By Kevin Scott Gould
Lying within the valley of the Mohawk River, perennial battleground of colonists and natives, the village of Oriskany lends it’s name to one of the bloodiest ambuscades of the American Revolution.
A column of 800 New York militia under the command of Brigadier General Nicholas Herkimer, enroute to relieve the siege of Fort Stanwix, was ambushed in a ravine on the morning of August 6, 1777. This six-hour battle has long been considered an American defeat by both British and American historians. However, the battle prevented the union of Lieutenant General John Burgoyne with Lieutenant Colonel Barry St. Leger, thus leaving Burgoyne too weak to overcome the American army of Major General Horatio Gates at Saratoga in October.
Early stories of the battle were based on fragmentary or unreliable reports by a few survivors or on tales passed down by word of mouth through generation of Mohawk Valley families. The battle was considered insignificant and ignored by both James Fenimore Cooper and James Kirke Paulding. Irving buried it in his 1856 Life of George Washington, allocating only six pages in volume three. The first definitive study of the battle was Harold Frederic’s 1890 historical novel In the Valley(1).
Significance of the Battle
This essay will discuss the order of battle, the events leading to the ambush at Oriskany, and the effect of the battle upon the British and American units. This essay will also discuss the leaders’ impact upon their troops and how the leadership characteristics of General Nicholas Herkimer and Lieutenant Colonel Barry St. Leger, as presented by historians, influenced their units, before, during, and following the battle. By comparing the attributes of these leaders, one may understand why Herkimer and St. Leger behaved as they did and thus understand the significance of the battle of Oriskany.
The purpose of Burgoyne’s campaign of 1777 was to separate New England from the rest of the colonies. Burgoyne’s drive from Montreal to Albany would link with General William Howe who would march north from New York. (2) While Burgoyne thrust south from Montreal, St. Leger would press south and east from Oswego and capture Fort Stanwix and its garrison to secure Burgoyne’s eastern flank. St. Leger would then join with Burgoyne and press on to Albany. All that stood between these two armies was the five hundred man garrison at Fort Stanwix.
Built in 1758 as a bastion against the French, Fort Stanwix stood on the right bank of the Mohawk River dominating the portage between the Mohawk and Wood Creek. After 1760 the fort served only as a trading post and Indian meeting place. When Colonel Peter Gansevoort’s 3rd New York Regiment reoccupied it in 1777, the fort had fallen into disrepair.
Gansevoort immediately set his troops to repairing the fortifications in expectation of a British attack from Canada. The twenty-eight year old Gansevoort was a native of Albany and had won his colonelcy from Major General Richard Montgomery in the Quebec campaign of 1775. Fort Stanwix’s deputy commandant was thirty-seven year old Lieutenant Colonel Marinus Willett, a native of New York City. Willett’s background included service in the French and Indian War and the invasion of Canada. Before the outbreak of hostilities, Willett had also roused mobs to protest various unpopular British policies and so maintained his celebrity within New York(3). Toward the end of July, friendly Oneida Indians warned Gansevoort of St. Leger’s approach. Gansevoort’s garrison of 500 was reinforced by 200 men under Lieutenant Colonel Mellon of Colonel Wesson’s 9th Massachusetts regiment. Mellon arrived with six weeks’ supplies on August 2 by boat, only six hours ahead of St. Leger’s advance(4)
Lieutenant Colonel Barry St. Leger’s 34th Regiment of Foot was augmented by Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea) who led approximately one thousand warriors drawn from the four loyalist nations of the loyal Six Nations confederacy: Mohawk, Seneca, Onondaga, and Cayuga. Sir John Johnson, son of the late British Indian superintendent Sir William Johnson, and his brother-in-law John Butler commanded a company of green-coated loyalist rangers dubbed Johnson’s Greens. A company of German riflemen and a company of artillery completed the invasion force. The advance detachment under Lieutenant Bird preceded the army by a day’s march.
