The Revolutionary War’s Battle of Oriskany comes alive in the annual recreations of artisans, author.Story by Frank Jardim
Photos by David Wright
Known as the CLA, the Contemporary Longrifle Association celebrates its 25th anniversary this August. This broadly inclusive organization was started by artists and scholars to promote and support the study and preservation of all the artisanal skills and crafts employed in early America, from making a flintlock Kentucky longrifle from a plank of wood and bar of iron, to the almost lost precolonial decorative art of Native American porcupine quill and moose-hair embroidery.
CLA members are an amazingly diverse and talented group of artists who keep the skills of the past alive in their unique creations. Some are high art, and some are humbly utilitarian, but all of them are made as they were over two centuries ago.
Each year, the CLA (longrifle.com) hosts their annual meeting in Lexington, Kentucky, and sponsors a huge show where member artists gather to exhibit and sell their work. Generous members also donate their art to be auctioned at the show to raise money to support the organization.
Selecting my favorite pieces from this year’s auction, I used my historical imagination to place them into a period-correct setting. My chosen context was the American Revolution, and specifically the Battle of Oriskany. Fought in the early stages of what history recalls as the Saratoga Campaign, Oriskany saw the most savage fighting of the war and the highest percentage of patriot losses.
It was hard to look at this bloodbath as anything other than a disaster, but when the decisions and deeds of men and the acts of God were all weighed in the scales of history, it became clear that without Oriskany there probably would not have been a patriot upset victory at Saratoga to impress King Louis XVI of France.
It convinced him to ally his powerful nation with the American cause, and with no Franco-American alliance, we’d probably all be drinking warm beer and singing “God Save the Queen” at sports games.
THE BATTLE OF Oriskany was fought in New York’s Mohawk Valley, whose settlers were largely of German and Dutch ethnicity. Their collective memory shared no love of their own recent monarchs, and not considering themselves Englishmen, they had no ancestral loyalty to the English crown. They sided heavily with the cause of the American patriots and they drove out their Loyalist, or Tory, neighbors.
The Tories took refuge in Canada, organized their own Loyalist military units and schemed to convince the tribes of the powerful Iroquois Confederation to maintain their allegiance to Britain. Ultimately, only the Oneida sided with the colonies.
The first two years of rebellion against British rule were tumultuous if not disheartening for New York patriots. The invasion of Canada was a disastrous failure that precipitated a massive British counterattack only narrowly derailed by a miracle naval delaying action on the Great Lakes and the arrival of winter. Warm weather in 1777 brought a renewed and more sophisticated British invasion orchestrated by General John Burgoyne with the strategic objective of isolating New England (a hotbed of rebellion) from the other colonies by controlling the Hudson River.
To do that, Burgoyne needed to control all the forts overlooking it, from the Canadian border to Albany. He committed most of his forces to a southward invasion along the Hudson supported by a secondary invasion into the Mohawk Valley from the west. Facing a two-pronged attack, the rebels would have to split their forces. For most of the summer, it looked like Burgoyne’s plans were working perfectly. Fort Ticonderoga was captured (without a fight) on July 5, and his western invasion force, consisting mostly of Loyalist volunteer units heavily supported by Mohawk, Seneca and Cayuga allies, surrounded and laid siege to Continental Army forces at Fort Stanwix on August 3.
Fort Stanwix guarded the strategic portage between the Mohawk River and Wood Creek. At that spot, a boat traveling on the Mohawk River from Albany could be easily carried overland (up to 6 miles) and put down in Wood Creek to make its way by water 1,500 miles through the Great Lakes into Canada and arrive on the eastern seaboard of the continent. Of course it worked the other way too, which is why the patriots couldn’t afford to lose Fort Stanwix. Their problem, as Burgoyne had predicted, was that they didn’t have enough Continental Army troops to fight off both prongs of the British attack. Out of necessity, a great many military missions fell upon the local militia.
On July 17, 1777, Tryon County Militia commander Brigadier General Nicholas Herkimer ordered the numerous local Committees of Safety to call to arms all men still available to defend against the western invasion. On August 4, they began a 50-mile march to Fort Stanwix to break through the British siege lines with supplies for the fort garrison. My narrative begins on August 6, when the patriot force was 8 miles from the fort.
