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.
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.
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.