The battle of Oriskany (New York State) was one of the bloodiest battles in the North American theatre of the American Revolutionary War and a significant engagement of the Saratoga campaign. Early in the siege of Fort Stanwix, an American relief force from the Mohawk Valley under General Nicholas Herkimer, numbering around 800 men of the Tryon County militia and a party of Oneida Indians, approached in an attempt to raise the siege. British commander Barry St. Leger authorized an intercept force consisting of a Hanau jäger (light infantry) detachment, Sir John Johnson’s King’s Royal Regiment of New York, Indian allies from the Six Nations and other tribes to the north and west, and Indian Department Rangers totalling at least 450 men.
The Loyalist and Indian force ambushed Herkimer’s force in a small valley about six miles east of Fort Stanwix, near the present-day village of Oriskany, New York. During the battle, Herkimer was mortally wounded. The battle cost the Patriots approximately 450 casualties, while the Loyalists and Indians lost approximately 150 dead and wounded. The apparent Loyalist success was tarnished when a party sorted from Fort Stanwix and sacked their camp, spoiling morale among the Indians.
This was one the few battles in the war where almost all of the participants were North American: Loyalists and Native Americans fought against Patriots in the absence of British soldiers. For the Iroquois nations, the battle marked the beginning of a civil war, as Oneidas under Colonel Louis and Han Yerry allied with the American cause and fought against members of other Iroquois nations.
In June 1777, the British Army, under the command of General “Gentleman Johnny” John Burgoyne, launched a two-pronged attack from Quebec. Burgoyne’s objective was to split New England from the other colonies by gaining control of New York’s Hudson River valley. The main thrust came south across Lake Champlain under Burgoyne’s command; the second thrust was led by Lieutenant Colonel Barry St. Leger, and was intended to come down the Mohawk River valley and meet Burgoyne’s army near Albany.
St. Leger’s expedition consisted of about 1,800 men that were a mix of British regulars, Hessian jägers from Hanau, Loyalists, Indians, and rangers. They travelled up the Saint Lawrence River and along the shore of Lake Ontario to the Oswego River, which they ascended to reach the Oneida Carry (present-day Rome, New York). There they began to besiege Fort Stanwix, the Continental Army post guarding the portage.
Alerted to the possibility of a British attack along the Mohawk, Nicholas Herkimer, the head of Tryon County’s Committee of Safety, issued a proclamation on July 17 warning of possible military activity and urging the people to respond if needed. Warned by friendly Oneidas that the British were just four days from Fort Stanwix on July 30, Herkimer put out a call to arms. The force raised totalled 800 from the Tryon County militia and was composed primarily of poorly-trained German-American farmers. Setting out on August 4, the column camped near the Oneida village of Oriska on August 5. While a number of the militia dropped out of the column due to their lack of conditioning, Herkimer’s forces were augmented by a company of 60 to 100 Oneidas, led primarily 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. Due to difficulties in penetrating the British lines, these couriers did not deliver the message until late the next morning, after the battle was already underway.
St. Leger learned from a messenger sent by Molly Brant to her brother, the Mohawk leader Joseph Brant who led a portion of St. Leger’s Indian contingent, that Herkimer and his relief expedition were on their way on August 5. St. Leger sent a detachment of light infantry from Sir John Johnson’s Royal Yorkers toward the position that evening to monitor Herkimer’s position, and Brant followed early the next morning with about 400 Indians and Butler’s Rangers. Although many of the Indians were armed with muskets, some were not, and only carried tomahawk and spear.
On the morning of August 6, Herkimer held a war council. Since they had not yet heard the expected signal from the fort, he wanted to wait. However, his captains pressed him to continue, even accusing Herkimer of being a Tory because his brother was serving under St. Leger. Stung by these accusations, Herkimer ordered the column to march on toward Stanwix.
About six miles from the fort the road dipped more than fifty feet into a marshy ravine where a stream about three feet wide meandered along the bottom. Sayenqueraghta and Cornplanter, two Seneca war chiefs, chose this place to set up an ambush. While the King’s Royal Yorkers waited behind a nearby rise, the Indians concealed themselves on both sides of the ravine. The plan was for the Yorkers to stop the head of the column, after which the Indians would begin their assault on the extended column. At about 10 am, Herkimer’s column, with Herkimer on horseback near the front, descended into the ravine, crossed the stream, and began ascending the other side.
Contrary to the plan, the Indians lying in wait near the rear of the column, apparently unable to contain themselves any longer, opened fire, taking the column completely by surprise. Leading the 1st Regiment- Canajoharie, Colonel Ebenezer Cox, was shot off his horse and killed in the first volley. Herkimer turned his horse to see the action, and was very shortly thereafter struck by a ball, which shattered his leg and killed the horse. He was carried by several of his officers to a beech tree, where his men 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.