THE PATRIOT’S CALL
In the cool of the morning, Harmen van der Berg marched along single-file near the end of Colonel Jacob Klock’s 2nd Regiment of the Tryon County Militia. In front of him were 150 of his neighbors, relatives and friends, and a score of Oneida warriors. Marching behind him were his brothers-in-law Carl and Johan Bauer, their sons Franz, Christian and Michael, and then around 40 more white settlers and perhaps a dozen Indians.
In front of the 2nd Regiment, at the head of the column, were another 200 militiamen of the 1st Regiment under Colonel Ebenezer Cox and about 30 more Oneida including Chief Thomas Spencer and his brother. Behind the 2nd Regiment marched the officers and men of the 4th Regiment, with the 3rd Regiment and 15 wagonloads of supplies at the rear of the column.
Deploying a force of this size meant virtually stripping their communities of arms and men aged 16 to 60. Harmen, like many other white settlers, feared they were leaving home and hearth defenseless, but some, like Harmen’s three teenage nephews, were in high spirits to run the scheming traitor Tories and their Indian proxies out for good.
In total, 800 militia and maybe 100 Oneida Indians made up their For 2 miles, the column threaded its way through the forest on the untended military road that looked more like a path. Abruptly, it sloped steeply downward, descended 50 feet to the bottom of a ravine, then leveled off in a boggy flat where cut logs formed a corduroy road running over a small creek. It was shady here. The high ground behind them now blocked the shafts of sun that previously filtered down on them through the dense maple, birch and beech forest.
Recognizing the landmarks, Harmen knew that even at a leisurely walk, they were less than two hours from the fort. It seemed strange they had yet to encounter any enemy pickets guarding the most practical route of attack. As his regiment’s advance again moved them into the patchwork of light breaking through the canopy of branches, Harmen was momentarily terrified by the glint of sunlight off bright iron in the forest only 30 paces to his left. Within a step, he recovered from the hair-raising rush of the shock. “Our flank guard,” he concluded. The underbrush was thick and seemingly unbroken here and he was glad Corporal Schmidt hadn’t detailed him to the exhausting task of screening the column’s flanks. When he turned his eyes forward again, there was the devil himself, Herr Schmidt, standing on the left side of the road looking up and down the column with his usual scowl.
Before Harmen’s eyes, the corporal collapsed to the ground simultaneous to the boom of a firelock from the woods to his left. The shot was followed almost instantly by another, and another, and then scores more all along the column in a ragged volley that felled several Tryon County men in the span of a single step. Harmen saw at least eight men ahead of him struck by balls, and within seconds, that many more fell again under the concentrated fire from trees all along the left side of the path.
Parallel to the gunfire, the forest path erupted with the voices of men. The painful cries and screams of the wounded were overlapped by guttural shouts, shrill shrieks and calls to “Gott im Himmel!” of apparently unharmed men surprised and in mortal terror. Men froze up, halting the column in the deadly fusillade. Some militiamen instinctively fired back into the now smoky forest where the powder flashes first appeared. Others crouched on the road attempting to use the heavy underbrush for concealment. A few rushed to aid the injured. Indian war whoops joined the rising din and the dark silhouettes of barely clothed men with feathered heads appeared standing among the cover of the trees, backlit against the white smoke as they stood charging their guns and ramming home their next ball.
Harmen did not freeze. In one fluid motion, he spun in place to face the ambush while cocking, shouldering, sighting down his longrifle’s barrel at the center of a faceless shadow’s chest, squeezing off a shot, and lowering the rifle again to finish his turn facing the rear of the column. Before he refocused his attention to the urgent concerns behind him, he saw his shadow man immediately draw in his limbs like a frightened turtle, become amorphous and begin to fall away into the smoke.
The situation Harmen found behind was worse. Another dozen men lay in heaps around the path and his brother in-law Carl sat on the ground, swearing most profanely and clutching his belly. Carl drew up his knees, blood rapidly staining the midriff of his shirt and leaking between his fingers. His son Franz knelt next to him trying to pull Carl’s hands away to check the wound. Their muskets lay on the ground. Johan and his two boys were still on their feet. Young Christian stood splayfooted on the road, fully upright but rocking backward under the recoil of his musket fired wildly towards the woods. His eyes were closed.
