Battle of Oriskany Summary
The Battle of Oriskany — also known as the Battle of Oriska — was fought between the United States of America and Great Britain on August 6, 1777, during the Saratoga Campaign of the American Revolutionary War. After the American Invasion of Canada failed, the Continental Army was forced to retreat to New York and took shelter at Fort Ticonderoga. In October 1776, the Battle of Valcour Island took place, where a small fleet of American ships, under the command of Benedict Arnold, slowed the British advance and forced them to put off the invasion of the Hudson River Valley until the spring of 1777. The British plan, which is known as Burgoyne’s Campaign of 1777, was led by Lieutenant General John Burgoyne. The plan was to capture Albany, New York, which would allow the British to cut New England off from the Southern Colonies. While Burgoyne led one force to attack Fort Ticonderoga, General Barry St. Leger led another into the Mohawk River Valley and advanced on Fort Stanwix. By the time St. Leger arrived at the fort, American reinforcements and supplies had arrived, so he laid siege to the fort. Meanwhile, the New York Militia gathered men from Tryon County, under the command of General Nicholas Herkimer, and marched toward the fort, in an effort to help break the siege. St. Leger learned the militia were on the way, so he sent Sir John Johnson with a force made up of Loyalists and Native American Indian warriors to intercept Herkimer. Johnson and his men set up an ambush, and Herkimer walked into it on the morning of August 6. The fighting was intense, and Herkimer was shot in the leg. However, he refused to leave the field and had his men prop him up against a tree so he could command them in battle. The Americans suffered heavy casualties but were spared by a thunderstorm. Meanwhile, back at Fort Stanwix, American forces led by Marinus Willett raided the camps of the Indians. When the Indians found out, they left right away, which forced Johnson to break off the engagement. Herkimer and his men retreated to Fort Dayton but had suffered heavy casualties in the loss. Herkimer was eventually forced to have his leg amputated and he died soon after from his wounds. Johnson and his men went back to Fort Stanwix and participated in the final days of the siege.
This illustration depicts the Battle of Oriskany. Nicholas Herkimer is just to the right of the center, propped against the tree, directing his men. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Quick Facts About the Battle of Oriskany
- Date Started: The Battle of Oriskany started on Wednesday, August 6, 1777.
- Date Ended: The battle ended on August 6, 1777.
- Location: The battle took place just southeast of Fort Stanwix, along the Mohawk River.
- Military Campaign: The siege was part of the Saratoga Campaign of 1777.
- Who Won: Britain won the Battle of Oriskany.
Key Events in the Battle of Oriskany
- American forces learned that Joseph Brant had led Indian warriors out of Canada to join the expedition of Barry St. Leger.
- General Philip Schuyler told Brigadier General Nicholas Herkimer to keep watch on Brant’s movements.
- When Herkimer heard Brant and St. Leger were advancing on Fort Stanwix, he assembled the Tryon County Militia.
- Herkimer and his men were headed to Fort Stanwix when they were ambushed by a British force just west of present-day Utica, New York.
- Herkimer’s horse was shot out from under him. The same bullet hit his leg and shattered it below the knee.
- His men propped him up against a tree, where he continued to give orders during the battle. The men wanted him to leave, but he refused, and said, “I will face the enemy.” Legend has it that Hermiker sat there, with his back leaning on the tree, smoking a pipe while he directed his men.
- A thunderstorm started, and the fighting stopped for about an hour.
- After it stopped, the Americans sent a party out to raid the Indian and Loyalist camps near Fort Stanwix. When the Indians found out, they abandoned the attack. Johnson was forced to return to Fort Stanwix as well.
- Colonel Samuel Campbell led the Americans back to Fort Dayton.
- When Johnson returned to Fort Stanwix, he asked St. Leger to give him more men, so he could lead an expedition against the Americans who survived. St. Leger denied the request and was forced to end the Siege of Fort Stanwix about 10 days later.
