The Mohawk Valley During the Revolution
|The Mohawk Valley During the Revolution (1877)
|The following article is from Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Volume LV, June to November 1877, Harper & Brothers, Publishers, New York, 1877, pages 171–183.|
IT may be safely asserted that in no section of the northern colonies were the loyalists so numerous or so influential, when the first mutterings of discontent were heard from rebellious Boston, as along the valley of the Mohawk. Many conditions conspired to make the cause of the crown popular and powerful there that were lacking to the more ancient settlements; prominent among them, the almost absolute power that Sir William Johnson had obtained over the hitherto hostile Iroquois and white settlers alike. He was the only white man who had any extended influence over the surrounding savages, who, without him, had been the cruel and relentless foe of the young communities, and his noble qualities and gracious deeds had completely won the hearts of the settlers.
By the Indians, not only of the Six Nations, but of further western tribes, he was regarded with the greatest veneration. Long association with him, and great respect for his character, which, from its bluff, unassuming sociability and hearty generosity, was well calculated to inspire the attachment of an unlettered population, had also given to his opinions the force of legal authority among the white inhabitants of the valley. Their faithful, unwearying friend in peace, and their leader in war, his name was a tower of strength throughout Tryon County; and it was very natural that his opinions upon such a momentous question as this should have great weight with them in forming their own.
But, unfortunately for the crown, whose interests, in common with those of his neighbors, he had upheld with such signal success, his services were abruptly terminated at the time when, most of all, they were needed. He died suddenly at Johnson Hall, Johnstown, June 24, 1774.
Neither his son, Sir John Johnson, his successor in title and estates, nor his son-in-law, Guy Johnson, who succeeded to his office of Superintendent of Indian Affairs, possessed the same degree of moral power over the population of Tryon County, Indian or white, as had the late baronet. Sir John was far less popular, being morose and irascible in disposition, and with little knowledge of human nature. The new superintendent, also, was a man of small mental calibre and violent passions; and it was not long before the far-reaching influence that Sir William had wielded over the minds of the colonists was narrowed down by the incapacity of his successors to a sort of feudal domination over a few hundred tenants and immediate retainers.
By the aid of "Miss Molly," a Mohawk woman who had lived many years with the old baronet in an equivocal relation, and the strenuous exertions of her brother, Thayendanegea, better known to fame as Joseph Brant, they still maintained the ascendency over the Indians that Sir William had exercised, though in a diminished degree. But the white settlers of the valley, consisting for the most part of Dutchmen who had pushed up the beautiful valley from Albany as far as Caughnawaga, and west of that point of Germans who had emigrated from the Palatinate in 1709, and settled upon the rich alluvial bottom-lands, known as the German Flats some ten years later, were ill disposed to submit to the haughty bearing of these new-fledged English aristocrats, who, with other country gentlemen of the same pattern, assumed a high and mighty style of dealing with the poorer colonists; and when the openly avowed sentiments of the rebellious New Englanders found their way across the Hudson and up the Mohawk, they met with hearty approval from these sturdy borderers, now thoroughly disgusted with any thing English.
The news of the massacre, as it was then termed, at Concord and Lexington, which spread through the colonies like wild-fire, threw the yeomanry of the valley into a fever of excitement. The Dutch nature, proverbially slow to anger, was stirred by this intelligence, and the injudicious reception of it by the Tory element at Johnstown, into an angry activity and impetuosity that no power could subdue. Meetings were called, inflammatory speeches made, and committees of safety appointed in every hamlet throughout the settlements. One of these gatherings, held at Caughnawaga, was broken up by the Johnsons and a party of loyalists with some violence and considerable brawling; and immediately after, Sir John fortified Johnson Hall, and organized a body of Scotch Highlanders, to the number of one hundred and fifty, whom he armed to the teeth, with the intention of suppressing any further exhibitions of disaffection.
In the mean time the Provincial authorities became suspicious that Colonel Guy Johnson was using his official authority with the Indians to alienate them from the cause of their white neighbors, and to induce them to declare themselves unreservedly for the King. He bad in January removed the Rev. Samuel Kirkland, a missionary among the Oneidas, who was a stanch patriot, and to whose influence is to be attributed the position taken by the Oneidas during the struggle, and the signal aid which they gave to the Provincial cause; and now positive proof canine to the Albany committee’s hands that he was inciting the Mohawks to violence. Apprehending some offensive action upon their part, Colonel Johnson left the valley quietly in June, and hastened to Ontario, accompanied by Brant and the two Butlers. Here a grand council was held with the western Indians, with flattering results; and after a few days' parleying with them, he started for Montreal, accompanied by an imposing delegation of sachems and warriors, which latter were upon their arrival persuaded to go into the service of King George.
