The History of New York State
Book XI, Chapter II
Part IX

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam

 

On August 4th Herkimer's determined little army crossed the Mohawk River where Utica now stands, and next day at Whitestown were joined by some friendly Indians of the Oneida nation. Herkimer's force lay at Whitestown awaiting signal from Gansevoort, to whom three scouts had been sent, asking the garrison to sortie at the time the relief column attacked the rear of St. Leger's army. They waited all day for the signal--gunfire, but waited in vain. Herkimer's men chafed at the delay., they wanted to go on, for in the fort were friends and relatives who were in danger. They began to look with suspicion upon Herkimer, who counseled delay, knowing that without cooperation by the garrison his attack would be suicidal. He had only 800 irregulars; the British commander had twice as many who, moreover, were trained soldiers and better armed; and in addition a horde of picked Indian warriors of the ferocious Iroquois nations. Most of Herkimer's officers were young and impetuous; he was old--too old, some thought. He had lost his nerve; indeed, some began to see Toryism in his counsel. At last, the old general could stand it no longer; he gave the order to march. It would not be long before they would be able at least to judge for themselves whether he was a coward or not. They began to move from Whitestown two hours before the scouts reach Fort Schuyler. His careless foolhardy junior officers did not seem to think it necessary to observe even the elementary precautions of military movements. They threw out no advance parties, though they ought to have been fully aware that ambush was the usual method of Indian fighting. The reckless young leaders pushed on, thinking perhaps that if they did not strike something, it would be the whole force of the enemy.

St. Leger was well informed of their movement; and thought he cold meet it well with Tory troops, and their Indian allies. Brant, one of the ablest Iroquois warriors of that period, was sent with his men to intercept Herkimer in a ravine two miles west of Oriskany. There, the wily Indian fighters lay hidden until most of Herkimer's command had entered the defile. Their sudden attack cut off the American rearguard. The latter scattered and disappeared, but Herkimer stood his ground. His men were completely surrounded. A murderous fire poured upon them, nut Herkimer had no thought of surrender. Fighting desperately, his men at his command gradually narrowed their circle and beat off all attempts to penetrate it. the coolest men among then was their general, now severely wounded. His horse had been shot under him, but the saddle was still in use. "Seating himself upon it at the foot of a tree where he could overlook the field, he continued to give orders while he calmly smoked his pipe." He might have taken better cover but his view of the field might not be so good. To all remonstrances, he had the same answer: "I will face the enemy." No one ever again doubted the courage of the stubborn old fighter. There was hardly a man in his command who did not now feel twice as brave as he had been reckless before. The braggadocios of Whitestown were now strong valorous men, grimly determined to fight on to the end. They took what cover they could, but their fire-arms were ever pointed outwards, except when hand-to-hand fighting developed; and then their clubbed rifles did more damage to the wielders of tomahawks than the latter did to them. Prodigies of valor were seen that day. heroism was common. Enmity took on a ferocity never expected. Tory and Patriot met in a death grapple, the one as ferocious as the other. Their fight was now to the death. The smouldering hatred of one faction for the other was now a raging flame that could not be checked until it had consumed everything. Once Johnson's Royal Greens, fellow New Yorkers, but of Loyalist taint, almost outwitted Herkimer's heroic men. They had advanced, hoping that they would be mistaken for a reinforcement from Fort Schuyler; and it was not until they had almost reached the patriot's circle of death that one of Herkimer's officers recognized in one of the oncomers a Tory acquaintance. This office, Captain Gardinier, was armed only with a spear; but with it he killed three men in short order. It is doubtful whether one of that Tory band escaped. Indeed, the fighting was so terrible that the Indians at last began to waver. The fight had been raging for five hours, and a first they had had the advantage, for whenever a shot was fired an Indian would dart out and tomahawk the shooter before he could load again. Herkimer had noticed this soon, and during the lull caused by a thunderstorm he had made his men group in twos and threes, so that when one fired the other two could dispose of the tomahawking Indian while their comrade reloaded. This baffled the Indians, and when they later saw the awe-inspiring or blood-curdling death struggle between the Tories and the Patriots they began to slink away. While the battle was at its height a sortie was made by 250 men of the fort garrison. They found St. Leger's camp almost empty. The fight at Oriskany had really drawn almost the full strength of the invaders; and now that sounds of firing came from their own camp, the wavering Indians would no longer be held. They broke in panic, even turning their weapons upon their Tory and English allies. St. Leger had no other course open than to call back the columns he had sent to Oriskany. So the remnant of Herkimer's gallant little band was able to limp back to Fort Dayton unmolested. The dauntless old general was tenderly carried to his own home where he died of his wounds a few days later.

