History From America's Most Famous Valleys
The Orderly Book of Sir John Johnson
During the Oriskany Campaign
Annotated by Wm. L. Stone
With an Historical Introduction illustrating the Life of Johnson by J. Watts De Peyster, and Some Tracings from the Foot-Prints of the Tories, or Loyalists in America by T. R. Myers.
Joel Munsell, 1882
THE AMBUSCADE ON THE ORISKANY
SORTIE FROM FORT STANWIX.
POEM BY GENERAL J. WATTS DE PEYSTER.
Seventeen hundred and Seventy-seven,
Of Liberty's throes, was the crown and the leaven.
Just a century since, August Sixth, was the day
When Great Britain's control was first stricken away.
Let us sing then the field where the Yeomen of York
Met the Lion and Wolf on their slaughterous stalk;
When Oriskany's ripples were crimson'd with blood;
And when strife fratricidal polluted its flood.
Oh, glorious collision, forever renowned!
While America lives should its praises resound,
And stout Harkeimer's name be the theme of the song,
Who with Mohawk's brave sons broke the strength of the strong.
relief of Fort Stanwix New Yorkers drew nigh,
To succor stout Gansevoort, conquer or die;
And if unwise the counsels that brought on the fight,
In the battle was shown that their hearts were all right,
If their Chief seemed so prudent that "subs" looked askance,
Still one shout proved their feeling, their courage -- "Advance!"
unfortunate counsel! The ambush was set,
Leaving one passage in, but non out of the net, --
Of outlets, not one, unless 'twas made by the sword
Through encompassing ranks of the pitiless horde.
Sure never was column so terribly caught,
Nor ever has column more fearlessly fought: --
Thus Harkeimer's Mohawkers made victory theirs,
For St. Leger was foiled in spite of his snares.
loud braggarts who had taunted Harkeimer so free,
Ere the fight had begun, were from fight first to flee;
While the stalwart old Chief, who a father had proved,
And his life offered up for the cause that he loved,
'Mid the war-whirl of Death still directed each move,
'Mid the rain from the clouds and from more fatal groove
Of the deadlier rifle, -- and object assured,
To him Palm, both as victor and martyr, inured.
the annals of War and examine with care
If a parallel fight can discovered be, there,
When eight hundred green soldiers beset in a wood
Their assailants, as numerous, boldly withstood;
And while Death sleeted in from environing screens
Of the forest and underbrush, Indians and "Greens"--
'Gainst the circle without, took to cover within,
Formed a circle as deadly -- which as it grew thin
Into still smaller circles then broke, until each
Presented a round that no foeman could breach,
Neither boldest of savage nor disciplined troops: --
Thus they fought and they fell in heroical groups --
But though falling still fighting they wrench'd from the foe
The great object they marched to attain, and altho'
The whole vale of the Mohawk was shrouded in woe,
Fort Stanwix was saved by Oriskany's throe.
New Birth, no advance in the Progress of Man,
Has occurred since the tale of his sufferings began,
Without anguish unspeakable, deluge of blood.
The Past's buried deep 'neath incarnadine flood.
So, when, at Oriskany, slaughter had done
Its fell work with the tomahawk, hunting knife, gun;
From the earth soaked with blood, and the whirlwind of fire
Rose the living's reward and the fallen's desire.
For there on Oriskany's shore,
Was fought out the death-wrestle deciding the war!
our country is free and its flag, first displayed
On the ramparts of Stanwix, in glories arrayed;
If the old "Thirteen Colonies" won the renown
"Sic semper tyrannis;" beat Tyranny down;
There, there, at Oriskany, the wedge first was driven,
by which British invasions was splintered and riven,
Though at Hoosic and "Saratog" the work was completed,
The end was made clear with St. Leger defeated;
Nor can boast be disproved, on Oriskany's shore
Was worked out the grim problem involved in the war.
A Poem by Gen. J. Watts De Peyster, read at the centennial Celebration of the Battle of Oriskany, 6th August, 1877. Originally published in the "Centennial celebrations of the State of New Yorl." Albany, 1879.