St.Leger route led up the Oswego River to the Oneida river to Oneida Lake. There he found that Wood Creek, flowing eastward almost to the Mohawk at Rome, was blocked by felled trees. Arriving at this obstruction on August 1, St. Leger sent Bird with white and Indian warriors ahead to threaten Fort Stanwix while the rest of the troops cleared the obstruction(5). By the evening of August 5, Wood Creek was clear. St. Leger brought supplies to the British camp around Fort Stanwix. St. Leger received warning of Herkimer’s approach from Molly Brant, the widow of Sir William Johnson and sister of Joseph. St. Leger saw that he could be caught between Herkimer and a sally from the fort. He dispatched 400 Indians with Brant and a detachment of Johnson’s Greens with Major Watt, brother-in-law to John Johnson, and Colonel John Butler with his rangers made preparations to meet Herkimer about three miles from the fort(6).
Bombarding the Fort
Lieutenant Bird completed the initial investiture of the fort on August 4 and with the arrival of St. Leger’s main body, the siege was vigorously prosecuted by artillery bombardment beginning August 5. Failing to inflict damage to the sod-work and palisades of the fort, St. Leger withdrew his troops, forming two camps, one on the high ground to the north of the fort, and the other to cover the lower landing on the river, to its south. The Indians were deployed along the low swampy ground between the two camps along a frontage of five thousand yards(7).
General Philip Schuyler commanded the Northern Department of the Continental Army from his headquarters in Stillwater, near Albany. Upon receiving intelligence from a half-Oneida named Thomas Spencer of St. Leger’s advance, he forwarded orders to General Herkimer in Tyron county to stop the British advance. Congress appointed Herkimer a brigadier September 5, 1776. Born in 1728, he was forty-eight, short and slender with a dark complexion with black hair and bright eyes. He was normally cautious and deliberate but also untested in battle. He was considered a natural leader in the German community, having been elected to the chair of the Tryon County Committee of Safety soon before his commission.
Upon receiving his orders, he raised a call for volunteers between the ages of sixteen and sixty to join his command at Fort Dayton, located about thirty miles east of Fort Stanwix down the Mohawk River. It was vital to destroy St. Leger’s force before the Tories rose in its’ favor, Herkimer told his men. The prospect of Tyron county falling to the loyalist cause and being overrun by British regulars and bloodthirsty Iroquois warriors inspired many to join Herkimer. The presence of his brother with the invaders made led some militia to distrust Herkimer’s loyalty, nonetheless, the 800 militia marched from Fort Dayton on August 4, taking with them 400 ox-carts carrying supplies for the fort. (8)
According to William Stone’s history of the Saratoga campaign, Herkimer’s militia “hurried forward in their march without order or precaution, without adequate flanking parties, and without reconnoitering the ground over which they were to pass” (9). The troops encamped on the 5th at Whitestown in the vicinity of Oriskany, eight miles from Fort Stanwix. Here a band of sixty Oneidas joined Herkimer’s column. (10) Herkimer’s plan was to force a passage to the fort and trap St. Leger between the two American forces. He sent three messengers ahead with his plan and instructions that he would not advance to Fort Stanwix until he heard a report of three cannon shots. (11) The messengers, Adam Helmer and two unidentified troops left on the evening of the fifth, but due to the slow passage of the swamp between Whitestown and Stanwix, the messengers did not reach Fort Stanwix until 11:00 a.m. on the sixth. (12)
By 9 o’clock on the 6th, Colonel Cox, one of Herkimer’s regimental commanders and Colonel Isaac Paris, a member of the Tyron county provincial council, demanded that Herkimer order the troops forward. .Paris recalled that Herkimer’s brother was a loyalist and called the general “either a Tory or a coward” for not progressing against them (13). Herkimer was finally incensed enough to assemble his troops and prepare to march. The militia was divided into four regiments under Colonels Ebenezer Cox, Jacob Klock, Frederick Visscher and Peter Bellinger (14). The troops were organized into three files. Three regiments were followed by the baggage train which was then followed by Colonel Visscher’s two-hundred-man regiment as the rear guard. The troops marched four miles along a corduroy road west to Fort Stanwix. (15)
Trapped In the Ravine