The Whigs, who were now in a decided majority, had, during this time, been far from inactive. Their committees organized the people into militia, and took upon themselves the civil and military jurisdiction of Tryon County. They deposed the sheriff, a stanch and overbearing Tory, by name Alexander White, and appointed an equally ardent Whig in his place, Colonel John Frey. This White, intent upon showing his contempt for the Provincials, had arrested a rather boisterous patriot, by the name of Jacob Fonda, upon some trifling pretext, and locked him up in the jail at Johnstown. The same night a mob of infuriated Whigs, under lead of Sampson Sammons, broke into the jail and released him; then, excited by their success, they trooped off to the sheriff’s lodgings, to the number of fifty, and, noisily enough, demanded his surrender. White opened a second story window, and probably recognizing the leader of the expedition, called out, "Is that you, Sammons?"
"Yes," was the prompt reply, upon which White sent a pistol-ball whizzing uncomfortably near his head. This shot, the first one fired in the war of the Revolution west of the Hudson, was instantly returned by a rattling fire from forty or fifty muskets; but the sheriff escaped with a slight scratch on the breast. The doors were kicked in, but before the assailants could find White, the report of the cannon at the Hall was heard; and as it was a signal for the Highlanders to rally, the Whigs thought better of it, and retired. White was soon after sent a prisoner to Albany. This little incident is related as showing better than any lengthy description could hope to the state of feeling existing in the valley settlements.
Early in the following year (1776) General [Philip] Schuyler, then in command of the New York Department, being dissatisfied with the equivocal position of Sir John, who was living in a fortified castle, surrounded by 500 retainers, in much the style of a mediaeval English baron, determined to probe his intentions to the bottom, and to that purpose marched upon Johnstown at the head of 3000 men. After some little diplomatic sparring and considerable lying on the baronet’s part, the general compelled Sir John to surrender all the arms, ammunition, and military stores in his possession, and to disband his Highlanders. All the prominent Tories of the neighborhood were arrested, and having broken down all symptoms of rebellion to his complete satisfaction, Schuyler left Colonel [Nicholas] Herkimer to look after the vanquished baronet, and returned to Albany.
But even this energetic measure did not suppress the spirit of disloyalty, or, as he called it, loyalty, that possessed Sir John. He immediately began to employ moral suasion, since he was powerless to use other means; and soon General Schuyler found that he was, in violation of his parole, secretly instigating the neighboring Indians to hostilities, and was thus likely to work infinite mischief along the frontier. Determining upon vigorous measures at once, Schuyler immediately dispatched Colonel [Elias] Dayton with a detachment to capture the troublesome baronet, and thus end the matter. But loyalist friends in Albany sent warning without delay; and as Colonel Dayton arrived at the easterly edge of the village, Sir John, with a large body of tenants and retainers, struck into the great northern forest, and fled for his life. Being miserably equipped and provisioned, they suffered terribly, and reached Montreal, after nineteen days of incredible hardships, in a most pitiable condition. Sir John’s vast estate--with a single exception the largest ever owned by any one man in the colonies--together with the personal property which he left behind in his flight, were confiscated by the Provincial authorities, and subsequently sold at auction. Lady Johnson was removed to Albany as a hostage for the peaceful conduct of her husband.
Upon his arrival at Montreal, Sir John Johnson was commissioned a colonel in the British service, and raised a command of two battalions, recruited for the most part from those who had accompanied him in his flight or subsequently followed his example,which, under the name of the Royal Greens, did most bloody service in the very valley they once delighted to call their home.
After the baronet’s flight the few remaining loyalists made no actual demonstrations; and though the Whigs by no means relaxed their vigilance, or forgot that they lived on a frontier that was at all times liable to sudden incursions from the savages, the valley for a time enjoyed something of its old-time quiet and peace. Soon, however, after the fugitive Tories had reached Montreal, rumors came down from Oswego, through the medium of traders and in passing friendly Oneidas, that Sir John Johnson — than whom the Provincial cause had no more fierce and vindictive foe in the enemy’s ranks — with his associates, Brant and the Butlers, was contemplating an invasion of the valley at the head of a host of Indians and Tories, and that they had sworn to sweep through the valley like avenging demons, exterminating the settlements.
So strong became the impression that the little cluster of communities, which lay, totally defenseless, almost within the grasp of the hostile savages, had not seen the last of these vengeance-vowing Tories, that Congress directed General Schuyler to strengthen the defenses of the exposed valley with all possible speed. Accordingly, Colonel Dayton was sent up to Fort Stanwix, with orders to push forward the work of rebuilding that antiquated fortress with the utmost energy, as in case of an invasion it would be a most harassing obstacle to the enemy’s progress.