The battle of Oriskany has a unique place in the history of the Revolution. It was the bloodiest battle of that war; and perhaps the most picturesque. Patriotic New Yorkers in this battle showed Americans how to die for their country. "Only about one-third of Herkimer's men ever saw this homes again, and every home in the valley was a house of mourning." #27 the example in courage and fighting qualities shown by these New York farmer-soldiers was ever after before the Indians of the Six Nations. The very suggestion, a few weeks later, that another band of fighting Americans were approaching was enough to throw St. Leger's Indian allies into such a panic that it brought the whole expedition to disaster, as we shall see.

St. Leger went on with the siege of Fort Stanwix (Schuyler),, but with weakened force and few supplies. The garrison detachment that had raided his temporarily empty camp had taken the opportunity of taking back with them to the fort twenty-one wagon-loads of St. Leger's supplies. And the British general found that he did not possess artillery powerful enough to reduce the fortifications. What he could not take by assault he tried to gain by subterfuge. He demanded the surrender of the fort, pointing out that further resistance would be foolish as well as futile. Burgoyne had been victorious, and the reduction of the place was only a question of time. He warned them that if compelled to take the place by storm, a massacre would result, as even now he could only with difficulty restrain the Indians of his train, who were eager to ravage the country, and massacre the inhabitants. The last eventuality should carry an especial appeal to the garrison. The lives of their own women and children were in danger. This reflection undoubtedly did bring the most poignant pangs the hearts of those within Fort Schuyler, but did not have the effect intended. Speaking to St. Leger's emissary, colonel Willett said: "You have made a long speech on the occasion of your visit which stripped to its superfluities, amounts to this--that you come from a British colonel to the commandant of this garrison to tell him that if he does not deliver up the garrison into your hands, he will send his Indians to murder our women and children. you will please to reflect, sir, that their blood will be upon your heads, not upon ours. We are doing our duty; this garrison is committed to our charge, and we will take care of it." for his own part, rather than surrender, Colonel Willett would suffer his own body "to be filled with splinters and set on fire." So the emissary left the fort, warned that he would never again see the inside of it, save as a prisoner. And St. Leger had to remain where he was, though he was most anxious to advance, knowing that each day was precious and that delay might bring Burgoyne's column to disaster.

Colonel Willett and Major Stockwell managed to leave the fort, and to reach General Schuyler's headquarters soon afterwards. New of the Oriskany victory thrilled the country. If it conveyed no other inspiration, it showed that militiamen, if determined, could stand against anything that the Crown could put into the field. There was no need to feat the outcome of the war; the country contained hundred of thousands of men who could take up arms, if they only would. So the future was not as dark and hopeless as it seemed; the dearth of fighting men was not as painful a some of the American camps seemed to suggest. One or two more manifestations of the Oriskany spirit would stir the flagging farmers to such resistance that the end would soon come--with America triumphant.

Still, the present was precarious enough for both Washington and Schuyler. Schuyler was the only one of his staff who thought it wise to send a force to the relief of Gansevoort. The defense of Albany seemed to be of far more importance; undoubtedly it was. Fort Stanwix was an isolated post. If it should fall it would not result in such irretrievable ruin as would follow the taking of Albany by Burgoyne. But still Schuyler persisted, though one of his staff began to whisper ominous insinuations of treachery. Facing this slanderer, Schuyler, as steadfastly loyal to the cause as he was unflinchingly brave, said: "Gentlemen! I shall take the responsibility upon myself. Where is the brigadier that will take command of the relief? I shall beat up for volunteers tomorrow." Benedict Arnold as brave and resourceful a man as the colonies possessed, at once stepped forward. In the patriots that came flocking into camp from the Mohawk Valley, Arnold found some of his men. The Battle of Oriskany was already having its effect. The Tories of Tryon County would have risen en masse had St. Leger not been checked; the Iroquois would have swept down like a hurricane; but now only the patriots came.

