We have visited the Oriskany Battlefield several times. Unfortunately, this park is slated for closure by New York State, due to the state’s financial mismanagement troubles. I’m glad I took so many photos when we last visited. I hope you enjoy our visit.
Oriskany, NY, has the sad distinction of the location of the bloodiest battle of the American Revolution.
The Oriskany Battlefield State Historic Site is located on Route 69, north of the small village of Oriskany, NY. The site used to hold reenactments of the battle, although in the past we have always missed them, and I am not sure they are held anymore. I’ve seen photos and they were incredible events, with hundreds of actors posing as British, Mohawk and Oneida Indians, Loyalists, and American Patriots.
There is an Oriskany Museum approximately 4 miles south of this battlefield, also on Route 69. The Battlefield is a memorial to those who fought in the War, and the Museum is more about the U.S.S. Oriskany aircraft carrier, with some information about the American Revolution. The Museum is worth seeing. We spent a delightful hour there, and I found out some really neat things about the U.S.S. Oriskany. You can read about it here.
When you drive in to the Battlefield Memorial Site, these signs greet you.
The Battlefield site is plain and somber. The state has tried to keep it looking a lot like what it must have appeared as in 1777. When we last went in 2004, the fields were mown; today, swaths of wild grasses and weeds surround the trails that take you to key points of the battle. I don’t know if this au natural look is intentional, or due to neglect. I think it looked better when the place was trimmed. It looks too unkempt now.
The site has “play-by-play” markers posted along the trail.
The now-infamous ravine is where Mohawk Indian Joseph Brant (his birth name was Thayendanegea) led the raid of British soldiers and Tories against the Patriots. Brant and his crew were a vicious bunch, leading all sorts of horrendous massacres against settlers (especially the Cherry Valley Massacre). British General John Burgoyne (hiss hiss) found great use for the Iroquois Indians. He wrote a lovely poem for us Patriots, letting us know his intentions in his “Burgoyne’s Orderly Book”:
“I will let loose the dogs of hell,
Ten thousand Indians, who shall yell
And foam and tear, and grin and roar,
And drench their moccasins in gore:
To these I’ll give full scope and play
From Ticonderog to Florida…”
Anyway, the ravine is very overgrown now. We had to jump over the weeds that wanted the trail back.
The events of the battlefield unfolded the first few days of August 1777. Those summer days were typical Upstate New York days– so hot and humid that the forest literally steamed with heavy gasps of respiration. The American Patriots–led by General Nicolas Herkimer– and their noble allies, the Oneida Indians, were hurrying from Tryon County (Little Falls, NY, area) to Fort Stanwix (in what is now Rome, NY). They were coming to the aid of the fort, which was under siege by the British armies. Their march was a three-day, 40-mile slog through dense woods and swamps. By the time they reached this point in Oriskany, they were only six miles from Fort Stanwix. We could only imagine how laborious this trudge through the depths of the Mohawk Valley had been.
The tiny trail we followed led us about 50 feet down and across a small footbridge. This was the site where the Patriots stooped down to sip the cool water and wash their sweaty heads. It was at this moment, while the Americans’ backs were turned, that Brant’s crew attacked them. The Indians and Loyalists had been waiting in the woods for them.
Loyalists (also known as Tories) were Americans– they sympathized with the British and refused to join the fight for independence. Families were split apart over these political tensions. My own husband’s ancestors fought here at this battlefield, these Loyalists and Patriots. Many of the battles of Upstate New York were brothers fighting against brothers, and sons against fathers. This made the bloodshed more tragic. The Indians were not immune, either– the Iroquois Six Nations had been wrent when the tribes joined the British except for the faithful and pious Oneida tribe and the Tuscaroras. The Oneidas suffered horribly during the Revolution for their faithful alliance with the Patriots.
Patriot General Herkimer’s militia men fiercely fought the Brant crew. Herkimer was shot –mortally wounded– but continued to direct the battle from under a tree. War is truly hell. It must have been horrible. Losses were very bad– 450 of 800 Patriots and Oneidas died. 150 Loyalists and Mohawks perished. At Fort Stanwix in Rome (where these American Patriots and Oneida Indians were headed), there’s a reenactment video of this historic moment. It’s stunning, and really gives the viewer an idea of how chaotic and vicious this attack was.
