August, 1777: Battle of Oriskany Creek Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

British strategy for suppressing the rebellion in their American colonies during 1776 and 1777 was twofold: a defeat of George Washington’s rebel army and an invasion through New York State to cut the colonies in two. If they succeeded in their strategy, the British would cut off New England, the center of the rebellion, allowing for its occupation and submission by British troops. The remaining colonies, bereft of leadership, would fall under British control. In the summer of 1776, a British army of thirty thousand soldiers, under General William Howe, was to move west from New York City, to be met by a smaller force advancing from Canada under Guy Carleton, British general and governor of Canada. Although an American initiative into Canada, led by Colonel Benedict Arnold and General Richard Montgomery, was stopped at the gates of Quebec, it disrupted this strategy. Carleton, knighted for his success at Quebec, was unable to press on into New York.

British strategy for suppressing the rebellion in their American colonies during 1776 and 1777 was twofold: a defeat of George Washington’s rebel army and an invasion through New York State to cut the colonies in two. If they succeeded in their strategy, the British would cut off New England, the center of the rebellion, allowing for its occupation and submission by British troops. The remaining colonies, bereft of leadership, would fall under British control. In the summer of 1776, a British army of thirty thousand soldiers, under General William Howe, was to move west from New York City, to be met by a smaller force advancing from Canada under Guy Carleton, British general and governor of Canada. Although an American initiative into Canada, led by Colonel Benedict Arnold and General Richard Montgomery, was stopped at the gates of Quebec, it disrupted this strategy. Carleton, knighted for his success at Quebec, was unable to press on into New York.

Burgoyne’s Plan

Lieutenant General “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne, so named for his appearance and manner, had been in the colonies since the beginning of the revolution. Burgoyne had accompanied Carleton in the attempt to invade New York during the summer of 1776. Returning to England the following winter, Burgoyne presented to King George a paper called “Thoughts for Conducting the War from the Side of Canada,” arguing the soundness of the strategy for an invasion from Canada. Burgoyne felt that more aggressive leadership (provided by himself) would prove more successful than the earlier attempt. The invasion would begin from Montreal, cross Lake Champlain, and follow the Hudson River. A second force would proceed from Oswego down the Mohawk Valley, along a tributary of the Hudson River; a third force, under Howe, would move from New York City up the Hudson River. The three armies would converge at Albany, cutting off the northern colonies and isolating Washington’s army.

General John Burgoyne. From an engraving by S. Hollyer. (National Archives)

The British ministry accepted Burgoyne’s plan as its war strategy for the following year, and in March, 1777, Burgoyne was given command of the forces from Canada. Lieutenant Colonel Barry St. Leger was given the temporary rank of brigadier and command of the force moving down the Mohawk Valley.

On May 6, 1777, Burgoyne arrived in Quebec, where he was met by Carleton. Burgoyne’s army of eighty-three hundred men included thirty-seven hundred regulars and four hundred men from the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. On June 20, Burgoyne and his forces assembled and set sail from Lake Champlain, heading for Crown Point, eight miles north of Fort Ticonderoga. The second arm of the British strategy, four hundred troops under St. Leger, arrived at Oswego in western New York on July 25. There St. Leger was joined by a thousand Iroquois under the command of Thayendanegea, known as Joseph Brant. St. Leger planned on advancing along the Mohawk River to the Hudson River, brushing past Fort Schuyler on the way.

Opposing the British was the Northern Department of the Continental army. Ostensibly under the leadership of General Philip Schuyler, the Americans actually regarded Horatio Gates as their commander. Schuyler was a New York patroon, autocratic, and less than successful in earlier campaigns. Many of his troops were New Englanders. They had not excelled as soldiers to date, and Schuyler despised them for it. Gates, although a plantation-owning Virginian, was much like the New Englanders he hoped to lead. He was a man of plain appearance and, although a veteran of the French and Indian War, not a strict disciplinarian. He admired the New Englanders and was admired in return.