This fort had been built early in the year 1758, during what is commonly known as the "old French war," by the English General Stanwix, and commanded the famous "great carrying place." The importance of its situation will be readily seen when it is remembered that the Mohawk was at that time the great western thoroughfare to the lake settlements and the Canadas. All the goods to be transported west from Albany were hauled in wagons as far as Schenectady; at this point loaded upon bateaux, and poled up the river to where Rome now stands — the site of Fort Stanwix. Here the German settlers carried them across the country to Wood Creek, distant a little over a mile, where boats again transported them, by the way of Oneida Lake and Oswego River, to the great lakes [Lake Ontario being the first]. A curious old document, addressed to the Lieutenant-Governor of New York, bearing date of June 1, 1754, will serve to illustrate the difficulties under which commercial enterprise labored in those primitive times:
- "We, the Traders (or Handlers) to Oswego most humbly beg leave to remonstrate to your Honour, the many hazzards and Difficulties We are Subject to in our passage thither from the ill treatment we meet with from the Indians (i e) the Mohawks and Canajohary Castles, they Board our Battoes with Axes knives &c and by force take what Rum they think proper hooping and yelping as if they had Gloried in their depradations and threatening Murder to any that oppose them: And on our Arrival at the great carrying place The Oneida Indians force our Goods from us at pleasure to carry over, and not content with making us pay a most exorbitant price for each Freight but rob us of our Rum, Stores and other Goods with a great deal of invective threatening language, and are generally so Numerous that we are Obliged to Submit to those impositions or run the risk of being Murdered and Robbed of everything we have; And to put their Schemes the better in Execution they force away the High Germans who generally attend with their Horses, that we may be under a Necessity of employing them and paying whatever they please to demand......"
From which it may be inferred that the licensed barbarians who, by their importunate cries and clutchings, transform our otherwise peaceful journeyings into fierce struggles for liberty at every station, are not, after all, a product of this enlightened age, but are only following in the footsteps of those unlettered, unlicensed porters of the forest.
Notwithstanding the labors of Colonel Dayton upon the dilapidated works, Colonel Peter Gansevoort, of the State line, when he assumed command of the fort in April, 1777, found it not only indefensible, but absolutely untenable; the only improvement accomplished by Dayton being a change in its name to Fort Schuyler. But Gansevoort set to work with a brave heart to better, if possible, his condition; and being soon after joined by Colonel Marinus Willett and his regiment, succeeded — hampered as he was by sickness, bad roads, lack of food, and a wofully incompetent engineer — in so renovating and strengthening the ruinously dilapidated old fortress as to be able to hold it, a few months later, defiantly and successfully through the progress of a long and rigorous siege.
During the summer of 1777 Colonel Barry St. Leger, contemporaneously with the descent of [General John] Burgoyne upon Northern New York, sailed from Montreal to Oswego, where he formed a junction with the Tories and Indians who, under the lead of Sir John Johnson and Joseph Brant (now a captain in the British army), had congregated in the vicinity of that place to the number of 1300 fighting men. From Oswego he started, at the head of a force of 1700 men, for the Mohawk Valley, by the water route, with the intention of crushing the rebellious element there, and thence marching down to meet Burgoyne at Albany.
This plan had been carefully prepared in London, and upon its successful issue the ultimate success of the British cause depended in a very great degree. It was reserved for a few hardy, resolute farmers to circumvent this design, and to turn into a disastrous defeat what had been regarded by its sage authors as a most masterly movement, destined to meet with eminent and gratifying success.
The leaders to whom was intrusted the conduct of this expedition certainly did every thing within their power to bring it to its destination triumphant. St. Leger, the commander, was an officer of marked ability, enjoying a good reputation. Brant, who had charge of the savage allies, and whose counsels appear unmistakably in both the formation and attempted execution of the project, was beyond a doubt the ablest general and strategist that the Six Nations ever produced; the order of the invading host’s march through the almost primeval wilderness shows not only the exercise of extraordinary care and precaution, but a thorough and profound knowledge of the country and the peculiar character of the enemy they were about to attack.
On the morning of August 2, Lieutenant-Colonel Mellon, also of the State troops, arrived at Fort Schuyler with two bateaux of provisions and ammunition, guarded by a detachment of two hundred men. Both the soldiers and their addition to the fort’s scanty stock of stores were heartily welcomed. The boats were unloaded, and their contents hastily conveyed to the fort; delay, indeed, would have been dangerous, for at the instant the last load reached the door of the stockade, the van of the approaching army broke through the edge of the forest, and so near to the bateaux that the captain in charge of them was taken prisoner. The following day witnessed the arrival of Colonel St. Leger with the remainder of his forces; and after a pompous summons to surrender, which was indignantly rejected, Fort Schuyler, short of ammunition, with 750 men and six weeks’ provisions, was formally invested.
The intelligence of St. Leger’s advance spread rapidly down the valley, and created every where among the Whigs the utmost consternation and excitement, supplemented almost instantly by a general resolve to protect to the uttermost their homes and families from the horrible results of an Indian conquest. Many remembered the sickening butcheries that followed the conquering French armies in the previous war — carnivals of blood and rapine which the French at least tolerated in their savage allies, and the records of which still make men shudder in horror and disgust. A repetition of these scenes the militia of the county determined, even with their lives, to prevent. Something akin to desperation was to be found in the eager response that met General Herkimer’s prompt summons upon the militia of Tryon County. All doubts, fears, and sluggish apathies were forgotten at the approach of the invader.