Johan and brother Michael were in a half-crouch, their weapons shouldered and carefully taking aim. They too had spotted the silhouetted Indians and squeezed off their shots before dropping to their knees to reload. Harmen knelt too, but not to reload. Instead he jerked Johan’s shoulder to get his attention. The man’s head whipped around to look at Harmen. There was fear in Johan’s face, but not panic.
“Make for those trees, Johan!” Harmen yelled to be heard over the cacophony of battle, pointing to the right side of the path that as yet appeared quiet. “They’ll slaughter us here.” Then Harmen turned toward Carl, who sat just behind them, and locked his arm through the wounded man’s. Seeing this, Franz perceived the intent and did the same, but before they stood, Harmen pointed the muzzle of his rifle at the two muskets lying on the ground. Franz’s musket was at his feet but his father’s had landed yards behind them when he fell wounded.
As Franz unlocked his left arm from his father’s to stretch out on his hands and knees to reach the musket, the thunder of a massed volley resounded up the path from the head of the column, followed almost immediately by war whoops from what Harmen guessed to be scores of attacking Indians. To him, it was the sound of disaster. When faced with an enemy armed with guns, it was common for the Indians to overrun them while they reloaded. A more urgent concern for Harmen was the steady fire from their left flank pouring into the path since the ambush was sprung.
THEY WERE A minute into the fight before the militia officers, sergeants and corporals could be heard shouting orders to rally their men. Harmen glanced behind them and saw his lieutenant briefly while Franz retrieved his father’s musket.
The officer was standing courageously with his sword held high calling to the men to form a line when a ball tore through his chest. He stood coughing up blood for a moment, dropped his sword, fell to his knees and then over sideways into the brush. Most of the militia were crouching along the path to conceal themselves from the enemy.
Harmen realized this would be their undoing. Lacking standing targets, the Indians fired low into the concealing bushes and undergrowth. The lowest shots got swallowed up in the wet ground. The ones aimed a little higher ricocheted off the path, sometimes wounding men, or re-wounding the supine injured. Blowing bits of leaf and branch onto the path, the deadliest shots cut up the brush at just the right height to hit an unlucky crouching man in the body or head.
This is exactly what happened to Michael as he ducked again to reload. The ball hit him in the crown of his broad-brimmed hat and came out the back of his neck. Michael was dead before his body met the path. In God’s mercy, neither his brother, cousin or father saw Michael killed, despite being within a stride of him.
Johan and Christian were shooting and Franz was taking up his wounded father’s arm with his left arm and struggling to clamp a pair of 9-pound muskets against his side with his right.
As Harmen and Franz rose to a bent-kneed crouch and began to force their way through the underbrush, Harmen finally saw that their column was under attack from both flanks. The right side of the path, especially toward the front of their regiment, hung heavy with smoke, penetrated by muzzle flashes and Indian warriors rushing out to attack the militia with tomahawks, knives and clubs. Suddenly, a trio of shots boomed from the woods just to their left and balls clipped the brush around them.
Twenty yards ahead, at the start of the forest’s large trees, he glimpsed a Seneca warrior nearly concealed by a large maple trunk raising his ramrod to reload. Harmen dived, taking Carl and Franz to ground with him. Mostly hidden in the brush and scrub trees, Harmen reached over for the muskets in Franz’s arms. The boy handed him one silently. Harmen cocked it and raised his head above the leafy branches to aim, but his target was gone.
Harmen ducked down again, handed the empty musket back to Franz and quickly reloaded his rifle. Their circumstances called for speed more than accuracy, so he poured powder in the barrel directly from his horn and didn’t waste time patching his ball. He put an extra ball in his cheek for his following shot. Franz reloaded the musket with unsteady hands. Daring a peek at the woodline, Harmen guessed the Oneida warriors had carried the immediate fight, for the Indians were gesturing with their hands and calling to their comrades and Harmen to follow them into the forest.
