St. Leger's Expedition
St. Leger's Expedition
ST. LEGER'S EXPEDITION. June-September 1777. General John Burgoyne's "Thoughts for Conducting the War on the Side of Canada" received approval from the British government and formed the basis for his operations in 1777. A part of that plan involved a small secondary attack from Canada advancing through western New York by way of the grain-producing Mohawk Valley. Burgoyne envisioned this column joining his own main force at Albany. Although this plan had some military value as a diversion, the significant advantages were political. If, as expected, the column rolled over patriot opposition, it would encourage both the Loyalists and the Indian tribes to actively support Burgoyne.
Energetic Lieutenant Colonel Barry St. Leger of the Thirty-fourth Foot left Montreal on 23 June 1777, reached Oswego on 25 July, and started his offensive the next day. (At this time Burgoyne was almost to the Hudson.) St. Leger's column, about 2,000 strong, consisted of an unusually mixed force. Half were Indians, and a third were Loyalist and Canadian auxiliaries. Only 340 could be called regulars, small detachments of British Eighth and Thirty-fourth Foot and part of the Hesse-Hanau Jäger Corps. The latter, a mix of true jägers and light infantry (chasseurs), comprised the advance elements of a brand-new unit that rushed into action as soon as they arrived from Europe and were probably still trying to recover from their voyage. The best Loyalist troops came from Sir John Johnson's Royal Regiment of New York, also known as the Royal Greens; the others, led by John Butler, were of value in working alongside the Indians but not in heavy fighting. The Canadian militia acted only as a labor and transportation element. Artillery support comprised forty men with two six-pounders, two three-pounders, and four small mortars. Larger guns capable of knocking down fortifications could not make it through the wilderness, and transportation concerns drastically limited artillery ammunition.
St. Leger advanced at the creditable rate of ten miles a day through a wilderness worse than the one Burgoyne faced. St. Leger's vanguard reached Fort Stanwix on 2 August, followed on the next day by the main body. Just before the British approached from the west, a hundred Massachusetts Continentals from James Wesson's Regiment escorting a supply convoy entered the fort from the east, swelling the garrison to about eight hundred. Burgoyne based his "Thoughts" on out-dated intelligence that seriously underestimated both the probable opposing force and the condition of the old works. St. Leger had enough men to invest the fort but not to storm it. He staged a review in sight of the garrison, trying to bluff them into surrendering. When that failed he went through the motions of a formal siege, hoping for some type of lucky break.
THE AMERICAN DEFENSES
Strategic Fort Stanwix had been erected at the Oneida Carrying Place (modern Rome, New York) during the French and Indian War. Americans reoccupied it and had seriously started refurbishing it in 1776, renaming it Fort Schuyler (the new name has largely been ignored by historians). Colonel Peter Gansevoort's Third New York Regiment took over as the garrison in April 1777. The regiment had a strong cadre of experienced veterans and an exceptionally capable second in command, Lieutenant Colonel Marinus Willett. When the siege began, the garrison had the Third New York, about half of Wesson's, and some artillerymen. Terrain favored the defense, and the fort constituted a formidable obstacle for anything short of heavy artillery. The large rectangular earthwork with bastions at the corners had seventeen-foot-high walls and was surrounded by a fourteen-foot-high stockade and a forty-foot-wide dry ditch. St. Leger threw a loose cordon of Indians around the fort but put the bulk of his men into three main camps that formed a triangle about a mile on each side. Regulars occupied the largest camp, more than a quarter of a mile northeast of the fort on slightly higher ground. Most of the Loyalists and Indians occupied the Lower Landing on the west bank of the Mohawk and half a mile from the fort. The rest of the Loyalists set up the smallest camp on Wood Creek, also half a mile from the fort.
Indian marksmen and jägers sniped at the fort on 4 and 5 August while large work parties tried to clear Wood Creek and cut sixteen miles of supply track through the woods. St. Leger kept about 250 regulars in camp as a reaction force. In the evening of 5 August, a message from Molly Brant gave word that an American relief column was ten miles away. Although his forces were already dispersed, the British commander accepted the danger of splitting them further.