On the morning of the 4th [August 1777] nearly a thousand men had assembled about Fort Dayton, a little stockade fort built the year before by Colonel Dayton upon a slight eminence some hundred and fifty yards from the site of the present court-house at Herkimer, and which had been selected by Herkimer as a place of rendezvous. Never had a more heterogeneous mass of men been gathered together in the valley of the Mohawk; for the most part sturdy, resolute, square-jawed farmers, clad, some few in uniform, the majority in homespun or leather, with tanned, rough faces, and alert, keen, sparkling eyes, rude in speech and bearing, gathered in little groups, with trusty flint-locks under their arms, and pipes in mouths, conversing excitedly in a jargon of villainous German and worse English. Scattered here and there through these knots of stalwart, burly borderers might be seen figures arrayed in blue and buff, with powdered hair, and thin, clear-cut features, white hands fringed with whiter ruffles, and, clattering and clanking with each stride as with long straight swords and jingling spurs they flit about, uttering half-whispered words of command. These last are gentlemen of the county, and, as such, of vast importance — in their own minds. On the whole, there is small regard for discipline or authority existing in this motley, eagertalking crowd; to the contrary, magnified conceptions each of his own individual prowess and sagacity. But differ as they might in form of dress, in shape of weapons, in sense of subordination, these thousand settlers possessed in common a savage, half-fiendish itching for the meeting face to face with their long-dreaded foe, for a glimpse of the whilom Tory neighbor over the sight of their old familiar flint-locks; for these uncouth men, a short time since peaceful, phlegmatic farmers, dwelling content upon the little oases they had wrought out of the wilderness, are now transformed into little else than savages, and are longing with all their souls for the approaching fray.
Words of caution, of sober advice, are not wanted here; are received at first in stolid, sulky silence, then with loud-rising murmurs of disapprobation, which reach the ears of those in chief command. Within the inclosure of the little fort are gathered around a rude table some dozen officers, busily discussing the task that lies before them. Behind them, pacing up and down with steady tread, is an elderly man, also in buff and blue, of tall stature and commanding mien, with cocked hat pulled down tight over his eyes, with lips firmly pressed together, thinking and listening, deeply, stopping now and then to settle, with a quiet, decisive word, some vexed question, and again resuming his march, with a look of troubled responsibility upon his brave face that intensifies as the morning wears on, and which all his self-confidence and intrepid courage can not overcome or hide. This is General Nicholas Herkimer, a brave man and true, who for many years has served the cause of humanity faithfully; has for many years been a man of might in the valley settlements; has held innumerable councils with the Indians, and led many expeditions through forest defiles and dismal swamps after them when, in the judgment of the colonies, they stood in need of correction or chastisement; and now has, unwittingly, reached nearly the goal of his earthly labors. Through no pleasant means did the brave, bluff old patriot attain this goal. His way is any thing but clear to him now, as he paces with folded arms and perplexedly thoughtful brow; on the contrary, very dark indeed. This impatient growling of his men, heard faintly from without, savors ominously of insubordination, of possible revolt. His officers are young, inexperienced, and full of self-confidence; are apparently as eager as their men for instantaneous advance. Brave old Herkimer in his perplexity appeals to half-breed Thomas Spencer for support. A blacksmith of the Cayugas, this Spencer was, and for many years a stanch friend of the colonists. He it was that had first brought news of St. Leger’s preparations, and he, more than almost any other, would have had influence — by reason of a certain rude, sinewy eloquence, and a reputation for thorough knowledge of Indian warfare — over the minds of the settlers iii a calmer moment. But now he is powerless; all his wary words about caution and discipline, warnings of the terrible reputation of Thayendanegea and the strength of the foe, and finally his pleas for at least a scouting party in the van, and some degree of order in marching, are greeted by shouts of derision and loud cries of "Lead us on! lead us on!
Herkimer, in despair, turns to the cluster of officers, but finds no support from them. One or two of the more elderly do indeed yield a vacillating sort of support, but are speedily silenced by the young colonels, now clamorous for action. Fearing that he may lose all control over this turbulent genie that he has evoked by any further efforts at restraint, Herkimer gives a reluctant assent to the now almost universal demand. He and such other officers as are fortunate enough to possess horses spring into their saddles; the baggage wagon, covered by weak or lazy patriots, starts rumbling down the rough road; and with cheers of gratification the impatient rank and file shoulder their flint-locks, and in utter disregard for order, discipline, or any thing else save reaching their destination as quickly as possible, swarm around it, and trudge on impetuously.