They were stirred not only by Oriskany; another happening had so agitated the country that none could go on quietly with their farming. They well knew that the fate of Jane McCrea might overtake their own daughters. The time had come to drop the hoe and take up the gun. "The feeling aroused at this time had not been equalled since Concord and Lexington. The story of the murder was told at every little gathering of the people, almost at every fireside, throughout Vermont, Northern New York, and Western Massachusetts with all the harrowing details and the magnified accounts that would naturally be developed on such an occasion."

So Arnold went into the Mohawk Valley with his volunteer force. It was not a large one, far too small to accomplish its object without resorting to extraordinary strategy. Nevertheless, the intrepid Arnold went on. he reached Fort Dayton on August 20th. There, among Tory prisoners he found one whom he could use--a half-witted Loyalist, Hon Yost Schuyler, who had been sentenced to be hanged as a spy. The mother of this spy pleaded with Arnold for the life of her son. Arnold agreed to spare him, if he would go to the enemy's camp and say that Arnold was near with a powerful army. He did so, rushing headlong into Brant's camp, where almost breathless from terror, he showed his bullet-ridden clothing and gasped out the news that a vast American army was almost upon them. The half-witted boy pointed to the leaves of the trees to show the number. Many of Brant's Indians knew Hon Yost, so he was taken before St. Leger, to whom he repeated his story. At this moment, another messenger arrived--a friendly Oneida Indian, who also had been sent out by Arnold. He went quickly and excitedly among his fellow-Iroquois spreading the alarming news that the valley was swarming with men; that Arnold had 3,000 men at hand; that Burgoyne had been cut to pieces; that--maybe many more terrible items of news. Thoroughly startled, the Indians broke camp, fleeing in such panic that soon the alarm spread even among the white troops. St. Leger's regulars made for their boats on Oneida Lake, baited by their savage allies of the moment before. St. Leger said later that the Indians who preyed upon and butchered the stragglers of his own retreating columns "became more formidable than the enemy they had to expect." To rally his command was impossible. The expedition had collapsed. All he could to was to make for Lake Ontario as soon as possible with his white troops.

Meantime Burgoyne at Fort Edward was preparing to march on to Albany; and Schuyler was at Van Schaick's Island nine miles from Albany preparing to make a stand there against the converging invaders, on July 22nd, and soon afterwards the full British force occupied it. The invaders seemed to be in no hurry to advance beyond Fort Edward. We now know that Burgoyne tarried there because of necessity, not inclination. Difficulties were crowing upon him. His transport service was deplorable. His ever-lengthening lines of communication were by means safe. He needed more troops, but Carlton had none to send. Burgoyne had to weaken his front to guard against the breaking of lines behind him by New England forces. He had looked for amore positive rallying of Tories of Central New York, but few had joined him, whereas colonel Warner in Vermont was recruiting Patriots actively. At last Burgoyne resolved to abandon his line of communication through Ticonderoga and Skenesborough, and keep open only the Lake George route. So he withdrew the forces had had placed at Castleton and Skenesborough, also the Ticonderoga garrison. While the British general thus increased his Fort Edward army his difficulties were still many. He had more to feed and little to feed them on. he was living from hand to mouth; his own report states that his army "could barely be victualled from day to day." the country had been swept so clean of good and fodder by Schuyler that Burgoyne's plight was indeed desperate. The Loyalists would do nothing for him in this respect; Schuyler had left them nothing; and the invaders would not venture far afield to forage. Burgoyne did turn his eyes longingly in the direction of Bennington, Vermont, twenty-five miles east of his line of march. At that spot he understood there "was a great deposit of corn flour and store cattle." He coveted that deposit, and thought he might easily take it, for he had been informed that it was guarded only by militia. He was also inclined to believe that in that neighborhood he would find many Loyalists. So, on August 6th, having enough food left in Fort Edward for only two days, he determined to send an expedition against Bennington. For the purpose he chose Hessians, the best he had, and some English regulars and Loyalists rangers. In all Lieutenant-Colonel Baum who was given command, had 500 men. There was also a company of Indians. Burgoyne was so confident that Baum would be able to recruit Loyalists on the march that he also sent a skeleton regiment, fully officered. Baum's column was at Cambridge, sixteen miles away, on the 13th. there he encountered a cattle-guard of Americans, and from various sources learned that the Bennington depot was guarded by 1,800 men, and that they knew of his intention. He also had to report to Burgoyne that the Indians were uncontrollable. The general might however find cheer in one item of Baum's report: "that the Tories were flocking in."

