With Musket and Tomahawk Volume II – Michael O. Logusz

The Mohawk Valley Campaign in the Wilderness War of 1777

In a post on Volume I of this series on the American Revolution’s 1777 campaign in New York State, I discuss the overall strategy for this year.  The British attempted to bring the revolt to and end by subduing New York state with a three pronged invasion from north, south, and west.  This volume is on the invasion from the west, up the Mohawk valley towards Albany.

Again, initial troubles

General Barry St. Leger would lead the attack with about 500 regular soldiers and a large force of Indians.The first step was to collect the Indian forces, and there was trouble. In London, the idea was that you could call them up like regular forces.  In the wilderness of the Great Lakes, this wasn’t so easy.  A huge meeting was held on the shores of Lake Ontario, and St, Leger was met with some hostility, as previous English promises had not been met and joining this expedition would be breaking their own word given to the Patriot colonists to not attack the settlements.  New and extensive promises had to be given, and the Indians were assured that the fighting would be easy and the loot rich.

Dealing with Indian allies was never easy, and many of the British on the scene were skeptical of their usefulness on an extended campaign.  Again, things looked much easier on paper than they did on the ground, hundreds of miles from any substantial settlement.

The Gloves are Off

This backwoods war was considerably nastier than you often get to hear. Both sides had bounties for scalps, and both sides scalped, including colonial settlers and regular British units.  And they didn’t just scalp Indians.  The book relates a lot of stories about scalping and butchery in battles and outside of battles.

St. Leger also sent parties out to attack concentrations of Patriot settlements outside the Mohawk valley with the usual atrocities.

Fort Stanwix

This fort was the first obstacle. It was held by a Patriot garrison, who decided to hold out to the last, since the chances after a surrender would be poor indeed.  Here the terror policy of the English army backfired, as their army had no ability to mount a real siege and could not afford an assault.  A blockade was begun.

Oriskany and the raid on St. Leger’s Camp

General Herkimer, at Fort Dayton to the east heard about the attack on Fort Stanwix and organized a relief army.  When St. Leger was informed of its approach, he sent about 800 troops, mostly Indians, to ambush it.  Initially the ambush worked well, but the Patriot army did not dissolve and soon the two forces were locked in a bloody struggle with gun and tomahawk, hand to hand.  Losses for both sides mounted.  Again, the Patriots knew that fleeing or surrendering would lead to death and they fought with desperation.

Meanwhile, the garrison of Fort Stanwix had been notified by a scout of Herkimer’s approach, very late since he had been pinned down outside the fort by Loyalist troops. Taking stock, and hearing the firing for Oriskany the commander decided to sortie from the fort and attack the few troops left around the Fort.  Twenty one wagon loads of supplies were taken into the Fort with no losses.

As time went on at Oriskany, the Patriots collected themselves and delivered more punishment to their attackers, but they had suffered too much to move forward.  They retired back towards their base.

End of the Siege

Although the siege of Stanwix continued, things were falling apart for St. Leger.  His supplies were short, his Indian allies were deserting or hostile at the losses they had suffered, and a new relief expedition would be coming.  When news of it did come, mostly a bluff run by General Benedict Arnold passed along through friendly Indians, St, Leger decided to fall back. The attempt to fall back went to pieces.  The disgruntled Indians, giving liquor to make them tractable, instead attacked the regular troops and looted supplies and a small battle was fought.  The Indian allies vanished, and the rest of the army went to pieces, abandoning its equipment and only a few stragglers made it back to Lake Ontario.  Arnold and many troops from the area went back to the Hudson to face Burgoyne at Saratoga.

Aftermath

Destroying this force was a major confirmation that Patriot forces were tough opponents in the war, to be confirmed at Saratoga a little later.  It is hard to see what good could have come in a military sense from St. Leger’s invasion – it was too weak to do much more than burn and kill but too strong to fan out and do that effectively.  Even had the first fort fell, the forces collected around Albany would have forced it away sooner or later, with more destruction than it caused in history. Its legacy can be little more than the numerous atrocities it spread across Western New York.

Engineering Victory – Justin S. Solonick

The Union Siege of Vicksburg

There are a lot of books on the campaign of Vicksburg, and the battles around Vicksburg.  I even know of one that discusses the geology of the region and its impact on the campaign.  This is the first that concentrates on the Siege as a siege, rather than a battle.

