Three Rivers
History From America's Most Famous Valleys

Border Wars

by Elizabeth Eggleston Seelye
Assisted by Edward Eggleston
New York
Dodd, Mead and Company, Publishers, 1879.



THE eager troops had moved forward but two miles, when the guards both in the front and on the flanks were shot down. They were in the midst of an ambuscade. St. Leger, hearing of Herkimer's advance, had sent Brant with a large body of Indians, accompanied by some of the Royal Greens and rangers, to prevent an attack in the trenches. Brant had chosen his position where the road crossed a marshy ravine over a causeway. On the high land above the ravine Brant laid his ambuscade in a circular form, leaving but a small opening to admit the hostile forces. Thus, at the first fire, Herkimer's whole army, with the exception of the rear-guard, was inclosed in the trap, and the Indians immediately completed the circle. The baggage and ammunition wagons with the rearguard were thus cut off and left in the ravine. Overpowered by numbers of hidden Indians, with their hideous war-whoop, the rearguard fled, as their general had predicted. They were pursued by some of the Indians, and suffered most severely.

But there was no flight for those within the circle. They were thrown into hopeless confusion at the suddenness of the attack. The Indians fired with unerring aim from behind trees, and it seemed that the Americans would be entirely destroyed. When an American had fired and before he had time to reload his gun, an Indian would rush upon him with tomahawk and scalping-knife. Many hand-to-hand conflicts ensued, and sometimes both Indian and white man died in a death-grapple. General Herkimer's leg was shattered by a ball, but seated on his saddle, and leaning against the trunk of a tree, he continued to command his men, who dropped dead about him on every side. The battle had lasted forty-five minutes, when the cool old general succeeded in restoring some kind of order. The fatal Indian circle was gradually closing in upon the Americans, who formed themselves into circles that they might repel the attacks of the enemy from all sides. The resistance of the Americans was now more effective. For a short time the firing almost ceased; then the enemy charged with the bayonet. At the crossing of bayonets a hand-to-hand struggle began. Man to man the royalists and Americans fought. Herkimer's forces withstood the charge bravely; the enemy seemed to waver, when suddenly a storm, which had come up unnoticed by the struggling combatants, broke upon them with tropical fury, The enemy, who had suffered severe loss as well as the surrounded Americans, retired to seek such shelter as they could find.

The storm lasted for about an hour, and the Americans took advantage of it to take a more advantageous position, and there to form themselves into a circle, sheltered, after the mode of border warfare, behind trees. The Indians had heretofore considered themselves safe in attacking with the tomahawk a man who had just fired. The Americans now prepared themselves for this style of warfare, placing two men behind every tree, one man firing at a time, and the other reserving his fire for the defence of his companion until the latter had reloaded. They stood thus, awaiting attack as the shower cleared away. When the fighting was again renewed the Americans, under their new arrangement, succeeded in making the Indians suffer severely. The latter were about to give way, when Major Watts appeared upon the scene with a fresh detachment of Johnson's Greens. As the royalists advanced upon the American militia, neighbor recognized neighbor, and, with the bitter hatred of civil warfare, the battle was waged the more fiercely. The Americans fired upon the Greens as they came up, and then, with uncontrollable ferocity, sprang from the sheltering trees and attacked them with their bayonets and the butts of their muskets. The contest grew even closer, and militiamen and royalists throttled and stabbed one another, often dying in each other's embrace. General Herkimer was still seated upon his saddle upon a little hillock, that he might the better command his forces. He was advised to take a less exposed position.

" No," said the brave old man, " I will face the enemy," and he continued to give his orders, at the same time coolly taking out his tinder-box and lighting his pipe.

While this fierce conflict was raging, a ruse was attempted on the English side which came near deciding the battle. A detachment of the Greens was suddenly sent from the direction of the fort, disguised as Americans. Lieutenant Sammons first saw them, approaching in the direction of a body of men commanded by Captain Gardenier.

"Gardenier, here comes help from the fort," called out Sammons.

" Not so ; they are enemies. Don't you see their green coats?" answered the quick-eyed captain.

The men continued to advance upon the doubtful Americans. Gardenier hailed them. Just at this moment one of Gardenier's men, recognizing an old friend in the approaching line, rushed forward to meet him, holding out his hand.

" You are a prisoner," he was told ; at the same time his hand was caught with no friendly grasp, and he was dragged into the line of the disguised enemy.