Upon receipt of the news, Burgoyne decided to reinforce Baum. Colonel Breyman, with another 500 regulars, hurried after Baum, but he lost his way and was still seven miles away from Cambridge when night overtook him on the 15th. Bennington was defended by 2,000 militia under colon John Stark, a veteran of the French and Indian War. He had gone home for the winter. Now, he was in an independent command, for his men being Vermonters, recruited in the Hampshire Grants (as, of course, Vermont then was officially known) and in new Hampshire strictly for the defense of their own territory. Burgoyne's approach had aroused the whole State. The President of the New Hampshire Assembly had given all his money, had pledged his plate, and sold his seventy hogsheads of Tobago rum to sell the State purse. With unanswerable logic, he had said: "if we succeed, I shall be remunerated; if not, they will be of no use to me." Down through the line of Stark's command some such thought was giving strength to the fighters, on the 16th as they tried to cut off Baum's forces, now in position on rising ground near a shallow stream known as the Wallomsac River. They were within New York's boundaries, as they are today, and indeed, were destined not to fight beyond its borders. The battle of Bennington was wholly fought on New York soil.

Stark's brigade operated with much of the grim optimism of their veteran commander. "See there, my men," Stark is aid to have exclaimed, as they came within sight of the enemy, "There are the redcoats. Before night they're ours, or Molly Stark's a widow." Some of his force moved unseen to the rear of Baum, and while Stark forded the stream and began the frontal attack with a force as strong as the British, the latter found themselves suddenly attacked also on the flanks and in the rear. They were, in fact, surrounded. Still they fought desperately, and not until Colonel Baum was mortally wounded did they think of surrendering. After the surrender Stark's victorious men explored the field for trophies. At all events, they got out of hand, and the officers had considerable difficulty in calling them in to meet another danger that suddenly came upon them. Breyman's command arrived much belated. They caught Stark's men off their guard, and might have saved the day and released Baum's men had not Colonel Warner, with another regiment of Vermonters, been within call of Stark. Warner and Breyman's commands fought until nightfall, by which time the British has expended all their ammunition. Retreat was the only course open to them; but retreat was difficulty with victorious, angry Americans, who knew every inch of the ground, at their heels. Only sixty or seventy of Breyman's force reached Burgoyne's camp again. The battle of Bennington, indeed, proved a most decisive victory for the Americans. They lost only fifty-six, whereas the British loss was more then 200 killed and wounded, and 700 captured.

Two days before, the advance of Burgoyne from Fort Edward had begun. Not only did he confidently expect that Baum would join him in Albany, with the much needed supplies, but that he would by that time had formed a junction with St. Leger. Three days later the remnants of Baum's column came into camp exhausted. It was a staggering blow. In a few days Burgoyne had lost the picked troops of his army, and failed to get what he was confident Baum would obtain for them--food. Still, there was hope. St. Leger, he expected to meet him at the mouth of the Mohawk, and all would be well. Nevertheless, he had to confess to himself and also report to his superiors, that the present was disappointingly difficult. On the 20th, the day Arnold reached Fort Dayton, the British general wrote to Lord Germaine admitting the St. Leger's victory over Herkimer had mot been followed quickly by the favorable developments expected. St. Leger was still detained at the portage; Fort Schuyler still held out; and it was necessary to reduce that post before St. Leger could join him. Moreover, the response of the Tory population had not been as general as he had expected, whereas he had had to recognize that the majority of the people supported the American Congress. He wrote: Whenever the King's forces point, militia to the amount of three or four thousand assemble in twenty-four hours, and bring their subsistence with them." How hungrily he must have coveted them the latter. Continuing , Burgoyne reported: ". . . . . .the alarm over, they (the militia) return to their farms, the Hampshire Grants (Vermont) in particular, a country unpeopled and almost unknown in the last war, now abounds in the most active and rebellious men of the continent, and hang like a gathering storm on my left." Indeed, the skies were getting black. The roll of martial drums echoed through-out New

