Siege of Fort Stanwix Summary
The Siege of Fort Stanwix was a military engagement between the United States of America and Britain that took place from August 2, 1777, to August 22, 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 and marched toward the fort, in an effort to help break the siege. However, they were ambushed by British forces at the Battle of Oriskany and defeated. Soon after, Benedict Arnold volunteered to lead a force of 700-1,000 men to break the siege. As he moved on the fort, he used a prisoner to trick St. Leger into thinking he had significantly more soldiers with him. St. Leger responded by lifting the siege and returning to Fort Ticonderoga.
This map of the Siege of Fort Stanwix shows the positions of British forces above the fort. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Quick Facts About the Sige of Fort Stanwix
- Date Started: The Siege of Fort Stanwix started on Saturday, August 2, 1777.
- Date Ended: The siege ended on Friday, August 22, 1777.
- Location: The siege took place at Fort Stanwix, west of Lake Oneida, in present-day Rome, New York.
- Military Campaign: The siege was part of the Saratoga Campaign of 1777.
- Who Won: The United States of America won the Siege of Fort Stanwix.
Key Events in the Siege of Fort Stanwix
- In April, General Philip Schuyler sent Colonel Peter Gansevoort and the 3rd New York Regiment to Fort Stanwix. Gansevoort arrived in May.
- British General Barry St. Leger and his expedition left Montreal on June 23, 1777,
- St. Leger and his men arrived at Oswego on July 17, where they were joined by Joseph Brant and around 800 Native American Indian warriors.
- When St. Leger found out a supply train was headed to the fort, he sent Brant and a small force to intercept it. However, the supply train beat Brant to the fort. Brant arrived on August 2 and began the siege. St. Leger arrived on the 3rd.
- On August 5, St. Leger was told the Tryon County Militia was on its way to the fort to help the Americans break the siege. St. Leger sent Sir John Johnson out to meet them. The British ambushed the Americans at the Battle of Oriskany and forced them to retreat to Fort Dayton.
- Benedict Arnold volunteered to lead an expedition of American forces to Fort Stanwix, to help break the siege.
- As Arnold’s force closed in on the fort, he decided to try to trick St. Leger into thinking he had more men with him. He told a Loyalist prisoner that he would spare his life if he went to the British camp and spread rumors that his army was significantly larger than it really was. The Loyalist agreed.
- When St. Leger heard Arnold’s force was superior in numbers, he called off the siege and went back to Fort Ticonderoga.
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.
The Siege of Fort Stanwix 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 it off, and capture the supplies.
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, August 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.
The American Flag is Raised for the First Time in History at Fort Stanwix
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 and St. Leger responded by surrounding the fort. Gansevoort wrote a letter to St. Leger and told him:
“It is my determined resolution…to defend this fort and garrison to the last extremity, in behalf of the United American States, who have placed me here to defend it against all their enemies.”
Just two weeks earlier, Congress passed a resolution that described the first flag for the unified colonies. A variation of that flag was raised for the first time in history on August 3, by the garrison at Fort Stanwix. The men in the fort made the flag by cutting up clothing and stitching together 13 red, white, and blue stripes.
This illustration depicts the first American flag that was flown over Fort Stanwix.
Battle of Oriskany — August 6
On August 5, St. Leger received a report from Brant’s sister, Molly, that American reinforcements from the Tryon County Militia were marching toward the fort. About 75 miles downriver, General Nicholas Herkimer of the Tryon County Militia learned about the British attack on the fort. He organized a group of about 800 men and boys, along with Oneida Indian scouts. St. Leger sent Sir John Johnson and a small force of Loyalists and Mohawk warriors to confront Herkimer. Johnson set up an ambush about six miles east of Fort Stanwix, and the Americans marched into it around 10:00 in the morning. The British force opened fire, and Herkimer was shot in the leg. He had his men prop him up against a tree, and he directed his men in battle from there. The fighting was intense and the Americans suffered heavy casualties and withdrew to Fort Dayton. Herkimer died there of his wounds on August 16.
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.
Americans Raid British Camps
Although the British won the battle, the Americans at Fort Stanwix took advantage while part of St. Leger’s force was at Oriskany. When Gansevoort saw some of the camps were almost empty, he sent Marinus Willett and 250 men to raid them. When the British force that had fought at Oriskany returned, the Indians found their supplies had been taken. They were already upset over the casualties they suffered at Oriskany. At that point, the Indians cast doubt on their relationship with the British.