Burgoyne commenced his march on the 30th of June, ascended Champlain ; bridged, corduroyed and cleared twenty-one miles between this Lake and the Hudson, and watered his horses in this river on the 28th of July. From Montreal, St. Leger ascended the St. Lawrence, crossed Lake Ontario to Fort Oswego, moved up the Onondaga River eastward, traversed Oneida Lake, and thence proceeded up, and "a cheval," Wood Creek, its feeder. Sixty picked marksmen, under Major Stephen Watts (of New York city) an officer of Sir Johnson's Battalion of Refugees from the Mohawk, known - as the ''Royal Greens,'' preceded his march and effectively cleared the way. About this date, St. Leger's advance appeared before Fort Stanwix-the site of the present Rome-on the "great portage " between the headwaters of the Mohawk and the feeders of the streams which unite with the ocean through the Gulf of St. Lawrence. St. Leger was to sweep in and gather supplies for Burgoyne as well as to operate militarily against Gansevoort, in Fort Stanwix.
About the same time the necessary repairs of this Fort were completed, its magazines filled, its garrison augmented under Colonel Gansevoort and Lieutenant-Colonels Marinus Willett and Mellon, and simultaneously the investment was initiated by the advance guard of the British, under Lieutenant Bird, 8th (King's Regiment of) Foot, a famous organization, dating back to 1685.
On the 3d August, 1777, St. Leger arrived before Fort Stanwix and the siege began.
Amid the mistakes and blunders of this campaign, the greatest was sending "Local" Brigadier-General [Lt. Col.] St. Leger with only 400 to 410 whites (Indians counted as nothing in such an undertaking) to besiege a regular work, held by 750 (or 950?) comparatively good troops. Besides this, St. Leger had only a few light pieces, barely sufficient to harass and inefficient to breach or destroy. The carriages of his two six-pounders were rotten, and had to be replaced when actually in battery. Still the ''Burgoyne scare'' was upon the colony, and nothing had been done as yet to dissipate it, to restore confidence, or to demonstrate how baseless was the terror. ["The Albanians were seized with a panic, the people ran about as if distracted, and sent off their goods and furniture."]
Seeing the importance of relieving Fort Stanwix, Nicholas Harkheimer,* Major-General New York State Militia, a brave man although not much of a soldier, summoned the males of the Mohawk Valley, capable of bearing arms, to meet on the German Flats at Fort Dayton, now bearing his name. He cast his lot in with the revolted colony, although his own brother was a Local Colonel in the British service, and many other relations and connections as well as friends were in the opposite camp. The Militia of the Mohawk rendezvoused at Fort Dayton on the very day (3d August) that St. Leger actually began the siege of Fort Stanwix. The evening of the 5th, Harkheimer was at
* Herckheimer or Herkimer, originally Ergemon or Ergemar, according to " Osgood's Middle States," p. 165, which is most likely to have been the original name. Still, 15th June, 1764, he signed Nicolas Herckmer to an official paper.
"The Mills" at the mouth of Oriskany Creek, some seven to nine miles from Fort Stanwix, and in communication with the garrison, which was to make a sortie in combination with Ills attack. It is certain that Harkheimer had Indians with him belonging to the '' Oneida House,'' or tribe of the "Six Nations," but how many is nowhere stated. They were of little account. One of them, however, gave the militia the best kind of advice, but as usual was not listened to. This tribe, or a large portion of it, had been detached from the British interest by agents of the Albany Committee. Their decision resulted unfortunately for them; while they accomplished little for the Americans, they brought ruin upon themselves by their defection from the ties of centuries. After the impending battle, the other Five Nations swooped down upon them and nearly destroyed them.