England; the exhilaration of victory was drawing enthusiastic Americans from all directions into the ever-swelling ranks of the militia. Old men and young were leaving the homesteads to the women-folk, the latter cheerfully bidding them Godspeed, and applying themselves hopefully to the farming. Hundred of New England families were situated like that of Noah Webster, who, at this urgent call left the farm, and, with his father and two brothers, all shouldering muskets, headed toward the point of danger.

A new American commander now held the reins in the Northern Department The new spirit came in with him, Major-General Gates, but it was not of his making. New Englanders were naturally letter pleased to know that a Massachusetts general officer had superseded Schuyler, in whom they had not much confidence; but their enthusiasm was based on victory already achieved, not to come. The tide had turned. Burgoyne was not the formidable enemy they had feared he would prove. Arnold by this time had won his bloodless victory of St. Leger, and was hastening back to report--not to the man who had risked all in weakening his own force to send Arnold to the relief of Fort Schuyler, but to another general who had had no part in the movement which decisively turned the tide. General Gates was appointed by Congress on August 1, but did not take over the command from Schuyler until the 19th. In those last nineteen days of command Schuyler had made ultimate victory certain. Schuyler, Arnold and Stark had shaped the crown of victory that was to be placed on the head of Gates, who had done nothing to deserve it.

Schuyler did not mourn the personal loss. He did not excoriate the politicians who had brought about his downfall. No doubt he felt the humiliation keenly, yet he did not feel like deserting the cause in consequence. He was, indeed, a man of broader mind and stronger patriotism than Arnold. The latter bitterly resented being passed over by less deserving and junior officers and eventually was to feel other affronts or reprimands so poignantly as to reach the state of bruised mind where he was willing even to betray his country. Stark also had left the Continental Army, disappointed and humiliated that his own services had gone unrecognized, while others who had done little or noting , but who possessed stronger political influence, had been rapidly advanced. Schuyler, however, showed no vainglorious streak. There was no selfishness in him. His aim was to serve his country, not himself. If his superiors thought it necessary to pass to another the authority they had vested in him, he did not let this injustice affect his attitude toward the case of the colonists. Faithful and zealous he remained, ready to do anything that lay in his power to aid his country. Those first nineteen day of August were probably the most noble of Schuyler's career as a soldier. In them , he, with the aid of Arnold and Stark, to all intents won the battle of Saratoga, which is credit to Gates. With the coming of Gates, Schuyler laid down his authority without a word of recrimination, despite provocation by his rival. One does not wonder that Webster, in calmer more reflective days, came to look upon Schuyler's Revolutionary record as second only to that of Washington. We now know Philip Schuyler as he was, and, fortunately , we also know Gates. For instance, the historian Fiske writes of gates as follows: "His nature was thoroughly weak and petty, and he never shrank from falsehood when it seemed to serve his purpose." "He never gave evidence of either skill or bravery; and in taking part in the war his only solicitude seems to have been for his personal advancement." So each comes into his own in the end. In fact, it was not unknown even before the battle of Saratoga that the way to victory has been made easy for Gates by his predecessor in command. Colonel Varick, wiring from Albany on August 23, 1777, makes this clear. He writes: "General Gates is a happy man to arrive at a moment when General Schuyler had just paved the way to victory; he has not taken any measure yet, and cannot claim the honor of anything that has as yet happened." #28

Gates did not move from the mouth of the Mohawk River, nine miles from Albany, until September 8. Then he advanced to Stillwater, with an army of 8,000. On the 12th he took up a strong position on Bemis heights, two or three miles north of Stillwater. The site had been chosen by Arnold and Kosciusko, the Polish engineer. Some earthworks were thrown up by the latter, and in this position Gates was willing to await some movement by his adversary. He also expected to hear that Lincoln, operating with New England troops on Burgoyne's flank, would intercept the supplies which the British so desperately needed. Lincoln did cause considerable trouble along Burgoyne's lines of communication; nevertheless, some supplies reached Burgoyne, and by the 12th he had gather enough to last for thirty days. So he began to move forward. On the 13th and 14th he crossed the Hudson River and encamped at the mouth of Fish Creek.

