The Battle of Oriskany: A Civil War in New York

Oriskany was one of the Revolutionary War's bloodiest battles, reflecting the American Revolution's dual role as a civil war in New York and within the Iroquois Confederacy.

Jun 7, 2024By Dale Pappas, PhD Modern European History, MA History, BA History, Italian Studies

battle oriskany american revolution


The American Revolution is remembered as a war for independence from British rule, but the fight for freedom was also a civil war that tore families apart. On a broader level, the war violently split communities, with some rushing to serve in George Washington’s Continental Army and others joining British forces. Many more volunteered in local Patriot or Loyalist militias, while others desperately tried to remain neutral. The 1777 Battle of Oriskany did not involve the war’s principal armies, but proportionately, scholars believe Oriskany ranks among the American Revolution’s bloodiest battles.


The American Revolution in the Mohawk Valley, New York

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Aerial View of Fort Stanwix. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The Mohawk Valley is the area in present-day New York State that surrounds the Mohawk River, located west of the Hudson River and northwest of Albany. The region formed the heartland of the powerful Iroquois League or Confederacy. A religious and ceremonial league also known as the Six Nations during the American Revolution, it included the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora tribes, which became the Iroquois or Haudenosaunee (“people of the longhouse”). As historian Fred Anderson points out, close ties with Dutch traders at Fort Orange made the Iroquois in northeastern North America the most feared raiders in the 17th century. At that time, the Iroquois were Five Nations, with the Tuscarora joining in 1726.


Over much of the 18th century, Britain and France both eagerly courted the Six Nations in the hopes of forming an alliance. In the end, the Iroquois largely threw their support behind the British. This was a significant factor in explaining France’s defeat in the French and Indian War. At the American Revolution’s outbreak, the British and the American rebels both sought Iroquois allies.


The American Revolution came to the Mohawk Valley in 1776. American General Philip Schuyler led troops to occupy Fort Stanwix, soon renamed Fort Schuyler in the general’s honor. Originally built by the British, it would now play an important role in the 1777 campaign.

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The Campaign of 1777

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Portrait of Lt. Gen. John Burgoyne by Sir Joshua Reynolds c. 1766. Source: Wikimedia Commons


British planners in London sought a quick victory to end the war in 1777. They designed a three-pronged invasion of New York’s Hudson River Valley, with the objective of capturing Albany. With New York City’s capture the year prior, controlling Albany would mean the British dominated all of New York, while at the same time isolating New England from the rest of the fledgling United States.


The honor of commanding the main British force tasked with the capture of Albany fell to Lieutenant-General John Burgoyne. The British commander was confident of an easy victory. Historian Brendan Morrissey indicates that before leaving London for Canada, Burgoyne bragged that he would return victorious within the year. “Gentleman Johnny’s” army numbered roughly 9,500 British, German, Loyalist, Native American, and Canadian troops.


A second British force was expected to move northward from New York City. However, the British commander, Sir William Howe, had other ideas and took most of his troops south to capture the American capital of Philadelphia. In the end, though he did capture the capital, Howe would be of no help to Burgoyne.


Lieutenant-Colonel Barry St. Leger commanded the third strike force assembled to seize Albany. St. Leger was provisionally promoted to brigadier general to lead his 2,000 British, German, Canadian, Loyalist, and Iroquois forces against their only major obstacle on the road to Albany: Fort Stanwix. St. Leger’s troops departed Montreal on June 23, 1777. Two days later, they reached Oswego, New York, where additional Loyalists and Iroquois warriors added to the force’s strength.


Fort Stanwix Under Siege 

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Col. Peter Gansevoort by Gilbert Stuart. Source: Wikimedia Commons


About 750 American Continental troops and militia were defending Fort Stanwix under the command of Colonel Peter Gansevoort. Upon arrival, St. Leger paraded his entire force before the fort’s walls. He hoped this would intimidate Gansevoort and force the fort’s surrender, but it only stiffened their resolve to defend Fort Stanwix and await reinforcements from General Schuyler. St. Leger lacked serious siege equipment but nevertheless besieged Fort Stanwix.


The British commander believed he had an opportunity when he learned an enemy relief force was marching towards the fort. Patriot Militia General Nicholas Herkimer had been ordered by Schuyler to reinforce Gansevoort at Fort Stanwix. He commanded about 800 troops of the Tryon County militia. Herkimer’s road to Fort Stanwix would be grueling. The military supply road that led to the fort was heavily wooded. Progress would be slow and his troops spread thinly throughout the forest. St. Leger sent part of his Loyalist and Iroquois forces toward these troops. The stage was set for the Battle of Oriskany.


Ambush at Oriskany 

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General Herkimer at Oriskany by F.C. Yohn. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Anthropologist Joy Bilharz says a letter written by Loyalist officer Walter Butler reveals that Seneca war chiefs Old Smoke and Cornplanter, along with Mohawk war chief Joseph Brant, organized the plan of attack. The Iroquois and their Loyalist allies under Sir John Johnson and Walter Butler took cover in the densely wooded ravine along the military road towards Fort Stanwix.


