Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The New York Frontier in the Revolution

Looking down the Mohawk Valley
Between the Adirondack Mountains to the north and the Catskills to the south, the Mohawk River runs eastward for 149 miles to the Hudson River. At its headwaters near modern-day Rome is the Great Carrying Place, a spot where boats could be portaged to the Wood River and gain access to Lake Ontario and the interior of North America.

During the French and Indian War (1754-63), the French capture of Fort Oswego on the shore of Lake Ontario opened the rich farmland of the valley and the homes of the British-allied Mohawk nation to military threat. The valley survived the war mostly intact. It was a very different story twelve years later in the American Revolution.

A Plan to Strangle the Revolution

The Tories said 1777 "had three gallows in it" for the resemblance of the sevens to that means of execution. For a time in the summer of that year it looked as if the British might succeed in splitting the colonies and killing the revolution. 

General William Howe, Commander in Chief, North America, suggested a plan to cut off patriot-heavy New England from the rest of the colonies by marching 10,000 troops up the Hudson Valley from New York City and seizing Albany.  Split along the Hudson, in the regions to the south, starved of patriotic fervor, the revolution might suffocate and die. 

When Philadelphia, the rebel colonies' capital, became too-tempting a target, Howe abandoned this scheme and instead marched south. That decision resulted in the battles of Brandywine and Germantown, two of the biggest of the war and the loss of the American capital. What it didn't do was change the path of the war.

Gen. John Burgoyne

The Hudson Valley

About the same time Howe was changing his mind regarding the march on Albany, General John Burgoyne made a similar proposal to sever New England from the rest of the colonies, but from the opposite direction. He would march 8,000 men south from Quebec along Lakes Champlain and George, and then along the Hudson. The goal was the same as Howe's had been: Albany. There the two British forces would join up.
Simultaneously with Burgoyne's expedition, Colonel Barry St. Leger was to march from Fort Oswego down the Mohawk Valley towards Albany. The valley, sparsely populated and split at least evenly between patriots and Tories, was a rich source of food to Washington's army. 

Burgoyne's dreams were broken at Saratoga by an army led on paper by General Horatio Gates, but on the field more by Benedict Arnold. In retrospect, the British operation seemed doomed from the start - thousands of men trekking through the wilderness of New York with only a tenuous supply line back up the lakes to Canada. Expecting to move mostly over water, sufficient wagons for the overland-trek from the bottom of Lake George to Albany and drivers weren't procured until late, delaying the army's march. Ultimately, it took three months to reach Saratoga.

It must have been eerie for Burgoyne's army when it set off down Lake Champlain. While Indians and Europeans had used the lakes to travel for centuries, the region was not far removed from virgin forest. To have been one of 8,000 men moving by boat and then foot, through vast and untenanted wilderness would have unnerved the heck out of me. 

Burgoyne's supply issues were highlighted a month before the first battle of Saratoga, Freeman's Farm, when a Hessian foraging detachment was defeated near Bennington, Vermont. The American victory boosted morale, leading to more militia men joining General Gate's force and the loss to Burgoyne of nearly a thousand troops, half of them regulars.

The Battle of Freeman's Farm on Sept. 19th, ended with the British in command of the field but deprived of six hundred men. By the time of the second battle, Bemis Heights, on Oct. 7th, Burgoyne's army had been whittled down by desertions and sickness while Gates' army had only grown. The second battle opened with a British attack that failed, followed by an American one that captured pivotal portions of the British fieldworks. A week later, Burgoyne surrendered to Gates, and marched his remaining soldiers into captivity. The British surrender, coupled with Washington's continued survival, was what convinced the French to begin serious negotiations with the rebels to enter the war against Britain.

The Mohawk Valley

Johnson negotiates
with the Mohawk
On July 25, almost two months after Burgoyne left Montreal, St. Leger with about 2,000 men - a mixed force of regulars, Canadian and Tory militia and Iroquois left Fort Oswego. The plan was to strike quickly and take Fort Stanwix, seize control of the portage then secure the Mohawk Valley before marching to Albany.

When the Revolution began British control of Western New York seemed a forgone fact. For years, the region had been under the gruff, intelligent command of Sir William Johnson, Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the northern district. A hero of the French and Indian War, he spoke the Mohawk language and lived with Molly Brant, sister of Mohawk leader, Joseph Brant. The Indians, in particular, trusted him. Unfortunately, in the summer of 1774, he died. His son, John Johnson inherited his lands and titles and his nephew (and son-in-law), Guy Johnson, took over his duties as Superintendent. Neither had the old man's skills.