A clash could not be much longer avoided. Burgoyne, indeed, was going father and farther along the road that had no exit, and the entry to which was now to all intents closed. On the 13th Colonel Brown had begun the movement to the rear of the invading column, and had swept away all the British outposts from Fort Edward to Fort George. On the 18th some skirmishing occurred, the preliminary of the battle of Freeman's Farm, a most sanguinary engagement fought next day. Breaking camp at Sword's Farm, five miles north of Gates' position, Burgoyne on the 19th advanced to the attack in three columns. Generals Phillips and Riedesel, with artillery, moved along the main road near the river. Burgoyne was with the centre, which moved toward Freeman's Farm, where the American left, commanded by Benedict Arnold, was in position. the third British column, under General Fraser, moved westerly, hoping to turn the American left. Gates' army at this time numbered 11,000, thought only Arnold's wing was destined to fight on this day. His force numbers about 3,000, while Burgoyne, with the British centre, had about 3,500. The British left column was the first to encounter resistance, General Fraser's Canadians and Indians coming in contact with Morgan's riflemen, a picked body of southern sharpshooters sent by Washington and attached to Arnold's command. They wee compelled to retreat when the full force of Fraser's column came upon them, but Morgan quickly rallied them, and with the aid of Poor's brigade of New Hampshire Continentals, the advance was checked. Burgoyne by this time, an hour or so after noon, had reached Freeman's Farm, with the British centre, while the left column was still sweeping onward, skirting the Hudson River. by quick maneuvering, Arnold came with heavy force upon the enemy's centre. Two New York regiments, the 3s NS 4TH, commanded by Colonels Pierre van Courtlandt and Henry Livingston, were among those now engaged. A desperate battle ensued, both sides taking advantage of the heavy cover available at this point, and so being able to come almost with point-blank range. For four hours the battle raged. The forces were about equal in number, and the Americans ere showing as grim fighting qualities as the British regulars. Colonel van Courtlandt's regiment, especially, was desperately engaged. Advantage seesawed from one to the other. One twelve-pounder of the enemy changed hands four times, and thirty-six of the forty-eight British gunners were struck to the ground in the fight for possession of the four pieces of British artillery. The forces were so evenly matched that Arnold soon saw with only a thousand or two more men, he might crush the British centre and perhaps bring irretrievable disaster to the army of the invasion. In vain he Appealed to Gates. The latter would not be tempted. Maybe he suspected a trap. At all events, he held the major part of his 11,000 men idle in their positions while Arnold's force seesawed into stalemate with the British centre. At nightfall, the battle was over, the advantage resting with neither side. Still it was a blow to Burgoyne, for he had to recognize that his advance had been checked, that Arnold, with an equal force, had held him; also that Gates has at his command almost twice the strength of the invading force. The British loss in killed and wounded had been about 650, and the American casualties only about half as much. Arnold's troops retired to their positions, and the British dug in at Freeman's Farm. So, technically, the British might claim the victory,. But on so dearly bought could hardly bring the invader much satisfaction, or inspire much confidence. General Glover, who was with the American right wing, gave a graphic description of the desperate character of the fighting in a letter dated September 21: "The battle was very hot until half-past two o'clock; ceased for half an hour, then renewed the attack. Both armies seemed determined to conquer or die. One continual blaze, without any intermission until dark, when, by consent of both parties, it ceased; during which time we several times drove them, took the ground passing over great numbers of their dead and wounded. The enemy in their turn sometimes drove us. They were bold, intrepid, and fought like heroes, and I do assure you, sirs, our men were equally bold and courageous and fought like men fighting for their all."

 

The History of New York State, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1927

This book is owned by Pam Rietsch and is a part of the Mardos Memorial Library

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