Now with some cover in the trees, Harmen turned his attention back to the path to shoot at the Indians when they exposed themselves, and Franz was able to tend to his father’s injury. Rather than mortally penetrating him front to back, the shot had gouged a half-inch-deep bloody channel six inches long and nearly a finger’s width across the front of Carl’s belly. It was painful, but survivable. Carl recovered his sensibilities enough to remove his shirt and help cut it into bandages, instructing Franz how to bind the wound.
SECONDS SEEMED LIKE minutes, and minutes hours, as the ambush turned into a series of brutal hand-to-hand personal combats with groups of Cayuga and Seneca Indians seasoned with a smattering of Tories attacking the patriot militia and their Oneida allies. Harmen heard fighting in the forest behind him too, both directly to his rear and to the right. Many Oneida had already fought their way into these woods and were driving back the left wing of the ambush and rallying their warriors to this spot.
In the thick of the fray along the path, Harmen spotted two mounted Indians, the lead rider armed with a rifle and the one behind with a brace of pistols. They boldly charged some Cayuga warriors who infiltrated the brush intent on running down a withdrawing militiaman. The mounted Indians shot down two of the Cayuga, and the third disappeared in the brush. The militiaman reached the woodline as the mounted Indians calmly reloaded on their walking horses. He recognized the lead rider as Hanyery, a very prosperous Oneida farmer and war chief from Oriska, and the pistol-wielder behind him was his wife!
Harmen wondered how the men from the 1st, 4th and 3rd Regiments had come through the initial minutes of the ambush. On and around the part of the path he could see, the 2nd Regiment was scattered, with no apparent command. When an individual militiaman fired, the Indians often raced out to club, stab and chop him down while he reloaded. Then they grabbed up the victim’s gun and horn to continue their attack. Between his quickly aimed shots at the Cayuga, who were no farther than 50 yards away, Harmen reloaded with his back protected by the trunk of a large maple and called out as loudly as he could for Johan and Christian to come to him. They did not respond. When loading his 10th round, or perhaps his 25th, he saw their commander, General Herkimer, wounded in the leg and unable to walk, being carried by two militiamen to some higher ground deeper in the woods.
Harmen found hope in the growing number of survivors from the small bands of militia making fighting withdrawals that were gradually gathering in the woods to form a defendable perimeter around General Herkimer. He prayed that Johan and Christian would appear among the militiamen falling into fighting positions to his left and right. Unable to check his fears that they might lay wounded and helpless on the march route, Harmen decided he must return to that killing ground to check for them. The Iroquois tribes that allied themselves with the British had a long record of torturing and murdering their captives.
Harmen was about to crawl forward when the volume of incoming gunfire suddenly increased and four Cayuga warriors emerged from the brush at a run on his left front. The warriors were so close, so quickly, that the maple tree trunk blocked the swing of Harmen’s rifle. As the forend bumped off the bark, he swore, and in the next moment sensed an attack on his right. His rifle was only halfway back to the target when an Indian kicked down the muzzle and raised his hooked war club high.
Harmen released the rifle and thrust up his arms to deflect a lethal blow to his head. He saw in the eyes of the warrior standing above him an expression of villainous glee, the round ball of the club, as big as a 12-pound solid shot, hovering over his feathered head momentarily and then beginning the deadly downstroke that would conclude on his face. A musket boomed and the Indian’s right cheekbone and eye exploded outward, leaving a gaping hole. Harmen could briefly see the inside of his skull before his remaining features were completely obscured by white smoke.
Harmen sprung to his feet, reached for his belt axe and dashed into the perimeter past Franz, who was just handing off his empty musket to his father and taking up a freshly loaded one. Two of the Cayuga were among the trees with them. The nearest was already furiously stabbing an old militiaman in the stomach with one hand and trying to wrench his musket away with the other. Harmen recognized the mortally wounded old man as Herr Mueller, a cooper from GermanFlats he had done business with.
Swinging with all his might, Harmen buried his axe at the base of the Indian’s neck. It sunk deep with a crunch and the collapsing body almost pulled it from his grip. As he yanked hard on the handle to free the blade from the bone, he glanced up in time to see a musket butt splintered over the head of another Cayuga lunging to stab him. That Indian staggered, and fell face first into the soil at his feet. If he was killed or just stunned by the terrific blow, Harmen never knew. Herr Mueller, lying on his side propped on one elbow, struggling against death on ground soaked red with his blood, shot the prostrate Indian through both lungs with his musket as his final earthly deed.
