The American Revolution:
The Mohawk Valley During the Revolution
continued

    

  

The site of Old Fort Schuyler

Source:  Harper's New Monthly Magazine, (New York:  Harper Brothers) No. 326,
July, 1877; pages 171-183.


The old road that led west from Fort Dayton was at best but a rude path through the wilderness, in many places almost impassable; and despite their hot-headed ardor, the advancing force traveled but slowly. They crossed the river at old Fort Schuyler (now Utica), and encamped the next day some six miles further on, a little west of the present village of Whitesborough. From this point General Herkimer sent forward an express, consisting of Adam Helmer and two associates, to apprise Colonel Gansevoort of his approach, and to concert measures of co-operation. Their arrival at the fort was to be announced by three successive discharges of cannon. The task assigns this trio was, as may be imagined, n one of the easiest, since the intervening forests were filled with hostile Indians intent upon preventing any communication between the settlements and the beleaguered fortress. However, they succeeded in reaching the fort late in the forenoon of the 6th, and the concerted signals were immediately fired. General Herkimer's intention was to cut an entrance through to the fort, and arrangements for a sally were accordingly made by Colonel Gansevoort, with the purpose of diverting the enemy's attention from Herkimer's movements.

Unfortunately the old general had in forming this plan calculated without his host. On the morning of the 6th his men, who had been with difficulty persuaded to remain quiet during the preceding day, broke out into something very like mutiny. They declared that the express had in all probability been captured or murdered, and that the same fate was in store for them if they frittered away their time in idle waiting, while their brothers, fathers, and friends were starving in the fort only eight miles away. Their loud complaining alarmed the commander, and he hastily summoned a council of his more prominent officers, and laid the situation before them, with a view to determining upon some course of action. The officers are unanimous in their desire to press forward.

Among them we may see spruce young Colonels Cox and Paris, standing, slim and straight, glittering in the morning sunlight, not without a sense of their own dignity and local, importance, wrathfully impatient of the grave, sober dictates of their yeoman superior, and smiling contemptuously at his cautious prudence. Colonels Visscher and Klock, and others in authority, we see dimly in the meagre chronicles, grouped about, also with a tendency toward insubordination, or at best with a wavering respect for their commander's judgment. Here, too, is boisterous, burly Sampson Sammons, whose irrepressible love of liberty and brawls had long ago lifted him into notoriety and quasi-leadership among the more adventurous of the settlers, and who is, we doubt not, heartily sick of all this talking and inaction. Before this council Herkimer gravely lays the situation, urges the impatient leaders to remain where they are until re-enforcement's can come up, or at least until the signal of a sortie shall be heard from the fort. In his opinion it was folly for a thousand ill-equipped militia to attack an entrenched force of twice that number of well-armed troops and notoriously cunning Indians - the flower of the famous Six Nations.

His temperate words only added fuel to the flame. Colonels Cox and Paris angrily retorted that they had come to fight, not to watch others fight, and wound up by denouncing Herkimer to his face as a Tory and a coward. Suppressing his rising indignation, the old patriot replied, with forced calmness, that he considered himself placed over them as a father, and that he did not want to get them into any difficulty from which he would be powerless to extricate them. "You," said he, "who want to fight so badly now, will be the first to run when you smell burnt powder."

Swelling with virtuous wrath at this insinuation, the young officers hotly renewed their reproaches of senile cowardice and want of fidelity to "the cause," which this time met with an echo of approval from those around.

Thoroughly enraged at last, the stout old general, with flushed face and gleaming eye, cried, "March on, then!" In an instant, with a great shout, the troops grasped their arms, the camp was struck, and the little army rushed forward in the utmost confusion.

In the mean time, Colonel St. Leger, apprised by his scouts of the advance of the militia, had, very early on the morning of the 6th, dispatched Brant, with nearly all his Indians and a detachment of Johnson's Greens, with instructions to , if possible, prevent their farther progress, leaving to Brant's discretion the means to be employed.

