The following is Chapter XXI from Battles of the United States by Sea and Land by Henry B. Dawson - 1858. Spellings have not been changed from how they appeared in the book. Footnotes have been numbered from 1 through 93 and appear at end of text.

August 2 to 22, 1777

Among the earliest and most ardent friends of the cause of America, and, consequently, among the severest sufferers in its behalf, were the Germans and their descendants in the valley of the Mohawk. Separated, in a great measure, from the older settlements, the aborigines and the younger settlers were personal acquaintances and friends, who had grown up side by side; and when the influence of the Johnson family was brought to bear on the Indians, and induced them to take an active opposition to their friends and neighbors, the contest assumed a peculiar and distressing character.

On the site of the present flourishing village of Rome, on the banks of the Mohawk, stood "Fort Schuyler."1 It had been built in the earlier French and Indian Wars, and was known, at that time, as "Fort Stanwix;"2 but having fallen into ruins, in 1776 it had been reoccupied, repairs made, and its name changed to Fort Schuyler, in compliment to General Philip Schuyler, the officer commanding the Northern Department.3 In April, 1777, colonel Peter Gansevoort, of the New York line, was appointed to the command of this station, and when he reached the post he found the works in an unfinished state, and "not only indefensible, but untenable."4 On the twenty-ninth of May, Colonel Marinus Willett was directed to join the garrison at Fort Schuyler with his regiment;5 and, with the active assistance of that officer, Colonel Gansevoort proceeded to put the fort into as defensible a state as the circumstances would permit,6 without knowing the character or strength of the enemy they were destined to oppose.

When the plan of the campaign in the northern part of the State was arranged in London, under the directions of General Burgoyne, as auxiliary to his force, and subject, to some extent, to his orders, an expedition was ordered to leave Montreal simultaneously with him, and to proceed to Oswego, where a union was to be effected with the Indian and loyalist forces. Thence they were to proceed, by way of Oneida Lake and Wood Creek, to the Mohawk valley, at Fort Schuyler, and, after checking the movements which might be made in that quarter to assist the American forces, to descend the valley and join General Burgoyne at Albany.7

In accordance with that arrangement, Lieutenant-colonel Barry St. Leger,8 with the Eighth and Thirty-fourth regiments, was detached on this service. Early information of the preparations which were being made reached the valley through the medium of a half-breed Sachem of the Oneidas, named Thomas Spencer, who had been present at a Council of the Six Nations, where Colonel Daniel Claus had presided, and urged the Indians to join St. Leger at Oswego, boasting of the strength of the army under General Burgoyne, and assuring them of success.9 Instead of arousing the inhabitants to a sense of their danger, and to the employment of means of defense, it appeared to paralyze them, while those who were inclined to favor the King became more openly his supporters; and the timid and the time-servers among the Whigs, either became neutral or secretly acting Tories.10

To counteract this effect, on the seventeenth of July, General Herkimer, commanding the militia in that county, issued a brief but stirring "proclamation," informing the inhabitants of the gathering of the enemy's forces at Oswego, and calling upon all, between the ages of sixteen and sixty years, to hold themselves in readiness to repair to the field, while the invalids, and those over sixty years of age, were directed to arm for the defence of the women and children. The disaffected, and all who refused to obey the call, were ordered to be arrested and disarmed, and the members of the popular "Committee," and all who had held commissions in former wars, were invited to rendezvous in the common cause, "not doubting that the Almighty Power, upon our humble prayers and sincere trust in Him, will then graciously succor our arms in battle for our just cause, and victory cannot fail on our side."11 This appeal was not without its effect, and the militia and the people, stimulated by the danger which was so apparent, moved with a degree of alacrity which contrasted strongly with their former apathy.12

