Battle of Oriskany
|Battle of Oriskany|
|Part of the American Revolutionary War|
Herkimer at the Battle of Oriskany
Painting by Frederick Coffay Yohn, c. 1901
| United States |
| Great Britain |
|Commanders and leaders|
| Nicholas Herkimer † |
| Sir John Johnson |
| 640–720 militia |
|500 Regulars, Provincials and Indigenous|
|Casualties and losses|
| 385 killed |
| 7 non-Indigenous killed |
21 non-Indigenous wounded, missing, or captured
65 Indigenous killed or wounded
The Battle of Oriskany (// or //) was a significant engagement of the Saratoga campaign of the American Revolutionary War, and one of the bloodiest battles in the conflict between Patriot forces and those loyal to Great Britain. On August 6, 1777, several hundred of Britain's Indigenous allies, accompanied by Loyalists of the King's Royal Regiment of New York (Royal Yorkers) and the British Indian Department, ambushed a Patriot militia column which was marching to relieve the siege of Fort Stanwix. This was one of the few battles in which the majority of the participants were American colonists. Patriots and allied Oneidas fought against Loyalists and allied Iroquois and Mississaugas. No British regulars were involved; however, a detachment of Hessians was present.
The Patriot relief column came up the Mohawk Valley under the command of Brigadier General Nicholas Herkimer and initially numbered about 800 men of the Tryon County militia, plus a party of 60 to 100 Oneida warriors. British commander Brigadier General Barry St. Leger authorized an intercepting force of about 500 men under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Sir John Johnson. Most of Johnson's force were Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga and Mississauga warriors led by Sayenqueraghta, Cornplanter, and Joseph Brant.
The Indigenous and Loyalist force ambushed Herkimer's column in a small valley about six miles (10 km) east of Fort Stanwix, near the Oneida village of Oriska (present-day Oriskany, New York). The Loyalist victory cost the Patriots approximately 465 dead, wounded or captured, versus just over 90 killed and wounded. Herkimer was mortally wounded. Iroquois morale was seriously damaged when they discovered a sortie from Fort Stanwix had ransacked their camp during the battle.
The battle also marked the beginning of a war among the Iroquois, as Oneida warriors under Akiatonharónkwen (Joseph Lewis Cook) and Han Yerry allied with the Patriot cause, as did the Tuscarora. The Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga and Onondaga allied with the British. Each tribe was highly decentralized, and there were internal divisions among bands of the Oneida, some of whom became allies of the British. The battle's location is known in Iroquois oral histories as "A Place of Great Sadness." The site has been designated a National Historic Landmark and is marked by a monument at the Oriskany Battlefield State Historic Site.
In June 1777, the British Army launched a two-pronged attack from Quebec under the command of General John Burgoyne. Burgoyne's objective was to split New England from the other colonies by gaining control of New York's Hudson Valley. The main thrust came south across Lake Champlain under Burgoyne's command; the second thrust was led by St. Leger and was intended to come down the Mohawk Valley and meet Burgoyne's army near Albany.
St. Leger's expedition consisted of about 1,800 men who were a mix of British regulars, Creuzbourg's Jäger Corps, Loyalists from the Royal Yorkers and the British Indian Department, and Indigenous warriors of several tribes, including the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Mohawk, and Mississauga. The main body travelled from Lachine up the Saint Lawrence River and along the shore of Lake Ontario to the Oswego River. At Oswega they were joined by British Indian Department rangers from Fort Niagara under the command of Deputy Superintendent John Butler, and several hundred Indigenous warriors.
Tryon County's Committee of Safety head Nicholas Herkimer was warned of a possible British attack along the Mohawk River, and he issued a proclamation on July 17 warning of possible military activity and urging the people to respond if needed. Oneida allies warned him on July 30 that the British were just four days from Fort Stanwix, and he put out a call-to-arms. The force raised totaled 800 from the Tryon County militia composed primarily of poorly trained farmers who were chiefly of Palatine German descent. They set out from Fort Dayton on August 4 and camped near the Oneida village of Oriska on August 5. A number of the militia dropped out of the column due to their lack of conditioning, but Herkimer's forces were augmented by a company of 60 to 100 Oneida warriors led by Han Yerry, a strong supporter of the Patriot cause. That evening, Herkimer sent three men toward the fort with messages for the fort's commander Colonel Peter Gansevoort. Gansevoort was to signal the receipt of the message with three cannon shots and then sortie to meet the approaching column. The couriers, however, had difficulty getting through British lines, and they did not deliver the message until late the next morning, after the battle was already underway.