The Battle of Oriskany Overview and History
In the fall of 1776, British forces pushed the American Northern Army out of Canada, from Quebec City all the way to Lake Champlain in New York. The British forces, under the command of Guy Carleton, chased after the Americans but were delayed by the Battle of Valcour Island. At that battle, a small American navy, led by Benedict Arnold, gave the army enough time to take refuge at Fort Ticonderoga and other fortifications. By the time the British broke through it was too late in the year to continue the chase. The British withdrew and in November and December 1776 they started to plan their next campaign against the United States.
Planning the Saratoga Campaign
Over the course of the winter of 1776–1777, General John Burgoyne developed the play for the British military campaign, which would be carried out in the spring of 1777. The plan, known as Burgoyne’s Campaign, called for a large force, under his command, to move south out of Canada and into western New York. A second force, led by Barry St. Leger, would move into the Mohawk River Vally. Finally, a third army, under the command of General William Howe, would move north out of New York City. Burgoyne believed if the plan was successful, the British would be able to take control of the Hudson River Valley and then isolate New England from the rest of the colonies, effectively cutting the United States in two. It would allow the British would be able to restore order to New England and the other colonies would fall in line.
This painting by Joshua Reynolds depicts John Burgoyne. Image Source: Wikipedia.
Preparations at Fort Stanwix
The American Northern Army was under the command of General William Schuyler and implemented a plan to slow down the British advance. In April, he sent Colonel Peter Gansevoort and the 3rd New York Regiment to Fort Stanwix to make repairs so it could be used to defend against the British invasion. Gansevoort and his men arrived in May and gave the fort a new name — Fort Schuyler.
St. Leger Advances into the Mohawk River Valley
Meanwhile, on June 23, St. Leger’s expedition left Montreal and headed for Fort Stanwix. Along the way, St. Leger learned the Americans were fortifying the fort. When he arrived at Oswego on July 14, he was joined by Joseph Brant and around 800 Native American Indian warriors from various tribes.
Soon after, he sent a large portion of his army on the march to Fort Stanwix, however, its progress was slowed down by large trees the Americans had cut down and left on the road. St. Leger’s men were forced to cut a new road through the forest. St. Leger and the rest of his men set out down the new road and St. Leger received a report that the Americans had sent an expedition with supplies to Fort Stanwix. St. Leger sent Brant and about 230 men to attack the expedition, cut if off, and capture the supplies.
Mohawk chief Joseph Brant joined St. Leger at Oswego. This portrait of Brant was painted by George Romney in 1776. Image Source: Wikipedia.
The Siege of Fort Stanwix Begins — August 2
Unfortunately for St. Leger, Brant did not arrive at the fort until August 2, and the expedition had already arrived and safely unloaded the supplies within the fort. The members of the expedition, who were from the 9th Massachusetts Regiment, stayed at Fort Stanwix to help defend the fort. The next day, July 3, St. Leger and the part of his army arrived at the fort, but the artillery was not with him. It would not arrive for a few more days.
St. Leger paraded his men in front of the fort, in an effort to intimidate the Americans and convince them to surrender. The Americans refused to surrender. St. Leger responded by surrounding the fort.
Nicholas Herkimer Gathers the Tryon County Militia
Nicholas Herkimer was the head of the Tryon County Committee of Safety. On July 17, he issued a proclamation that warned people living in the area that the possibility of a British attack existed. About two weeks later, on July 30, friendly Oneida Indians told him the British expedition led by St. Leger was about four days from Fort Stanwix. Herkimer called for the militia to assemble, and around 800 men answered, however, most of them were poorly trained farmers.
On August 4, Herkimer and his men marched out from Fort Dayton. The next day, they camped near the Oneida village of Oriska. Along the way, Herkimer was joined by a group of Oneida warriors, led by Han Yerry. Yerry had somewhere between 60 to 100 men with him.
Molly Brant Warns St. Leger
At Fort Stanwix, St. Leger received a message from Molly Brant, Joseph Brant’s sister, on the 5th. The message informed him that Herkimer and the Tryon County Militia were on their way to assist the Americans at Fort Stanwix.
