IN the spring of 1777, Colonel Peter Gansevoort was appointed to the command of Fort Schuyler, and held that post in the summer of that year, when Burgoyne was making his victorious march towards Albany by way of Lake Champlain.. As early as June, a man from Canada, arrested as a spy, had disclosed the fact that a detachment of British troops, Canadians, and Indians was to penetrate the country by way of Oswego and the Mohawk, to join Burgoyne when he should reach Albany.. Fort Schuyler was still unfinished, and feebly garrisoned, and certain discomfiture seemed to await the patriots in that region. Colonel Gansevoort, however, was vigilant, active, and hopeful. He wrote spirited letters to General Schuyler, imploring aid, and that officer as urgently laid the condition of Tryon County before the Provincial Congress of New York, and also the General Congress. But it was then too late to expect succor from a distance, and the people of the Mohawk Valley were thrown upon their own feeble resources for defence. St. Leger and his Rangers, with the forces of Johnson, Claus, Butler, and Brant, were already in motion, and on the 1st of August the enemy, one thousand seven hundred strong, came up Oneida Lake, and near the ruins of old Fort Newport prepared to invest Fort Schuyler. The Indians were led by Brant [the celebrated Indian chief], and the whole beleaguering force, at the beginning of the march at Oswego Falls, was disposed in admirable order for the journey through the forest. The main body was led by the Indians, under Brant, in five columns, four hundred and sixty paces in front of the advanced guard. The Indians marched in single file, at large distances apart. Between the five columns and the rear-guard a file of Indians, ten paces apart, formed a line of communication. The advanced guard was one hundred paces in front of the main column, which was disposed in Indian file, the right and left flanks covered by a file of savages. The rear-guard was composed of regular troops.. Each crops was furnished with practised marksmen at short intervals, who were ordered to concentrate their strength upon any point that might be attacked.
On the 2d of August the fort was reached, and its investment begun. On the 3d, St. Leger arrived with his whole force. The garrison consisted of seven hundred and fifty men, who were well provided with provisions, and ammunition for small-arms, though deficient in ammunition for cannon, their most important means of defence. They were also without a flag, and were forced to make one out of bits of scarlet and blue clothing and white shirts, on the pattern adopted by Congress.]
The siege commenced on the 4th. A few bombs were thrown into the fort, and the Indians, concealed behind trees and bushes, wounded several men who were employed in raising the parapets. Similar annoyances occurred on the 5th, and towards evening the Indians spread out through the woods, encircled the fort, and, by hideous yells throughout the night, attempted to intimidate the garrison. St. Leger, confident of success, sent a despatch 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.
In the mean time, General Herkimer was advancing to the aid of the garrison, with a force of more than eight hundred militia. He sent a messenger in advance, requesting Gansevoort to signify his arrival by the discharge of three guns. But the messenger was delayed, and the militia officers, full of ungoverned valor, so pressed their experienced leader to advance that he finally yielded to their importunity and taunts of cowardice, against his better judgment. He gave the word to "March on," but told those who had boasted of their courage that they would be the first to run at sight of 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 .. 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.. 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 occupied by Sir John Johnson and his Royal Greens, a detachment of whom, as we have seen, had been sent to oppose the approach of Herkimer. The advanced guard, unable to withstand the impetuosity of the attack, was 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 camp 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, towards 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 associates 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 towards 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 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-whoop 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 fulfilment 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 musketball 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.. At this moment a heavy thunder-peal broke over the forest, and the rain came down in such 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 defence. It had been observed by the patriots that the Indians, as soon as they saw a gun fired by a provincial from 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 refugees 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 reinforcement 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 decisive victory, since, through the Americans held the field, they were unable to relieve the fort, which was the object of their march. Both had suffered severely. General Herkimer died ten days after the battle. The garrison continued so closely environed that they were unable to gain correct intelligence of the result of the battle. St. Leger endeavored to deceive them, by sending in false representations of victory and of Burgoyne's success. In this he failed, and Gansevoort repelled his demands for a surrender. Yet, fearing that this would be his final fate, he sent messengers to General Schuyler, imploring succor. It was a dangerous mission, yet men were found willing to undertake it.
Colonel Willett volunteered to be the messenger, and on a very stormy night, when shower after shower came down furiously, he and Lieutenant Stockwell left the fort by the sally-port at ten o'clock, each armed with a spear, and crept upon their hands and knees along a morass to the river. They crossed it upon a log, and were soon beyond the line of drowsy sentinels. It was very dark, their pathway was in a thick and tangled wood, and they soon lost their way. The barking of a dog apprised them of their proximity to an Indian camp, and for hours they stood still, fearing to advance or retreat. The clouds broke away towards dawn, and the morning star in the east, like the light of hope, revealed to them their desired course. They then pushed on in a zigzag way, and, like the Indians, sometimes traversed the bed of a stream, to foil pursuers that might be upon their trail. They reached the German Flats in safety, and, mounting fleet horses, hurried down the valley to the head-quarters of General Schuyler, who had already heard of the defeat of Herkimer, and was devising means for the succor of the garrison at Fort Schuyler.