The road to Fort Stanwix led from Oriskany through several deep ravines for eight miles. Herkimer led his troops astride a white horse in files two deep, preceded by an advance guard and keeping Oneida flank guards upon each side. By ten that morning, the troops were only three miles from the fort. The corduroy road led into a deep ravine and across a small stream running through the ravine that ran “sweeping toward the east in a semicircular form and bearing a north and southern direction. The bottom of this ravine was marshy and the road crossed it by means of a causeway. The ground partly enclosed by the ravine was elevated and level.”(16) Herkimer led his troops down the eastern slope of the ravine, across the causeway over the swampy portion, and then began to ascend the western side when suddenly Joseph Brant gave the signal to fire(17). The Indians were on the western side of the ravine, and the whole body of troops except Visscher’s regiment with the ammunition and baggage trains, was trapped inside the ravine. Colonel Visscher was cut off from the rest of the body. He and his troops fled, but were pursued by the Indians and “suffered more severely, probably, than they would have done, had they stood by their fellows in the hour of need, either to conquer or to fall.” (18)
General Herkimer was hit in the initial volley. A musket ball tore through his leg just below knee and killed his horse. He was placed on saddle under a beech tree, took out his pipe and coolly directed the rest of the battle. (19) In the early part of battle, the men fired singly, then as one stopped to reload, an Indian would rush upon them and tomahawk him. The provincials quickly learned to fire in pairs. One would fire, then the companion would shoot the Indian running up to hack them. (20) The battle lasted forty-five minutes before the provincials drew themselves into small circles, a tactic initiated by Jacob Seeber. (21) A sudden hour-long rainstorm drove the two sides into their respective camps Herkimer’s troops formed into a single circle numbering one hundred fifty. (22) As the rain abated, the loyalists and Indians attacked and fought hand to hand “sometimes literally dying in one another’s embrace.” (23)
Infiltrating the Militia
The loyalists tried subterfuge to infiltrate the militia ranks. Colonel Butler disguised several Greens as militia and tried to slip them into the American lines, but he only changed their hats, leaving their green coats on, turned inside out (24) Lieutenant Jacob Sammons immediately recognized them by their green coats and alerted his men. The infiltrators then seized the company commander, Captain Jacob Gardenier who ordered them fired upon anyway. Thirty Greens were killed by two volleys, then the two sides closed in mortal hand to hand combat in which neighbors butchered each other with knives and tomahawks on the dewy grass.(25)
The butchery lasted six hours with both sides sustaining fearful casualties. The exact number of casualties on both sides has never been authoritatively determined. Different writers cite different numbers. According to the contemporary American report, the whole number of provincial militia killed was two hundred, exclusive of wounded and lost as prisoners. The British statements claimed that four hundred of the American were killed and two hundred taken prisoners.(26)Furneaux cites two hundred killed, 250 wounded and two hundred taken prisoner (27) Casualties of the British were not reported, but are suspected to have been heavy. Indians lost nearly a hundred warriors, including many highly favored sachems (28) Howard Peckham cites “verifiable minimum” of only 72 killed and 75 wounded at Oriskany. (29) Peckham contends that contemporary estimates are wildly unreliable. He cites as an example Dr. James Thacher the prolific Revolutionary War surgeon, who estimated the total number of American deaths from the entire eight year war at 70,000. (30)
Both Colonels Cox and Paris were killed. Numerous prisoners of the Indians were carried off an eaten, a fact reported by Moses Younglove, the militia surgeon who was captured but later exchanged. Stone discounts this report,(31) but it is entirely plausible given the cultural institution of cannibalism among the New York Indians. Herkimer was taken on a litter of boughs to his home, where, ten days later his leg was amputated by a young French surgeon against the advice of his personal physician. Neither physician was able to arrest the hemorrhaging and he died the next night, August 16. (32)
Herkimer’s ambush was not the end of British operations around Fort Stanwix. His messengers reached the fort between nine and ten in the morning of August 6 (33) Colonel Gansevoort had ordered one Lieutenant Diefendorf to slip through to Albany to apprise General Schuyler of the fort’s situation when the messengers arrived. They relayed Herkimer’s message and advised Gansevoort before the entire that Herkimer was about to break through with a thousand militia to relieve them. Gansevoort then planned a sally from the fort to link with Herkimer’s force He detailed 200 men, half from his 3rd New York and half from Mellon’s 9th Massachusetts. To this party he added a 3-pound cannon and placed the entire body under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Willett. (34) Willett led the troops a half mile down the road before reaching the enemy encampment.