The van of Herkimer's motley host was descending the steep slope of a ravine, some two miles west of Oriskany, in hot haste and disorder, when suddenly the guards, both front and flanks, were shot down, the forest rang with the sharp crack of musketry and the blood-curdling yells of concealed savages, and in a twinkling the greater part of the division found itself hemmed in, as it were, by a circle of fire that mowed down the outer ranks like grass before a scythe. Thrown into almost irretrievable confusion by the suddenness of the attack and the flash and whirl of leaden lightning about their heads, dropping like leaves in the forest before the deadly precision of the enemy's aim, floundering, for the most part, knee-deep in the morass that, with the exception of a narrow log causeway in the center, constituted the bottom of the ravine, and utterly unable to defend themselves from a hidden foe, it seems miraculous that the detachment escaped total annihilation. But all the devilish ingenuity of Joseph Brant - and surely he has left upon record no achievement more worthy of himself - was not a match for the dauntless courage and endurance of the brawny frontiersmen.

General Herkimer Directing the Battle

A portion of Colonel Visscher's regiment, which formed the rear-guard of the advancing force, was cut off from the main body by the precipitate action of the savages in closing the segment - left open at the road - of their circular ambuscade, and, ad Herkimer had predicted, fled ingloriously from the field in headlong haste, led by their erst-while courageous colonel. History takes a grim satisfaction in recording that they were pursued by Mohawks, and were punished much more severely than would have been the case had they stood by their comrades in distress.

But the environed militia, after the terrible shock of the surprise had passed away, exhibited an amount of bravery and intrepid self-possession that has seldom been equaled in our eventful history of forest fights, and that must go far toward atoning for their previous rash and reprehensible conduct. In this they were furnished a magnificent example by their general. The veteran was wounded in the early part of the action, while endeavoring to rally the scattered wits of his men, by a musket-ball, which, passed through and killing his horse, shattered his leg just below the knee. He was lifted at once from his fallen horse, and placed, at his own request, upon his saddle, propped against a beech-tree halfway up the western slope for support. In this situation he lighted his pipe coolly, and though the bullets were whistling about him, and men falling thick and fast within a few yards of his post, continued to direct the battle, giving his orders as calmly and collectedly as if on a parade ground.

After this butchery had gone on for some three-quarters of an hour, a brilliant idea occurred to Captain Jacob Seeber, which, upon his own responsibility, he instantly put into execution. He formed the remnant of his company into a circle, the better to repel the attacks of the enemy, now closing in upon their victims. His example was immediately followed by the rest, and from that moment the resistance of the Provincials, hitherto confined to a desultory firing, became more effective. The change of tactics rendered some change necessary on the part of the enemy, and accordingly a detachment of Royal Greens charged upon the little band of patriots; the firing ceased, and as the bayonets clashed, the contest became a fierce death-struggle, hand to hand, foot to foot.

The Greens were for the most part fugitive loyalists from Tyron County, and consequently former neighbors of the militiamen. As no quarrels are so bitter as those of families are, so no wars are so cruel and vindictive as those called civil. As they advanced and were recognized, all the resentments, hatreds, and grudges that long years of controversy and mutual injury had engendered burst forth in a perfect whirlwind of fury. The Provincials fired upon them as they drew nearer, and then, springing like infuriated beasts from their covers, attacked them with their bayonets and musket butts; or, each party throwing these aside, rushed at each other in a very delirium of passion, throttling, stabbing, biting, and, in many cases, literally dying in one another's embrace. This savage struggle was mercifully interrupted by a heavy thunderstorm, one of the severest of the season, which raged for over an hour, during which interval each party sheltered themselves as best they could, and studied their chances for success when its violence should abate. The militiamen entrenched themselves upon an advantageous piece of ground, and thus, formed in a circle, awaited a renewal of hostilities.

In the early part of the battle, the Indians, whenever they saw a gun fired from behind a tree by a militiaman, darted out and tomahawked him before he could reload. To put a stop to this harassing mode of warfare, two men were stationed behind a single tree, one only to fire at a time, the other reserving his fire until the confident savages rushed up as before. The fight was speedily renewed, and by these new tactics the Indians, who had been rendered less cautious than usual by a generous allowance of rum, were made to suffer severely, and soon showed signs of wavering.