Harkheimer moved on the morning of the 6th August, and immediately fell into an altercation with his four Colonels and other subordinates, and the Tryon County Committeemen. He wanted to display some soldierly caution and send out scouts to reconnoiter and throw out flankers to protect, and thus feel, as it were, his way through the woods. For this his officers, with the effrontery of ignorance and the audacity of militiamen, styled him a "Tory," or "a Traitor" and a "Coward," just as the same terms of reproach, with as little justice, were applied to Sir John Johnson. Abuse is the weapon of little minds, and sneers of those deficient in the very qualities which they deny to others they dislike. "Who can defend himself against a sneer ?" The bickering lasted for hours, until Harkheimer, worn out with the persistency of the babblers, gave the order to ''March on.'' His Oneida Indians should have been most useful at this conjuncture. But these traitors to a confederacy " of ages of glory," dreading to meet as foes those whom they had deserted as friends, clung close to the main body, and forgot their usual cunning and woodcraft.
Meanwhile Gen. St. Leger was well aware that Harkheimer was on the way to the assistance of Col. Gansevoort in Fort Stanwix, and listened to the councils of his second in command, Sir John Johnson, and adopted his plan to set a trap for the approaching column. Accordingly St. Leger detached Sir John with a company of Jaegers, or Hesse-Hanau Riflemen, Sir John's own Light Infantry Company, and some Provincials or Rangers with Butler, the total only eighty whites, if St. Leger's Reports are trustworthy, and Brant (Thayendanega) and his Indians. Sir John established an ambush about two miles west of Oriskany. Just such an ambuscade under the partisans, de Beaugeu and Langlade, absolutely annihilated Braddock in 1755 ; just such, again, under the same Langlade- had he been listened to by Regular Superiors-would have ruined Pitt's grand conceptions for the conquest of the Canadas by destroying the forces under Wolfe on the Montmorency, below Quebec, 31st July, 1759.
Harkheimer had to cross a deep, crooked, S-shaped ravine, with a marshy bottom and dribble, spanned by a causeway and bridge of logs. Sir John completely enveloped this spot with marksmen, leaving an INLET for the entrance of the Americans, but no OUTLET for their escape. Moreover he placed his best troops-whites- on the road westward where real fighting, if any occurred, had to be done, and to bar all access to the fort.
No plans were ever more judicious, either for a battue of game or an ambuscade for troops. Harkheimer's column, without scouts, eclaireurs or flankers, plunged into the ravine and had partly climbed the opposite crest and attained the plateau, when, with his wagon train huddled together in the bottom, the surrounding forest and dense underwood was alive with enemies and alight with the blaze of muskets and rifles, succeeded by yells and war whoops, just as the shattering lightning and the terrifying thunder are almost simultaneous.
Fortunately for the Americans, the Indians anticipated the signal to close in upon them. The savages-violating their promises to restrain their passions, and disregarding the very plan they had agreed to, and which would have filled full their thirst for slaughter-showed themselves a few moments too soon, so that Harkheimer's rearguard was shut out of the trap instead of in, and thus had a chance to fly. They ran, but in many cases they were outrun by the Indians, and suffered almost as severely as their comrades whom they had abandoned. Then a butchery ensued such as had never occurred on this continent, and if the entrapped Americans engaged had not shown the courage of desperation they would all have been sacrificed. But Heaven interposed at the crisis, and sent down a deluging shower which stopped the slaughter, since, in that day of flintlocks, firing amid torrents of rain was an impossibility. Such "a shower of blessing " saved the English at Montmorenci in 1759, Washington after Brandywine (Gordon ii., 575) in 1778, and perhaps preserved the city of Washington by terminating the fight at Chantilly in 1862. A similar downpour on the 17th June, 1815, certainly had a considerable influence on the Waterloo campaign. Examples may be added ad nauseam. This gave the Americans time to recover their breath and senses. Harkheimer, very early in the action, was desperately wounded in the leg by a shot which killed his horse. He caused his saddle to be placed at the foot of a beech tree, and, sitting upon it and propped against the trunk, he lit his pipe, and, while quietly smoking, continued to give orders and make dispositions which saved all who did escape. His orders on this occasion were perhaps the germ of the best subsequent rifle tactics. He behaved like a hero, and perished a martyr to his ideas of Liberty, dying in his own home at "Danube," two miles below Little Falls ("Little Portage"), ten days after the engagement, in consequence of a bungling amputation and subsequent ignorant treatment. The monument he so richly deserved, which was voted both by Congress and his State, to the eternal disgrace of both, has never been erected, and this grand representative yeoman New Yorker has no public memorial of his qualities and services.
