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Siege of Fort Schuyler. Operations of the Indians. Visit to the Oriskany Battle-ground. General Herkimer and the Militia.
I shall stand acquitted in the eyes of God and man in denouncing and executing the vengeance of the state against the willful outcasts. The messengers of justice and of wrath await them in the field; and devastation, famine, and every concomitant horror that a reluctant, but indispensable, prosecution of military duty must occasion, will bar the way to their return.” The patriot people who received the manifesto treated it with derision, and the little garrison, which had already counted the cost of a siege, and determined upon a defense of the fort, laughed at its threats, and regarded its offer of bribes with scorn.
The siege commenced on the 4th. A few bombs were thrown into the fort, and August the Indians, concealed behind trees and bushes, wounded several men who were em- 1777. ployed in raising the parapets. Similar annoyances occurred on the 5th, and toward evening the Indians spread out through the woods, encircled the fort, and, by hideous yells through the night, attempted to intimidate the garrison. St. Leger, confident of success, sent a dispatch to Burgoyne at this juncture, expressing his assurance that Fort Schuyler would be in his possession directly, and the hope that they would speedily meet as victors at Albany. Let us leave the besiegers and besieged a moment, and ride down to Oriskany, eight miles eastward of Fort Schuyler, where a terrible episode in the siege occurred.
I left Rome (site of Fort Schuyler) at about two o'clock, in an open light wagon, for Oriskany." The day was very warm ; the road, although nearly level, was excessively stony, and when I arrived at the village I was almost overcome by the heat and fatigue. Desirous of reaching Utica that evening, I stayed at the village only long enough to procure a competent guide to the battle-ground. Mr. George Graham, a resident of the village (who was one of the committee of arrangements for the celebration held upon the battle-ground, on the anniversary of the event, in 1844), kindly accompanied me to the spot, and pointed out the various localities which were identified on the occasion referred to by many old men who were present, some of whom were in the battle. The locality is about two miles west of the canal landing in the village, and in the midst of a beautiful agricultural country. Let us consult the history while on our way thither, and then we shall better understand our “topographical survey.”
As soon as St. Leger's approach up Oneida Lake was known to General Herkimer, he summoned the militia of Tryon county to the succor of the garrison at Fort Schuyler. The timidity which seemed to have abated the fire of the Whigs, when the first intimations of the invasion were given by the Canada spy and the Oneida sachem, now disappeared, when the threatened danger was at their doors, and the call of Herkimer was responded to with alacrity, not only by the militia, but most of the members of the Tryon county committee entered the field as officers or volunteers. They rendezvoused at Fort Dayton, on the German Flats, and, on the day when the Indians encircled the fort, Herkimer was near Oriskany with more than eight hundred men, eager to face the enemy. He sent a messenger to Gansevoort, informing him of his approach, and requesting him to apprise him of the arrival of his courier by discharging three guns in rapid succession, which he knew would be heard at Oriskany. But the messenger did not arrive until near noon the next day. Herkimer was brave, but cautious, and determined to halt there until he should receive re-enforcements or hear the signal guns from the fort. His officers, influenced by the impatience of their men to press on toward the fort, were opposed to delay. Herkimer, self-relying, was firm. Harsh words ensued, and two of his colonels, Cox and Paris, more impertinent than generous, denounced the old man as a coward and a Tory. This bitter taunt sank deep into his heart, but his duty governed his feelings, and he calmly replied, “I am placed over you as a father and guardian, and shall not lead you into difficulties from which I may not be able to extricate you.” But they persisted in their demands for an immediate advance, and continued their ungenerous taunts. Stung by imputations
* Oriskany is a little village about eight miles west of Utica, at the junction of the Oriskany Creek with the Mohawk. The Erie Canal and the rail-road both pass through it, and the establishment of woolen factories there promises growth and prosperity to the pleasant town.