At this juncture the loyalists put into execution a piece of strategy that nearly proved fatal to the patriots. It was the sending of a detachment of Greens, disguised as Continentals, from the direction of the fort, in the hope that they might be received Lieutenant Sammons, who ran and told his captain, Gardenier, that a body of men was approaching his company, with American hats, doubtless from the fort.

They continued to advance until hailed by Captain Gardenier, at which moment one of his own soldiers, seeing an old and long-absent acquaintance among them, ran to meet him with outstretched hand. The credulous warrior was instantly dragged into the ranks of the Greens, and informed that he was a prisoner; he, however, did not yield without a struggle, during which Gardenier, who had watched the action and its result, sprang forward, and with a blow from his spear leveled his captor and liberated his man. Others of the foe then set upon Gardenier, of whom he slew one and wounded another. Three more of the disguised Tories now sprang upon him, and one of his spurs becoming entangled in their clothes, he was thrown heavily to the ground. Still struggling with almost superhuman strength, both of his thighs were transfixed to the ground by the bayonets of two of his assailants, while another was thrust at his breast. Seizing this with his left hand, by a sudden wrench he brought its owner down upon himself, where he held him as a shield until one of his own men, Adam Miller, came to his rescue. As the Tories turned fiercely upon this new adversary, Gardenier rose half-way, and grasping a spear with his mangled hand, drove it like lightning into the side of his late vis--vis, killing him instantly. While this desperate struggle was going on, some of his militiamen called out to Gardenier, "For God's sake, captain, you are killing your own men!" He yelled back, "They are not our men; they are Tories. Fire away!"

Then, as the heroic captain was dragged from the clutches of the infuriated loyalists, a volley of musketry from the Provincials struck down thirty of them and nearly as many Indians. Through the leafy depths of the grand old forest rang again the clashing of steel, the roar of rifles, the hoarse, pitiful moaning of the down-trodden, writhing wounded, and, above all, the hideous yells of the enraged savages.

These last, finding their number sadly diminished, and being dismayed by the stubborn ardor with which the Provincials maintained their defense, now raised the retreating cry of "Oonha!" and fled in every direction, followed by frantic cheers and showers of bullets from the surviving patriots. As they leaped yelping through the woods, swiftly pursued by the unerring rifle-ball, the guns of the fort were heard booming in the distance. Dismayed in their turn by this unwelcome sound, the Tories precipitately followed their Indian allies, leaving the victorious militia in possession of the hard-earned field.

Thus ended one of the most hotly contested and, for the number engaged, the deadliest of the Revolutionary battles. Though victory crowned the desperate valor of the Provincials, it was to them perfectly useless, and was bought at a terrible price. Scarcely a farm-house was there along the valley that had not cause to mourn this bloody triumph, hardly a hamlet that left not the flower of its sinewy manhood to moulder in that dark, dank, blood-drenched morass. Of the thousand men that marched upon the enemy so confidently on that fatal 6th of August, only some third ever saw their homes again. Between three and four hundred lay dead upon the field when the sun went down; nearly as many more were mortally wounded, or carried into a captivity that, in those ruthless days, meant death in its most horrible form.

General Herkimer was carried in a litter to his house, some thirty-five miles down the valley, where, after lingering in pain for about then days, he died from the effects of an unskillful amputation. Colonel Cox was shot down in the first volley from the ambushed Indians. Colonel Paris, who was a member of the colonial Legislature and a volunteer officer, was taken prisoner by the Indians, and by them brutally murdered some days later. Major John Frey, whilom sheriff of the county, and a man of great courage and strength withal, was also captured by the savages. To the shame of the race, be it added, his brother, a furious Tory, ran at him when he was brought into the British camp, and was with difficulty prevented from butchering him on the spot.