St. Leger learned on August 5 that Herkimer and his relief expedition were on their way from a message that Molly Brant had sent to her brother Joseph Brant, the Mohawk leader who led a portion of St. Leger's Indigenous contingent. St. Leger sent a detachment of light infantry from Sir John Johnson's Royal Yorkers towards Oriska that evening to monitor Herkimer's advance, and Brant and Butler followed early the next morning with about 400 Indigenous warriors and Indian Department rangers. Many of the warriors were armed with muskets, however, others carried only tomahawks and spears.
Herkimer held a war council on the morning of August 6. He wanted to wait because he had not heard the expected signal from the fort, but his captains pressed him to continue, accusing him of being a Tory because his brother was serving under St. Leger. He was stung by the accusations and relented, ordering the column to march on toward Stanwix.
About six miles (9.6 km) from the fort, the road dipped more than 50 feet (15 m) into a marshy ravine with a stream at the bottom that was about three feet wide. Seneca chiefs Sayenqueraghta and Cornplanter chose this place to set up an ambush; the Royal Yorkers waited behind a nearby rise and the Iroquois concealed themselves on both sides of the ravine. The plan was for the Royal Yorkers to stop the head of the column, after which their Indigenous allies would attack the extended column. At about 10 am, Herkimer's column descended into the ravine, crossed the stream, and began ascending the other side with Herkimer on horseback near the front.
Contrary to the plan, the Indigenous warriors lying in wait opened fire prematurely, however, the Patriots were taken completely by surprise. Colonel Ebenezer Cox was leading the 1st Regiment (Canajoharie district), and he was shot off his horse and killed in the first volley. Herkimer turned his horse to see the action and was struck by a ball that shattered his leg and killed the horse. Several of his officers carried him to a beech tree and urged him to retire from further danger. He defiantly replied, "I will face the enemy", and calmly sat leaning against the tree smoking a pipe and giving directions and words of encouragement to the men nearby.
The trap had been sprung too early, and portions of the column had not yet entered the ravine. Most of these men panicked and fled; some of the attacking warriors pursued them, resulting in a string of dead and wounded that extended for several miles. Between the loss of the column rear and those killed or wounded in the initial volleys, only about one half of Herkimer's men were still fighting 30 minutes into the battle. Some of the attackers who were not armed with muskets waited for the flash of an opponent's musket fire before rushing to attack with the tomahawk. During the battle, Oneida leader Louis Akiatonharónkwen (Joseph Lewis Cook) shot and killed an enemy warrior whose musket fire was devastatingly accurate, noting that "every time he rises up he kills one of our men".
Herkimer's men eventually rallied, fighting their way out of the ravine to the crest to its west. John Johnson was concerned about the militia's tenacity, so he returned to the British camp and requested some reinforcements from St. Leger, returning with 70 men. A thunderstorm caused a one-hour break in the fighting, during which Herkimer regrouped his militia on the higher ground. He instructed his men to fight in pairs; while one man fired and reloaded, the other waited and then only fired if attacked. They were to keep at least one weapon loaded at all times to reduce the effectiveness of the tomahawk attacks.
Butler took time during the thunderstorm to question some of the captives, and thus learned about the three-cannon signal. Reinforcements from the Royal Yorkers arrived, and Butler convinced them to turn their coats inside out to disguise themselves as a relief party coming from the fort. When the fighting resumed, the Royal Yorkers advanced, but the ruse failed when Patriot Captain Jacob Gardinier recognized the face of a Loyalist neighbor. Close combat continued for some time, often hand-to-hand between men who had been neighbors.
