a few guns, but agreed to fight with tomahawks and scalping knives. During the fight, we waited for them to fire their guns and then we attacked them. It felt like no more than killing a Beast. We killed most of the men in the American's army. Only a few escaped from us. We fought so close against one another that we could kill or another with a musket bayonet.... It was here that I saw the most dead bodies than I have ever seen. The blood shed made a stream running down on the sloping ground.¹
Although bleeding from his wound, Herkimer organized his men into a rough circle so they could defend themselves in all directions. About 45 minutes into the battle, a violent thunder storm interrupted the fighting. During this reprieve, the Rebels fought their way up a hill to high ground where they could better defend themselves. General Herkimer was carried up the hill and sat on his saddle under a tree. He directed his troops to reorganize in a grove of trees by pairs, so that one man could defend the other while he was reloading his musket. After the storm, the fighting resumed.
Colonel Gansevoort sent out a sortie under the command of Colonel Marinus Willett between 2 and 4 p.m. to create a diversion to help Herkimer's force. After driving off the guards, Willett and his men raided the Indian and Tory camps, taking several wagonloads of booty and some prisoners back to the fort and destroying what they could not take.² Hearing of the raid, the Native-American Tories started to leave the battle and return to the siege camp. Without Indian support, the European-American Tories also withdrew from the battlefield. After six hours, at about 4 p.m., the battle was over. The Rebel militia troops then collected their wounded, abandoned the dead without burying them, and returned to Fort Dayton.
Only about 150 of the 800 Rebels who went into battle survived without serious injury. General Nicholas Herkimer died 11 days after the battle due to complications from having his leg amputated. Many Rebels were taken prisoner by the Tory American Indians. Tory losses were much lighter than those of the Rebels, the majority having occurred among the Indian allies, particularly the Senecas.
Major General Benedict Arnold had been sent from Saratoga to relieve Fort Schulyer even before news of Herkimer's battle. The column skirted Oriskany battlefield and as Arnold approached, St. Leger's Native American allies, discouraged by the failure of the siege, abandoned him. St. Leger lifted the siege early on August 22 and retreated to Canada. Both Tories and Rebels claimed victory at the Battle of Oriskany. Herkimer's attempt to relieve the siege at Fort Schuyler was unsuccessful, but St. Leger's expedition failed.
In the aftermath of the Battle of Oriskany, the Oneida Village of Oriska and its crops were destroyed, and many of its occupants killed. Molly Brant, who notified St. Leger about the approach of Herkimer's column, was forced to flee her home. It was looted and subsequently given to Oneida chief Hon Yerry, who had fought alongside his wife for the Rebel militia at Oriskany. These types of reprisals would be played out again and again, for the Battle of Oriskany was just the beginning of the civil war to be fought throughout New York until 1784.
Questions for Reading 2
1. Why do you believe the casualties at the Battle of Oriskany were so great?
2. Give examples of good and poor leadership displayed by General Herkimer and explain your choices.
3. Give examples of good and poor leadership displayed by Sir John Johnson and explain your choices.
4. Who do you believe won the battle? Why?
5. How could St. Leger have conducted his campaign differently and treated his Tory allies and the people of the Mohawk Valley differently that might have resulted in a British victory?
Reading 2 was adapted from Jack P. Greene and J. R. Pole, editors, The Blackwell Encyclopedia of the American Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Basil Blackwell, Inc., 1991); Don Higginbotham, The War of American Independence: Military Attitudes, Policies, and Practice, 1763-1789 (New York: Macmillan, 1971); Lois M. Huey and Bonnie Pulis, Molly Brant: A Legacy of Her Own (Youngstown, N.Y.: Old Fort Niagara Publications, 1997); John S. Pancake, 1777: The Year of the Hangman (Tuscaloosa, Al.: The University of Alabama Press, 1977); and George F. Scheer and Hugh F. Rankin, Rebels and Redcoats: The Living Story of the American Revolution (Cleveland: World Publishing Company, 1957).¹ Lyman Draper, Draper Manuscripts, Series U (Frontier War Papers, Vol. 11, Unpublished manuscript in the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison) 196-7.
² John F. Luzader, Fort Stanwix: Construction and Military History, 1758 to 1777 (Washington, DC: Office of Park Historic Preservation, National Park Service, 1976) 44-45.