Herkimer Sends Messengers to Fort Stanwix
On the night of the 5th, Herkimer sent three men to Fort Stanwix, carrying messages for Colonel Peter Gansevoort, the fort’s commander. Herkimer asked Gansevoort to fire off three cannon shots to acknowledge he had received the messages, and then send men out from the fort to attack the British. However, the messengers were delayed and did not reach the fort until the morning of the 6th
Sir John Johson and the King’s Royal Rangers
St. Leger responded to the threat of Herkimer and his men by sending Sir John Johnson out with his King’s Royal Yorkers, a Loyalist regiment from New York, to scout the Americans. The next morning, August 6, Joseph Brant followed to join Johnson. He took around 400 Indian warriors with him, along with men from Butler’s Rangers.
Herkimer’s Council of War
Meanwhile, Herkimer called a Council of War on the morning of the 6th. Since he had not heard the three cannon shots from Fort Stanwix, he wanted to wait and keep his men at the camp. However, the other officers wanted to continue, and even accused him of favoring the Loyalists, because his brother was serving under St. Leger. Herkimer finally agreed to leave the camp and move on to Fort Stanwix.
Johnson and the Indians Set Up an Ambush
The British force set up an ambush about six miles from the fort, where the road went down into a ravine that had a small stream running through it. The spot was chosen by two of the Indian war chiefs that were with Brant — Sayenqueraghta and Cornplanter. Those two, along with Johnson, devised a plan where the King’s Royal Yorkers would attack the head of the American column, and then the Indians would attack the rest of the column.
The British forces took their positions and around 10:00 in the morning, Herkimer and his men approached the ravine. Herkimer was near the head of the column, riding his horse. He went down into the ravine, crossed the stream, and then headed up the other side.
The Battle of Oriskany Begins
Suddenly, the Indians that were near the end of the column opened fire. The Americans were surprised and the rear guard scattered. Herkimer turned to see what was happening and was quickly shot in the leg. The ball shattered his leg and also killed his horse, which collapsed and fell on him.
Herkimer Refuses to Leave the Battlefield
Some of his men came to help him, moved him out from under the horse, and carried him to a tree that was nearby. They wanted to remove him from the battlefield, but he told them, “I will face the enemy.” Legend has it that he sat there for the rest of the battle, leaning against the tree, giving orders, and encouraging his men — all while smoking his pipe.
The Indians that had attacked first had moved on the Americans too early. They were supposed to wait until the entire column was in the ravine, but the rear guard of the American column was still up on the bank. Those men panicked and fled, and some of the Indians chased after them for several miles. After about half an hour, Herkimer had lost roughly half of his men.
A good number of the Indians that were left did not have guns. They were armed with tomahawks. After the Americans fired, they rushed in with their tomahawks while the Americans reloaded.
The fight was intense, but the Americans were able to fight their way out to the west side of the ravine. Johnson was shocked by the ferocity the Americans fought with and went back to the camp to ask St. Leger for reinforcements. St. Leger gave him about 70 men.
The Battle Pauses During a Thunderstorm
While Johnson led them back to the fight, a thunderstorm started, and the fighting paused for about an hour. It gave Herkimer and his men time to regroup and he instructed his men to fight in pairs. He told them one man should fire, while the other reloaded, and to go back and forth, so they could reduce the effectiveness of the Indians who were fighting with tomahawks.
Americans Raid the Indian and Loyalist Camps
The messengers Herkimer had sent to Fort Stanwix finally arrived around 11:00 am, and Gansevoort organized his men for the attack Herkimer had requested. When the rain stopped, Lieutenant Colonel Marinus Willett led about 250 men out of the fort and raided the camps of the Indian warriors that were allied with the British. Willett and his men drove off some of the Indians that had remained in the camps, captured others, and stole supplies. They also moved on the Loyalist camp where they took some of Johnson’s personal possessions, including his writings and letters.
Indians Withdraw and the Battle Comes to an End
One of the Indians who had stayed behind to guard the camp was able to escape from the American raid. He ran to the scene of the fighting and told the other Indians what was happening. They immediately broke off the attack and ran back to their camps. Once they left, Johnson had no choice but to call off his men and withdraw. When the British left, the Americans moved into the field to gather the wounded.
