Wednesday, February 26, 2014


Battle Of Oriskany

When I was 10, (1969) years old my parents purchased a World Book Encyclopedia. In the volume for the letter R was a entry on the American Revolutionary War. That entry described the various campaigns and battles of the Revolutionary War. Included was a description of the Saratoga campaign.

Now the Saratoga campaign is considered the decisive campaign of the Revolutionary War given that it led to France intervening on the side of the Americans against Britain, including declaring war on the British. Part of the campaign was a side expedition led by the British commander St. Leger. It started from the British fort at Oswego and advanced via Oneida lake to the Mohawk valley where  the force under his command besieged the American Fort Stanwix. Most of of St. Leger's force, (c. 1,200 men), was Indian and the majority of those Iroquois Indians, also included in this force were Loyalist irregulars and some regular British army. The over all leader of the Indians was the remarkable Iroquois Chief Joseph Brant, who was in effect co-commander of the expedition.1

On August 6, 1777 an American force of c. 800 men, led by Herkimer was ambushed by the British forces and their Indian allies at Oriskany a few miles from Fort Stanwix. The American force was largely destroyed and the remnants were forced to turn back.2

 On the face of it it seems like a clear unequivocal defeat for the Americans. However remarkably and amazingly the World Book Encyclopedia, 1969 Edition, listed it has an American victory! How that was done is a rather interesting story.3

 Basically it involves a combination of real events, spin and distortion.

 Herkimer, whose brother was serving on the British side with St. Leger, led his militia force straight into an ambush. His main body consisted of 600 men with a 200 man rear guard. It appears that right away the rear guard collapsed and fled to be pursued by Seneca Indians allied to the British.

 Meanwhile the main force was attacked by the forces in ambush positions and the Americans where able to form a tight unit of defence, fortuitously aided by a rainstorm that enabled Herkimer to reorganize the defence. And of course the Indians and their allies outnumbered Herkimer and the militia, having c. 1200 men. Eventually according to one version of the battle the Indians tired of attacking the Americans withdrew with the British regulars and irregulars following suit. Herkimer was unable to follow up his victory because of the casualties his force had received and he Herkimer died a few days later of his wounds. Thus the American had won a victory which only heavy losses prevented them from following up.4

The above is frankly highly misleading to put it mildly.

In actual fact it appears That for one thing the force that St Leger sent to ambush the Militia column numbered at most 600 men, (Mostly Iroquois Indians.). Given that their were c. 750  regular American soldiers in Fort Stanwick St. Leger was forced to leave behind a sizable force to contain them. Further it appears that many of his Indian allies were off doing other things.

Battle of Oriskany
The Original Ambush

Just how the Iroquois scouts acting for Herkimer missed the ambush is a bit mysterious. But miss it they did. It appears that the ambush site was selected by Joseph Brant and a very good site it was.

The resulting ambush was  a success in that in the initial ambush the rear guard was routed and promptly fled pursued by Seneca warriors, (A Nation of the Iroquois confederacy.).

Herkimer was able to pull together c. 600 of his men into a defensive position and a slogging match started. However his men were surrounded and he was wounded. A rain storm did in fact interrupt the action but it had less impact on the fighting than claimed above.

The Battle of Oriskany
Herkimer's Defence

After the storm the slogging match resumed and contrary to the claims above one of the British regular units aided by the Indians broke through the American defence. The British and Indians were in the process of moping up the remaining Americans when both the British and Indians heard that the garrison of Ft. Stanwix had sortied and pillaged their camps catching the British and Indians there by complete surprise. The Americans quite thoroughly ransacked and destroyed the camp.

Herkimer had only c. 150 men left. He withdrew has quickly as possible from the battlefield before the British and Indians could return. As indicated above only the attack on the British and Indian camp and the withdrawal of the British and Indians saved Herkimer's force from complete annihilation. As it was it was largely destroyed.  Herkimer died a few days later of his wounds.5

Now Herkimer certainly deserves praise for the way he rallied his men to put up a stout defence when ambushed, however his walking into a ambush deserves no praise. Although one must credit Joseph Brant, for selecting the ambush site and the skill with which both the British and Indians concealed themselves so it certainly wasn't all Herkimer's "fault".

