Saratoga Prelude: Stanwix and Oriskany

My new novel A Constant Thunder takes the reader to the Hudson Valley in the lead up to the Battles near Saratoga. By the nature of the plot it glosses over a set of dramatic events that were part of the Hudson Valley Campaign, but took place well west of Albany: the Siege of Fort Stanwix and the Battle of Oriskany.

General John Burgoyne’s Plan for the 1777 Campaign was to divide the United States by seizing the Hudson Valley. An important component of his plan was a diversionary attack from Lake Ontario. Lieutenant Colonel Barrimore Matthew “Barry” St. Leger would command force of up to 1,000, including a few hundred British and German regular troops, augmented by several hundred Loyalists and Native American warriors. St. Leger’s command would move by boat up the Saint Lawrence River into Lake Ontario, through Oswego, NY, up Lake Oneida, over the Oneida Carrying Place, and descend the Mohawk River Valley to threaten Albany. The purpose of this drive was to draw American forces away from opposing Burgoyne’s attack down Hudson River Valley, and to raise a force of Loyalist militia, hopefully over a thousand men, from the Oswego-Albany area. In St. Leger’s way stood Fort Stanwix.

1280px-Grand_Union_Flag_svg

Grand Union Flag

Fort Stanwix was constructed during the French and Indian War, and fell into disrepair afterwards. American troops reoccupied it in 1776 and began repairs, renaming it Fort Schuyler, but it continued to be referred to as “Stanwix.” In May, 1777 Colonel Peter Gansevoort assumed command of the fort and its 750-man garrison, consisting of the 3rd New York Regiment and some Massachusetts troops.

St. Leger’s force arrived at Stanwix on August 2nd, 1777. On August 3rd Gansevoort rejected a demand for surrender, and a siege commenced. One legend has it that the Stars and Stripes flew in battle for the first time over Fort Stanwix, but the Stanwix battle flag was more likely the Grand Union Flag, first flown at Washington’s Headquarters on January 1st, 1776.

Herkimer_at_oriskany

Herkimer at Oriskany

On August 6th, relief force of about 800 militia troops, plus a group of Oneida warriors, under the command of Nicholas Herkimer was ambushed by a 450-man Native American and Loyalist force near Oriskany. The savage battle that ensued cost the Americans over 50% casualties (including Herkimer, who was mortally wounded), with their ambushers suffering over 30% casualties; at the end of the day the relief force retreated. A sortie from the fort during the battle caused significant loss of equipment and personal property to the besiegers, somewhat offsetting the defeat of the relief force. Significantly, Oriskany was the first time members of the Iroquois Confederacy fought against each other: it marked the beginning of an Iroquois civil war, and the downfall of the great Confederacy.

 

After Oriskany the Siege of Fort Stanwix continued with an ongoing British bombardment and the digging of trenches progressively closer to the fort’s walls.

On August 22nd, word reached the Iroquois in St. Leger’s force that another relief force was approaching: this time it was commanded by American Major General Benedict Arnold. Arnold has sent ahead a captured loyalist, who in exchange for his life greatly exaggerated the size of Arnold’s force. Already demoralized by the casualties at Oriskany and lost goods due to the sortie, the Iroquois abandoned St. Leger. Now hopelessly outnumbered, St. Leger launched a precipitous retreat, leaving much of his equipment to fall into the hands of the Americans.

St. Leger’s defeat secured the American flank near Albany, and allowed American General Horatio Gates to focus all of his available forces, to include Arnold and his relief force, against Burgoyne’s troops. Arnold himself would play a key role in the upcoming battles near Saratoga.

To learn more about the Saratoga Campaign from a participant’s standpoint, pre-order A Constant Thunder HERE!

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Fort Stanwix national Monument: https://www.nps.gov/fost/index.htm

Oriskany Battlefield State Historic Site: https://parks.ny.gov/historic-sites/21/details.aspx

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