The old road that led west from Fort Dayton was at best but a rude path through the wilderness, in many places almost impassable; and despite their hot-headed ardor, the advancing force travelled but slowly. They crossed the river at old Fort Schuyler. (now Utica), and encamped the next day some six miles further on, a little west of the present village of Whitesborough. From this point General Herkimer sent forward an express, consisting of Adam Helmer and two associates, to apprise Colonel Gansevoort of his approach, and to concert measures of co-operation. Their arrival at the fort was to be announced by three successive discharges of cannon. The task assigned this trio was, as may be imagined, none of the easiest, since the intervening forests were filled with hostile Indians intent upon preventing any communication between the settlements and the beleaguered fortress. However, they succeeded in reaching the fort late in the forenoon of the 6th [August 1777], and the concerted signals were immediately fired. General Herkimer’s intention was to cut an entrance through to the fort, and arrangements for a sally were accordingly made by Colonel Gansevoort, with the purpose of diverting the enemy’s attention from Herkimer’s movements.
Unfortunately the old general had in forming this plan calculated without his host. On the morning of the 6th his men, who had been with difficulty persuaded to remain quiet during the preceding day, broke out into something very like mutiny. They declared that the express had in all probability been captured or murdered, and that the same fate was in store for them if they frittered away their time in idle waiting, while their brothers, fathers, and friends were starving in the fort only eight miles away. Their loud complainings alarmed the commander, and he hastily summoned a council of his more prominent officers, and laid the situation before them, with a view to determining upon some course of action. The officers are unanimous in their desire to press forward.
Among them we may see spruce young Colonels Cox and Paris, standing, slim and straight, glittering in the morning sunlight, not without a sense of their own dignity and local importance, wrathfully impatient of the grave, sober dictates of their yeoman superior, and smiling contemptuously at his cautious prudence. Colonels Visscher and Klock, and others in authority, we see dimly in the meagre chronicles, grouped about, also with a tendency toward insubordination, or at best with a wavering respect for their commander’s judgment. Here, too, is boisterous, burly Sampson Sammons, whose irrepressible love of liberty and brawls had long ago lifted him into notoriety and a quasi-leadership among the more adventurous of the settlers, and who is, we doubt not, heartily sick of all this talking and inaction. Before this council Herkimer gravely lays the situation, urges the impatient leaders to remain where they are until reenforcements can come up, or at least until the signal of a sortie shall be heard from the fort. In his opinion it was folly for a thousand illy equipped militia to attack an intrenched force of twice that number of well-armed troops and notoriously cunning Indians — the flower of the famous Six Nations.
His temperate words only added fuel to the flame. Colonels Cox and Paris angrily retorted that they had come to fight, not to watch others fight, and wound up by denouncing Herkimer to his face as a Tory and a coward. Suppressing his rising indignation, the old patriot replied, with forced calmness, that he considered himself placed over them as a father, and that he did not want to get them into any difficulty from which he would be powerless to extricate them. "You," said he, "who want to fight so badly now, will be the first to run when you smell burnt powder."
Swelling with virtuous wrath at this insinuation, the young officers hotly renewed their reproaches of senile cowardice and want of fidelity to "the cause," which this time met with an echo of approval from those around.
Thoroughly enraged at last, the stout old general, with flushed face and gleaming eye, cried, "March on, then !" In an instant, with a great shout, the troops grasped their arms, the camp was struck, and the little army rushed forward in the utmost confusion.
In the mean time, Colonel St. Leger, apprised by his scouts of the advance of the militia, had, very early on the morning of the 6th, dispatched Brant, with nearly all his Indians and a detachment of Johnson’s Greens, with instructions to, if possible, prevent their farther progress, leaving to Brant’s discretion the means to be employed.
The van of Herkimer’s motley host was descending the steep slope of a ravine, some two miles west of Oriskany, in hot haste and disorder, when suddenly the guards, both front and flanks, were shot down, the forest rang with the sharp crack of musketry and the blood-curdling yells of concealed savages, and in a twinkling the greater part of the division found itself hemmed in, as it were, by a circle of fire that mowed down the outer ranks like grass before a scythe. Thrown into almost irretrievable confusion by the suddenness of the attack and the flash and whirl of leaden lightning about their heads, dropping like leaves in the forest before the deadly precision of the enemy’s aim, floundering, for the most part, knee-deep in the morass that, with the exception of a narrow log causeway in the centre, constituted the bottom of the ravine, and utterly unable to defend themselves from a hidden foe, it seems miraculous that the detachment escaped total annihilation. But all the devilish ingenuity of Joseph Brant — and surely he has left upon record no achievement more worthy of himself — was not a match for the dauntless courage and endurance of the brawny frontiersmen.
A portion of Colonel Visscher’s regiment, which formed the rear-guard of the advancing force, was cut off from the main body by the precipitate action of the savages in closing the segment — left open at the road — of their circular ambuscade, and, as Herkimer had predicted, tied ingloriously from the field in headlong haste, led by their erstwhile courageous colonel. History takes a grim satisfaction in recording that they were pursued by Mohawks, and were punished much more severely than would have been the case had they stood by their comrades in distress.