Herkimer's Advancee to Oriskany. Sortie from Fort Schuyler, under Colonel Willett. Biographical Sketch of Willett
of cowardice, Herkimer at length yielded, and gave the word to “March on " at the same time telling those who boasted loudest of their courage that they would be the first to run on seeing the enemy. St. Leger had intelligence of the advance of Herkimer, and detached a division of Johnson's Greens, under Major Watts, Colonel Butler with his Rangers, and Brant with a strong body of Indians, to intercept him, and prevent an attack upon his intrenchments. Before the arrival of Herkimer's messenger, Gansevoort had observed the silence of the enemy's camp, and also the movement of a portion of his troops along the margin of a wood down the river. The arrival of the courier dispelled all doubts as to the destination of the detachment, and the signal guns were immediately fired. Herkimer had informed Gansevoort, by the
messenger, that he intended, on hearing the signals, to cut his way to the fort through the circumvallating camp of the enemy, and requested him to make a sortie at the same time. This was done as soon as the arrangement could be made, and a detachment of two hundred men, consisting of portions of Gansevoort's and Wesson's regiments, was detailed for the purpose, who took with them an iron three pounder. Fifty men were also
added, to protect the cannon, and to act otherwise as circumstances might require. The enterprise was intrusted to Colonel Marinus Willett," who, by quick and judicious movements and daring courage, with his small force, accomplished wonders in a few hours. Rain was falling copiously while preparations for the sortie were in progress, but the moment it ceased Willett sallied out and fell furiously upon that portion of the camp oc
cupied by Sir John Johnson and his Royal Greens, a detachment of whom, as we have seen,
* Marinus Willett was born at Jamaica, Long Island, July 31st (O.S.), 1740. He was the youngest of six sons of Edward Willett, a Queen's county farmer. He was early imbued with a military spirit, and joined the army, under Abercrombie, as a lieutenant in Colonel Delancy's regiment, in 1758. He was in the disastrous battle at Ticonderoga, and accompanied Bradstreet in his expedition against Fort Frontenac. Exposure in the wilderness injured his health, and he was confined by sickness in the newly-erected Fort Stanwix until the end of the campaign. Willett early espoused the republican cause when British aggression aroused resistance here. When the British troops in the New York garrison were ordered to Boston, after the skirmish at Lexington, they attempted, in addition to their own, to carry off a large quantity of spare arms. Willett resolved to prevent it, and, though opposed by the mayor and other Whigs, he captured the baggage-wagons containing them, and took them back to the city. These arms were afterward used by the first regiment raised by the state of New York. He was appointed second captain of a company in Colonel M*Dougal's regiment, and accompanied Montgomery in his northern expedition. He was placed in command of St. John's, and held that post until January, 1776. He was that year appointed lieutenant colonel, and, at the opening of the campaign of 1777, placed in command of Fort Constitution, on the Hudson. In May he was ordered to Fort Stanwix, or Schuyler, where he performed signal services, as noticed in the text. He was left in command of the fort, and remained there until the summer of 1778, when he joined the army under Washington, and was at the battle of Monmouth. He accompanied Sullivan in his campaign against the Indians in 1779, and was actively engaged in the Mohawk Valley in 1780, 1781, and 1782. In 1792 he was sent by Washington to treat with the Creek Indians at the south; and the same year he was appointed a brigadier general in the army intended to act against the Northwestern Indians. He declined the appointment, for he was opposed to the expedition. He was for some time sheriff of New York, and was elected mayor of the city in 1807. He was chosen elector of President and Vicepresident in 1824, and was made president of the Electoral College. He died in New York, August 23d, 1830, in the 91st year of his age.
Dispersion of Johnson's Camp. Capture of Stores and other Valuables. View and Description of the Oriskany Battle-ground.
