American Revolution: Battle of Oriskany

Battle of Oriskany
Brigadier General Nicholas Herkimer at the Battle of Oriskany. Photograph Source: Public Domain

The Battle of Oriskany was fought August 6, 1777, during the American Revolution (1775-1783). In early 1777, Major General John Burgoyne proposed a plan for defeating the Americans. Believing that New England was the seat of the rebellion, he proposed severing the region from the other colonies by marching down the Lake Champlain-Hudson River corridor while a second force, led by Colonel Barry St.

Leger, advanced east from Lake Ontario and through the Mohawk Valley.

Rendezvousing at Albany, Burgoyne, and St. Leger would advance down the Hudson, while General Sir William Howe's army advanced north from New York City. Though approved by Colonial Secretary Lord George Germain, Howe's role in the plan was never clearly defined and issues of his seniority precluded Burgoyne from issuing him orders.

Assembling a force of around 800 British and Hessians, as well as 800 Native American allies in Canada, St. Leger began moving up the St. Lawrence River and into Lake Ontario. Ascending the Oswego River, his men reached the Oneida Carry in early August. On August 2, St. Leger's advance forces arrived at nearby Fort Stanwix.

Garrisoned by American troops under Colonel Peter Gansevoort, the fort guarded the approaches to the Mohawk. Outnumbering Gansevoort's 750-man garrison, St. Leger surrounded the post and demanded its surrender.

This was promptly refused by Gansevoort. As he lacked sufficient artillery for battering down the fort's walls, St. Leger elected to lay siege (Map).

American Commander

  • Brigadier General Nicholas Herkimer
  • approx. 800 men

British Commander

  • Sir John Johnson
  • approx. 500-700 men

American Response

In mid-July, American leaders in Western New York first learned of a possible British attack into the region.

Responding, the leader of Tryon County's Committee of Safety, Brigadier General Nicholas Herkimer, issued a warning that the militia may be needed to block the enemy. On July 30, Herkimer received reports from friendly Oneidas that St. Leger's column was within a few days march of Fort Stanwix. Upon receipt of this information, he immediately called out the county's militia. Gathering at Fort Dayton on the Mohawk River, the militia mustered around 800 men. This force included a group of Oneidas led by Han Yerry and Colonel Louis. Departing, Herkimer's column reached the Oneida village of Oriska on August 5.

Pausing for the night, Herkimer dispatched three messengers to Fort Stanwix. These were to inform Gansevoort of the militia's approach and asked that receipt of the message be acknowledged by firing three cannons. Herkimer also requested that part of the fort's garrison sortie to meet his command. It was his intention to remain in place until the signal was heard.

As the next morning progressed, no signal was heard from the fort. Though Herkimer wished to remain at Oriska, his officers argued for resuming the advance. The discussions became increasingly heated and Herkimer was accused of being a coward and having Loyalist sympathies.

Angered, and against his better judgment, Herkimer ordered the column to resume its march. Due to difficulty in penetrating the British lines, the messengers sent on the night of August 5 did not arrive until later the next day.

The British Trap

At Fort Stanwix, St. Leger learned of Herkimer's approach on August 5. In an effort to prevent the Americans from relieving the fort, he ordered Sir John Johnson to take part of his King's Royal Regiment of New York along with a force of rangers and 500 Seneca and Mohawks to attack the American column.

Moving east, Johnson selected a deep ravine approximately six miles from the fort for an ambush. Deploying his Royal Regiment troops along the western exit, he placed the Rangers and Native Americans down the ravine's sides. Once the Americans had entered the ravine, Johnson's men would attack while a Mohawk force, led by Joseph Brant, would circle around and strike the enemy's rear.

A Bloody Day

Around 10:00 AM, Herkimer's force descended into the ravine. Though under orders to wait until the entire American column was in the ravine, a party of Native Americans attacked early. Catching the Americans by surprise, they killed Colonel Ebenezer Cox and wounded Herkimer in the leg with their opening volleys.

Refusing to be taken to the rear, Herkimer was propped up under a tree and continued to direct his men. While the main body of the militia was in the ravine, those troops at the rear had not yet entered. These came under attack from Brant and many panicked and fled, though some did fight their way forward to join their comrades. Assailed on all sides, the militia took heavy losses and the battle soon degenerated into numerous small unit actions.

Slowly regaining control of his forces, Herkimer began pulling back to the edge of the ravine and American resistance began to stiffen. Concerned about this, Johnson requested reinforcements from St. Leger. As the battle became a pitched affair, a heavy thunderstorm erupted which caused a one-hour break in the fighting.

Taking advantage of the lull, Herkimer tightened his lines and directed his men to fire in pairs with one firing and one loading. This was to ensure that a loaded weapon was always available should a Native American charge forward with a tomahawk or spear.

As the weather cleared, Johnson resumed his attacks and, at the suggestion of Ranger leader John Butler, had some of his men reverse their jackets in an effort to make the Americans think a relief column was arriving from the fort. This bit of trickery failed as the Americans recognized their Loyalist neighbors in the ranks.

Despite this, British forces were able to exert heavy pressure on Herkimer's men until their Native American allies began to leave the field. This was largely due to both the unusually heavy losses sustained in their ranks as well as word arriving that American troops were looting their camp near the fort. Having received Herkimer's message around 11:00 AM, Gansevoort had organized a force under Lieutenant Colonel Marinus Willett to sortie from the fort.

Marching out, Willett's men attacked the Native American camps south of the fort and carried off plenty of supplies and personal belongings. They also raided Johnson's camp nearby and captured his correspondence. Abandoned at the ravine, Johnson found himself outnumbered and was forced to withdraw back to the siege lines at Fort Stanwix. Though Herkimer's command was left in possession of the battlefield, it was too badly damaged to advance and retreated back to Fort Dayton.

Aftermath of the Battle

In the wake of the Battle of Oriskany, both sides claimed victory. In the American camp, this was justified by the British retreat and Willett's looting of the enemy camps. For the British, they claimed success as the American column failed to reach Fort Stanwix. Casualties for the Battle of Oriskany are not known with certainty, though it is estimated that American forces may have sustained as many as 500 killed, wounded, and captured. Among the American losses was Herkimer who died on August 16 after having his leg amputated. Native American losses were approximately 60-70 killed and wounded, while British casualties numbered around 7 killed and 21 wounded or captured.

Though traditionally seen as a clear American defeat, the Battle of Oriskany marked a turning point in St. Leger's campaign in western New York. Angered by the losses taken at Oriskany, his Native American allies became increasingly disgruntled as they had not anticipated in taking part in large, pitched battles. Sensing their unhappiness, St. Leger demanded Gansevoort's surrender and stated that he could not guarantee the garrison's safety from being massacred by the Native Americans following a defeat in battle. This demand was immediately rejected by the American commander. In the wake of Herkimer's defeat, Major General Philip Schuyler, commanding the main American army on the Hudson, dispatched Major General Benedict Arnold with around 900 men to Fort Stanwix.

Reaching Fort Dayton, Arnold sent forward scouts to spread misinformation regarding the size of his force. Believing that a large American army was approaching, the bulk of St. Leger's Native Americans departed and began fighting a civil war with the American-allied Oneidas. Unable to maintain the siege with his depleted forces, St. Leger was forced to begin retreating towards Lake Ontario on August 22. With the western advance checked, Burgoyne's main thrust down the Hudson was defeated that fall at the Battle of Saratoga.

Selected Sources