Ambush At Oriskany
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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)
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
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)
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
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
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"
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.
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
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.
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