Lieutenant Bird commanded the Indian encampment in the absence of Colonel Johnson who was currently engaged at the Oriskany ambush. The militia surprised the camp and totally routed the defenders. Willett’s men then turned to looting the camp, carrying away blankets, brass kettles, powder and ball, a variety of clothes and Indian trinkets and hard cash. In addition, the soldiers brought in a quantity of muskets, tomahawks, spears, ammunition, deerskins and five unit standards. (35) The militia also carried off Johnson’s orderly books, personal papers and furniture. The quantity of loot was so great that Willett had to send messengers back to Fort Stanwix to bring out wagons to carry back all the booty. The colors were immediately hoisted beneath the Continental flag, as trophies of victory. In the whole action, not a single American soldier was injured. (36)
Four loyalist Oneidas were captured. From these prisoners, Colonel Willett learned that the enemy were 1210 strong, including 250 British regulars and eight guns. He also learned of the ambush against Herkimer, launched two hours earlier although according the prisoner’s report, the militia had been driven back. The prisoners did admit however, that the British and loyalists had suffered heavy casualties(37). Willett wrote in his journal that the prisoners report “gave reason to think they had for the present given up their design of marching to the fort.” (38).
Plan for Relief
Realizing that Herkimer’s relief column would not reach the fort, Gansevoort devised an alternate plan for securing relief. He dispatched Colonel Willett and Lieutenant Stockwell to slip through the British lines to Albany with a plea for help. Journals of the fort’s defenders vary between the 8th and the 10th of August for the date when the officers departed. According to Willett’s journal, the two slipped out on the 10th, floated across the Mohawk River on a log and lost themselves in the woods. They obtained horses at German Flats, then hastened along the Mohawk and Hudson to Schuyler’s camp at Stillwater where they arrived on the 12th (39). Upon hearing of Herkimer’s defeat, Schuyler and his staff were gripped by a feat that the defeat of Herkimer would “put the whole Mohawk Valley in peril of an internecine war, should the Iroquois and the local Tories of St. Leger’s army win through to their former homeland” (40).
Schuyler immediately spoke his intention to relive Fort Stanwix with a detachment from his own army. This prompted the New England members of his staff to shamelessly accuse him of intentionally weakening the army. (41) This accusation so infuriated Schuyler that he bit through his clay pipe and retorted that he would take all responsibility himself. He then asked what brigadier would led the detachment to the relief of Fort Stanwix. Major General Benedict Arnold immediately volunteered (42) With Ebenezer Learned’s brigade he set off on a forced march to Fort Stanwix, augmenting his force with a thousand volunteers who joined along the march route.
Lieutenant Colonel John Brooks’ advance detachment preceded Arnold’s brigade. This detachment captured Colonel Butler and Nicholas Herkimer’s nephew, the dim-witted Hon Yost Schuyler. Arnold offered the young Schuyler a chance at redemption. He was to go to the Indian camp and spread misinformation about the size and strength of Arnold’s army. To lend credence to his story, friendly Indians shot his coat two or three times. Schuyler cooperated enthusiastically and was released to wander into the Indian camp on August 22. Believing him to be touched by the Great Spirit, the Iroquois revered Schuyler and were convinced by his tale that “Heap Fighting Chief” Arnold’s troops were as numerous as the leaves on the trees and that Burgoyne’s army had already been cut to pieces. (43) After the Iroquois heard this story, St. Leger and Johnson could not dissuade them from deserting. Their sachems pointed out that the British had told them there would be no fighting and that they would just sit and smoke for the duration of the campaign, but now they had lost several warriors and chiefs. (44) With the rout of his Indian allies, St. Leger had not choice but to abandon his siege and his entire operation of linking with Burgoyne.(45) His force decamped hurriedly, abandoned cannon for lack of horses and buried them instead. He dispatched a messenger to alert Burgoyne of his intentions and withdrew first to Fort Oswego, then all the way back to Montreal claiming that Arnold had marched against him with a superior force. (46) On August 23, Arnold who had advanced to within twenty miles of the fort, received a message from Gansevoort that St. Leger had fled. He relieved the fort next day, and on the 24th went in pursuit of St. Leger, reaching the shores of Lake Oneida as the last British boat pulled away. (47)