When the shower was about over, Sir John Johnson, seeing that the Indians were yielding, sent (?) back to camp for a reinforcement of his "Royal Greens," under his brother-in-law, Maj. Stephen Watts, or else they were sent them to end the matter more speedily. These, although they disguised themselves like Mohawk Valley Militia, were recognized by the Americans as brothers, relatives, connections or neighbors whom Harkheimer's followers had assisted in driving into exile and poverty. These Loyalists were presumably coming back to regain what they had lost and to punish if victorious. At once to the fury of battle was added the bitterness of mutual hate, spite and vengeance. If the previous fighting had been murderous, the subsequent was horrible. Firearms, as a rule, were thrown aside, the two forces mingled, they grasped each other by the clothes, beards and hair, slashed and stabbed with their hunting knives, thrust with "spears"* and bayonets,
* There is a great deal of talk about fighting with "spears " in this battle. "Captain Gardenier slew three with his spear, one after the other." Colonel Willett and Lieutenant Stockwell, "each armed with a spear," crept out of the fort to seek relief, &c. That the Indians used spears is very likely, because a weapon of this sort is primitive and in ordinary use among savages. Storming parties, or troops destined to assault a breach, it is true, were furnished with something resembling "boarding pikes," peculiar to the Navy. That the English and American troops or Militia employed such a weapon is ridiculous. These " spears" were Espontons, which were the badges of military rank. "To trail a half pike" was a term once recognized as equivalent to holding a commission. As late as 1811 "the Militia Law of the United States required that the commissioned officers shall severally be armed with a sword or hanger and esponton." The latter was a short pike, about eight feet in length. Colonels carried them, just as in the previous century sergeants bore halberts. "To bring a man to the halberts" expressed the idea of the infliction of corporal punishment. This explains how Colonel Willett and Captain Gardenier and Lieutenant Stockwell came to be furnished,
and were found in pairs locked in the embrace of hatred and death.
There is now no longer the slightest doubt that Sir John Johnson commanded the British Loyalists and Indians at Oriskany. Only one original writer ever questioned the fact, whereas all other historians agree in establishing it. The reports of St. Leger not only prove the presence of Sir John Johnson in command, but they praise his able dispositions for the ambuscade or battle. Family tradition-a sure index to the truth if not the very truth itself-and contemporary publications remove every doubt. Sir John's brother-in-law, Major Stephen Watts, of New York city, dangerously wounded, appears to have been second in command, certainly of the white troops, and most gallantly prominent in the bloodiest, closest fighting. He, like Harkheimer, besides receiving other terrible wounds, lost his leg* in this action; but, unlike the latter, under equally disadvantageous circumstances, preserved his life.
NOT with spears, but with half-pikes or espontons. The last-were symbols of authority and command, and in an old print St. Leger is represented with an esponton in his hand. Over a hundred years ago there was a great question whether light double-barrel muskets-something like those furnished to the French military police in Corsica-should not constitute a part of the armament of officers in the French service. The folly of espontons survived down to the beginning of this century in some services, and the canes of Spanish officers to-day may be representatives of the obsolete espontons.
* " Major (Stephen) Watts was wounded through the leg by a hall (he eventually lost his limb), and in the neck by a thrust from a bayonet, which passed through, back of the windpipe, and occasioned such an effusion of blood as to induce not only him but his captors to suppose (after leading him two or three miles) that he must die in consequence. He begged his captors to kill him : they refused, and left him by the
Without attempting to develop the completeness of this fratricidal butchery, it may be stated as one curious fact that Harkheimer's brother was not only, according to some narratives, a titular British colonel, but certainly a sort of quartermaster to St. Leger, and especially charged with the supervision of the Indian auxiliaries who were the cause of the General's death and the slaughter, of so many of their common kinsmen, connections, friends and neighbors.