Although no authentic statement exists, the loss of the enemy is believed to have been even more severe; the Indians, in particular, were roughly handled, having lost over a hundred warriors, among them several eminent sachems. The Provincials removed some fifty of their more slightly wounded comrades; the enemy's fallen were allowed to die of starvation and their wounds in the swamp. An American scout who crossed the battlefield some days after the battle, on his way to Fort Dayton, wrote; "I beheld the most shocking sight I had ever witnessed. The Indians and white men were mingled with one another just as they had been left when Death had first completed his work. Many bodies had, also been torn to pieces by wild beasts."

During the heat of the combat in the ravine, Colonel Willett made a sally from the fort with a force of two hundred and fifty men. He drove in the enemy's advanced guard, and attacked the residue of Sir John Johnson's regiment with such headlong impetuosity that they fled for their lives, led by the baronet himself in his shirt sleeves. The victorious detachment rushed on to the Indian encampment, and hastily demolished it, firing with marked effect upon the few savages left in charge, who, at the first appearance of Colonel Willett - known among the Six Nations as "the Devil" - had fled precipitately. Wagons were hurried out from the fort, and twenty-one loads of camp equipage, clothing, cooking utensils, blankets, stores, etc., together with all the private property of the British officers - papers, plans journals, five British flags, and Sir John's coat - were conveyed to the fort, while the brave little band held the dismantled encampment. As Willett was returning, Colonel St. Leger suddenly appeared with a considerable force on the opposite side of the river, just in time to receive an effective salute of bullets from the militia, who reached their stronghold without having lost a man, and with the satisfaction of having discomfited and despoiled their besiegers. The sun, sinking at the close of that sultry August day in crimson pomp behind the western pines, bathed in a flood of ruddy light five of St. George's crosses, flapping idly in the evening breeze, over the tiny forest fort, under a rude garrison-made ensign of stars and stripes.

Although the Provincials were technically victorious at Oriskany, they returned to their homes in any thing but triumph; they were totally unable to follow up their advantage or afford their beleaguered comrades any assistance. Relying upon that inability, and the ignorance of the garrison regarding the result of the battle, St. Leger immediately demanded the capitulation of the fort, threatening the devastation of the entire valley settlements by fire and sword and tomahawk if it was refused. Colonel Gansevoort rejected all is offers, somewhat ungraciously, as unworthy of a British officer or a gentleman.

On the night of the 10th, Colonel Willett, in company with Major Stockwell, started out, armed only with a spear, and with no blankets or provisions other than a small store of crackers and cheese, through the forest for the German Flats, which, after standing during the greater part of the first night motionless in a morass, subsisting for a day upon berries, and encountering the severest hardships, they reached on the afternoon of the 12th. Colonel Willett was deservedly popular in this vicinity, and the militia had begun to assemble again in great numbers in answer to his earnest appeal, when General Arnold, four days after Willett's arrival, reached Fort Dayton with a large force of troops, which had been dispatched by General Schuyler from Albany upon learning of Herkimer's disaster. Here Arnold, who, despite his reputation for rash, reckless bravery, understood the strength of the enemy better than did his unfortunate predecessor, determined to rest, either until re-enforcements from Albany should arrive, or the yeomen of the county had joined his standard in numbers sufficient to warrant a second attempt to relieve the fort.

In the mean time, St. Leger, despairing of obtaining bloodless possession of that stronghold, began pushing hostile operations with great vigor. He approached by sap to within 150 yards of the fort, and from this point began to throw shells into the enclosure. Their provisions daily exhausting, entirely cut off from all outside communication, ignorant of the large force that was assembling in the valley below for their relief, and remembering the horrible fate of the inmates of Fort William Henry, many of the garrison began to whisper ominously about a capitulation; and it is said that Gansevoort had resolved upon a desperate attempt to cut through the enemy's lines, when, without any apparent cause, the besiegers suddenly broke up their camps and retreated in great confusion. So hurried was their flight that they left their tents, together with nearly all their artillery and camp equipage; and the 22nd of August, which had dawned upon a siege in full progress, and with every prospect of success, ere its close, saw the British host leave the Mohawk Valley in headlong haste.