Meanwhile, Colonel St. Leger had reached Oswego, and been joined by the Royal Greens and other bodies of loyalists, under Sir John Johnson, Colonel Daniel Claus, and Colonel John Butler;13 by about two thousand Canadians, for axe-men, &c.;14 and by a large body of Indians, led by the celebrated Joseph Brant.15 His force, in the aggregate, exclusive of the axe-men and other non-combatants, numbered seventeen hundred men.16 The march was conducted with great caution, and the "order of march" through the woods displays greater skill than, probably, any other officer in the command than the Butler family or Joseph Brant possessed.17 An advance party, detached from the Eighth regiment, under Lieutenant Bird, moved a day or two in advance, and invested the fort on the second of August, on which day Joseph Brant and his Indians also reached the fort,18 a few minutes after the arrival of several bateaux, laden with stores, which had been sent to the fort under an escort of two hundred men, commanded by Lieutenant-colonel Mellon.19 On the next day, Colonel St. Leger, with the main body of his motley force, arrived before the fort.20

On the morning of the third, a flag was sent to the fort, and left copies of a pompous proclamation which had been issued by Colonel St. Leger, in which, much after the manner of General Burgoyne, he dealt liberally in threats of vengeance on those who refused to recognize the King and submit to his authority.21 This proclamation produced no effect on the garrison, and active hostilities commenced on the morning of the fourth of August.22 At that time the Indians opened a brisk fire from their rifles, which considerably harassed the men who were engaged in raising the parapets, several of whom were wounded, and marksmen were posted in different parts of the works to return the fire as opportunities were afforded.23 The next day (August 5) the enemy was similarly engaged, occasionally varying his amusement by throwing a shell into the works.24 During these two days detachments were employed in opening Wood Creek (which had been completely obstructed by the garrison), and in opening a road from the Pine Ridge on Fish Creek, sixteen miles from the fort, for the transport of the provisions, stores, and artillery.25

The arrival of Colonel St. Leger before Fort Schuyler soon became known throughout the valley of the Mohawk, and General Herkimer summoned the inhabitants, in accordance with his proclamation.26 They nobly responded to his summons, and not only the militia, but the gentlemen of the county, and the members of the committee, hastened to Fort Dayton, now Herkimer, the place of rendezvous;27 and, on the fourth, a force of about eight hundred men marched to the relief of the garrison.28 Thomas Spencer, the faithful Oneida, --whose good services in behalf of American freedom, yet unrecognized, are above any praise which I can bestow, --was with him;29 and noticing the impetuosity of the troops, and the total disregard of all order with which they moved, without reconnoitering or throwing out flanking parties, he insisted upon these precautionary measures being adopted, in which he was joined by General Herkimer and some of the older officers. The junior officers, however, ridiculed the idea, and General Herkimer, contrary to his own judgment, did not enforce the order.30 They are said to have crossed the river at Old Fort Schuyler (Utica)31 and, on the fifth, encamped near Oriskany, probably near where Whitesborough now stands.32 while the party remained at that place, General Herkimer sent Adam Helmer and two other trusty men33 to apprise Colonel Gansevoort of his approach, and to concert measures of co-operation.34 Three successive discharges of cannon were to be the signal announcing their safe arrival at the fort;35 but, although the distance was but eight miles, so much difficulty was experienced in approaching the fort, that they did not succeed in entering it until ten o'clock on the morning of the sixth.36 the signal-guns were immediately fired, and as the message from General Herkimer intimated his intention to force a passage to the fort, a sortie was immediately arranged, for the purpose of diverting the attention of the enemy.37

It appears that on the morning of the sixth, a renewal of the scenes enacted on the fourth took place in General Herkimer's camp. With that caution which the General had previously manifested, he desired to remain where he was until reinforcements came up: or, at least, until some evidence was received that a movement from the fort had been made.38 The new-born zeal of his junior officers, headed by Colonels Cox and Paris, revolted at the idea, and angry words ensued, in which the brave old man was denounced as a coward and a Tory. Mildly remonstrating against the use of such language, it was again hurled at him; when, stung by the imputations which had been heaped on him, and indignant at their authors, he gave the order to "March on," and with a shout, they rushed forward.39 It is said, positively, by those who were present, however, that they marched in double files, preceded by an advanced guard, with flanking parties on either side;40 yet such precautions appear inconsistent with the character of the attack an hour afterwards.