But the environed militia, after the terrible shock of the surprise had passed away, exhibited an amount of bravery and intrepid self-possession that has seldom been equaled in our eventful history of forest fights, and that must go far toward atoning for their previous rash and reprehensible conduct. In this they were furnished a magnificent example by their general. The veteran was wounded in the early part of the action, while endeavoring to rally the scattered wits of his men, by a musket-ball, which, passing through and killing his horse, shattered his leg just below the knee. He was lifted at once from his fallen horse, and placed, at his own request, upon his saddle, propped against a beech-tree half-way up the western slope for support. In this situation he lighted his pipe coolly, and though the bullets were whistling about him, and men falling thick and fast within a few yards of his post, continued to direct the battle, giving his orders as calmly and collectedly as if on a parade ground.
After this butchery had gone on for some three-quarters of an hour, a brilliant idea occurred to Captain Jacob Seeber, which, upon his own responsibility, he instantly put into execution. He formed the remnant of his company into a circle, the better to repel the attacks of the enemy, now closing in upon their victims. His example was immediately followed by the rest, and from that moment the resistance of the Provincials, hitherto confined to a desultory firing, became more effective. The change of tactics rendered some change necessary on the part of the enemy, and accordingly a detachment of Royal Greens charged upon the little band of patriots; the firing ceased, and as the bayonets clashed, the contest became a fierce death-struggle, hand to hand, foot to foot.
The Greens were for the most part fugitive loyalists from Tryon County, and consequently former neighbors of the militiamen. As no quarrels are so bitter as those of families, so no wars are so cruel and vindictive as those called civil. As they advanced and were recognized, all the resentments, hatreds, and grudges that long years of controversy and mutual injury had engendered burst forth in a perfect whirlwind of fury. The Provincials fired upon them as they drew nearer, and then, springing like infuriated beasts from their covers, attacked them with their bayonets and musket butts; or, each party throwing these aside, rushed at each other in a very delirium of passion, throttling, stabbing, biting, and, in many cases, literally dying in one another’s embrace. This savage struggle was mercifully interrupted by a heavy thunder-storm, one of the severest of the season, which raged for over an hour, during which interval each party sheltered themselves as best they could, and studied their chances for success when its violence should abate. The militia-men intrenched themselves upon an advantageous piece of ground, and thus, formed in a circle, awaited a renewal of hostilities.
In the early part of the battle, the Indians, whenever they saw a gun fired from behind a tree by a militia-man, darted out and tomahawked him before he could reload. To put a stop to this harassing mode of warfare, two men were stationed behind a single tree, one only to fire at a time, the other reserving his fire until the confident savages rushed up as before. The fight was speedily renewed, and by these new tactics the Indians, who had been rendered less cautious than usual by a generous allowance of rum, were made to suffer severely, and soon showed signs of wavering.
At this juncture the loyalists put into execution a piece of strategy that nearly proved fatal to the patriots. It was the sending of a detachment of Greens, disguised as Continentals, from the direction of the fort, in the hope that they might be received as a timely re-enforcement from the garrison. This ruse de guerre at first deceived Lieutenant Sammons, who ran and told his captain, Gardenier, that a body of men was approaching his company, with American hats, doubtless from the fort.
They continued to advance until hailed by Captain Gardenier, at which moment one of his own soldiers, seeing an old and long-absent acquaintance among them, ran to meet him with outstretched hand. The credulous warrior was instantly dragged into the ranks of the Greens, and informed that he was a prisoner; he, however, did not yield without a struggle, during which Gardenier, who had watched the action and its result, sprang forward, and with a blow from his spear leveled the captor and liberated his man. Others of the foe then set upon Gardenier, of whom he slew one and wounded another. Three more of the disguised Tories now sprang upon him, and one of his spurs becoming entangled in their clothes, he was thrown heavily to the ground. Still struggling with almost superhuman strength, both of his thighs were transfixed to the ground by the bayonets of two of his assailants, while another was thrust at his breast. Seizing this with his left hand, by a sudden wrench he brought its owner down upon himself, where he held him as a shield until one of his own men, Adam Miller, came to his rescue. As the Tories turned fiercely upon this new adversary, Gardenier rose half-way, and grasping a spear with his mangled hand, drove it like lightning into the side of his late vis-a-vis, killing him instantly. While this desperate struggle was going on, some of the militia-men called out to Gardenier, "For God’s sake, captain, you are killing your own men!" He yelled back, "They are not our men; they are Tories. Fire away!"
Then, as the heroic captain was dragged from the clutches of the infuriated loyalists, a volley of musketry from the Provincials struck down thirty of them and nearly as many Indians. Through the leafy depths of the grand old forest rang again the clashing of steel, the roar of rifles, the hoarse, pitiful moanings of the downtrodden, writhing wounded, and, ahove all, the hideous yells of the enraged savages.