The Siege Continues and Gansevoort Sends for Reinforcements
St. Leger’s confidence had grown after learning of the victory at Oriskany. Once again, he demanded the surrender of the fort and threatened to allow the Indians to massacre everyone in the fort. The Americans refused, and the siege continued.
On August 8, Gansevoort sent Willett and another office to carry a message to Schuyler to inform him of the situation. However, that same day, Schuyler had already sent reinforcements under the command of Ebeneezer Learned toward the fort.
A few days later, on August 12, Schuyler held a Council of War, where he and his officers discussed how to deal with the threat of Burgoyne and St. Leger. Although the council voted not to send reinforcements to the fort, Benedict Arnold volunteered to lead an expedition, which Schuyler agreed to. Then, on August 14, General Israel Putnam also sent reinforcements.
Willet was still on his way to meet with Schuyler when he met with Arnold and his expedition on the road. Instead of continuing to Schuyler, he joined with Arnold and the force went to Fort Dayton. Once they arrived, Arnold tried to raise volunteers from the Tryon County Militia, however, the effort did not go as he planned, and he was able to raise around 100 men.
Benedict Arnold Tricks Barry St. Leger
This led Arnold to devise a plot to trick St. Leger. He sent an informant, a Dutchman named Han Yost Schuyler, to the camp of the Mohawks who were with St. Leger. When Schuyler arrived, he told then Arnold’s force was significantly larger than it really was. The Mohawks believed him and passed the message on to St. Leger.
On August 21, St. Leger wrote that Arnold was moving toward Fort Stanwix, “by rapid and forced marches, with 3,000 men.” St. Leger also had another problem, and that was that at least 200 of his Indian allies had already abandoned the siege and left. The rest of them were threatening to leave unless he lifted the siege.
This illustration depicts Benedict Arnold, who tricked St. Leger into ending the Siege of Fort Stanwix. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.
The Siege of Fort Stanwix Ends — August 22
St. Leger decide to end the siege and go to Ticonderoga on August 22. On August 23, Arnold arrived at Fort Stanwix with reinforcements. He sent a detachment of around 500 men after St. Leger, but they were too late. St. Leger and his men escaped across Lake Oneida in boats. However, St. Leger did not arrive at Ticonderoga until late September, and it was too late to provide any help to Burgoyne at Saratoga.
Military Commanders at the Siege of Fort Stanwix
Prominent American Military Leaders
- Peter Gansevoort
- Marinus Willet
- Benedict Arnold
Prominent British Military Leaders
- Barry St. Leger
- Sir John John Johnson
- John Butler
Estimated Casualties at the Siege of Fort Stanwix
- The total estimated casualties at the Siege of Fort Stanwix were around 100 killed, wounded, or missing.
- The Americans suffered around 34 casualties.
- The British suffered around 66 casualties.
Results of the Siege of Fort Stanwix
- The outcome of the Siege of Fort Stanwix was an American victory.
- British forces under the command of General Barry St. Leger abandoned the siege and returned to Fort Ticonderoga, which ended the attempt to take control of the Mohawk River Valley.
- St. Leger’s retreat weakened the overall strength of Burgoyne’s forces at Saratoga.
- When news of the retreat spread throughout western New York, militia forces were encouraged by the possibility of defeating Burgoyne, and thousands joined the Continental Army, under the command of General Horatio Gates, at Saratoga.
Interesting Facts About Fort Stanwix
- Fort Stanwix is known as “the fort that never surrendered” because the British were never able to capture it during the war.
- The fort was used as a base of operations to launch the Clinton-Sullivan Campaign against Indian tribes in 1779.
- It continued to be attacked by Indians and Loyalists throughout the war, and Joseph Brant attacked it again in 1780.
- Fort Stanwix was abandoned by American forces in 1781, after a fire.
- The fort is near the Oneida Carrying Place, which was a mile-long strip of land where boats and supplies had to be carried or dragged between the Mohawk River and Wood Creek. It was also the longest portage in the larger New York waterway system that connected the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes.
Significance of the Siege of Fort Stanwix
The Siege of Fort Stanwix is important to the outcome of the American Revolutionary War and the history of the United States because American forces were able to hold the fort and keep the British force, under the command of Barry St. Leger, from helping General John Burgoyne at the Battles of Saratoga. At Saratoga, Burgoyne was defeated, 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 Siege of Fort Stanwix
This timeline shows how the Siege of Fort Stanwix 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