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The delay of the messengers in the night, however, disconcerted the plan of Herkimer. He marshalled his troops by daybreak and waited for the signal-guns. Hour after hour elapsed, but no gun was heard. His officers became impatient of delay, and urged an immediate march. Herkimer represented that they were too weak to force their way to the fort without re-enforcements, or without being sure of co-operation from the garrison, and was still for awaiting the preconcerted signals. High words ensued between him and two of his officers. He had a brother and other relatives among the enemy, and hence there were some doubts of his fidelity; though they subsequently proved to be unmerited. Colonels Cox and Paris were particularly urgent for an advance, and suspicious of the motives for holding back. Paris was a prominent man in Tryon County, and member of the committee of safety, and in compliance with the wishes of that committee, accompanied Herkimer as his volunteer aide. Losing his temper in the dispute, he accused the latter of being either a tory or a coward. "No," replied the brave old man, "I feel toward you all as a father, and will not lead you into a scrape from which I cannot extricate you." His discretion, however, was overpowered by repeated taunts, and he at length, about nine o'clock, gave the word to march ; intimating, however, that those who were the most eager to advance, would be the first to run away.
The march was rather dogged and irregular. There was illhumor between the general and his officers. Colonels Paris and Cox advised him to throw out a reconnoitring party in the advance, but he disregarded their advice, and, perhaps in very opposition to it, neglected so necessary a precaution. About ten o'clock they came to a place where the road was carried on a causeway of logs across a deep marshy ravine, between high level banks. The main division descended into the ravine, followed by the baggage-wagons. They had scarcely crossed it, when enemies suddenly sprang up in front and on either side, with deadly volleys of musketry, and deafening yells and war-whoops. In fact, St. Leger, apprised by his scouts of their intended approach, had sent a force to waylay them. This was composed of a division of Johnson's Greens, led by his brother-in-law, Major Watts; a company of rangers under Colonel Butler, a refugee from this neighborhood, and a strong body of Indians under Brant. The troops were stationed in front just beyond the ravine; the Indians along each side of the road. The plan of the ambuscade was to let the van of the Americans pass the ravine and advance between the concealed
parties, when the attack was to be commenced by the troops in front, after which, the Indians were to fall on the Americans in rear and cut off all retreat.
The savages, however, could not restrain their natural ferocity and hold back as ordered, but discharged their rifles simultaneously with the troops, and instantly rushed forward with spears and tomahawks, yelling like demons, and commencing a dreadful butchery. The rear-guard, which had not entered the ravine, retreated. The main body, though thrown into confusion, defended themselves bravely. One of those severe conflicts ensued, common in Indian warfare, where the combatants take post with their rifles, behind rock and tree, or come to deadly struggle with knife and tomahawk.
The veteran Herkimer was wounded early in the action. A musket ball shattered his leg just below the knee, killing his horse at the same time. He made his men place him on his saddle at the foot of a large beech tree, against the trunk of which he leaned, continuing to give his orders.
The regulars attempted to charge with the bayonet; but the Americans formed themselves in circles back to back, and repelled them. A heavy storm of thunder and rain caused a temporary lull to the fight, during which the patriots changed their ground. Some of them stationed themselves in pairs behind trees; so that when one had fired the other could cover him until he had reloaded; for the savages were apt to rush up with knife and tomahawk the moment a man had discharged his piece. Johnson's Greens came up to sustain the Indians, who were giving way, and now was the fiercest part of the fight. Old neighbors met in deadly feud; former intimacy gave bitterness to present hate, and war was literally carried to the knife; for the bodies of combatants were afterward found on the field of battle, grappled in death, with the hand still grasping the knife plunged in a neighbor's heart. The very savages seemed inspired with unusual ferocity by the confusion and death struggle around them, and the sight of their prime warriors and favorite chiefs shot down. In their blind fury they attacked the white men indiscriminately, friend or foe, so that in this chance-medley fight many of Sir John's Greens were slain by his own Indian allies.
A confusion reigns over the accounts of this fight; in which every one saw little but what occurred in his immediate vicinity. The Indians, at length, having lost many of their bravest warriors, gave the retreating cry, Oonah! Oonah! and fled to the woods. The Greens and rangers, hearing a firing
in the direction of the fort, feared an attack upon their camp, and hastened to its defence, carrying off with them many prisoners. The Americans did not pursue them, but placing their wounded on litters made of branches of trees, returned to Oriskany. Both parties have claimed the victory; but it does not appear that either was entitled to it. The dead of both parties lay for days unburied on the field of action, and a wounded officer of the enemy (Major Watts) remained there two days unrelieved, until found by an Indian scout. It would seem as if each party gladly abandoned this scene of one of the most savage conflicts of the Revolution. The Americans had two hundred killed, and a number wounded. Several of these were officers. The loss of the enemy is thought to have been equally great as to numbers; but then the difference in value between regulars and militia! the former often the refuse of mankind, mere hirelings, whereas among the privates of the militia, called out from their homes to defend their neighborhood, were many of the worthiest and most valuable of the yeomaury. The premature haste of the Indians in attacking, had saved the Americans from being completely surrounded. The rear-guard, not having entered the defile, turned and made a rapid retreat, but were pursued by the Indians, and suffered greatly in a running fight. We may add that those who had been most urgent with General Herkimer for this movement, were among the first to suffer from it. Colonel Cox was shot down at the first fire, so was a son of Colonel Paris; the colonel himself was taken prisoner, and fell beneath the tomahawk of the famous Red Jacket.