Traditional histories have characterized Oriskany as an American defeat, pointing to the high casualties and the failure of Herkimer to reinforce Fort Stanwix. Oriskany is usually depicted as the nadir of the Saratoga campaign for the Americans. Examination of the evidence quickly disproves this interpretation The battle of Oriskany inspired Stanwix’s defenders and demoralized St. Leger’s troops. British historians recognized that Oriskany was the pivot on which Saratoga was lost.(48) The failure of St. Leger, as a nineteenth century historian phrased it at the centennial commemoration of the battle, cut off the right arm of Burgoyne. (49) Oriskany was particularly significant as the first major battle outside Canada in which so many of the Iroquois fought the patriots. Schuyler’s policy of Indian neutrality had largely failed, but up to this point only the Seneca and Cayuga had proven particularly hostile. Now the Six Nations were noticeably divided. The Oneida and some of the Tuscarora and Onondaga nations supported the patriots, while Joseph Brant’s Mohawk Indians, the Seneca and the Cayuga stood with the British.(50) By maintaining Fort Stanwix as a patriot bastion in the Mohawk Valley, the battle succeeded in preventing a royalist uprising across the Valley and inclining the Iroquois to abandon the British cause.(51)
The battle of Oriskany signaled the beginning of the British failure in the western camping of 1777.(52) With St. Leger’s advance checked, his junction with Burgoyne was prevented. Although St. Leger claimed the “completest victory” at Oriskany in a letter to Burgoyne immediately following the battle, sixteen days after the battle, he fled.(53) Burgoyne’s campaign to capture Albany faltered after the Oriskany battle and finally collapsed on October 17, 1777, when , bereft of men and supplies, he was compelled to surrender to Horatio Gates at Saratoga. Upon his return to England, Burgoyne sought scapegoats for his failure. He found one in St. Leger and placed the full blame for the failure of his campaign on St. Leger’s retreat from Fort Stanwix. (54)
Nicholas Herkimer and Barry St. Leger demonstrated very different leadership traits. These traits help explain the behavior of their troops and the conduct of the troops during and after the battle. Neither commander left a body of writings to examine and both exited the stage of history soon after the engagement. All that can be examined about their leadership styles is their actions immediately surrounding the battle.
Nicholas Herkimer was apparently a charismatic, enthusiastic leader, as evidenced by quickly recruiting a large body of volunteers for the relief effort. He demonstrated physical courage by his calm disposition and smooth direction of the militia troops during the terrifying ambush. Thanks to his leadership and commanding personality, he maintained the integrity of his troops and thus saved them from total annihilation. Whatever leadership characteristics he possessed in life were magnified in eulogies and commemorations over the years following the battle.
An Uncertain Leader
Barry St. Leger, however, was unable to maintain his alliance following the battle. He lacked the personal charisma to maintain the divergent cultural values held by the Iroquois. When confronted with the conflict between St. Leger’s promises of easy plunder and the reality of a violent campaign deep in enemy territory, the Iroquois followed the traditional path of fading into the wood line in search of easier prey. St. Leger continued his duplicitous tactics when he misrepresented the outcome of the battle in his communications with Burgoyne and with the defenders of Fort Stanwix when St. Leger sought to parley with them following the ambush. From these clues, one may infer that St. Leger was an uncertain leader, not confident in his arms or his allies. This uncertainty again manifested itself when St. Leger immediately abandoned his siege following the desertion of his allies. Given his demonstrated timidity and duplicity, it is doubtful that St. Leger would have been any use to the flamboyant Burgoyne
Nicholas Herkimer and Barry St. Leger’s individual character traits help explain why their forces behaved as they did. Although their personality traits are magnified and exaggerated by partisan historians, it is apparent that Herkimer’s personal charisma and physical courage inspired his troops and ensured their survival in the bloody ambush. St. Leger’s inability to maintain his alliance is evidence of his lack of firm leadership and inability to deal with the divergent cultures of British regulars and Indian auxiliaries even with the aid of officers such as Johnson and Butler, both versed in Iroquois values and diplomacy. The militia’s tenacity in the ambush combined with St. Leger’s temerity inspired his auxiliaries to desert, thus leading to the collapse of his operation and the eventual collapse of Burgoyne’s master plan. This is the true significance of Oriskany, an often-forgotten battle in an obscure corner of New York, which pitted neighbors against each other in a battle for empire.
Venables, Robert W., ed. “Genl. Herkimer’s Battle”: A Poetic Account of the Battle of Oriskany.” New York History 58 (October 1977): 470-477.