These last, finding their number sadly diminished, and heing dismayed by the stubborn ardor with which the Provincials maintained their defense, now raised the retreating cry of "Oonah!" and fled in every direction, followed hy frantic cheers and showers of bullets from the surviving patriots. As they leaped yelping through the woods, swiftly pursued by the unerring rifle-ball, the guns of the fort were heard booming in the distance. Dismayed in their turn by this unwelcome sound, the Tories precipitately followed their Indian allies, leaving the victorious militia in possession of the hard-earned field.
Thus ended one of the most hotly contested and, for the number engaged, the deadliest of the Revolutionary battles. Though victory crowned the desperate valor of the Provincials, it was to them perfectly useless, and was bought at a terrible price. Scarcely a farm-house was there along the valley that had not cause to mourn this bloody triumph, hardly a hamlet that left not the flower of its sinewy manhood to moulder in that dark, dank, blood-drenched morass. Of the thousand men that marched upon the enemy so confidently on that fatal 6th of August, only some third ever saw their homes again. Between three and four hundred lay dead upon the field when the sun went down; nearly as many more were mortally wounded, or carried into a captivity that, in those ruthless days, meant death in its most horrible form.
General Herkimer was carried in a litter to his house, some thirty-five miles down the valley, where, after lingering in pain for about ten days, he died from the effects of an unskillful amputation. Colonel Cox was shot down in the first volley from the ambushed Indians. Colonel Paris, who was a member of the colonial Legislature and a volunteer officer, was taken prisoner by the Indians, and by them brutally murdered some days later. Major John Frey, whilom sheriff of the county, and a man of great courage and strength withal, was also captured by the savages. To the shame of the race, be it added, his brother, a furious Tory, ran at him when he was brought into the British camp, and was with difficulty prevented from butchering him on the spot.
Although no authentic statement exists, the loss of the enemy is believed to have been even more severe; the Indians, in particular, were roughly handled, having lost over a hundred warriors, among them several eminent sachems. The Provincials removed some fifty of their more slightly wounded comrades; the enemy’s fallen were allowed to die of starvation and their wounds in the swamp. An American scout who crossed the battle-field some days after the battle, on his way to Fort Dayton, wrote: "I beheld the most shocking sight I had ever witnessed. The Indians and white men were mingled with one another just as they had been left when Death had first completed his work. Many bodies had also been torn to pieces by wild beasts."
During the heat of the combat in the ravine, Colonel Willett made a sally from the fort with a force of two hundred and fifty men. He drove in the enemy’s advanced guard, and attacked the residue of Sir John Johnson’s regiment with such headlong impetuosity that they fled for their lives, led by the baronet himself in his shirt sleeves. The victorious detachnient rushed on to the Indian encampment, and hastily demolished it, firing with marked effect upon the few savages left in charge, who, at the first appearance of Colonel Willett — known among the Six Nations as "the Devil" — had fled precipitately. Wagons were hurried out from the fort, and twenty-one loads of camp equipage, clothing, cooking utensils, blankets, stores, etc., together with all the private property of the British officers — papers, plans, journals, five British flags, and Sir John’s coat — were conveyed to the fort, while the brave little band held the dismantled encampment. As Willett was returning, Colonel St. Leger suddenly appeared with a considerable force on the opposite side of the river, just in time to receive an effective salute of bullets from the militia, who reached their stronghold without having lost a man, and with the satisfaction of having discomfited and despoiled their besiegers. The sun, sinking at the close of that sultry August day in crimson pomp behind time western pines, bathed in a flood of ruddy light five of St. George’s crosses, flapping idly in the evening breeze, over the tiny forest fort, under a rude garrison-made ensign of stars and stripes.
Although the Provincials were technically victorious at Oriskany, they returned to their homes in any thing but triumph; they were totally unable to follow up their advantage or afford their beleaguered comrades any assistance. Relying upon that inability, and the ignorance of the garrison regarding the result of the battle, St. Leger immediately demanded the capitulation of the fort, threatening the devastation of the entire valley settlements by fire and sword and tomahawk if it was refused. Colonel Gansevoort rejected all his offers, somewhat ungraciously, as unworthy of a British officer or a gentleman.
On the night of the 10th, Colonel Willett, in company with Major Stockwell, started out, armed only with a spear, and with no blankets or provisions other than a small store of crackers and cheese, through the forest for the German Flats, which, after standing during the greater part of the first night motionless in a morass, subsisting for a day upon berries, and encountering the severest hardships, they reached on the afternoon of the 12th. Colonel Willett was deservedly popular in this vicinity, and the militia had begun to assemble again in great numbers in answer to his earnest appeal, when General [Benedict] Arnold, four days after Willett’s arrival, reached Fort Dayton with a large force of troops, which had been dispatched by General Schuyler from Albany upon learning of Herkimer’s disaster. Here Arnold, who, despite his reputation for rash, reckless bravery, understood the strength of the enemy better than did his unfortunate predecessor, determined to rest, either until re-enforcements from Albany should arrive, or the yeomen of the county had joined his standard in numbers sufficient to warrant a second attempt to relieve the fort.