As to General Herkimer, he was conveyed to his residence on the Mohawk River, and died nine days after the battle, not so much from his wound as from bad surgery; sinking gradually through loss of blood from an unskilful amputation. He died like a philosopher and a Christian, smoking his pipe and reading his Bible to the last. His name has been given to a county in that part of the State.1
The sortie of Colonel Willett had been spirited and successful. He attacked the encampments of Sir John Johnson and the Indians, which were contiguous, and strong detachments of which were absent on the ambuscade. Sir John and his men were driven to the river; the Indians fled to the woods. Willett sacked their camps; loaded wagons with camp equipage, clothing, blankets, and stores of all kinds, seized the baggage and
1 Some of the particulars of this action were given to the author by a son of Colonel Paris.
papers of Sir John and of several of his officers, and retreated safely to the fort, just as St. Leger was coming up with a powerful re-enforcement. Five colors, which he had brought away with him as trophies, were displayed under the flag of the fort, while his men gave three cheers from the ramparts.
St. Leger now endeavored to operate on the fears of the gar rison. His prisoners, it is said, were compelled to write a letter, giving dismal accounts of the affair of Oriskany, and of the impossibility of getting any succor to the garrison; of the probability that Burgoyne and his army were then before Albany, and advising surrender to prevent inevitable destruction. It is probable they were persuaded, rather than compelled, to write the letter, which took its tone from their own depressed feelings and the misrepresentations of those around them. St. Leger accompanied the letter with warnings that. should the garrison persist in resistance, he would not be able to restrain the fury of the savages; who, though held in check for the present, threatened, if further provoked, to revenge the deaths of their warriors and chiefs by slaughtering the garrison, and laying waste the whole valley of the Mohawk.
All this failing to shake the resolution of Gansevoort, St. Leger next issued an appeal to the inhabitants of Tryon County, signed by their old neighbors, Sir John Johnson, Colonel Claus and Colonel Butler, promising pardon and protection to all who should submit to royal authority, and urging them to send a deputation of their principal men to overcome the mulish obstinacy of the garrison, and save the whole surrounding country from Indian ravage and massacre. The people of the county, however, were as little to be moved as the garrison.
St. Leger now began to lose heart. The fort proved more capable of defence than he had anticipated. His artillery was too light, and the ramparts, being of sod, were not easily battered. He was obliged reluctantly to resort to the slow process of sapping and mining, and began to make regular approaches.
Gansevoort, seeing the siege was likely to be protracted, resolved to send to General Schuyler for succor. Colonel Willett volunteered to undertake the perilous errand. He was accompanied by Lieutenant Stockwell, an excellent woodsman, who served as a guide. They left the fort on the 10th, after dark, by a sally-port, passed by the British sentinels and close by the Indian camp, without being discovered, and made their way through bog and morass and pathless forests, and all kinds of risks and hardships, until they reached the German Flats on the
Mohawk. Here Willett procured a couple of horses, and by dint of hoof arrived at the camp of General Schuyler at Stillwater. A change had come over the position of that commander four days previous to the arrival of Colonel Willett, as we shall relate in the ensuing chapter.
SCHUYLER HEARS OF THE AFFAIR OF ORISKANY-APPLIES FOR
-A BELLIGERENT PARSON
SCHUYLER was in Albany in the early part of August, making stirring appeals in every direction for re-enforcements. Burgoyne was advancing upon him; he had received news of the disastrous affair of Oriskany, and the death of General Herkimer, and Tryon County was crying to him for assistance. One of his appeals was to the veteran John Stark, the comrade of Putnam in the French war and the battle of Bunker's Hill. He had his farm in the Hampshire Grants, and his name was a tower of strength among the Green Mountain Boys. But Stark was soured with government, and had retired from service, his name having been omitted in the list of promotions. Hearing that he was on a visit to Lincoln's camp at Manchester, Schuyler wrote to that general, 'Assure General Stark that I have acquainted Congress of his situation, and that I trust and entreat he will, in the present alarming crisis, waive his right; the greater the sacrifice he makes to his feelings, the greater will be the honor due to him for not having suffered any consideration whatever to come in competition with the weal of his country entreat him to march immediately to our army."
Schuyler had instant call to practise the very virtue he was inculcating. He was about to mount his horse on the 10th, to