St. Leger continued the siege. He advanced, by paralels, within one hundred and fifty yards of the fort, and the garrison, ignorant of the fate of Willett and Stockwell, or the relief that was preparing for them below, began to feel uneasy. Their ammunition and provisions being much reduced in quantity, some hinted an opinion to the commander that a surrender would be humane policy. Gansevoort's stout and hopeful heart would not yield admission to such an idea, and he informed the garrison that he had resolved, in case succor should not appear before their supplies were exhausted, to sally out at night and cut his way through the enemy's camp. Suddenly, and mysteriously to the garrison, the besiegers broke up their camp, and fled so precipitately from before the fort that they left their tents, artillery, and camp-equipage behind them.
The mystery was soon solved. General Arnold had volunteered to lead a force to the relief of the fort. Fearing that it would be captured before his main body could arrive, he pushed forward with a detachment, conceiving a stratagem which proved remarkably successful. A tory prisoner, ignorant and half idiotic, named Hon-Yost Schuyler, had been condemned to death. Arnold promised him his life if he would go to St. Leger's camp and represent that a large host of Americans were approaching. He held his brother as a hostage, while Hon-Yost, with a friendly Oneida Indian, set out for St. Leger's camp.
Before leaving Fort Dayton, Hon-Yost had several bullets shot through his coat, and with these evidences of a "terrible engagement with the enemy" he appeared among the Indians of St. Leger's camp, many of whom knew him personally. He ran into their midst almost out of breath, and apparently much frightened. He told them that the Americans were approaching in great numbers, and that had barely escaped with his life. His bullet-riddled coat confirmed the story. When they inquired the number of the Americans, he pointed to the leaves on the trees, and shook his head mysteriously. The Indians were greatly agitated. They had been decoyed into their present situation, and had been moody and uneasy since the battle of Oriskany. At the moment of Hon-Yost's arrival they were engaged in a religious observance,- a consultation, through their prophet, of Manitou, or the Great Spirit, to supplicate his guidance and protection. The council of chiefs at the pow-wow at once resolved upon flight, and told St. Leger so. He sent for and questioned Hon-Yost, who told him that Arnold, with two thousand men, would be upon him in twenty-four hours. At that moment, according to arrangement, the friendly Oneida, who had taken a circuitious route, approached the camp from another direction, with a belt. On his way he met two or three straggling Indians of his tribe, who joined him, and they all confirmed the story of Hon-Yost. They pretended that a bird had brought them the news that the valley below was swarming with warriors. One said that the army of Burgoyne was cut to pieces, and another told St. Leger that Arnold had three thousand men near. They shook their heads mysteriously when questioned about numbers by the Indians, and pointed, like Hon-Yost, upward to the leaves. The savages, now thoroughly alarmed, prepared to flee. St. Leger tried every means, by offers of bribes and promises, to induce them to remain, but the panic, and suspicion of foul play, had determined them to go. He tried to make them drunk, but they refused to drink. He then besought them to take the rear of his army in retreating: this they refused, and indignantly said, "You mean to sacrifice us. When you marched down, you said there would be no fighting for us Indians; we might go down and smoke our pipes; whereas numbers of our warriors have been killed, and you mean to sacrifice us also." The council broke up, and the Indians fled. The panic was communicated to the rest of the camp, and in a few hours the beleaguering army was flying in terror towards their boats on Oneida Lake. Hon-Yost accompanied them in their flight as far as Wood Creek, where he managed to desert. He found his way back to the fort that night, and was the first to communicate to Colonel Gansevoort the intelligence of Arnold's approach. The Indians, it is said, made themselves merry at the precipitate flight of the whites, who threw away their arms and knapsacks, so that nothing should impede their progress. The savages also gratified their passion for murder and plunder by killing many of their retreating allies on the borders of the lake, and stripping them of every article of value. They also plundered them of their boats, and, according to St. Leger, "became more formidable than the enemy they had to expect." Half starved and naked, the whites of the scattered army made their way to Oswego, and, with St. Leger, went down Ontario to Canada.. Thus ended the siege of Fort Schuyler, in the progress of which the courage, endurance, and skill of the Americans, everywhere so remarkable in the Revolution, were fully displayed.
Return to The Great Republic by the Master Historians (Vol 2)