History From America's Most Famous Valleys
Frontiersmen of New York
by Jeptha R. Simms
Albany, NY 1883
Volume II, Page 76. The Sortie.-- As the most authentic account of it, I shall give that of Col. Willet, written at the time and published in the Connecticut Courant, Aug. 25, 1777. The message of Gen. Herkimer explained, at the fort, the cause of commotion, followed by silence in the Indians' encampment the evening before, in the supposition that the enemy must have had timely notice of the movement of the militia and gone to meet them, and as soon as the shower was over, says the heroic Willet, whose sallying force, as already stated, consisted of 250 men, one half of Gansevoort's and the other of Massachusetts troops, having one three pounder cannon.
"The men were instantly paraded, and I ordered the following disposition to be made: (Here follows the arrangement of his troops and plan of march.) Nothing could be more fortunate than this enterprise. We totally routed two of the enemy's encampments, destroyed all the provisions that were in them, brought of upwards of 50 brass kettles and more than 100 blankets (two articles which were much needed), with a quantity of muskets, tomahawks, spears, ammunition, clothing, deerskins, a variety of Indian affairs and five colors, the whole of which, on our return to the fort, were displayed on our flag staff under the Continental flag. (Having learned what flag the American Congress had agreed upon, one was made by the inmates of the fort, by the use of white shirts and a blue and red cloak, which was the first genuine banner of red, white and blue that ever floated from a garrison in the Mohawk valley.)
"The Indians took chiefly to the woods [there could not have been a great number yet at the camp], the rest of the troops, then at their posts, to the river. The number of men lost by the enemy is uncertain; six lay dead in their encampments, two of which were Indians; several scattered about in the woods; but their greatest loss appeared to be in crossing the river, and no inconsiderable number upon the opposite shore. I was happy in preventing the men from scalping even the Indians, being desirous, if possible, to teach Indians humanity; but the men were much better employed, and kept in excellent order. We were out so long that a number of British regulars, accompanied by what Indians, etc., could be rallied, had marched down to a thicket on the other side of the river, about 50 yards from the road we were to cross on our return. Near this place, I had ordered the field piece. The ambush was not quite formed when we discovered them, and gave them a well directed fire. Here, especially, Maj. Bedlow, with his field piece, did considerable execution. Here also, the enemy were annoyed by the fire of several cannon from the fort, as they marched round to form the ambuscade. The enemy's fire was very wild, and though we were much exposed, did no execution at all. We brought in four prisoners, three of which were wounded. One of them is George Singleton, of Montreal. He is a Lieutenant in the company of which Mr. Stephen Watts was Captain, and who was himself killed in the battle with the militia, about two hours before. [He was dreadfully wounded, but survived as will be shown.]
"From these prisoners we received the first accounts of Gen. Herkimer's militia being ambuscaded on their march, and of the severe battle they had with them about two hours before, [before the rain], which gave us reason to think they had for the present given up their design of marching to the fort. I should not do justice to the officers and soldiers who were with me on this enterprise, if I was not, in most positive terms, to assure their countrymen that they, in general, behaved with the greatest gallantry on this occasion; and, next to the very kind and signal interposition of Divine Providence, which was powerfully manifested in their favor, it was undoubtedly owing to that noble intrepidity which discovered itself in this attack, and struck the enemy with such a panic as disenabled them from taking pains to direct their fire, that we had not one man killed or wounded. The officers in general, behaved so well, that it is hardly right to mention the names of any particular ones, for their singular valor. But, so remarkably intrepid was Capt. Van Benscoten [he commanded the advance guard of 30 men], and so rapid was his attack, that it demands from me this particular testimony of his extraordinary spirit."