All the Revolutionary battles on New York soil were, more or less, family collisions, and realized the boast which Shakespeare, in the closing lines of his Tragedy of King John, puts in the mouth of the valiant bastard, Falconbridge:
side of a stream under the shade of a bridge (across Oriskany Creek), where he was found two days subsequently covered with fly-blows, but still alive. He was borne by some Indians to Schenectady (Oswego, and then by boat to Montreal), where he remained until sufficiently recovered to endure a voyage to England, where he was often after seen limping about Chelsea Hospital. [Error. He married a Miss Nugent, and reared a family of distinguished sons in elegant ease.] The sash taken from him is still in possession of the Sanders family." - "Legacy of Historical Gleanings," Vol. I., pages 69-70.
"The soldier who carried the Major to the stream-and received the (Major's) watch as a reward-was named Failing, a private in General Herkimer's (own, or original) regiment. He sold the watch for (300, Continental money, to his Lieutenant, Martyn G. Van Alstyne, who would never part with it, &c. M. G. Van Alstyne was First Lieutenant, in the Seventh Company, General Herkimer's (own, or original) regiment, and was a great-uncle of my (F. H. Roof, of Rhinebeck, N.Y.) father. He lived until 1830. My father, now aged 75, remembers the watch well, and has often mentioned the incident to me, as related to him by his uncle."
" This England [New York] never did (nor
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror
But when it first did help to wound itself.
* * * * * *
Come the three corners of the world in arms
And we shall shock them. Nought shall make us rue
If England [New York] to itself do rest but true!"
This savage affair crazed even the Indians. It outstripped their own ferocity. They lost their heads-went mad like wild animals at the sight and smell of blood. They came to the conclusion that the white men had lured them into this very hell of fire and slaughter to exterminate them. The arena of battle became a maelstrom of bloodshed, and the Indians tomahawked and stabbed friend and foe alike, and in the wild whirl and cataclysm of passions, more powerful than their own, suffered a loss which appalled even the fell instincts of the savage.
As an American, and especially as a Knickerbacker, the historian cannot but rejoice in the determination exhibited by the people of his State and kindred blood, and of this opportunity of demonstrating it. Still, as a chronicler of events, there is no evading the concurrent testimony of facts; of "Kapp's History of his People" (i. e, the Dutch and German settlers of the Mohawk Valley), and of St. Leger's Reports. All of these concur in the evidence, direct and circumstantial, that Harkheimer's little army suffered a tactical disaster. That this did not remain a defeat and was converted (as was Monmouth) eventually into a moral triumph and political as well as a strategical success, was due to the commonsense commandership of Harkheimer. According to his plan, the advance and attack of his column of Mohawk Valley men was to be a combined movement, based upon, or involving, a simultaneous sortie from Fort Stanwix. This sortie was not made in time to save Harkheimer's life or the loss of over two-thirds of his command, killed and wounded or prisoners. Nothing preserved the survivors of Harkheimer's column but the deluging "shower of blessing." When the flood began to abate, and not until then, did Willett take advantage of the storm to make his sortie and attack that portion of St. Leger's lines which had been stripped to cooperate in the ambush set for Harkheimer. The siege works, or lines of investment-to apply a formal term to very trifling imitations-were very incomplete. To style them "lines of investment" is a misnomer. St. Leger's three batteries- the first, three light guns; the second, four diminutive mortars; the third, three more small guns-were totally inadequate for siege purposes, whereas there were fourteen pieces of artillery mounted in the fort. St. Leger did have two six-pounders, but the carriages were found to be so rotten that they had to be reconstructed on the spot, and consequently could, not have been of service when must needed. He refers to this fact by implication in his report. The redoubts to cover the British batteries, St. Leger's line of approaches and his encampment were all on the north side of the fort. These were occupied by 250 to 350 regulars and Provincials. Sir John Johnson's camp or works, held by about 133 Loyalist troops, were to the southward. It was against these last, entirely denuded of their defenders, that Willett made his sortie. St. Leger's works and those of Sir John Johnson were widely separated and independent of each other, and the intervals, to make the circuit of the investment apparently complete, were held, or rather patrolled, by the Indians, who, however, during the sortie, were all away ambuscading and assaulting Harkheimer. Consequently, Willett's sortie, however successful in its results as to material captured, and as a diversion, was utterly devoid of peril. That he had time to plunder Sir John Johnson's camp, and three times send out seven wagons, load them, and send them back into the post, without the loss of a man, is unanswerable proof that he met with no opposition. He surprised and captured a small squad of prisoners (?)