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.


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

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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Revolutionary Strategy: The Hudson River

The Saratoga Campaign was a disaster for the British. It was such a resounding success for their American adversaries that it overshadowed the British occupation of Philadelphia in persuading France to enter the war on the American side. With the benefit of hindsight, one might wonder what brought a British Army to a remote stretch of woods north of Albany, where it would be forced to march into captivity. Well, simply put, the Saratoga Campaign may have been the closest the British came to a winning military strategy.

albanyIn the 1700s there was no highway system in the United States, and all-season roads were a rarity. The fastest and most efficient way to move people and goods was often by water. Commerce flowed up and down rivers, and ferries traversed the larger rivers to connect what road networks existed on either side. The British rightly considered the New England states to be the birthplace of the Revolution, and the theory was that if they could isolate New England from the rest of the rebellious former colonies, they might be able to concentrate their forces and stamp out the rebellion piecemeal. At the very least, establishing a cordon around New England might have forced George Washington into attacking to break the cordon. Given superior British discipline, firepower, and potentially numbers, such a battle might well have led to the destruction of Washington’s main force; in that event American capitulation would likely have been merely a matter of time.

Given those considerations, when viewing a map from across the Atlantic, the Lake Champlain-Lake George-Hudson River Corridor looked like an inviting invasion route. It had in fact historically been the quickest route for travel between Canada and New York. It seemed reasonable that an army of several thousand people should be able to attack southward down the corridor and link up at Albany with a force coming northward from New York. This would put in British hands the key ferries across the Hudson and open up communications between New York and Canada. New England would be isolated from the rest of the states, and George Washington would be between the proverbial rock and hard place.

Fortunately for the Americans, what looked easy from London was much harder in practice. The British could move supplies and troops by water, but they could not simply sail all the way to Albany. They had to fight their way overland to clear American troops from the river’s banks. The American’s however, pursued a Fabian strategy of falling back in the face of superior numbers, destroying bridges, felling trees across roads, and even inundating roadways as they went. They also proved adept at slipping around the main British force and attacking British lines of communication. Plagued by poor roads, too few wagons and draft animals, and rebel interdiction, Burgoyne found that every time he advanced a few miles, he had to pause for weeks to amass supplies. All the while, more and more American forces were massing between him and his objective of Albany.

Hudson emplacement

The Great Redoubt at the Saratoga Battlefield, overlooking the Hudson River.

In spite of all that, the British Hudson Campaign might still have succeeded, but the nail in the coffin for the British strategy was poor strategic management. Lord Germain, the British Secretary of State for America, was a notorious micromanager, attempting to dictate military strategy from across the Atlantic via letters that took weeks if not months to reach their recipients. In the case of overall strategy for 1777 however, Germain committed the cardinal strategic sin of not setting a unified strategy for the North American theater. He directed Burgoyne to reach Albany and then operate under command of General Howe, the British land force commander for North America, but Germain failed to direct Howe to attack up the Hudson to link up with Burgoyne. Howe pursued his own strategy of capturing Philadelphia, leaving only a defensive force, with restrictive guidance, in New York. This force, under Clinton, did attack up the Hudson, but was not powerful enough to get through to Albany and then fight through the forces opposing Burgoyne. So, ultimately, Burgoyne’s hopes of breaking through were dashed at Bemis Heights.

The British would never again come so close to restoring Crown rule in their erstwhile colonies.

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