Among the effects taken from the enemy's camp, were several bundles of papers and letters, which had been taken from Gen. Herkimer's baggage wagons a few hours before, not yet opened, one of which was for Col. Willet. There were also papers of Sir John Johnson, St. Ledger and other officers of the enemy's camp, some of which were of service. On the next day, the enemy fired a few cannon shot from a battery, half a mile distant; and on Friday the 8th, they threw some shells which did no execution. On the evening of this day they sent in a flag by their Adjutant-General, Capt. Armstrong, Col. butler and a Surgeon, the latter to examine Singleton's wounds. The messengers came, as they said, to acquaint Col. Gansevoort that Gen. St. Ledger, he was acting as Brigadier, and so he called him, with much difficulty had prevailed on the Indians to agree, that if the garrison would surrender, not a hair of their heads should be touched; but if not,the consequence to the inmates would be terrible, as the Indians were very wroth at having some of their chiefs killed in the late action; and also, that if not surrendered, the Indians would go down the valley and destroy its inhabitants. They also brought a paper which Col. Bellinger and Major Frey were compelled, by St. Ledger, t execute, exaggerating the disaster of the Provincials and advising the surrender of the fort. That this paper was executed under duress, the officers of the garrison had no doubt. Says Willet: "Our answer was, that should this be the case, the blood of those inhabitants would be upon the heads of Mr. Butler and his employers, not upon us, and that such proceedings would ever remain a stigma upon the name of Britain; but for our part we were determined to defend the fort."
"That evening, it was agreed by the field officers, that I should undertake, with Lieut. Stockwell, who is a good woodsman, to endeavor to get down into the country, and procure such force as would extirpate the miscreant band. After a severe march of about 50 miles though the wilderness, we in safety arrived at this place;" not named but meaning Fort Dayton. This was a most hazardous enterprise.
Again in that bloody ravine, among fallen heroes, we left the Oriskany battlefield to notice the sortie of Col. Willet at Fort Stanwix, and now return to it. The enemy precipitately retired from the field and left the Provincials master of it, about 3 o'clock P.M. The decimated regiments were by their surviving commanders, to far as practicable, hastily reorganized; and the wounded having been placed upon rude litters, the troops took up their mournful retrograde march, and encamped that night on the site of old Fort Schuyler, now Utica, eight miles from the battlefield. To this point, Gen. Herkimer and Capt. Jacob Seeber, and possibly one or two others of the wounded, were taken down the river in a boat to Fort Herkimer. At this place, Capt. Seeber was left with a broken leg, which was amputated, and he bled to death. Gen. Herkimer was taken on to his home below Little Falls, probably in a boat to the head of the rapid. By whom the troops were mainly directed in their reorganization and retrograde movement is uncertain.
Judge W. W. Campbell has assured the writer, that previous to this battle, Samuel Campbell had been appointed its Lieut.-Colonel, on the promotion of Herkimer to Brigadier, and Cox to a Colonelcy; and it is easy to see why Lieut.-Col. Campbell, and Major Clyde who was its Major, should have cared for that shattered regiment in its withdrawal from the battlefield, as stated in his Annals of Tryon County. Lieut. Jacob Sammons who was in the battle, and who named the principal officers of the different regiments killed and wounded, says: "that Col. Cox and his Lieut.-Col. Hunt, were both killed. (Stone's Life of Brant, vol. 1 p. 242, Munsell's edition. There was a Lieut Abel Hunt in Col. Visscher's regiment,and it is probable he was the man killed,and the word colonel with the wrong regiment crept in by accident.) I have no ambition to serve which would in any manner induce me knowingly, to detract from the merits of any one living or dead, but I would fain as a careful investigator, do justice, so far as is in my power, to the actions and motives of all men; and where I see disagreements in histories, reconcile them if I can. On the authority Judge Campbell, in a communication to the Utica Herald of July 27, 1877, Hon. Ellis H. Roberts, in his admirable address, delivered a few days later at the Oriskany Centennial Celebration, stated that Lieut. Col. Campbell, of Col. Cox's regiment after the death of Col. Cox, wounding of Gen. Herkimer, as the senior officer, brought off the remnant of the force, meaning the whole force, etc., in good order to Fort Dayton. How he could possibly have been considered the senior surviving officer seems surprising, when Colonel Peter Bellinger and Jacob Klock were there and certainly outranked him; and Lieut. Col. Peter Wagner*, too, was there, whose commission is believed to have ante-dated that of Lieut. Col. Campbell. That these colonel should all have acquiesced, when it is known how tenacious military men are of rank, in yielding or delegating their commands or authority to another, is possible, but hardly seems probable. The presumption is, that all the surviving officers of the brigade discharged their respective duties at this time, as best they could; as did also officers without commands of their own, if any such were there engaged.+
*(Oct. 20, 1881, under the auspices of the Oneida Historical Society, the remains of Lieut. Col. Peter Wagner and his sons Peter, a soldier of the Revolution and a Colonel of Militia after the war, were removed from a farm burial, and after befitting ceremonies at the Reformed church, were interred in the Fort Plain cemetery, under a military escort and band from Utica. Addresses were made by J. R. Simms as chairman of committee, Rev. Dr. Denis Wortman, J. F. Seymour, Peter G. Webster and Chas. W. Hutchinson, the latter being the principal speaker. The Rev. Dr. Isaac S. Hartley of Utica Dr. Rev. Dr. G. L. Roof of Troy, also took part in the ceremony, the latter making a very happy impromptu speech. The quartet choir of that church, with its organist, J. K. Burnett, discoursed very appropriate music for the occasion.)