Regarding casualties. There has been a persistent effort to down play what a disaster this was. Claims of "only" 100-200 dead for example. However it appears to be the case that losses where quite staggering in proportion to the number of men in Herkimer's little army. It appears that there was c. 385 killed, 50 wounded and 30 captured, for a total of 465; c. 200 fled the battlefield leaving only c. 150 at its end. Interestingly it appears that although the British and Indians suffered far fewer losses their casualties were not insignificant. It appears that the Indians suffered c, 33 dead and 29 wounded for a total of 62, and the British suffered c. 7 dead and 21 wounded. Making a total of 40 dead and 50 wounded. Making a total of 90 casualties.6 For a force of c. 500-600 men these are not light losses. Although compared to casualties suffered by the American Militia the British and Indian casualties were much lighter. It certainly indicates the ferocity of the fighting.

Subsequently the successful American sortie from Fort Stanwix caused angry dissension between the Iroquois Indians in the British camp and the British. Subsequently the Americans, led by Benedict Arnold were able to exploit this dissension to get the Iroquois to leave St. Leger and thus caused a British retreat back to Oswego. Perhaps at another time I will go into how Arnold did it. Suffice to say that Arnold used disinformation and spreading false news about a huge relief force coming up. The already dissatisfied Indians left, followed by the British, amidst much recrimination. I may in the future go into this in more detail.7 

So in the end this prong of the British invasion failed and was repulsed, although at great cost to the Americans. Thus this helped to set things up for the surrender of the British army at Saratoga.

However the battle of Oriskany was not in any sense a victory for the Americans. It was instead a disastrous defeat only a little removed from an annihilating defeat. The fact that the British and Indians withdrew from the battle field has they were mopping up what was left of the American forces, enabled some Americans, like the World Book Encyclopedia to claim "victory". Rather threadbare. The fact is the relief attempt failed and the relief force was largely destroyed. And the casualties were seriously one sided.

It is an example how myth making can stretch a "fact" into denying a even more basic fact. Certainly there was created after the battle a myth of victory.8

1. Watt, Gavin K., Rebellion in the Mohawk Valley, The Dundurn Group, Toronto, 2002, pp. 103-104.

2. Bicheno, Hugh, Rebels and Redcoats, HarperCollins, Pub., New York, 2003, pp. 100-101.
3. Aside from the World Book Encyclopedia, The Cambridge Modern History Atlas, Ed. Darby, H. C., Fullard, Harold, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1970, p. 199, lists Oriskany as an American victory. Fredriksen, John C., Revolutionary War Almanac, Facts on File, New York, 2006, p. 551-552, claims the battle was indecisive, but then states it was a tactical defeat for the Americans, More or less the same story is repeated in the chronology on p. 102. Since the Americans suffered disastrous losses and were only just saved from total annihilation and failed to relieve the fort defeat was both strategic and tactical.

4. Ward, Christopher, The War of the Revolution, The Macmillian Co., New York, 1952, v. 2, pp. 485-488.

5. Watt, pp. 155-194, Ward, v. 2, pp. 488, Glatthaar, Joseph T; Martin, James Kirby, Forgotten Allies: The Oneida Indians and the American Revolution, Hill and Wang, New York, 2006, pp. 163-165. Fredricksen aside from claiming the battle was indecisive downplays the number of men caught in the ambush, (Claims only 400 men were caught in the ambush and the 200 man rear guard fled.), further he claims that all attacks were repulsed, ignoring that towards the ends the British and Indians had caved in the defence perimeter, and he ignores that the Indians withdrew upon hearing about the sortie from the fort pillaging their camp. Fredriksen doesn't give American losses except that they were in the "hundreds", and says that British and Indian losses were "heavy", thus creating the illusion losses were comparable. They weren't. Fredricksen gives American losses as "upwards of 200 killed and wounded", it was certainly in reality much in excess of 200 killed, probably over 300 killed, let alone killed and wounded. In the chronology section of the book, (Page 102), Fredricksen gives losses of 200 killed, 50 wounded and 200 prisoners. Aside from conflicting with his later account these figures ignore that the British and Indians took only c. 30 men captive. Obviously this is an attempt to hide the fact that well over 300 Americans were killed. Fredricksen then states on the same page that the Indians may have suffered "as many as 150 casualties", which is very unlikely. Indian losses were likely at most half that.  Interestingly Fredriksen includes in his bibliography for this entry Watt's book but basically ignores it in his entry on the battle.

6 Watt, pp. 316-32. Ward, p. 491, claims that c. 150-200 militia were killed and 50 wounded. He further claims that 150 British and Indians had "may have fallen". The figure for American dead is almost certainly far too low and figure of 150 "fallen" for the British and Indians far too high. Note the word "fallen" insinuates that the 150 were killed.

7. IBID, Watt, pp. 240-261.

8. IBID, pp. 315-316, 321-324.

Pierre Cloutier

No comments:

Post a Comment