Information of the approach of General Herkimer having reached Colonel St. Leger, on the evening of the fifth, and the latter preferring to receive him in the field than in his camp, he detached a portion of Sir John Johnson's regiment of Royal Greens, under Major Watts, Sir John's brother-in-law, and the entire body Indians, under Joseph Brant, the whole under Sir John Johnson, to intercept his approach.41 It appears that the influence of Joseph's counsels prevailed, and that it was determined to draw the Americans into an ambuscade.42 For this purpose, with a sagacity which does even that remarkable man great credit, a position was selected which was admirably adapted for his purpose, about two miles west from Oriskany, and six from Whitesborough.43 At that place a deep ravine crossed the road on which the Americans were advancing, "in a north and south direction, extending from the high grounds on the south to the river, and curving towards the east in a semicircular form. The bottom of this ravine was marshy, and the road crossed it by means of a causeway of earth and logs. On each side of the ravine the ground was nearly level, and heavily timbered, and a thick growth of underwood, particularly along the margin of the ravine, favored concealment."44 The ambuscade was laid on the western margin of this ravine, in a circular form, nearly inclosing the causeway referred to, leaving open only a small segment where the road entered.45

The advancing column, in great disorder, descended the slope into the ravine, followed by the baggage-wagons; and the van had ascended the western slope,46 when Joseph Brant gave the signal, and the circle was closed, the war-whoop sounded, and a torrent of rifle-balls was poured, from all directions, upon the unfortunate victims.47 The rear-guard, under Colonel Visscher, which had not yet reached the causeway, was cut off from the main body;48 and being outside the magic circle, it immediately fled, ingloriously, from the field, pursued by the Indians, and suffered more severely, it is said, than those who remained on the field.49

The increased confusion into which this sudden onslaught threw the Americans, and the terrible fire to which they were exposed, for some time threatened the party with annihilation; but they speedily recovered, and fought with the courage and skill of veterans.50 Early in the action General Herkimer was wounded, a musket-ball having passed through and killed his horse, shattering his own leg just below the knee.51 He was taken up, and, at his own request, was placed upon his saddle at the foot of a large beech-tree, where, having lighted his pipe, he sat and continued to order the battle, with the utmost firmness and composure, until the enemy retreated.52 For three quarters of an hour the contest continued with the utmost desperation on both sides, neighbor being arrayed against neighbor, and, often, brother against brother, in deadly hand-to-hand strife.53 At that time the enemy began to concentrate his forces, and, by slow degrees, to close in upon the Americans from all parts of the circle. Noticing this movement, the latter immediately formed themselves into circles, and their resistance, from that moment, became more effective.54 To counteract it, the fire of the Tories was discontinued, and the enemy charged with the bayonet; and then, more than ever before, the contest "became a death struggle, hand to hand and foot to foot."55 Never, however, did brave men stand a charge with more dauntless courage, and the enemy made no impression. At this moment a heavy thunder-shower passed over the battle-field, and the rain, bursting upon the combatants with great fury, arrested the work of death for upwards of an hour.56 The enemy sought shelter, at a respectful distance, among the trees,57 but the Americans, under the directions of their General, took possession of an advantageous position, farther up the slope, where they formed themselves into a circle, and, as the shower broke away, awaited the movements of the enemy.58 They also adopted a new mode of bush-fighting, to counteract the operations of the Indians, who, whenever they saw a gun fired from behind a tree, rushed upon and tomahawked the marksman before he could reload. To prevent this, General Herkimer ordered two men to take each tree, one only to fire at a time, and the other to reserve his fire for the Indian who might seek the scalp of his associate.59