In the mean time, St. Leger, despairing of obtaining bloodless possession of that stronghold, began pushing hostile operations with great vigor. He approached by sap to within 150 yards of the fort, and from this point began to throw shells into the inclosure. Their provisions daily exhausting, entirely cut off from all outside communication, ignorant of the large force that was assembling in the valley below for their relief, and remembering the horrible fate of the inmates of Fort William Henry, many of the garrison began to whisper ominously about a capitulation; and it is said that Gansevoort had resolved upon a desperate attempt to cut through the enemy’s lines, when, without any apparent cause, the besiegers suddenly broke up their camps and retreated in great confusion. So hurried was their flight that they left their tents, together with nearly all their artillery and camp equipage; and the 22d of August, which had dawned upon a siege in full progress, and with every prospect of success, ere its close, saw the British host leave the Mohawk Valley in headlong haste.
That the reader may understand this sudden movement, so mysterious and unexpected to the jubilant garrison, it will be necessary to go back to Fort Dayton, where we left Arnold restless and impatient under his self-imposed restraint. A party of Tories, meeting clandestinely at the farmhouse of a loyalist — by name Shoemaker — had been captured and imprisoned by Colonel Weston, at that time in command of the fort. The occasion of the gathering was the arrival of young Walter Butler from St. Leger’s camp with copies of Sir John Johnson’s last appeal to the loyalists of the valley. Butler and his associates were tried as spies by a court-martial of Arnold’s, and condemned to die. Among those who found themselves in this predicament was a certain Hon-Yost Schuyler, one of the coarsest, most ignorant men in the valley, and generally regarded as little better than an idiot, yet, as the sequel will show, possessed of considerable shrewdness withal. His mother and brother, upon hearing of his misfortune, hastened to Fort Dayton, and implored the commander to spare him. The pathetic eloquence with which, in a frenzy of grief, the old woman plead for the life of her wayward son, who had added the crimes of a guerrilla to that of being a spy, would have moved a heart less stony than that she addressed. But Arnold, never very tenderhearted, was stern and inexorable, until a sudden idea occurred to him, in the execution of which this idiot could be used to excellent advantage. Accordingly he melted, and promised the overjoyed mother the life of her son, upon conditions. These were, that he should hasten to the British camp, and so alarm St. Leger as to induce him to raise the siege and fly. Hon-Yost gladly accepted the terms, and having made arrangements with some friendly Oneidas to aid him at the proper moment, set out at once on his mission, leaving his brother in prison as a hostage for his fidelity and success. He first presented himself among the Indians, who, moody and dissatisfied at their repeated losses, and angry at St. Leger for promising them an easy victory and abundant plunder, had convened a pow-wow for the purpose of considering the dubious enterprise in which they had been engaged, and who were in a suitable state of mind to catch eagerly at the news he brought them of Arnold’s rapid approach. He pointed out the bullet-holes in his coat (carefully made by the Provincials before he left) as evidences of his own narrow escape; and when questioned by them as to the number of Arnold’s force, he shook his head, and pointed mysteriously to the overhanging leaves. He was taken at once to St. Leger’s tent, and gave to the colonel a pitiful account of his trials, claiming to nave escaped, while on the way to the gallows, through a shower of bullets, the marks of which he could see for himself. He asserted that Arnold was within twenty hours’ march, at the head of 2000 regulars.
Meanwhile the Oneidas had arrived in the camp and spread a similar report, the effect of which was all that the most exacting Whig could desire. The Indians had long since become heartily sick of this besieging business, and eagerly seized upon this report as a pretext for decamping. In vain St. Leger stormed and swore, useless were the pleas and tears of Sir John; the savages had an answer pat &mdash "the pow-wow said we must go," and go they did in utmost haste.
Furious at being so shamefully deserted, St. Leger reproached the baronet roundly for the defection of his copper-hued friends, while Sir John retorted by charging the former with an indifferent prosecution of the siege. Two sachems who were standing near put an end to the unpleasantness by yelling out, in a sudden paroxysm of terror, "They are coming! they are coming!" We can fancy the grim wink that was interchanged by these stolid, stately sachems as their commanders rapidly threw together a few necessaries, and, as the shout spread through the camp, gave a hasty order to retreat, and glided away in the gathering dusk, closely followed by their panic-stricken troops. The Indians, enjoying the terror and confusion of their allies, who threw away guns, knapsacks, and all else that impeded their flight, repeated the joke until the rabble reached Oneida Lake. Thence St. Leger hastened on to Oswego and Montreal.
Compared with the more extensive conflicts of the Revolution, that in defense of Fort Schuyler must appear insignificant; but as a desperate and heroic struggle — fierce and bloody beyond parallel — and as a terrible blow to the plans and prospects of the crown, it deserves, together with its heroes, famous and nameless, who laid down their lives before the invading foe, a prominent and enduring place in the chronicles of our forefathers’ heroism.
|This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.|