-five, an officer (commissioned or noncommissioned) and four privates -and saw a few dead Indians and whites, but nowhere does it appear whether they had been killed by the fire from the fort or in the attack. All the merit that belongs to his sortie, in a military point of view, is the fact that to save whatever material Willett did not have time to remove, Sir John Johnson had to extricate and hurry back his "Royal Greens" from the battleground of Oriskany, four to five and a half miles away ; leaving the stage of collision with the expectation that the completion of the bloody work would be effectually performed by the Indians. These, however, had already got their fill of fighting, and to this alone was due the result, so fortunate for the survivors of Harkheimer's column, that its remnant was left in possession of the field, soaked with their blood and covered with their dead and wounded. The glory of Oriskany belongs to the men of the Mohawk Valley, only in that, although they were "completely entrapped," they defended themselves with such desperation for five or six hours, and finally displayed so much restored courage, that they were able to extricate even a few fragments from the slaughter pit. That "Willett captured " five British standards," or five British stand of colors, is not probable; scarcely possible. They may have been camp colors or markers. The regimental colors are not entrusted to driblet detachments from regiments. The "Royal Greens" may have had a color, a single flag, although this is very doubtful, because, if only 133 constituted their whole strength, they formed a very weak-a mere skeleton-battalion. The colors of the Eighth or King's Regiment of Foot were certainly left at headquarters, likewise those of the British Thirty-fourth.* The same remark applies to the Hesse-Hanau Chasseurs-a company of Jagers or
* In corroboration of this view of the subject, take the concluding paragraph of Washington's letter of July 20, 1779, to the President of Congress, reporting the capture of Stoney Point, on the night of the 15-16th July, 1770. In this paragraph he states that "two standards" were taken, "one belonging to the garrison [this was not a standard proper, but what is technically called a garrison flag] and one [a standard proper] to the Seventeenth Regiment." Stoney Point was held by a British force only a few less than the white besieging force before Fort Stanwix. The garrison was composed of detachments from four different regular organizations, and yet these had only one standard, proper, which belonged to the Seventeenth. Of this regiment there were six companies, the majority of it in the works, where also the Lieut.-Colonel commanding had his permanent quarters.
Riflemen would certainly not have with it the regimental standard.
As still further proof of this view taken, the camp of the British Regulars, proper, was not attacked. The fact is, the American story of Willett's sortie has an atmosphere of myth about it. St. Leger's report to Burgoyne, and likewise to his immediate superior, Carleton-the latter the most circumstantial-present the most convincing evidence of truthfulness. St. Leger writes to Carleton:
"At the time [when Harkheimer drew near] I had not 250 of the King's troops in camp, the various and extensive operations I was under an absolute necessity of entering into having employed the rest; and therefore [I] could not send [originally] above 80 white men, rangers and troops included, with the whole corps of Indians. Sir John Johnson put himself at the head of this party. * * * * * *
"In relation to the victory [over Harkheimer], it was equally complete as if the whole [of the Americans] had fallen; nay, more so, as the 200 [out of 800 or 900 or 1,000] who escaped served only to spread the panic wider; but it was not so with the Indians, their loss was great. I must be understood Indian computation, being only about 30 killed and wounded, and in that number some of their favorite chiefs and confidential warriors were slain. * * * As I suspected, the enemy [Willett] made a sally with 250 men towards Lieut. BIRD'S post to facilitate the entrance of the relieving corps or bring on a general engagement with every advantage they could wish. * * * *
" Immediately upon the departure of Captain HOYES I learned that Lieut. Bird, misled by the information of a cowardly Indian that Sir JOHN was prest, had quitted his post to march to his assistance. I commanded the detachment of the King's regiment in support of Captain HOYES by a road in sight of the garrison, which, with executive fire from his party, immediately drove the enemy into the fort without any further advantage than frightening some squaws and pilfering the packs of the warriors which they left behind them."
