by Ray Lenarcic

One of the definitions of irony, according to the Webster New World Dictionary, is a combination of circumstances or a result that is opposite of what is or might be expected or considered appropriate. A fitting example is the Battle of Oriskany and its aftermath. One of its many ironies lies in the fact that although the Tryon County Militia lost the battle, their sacrifices set into motion a series of circumstances that would contribute significantly to America’s ultimate victory in the Revolutionary War. Based on Barbara Graymont’s seminal work-The Iroquois in the American Revolution-what follows is an abbreviated version of the aforementioned sequence of events.

  • On the morning of August 6th, after neglecting to send his Oneida allies to scout ahead, General Nicholas Herkimer led his militia of c. 800 men into a steep ravine near Oriskany Creek, where a force of c. 400 Senecas and Mohawks along with a handful of John Butler’s (a Tory) Rangers were lying in wait. The ambush and subsequent fighting resulted in a “…slaughter…shocking beyond description. Herkimer’s battered forces made their way back to the Mohawk Valley settlements, carrying their wounded with them and leaving their dead strewn upon the field, never to be buried.”
  • Oriskany has been described as one of the war’s bloodiest battles as indicated by the casualty figures. According to Graymont, the militia lost an estimated 500 men killed, wounded or captured (later put to death), a figure corroborated by a report of the German Flats Committee of Safety. “Flower of our Militia are either killed or wounded except 150 who stood the Field….” British losses were c.50 as reported by Major Butler-a number verified by other sources.
  • Herkimer’s army failed in its objective which was to relieve the siege of Fort Stanwix. It remained under the gun for another two weeks. Often overlooked by some historians was the role of Colonel Peter Gansevoort and his men who valiantly defended the Fort. In another bit of irony, the failure to bring adequate cannon helped seal the attackers’ fate. As Gansevoort stated-“had the Enemy come…with a few Eighteen and twelve pounders, the Fort must inevitably have fallen;” the first of many mistakes made by the Brit’s leader, Lt. Col. Barry St. Leger.
  • Shortly after the battle, a proposal by Seneca principal war chief Sayenqueraghta and Mohawk leader Joseph Brant to take a few hundred warriors and pursue what was left of the militia to finish the job was dismissed by St. Leger. This proved to be a critical factor as there was nothing to stop this force-the entire Mohawk Valley was ripe for the pickings. Lt. Col. Barry’s second big mistake.
  • Two factors had a profound psychological impact on St. Leger’s Native American allies. First, while their losses were far fewer than the Americans, they included five Seneca chiefs, a huge blow to their morale. The British had earlier promised them that they (Brits) would do most of the fighting and that the campaign would be a piece of cake. Pitched battles weren’t their style, and false promises did not sit well. Nor did the loss of their medicine bundles during Lt. Col. Willett’s sortie from Stanwix while the NAs were away fighting. These bundles were considered sacred possessions, and their loss a bad omen. Ironically, even though they won the battle, because of the above they were beginning to lose the heart to fight on.
  • The greatest irony of all involved none other than General Benedict Arnold whose assembled army at Albany was about to make another attempt to lift the siege. Again according to Graymont-“ A feeble-minded Tory named Han Jost Schuyler had been seized at one of Walter Butler’s secret meetings and sentenced to death as a traitor. His mother interceded for him, and Arnold finally relented if Schuyler would precede his army, enter the camp at Stanwix, and give an exaggerated account of the numbers composing the advancing forces and their closeness to the fort. To this Schuyler readily assented. He appeared before the British and Indian camps claiming that the American soldiers coming that way were as numerous as the leaves in the forest. He displayed his purposely bullet-riddled coat to prove his narrow escape from the pursuing Americans. The Indians became much alarmed, fearing that neither the number of St. Leger’s forces nor the amount of his artillery was sufficient to meet a large army.” The corroboration of Schuyler’s information by Native American messengers proved to be the final straw. St. Leger’s allies flew the coop on August 22nd. The British General, with over half of his army gone, had no choice but to make a hasty retreat. Arnold’s ruse had worked.
  •  On August 24th, Arnold and his 950-man army reached Ft. Stanwix, greeted by the cheers of the garrison and a cannon salute. How ironic that a key factor in the lifting of the siege and, a few weeks later, the American’s victory at Saratoga was the leadership of a man who later gained infamy for switching sides.

Pardon me for conjecturing, but if the sequence of events described previously had not transpired, Stanwix would have fallen, St. Leger’s army would have joined Burgoyne, and the British plan to divide the colonies by occupying New York would have succeeded with the following consequences: the French would not have provided invaluable aid to the Colonies and the estimated one-third of the American population on the fence regarding who to support might have chosen to remain neutral or side with the Brits. Had that been the case, the results of the war would have been far different.

In the final analysis, no one can question the bravery of Nicholas Herkimer. He died for his country. Little did he or the hundreds of militiamen, heroes all, who kissed their wives and hugged their children goodbye, many for the last time, in early August 1777, know that their sacrifices in the battle to come would in ways they could never have imagined, and with great irony, be the turning point in a war which would forever change the course of mankind’s history.