The Battle at Oriskany, 6 August, ended in a tactical draw, but St. Leger's troops did turn back Nicholas Herkimer's relief column, leading the invaders to believe that they had won a victory. In the long run, however, it led to St. Leger's failure. The Indians had borne the brunt of the battle and suffered heavier losses than usual. Then they returned to find that their camp had been smashed during their absence by a sortie. Messengers sent ahead of Herkimer's relief column informed Gansevoort of Herkimer's coming and asked him to make a diversion to cover the final approach march. After waiting for the end of the same shower that caused the lull at Oriskany, Willett led 250 men with one field piece out the sallyport. He easily scattered the few enemies in his way, methodically ransacked the camps, and returned to the fort before St. Leger could intervene, all without the loss of a single man.
ARNOLD RELIEVES STANWIX
When news of Oriskany reached General Philip Schuyler at Stillwater, Burgoyne was only twenty-four miles away at Fort Edward with about seven thousand men. Schuyler knew that his policy of obstructing the roads and streams ensured that Burgoyne could not cover the distance at a sufficient pace to prevent the Americans from detaching enough troops to raise the siege. But he did have significant political problems. A faction in Congress already sought to strip his command because of the loss of Ticonderoga. Now New Englanders, including some of his own officers, raised the charge that in order to protect his fellow New Yorkers Schuyler would draw off the troops protecting the New England frontier. Schuyler accepted the risk to his reputation and started organizing the relief of Fort Stanwix. Although the column would normally have needed only a brigadier general as commander, Major General Benedict Arnold exercised his seniority to claim the post.
On the evening of the Oriskany ambush of Herkimer's relief troops, St. Leger started trying to persuade Gansevoort to surrender because the relief force had been thrown back. He sent him a letter from two American prisoners, Colonel Peter Bellinger and Major John Frey, recommending that the garrison give up. Whether or not they wrote it under duress is a point of debate among historians. Either way, real negotiations began the next day when St. Leger called for a cease-fire and the Americans allowed three officers, including John Butler, suitably blindfolded, to enter and meet with the senior officers of the garrison. The British informed Gansevoort of the terms: the Indians had reluctantly agreed to spare American lives and personal property if the garrison would surrender; otherwise, St. Leger would probably be powerless to prevent the savages from massacring the inhabitants of the valley. This summons was a deliberate attempt to conjure up memories of the Fort William Henry Massacre during the French and Indian War. The reference had exactly the opposite effect, infuriating the American officers.
Gansevoort agreed to St. Leger's proposal for a three-day armistice. Willett and an experienced frontiersman from the Third New York (Lieutenant Levi Stockwell) slipped away at 10 p.m. on 10 August, worked their way through the lines via a cedar swamp, and reached the American outpost at Fort Dayton where he learned from Colonel Wesson that Schuyler had in fact already ordered a relief column. Willett met Arnold at Albany and accompanied the column back to Fort Dayton, reaching it on 21 August. The remnants of the Tryon County militia brigade (smashed at Oriskany) mobilized a hundred men to support the Continentals, and on 23 August Arnold started on the final leg of the journey to Stanwix. After covering ten miles, he received a message from Gansevoort reporting that St. Leger was retreating.
HON YOST'S RUSE
Lieutenant Colonel John Brooks, who later became governor of Massachusetts, may have suggested the stratagem that Arnold readily approved: The Americans held an individual named Hon Yost Schuyler, who had been sentenced to death for participating in a Loyalist plot. This man, apparently retarded, had lived among the Iroquois and exercised influence on them because of his mental condition. Arnold offered to reprieve him (while holding a brother as hostage) if Hon Yost went ahead of the column and told St. Leger's Indians exaggerated stories of the relief column's strength. The stratagem worked.
Arnold reached Fort Stanwix the evening of 23 August. A detachment shadowed St. Leger back to Lake Oneida, and scouts watched the last enemy boats pull out of range. Arnold left reinforcements with Gansevoort and led the main part of his column, about twelve hundred men, back to Albany. They rejoined the northern army during the first week of September as it moved to the battlefield near Saratoga.
Although historians generally accept the story of Hon Yost's trick, it was probably not decisive in St. Leger's decision to fall back. He had no hope of overpowering the fort, only of playing for time until the Americans gave up. When Gansevoort did not crumble, the game was over. The entire operation had little military impact on either the campaign or the outcome of the war, but it had enormous significance for the Mohawk Valley: it polarized the inhabitants (Indians as well as the white settlers) and set the stage for years of bitter frontier warfare, in a sense starting the process of breaking the unity and power of the Iroquois Confederacy.
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revised by Robert K. Wright Jr.