Col. Claus corroborates and explains this :
"During the action [with Harkheimer], when the garrison found the Indians' camp (who went out against their reinforcements) empty, they boldly sally'd out with three hundred men and two field-pieces, and took away the Indians' packs, with their cloaths, wampum and silver work, 'they having gone in their shirts, or naked, to action;' [Western Indians strip to the buff for fighting to this day] and when they found a party advancing from our camp, they returned with their spoil, taking with them Lieut. Singleton [wounded about the same time with Major or Captain Watts at Oriskany], and a private of Sir John's Regiment, who lay wounded in the Indian camp. The disappointment was rather greater to the Indians than their loss, for they had nothing to cover themselves at night, or against the weather, and nothing in our camp to supply them till I got to Oswego."
Nothing beneficial could have resulted from collusion in the reports of the British and Loyal officers. The fact that Willett sent his seven wagons out and in, three times, shows there could have been no enemy encountered, for riflemen in the woods could at least have shot down his horses if they had not the courage to exchange fires with his men.
It was Harkheimer who knocked all the fight out of the Indians, and it was the desertion of the Indians, and this alone, that rendered St. Leger's expedition abortive.
In summing up it should be borne in mind that St. Leger had only 375 to 410 regulars and Provincials, in addition to his ten light, guns and diminutive mortars, to besiege a fort, well supplied, mounting fourteen guns, garrisoned with 750 at least, and according to the indefinite language of other authorities, 950 troops of the New York Line, i. e., to a certain degree, Regulars.
Nevertheless, St. Leger continued to press the siege, with at most 410 whites against 750 to 950 whites, from the 6th until the 22d August, and when he broke up and retreated at the news of Arnold's approach with a force magnified by rumor, it was almost altogether on account of the infamous conduct of the Indians. All the evidence when sifted justifies his remarks that the Indians "became more formidable than the enemy we had to expect." By enemy he meant Arnold's column, hastening his march against him and the garrison in his immediate front, and yet neither St. Leger nor Burgoyne underestimated the American troops-not even the Militia, especially when the latter were fighting under cover or behind works.
The gist of all this lies in one fact-it was not the defense of Fort Stanwix, but the self-devotion and desperation of Harkheimer's militia that saved the Mohawk Valley, and constitutes Oriskany the Thermopylae of the American Revolution; the crisis and turning-point against the British,* of the Burgoyne campaign; and the "Decisive Conflict" of America's Seven Years' War for Independence.