THE SURPRISE ATTACK repulsed, Harmen rushed back to his self-assigned post to contest further Indian attempts to cross the path. In the relative calm, he became aware of the voice of General Herkimer, shouting orders and encouragement to them. Militia that Harmen did not know swiftly emerged from the woods inside the perimeter and took up fighting positions where Herr Mueller had died holding the line. They said they were from the 4th Regiment, had suffered heavily in the ambush, and were then encircled and attacked from the rear by Mohawks who cut them off from the 3rd Regiment at the tail of the column.
One of them had seen the Indians sweeping the road, killing and scalping some wounded and dragging others off as captives. What’s more, among the whites fighting with the Indians, they recognized some of their Tory former neighbors. Before they could say more, a sergeant Harmen didn’t recognize interrupted. Harmen, Franz and Carl, now partially mobile thanks to a half canteen of rum, were needed to reinforce the east side of the perimeter where the Seneca and green-coated Tories were expected to attack.
The short walk to the east flank revealed their defensive perimeter was perilously small, 200 yards long at most, and not as deep as it was long. But it was fairly packed with men on this side at least. If the remaining militia and Oneida were evenly spread, and most likely they were not, Harmen guessed there might be 400 of them, with plenty of big trees for cover.
They were still 50 feet from the perimeter, and Harmen was still calculating their odds, when the Seneca began their screaming war cries mixed with a flurry of gun shots and crashed into the east flank. The Indians charged through the front line, leaping over the stooping militiamen to attack them from behind. For the men on the line, there was time for a single shot. Caught in a deadly hand-to-hand brawl, they could not reload. Harmen and Franz, with Carl reloading, managed to get off five shots between them, thinning the Seneca warriors and shifting the odds in their favor, before they were forced to join the fray. Harmen handed his empty rifle to Carl and rushed into the melee, swinging his belt axe.
The fighting continued until the early afternoon, interrupted for an hour by a heavy rainstorm that the militia used to build up their defenses with fallen timber. Harmen checked his bag to discover he was low on ammunition. Of the three score .54-caliber bullets he’d cast for this misadventure, he had only 14 left, and barely enough powder in his horn for 10.
The attacks resumed when the rain stopped, but they didn’t break the defenders’ will to resist. Indians, Tory volunteers, Canadian militia and German Jaeger riflemen in their black cocked hats, arrayed against them and demonstrated repeatedly that they could fight their way into the militia’s defensive ring, but could not take it in the hand-to-hand close combat that followed. And then, in their last assault, it looked like they might.
AS THE LOYALIST forces pushed their way into the perimeter, Harmen sensed this would be a fight to the death. The Loyalists attacked with aggression and viciousness that equaled the worst Indian savagery. The remnants of the Tryon County Militia matched them in kind. Carl, wounded twice more, beat a man down with a stone before he was knocked to the ground. A Tory officer raised a pistol to shoot Carl in the head, but Franz would have none of it. He leapt on the green-coated gentleman’s back, spoiling his aim, knocking off his hat and dragging him to the ground. Someone else cut the gentleman’s throat from behind as he tried to get up.
Harmen was expecting his own demise when he heard the rumble of distant cannon fire as he lay facedown and bloody trying to shake a Seneca warrior off his back while wiggling out of the path of a Tory’s sword thrusts. He managed to twist the Tory’s boot and throw him off balance. When the man fell, Harmen rolled the Indian off. As he got on his feet, he saw the Indian running away. Harmen recovered his axe and rejoined the fight, but soon perceived the attack was faltering. The Indians were withdrawing and the remaining Tories, now outnumbered, were being killed at a rate they found disagreeable. Soon they too had quit the field. As quiet settled over their little battlefield, they could hear the sound of more cannon fire from the direction of Fort Stanwix.
The scouts sent out by General Herkimer reported no enemy in sight but on the road west back to Oriska, they found many dead and scalped 3rd Regiment men. The absence of the 3rd Regiment from the ravine battle led the scouts to conclude the unit fled the fight with the slowest being run down, killed and scalped by the Indians. Rather than risk running into an Indian force on the road, the general ordered they withdraw northward through the forest toward the Mohawk River. They gathered the wounded they could find and made good their escape, thanking God for His mercy. Unable to walk, Carl was carried out on litter improvised from two muskets and hunting shirts.
