The Battle of Oriskany during the American Revolution was one of the bloodiest battles of the war. The battle, fought on August 6, 1777 in the current state of New York, resulted in the deaths of approximately 50 percent of the American forces and 15 percent of the British forces. Considered a significant part of the Saratoga campaign, the battle included United States, British, and Loyalist troops as well as Indian fighters from the Oneida, Iroquois Confederacy, Huron and Nipissing tribes and nations. Based on the casualties and results of the battle, the British forces claimed a tactical victory while the long-term result was a strategic victory for the United States.
Prelude to Battle
As part of the Saratoga campaign, British plans included separating the New England colonies from the rest of the United States by controlling the Hudson River valley in New York. Plans included a two-pronged attack originating from Quebec. The first and primary prong was led by General John Burgoyne and came south across Lake Champlain. The second prong was led by Lieutenant Colonel Barry St. Leger. The plan for St. Leger’s troops was to travel down the Mohawk River valley and join Burgoyne’s army near Albany, New York.
As part of the second prong, Fort Stanwix came under siege by the Loyalist troops seeking to secure the portage guarded by the Continental Army. St. Leger’s expedition of approximately 1,800 troops included British regulars, Loyalists, Indians, Hessian jagers and rangers. However, Nicholas Herkimer, a local Committee of Safety head, received warning of potential British military activity. As a result, he shared information with local residents and encouraged armed response if necessary. When friendly Oneida Indians informed him the British forces were only four days away, Herkimer quickly gathered a force formed from local militia members. The force consisted primarily of poorly trained and poorly armed farmers in the vicinity but was supplemented by Oneida Indian warriors.
Herkimer sent word to Colonel Peter Gansevoort, commander of Fort Stanwix, explaining relief was on the way and for the garrison troops to meet the approaching forces outside the fort. The message also requested that Gansevoort acknowledge receipt by firing three cannon shots before leaving the fort. However, the messengers did not reach Gansevoort until well after the first shots were fired during the battle. Unfortunately for Herkimer and his forces, St. Leger received information of the relief expedition and made his own plans.
August 6, 1777
Early in the morning of August 6, 1777, Herkimer hosted a war council with his commanders. Because no signal had been received from the fort, he suggested waiting. However, based on encouragement from his commanders, Herkimer proceeded with the planned march to the fort. What he did not know was that St. Leger laid his own plans for an assault on the approaching troops.
About six miles from the fort, the terrain favored an ambush. At this location, the road entered a marshy ravine more than fifty feet deep with a stream along the bottom. British troops waited behind a rise in the land while Indian warriors concealed themselves along both sides of the ravine. The original plan called for the British troops to engage the leading portion of the column. After engagement, the Indians would attack along the exposed and extended column. Initially, it appeared the ambush would go according to plan.
However, once the relief force entered the ravine, the ambush plan fell apart. Rather than waiting for the British forces to engage the leading troops, the waiting Indians launched their attack on the column on their own. While this took Herkimer’s forces by surprise, it also meant some of the troops panicked and fled from the ambush site. While the battle raged, Indian warriors fighting with the British pursued those troops who ran from the battle and left a trail of dead and wounded for several miles extending away from the battlefield. Herkimer was wounded early in the engagement but refused to leave the battlefield. Only half of Herkimer’s original force remained to fight the ambushing troops. Despite the odds and the surprise element of the attack, the relief force rallied enough to fight out of the ravine and regroup on a crest nearby.
John Johnson, a commander within the British troops, recognized the determination of the relief forces and returned to St. Leger’s camp to request reinforcements. Due to a sudden thunderstorm, the arrival of the reinforcements was delayed for about an hour, giving Herkimer time to reorganize his remaining forces. After regrouping on higher ground, he established a different fighting approach where all troops were organized into pairs. The pairs of troops would fire in relays, providing a force continually able to respond to attack without experiencing lulls in responsiveness due to reloading time. This would help the smaller force respond to their attackers and also to neutralize the effectiveness of Indian tomahawk attacks.
While his commanders sought reinforcements and reconfigured their troops during the storm, John Butler, the leader of the rangers, questioned captives and learned the planned signal sought from the fort. Reinforcements were then encouraged to disguise themselves as a relief party from the fort, hopefully allowing them to surprise Herkimer’s troops. This plan failed when one of the militiamen recognized a neighbor. As a result, the battle deteriorated into close combat that continued for some time.
Late in the morning, Herkimer’s original messengers finally reached Fort Stanwix. Following the storm, the sortie party finally emerged, led by Lieutenant Colonel Marinus Willett, and raided the enemy camps. The sortie party drove off the remaining troops and looted the camps for personal possessions. Once the attacking Indian troops heard about the ongoing attack on their camps, they disengaged from the battle with Herkimer’s remaining forces. Their loss caused the remaining troops to also disengage, thus ending the immediate battle.
After the Battle
Following the bloody engagement, Herkimer’s decimated troops retreated to Fort Dayton. The retreat included a wounded Herkimer who later died after battlefield surgery to amputate his injured leg. While the efforts to immediately lift the siege failed, as a result of the action, General Philip Schuyler sent additional relief troops to the area. Due in part to successful disinformation, the arrival of relief troops led by General Benedict Arnold led to the lifting of the siege on August 21. The Battle of Oriskany also served as the initial catalyst of the civil war in the Iroquois confederacy, where those loyal to the British turned against the Oneidas who were loyal to the United States. The divisions among the Indian tribes continued beyond the end of the battle.
Despite the devastating losses experienced by the United States troops during the Battle of Oriskany, over time it became evident the battle actually resulted in a strategic victory for the Americans. While St. Leger claimed tactical victory based on the number of casualties, the Americans actually retained control of the battlefield. The loss of the Indian support resulting from the battle eventually contributed to the failure of St. Leger’s expedition down the Mohawk River valley. The tenacity of the militia troops and their determination to lift the siege on Fort Stanwix had impacts extending beyond the immediate results of the battle.