+(After the battle of Oriskany and death of Gen. Herkimer, many of the officers of the brigade wanted Maj. Clyde to consent to accept the office of Brigadier-General, whose appointment they would solicit. To this he would not accede, as other officers in the brigade out ranked him, and he would not countenance an act that would originate jealousies, however well merited the honors might be, or flattering to his ambition. It has ever surprised the student, that Gen. Herkimer's place remained unfilled during the war. That the eye of the army was fixed upon Maj. Clyde for this honorable promotion, is not surprising when we come to know that of all men in that bloody raving, no one better knew his duty or acquitted himself more valiantly than he. He was in the thickest of the fight, and in a hand encounter was knocked down by the breech of a gun; while at another time he shot an officer, whose musket he brought from the field to become an heirloom in his family. Besides Gen. Herkimer slain, and Brigade Inspector Maj. John Frey a prisoner, he is believed to have been the only many at Oriskany who ranked as high as a captain in the French war, which doubtless had something to do with the confidence now reposed in him. Clyde Manuscript Papers.)
The question now meets us, what were the losses in this terrible fight? They never were very satisfactorily known, and can now only be approximated. It has generally been estimated that about 800 men left Fort Dayton under Gen. Herkimer. The brigade, when organized with four battalions, consisted of 33 companies. Some changes must have occurred, and it is probable that only a small part of some of those companies were there. Probably six of the eight companies of Col. Visscher's regiment were forced out of the fight, but their loss was quite severe. Dr. Thacher, one of the earliest American writes on this subject, in his Military Journal, at page 89 says 160 of Herkimer's men were killed, besides a great many wounded. Paul Allen, an early and careful historian of the Revolution, vol. 2, 38, makes the Provincial loss 160 in killed and wounded. Allen also says that Sir John Johnson commanded the enemy in this battle. I think it is safe to estimate the entire American loss, in killed, wounded and missing at 200. Some of the latter, who were made prisoners with the promise of kind treatment, were afterwards cruelly murdered by the Indians: in some instances even urged and encouraged to do it, by the refugee officers, who acted like demons toward their former patriotic neighbors. It is generally believed by American writers, that the loss of the enemy in the battle and in Willet's sortie at the fort, which were in fact as denominated by Roberts, "Siamese twins" was fully equal in killed and wounded, to that of the Americans.
The Indians were thrust forward early, and suffered terribly in this battle. The Senecas alone are said to have had, in killed and wounded, over 60; while it is also well known that the Mohawks and many men of the other tribes engaged, suffered quite as severely. Johnson's and Butler's men had also had fighting enough for one day, as they left scores of their distinguishing garments around the dead bodies of Captain McDonald, Wilson and Hare, and hastily fled from the field. This was bruited by the enemy as an English victory, with 400 rebels slain, and so little loss as to be hardly worth mentioning.
The great loss of the Indians has been made a pretext by English writers, to justify the cruelties inflicted by the Indians as been made a pretext by English writes, to justify the cruelties inflicted by the Indians on their prisoners; and long did they remember the crimson field of Oriskany. Says the Life of Mary Jemison, (the white woman), page 88: "Previous to the battle at Fort Stanwix, the British sent for the Indians (Senecas) to come and see them whip the rebels; and at the same time stated that they did not wish to have them fight, but wanted to have them just sit down, smoke their pipes and look on. Our Indians went to a man, but contrary to their expectation, instead of smoking and looking on, they were obliged to fight for their lives, and in the end were completely beaten, with a great loss in killed and wounded. Our Indians alone had 36 killed and a great number wounded. Our town (Little Beard's Town) exhibited a scene of real sorrow and distress, when our warriors returned and recounted their misfortunes, and stated the real loss they had sustained in the engagement. The mourning was excessive, and was expressed by the most doleful yells, shrieks, and howlings, and by inimitable gesticulations."