Gardenier had watched for the result, and he now sprang forward, and, striking down the captor with his spear, released his struggling man. Two of the enemy instantly sprang upon Gardenier. He killed one and wounded the other. Three more rushed at him. His spur became entangled in their clothes and he was thrown to the ground. Two of the royalists pinned him there, running their spears through his thighs. The third presented his spear to Gardenier's breast to finish the work. The captain, however, grasped the spear with his hand, and, with a sudden wrench, brought the owner down upon himself. Here he hugged him close, as a protection against his assailants. One of his men now flew to his assistance, and, as the two royalists turned their spears upon him, Gardenier rose to a sitting posture, still holding his man, and snatched his own spear with the hand with which he had grasped that of the enemy, and which was severely cut by the spear being drawn through it. In an instant he ran it into the man he held, who was a loyalist officer, and killed him. The whole struggle had been almost instantaneous.

" For God's sake, captain, you are killing our own men !" shouted one of the Americans.

" They are not our men, they are the enemy. Fire away !" cried Gardenier.

The Americans obeyed, and, under a deadly fire, about thirty of the greens and many Indians fell dead. The battle was once more hand to hand, the combatants rushing upon one another with the bayonet. The Americans were inspired by the quickness and courage of Gardenier. At one time three of the loyalists rushed within the American circle and tried to make a prisoner of Captain Dillenback, who had declared he would never be taken alive. One of the three loyalists seized his gun, but the captain wrenched it from him and struck him down with the butt. He turned upon the second man and shot him dead, and in an instant more he had thrust the third through with his bayonet. Hardly had he accomplished this feat when a musket-ball killed him.

Brant's Indians had suffered much more severely than they usually suffer in their kind of warfare. Their attack had been persistent and brave, but many of their chiefs were dead, and the Americans held out with incredible stubbornness. The Indians at last raised the retreating cry of " Donah !" and fled amid the triumphant shout of the surviving militiamen.

Meantime a sally from the fort had been made under Colonel Willet immediately after the rain, and this now drew off the loyalist forces. Colonel Willet had made his movements with the utmost rapidity, driving in the enemy's sentinels and attacking the advance-guard. Sir John Johnson, who was in his tent with his coat off, had not time to put it on, but was obliged instantly to retreat, being unable to bring his troops into order. Colonel Willet took possession of Johnson's camp and the Indian camp in succession. The spoil was instantly drawn to the fort in seven large wagon-loads. Among the other things, five British standards and all of Sir John Johnson's papers, containing valuable information for the garrison, were captured. When Colonel Willet returned toward the fort, Colonel St. Leger, who was on the opposite side of the river, tried to intercept him. Willet immediately formed his troops, and gave the enemy a full fire in front. Their returned fire was so wild as to be harmless, and the American forces returned to the fort without the loss of a man. The captured British flags were hoisted under the home-made American one, and the men ascended the parapets and gave three hearty cheers.

But the loss on the main battle-field was severe enough on both sides. The British claimed it as a victory, but the Americans remained in possession of the field. They were busied making litters upon which to carry off the wounded. As they were placing General Herkimer upon one of these, three Indians approached and were instantly shot down by the riflemen. These were the last shots of the battle. Major Watts was left on the field by the loyalists, supposed to be dead. He fainted from loss of blood, but reviving, he succeeded in crawling to a brook, where he satisfied his thirst, and in two or three days was found by some Indians and carried to St. Leger's camp.

" I beheld the most shocking sight I ever witnessed," said an American scout who returned from a distant errand some days after and crossed the battlefield" The Indians and white men were mingled with one another, just as they had been left when Death had first completed his work."

The Indians were almost inconsolable for their severe loss. When they returned to their villages great was the mourning- expressed by shrieking and howling over the slain. Brant often spoke sadly in after-life of the sufferings of his " poor Mohawks" in this battle. The loss of a hundred men meant much more to the thin and fast-diminishing population of the Six Nations than it did to the thickly-settled whites.

General Herkimer did not long survive the battle. His leg was amputated, but the blood could not be stanched, and the brave old soldier read the thirty-eighth psalm to those who surrounded his bed, and soon afterwards died. (Note: The authors call General Herkimer an old man, but he was born in 1728, died in 1777. He was about 49 when he died. ajb)

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