* As everything in regard to these occurrences is interesting, the following translation of von Eelking's "Deutchen Hulfsiruppen" (I., 3-23) is presented in regard to the Hesse-Hanau Jager or Rifle Company attached to St. Leger's command :
"Finally it is proper to commemorate in detail an event in connection with this campaign which we have alluded to or treated already more at length : the flanking expedition undertaken, as a side issue, against Fort Stanwix. The Jager or Rifle Company which was assigned to him was the first that the Count of Hesse-Hanau sent over to America. It left Hanau 7th May, 1777, and reached Canada 11th of June. It was at once sent forward by the Governor (Carleton) to join the troops which had already started up the St. Lawrence and assigned to the column of St. Leger. It was commanded by Lieut. Hildebrand. The march through these distant and sparsely settled districts was long and very laborious, accompanied with all kinds of dangers and obstacles. In order to avoid the almost impenetrable wilderness, a greater circuit was made across Lake Ontario. The corps of St. Leger, comprising detachments from so many different organizations, started in the beginning of July from the neighborhood of Montreal as soon as the expected Indian force had been assembled there. The transportation in flat boats 150 miles up the river was very slow ; the more so because, every now and then, the boats had to be taken ashore and carried by hand around the rapids or cataracts. Having overcome the difficulties of the river, the route lay across the broad Ontario Lake to Fort Oswego on the south shore. There a day was devoted to rest, in order that the troops might recover to some extent from the exhaustion produced by their previous exertions. Thence the route followed a stream (Oswego River] and a small lake [Oneida] inland in a southerly direction; [thence a cheval, and up, Wood Creek] the troops marched to the Mohawk, on which stood Fort Stanwix, held by the enemy [Americans], The march was extremely laborious, since not only natural difficulties had to be overcome, but also the artificial obstacles which the Americans had placed in the way to hinder the advance of their opponents.
"On the 3d August, the Fort-after the garrison had rejected the demand for a surrender-was assaulted without success. On the 5th, a relieving column of nearly 1,000 men drew near. St. Leger was aware of its approach in time, and for its reception [Sir John Johnson placed an ambuscade in the woods. This for the greater part consisted of regular troops, and among these were the Hesse-Hanau Jagers. [It was the intention of the British authorities to send the whole Regiment or Battalion of Hesse-Hanau Chasseurs or Riflemen, but only one company arrived in time, and only one company, not over 40 or 50 men, was furnished to St. Leger.] The rest were Indians."
[This account differs from every one hitherto examined, and shows even yet we are not acquainted with some of the most interesting facts of this momentous conflict. St. Leger, in his official report, expressly states that he did not send over 80 white men, Rangers and troops included, with the whole corps of Indians, and that Sir John Johnson was in command. The discrepancy, however, is easily reconcilable with what has been hitherto stated, and explains the late arrival of the "Johnson" or "Royal Greens." These latter must have remained in camp to hold the garrison in check. When the Indians began to slink out of the fight, the Royal Greens must have been hurried to the scene of action, leaving their lines to the south of the Fort entirely destitute of defenders. This established what the writer has always claimed, that Willett encountered no opposition at all in his sortie, and that the ordinary accounts of it are no better than a myth. Furthermore, everything demonstrates irrefutably the total unreliability of the Indians as fighters; and that the failure of St. Leger's expedition is entirely attributed to the misconduct of these savages. Finally, since the Burgoyne expedition depended on St. Leger's success, and his utter military bankruptcy is chargeable to the Indians, and to them alone, therefore as is clearly shown-the whole British Combined Operations of 1777 ended in a catastrophe, through a fatal overestimate of the value of Indians as a fighting power, or as auxiliaries wherever any hard fighting had to be done, or for any useful purpose whatever involving perseverance.]
"The surprise was such a perfect success scarcely one-half the militia escaped. While St. Leger had thus scattered his troops, the besieged made a sortie and plundered his camp. This was a grievous loss to him : because in these almost desert districts pretty much all the necessaries of life had to be carried [along with a column] ; since the British troops were wanting in artillery, and since a second relieving column, 2,000 strong, was approaching under the audacious Gen. Arnold, which threw the Indians into such extreme nervous terror that they either scattered or besought that they might be led back again. In consequence of [all] this, St. Leger had to break up the siege on the 23d August, and, abandoning tents, guns and stores, retreat at once.
" So ended this operation which, if it had turned out more successfully, would, in any event, have prevented the tragic fate of Burgoyne's army."
If the disinterested German soldier and historian, von Eelking, does not demonstrate that the success of Burgoyne depended on that of St. Leger, and that this was completely frustrated by Oriskany, thus making Oriskany the turning point of the American Revolution- words are inadequate to express the truth.
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