The purpose of a formal siege as understood by a trained 19th century military man, is to get the army close enough to the works to batter down the walls and works, provide a sheltered path for troops to launch an assault that will carry the fort.  In standard military rules, the defenders would then give up and surrender at this point and save the risk of an assault.

In my readings as a young adult, I had always gotten the impression that the defenders gave up a little early to get terms on the 4th of July.  When I visited the place, though, I was impressed to see an approach trench on the north of the town moving straight up a very steep hill to nearly the top, marked by a sign stating that this was the Union position on July 4.  They were close indeed!

The picture below is that same approach trench – you can see the scar going up toward the Confederate line at the top of the hill..

The Union Army really had not intended to besiege the place, and so did not have any prepared tools and guns ready. Also, the Western army had few trained engineers, who normally direct almost every operation – one count says there were four. And this position was miles and miles across.  But one thing Union armies, especially the Western ones could do was improvise.

The first method used to get engineers was to dragoon any civilian engineer in the ranks and put them to work directing operations. Also, West Point officers had some engineering training.  One commissary officer, somewhat overweight complained that he could best be used as a sap roller!  A sap roller was a round mass of branches and reeds used to create a bullet-resistant shield in front of a trench heading forward to a position.

So while at first the knowledge was concentrated in a few, circumstances required training to be spread down to the rank and file.  While this caused some initial problems, later on the engineers found that it made more work possible since they could delegate to the entire army than to just a few engineering troops available. And the troops were willing enough once they got the idea.  There was an incident where General William T. Sherman was riding by and saw a detail of about 100 men idle.  Asking what was up, the officer in charge showed him an order to make 50 gabions and 50 fascines. The officer then said the unit was only a year old and had never been in siege work before.  Sherman got down from his horse, asked for an axe and personally started cutting down small trees and driving them into the earth to make a gabion.  This is like a large bottomless woven basket, which could be carried to a position, hammered into the ground and filled with earth to make a shotproof wall quickly.  Sherman then cut grapevines and began personally weaving them to form the walls.  After this was well begun, the began binding straight cane stems into bundles – fascines. These have a number of uses – bracing dirt walls, or tossing in a trench to fill it in quickly in an attack. By the time Sherman left, those men knew how to make fascines and gabions, if not the French names.

The author’s theory is that this is the last classic siege – the enemy surrounded, parallel trenches set up and approach trenches set up close for a final assault. It was modified somewhat for the changes in military technology and the terrain. Two traditional mines were dug and a part of the defenses blown up.  Other sieges in the Civil War, like Petersburg and Atlanta, did not surround the city at any time, or create approach trenches.

This book puts a new, complementary spin on this important campaign.

 

With Musket and Tomahawk Volume I – Michael O. Logusz

The Saratoga Campaign and the Wilderness War of 1777

The Saratoga Campaign was supposed to be the finishing stroke to crush the Rebellion of the American Colonies. After the retirement from Boston, the reinforced British returned and took New York City, nearly destroying Washington’s army multiple times in the process. Now, this success was to lead to a grand campaign to cut off the New England colonies and isolate them by a three pronged invasion of inland New York from Canada and New York City. It looked nice on paper, anyway.

And usually, studies remain at this elevated, paper level. This book, and the second volume of a three part series, go beyond that to put you in the realities of 18th century life and warfare in the colonies better than any other I have read.

The first reality is that the area to be traversed was a true wilderness that few Europeans had any idea about.  Inland travel was virtually impossible away from the few tracks and rivers.  Scouts could move well, but wagons and bulk traffic was virtually impossible.  So the idea that you needed to occupy this hinterland to ‘cut off’ New England was absurd. This traffic, if any, probably went by sea or by roads much closer to New York City than Albany and points north.  And putting a few thousand men in Albany wasn’t going to cut off the tracks for more limited communication such as messages and couriers.

