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Burgoyne's hopes now chiefly turned upon the promised cooperation of St. Leger from Oswego, and of Sir William Howe from New York.

Convinced that the enemy would shortly invade the Mohawk Valley, Schuyler had sent Colonel Gansevoort[36] to put Fort Stanwix,[37] the key to this valley, in a state of defense, before it should be attacked.

Illustration: ST. LEGER'S ROUTE TO FORT STANWIX.
Illustration: ST. LEGER'S ROUTE TO FORT STANWIX.

 

 

St. Leger's force was the counterpart of Burgoyne's, in that it consisted of regular troops, loyalists, and Indians. Many of the loyalists, and most of the Indians, had lived in this valley so that St. Leger had no want of guides, who knew every foot of ground, or of spies acquainted with the sentiments of every settler.

A scanty supply of provisions had just been brought into the fort when St. Leger's scouts opened fire upon it. The garrison shut the gates and returned the fire. Instead of finding Fort Stanwix defenseless, St. Leger was compelled to lay siege to it.

The news of St. Leger's appearance in the valley roused the settlers in arms. Near a thousand men, all brave, but without discipline, promptly marched, under General Herkimer,[38] to the relief of Fort Stanwix. Gansevoort was notified and was to aid the movement by making a sortie from the fort, at the proper moment.

St. Leger's spies soon discovered Herkimer's men coming. All the rangers, and most of the Indians, went out to waylay them in the thick forests. Not far from Oriskany, Brant,[39] the Mohawk chief, and Johnson,[40] the loyalist leader, hid their men in a ravine, through which the Americans would have to pass, in a thin line, over a causeway of logs.

Meantime, the Americans were heedlessly pressing on, without order, to the rescue of their comrades. In their impatience, even ordinary precautions were neglected. When the van entered the ravine, a terrible fire mowed down the front ranks by scores; those in the rear fled in a panic from the field. It was downright butchery.

After the firing had continued some time, those Americans whom panic had not seized, threw themselves into a posture of defense and resolved to sell their lives dearly. Herkimer, their leader, had been struck down by a bullet, among the first; but, notwithstanding his wound was a disabling one, he continued to direct his men, and encourage them by his firm demeanor to fight on. In the face of overwhelming odds, they gallantly stood their ground, until the enemy was alarmed by hearing firing in its rear, and drew off, leaving Herkimer's little band of heroes to retire unmolested from the field.

The firing had been heard at Fort Stanwix, and the cause easily guessed. While the battle was raging at Oriskany, the garrison of the fort sallied out upon the besiegers' camps. They met with little opposition, as most of the defenders had gone out to fight Herkimer. The firing, however, had called off the savages from Herkimer to the defense of their own camps. The sortie was gallantly made, and entirely successful; but the attack on Herkimer rendered it of so little avail, that the battle of Oriskany left Gansevoort hardly better off than before.

Two hundred of Herkimer's men were killed. He, too, soon died of his wounds.

Though this attempt to relieve Fort Stanwix had so signally failed, Schuyler was much too sensible of the importance of holding it, not to make another effort to raise the siege. He could ill afford to spare the troops necessary for the undertaking since Burgoyne was now maneuvering in his front, but the gravity of the situation could not be overlooked. He, therefore, sent Arnold, with Learned's brigade, to retrieve Herkimer's disaster in the valley.

Gansevoort was still holding out against St. Leger as stubbornly as ever. His situation was, however, growing desperate, when, one day, without apparent cause, the besiegers suddenly decamped in headlong haste, leaving their tents standing, their baggage in their tents, and their artillery in the trenches.

This inglorious and unlooked-for flight was brought about by emissaries from Arnold, who spread the report among St. Leger's Indians, that the Americans were coming with forces as numerous as leaves on the trees. Arnold, whom no one will accuse of want of courage, was really undecided about advancing farther with his small force. His stratagem, however, took effect. Grown weary of the siege, the Indians now made no scruple of deserting their allies on the spot. In vain St. Leger stormed and entreated by turns; stay they would not. He, therefore, had no choice but to follow them, in mortification and disgust, back to Oswego. In the belief that Arnold was close upon them, everything was left behind that could impede the march. The siege was abandoned in disgrace, and Fort Stanwix was saved by a simple stratagem.

Six days later, Burgoyne was informed of St. Leger's retreat. He had now no other resource than in the promised advance up the Hudson, and in the strength of his artillery. By acting in detachments, his immediate force had been so seriously weakened that a forward movement on his part, without full assurance of active support from New York, savored far more of recklessness than sound military judgment.

FOOTNOTES:

[36] COLONEL PETER GANSEVOORT, born at Albany, 1749, had fought with Montgomery at Quebec.

[37] FORT STANWIX also called Schuyler, was built by General Stanwix of Abercromby's army in 1758.

[38] GENERAL NICHOLAS HERKIMER, a leading settler of the Mohawk Valley.

[39] JOSEPH BRANT, or Thayandanega, sometime pupil of Dr. Wheelock's school (since Dartmouth College), was by all odds the most active, intelligent, and implacable enemy to the Americans that the war produced among his people. With Johnson, he held most of the Six Nations at enmity with us during the Revolution. (See Note 5.)

[40] SIR JOHN JOHNSON was the son of Sir William, who gained wealth and a title by his victory over Dieskau at Lake George, 1755. He was also the king's superintendent over the Six Nations, and had his residence at Caughnawaga, since called Johnstown in his honor. Sir John succeeded to his father's title and estates. He took sides with the Royalists, raised a body of Tory followers, and with them fled to Canada. Out of these refugees, he raised a corps of rangers called Royal Greens, with whom he joined St. Leger, in the hope of crushing out his enemies in the valley.