A vivid painting of Herkimer at this moment, The Battle of Oriskany, by E. N. Clark, hangs upstairs in the >Utica Public Library (a GREAT library; boy, I wish they got more support and funding).
The obelisk at the Battlefield honors the dead. Listed on the monument is a relative of an ancestor of my husband’s, who was the only Patriot in my husband’s old family of Tories. Brother fought against brother. (My husband’s ancestors fled to Canada after the War.) My grandmother would be rolling in her grave if she knew I married a man whose ancestors were Tories! But my husband, a Patriot now, has been redeemed ;).
It is a sober memorial.
No one actually won this battle. The Americans suffered a horrific loss, but they did prevent Brant’s men from reaching Fort Stanwix. It is a surety that if the Patriots had not staved off Brant, Fort Stanwix would have fallen to the British.
There was a large monument erected by the Daughters of the American Revolution, in honor of the Unknown Soldiers who fought and died.
General Herkimer died several days later. He died from a botched amputation of his wounded leg. At the Herkimer House Museum, his old Bible is displayed, open to Psalm 38 which he wanted to read just before his death.
Psalm 38:1 O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger,
nor discipline me in your wrath!
2 For your arrows have sunk into me,
and your hand has come down on me.
3 There is no soundness in my flesh
because of your indignation;
there is no health in my bones
because of my sin.
4 For my iniquities have gone over my head;
like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me.
5 My wounds stink and fester
because of my foolishness,
6 I am utterly bowed down and prostrate;
all the day I go about mourning.
7 For my sides are filled with burning,
and there is no soundness in my flesh.
8 I am feeble and crushed;
I groan because of the tumult of my heart.
9 O Lord, all my longing is before you;
my sighing is not hidden from you.
10 My heart throbs; my strength fails me,
and the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me.
11 My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague,
and my nearest kin stand far off.
12 Those who seek my life lay their snares;
those who seek my hurt speak of ruin
and meditate treachery all day long.
13 But I am like a deaf man; I do not hear,
like a mute man who does not open his mouth.
14 I have become like a man who does not hear,
and in whose mouth are no rebukes.
15 But for you, O Lord, do I wait;
it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer.
16 For I said, “Only let them not rejoice over me,
who boast against me when my foot slips!”
17 For I am ready to fall,
and my pain is ever before me.
18 I confess my iniquity;
I am sorry for my sin.
19 But my foes are vigorous, they are mighty,
and many are those who hate me wrongfully.
20 Those who render me evil for good
accuse me because I follow after good.
21 Do not forsake me, O Lord!
O my God, be not far from me!
22 Make haste to help me,
O Lord, my salvation!
Herkimer’s efforts were not in vain. So although the Americans suffered tremendous loss, they did detain Brant’s group from getting to Fort Stanwix in Rome, where British General St. Leger was laying seige. Because of the failure of the British to gain ground in Fort Stanwix and in Oriskany, as well as some other typical British blunders, Burgoyne’s Three-Pronged-Attack on Albany collapsed. Burgoyne was captured in Saratoga. When the French heard of this American victory, they decided to aid our cause, and sent money, ships, and troops our way (most notably, to Yorktown). We can see the importance of this small battle today, but back then in the heat of things, it must have been hard to endure the loss. We are ever grateful that they hung on.
At the Battlefield site, we visited a small visitor’s center. The last time we visited, in 2004, the center was closed, so this was a real treat to finally go in.
This flag perked us up!
Outside the center was the coolest car I’d ever seen. A hybrid!! We quietly snuck in it for a quick photo.
It was fun to explore the area, fun to run down the trails and imagine life back then. But all the while the cloud of sobriety hangs above, reminding us that this little battle was more than just a little battle. These valiant men were fighting not for land or wealth, but for an idea: the right to live free and the right to our inalienable rights endowed by our Creator. These men weren’t blindly struggling, as so many pawns do in war (“the sport of kings”). These guys knew what they were fighting for, and they did it for posterity– for us!