Unexpected joy came to Harmen, Franz and Carl on discovering Christian alive. It was tempered by heartbreaking news of his father Johan’s death holding off a group of Indians so Christian could escape. After ordering him to run, Johan unsheathed his old fighting knife and charged into the Indians, shouting damnations at them in German. Christian tearfully confirmed his father went down under a storm of tomahawk blows.
The urgency of their withdrawal and the need to help their wounded allowed no time to dwell on the day’s punishing events. It also forced them to leave their dead on the field. Harmen, his relations, and what was left of the Tryon County Militia made it back to their homes in the following days, but close to half of their force was killed, wounded or missing when roll was taken.
Anyone captured by the Indians had to be presumed murdered. They had fought bravely, if not as wisely as they could have, but that didn’t diminish the sting of having failed in their urgent mission to relieve the besieged fort, despite having paid such a painful price in lives. Harmen had lost two of his in-laws but felt himself blessed to be alive to hold his wife and baby. Many families lost all their men and it was all the harder to know their bodies lay in the open to be ravaged by beasts.
As the weeks passed, the Mohawk Valley got no respite from the ravages of war. Indians and Loyalists raided their settlements almost with impunity, looting and burning farms and villages and murdering families. A robust militia might have warded off those attacks. Most of the Continental Army troops in the region had their hands full with the British Army’s advance southward toward Albany.
Though the prospects for the patriot cause in New York looked increasingly grim, Harmen held to his faith in it. As days turned to weeks, with no report about a British capture of Fort Stanwix, his hope was nourished. Then, on August 24, news arrived that the siege was over and combined forces of the English crown that had invaded the western Mohawk Valley were in full retreat. For the larger patriot cause, this meant the Continental Army was now free to concentrate on stopping the British advancing from the north. For Harmen, it also meant a chance to properly bury his kin. Franz insisted on going too, even though it was a risky trek upriver.
THE TRIP TO the battlefield was an unspeakable horror. A vast open grave stinking of corruption, it was the stuff of nightmares. With perseverance, they succeeded in recovering the remains of Johan and Michael. As Harmen wrapped the remnants of their mortal coils, young Franz searched for, and found, his uncle Johan’s fighting knife. It was fashioned from a sword he used in the French and Indian War. Franz knew Christian would want it. Franz also found the fine pistol dropped by the Tory officer he’d fought and stuck it in his belt as a personal trophy.
When the job was done, and Harmen and Franz, Johan and Michael, were back at their canoe, they somehow found themselves rowing upstream. Nothing was said between them, but there was silent agreement that they should complete the journey they started on August 4 and see the fort so many had sacrificed so much for.
The fort was impressively refurbished since Harmen’s last visit in 1774, and above it flew what he assumed was the new American flag he had recently read about. Outside, General Benedict Arnold’s Continental Army relief force was encamped. Learning who they were, the sentries presented them to Fort Stanwix’s sergeant of the guard. The sergeant escorted them into the fort, where an officer questioned them briefly about their observations during their journey. After the interview, the sergeant led them over to the flagpole on their way out of the fort.
“I noticed you couldn’t take your eyes off the stars and stripes,” he said. “Would you like to see the one that flew overhead during the siege?” “That’s not it?” Franz asked in surprise.
“No, lad,” the sergeant replied. “That silk beauty is the new one General Arnold brought us.” Reaching inside his haversack, he withdrew a much smaller, rather crudely sewn twin of the flag on the pole. It was cut and burned in places from shot and shell, and he handled it reverently like a believer would handle Jesus’ burial shroud.
“This is the very one we made ourselves that waved over us in our time of peril. It helped us keep our courage. I just exchanged her for the new one this morn. But she’s special to me … special to a lot of us who were here. I think maybe she might be special to you too, so I’m showin’ ya.”
Franz and Harmen reached out to gently, respectfully touch the battle scars on the roughly sewn pieces of cloth that symbolized the new free nation they had fought for, and felt a bond with it.