Sortie from Fort Stanwix
Herkimer's messengers reached the fort at around 11 a.m., and Colonel Gansevoort organized the requested sortie. Lieutenant Colonel Marinus Willett led 250 men from the fort and raided the nearly deserted enemy camps to the south, driving away the few people left in them (including women) and taking four prisoners along the way. They collected blankets and other personal possessions from the indigenous camps, and they also raided John Johnson's camp, taking his letters and other writings.
One of the warriors guarding the camps ran to the battlefield to alert fellow warriors that their camps were being raided. They disengaged with cries of "Oonah, oonah!", the Seneca signal to retire, and headed for the camps to protect their women and possessions. This forced the smaller number of German and Loyalist combatants to also withdraw.
Herkimer was seriously wounded and many of his officers were killed, and the battered remnant retreated to Fort Dayton. His men carried him from the battlefield and his leg was amputated, but the operation went poorly and he died on August 16. The indigenous warriors retrieved most of their dead by the following day, but many dead and wounded Patriots were left on the field. Benedict Arnold's relief column marched through several weeks later, and the men were moved by the stench and grisly scene.
General Philip Schuyler learned of the retreat from Oriskany and immediately organized additional relief to be sent to the area. Arnold's relief column arrived at Fort Stanwix on August 21, and he sent messengers into the British camp who convinced the British and indigenous besiegers that his force was much larger than it actually was. They abandoned their siege and withdrew.
In September 1777, John Butler of the British Indian Department was authorized to raise a provincial regiment that became known as Butler's Rangers. British Indian Department rangers who had fought at Oriskany formed the core of this regiment. After the siege was lifted, many of the Loyalist soldiers returned to Fort Niagara or Montreal, while others joined Burgoyne's campaign on the Hudson, including numerous warriors from various tribes.
Brant and Seneca chief Sayenqueraghta proposed the next day to continue the fighting by pursuing the Patriots downriver toward German Flatts, New York, but St. Leger turned them down. This battle marked the beginning of a war among the tribes in the Iroquois Confederacy, as it was the first time that they had fought against one other. The Mohawks, Senecas, Cayugas, and Onondagas were allied with the British, as were some Oneidas, and the Iroquois in St. Leger's camp met in council and decided to send the Patriot-allied Oneidas a bloody hatchet. Brant's Mohawks raided and burned the Oneida settlement of Oriska later in the siege. In retaliation, the Oneidas plundered the Mohawk strongholds of Tiononderoge and Canajoharie. They later raided the Fort Hunter Mohawks, prompting most of the remaining Mohawks in central New York to flee to Quebec.
A number of Patriots were taken prisoner by Indigenous warriors during the battle. While many of these captives were turned over to the British, some were tortured and killed. In his account of the battle, Patriot prisoner Dr. Moses Younglove accused the British and Loyalists of aiding and abetting the murders, and claimed "the savages" ate two of the prisoners. Canadian historian Gavin Watt, however, has debunked these claims, describing them as "highly coloured" as well as being "extremely suspect."
The battle was one of the bloodiest of the war, based on the percentage of casualties suffered. About half of Herkimer's force were killed or wounded, as were about 15 percent of the Loyalist force. The battle was a victory for St. Leger because he stopped the Patriot relief column. However, the Patriots retained control of the battlefield[further explanation needed] after the withdrawal of the opposing force.
The British success was tempered by discontent of their indigenous allies after the battle. When they joined the expedition, they expected British forces would do most of the fighting. However, they were the dominant fighters in this action, and some suffered the loss of their personal belongings taken during the Patriot sortie from the fort. This blow to their morale contributed to the eventual failure of St. Leger's expedition.
A monument was erected in 1883 to commemorate the battle at 43° 10.6′N 75° 22.2′W, and much of the battlefield is now preserved in the Oriskany Battlefield State Historic Site. The site was recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 1962, and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. The town of Herkimer, New York and Herkimer County, New York were named in Herkimer's honor. The battle was honored by the name of aircraft carrier USS Oriskany, launched in 1945, now an artificial reef, and also by the issuance of a postage stamp in 1977.
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