The Battle of Oriskany

Today is the 238th anniversary of the Battle of Oriskany, one of the bloodiest battles of the American Revolution and a defining moment of the war in New York. It also had a deep impact on the fate of John and Magdalena Brown and their family.

Battle of Oriskany, by John Reuben Chapin, 1857

On August 3rd, British Lieutenant Colonel Barry St. Leger laid siege to Fort Stanwix (present day Rome, NY). His force of British, Loyalist and Iroquois troops from Fort Niagara was meant to join forces with another led by General John Burgoyne marching south from Quebec. The plan was to overrun Syracuse and then the Hudson Valley, separating New England from the other colonies and potentially putting a quick end to the Revolution.

With only Fort Stanwix standing between St. Leger and the Mohawk Valley, Patriot General Nicholas Herkimer led a force of 800 Tryon County militia men, largely untrained farmers of German descent, and a party of Oneida warriors to the Fort’s aid.

Portrait of Joseph Brant
by Gilbert Stuart, 1786

On August 5th, Joseph Brant, leading the Iroquois contingent under St. Leger, received a message from his sister Molly informing them of Herkimer’s approach. As a result, St. Leger sent an expeditionary force to monitor Herkimer’s progress. Six miles from the fort, two Seneca War Chiefs under Brant, Sayenqueraghta and Cornplanter, discovered a perfect spot for an ambush where the road dipped to pass through a marshy ravine. A trap was set by the Loyalist contingent and Brant’s Iroquois force.

The next morning, August 6th, Herkimer seemed to realize that something was amiss and halted his force to consult his subordinate officers, who chided him for his caution with accusations of being a Tory, like his brother Johann Jost, who was with St. Leger. With little choice but to continue, Herkimer led the troops into the ambush. The Patriots took heavy casualties in the early volley and many at the rear of the column fled. Within thirty minutes, their fighting strength was reduced by half.

However, under Herkimer’s leadership, the Americans rallied and tenaciously fought their way out of the ravine until a violent thunderstorm caused a pause in the fighting. Seriously wounded, Herkimer gathered and reorganized his remaining forces on higher ground. When the fighting resumed, it was largely grisly close combat, often hand-to-hand, often between neighbors.

A wounded Nicholas Herkimer commanding Patriot forces at Oriskany

At Fort Stanwix, messengers from Herkimer finally arrived and requested aid and 250 men departed the fort to raid the sparsely guarded British camp to the south. When they realized what was happening, many of the Iroquois warriors disengaged from the battle to protect the women and possessions at the camp. With their numbers reduced, but victory assured, the Loyalists elected to withdraw as well and return to camp.

The aftermath of the battle was profound. Almost half of the Patriot militia had been killed and many more were wounded. General Herkimer himself died ten days later following the amputation of his wounded leg. It was said afterwards that every family in the Mohawk Valley lost a son at Oriskany. For their sacrifice, they are considered heroes of the Revolution to this day.

Oneidas at the Battle of Oriskany, by Don Troiani

On the Loyalist side, many of the Iroquois had accompanied St. Leger without the intention of engaging in heavy fighting. The Indians, especially the Seneca, bore a highly disproportionate brunt of the casualties, with 65 warriors killed or wounded (almost 75% of the total British casualties), and many chose to return home.

The battle also caused a fracture within the Iroquois Confederacy. Angered with the Oneida who had taken up the Patriot cause, the Loyalist Iroquois send them a bloody hatchet, beginning a fierce civil war within the formerly unified Six Nations.

Bust of John Butler, Valiants Memorial, Ottawa, Canada

Additionally, as a result of his success in the battle, John Butler would be promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and was enlisted to raise a regiment of rangers based at Fort Niagara. They would come to be known as the famous (or infamous) Butler’s Rangers. After the battle, Butler and Brant strongly urged St. Leger to pursue the retreating Patriot forces, but St. Leger declined, a decision that would have a profound impact on the Schoharie Valley, including John Brown and his family.


Next week - Part 2: The Brown Brothers, the Schoharie Uprising and the Battle of the Flockey