That the reader may understand this sudden movement, so mysterious and unexpected to the jubilant garrison, it will be necessary to go back to Fort Dayton, where we left Arnold restless and impatient under his self-imposed restraint. A party of Tories, meeting clandestinely at the farmhouse of a loyalist - by name Shoemaker - had been captured and imprisoned by Colonel Weston, at that time in command of the fort. The occasion of the gathering was the arrival of young Walter Butler from St. Leger's camp with copies of Sir John Johnson's last appeal to the loyalists of the valley. Butler and his associates were tried as spies by a court-martial of Arnolds', and condemned to die. Among those who found themselves in this predicament was a certain Hon-Yost Schuyler, one of the coarsest, most ignorant men in the valley, and generally regarded as little better than an idiot, yet, as the sequel will show, possessed of considerable shrewdness withal. His mother and brother, upon hearing of his misfortune, hastened to Fort Dayton, and implored the commander to spare him. The pathetic eloquence with which, in a frenzy of grief, the old woman plead for the life of her wayward son, who had added the crimes of a guerrilla to that of being a spy, would have moved a heart less stony than that she addressed. But Arnold, never very tenderhearted, was stern and inexorable, until a sudden idea occurred to him, in the execution of which this idiot could be used to excellent advantage. Accordingly he melted, and promised the overjoyed mother the life of her son, upon conditions. These were, that he should hasten to the British camp, and so alarm St. Leger as to induce him to raise the siege and fly. Hon-Yost gladly accepted the terms, and having made arrangements with some friendly Oneidas to aid him at the proper moment, set out at once on his mission, leaving his brother in prison as a hostage for his fidelity and success. He first presented himself among the Indians, who, moody and dissatisfied at their repeated losses, and angry at St. Leger for promising them as easy victory and abundant plunder, had convened a pow-wow for the purpose of considering the dubious enterprise in which they had been engaged, and who were in a suitable state of mind to catch eagerly at the news he brought them of Arnold's rapid approach. He pointed out the bullet-holes in his coat (carefully made by the Provincials before he left) as evidences of his own narrow escape; and when questioned by them as to the number of Arnold's force, he shook his head, and pointed mysteriously to the overhanging leaves. He was taken at once to St. Leger's tent, and gave to the colonel a pitiful account of his trials, claiming to have escaped, while on the way to the gallows, through a shower of bullets, the marks of which he could see for himself. He asserted that Arnold was within twenty hours' march, at the head of 2000 regulars.

Meanwhile the Oneidas had arrived in the camp and spread a similar report, the effect of which was all that the most exacting Whig could desire. The Indians had long since become heartily sick of this besieging business, and eagerly seized upon this report as a pretext for decamping. In vain St. Leger stormed and swore, useless were the pleas and tears of Sir John; the savages had an answer pat - "the pow-wow said we must go," and go they did in utmost haste.

Furious at being so shamefully deserted, St. Leger reproached the baronet roundly for the defection of his copper-hued friends, while Sir John retorted by charging the former with an indifferent prosecution of the siege. Two sachems who were standing near put an end to the unpleasantness by yelling out, in a sudden paroxysm of terror, "They are coming! They are coming!" We can fancy the grim wink that was interchanged by these stolid, stately sachems as their commanders rapidly threw together a few necessaries, and, as the shout spread through the camp, gave a hasty order to retreat, and glided away in the gathering dusk, closely followed by their panic-stricken troops. The Indians, enjoying the terror and confusion of their allies, who threw away guns, nap-sacks, and all else that impeded their flight, repeated the joke until the rabble reached Oneida Lake. Thence St. Leger hastened on to Oswego and Montreal.

Compared with the more extensive conflicts of the Revolution, that in defense of Fort Schuyler must appear insignificant; but as a desperate and heroic struggle - fierce and bloody beyond parallel - and as a terrible blow to the plans and prospects of the crown, it deserves, together with its heroes, famous and nameless, who laid down their lives before the invading foe, a prominent and enduring place in the chronicles of our forefathers' heroism.

   

   

   

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