Fort Ticonderoga

Burgoyne’s first target was Fort Ticonderoga. The fort had been seized two years earlier by Americans under the command of Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen. The fort straddled the northern tip of Lake George and was virtually indefensible if the British occupied a nearby hill. This they did on July 5, and the commander at Fort Ticonderoga, General Arthur St. Clair, evacuated his army south. Burgoyne spent the next three weeks advancing toward the Hudson River, which he reached on July 30. On August 4, Gates replaced Schuyler as commander of the northern Continental army.

Meanwhile, St. Leger was about to march toward the Hudson River, 150 miles east. Only Fort Schuyler stood in the way. Built during the French and Indian War, the fort had only recently been reoccupied. Its commander, Colonel Peter Gansevoort, had strengthened its defenses the previous three months. When his allies, local Oneidas, warned him of St. Leger’s approach, Gansevoort evacuated the women and children, leaving about 750 men to oppose St. Leger. The British commander began an encirclement of the fort, preparing to lay siege. Coming to the fort’s relief were General Nicholas Herkimer and eight hundred volunteers of the Tryon County militia. On August 5, Herkimer approached Oriskany Creek, eight miles from the fort.

That night, Herkimer sent messengers to the fort requesting that guns be fired as a diversion to cover his men. However, St. Leger was well aware of his arrival. Herkimer’s column included four hundred oxcarts of supplies, strung out for more than a mile. In addition, Molly Brant, Joseph Brant’s sister, had learned of Herkimer’s approach and warned St. Leger.

St. Leger laid a trap along a ravine on the road to the fort. At ten o’clock Herkimer reached the ravine, where a waiting Tory detachment, and Native Americans commanded by Brant, opened a cascade of fire. Racing toward the firing, Herkimer was badly wounded in the leg. Herkimer propped himself by a tree, lit his pipe, and directed his men in the battle.

Refusing to panic, the officers assembled the men into a defensive perimeter from which they held off the British and their Native American allies for an hour, until rain interrupted the battle. Wet powder then prevented the guns from firing. When fighting resumed, Herkimer directed his men to fight in pairs, so Indians could not tomahawk a man while he was reloading. Brant was reinforced by troops participating in the siege at Fort Schuyler. Hoping to fool the Americans, they disguised themselves as fellow militia. However, a militiaman recognized one as his neighbor, a Tory who sided with the British, and the ruse failed.

The battle continued for six hours, evolving into bitter hand-to-hand combat. Losses among the attacking force approached 25 percent, and finally they withdrew. More than two hundred Americans were killed or wounded. Herkimer was carried to his home and died ten days later.

Despite Herkimer’s failure to relieve the fort, casualties among St. Leger’s Native American allies were so heavy that they lost interest in the campaign. Furthermore, General Schuyler was determined that the Americans would retain control of the Mohawk Valley; he directed reinforcements under General Arnold to come to Gansevoort’s aid. When St. Leger learned of the column’s approach, he lifted the siege, ending his role in Burgoyne’s campaign. Burgoyne himself would receive no reinforcements. Trapped by General Gates in Saratoga a month later, he surrendered his army.

Aftermath

Following the Battle of Oriskany Creek and the defeat of Burgoyne, fighting became increasingly bitter, as each side revenged itself on its opponent’s allies. In July, 1778, Colonel John Butler, leading four hundred Tories and five hundred Senecas, burned and murdered his way through Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley. In response, Washington ordered General John Sullivan to destroy the country of the Six Nations, comprising much of western New York and northern Pennsylvania. During the spring and summer of 1779, Sullivan’s four thousand men marched through the Mohawk Valley. Although he met little opposition, Sullivan destroyed more than forty Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, and Mohawk towns. Similarly, Iroquois warriors under Joseph Brant worked devastation on American allies, burning Oneida and Tuscarora villages. This period not only marked an escalation in the bitterness and the extent of fighting but also heralded the disintegration of the once neutral Iroquois Confederacy. The union of the Six Nations did not survive the revolution.

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