As the trap had been sprung too early, portions of the column had not yet entered the ravine. Most of these men panicked and fled; some of the attacking Indians 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 probably still fighting 30 minutes into the battle. Some of the attackers, notably those not armed with muskets, waited for the flash of an opponent’s musket fire before rushing to attack with the tomahawk before he had time to reload, a highly effective tactic against men not also armed with bayonets. Louis Atayataronghta, a Mohawk warrior fighting with Herkimer’s men, shot one of the enemy whose fire had been devastating in its accuracy, 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 just to its west. John Johnson, concerned about the militia’s tenacity, returned to the British camp and requested some reinforcements from St. Leger shortly before a thunderstorm broke out. Another 70 men headed back with him toward the battle. The 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. Firing in relays, both were to attempt to keep at least one weapon loaded at all times, to reduce the effectiveness of the tomahawk attacks.
John Butler, the leader of the rangers, took time during the thunderstorm to question some of the captives, and learned of the meaning of the three cannon signal. When Johnson and his reinforcements arrived, he convinced them to turn their coats inside out to disguise themselves as a relief party coming from the fort. When the fighting restarted after the rain, Johnson and the rest of his Royal Yorkers joined the battle, but one of the Patriot militiaman, Captain Jacob Gardinier, recognized the face of a Loyalist neighbour. Close combat, at times hand-to-hand fighting between neighbours, continued for some time.
iv- Sortie from Fort Stanwix
When Herkimer’s messengers reached the fort around 11 am, Colonel Gansevoort began organizing the sortie that Herkimer had requested. After the thunderstorm passed, Lieutenant Colonel Marinus Willett led 250 men from the fort, and proceeded to raid the nearly-deserted enemy camps to the south of the fort. Driving away the few British and Indians left in those camps (and taking four prisoners along the way), the Patriots collected blankets and other personal possessions from the Indian camps, and also successfully raided John Johnson’s camp, taking his letters and other writings (including an intercepted letter to Gansevoort from his fiancée).
One of the Indians who had stayed behind to guard the camp ran to the battle scene and began alerting the Indians to the fact 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.
The battered remnant of Herkimer’s force, with Herkimer seriously wounded and many of its captains killed, retreated back to Fort Dayton. The wounded Herkimer was carried by his men from the battlefield. His leg was amputated, but the operation went poorly and he died on August 16. While the Indians retrieved most of their dead from the battlefield the following day, many dead and wounded Patriots were left on the field. When Arnold’s relief column marched through the scene several weeks later, the stench and grisly scene was, according to various accounts, quite memorable.
When General Philip Schuyler heard of the retreat from Oriskany, he immediately set about sending additional relief to the area. The siege at Fort Stanwix was eventually lifted on August 21 when a relief column led by General Benedict Arnold approached. While still at Fort Dayton, Arnold sent messengers into the British camp that were able to convince the British and Indian besiegers that his force was much larger than it actually was.
Loyalist John Butler was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel for his role in the battle, and was authorized to raise a regiment that became known as Butler’s Rangers. After the siege was lifted some Loyalists returned to Quebec while others (including a number of the Indians) joined Burgoyne’s campaign on the Hudson.
Brant and Sayenqueraghta, the principal Seneca chief, proposed the next day to continue the fighting by pursuing the Colonials down river toward German Flatts, but St. Leger turned their proposal down. This battle marked the beginning of the civil war in the Iroquois confederacy, as the Iroquois in St. Leger’s camp met in council and decided to send the Oneidas a bloody hatchet. Brant’s Mohawks raided and burned the Oneida settlement of Oriska later in the siege, prompting the Oneidas to plunder the Mohawk castles of Tiononderoge and Canajoharie. The Fort Hunter Mohawks were later subject to the same treatment, prompting most of the remaining Mohawks to flee to Quebec.
It has been claimed that Brant’s Indians tortured and ate some of their prisoners. However, modern historians dispute this. It is likely that some of the prisoners taken were ritually killed; there does not appear to be any evidence of cannibalism (ritual or otherwise). John Butler reported that four prisoners held by the Indians “were conformable to the Indian custom afterwards killed.”
viii- Winners and losers
The battle was, based on the percentage of casualties suffered, one of the bloodiest of the war. About half of Herkimer’s force was killed or wounded, as was about 15% of the British force.
St. Leger claimed the battle as a victory, as the American relief column had clearly been stopped. However, the Americans were left in control of the battlefield by the withdrawal of the Indians. The British victory was tempered by the discontent of the Indians after the battle. When they joined the expedition, they had expectations that the British forces would do most of the fighting. They were the dominant fighters in this action, and some suffered due to the loss of their personal belongings taken during the sortie from the fort. This blow to their morale contributed to the eventual failure of St. Leger’s expedition.
Blacksnake, one of the Indians at the battle, was interviewed many years afterwards. He recalled, “I thought at that time the Blood Shed a Stream running down on the descending [sic] ground.” A monument was erected in 1884 commemorating the battle, 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.
Nicholas Herkimer was honoured when the town of Herkimer and Herkimer County, New York were named for him.
American Revolutionary War activities in the Mohawk Valley, including the Battle of Oriskany, were memorialized by Walter D. Edmonds in his 1937 novel, Drums Along the Mohawk. The battle was also remembered with the naming of the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany, launched in 1945.