The Saratoga Campaign Of The American Revolution – Part Two: Storm From The West

September 21, 2017 by oriskany

Good afternoon, Beasts of War. We’re back with another look at the Saratoga Campaign, fought as part of the American Revolution in the summer and fall of 1777. Using 20mm miniatures and TSR’s “Battlesystem” rules set, we hope to commemorate the 240th anniversary of this pivotal campaign with some great games and articles.

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If you’re just joining us, we covered the background of this campaign and its importance as a turning point in the American Revolution in Part One. British General Johnny “Gentleman” Burgoyne has come down from Canada to invade New York State and seize the Hudson River, thus aiming to split the rebel colonies in half.

So far, “Gentleman Johnny” was doing pretty well. Having started his invasion in June down Lake Champlain, he’d out-positioned and taken Fort Ticonderoga (the “Gibraltar of the North) almost without firing a shot. He then won the first battle when he sent Brigadier-General Fraser to overwhelm an American rear-guard at Hubbardton.

Invasion From The West

St. Leger & Fort Stanwix

Burgoyne’s ultimate goal was to drive south down Lake Champlain, cross about thirty miles overland to the headwaters of the Hudson River, and then use the river to strike quickly south to Albany, capital of New York. There he hoped to meet up with two more armies, a smaller one approaching from the west and one from the south (New York City).

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The force from the west was commanded by Colonel Barry St. Leger. Sailing from Montreal and down Lake Ontario, he landed at the town of Oswego in western New York and marched east toward Albany. His route was the Mohawk Valley, densely wooded with practically no roads.

St. Leger made good progress at first. But after a little over fifty miles, he came across Fort Stanwix. Commanded by Colonel Peter Gansevoort and the 3rd New York Regiment of the Continental Army, the fort had basically fallen apart since it was last used in the French & Indian War some twenty years prior.

Colonel Gansevoort, however, had set his men to vigorous repair. St. Leger’s Iroquois allies warned him that the fort was being re-built, but he refused to believe such extensive repairs could be effected so soon. When he arrived at Fort Stanwix, however, St. Leger learned that his scouts had been right.

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With only 2,000 men (including Canadian Rangers, German Jägers, American Loyalist Militia, and Iroquois Scouts), St. Leger knew he couldn’t assault Fort Stanwix. So he settled in for a siege. When St. Leger demanded surrender, Gansevoort didn’t bother showing up to the meeting, instead hoisting a flag made from a woman’s petticoat.

St. Leger received more bad news on August 5th, when word came in that an American relief column was marching toward Fort Stanwix to break his siege. Forced to make a decision, St. Leger detached a portion of his force to intercept the incoming American reinforcements before they reached the fort.

This interception force was led by two of St. Leger’s allied commanders, Colonel Sir John Johnson (King’s Royal Regiment of New York – American Loyalists), and Chief Thayendanegea (also known as Joseph Brant – Mohawk commander). In all, this interception force numbered upwards of 500 men.

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This new American force was perhaps 800 men strong, made up of four regiments of the Tyron County Militia. Their commander was a grizzled but calm and cautious veteran named Nicholas Herkimer. The son of German immigrants, he preferred to speak German even though he was native-born American himself.

Herkimer had called up every male in Tryon County between the ages of sixteen and sixty. Tryon County was huge in those days (encompassing ten counties today), but sparsely populated. These 800 men were pretty much all the Patriot manpower the area could raise. Herkimer knew that if he was defeated, a huge swath of New York could be lost.

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The Americans had gathered at Fort Dayton and set out on a march westward, down the valley of the Mohawk River, headed toward Fort Stanwix. Herkimer knew the route was dangerous and susceptible to ambush, a narrow dirt track winding through dense woodlands, running about a thousand yards south of the river.

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Yet Herkimer’s colonels pressed him, going so far as accusing their commander of cowardice and reminding him of his relatives fighting for St. Leger. Still, Herkimer maintained a cautious advance. A good thing, too, because an ambush was exactly what Johnson and Brant had in mind. The battle would erupt at a place called…Oriskany.

The Battle Of Oriskany

America’s Bloodiest Battle?

Sir John Johnson had been born here in upstate New York, so knew the ground well. So did the 350 or so Iroquois warriors under Joseph Brant (who spoke at least four languages and had been to London to visit the King of England). As such, the Loyalist leader and Iroquois chief picked a perfect spot upon which to launch their ambush.

The ground here is higher to the south, and slopes down toward the north, where the Mohawk River runs east and west. Herkimer’s militia was marching along the slope, from east to west toward Fort Stanwix. Johnson set up his “Royal Greens” along a ravine to the east, concealed and blocking the trail along which Herkimers’ men marched.

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Joseph Brant’s Iroquois, meanwhile, would deploy along both sides of the road, north and south, ready to hit the Patriots in both flanks and close the rear of the trap. Because of the dense tree cover, Herkimer’s column would march almost into a “sleeve” of Loyalist and Iroquois, never realizing the danger until it was too late.

