Oriskany, New York
Oriskany, New York
ORISKANY, NEW YORK. 6 August 1777. St. Leger's expedition was a few days' march from Fort Schuyler (Stanwix). During the march a friendly Oneida reported its advance on 30 July to Brigadier General Nicholas Herkimer, commander of the Tryon County, New York, militia brigade. Despite the settlers' considerable concern for the safety of their families, Herkimer managed to assemble about eight hundred men. On 4 August they left Fort Dayton escorting a supply convoy of forty ox carts to Stanwix. They camped the next night about ten miles short of Stanwix at Deerfield, and Herkimer sent runners ahead to inform Colonel Peter Gansevoort and ask him to make a sortie from the fort as they approached.
In the morning of 6 August, the cautious Herkimer wanted to wait for Gansevoort's cannon signal indicating the beginning of the sortie before starting forward. However, his regimental commanders—Ebenezer Cox, Jacob Klock, Frederick Visscher, and Peter Bellinger—insisted on an immediate advance. Against his better judgment Herkimer authorized the move, leaving most of the carts behind under guard and eliminating advance and flank guards in the hope of improving the column's speed. The legend that the colonels shamed him into this decision by questioning his courage and loyalty seems to be based on the claim of nineteenth-century historian Benson J. Lossing and not on contemporary accounts.
St. Leger learned of Herkimer's approach on the evening of the 5th. During the night the British commander detached Joseph Brant with a mixed party variously estimated at from four hundred to seven hundred men to ambush them. Brant selected a place later known as Battle Brook, six miles from the fort, where a ravine two-hundred-yards wide could be crossed only on a corduroy causeway and where the surrounding woods provided concealment. Brant assigned his Loyalists—part of John Johnson's Royal Regiment of New York (Royal Greens) and a small contingent of rangers recently raised by John Butler—to form the blocking force, and he put the larger contingent of Indians (mostly Mohawk and Seneca) in positions from which to attack the flanks and rear.
Herkimer's sixty Oneida scouts somehow failed to detect signs of the ambush, and when the twenty-man vanguard stopped to drink from the stream, the half-mile-long column plunged blindly ahead. The front was on the west bank, climbing up the ridge; the fifteen carts were on the bridge; and Visscher's regiment (about two hundred strong) as rear guard had not yet started across when the shooting began. Either Brandt's men got trigger-happy, the most probable explanation, or some alert militiamen saw something, but in any case the result was that the trap snapped shut prematurely.
Although some of Visscher's men apparently panicked, the rest reacted with a courage and tactical instinct seldom shown by veterans. Instead of bunching on the road, they counterattacked and fought their way out of the kill zone. The Indians' inability to follow up the initial surprise and close in for the kill let the militia take up defensive positions on higher ground. The wounded Herkimer had the saddle taken from his dead horse and placed on the ground among his men. He then sat on it to direct the fight; although presenting a conspicuous target, he is said to have calmly smoked his pipe and refused all urging to take cover. The Americans formed first in small groups, which made them vulnerable from all directions, but then they tied together into a single perimeter.
The action started at 10 a.m.; after three-quarters of an hour, the vicious fighting stopped temporarily when heavy rain silenced all firearms for an hour. During this enforced armistice Herkimer ordered another change in tactics. Individual defenders had been strung along his perimeter, and the Indians would wait until a man fired and then rush in to dispatch him with a tomahawk before he could reload. So the militia started operating in mutually supporting pairs: while one reloaded, the other held his fire to pick off any enemy who charged.
When Major Stephen Watts arrived with a reinforcement of Royal Greens, Butler had them turn their coats inside out and approach the beleaguered Americans in the guise of a friendly sortie from Fort Stanwix. A sharp-eyed Palatine recognized a neighbor just in time, and a terrific hand-to-hand fight ensued. At about 1 p.m., an hour into the post-rainstorm, second phase of the battle, John Butler heard firing from Fort Stanwix and correctly guessed that the Americans were making a sortie. By this time the Indians were ready to quit, and the sortie's threat to their camps gave urgency to their desire to break contact. As their allies retreated, the remaining Loyalists also withdrew.
NUMBERS AND LOSSES
Because the participants were all irregulars, accurate statistics are not possible. American historians such as Benson Lossing tend to inflate the militia's losses. While officer casualties were heavy—Herkimer died of his wounds; one of the four colonels died and another was captured—the assertion that 160 men were killed is surely inflated. It is more probable that the number reflects total casualties, including the walking wounded. Estimates of Brant's losses are also higher in historians' accounts than they probably were on the battlefield. Probably from 70 to 100 Indians were killed or wounded, and the Loyalists' casualties must be added to that total.
It is hard to make a case that this battle affected the outcome of the 1777 campaign, or even that it altered the outcome of the siege of the fort. But it was very important for the local history of the Mohawk Valley, poisoning relations between former neighbors. And the superb fight put up by relatively untrained militia in an ambush that would have tested veteran troops became an important morale factor.
Foote, Allan D. Liberty March: The Battle of Oriskany. Utica, N.Y.: North Country Books, 1998.
Nickerson, Hoffman. The Turning Point of the Revolution or Burgoyne in America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1928.
revised by Robert K. Wright Jr.