Johnson Hall, Johnson, NY
The Johnson cousins were unable to organize sufficient militia forces to keep control of the region west of Albany. A significant number of the 8,000 settlers in the region were Dutch and Palatinate Germans and the had a strong dislike for the high-handed ways of the Johnsons and their Iroquois friends. Here's an 1877 article by  Harold Frederic from Harper's that presents a detailed look at the maneuvering that took place in the first year of the war that lead most of the loyalists to flee to Canada. Sir John Johnson would return to New York in the summer of 1777, attached as an officer in St. Leger's column.

St. Leger had been lead to believe capturing Fort Stanwix would be easy. Instead, the American forces under Colonel Peter Gansevoort (Herman Melville's maternal grandfather), were stronger and better prepared than expected. Prepared for the British attack, the Americans had already sabotaged the roads to delay St. Leger's march. Gansevoort then hunkered down and waited for reinforcements.

Fort Stanwix was built by the British between 1758 and 1762. Occupied and renamed Fort Schuyler by the Americans in 1776, it burned down in 1781. In the mid-seventies, the National Park Service decided to rebuild the fort. Today, instead of a lonely, wilderness outpost, Fort Stanwix stands in the middle of downtown Rome, NY, an old canal port that saw its best days sixty years ago. Standing on the parapets, if you look into the fort's interior, again, it's possible to imagine yourself two and half centuries back. Then a car honking breaks the spell and it's today once more. 

Fort Stanwix from above
As soon as word of St. Leger's movements spread across Western New York, militia began forming across the region. While a larger body under Benedict Arnold gathered at Albany, 800 men of the Tryon County militia marched to relieve the fort. Under the command of General Nicholas Herkimer they were ambushed at Oriskany on August 6. A bloody mess of a battle, fought at close quarters, hundreds of Americans were killed. It's a testimony to Herkimer's character that, despite being severely wounded, a wound from which he'd die a few days later, he was able to reform his men and eventually get them to the relative safety of Fort Dayton (here's an article on the search for the fort's remains by the Herkimer County Historical Society). 

Oneida warriors vs. Tory militia 
Though surrounded by wood, most of the Oriskany battlefield park's grass is neatly mown and the trees less dense than in 1777. Still, if you walk down to the edge of the ravine where Herkimer's soldiers were ambushed, it's easy to imagine the sound of war cries, musket fire, and the screams of the dying and wounded.

I was there around the same time of the year and it was hot and muggy. It's only about seven or eight hundred feet from where the ambush started to the where Herkimer rallied his men, but it's upward, out of a steep ravine and up a slight incline. Militia during the Revolution had a habit of breaking pretty quickly when they took even light losses. To have made that move under fire, having already taken hundreds of losses, is a remarkable achievement.

Looking east toward the ambush ravine
While the bulk of the British and Indian force was attacking Herkimer's column, Gansevoort seized the chance to strike a blow. Colonel Marinus Willett and 250 men sortied from Fort Stanwix and ravaged the British encampment and destroyed much of the Indian warriors' possessions. The latter event led to many of the Iroquois leaving the siege and returning to their villages.

The siege ended when Arnold arrived with a relief column of 700 men. Insecure in the ability of his force to defeat St. Leger on the field, Arnold sowed disinformation in his enemy's camp leading him to believe there were many more Americans than there really were. With his brother held as a hostage, Loyalist prisoner, Hon Yost Schuyler, along with an Oneida warrior, was sent into the British lines to convince them Arnold led an overwhelming force. On August 22, St. Leger broke camp and retreated to Lake Ontario.

The Burning of the Valleys
After the disaster at Saratoga, the British decided to unleash the Indians and commence a guerrilla war on the western colonial frontier. Mohawk leader, Joseph Brant, and Loyalist irregular commander, John Butler were ordered to recruit soldiers and begin raiding the settlements and farms of the Mohawk, Susquehanna, Delaware, and Upper Hudson Valley. This was war up close and personal. For the Indians and Loyalists, it was a war against the people intent on driving them from their homes. For the Americans it was a fight to hold on to the land they were colonizing. Largely fought by irregulars, it meant ambush and terror were common. Scalping was a common practice by all sides. Where earlier the war in New York had been fought largely by armies facing each other in the field, it was now carried on by small bodies of men ranging killing soldiers and civilians alike.
Joseph Brant

Throughout 1778, forces from both sides raided and destroyed the other's settlements. In May, Brant and a force of nearly 300 men attacked the village of Cobleskill. In July, Butler and the Seneca war chief, Cornplanter, ravaged the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania and killed over 300 Americans. In September, Brant struck again, burning out nearly 700 settlers around the New York town of German Flatts. Finally, in November. a force of Indians and Loyalists attacked the New York village of Cherry Valley. It's come down in history as the Cherry Valley Massacre. The Seneca warriors, it is alleged, particularly targeted civilians, leaving at least thirty dead by the raid's end.