Now Herkimer did have sixty Iroquois too, from the Oneida tribe, scouting ahead along with some riflemen rangers. Historians admit there is no record as to why these scouts didn’t warn Herkimer of the ambush. The consensus is that the scouts got too far ahead of Herkimer’s column, and the enemy set up after the scouts had passed.

The point is, Herkimer and his officers thought the road was clear. Herkimer maintained a cautious pace (despite the goading of his impetuous colonels), but when the Patriots finally hit the end of the trap and Johnson’s Loyalists opened fire, the Loyalist and Iroquois attack came as a complete and shattering surprise.

The Crown’s attack opened with three blasts on a whistle. The first volley of musketry instantly killed Ebenezer Cox, leading the front Patriot regiment. Herkimer himself and his horse was hit seconds later. Patriot militia took horrific losses to Tory gunfire, while Mohawks also loosed a volley and then charged the Patriot column from both sides.

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The road, of course, exploded into blood-splattered chaos. Patriot dead and wounded were already stacked everywhere. Iroquois warriors with tomahawks, clubs, and spears were now in and amidst the Patriots armed with bayonets and hunting knives, and the fighting was hand-to-hand.

At the rear of the American column, the battle came apart completely. Most of Colonel Visscher’s regiment of Patriot militia, last one in the column, instantly disintegrated in a rout. The Iroquois attack at the part of the column had actually come a little too soon, and these Americans were able to flee in a panic.

They didn’t get very far. Despite commands to stay and fight, many of Brant’s Iroquois took off after Visscher’s militia. Almost none of them made it, skeletons would be found in the woods years later up to three miles away. But a key part of the Royalist trap was now gone, leaving an escape path open for the Patriots who remained.

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With many of the Iroquois chasing after the American rear guard, the rest of the Patriots (including Captain Gardenier’s company, the only ones of the rear guard who’d remained with the column) were able to set up a fighting withdraw to the southeast.

Herkimer, meanwhile, was showing true leadership colours. Dragged from under his dead horse and with a Tory musket ball in his leg, he ordered his saddle propped against a nearby tree where he could sit up and command the battle. Coolly smoking his pipe, he calmed his men and steadily brought the chaos under control.

Patriot fortunes continued to improve when the skies abruptly broke open in an intense summer thunderstorm. The cover was enough to allow the Patriots to further consolidate their position, falling back off the road and gathering in a circle atop a nearby hill.

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The Tory Loyalists continued to push the rebel position. Some of them turned their jackets inside out and tried to impersonate Patriot reinforcements, and the ruse almost worked until Gardenier’s men spotted the deception and opened fire. This kicked off yet another melee, easily the most savage part of this bitter battle.

By this point, Tories and Patriots (both sides American) were beating each other to death with their bare hands. Exhaustion was beginning to set in, and at last Johnson’s Royal New Yorkers began to withdraw.

The battle truly ended, however, when news reached the Loyalists and Iroquois that some of Ganesvoort’s men in Fort Stanwix had sortied out and sacked part of St. Leger’s camp. The Iroquois had just lost all their supplies and all the plunder they’d collected so far in the campaign and, mightily disheartened, they simply left.

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With the majority of Crown’s force having now left the field, Sir John Johnson and his remaining New York loyalists had no choice but to withdraw. Herkimer’s Patriot force, meanwhile, had also taken horrific casualties, and soon fell back to Fort Dayton.

The Battle of Oriskany was over. Technically the Crown’s forces had won, as Herkimer’s regiments never reached Fort Stanwix to break the siege. But the losses sustained by Johnson and Brant, plus the damage done by Ganesvoort’s sortie out of the fort, had grievously weakened (and essentially doomed) St. Leger’s siege anyway.

Losses had been horrendous. Accounts differ, but Herkimer’s killed, wounded, and missing had left only about 150 men of his 800 man force. Johnson and Brant lost 150-200, not counting the Iroquois that had deserted. In all, two-thirds of the men who’d walked into Oriskany wound up as a casualty in one form or another.

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This casualty rate, measured against the number of men originally involved, makes Oriskany one of the bloodiest battles (“per capita”) in American history. Brigadier-General Herkimer himself would die ten days later, after a botched attempt to amputate his wounded leg.

But for the Patriots, such losses would not be in vain. St. Leger’s siege of Fort Stanwix was fatally wounded, and after some cunning bluff and trickery by General Benedict Arnold, had to be given up completely. The remains of his army had to retreat to Oswego, completely robbing Burgoyne’s main invasion of this vital support from the west.

We hope you’ve liked this second instalment in our 240th Anniversary commemorative Saratoga Campaign series. With St. Leger’s western invasion seen off, we’ll be returning to Burgoyne’s main invasion as he drives down toward the Hudson River. Post comments and questions below, and we hope to see you again next week!

By @oriskany@aras

If you would like to write an article for Beasts of War then please contact us at az@beastsofwar.com for more information!

"Herkimer, meanwhile, was showing true leadership colours [...] Coolly smoking his pipe, he calmed his men and steadily brought the chaos under control..."

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"In all, two-thirds of the men who’d walked into Oriskany wound up as a casualty in one form or another..."