had been sent to oppose the approach of Herkimer. The advanced guard, unable to withstand the impetuosity of the attack, were driven in ; and so suddenly was Sir John's camp assailed, that he was not allowed time to put on his coat. He endeavored to bring his troops into order, but they fled in dismay. The Indian encampment was then assaulted, and in a few moments the savages, too, were scattered. Sir John and his troops fled across the river, to the temporary camp of St. Leger, and the Indians buried themselves in the deep forest near. No less than twenty-one wagon-loads of spoil, consisting of clothing, blankets, stores, camp equipage, five British standards, the baggage of Sir John, with all his papers, and those of other officers, containing every kind of information necessary to the garrison, were captured. Having secured their prize, Willett and his party returned to the fort without the loss of a man. The five British colors were raised in full view of the enemy, upon the flag-staff, beneath the uncouth American standard, and the whole garrison, mounting the parapets, made the forest ring with three loud cheers. This chivalrous exploit was duly noticed by Congress, and an elegant sword was presented to Colonel Willett in the name of the United States. General Herkimer, in the mean while, had moved from the mills, at the mouth of Oriskany Creek, toward the fort, entirely unconscious of the ambuscade that, in a deep ravine two miles distant, awaited his approach. The morning was dark, sultry, and lowering. His troops, composed chiefly of the militia regiments of Colonels Cox, Paris, Visscher, and Klock, were quite undisciplined, and their order of march was irregular and without precaution. The contentions of the morning had delayed their advance until about nine o'clock, and the hard feelings that existed between the commander and some of his officers caused a degree of insubordination which proved fatal in its consequences. Brant and his Tory asso
* This sketch was made from the eastern side of the ravine, looking west. The marsh in the bottom of the ravine, mentioned in the text, is partially drained by a rivulet. When I visited the spot (August, 1848), many logs of the old causeway were still visible, and afforded a crossing-place for cattle. These logs are seen in the picture. The road on the left is the present highway between Oriskany and Rome. The barn stands upon the western side of the ravine, and along the high ground upon which it is situated, and crossing the road southeasterly, the ambush was placed. The hottest of the battle occurred upon the high plain between the ravine in the foreground and another beyond the most distant trees in the picture. The hills seen in the extreme distance, on the right, are those upon the north side of the Mohawk. The frame-work in the ravine is the remains of the scaffolding erected for the speakers at the celebration alluded to, in 1844. The chief speakers on the occasion were John A. Dix and Senator Dickinson, and the audi
Indian Ambush. Surprise of Herkimer and his Troops. The General wounded. His Coolness. Desperate Battle.
ciates had learned from their scouts the exact route the patriots had taken, and arranged an ambuscade accordingly. A deep ravine crossed the path of Herkimer in a north and south direction, extending from the high grounds on the south to the river, and curved toward the east in a semicircular form. The bottom of this ravine was marshy, and the road crossed it by means of a causeway of earth and logs. On each side of the ravine the ground was nearly level, and heavily timbered. A thick growth of underwood, particularly along the margin of the ravine, favored concealment. It was upon the high ground on the western side of this ravine that the ambush of the Tories and Indians was laid, in such a manner that the causeway was surrounded by them, as by a circle, leaving only a small segment open where the road entered. Unsuspicious of the proximity of the enemy, the whole body of provincials, except the rear-guard, composed of Visscher's regiment, descended into the ravine, followed by the baggage-wagons. Brant gave a signal, and in an instant the circle closed, the war-hoop was sounded, and spear, and hatchet, and deadly rifle-ball fell upon the patriots like hail from the clouds that hovered over them. The rear-guard, in fulfillment of Herkimer's prediction, instantly fled, and left their companions in the ravine to their fate. They were pursued by the Indians, and probably suffered more, in their cowardly flight, than if they had boldly aided their environed companions in arms. This sudden onslaught produced great confusion in the patriot ranks, but they soon recovered, and fought with the courage and skill of veteran troops. The slaughter, however, was dreadful. Herkimer was severely wounded at the commencement of the action, and Colonel Cox and Captain Van Slyk" were killed at the first fire. A musket-ball passed through and killed the horse of the general, and shattered his own leg just below the knee. With perfect composure and cool courage, he ordered the saddle to be taken from his slaughtered horse and placed against a large beech-tree near. Seated there, with his men falling like autumn foliage, and the bullets of the enemy, like driving sleet, whistling around him, the intrepid general calmly gave his orders, and thus nobly rebuked the slanderers who called him a coward." For nearly an hour the fierce action continued, and by slow degrees the enemy was closing in upon the republicans. The latter then made an admirable change in their method of repulsion. They formed themselves into circles, and thus met the enemy at all points. Their fire became so destructive in this way, that the Johnson Greens and a portion of Butler's Tories attempted a bayonet charge. This was promptly met by the patriots, and the battle assumed the terrible form of a death-struggle in close personal contact. They
“Fought eye to eye, and hand to hand,
At this moment a heavy thunder-peal broke over the forest, and the rain came down in such
ence was estimated at 15,000 people. The scaffold was erected upon the spot, as nearly as it could be defined, where General Herkimer fell. In the middle of the field beyond the scaffold, in the lightest part near the tree, toward the barn, is seen a dark spot. It marks the site, now indicated by a cavity, where the beach-tree stood under which Herkimer sat and delivered his orders. Avarice cut the tree down about eight years ago, and then uprooted the stump to make room for a more precious hill of potatoes. This view is about two miles west of Oriskany, on the north side of the main road. Arrow-heads, bullets, bayonets, tomahawks, pipes, &c., are still found there by the cultivator. The bowl of an earthen pipe was shown to me by a resident upon the ground (whose house is seen in the distance, beyond the barn), which he had plowed up the day before. He had several other relics of the battle, but would not part with any. The above is a drawing of the pipe-bowl. * It is related that, during the hottest of the action, the general, seated upon his saddle, quietly took his tinder-box from his pocket, lighted his pipe, and smoked as composedly as if seated at his own fire-side.