Herkimer’s militia column was spread over several miles across inhospitable terrain. The Patriots were joined by some Oneida warriors from the nearby village of Oriska. The Iroquois war chiefs put their plan into action at around ten o’clock in the morning on August 6, 1777. Herkimer was hit in the opening volley of musket fire. Determined to stay in command on the battlefield, Herkimer had himself propped against a tree where he could survey the chaotic scene. Those Patriots who turned to flee got caught in the vast undergrowth of the forest. They became easy targets for Iroquois warriors. The battle appeared to be an overwhelming Iroquois and Loyalist victory.


The Battle Continues 

Thayendanegea (Joseph Brant) by George Romney, 1776. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Intense rain gave the two sides a break from the fighting. Some scholars suggest that the weather likely saved Herkimer’s force from destruction. Herkimer used the delay wisely. He ordered his troops to prepare to fight in pairs; as one soldier fired a musket, the other loaded. This decreased the chances for Iroquois warriors to strike Herkimer’s troops at close quarters with tomahawks and warclubs as they loaded their muskets.


As the battle resumed, the Loyalist and Iroquois forces tried another ruse to surprise Herkimer’s militia. A group of Loyalists approached part of Herkimer’s force from the direction of Fort Stanwix with their green coats turned inside out to make it seem that they were friendly soldiers from the fort. Herkimer’s troops quickly discovered the trick. One account says Herkimer’s troops began to fire once the would-be friends captured one of their comrades. Another source has one of Herkimer’s troops recognizing a Loyalist neighbor just as the two sides prepared to meet.


Oriskany was not a traditional 18th-century battle. Battlefield archaeology evidence and eyewitness accounts reveal that most fighting was hand-to-hand. Rather than relying on musket fire, combatants largely fought using bayonets, tomahawks, warclubs, hatchets, and the butts of their muskets. The battle raged at close quarters throughout the remainder of the afternoon. By day’s end, Herkimer retreated. Nearly half of Herkimer’s force had been killed, wounded, or captured, while Herkimer himself died days later. Loyalist and Iroquois losses are estimated at 150.


Oriskany as a Civil War 

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Lt. Col. Barry St. Leger by an unknown engraver. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The Battle of Oriskany is an example of how the American Revolution was a civil war in two ways. Scholars estimate that most of Tryon County, New York’s male population participated in the battle on opposing sides. This adds another dimension to the fierce hand-to-hand combat at Oriskany—combatants on both sides were killing their family members and neighbors, not strangers.


Oriskany also marked the violent rupture of the Iroquois Confederacy. It was the first significant fighting among Iroquois tribes during the American Revolution. At Oriskany, Oneidas, serving alongside Herkimer’s Tryon County militia, fought Mohawks, Senecas, and Cayugas in a sort of Iroquois Confederacy civil war. Historian Timothy Shannon says that beyond Oriskany, Iroquois warriors rarely targeted one another in battle. However, rival war parties raided each other’s villages in the aftermath of Oriskany.


The combatants on that stormy August day in 1777 were fighting multiple conflicts simultaneously. The Battle of Oriskany was not just a fight to help win or prevent American independence. It was also a fight over land and the Mohawk Valley’s future. Iroquois warriors on opposing sides at Oriskany believed their respective allies represented the best opportunity to protect their lands.



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Burgoyne’s Surrender at Saratoga by John Trumbull. Source: Wikimedia Commons


As the fighting at Oriskany raged, American troops from Fort Stanwix counterattacked the besiegers by raiding St. Leger’s undefended camp. Meanwhile, American general Philip Schuyler sent another relief column to aid Fort Stanwix. This time, Benedict Arnold led troops towards the fort.


Worn out from the intense fighting and furious at losing their supplies at the British camp, the Iroquois warriors abandoned St. Leger’s army, leaving him with a significantly weaker force to fight the fort’s defenders and Arnold’s advancing troops. Oriskany can be considered a victory for St. Leger, as it repulsed a relief column intended to aid Fort Stanwix. However, if it was a victory, it proved hollow. Without Iroquois support, St. Leger abandoned the siege and returned to Canada before Arnold even arrived at Fort Stanwix.


Britain’s overall campaign to seize Albany did not fare any better. Burgoyne’s army never linked up with another part of the planned invasion force. His troops met defeat at Saratoga in September and October 1777. The British surrender contributed to France’s entry into the war in support of the American cause.


St. Leger’s retreat and Britain’s eventual defeat spelled the end of Iroquois control over most of their ancestral lands in New York. After Joseph Brant led further raids against frontier settlements, George Washington ordered an invasion of Iroquois lands. By late 1780, most pro-British Iroquois had fled to Canada. Only in the 1990s did some Mohawk return to live in the Mohawk Valley.

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By Dale PappasPhD Modern European History, MA History, BA History, Italian StudiesDale Pappas has taught History and Academic Writing at the high school and university levels in the United States and Europe. He holds a PhD in Modern European History from the University of Miami. Dale researches the history of tourism in the Mediterranean and the political history of Modern Greece. When he needs a breather from world travels, Dale lives between Miami, FL and Athens, Greece.