The storm at length passed over, and, amidst one of the most intensely hot days of the season, the battle was renewed with increased fury.60 The new position occupied by the Americans, and the new system of 'bush-fighting," however, soon produced their legitimate effects, and the Indians suffered very severely, so much so, indeed, that they began to show signs of great uneasiness,61 and Major Watts moved forward a second detachment of the royal Greens, which had been sent out by Colonel St. Leger, to support them.62 As has been said before, "these men were mostly loyalists, who had fled from Tryon county, now returned in arms against their former neighbors. As no quarrels are so bitter as those of families, so no wars are so cruel and passionate as those called civil. Many of the Americans and Greens were known to each other; and as they advanced so near as to afford opportunities of mutual recognition, the contest became, if possible, more of a death-struggle than before. Mutual resentments and feelings of hate and revenge raged in their bosoms. The Americans fired upon them as they advanced, and then springing like chafed tigers from their covers, attacked them with their bayonets and the butts of their musket; or both parties, in closer contact, throttled each other and drew their knives, stabbing, and sometimes literally dying, in one another's embrace."63

After this contest had continued some time, a firing was heard from the direction of the fort,64 --an evidence to the Americans of the sortie which had been asked for by General Herkimer, --and the enemy sought means for closing the engagement. For this purpose Colonel Butler attempted a ruse-de-guerre, and was nearly successful in its execution. He ordered a detachment of the Royal Greens (who wore hats similar to those worn by the Americans) to turn their coats inside out, and to march towards the Americans from the direction of the fort, hoping to deceive the latter by making them suppose it to be a relief from the garrison.65 The Americans were deceived, as Butler intended, until the experienced eye of Captain Gardinier discovered their real character, and ordered his men to fire upon them, and, rushing upon them himself, followed by some of his men, upwards of thirty of the turncoats were slain, and the remainder fled in confusion.66

The Indians, perceiving with what ardor the Americans opposed the enemy, and finding their own ranks somewhat reduced in numbers, at once raised their retreating cry of "Oonah, Oonah," and fled in every direction;67 while the Tories, perceiving that their allies had deserted them, and supposing, from the continued firing, that their presence was necessary elsewhere, also retreated with precipitation, "leaving the victorious Tryon county militia and volunteers masters of the field,"68 at about two o'clock in the afternoon,69 after a contest of eight hours' duration.

While this contest was raging, the garrison was not unemployed. The messengers sent forward by General Herkimer, announcing his approach, reached the fort in safety, about ten o'clock in the morning, and, as we have seen, immediate preparations were made for diverting the attention of the enemy, by means of a sortie.70 for this purpose, two hundred men --one half from Colonel Gansevoort's regiment, the other from Colonel Wesson's71 --were placed under the command of Colonel Marinus Willett,71 and had been properly disposed when the thunder-shower, before spoken of, burst upon the fort.72 An hour's delay ensued, after which time it was made, and proved eminently successful. In addition to the troops previously detached, fifty more, under Captain Swartwout, were added, to protect a light iron three-pound field-piece, which had been mounted on a traveling carriage. As the enemy's sentries were directly in sight of the fort, his movements were necessarily rapid; and the sentries were driven in and their advanced guard attacked before Colonel St. Leger had time to form his troops. So sudden and so impetuous, indeed, was the attack of Colonel Willett, that the enemy could not make the least opposition, safety being sought in flight; and within a very few minutes from the time he left the sally-port he was master of the camps, both those of the whites and that of the Indians. Sir John Johnson, with his troops, crossed the river, while the Indians took to the woods, both being severely handled by Colonel Willett's party. Twenty-one wagon-loads of camp-equipage, clothing, blankets, and stores, including five British standards, the baggage of Sir John Johnson and all his papers, the desk and papers or colonel St. Leger, and the baggage of a number of other officers, with memoranda, journals, and orderly-books, were the trophies of this movement, and Colonel Willett returned to the fort without the loss of a single man.73 The five British flags were immediately hoisted on the flag-staff of the fort, under the American colors, and all the troops in the garrison, having mounted the parapets, saluted them with three hearty cheers.74 The loss to the enemy, from this sortie, was very severely felt, and, among the Indians especially, it occasioned great dissatisfaction;75 while the garrison appeared to regard it as a certain forerunner of a complete triumph over its enemies.

This Page Established March 29, 1997
Welcome Page