Intermission in the Battle. Its Resumption. Unsuccessful Stratagem of Colonel Butler. The Enemy routed. Mutual Losses
torrents that the combatants ceased their strife, and sought shelter beneath the trees. It was during this heavy shower that Willett made his preparations at the fort for the successful sortie just noticed; and, as soon as the rain subsided, he fell upon Johnson's camp, and the battle was renewed at Oriskany. During the lull in the conflict, both parties viewed the ground, and made new arrangements for attack and defense. It had been observed by the patriots that the Indians, as soon as they saw a gun fired by a provincial behind a tree, would rush forward and tomahawk him before he could reload. To meet such an exigency in the renewed conflict, two men stood together behind a tree, and, while one fired, the other awaited the approach of the savage with his tomahawk, and felled him with his bullet. The provincials had also made choice of more advantageous ground, and, soon after the renewal of the fight, so destructive was their fire that the Indians began to give way. Major Watts came up with a detachment of Johnson's Greens to support them, but the presence of these men, mostly ref. ugees from the Mohawk, made the patriots more furious, and mutual resentments, as the parties faced and recognized each other, seemed to give new strength to their arms. They leaped upon each other with the fierceness of tigers, and fought hand to hand and foot to foot with bayonets and knives. It was a terrible struggle, and exhibited the peculiar cruelty and brutality which distinguishes civil war. A firing was now heard in the direction of the fort. It was the attack of Willett upon the enemy's camp. Colonel Butler instantly conceived a stratagem, and was nearly successful in its execution. He so changed the dress of a detachment of Johnson's Greens, that they appeared like American troops. These were made to approach from the direction of the fort, and were at first (as intended by Butler) mistaken by the patriots for a re-enforcement from the garrison. But the quick eye of Captain Gardinier, an officer who performed deeds of great valor on that memorable day, discovered their real character, and, ordering his men to fall upon these pretended friends, they were soon scattered in confusion. The Indians, finding their ranks greatly thinned, and the provincials still undismayed, raised the loud retreating cry, Oonah / Oonah / and fled in all directions. The panic was communicated to the Tories and Canadians, and the whole force of the enemy retreated in confusion, pursued by the provincials with shouts of victory. Thus, after a conflict of six hours, ended the battle of Oriskany, the bloodiest encounter, in proportion to the numbers engaged, that occurred during the war. Neither party could claim a decided victory. Both had suffered dreadfully. The patriots remained masters of the field, but they did not accomplish the design of the expedition, the relief of the garrison at Fort Schuyler. Their wounded, nearly fifty in number, were carried from the field on litters, and among them was General Herkimer, who was taken to his residence below the Little Falls, on the Mohawk, where he died ten days afterward. The manner and circumstances of his death will be noticed in the relation of my visit to his mansion, which is still standing. The loss in this battle seems not to have been officially given on either side. St. Leger, in a letter to Burgoyne, dated August 11th, five days after the battle, says, “Above four hundred [patriots] lay dead on the field, among the number of whom were almost all of the principal movers of the rebellion in that county.” The enemy also claimed to have taken two hundred prisoners. Dr. Thatcher, in his Military Journal (page 89), records the loss of the Americans at “one hundred and sixty killed, and a great number wounded.” This is the number stated by Gordon and other cotemporary writers. The Indians lost about seventy, among whom were several chiefs." Major Watts was badly wounded, and left for dead upon the field. He revived from the faintness produced by loss of blood, crawled to a brook and quenched his thirst, and there remained until he was found, nearly three days afterward, by an Indian scout, and taken into St. Leger's camp. There were many deeds
'Gordon and others relate that, in the course of the battle, a portion of the Indians became impressed with the belief that there was a coalition between Johnson's and Herkimer's men to destroy them, and that, toward the close of the conflict, the savages killed many of the Tories. “It is thought,” says Gordon (ii. 237), “that near as many of Sir John's Tory party were killed by the Indians as by the militia.”