Wyoming Valley
The British actions precipitated drastic responses from the Americans. In October, the 4th Pennsylvania Regiment marched north into New York and burned down the Mohawk villages of Unadilla and Onaquaga. The towns had evacuated ahead of the soldiers' arrival, but the loss of the towns infuriated the Iroquois and helped precipitate the frenzy at Cherry Valley. 

Cherry Valley
By 1779, thousands of settlers had seen their farms burned and been evacuated from the frontier. Regions that Washington relied on to feed his army were devastated. There seemed to be no end to the Indian and Loyalists raids, some reaching as far as Vermont. Seeing no alternative, General George Washington order his staff to organize a campaign against the Iroquois and their allies and take "the war home to the enemy to break their morale."

Orders of George Washington to General John Sullivan, at Head-Quarters (Wallace House, New Jersey) May 31, 1779
The Expedition you are appointed to command is to be directed against the hostile tribes of the Six Nations of Indians, with their associates and adherents. The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements, and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more.I would recommend, that some post in the center of the Indian Country, should be occupied with all expedition, with a sufficient quantity of provisions whence parties should be detached to lay waste all the settlements around, with instructions to do it in the most effectual manner, that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed.But you will not by any means listen to any overture of peace before the total ruinment of their settlements is effected. Our future security will be in their inability to injure us and in the terror with which the severity of the chastisement they receive will inspire them.
Sullivan victorious at Newtown
Under the command of General John Sullivan, over 3,000 soldiers marched into the Iroquois homeland in Western New York and burned out at least forty Indian towns, much of their crops, and drove nearly 5,000 people into exile in Canada. The one major engagement, the Battle of Newtown on August 29 was an American victory, but a minor one. Most of the Iroquois warriors had already fled the region ahead of Sullivan's force.

Sullivan's Campaign against the Iroquois

Old Stone Fort - attacked on 10/17/1780
The loss of the Indian villages did not entirely stop Indian raiding through the end of the war. The attacks were less widespread than in earlier years, focusing on the Mohawk and Schoharie Valleys. In  August 1780, the town of Minden was attacked and destroyed. In October of the same year, at the Battle of Klock's Field, 1,500 men under General Robert Van Rennselaer defeat 1,000 under Sir John Johnson and Joseph Brant. The victory, though, hadn't come in time to prevent the destruction of a twenty-mile long region between Stone Arabia and Fort Hunter. 

The next year, Marinus Willet, veteran of Fort Stanwix, defeated a force of British regulars and Loyalist militia at Johnstown. It was one of the last battles in the Northern Theater of the Revolution. During Willet's pursuit of the retreating British toward Lake Oneida, John Butler's son, Walter was killed. 

After the War

John Butler
With the death of Walter Butler, one sees the death of the Loyalist fight to maintain control of New York. John Butler would end his life a prominent landowner and politician in Ontario. Sir John Johnson would end up in Quebec and become the Head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs for Lower Canada. I imagine the greater number of Loyalist settlers remained in Canada as well.

Only Joseph Brant attempted to continue the war against the Americans. He kept fighting in 1782, but by then, the war clearly lost with Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown, the British refused to supply him anymore. Eventually, he too, would end up in Canada, an exile vainly attempting to rebuild his New York homeland. He tried to get all the Iroquois emigrants to settle near him as well as his old Loyalist neighbors. 

Brant also tried to forge an alliance between the tribes of the Ohio Valley, land he, and all of the tribes inhabiting it, felt had been unfairly ceded to the Americans by the British. When war finally came in 1785, despite appeals by the Western Indian Confederacy, Brant refused to bring the Iroquois into the war. He knew the British would provide no support so war might mean the end of his people. Instead, he watched the Confederacy, one of the last Indian powers in the northern United States fall in defeat at Fallen Timbers in 1795. Brant himself would live another twelve years, dying in Ontario, hundreds of miles from where he was born.

By 1825, any of the war's participants would have seen a drastically different region from the sparsely settled one they'd fought across. The Iroquois Confederation was no more. Many of its people had fled to Canada. Even the American-allied Oneida tribe saw most of its people migrate to Wisconsin. The Erie Canal had opened, linking the East Coast to the Great Lakes and the interior of the United States. Cities like Rome and Rochester sprang up, bringing people and industry. The original American frontier was gone.