The next issue was that of moving armies through the land.  Europe was trying to limit the impact of wars on civilians since the horrors of the 30 Years War, but even so imagine yourself on a tiny farm in the wilderness when a military unit of a few hundred men show up looking for a meal, or even more supplies. Even if they don’t lose control and shoot you and your family and burn the farm, the loss of what little food reserves were needed for selling for supplies or keeping you alive in the winter would often be ruinous.  The other factor was that both of the armies moving from Canada were going to make heavy use of Indians as scouts and even as a large part of the invading forces.  Indians on the warpath were going to generate a large number of atrocities. It was how they made war.

Not that the British weren’t counting on this terror factor in hopes of cowing the colonists. However, with the Indians not discriminating between loyal settlers and rebels, there wasn’t a lot of profit in staying loyal. so the effect ran to increase the bitterness towards England overall.  And during the year a woman, Jane McCrea, who was engaged to an officer fighting with Burgoyne, was killed by Indians and was made a symbol for the rebels and a reason for dissidents in the home country to oppose the war.

Initial Missteps

The first step in the plan going wrong was that Gen. Howe in New York wasn’t very interested in moving inland.  He wanted to use his naval forces and army to descend on the Rebel capital in Philadelphia.  And so he did, leaving the third prong moving north up the Hudson very weak. It was really now a support force, likely unable to act alone if something happened to the other two forces.

The northern forces had issues too – having fewer men than planned and being short of transportation.

Burgoyne Moves South

Volume I follows the northern invasion directly south from Canada.  The route was over Lake Champlain and the road beside it.  This let most of the heavy supplies travel in boats. At the south end of the lake as Fort Ticonderoga, a rebel stronghold. Burgoyne reached this fort and after a poorly conducted defense it fell, and the Patriots retired south, harassed by Indian scouts.  It was now early July.

Now, in the middle of the wilderness the real world began to take hold.  The original plan was to move up a river to Lake George, which ended up very close to the Hudson River. Now that he was on the scene, this river was little more than a rocky creek, and the other lake was 200 feet higher than Lake Champlain and the trail was small and nearly vertical. The river was vertical…there as a waterfall between Lake George and the river.

There were roads heading south, but no road heading for the Hudson.  Burgoyne decided to stay in this district and build a road to the Hudson, calling back for horses and wagons to Canada.  This took about a month, while Loyalist forces collected ahead of him.

Bennington

While collecting himself for a final advance toward Albany, Burgoyne heard that there was a supply depot in Bennington, Vermont.  A force of about 800 men including some 150 British loyal colonists went off to try and collect them.  However, this was also where John Stark was collecting Patriot forces and he outnumbered this column.  The ensuing battle was a disaster, with most of the column being killed or captured.  Any loyalist men caught was killed by the army, or by angry Patriot civilians.  This was in no way a clean war. In this blow about 10 percent of Burgoyne’s force was lost.

Raid of Fort Ticonderoga

As Burgoyne moved off down the Hudson, Patriot forces attacked Ticonderoga in his rear and destroyed the supplies and boats there.  Burgoyne’s supply line north was now almost cut off.

saratoga

With this news, Burgoyne had to break through the superior Patriot army fortified at Saratoga on the Hudson.  Beyond that was Albany, and a possible linkup with New York City.  There were several engagements there, which you could argue might be tactical victories but the strategic position was the same after each.  The Patriot army blocked the road south, it was being reinforced, and each battle cost the English men, officers, and supplies that could not be replenished.  Eventually Burgoyne had no choice but to surrender his force.

New York Starves

New York City, cut off from its agricultural supplies and stuffed with a garrison and numerous loyalist refugees, would be very short of supplies for the forseeable future. The inland areas, ravaged by war, would not be a lot better off themselves this year.

A final incident

The author relates a story where a group of retreating British soldiers were spotted by Captain Allen and some scouts. However, there was a black woman and baby along with the group.  It was common knowledge that blacks found by British soldiers, slave or free were taken and sold in Canada as slaves.

Allen intercepted the group, and found that the woman was Dinah Mattis, a domestic slave.  She was removed from her captors and sent to Vermont, where she and her baby were given papers as free citizens.

Overview

This book moves easily between the small personal details and the big picture views that somehow get left out of most descriptions of the campaigns.  Even the views of the impact on blacks, slaves, and women does not descend into political correctness but actually shows the complexity of the life in the wilderness.  From a “witch woman” executing prisoners to Jane McCrea and Dinah Mattis, its a nasty and complex world that we don’t often hear about.