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This Day in History: A costly victory at Oriskany

On this day in 1777, American forces hold out against a British siege. They were trapped inside Fort Schuyler, but help was on the way! Or so they thought. Unfortunately, those anticipated reinforcements would be ambushed before they ever reached Fort Schuyler.

Herkimer at the Battle of Oriskany, by F.C. Yohn

The resulting Battle of Oriskany has been called one of the bloodiest battles of the Revolution.

The clash came during British General John Burgoyne’s ill-fated Saratoga campaign. At this juncture, Burgoyne was supposed to be marching toward Albany. Meanwhile, Lt. Colonel Barry St. Leger was marching eastward across New York at the head of a large group of British, Loyalists, and Canadians. Seneca and Mohawk Indians were also with the group.

St. Leger was supposed to rendezvous with Burgoyne, but Fort Schuyler was on his path. He surrounded the fort on August 2 and demanded the Americans’ surrender. Needless to say, the offer was refused. A British siege began on August 3.

At first, St. Leger didn’t know that reinforcements were coming to help the besieged Americans, but they were! Brigadier General Nicholas Herkimer was coming from Fort Dayton with a force of about 800 militia and 60 Oneida Indians.

Then the American rescue party ran into a piece of bad luck: St. Leger discovered that Herkimer was en route, and he planned a surprise attack on the American force. The British set a trap in a densely wooded, marshy area, near a ravine. Loyalist and Indian groups were to attack the Americans from all sides.

Herkimer and his men crossed the ravine at about 10 a.m. on August 6. Roughly 600 Americans had crossed when the Indians attacked. Much of the battle involved hand-to-hand combat, with the Indians relying on tomahawks, knives and spears. Herkimer was wounded early in the fight, but he continued to rally his men. And he got a little lucky when a thunderstorm struck about 45 minutes into the battle. Herkimer used the diversion to get his men up a hill. Unable to walk because of his wounded leg, he sat on his saddle under a tree, apparently leaning back and smoking a pipe while he directed his men!

How many leaders can pull off that kind of a stunt!?

Herkimer told his men to pair off and hide themselves among the trees. One man could protect the other whenever muskets needed to be reloaded.

In the meantime, the Americans who were still at Fort Schuyler sent help. Marinus Willett took his men and raided nearby Indian camps. When the Indians heard about the raids, they withdrew from the battle, abandoning the Loyalists in the field. The Loyalists were unable to continue without Indian assistance; they soon retreated.

Americans had possession of the battlefield. But they had paid a horribly steep price for it. One Indian chief later said: “It was here that I saw the most dead bodies than I have ever seen. The blood shed made a stream running down on the sloping ground.”

Indeed, of the 800 Americans who had fought in the battle, only 150 escaped serious injury. The battle later proved fatal to Herkimer. His leg had to be amputated, and he died of complications from that surgery.

The British soon ended their siege of Fort Schuyler. Naturally, the final lifting of that siege is a story for another day!

On use of the word "Indian" instead of "Native American," please see this article for another perspective.

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