Herkimer was carried from the battlefield, and his leg was amputated. Unfortunately, the operation did not go well and he died of his wounds on August 16, 1777.
Johnson and Sayenqueraghta wanted to go after the Americans and follow them down river to German Flatts, but St. Leger declined the request.
Military Commanders at the Battle of Oriskany
Prominent American Military Leaders
- Nicholas Herkimer
Prominent British Military Leaders
- Sir John Johnson
Estimated Casualties at the Battle of Oriskany
- The total estimated casualties at the Battle of Oriskany were around 495 killed, wounded, or missing.
- The Americans suffered around 465 casualties.
- The British suffered around 30 casualties.
Results of the Battle of Oriskany
- The outcome of the Battle of Oriskany was a British victory, although both sides claimed they had won. The British only abandoned the battle because of the American raids on their camps.
- The Indians were upset over the role they played in the battle and felt the British took advantage of them. When they joined St. Leger, they thought they would be used for scouting and raiding parties, not necessarily involved in battles where they could suffer casualties.
- Over the next 10 days, many of the Indians abandoned the siege, and word reached St. Leger that Benedict Arnold was on the way with American reinforcements. St. Leger decided to abandon the siege on August 22 and retreated across Lake Ontario.
This illustration depicts General Barry St. Leger, who commanded British forces at the Siege of Fort Stanwix. Image Source: New York Public Libray Digital Collections.
Interesting Facts About the Battle of Oriskany
- It is said that within an hour after the battle started, the creek was red, and filled with blood, which is why it is also known as the Battle of Bloody Creek. It is also referred to as Herkimer’s Engagement, out of respect for the valiant effort of the American commander. It is also called the Battle or Oriska, after the name of the Indian village that was nearby.
- This battle marked the beginning of the civil war in the Iroquois Confederacy. Brant’s Mohawks retaliated against the Oneida that were allied with the Americans and burned the Oneida settlement of Oriska. The Oneida attacked the Mohawk settlements at Tiononderoge, Canajoharie, and Fort Hunter. Most of the remaining Mohawks fled to Canada.
- Loyalist John Butler commanded an Indian detachment in the battle. His effort in the battle led to his promotion to Lieutenant Colonel. Eventually, he was given command of Butler’s Rangers.
- At the time, there were not many people living in the Mohawk River Valley. The casualties suffered at the Battle of Oriskany had a significant impact on the families living there, whether they were German, British, or Indian.
- When Benedict Arnold marched into Tryon County about two weeks later and asked for men to join him, very few volunteered. This led Arnold to devise a plan to trick St. Leger into thinking he had more men than he really did. The trick worked, and St. Leger ended the Siege of Fort Stanwix.
Significance of the Battle of Oriskany
The Battle of Oriskany is important to the outcome of the American Revolutionary War and the history of the United States because British forces, under the command of General Barry St. Leger, ended their attempt to take control of the Mohawk River Valley, which was a critical part of the General John Burgoyne’s overall campaign. Without support from St. Leger, Burgoyne was defeated at Saratoga, which allowed the Americans to retain control of the Hudson River Valley and the Mohawk River Valley. The American victory also convinced the French to provide military support to the United States.
Timeline of the Battle of Oriskany
This timeline shows how the Battle of Oriskany fits into the events of the Saratoga Campaign.
- July 2–July 6, 1777 — Siege of Fort Ticonderoga
- July 6, 1777 — Battle of Skeneseborough
- July 7, 1777 — Battle of Hubbardton
- July 8, 1777 — Battle of Fort Anne
- August 2, 1777 — Siege of Fort Stanwix
- August 6, 1777 — Battle of Oriskany
- August 16, 1777 — Battle of Bennington
- September 19, 1777 — First Battle of Saratoga, Freeman’s Farm
- October 7, 1777 — Second Battle Saratoga, Bemis Heights
- October 17, 1777 — Surrender of Burgoyne’s Army