Conspicuous among the enemy's fallen chiefs was Capt. Watts, already mentioned. He was a promising young man, was dreadfully wounded, and was left by the Americans, supposing if yet alive his friends might find him before night. He was reported among the slain at his own camp, but on the second day after the battle he was discovered alive by some of the enemy's vultures that were seeking plunder, borne to the camp, and, minus a leg, recovered and lived to be old. Where left by the Provincials will be shown elsewhere.
The most reliable statement preserved of the names and character of the Provincial officers lost in this battle, is in a manuscript left by Lieut. Jacob Sammons, which was first published by Col. Stone in the Life of Brant. It was as follows:
"The officers of the Tryon county militia killed or wounded in this battle were as follows: In Col. Frederick Visscher's regiment, Captains John Davis and Samuel Pettingill, killed; Major Blauvelt and Lieut. Peter Groat, taken prisoners, and never heard of afterward; Capt. Jacob Gardinier, and his brother Lieut. Samuel Gardinier, wounded. In Col. Jacob Klock's regiment, Maj. John Eisenlord, Maj. Harmanus Van Slyke, And Capt. Andrew Dillenbeck, killed; Captains Christopher Fox and John Bradley, wounded; Brigade Maj. John Frey, wounded and taken prisoner. In Col. Peter Bellinger's regiment, Maj. Enos Klepsattle, Capt. Frederick Helmer, and Lieut. Han Jost Petrie, Killed; Lieut. Col. Frederick Bellinger and Henry Walradt, taken prisoners. In Col. Ebenezer Cox's regiment, Col. Cox and Lieut. Col. Hunt were killed; (On the organization of the militia in 1775, in the company of Capt. Abram Hodges, Col. Visscher's regiment, the second Lieut. was Abel Hunt. As he was then the only officer of that name in the brigade. I have no doubt, in the absence of the given name, the word colonel has accidentally crept in, and he has been located in wrong regiment.) Captains Henry Diefendorf, Robert Crouse and Jacob Bowman, Killed, Maj. William Seeber mortally wounded. [Robert Crouse was not an officer, although he had been tendered a Lieutenant's commission: he is mentioned elsewhere.] The surgeon, Dr. Moses Younglove, was taken prisoner. Among the volunteers not belonging in the militia, who were killed, were Isaac Paris (then a member of the Legislature), Samuel Billington, John Dygert and Jacob Snell, members of the Committee of Safety. [The volunteers are believed to have been Palatine men, and in Col. Klock's regiment.] There was likewise a Captain Graves who fell, but to which regiment he belonged, the author has not ascertained."
Bearing date, Caughnawaga, August 18, 1777, Adam Fonda, as a member and in behalf of the Tryon County Committee, wrote to the Schenectada Committee, giving some account of the battle, to which was attached the following: "A list of the dead and wounded of our militia, as far as is come to our knowledge, Harmanus Van Slyke, Maj.; John James Davis, Capt.; Benjamin Davis, private; Henry Diefendorf, Capt; John Eisenlord, Maj.; John Blevin, Maj.; Col. Cox; seven men of the name of Snell; Maj. Paris and his son, and a great number more whose names we have not yet learned, dead. (Isaac Paris is here called a Major, this is an error, he was only a civilian) Gen. Herkimer, Col. Visscher, Jacob Gardinier, William Schaver, John Van Antwerp, John Bigbread, wounded. (Jour. Prov. Congress, p 1034)
Here is an affidavit of Dr. Younglove, also of Palatine, made at Albany, after his return from Canada. (This affidavit now in Sec. of State's office, is found in Campbell's Annals, p. 90) He was a man of character, and died at Hudson, NY, many years after the war. "Moses Younglove, surgeon of Gen. Herkimer's brigade of militia, deposeth and saith, that being in the battle of said militia, above Oriskany, on the 6th of August last, toward the close of said battle, he surrendered himself a prisoner to a savage, who immediately gave him up to a sergeant of Sir John Johnson's regiment; soon after which a Lieutenant in the Indian department, came up in company with several Tories, when said Mr. Grinnis, by name [we suppose this the Lieutenant], drew his tomahawk at this deponent, and with a deal of persuasion was hardly prevailed on to spare his life. He then plundered him of his watch, buckles, spurs, etc, and other Tories following his example, stripped him almost naked with a great many threats, while they were stripping and massacring prisoners on every side. That this deponent was brought before Mr. Butler, Sen. (Col. John), who demanded of him what he was fighting for? to which deponent answered: "He fought for the liberty that God and nature gave him, and to defend himself and dearest connections from the massacre of the savages." To which Butler replied: "You are a d--d impudent rebel!" and so saying immediately turned to the savages, encouraging them to kill him, and if they did not, the deponent and the other persons should be hanged on the gallows then preparing. --That several prisoners were then taken forward to the enemy's headquarters with frequent scenes of horror and massacre, in which Tories were active as well as savages; and in particular one Davis, formerly known in Tryon county, on the Mohawk River. That Lieut. Singleton, (This officer must have been wounded early at Oriskany, and taken to the camp at Fort Stanwix, where in this sally, Col. Willet made him a prisoner. I infer he must have been exchanged and returned to the enemy's camp before it was broken up.) (in Capt. Watts's company) of Sir John Johnson's regiment being wounded, entreated the savages to kill the prisoners, which they accordingly did, as nigh as this deponent can judge, about six or seven.
