Share This Article

On Aug. 6, 1777, Brig. Gen. Nicholas Herkimer, 800 Tryon County militiamen and several dozen Indian scouts stood on an old military road at the edge of a dark forest six miles east of Fort Stanwix (near present-day Oriskany, N.Y.). In council with his staff Herkimer argued that the Patriots—who were en route to Stanwix— should await reinforcements rather than risk ambush by Loyalist troops under Sir John Johnson and John Butler and their Indian allies under Joseph Brant. But to Herkimer’s young officers his caution spelled cowardice. They called him a traitor and threw in his face that his brother was a Tory. Enraged, Herkimer mounted his mare and answered: “You want to fight, do you? You’ll be the first to run when you smell burnt gunpowder!”

He was correct. In the subsequent battle most militiamen who did run died, hunted down by British-allied Mohawk warriors. Most of Herkimer’s scouts also died in the first volleys of an ambush. They had failed to detect the trap.

Brant’s deployment along the road was a textbook example of Iroquoian tactics: Shaped like a fishhook, the ambush was meant to stop the head of a column in its tracks and rake the length of it with well-aimed fire. Properly executed, it would leave few survivors. Brant knew his terrain: Where the road from Oriskany crossed a plateau between two ravines, Herkimer’s men and supply wagons would stretch for a mile. When Johnson’s Royal Greens (King’s Royal Regiment) and Butler’s Rangers smashed the head of the column at the brink of the second ravine, Brant and his raiders would drop into the first ravine to capture the wagons and seal the rear.

It might have worked, and nearly did, except that when Johnson and Butler’s Tories opened fire at the second ravine, Herkimer’s wagons had not yet entered the first. His rearguard battalion, Colonel Frederick Visscher’s 3rd, was behind the wagons and outside the killing grounds. As Visscher’s men saw the inferno erupt ahead of them, they fled, drawing Brant’s Mohawks in pursuit. At the bottom of the first ravine, where a brook meandered out of the hills, men of Herkimer’s 4th Battalion had paused to drink. The August day was hot and humid. Unprepared for a fight, they endured sheets of musket fire until the rivulet ran red with their blood. Meanwhile, at the head of the column the 1st and 2nd battalions also faced murderous fire but managed to cohere, plunging into the tangled brush on either side of the roadway to return fire.

Not until the Civil War was a major battle waged on American soil with the ferocity of Oriskany. The fighting was at close range, often hand to hand, with many of the dead scalped and mutilated. Erstwhile neighbors, bearing deep grudges against each other, settled their differences with hatchet, bayonet and knife. At Oriskany the Iroquois League, a centuries-old alliance, fractured for the first time as Oneidas, aiding Herkimer, engaged Brant’s Mohawks and Senecas. Nearly half of Herkimer’s militiamen were killed outright. The dazed, exhausted survivors extricated the injured, including the mortally wounded Herkimer himself, with only the greatest difficulty.

Oriskany was part of the greater Saratoga campaign, waged along an axis stretching from Fort Stanwix, west of the Mohawk River, to Bennington, east of the Hudson. The center of the struggle, Albany, afforded access to the confluence of the Mohawk and Hudson, the enemy’s ultimate target. When Herkimer and his farmer-soldiers moved out of German Flatts (across from present-day Herkimer, N.Y.), they were marching to relieve the siege of Fort Stanwix by one of British Maj. Gen. John Burgoyne’s most capable officers, Lt. Col. Barry St. Leger, who with a small force of Redcoats and a large band of Indians and Tories had pinned some 700 Continental soldiers into the stockade beside the Mohawk. The Americans, under Colonel Peter Gansevoort and Lt. Col. Marinus Willett, were desperately short of ammunition and in need of reinforcements.

Few British regulars fought at Oriskany and no Continentals. The carnage lasted into the afternoon, interrupted by a summer downpour that gave Herkimer time to reorganize his lines on a small knoll short of the second ravine. With half their command shot to pieces, the survivors repelled repeated assaults, and Herkimer was left holding the blood-soaked field. Tryon’s militia was effectively destroyed, but Stanwix held, soon to be relieved by reinforcements under Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold. Tactically, Brant won the engagement. Strategically, Herkimer and Gansevoort ensured what mattered most—defeat of the British along the westward expanse of the Saratoga line.

If you visit present-day Oriskany Battlefield State Historic Site Rome and Utica, expect no forests—they are long gone. [], off State Route 69 between Marking the alleged spot of Herkimer’s final stand is a 19th century obelisk and a seasonal visitor center. The brook running through the first ravine along the track of the old military road still burbles. The best entry point for understanding the battle is the reconstructed Fort Stanwix [], now in downtown Rome.


Originally published in the May 2012 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.