"That Isaac Paris, Esq., was also taken the same road without receiving from them any remarkable insult, except stripping, until some Tories came up who kicked and abused him, after which the savages, thinking him a notable offender, murdered him barbarously. That those of the prisoners from the savages, who came every day with knives, feeling of the prisoners, to know which were fattest That they dragged one of the prisoners out of the guard with the most lamentable cries; tortured him for a long time, and this deponent was informed by both Tories and Indians, that they ate him, as appears they did another, on an island in Lake Ontario [Buck's Island], by bones found there nearly picked just after they had crossed the lake with the prisoners. That the prisoners who were not delivered up were murdered in considerable numbers from day to day round the camp, some of them so nigh that their shrieks were heard. That Capt. Martin, of the bateaux-men, was delivered to the Indians at Oswego, on pretense of his having kept back some useful intelligence. That this deponent, during his imprisonment, and his fellows, were kept almost starved for provisions, and what they drew were of the worst kind, such as spoiled flour, biscuits full of maggots and moldy,and no soap allowed, or other method of keeping clean, and were insulted, struck, etc., without mercy by the guards, without any provocation given. That this deponent was informed by several sergeants orderly on St. Ledger, that twenty dollars were offered in general orders for every American scalp.
John Barclay, Chairman of Albany Committee."
Here is other testimony corroborating the affidavit of Dr. Younglove. The late John L. Groat assured the writer that his brother, Lieut. Peter Groat, and Andrew Cunningham, a neighbor, were captured at Oriskany and murdered at Wood Creek, slices of their thighs being roasted and feasted upon by the savages,with zest and mirth. Peter Ehle, a fellow prisoner, who saw his comrades killed, communicated this fact to surviving friends.
Col. Gansevoort, late in July, wrote to a friend that St. Ledger had offered $20 each for American scalps, which, it is said, the latter denied. The reader must bear in mind the fact that Col. Claus was with St. Ledger, to use his influence with the Indians as their Superintendent, and Col. Butler was there to execute his commands. As it is known that a bounty was offered, it is easy to see why the commanding officer should have had credit for this hellish business instead of Butler; who did pay for scalps, as we learned, not only from returned prisoners who witnessed it, but from a Canadian source. The usual bounty, after a time, was eight dollars for all except those of officers and committee men, which commanded from $10 to $20.
There were a few Oneidas with the Provincials in this battle, and conspicuous among them was the Indian interpreter, Spencer, who was killed, and we may suppose that they, agreeable to the Indian custom, scalped their slain, but not, thank God, with the expectation of getting a bounty from our government for those trophies.
As the reader may well imagine, the result of Gen. Herkimer's abortive attempt to succour Fort Stanwix, filled Tryon county with mourning, but the love of country triumphed there still, although the British claimed that all opposition from the militia of the Mohawk Valley, after the scenes at Oriskany, would be at an end; (British Annual Register for 1777.) and St. Ledger reported to Gen. Burgoyne, as the result of Willet's sortie, that the fire of a detachment of the King's regiment under Capt. Hoyes (which did no manner of harm) has driven his troops back into the fort, with little advantage beyond "frightening some squaws and pilfering the packs of the warriors, which they left behind them." He chose to forget that five British flags trailed on the walls of the fort as a consequence, beneath Liberty's enthroned stars.
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