History of the Loyalists: St. Ledger's Expedition to Fort Stanwix Fails

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History of the Loyalists: St. Ledger's Expedition to Fort Stanwix Fails
James Hannay
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HISTORY OF THE LOYALISTS ST. LEDGER'S EXPEDITION TO FORT STANWIX FAILS. The Battle of Bennington—Its Unfortunate Results on the British Cause. BY JAMES HANNAY. CHAPTER XXIII.—-Concluded. ST. LEDGER'S EXPEDITION. The delay in cutting his way through the woods from Skenesborough to Fort Edward was not the only one encountered by Burgoyne. He had been forced to send the larger part of his artillery and stores by way of Lake George, and it was not until the 15th of August that he was ready to descend the Hudson. In the meantime the expedition of St. Ledger to Fort Stanwix had completely failed. It will be remembered that St. Ledger had been detached to capture this post with 200 British regulars, 342 Hanan Chasseurs and 133 Loyalists of Sir John Johnson’s Royal Queen’s, but Fort Stanwix was found to be much stronger than had been represented, and when St. Ledger summoned it on the 2nd of August, its garrison was more numerous than the British force. A relieving force consisting of 800 militia, under General Herkimer, had also been collected, and was encamped at Oriskany, which is about eight miles distant from Fort Stanwix. St. Ledger surprised Herkimer at this place with a portion of his white troops and a body of Indians and completely defeated him, 160 of Herkimer’s men being killed, a large number wounded, and 200 taken prisoners. While this battle was going on, St. Ledger’s camp near Fort Stanwix was left unguarded, and 250 men of the garrison under Colonel Marimes Willet attacked it, and captured part of his baggage and a few prisoners who were invalids. American writers by ingeniously telling the story of Willet’s achievement, in advance of their account of the battle of Oriskany, give it the appearance of having been something worthy of high commendation, wholly omitting to state that the British force was nearly eight miles away. They also tell how Willet captured five British standards in Johnson’s camp, which would be at the rate of one standard to every 40 men of his regulars. It is hardly necessary to refute such absurd falsehoods, and the only object in referring to them is to show the unscrupulous character of American histories of the war. THE ATTEMPT ON FORT STANWIX ABANDONED. After the battle of Oriskany St. Ledger regularly invested Fort Stanwix, and summoned it to surrender. In the meantime assistance was being sent to it, Arnold being ordered to go to its relief with a brigade of Massachusetts troops, and Colonel Phillip Van Courtlandt advancing also, for the same object, with two New York regiments. Arnold reached the vicinity of Fort Stanwix on the 22nd of August, and sent forward some Indians attached to his army on purpose to be captured. These Indians were instructed to represent that Arnold had thousands of men with him, and these stories so affected the Indiana who were with St. Ledger that they all deserted him, and he was forced to abandon the siege and retreat to Canada. On this occasion as on all others throughout the war, the Indians showed themselves to be utterly un-reliable, and a burden to the army that depended upon them. The Indian does not possess the natural courage of the white man and can never be taught to stand his ground in the open field, or to make a desperate assault. He is equally lacking in perseverance, and a very little failure dampens his spirits and inclines him to desert. As the character of the Indians was well known to those British officers like Sir John Johnson, who had bad dealings with them, it is very unfortunate that they should have been employed at all by the British except as scouts, or that any expedition should have been undertaken, which depended on them for its success. The failure of the attempt on Fort Stanwix had an unfortunate effect on the fortunes of Burgoyne’s army, for it relieved a large body of American troops who became available for the main operation against him. It also encouraged the Americans to believe that they were able to cope with the British in that wilderness to which their army was moving. BURGOYNE'S TARDY ADVANCE. Six weeks had now elapsed from the time when Ticonderoga bad been captured, and Burgoyne had only reached the Hudson river with his army and baggage. The long delay had exhausted his stores of provisions most of which had to be brought from England, carried up the St. Lawrence, and over the difficult route which his army bad followed. The country in the vicinity of his camp afforded no supplies, so that he was becoming short of provisions. He had been told that at Bennington, 26 miles away, the Americans had a large depot of provisions, and he resolved to send a force to that place to capture them and replenish his stores. The main body of his army was now at Fort Miller, seven miles beyond Fort Edward. This expedition was taken in defiance of the protests of the Loyalists, some of whom were ordered to join it. Colonel Peters in his memorial on the subject states that "this order was refused by several provincial colonels, because they knew the certain danger on the mountains which they must pass. General Fraser gave countenance to the provincial colonels, for which General Burgoyne told General Fraser, when I want your advice I shall ask for it. The general added that the Americans were cowards and disobedient. At this Colonel Peters told the general, that he was ready to obey his orders, but we shall not return. Peters was the guide to Bennington, but between the mountains the rebels secreted between rocks and trees killed in half an hour about 1,000 men." THE BATTLE OF BENNINGTON. This statement requires some little explanation to make it intelligible. The force that was sent to Bennington was under the command of Lieut.-Colonel Baum, and consisted of 374 Germans, 452 of Peters’ Queen’s Loyal Rangers, and about 100 Indians. There were only about 30 or 40 British soldiers in the expedition, and the Loyalists appear to have been badly armed or not armed at all. The Americans were well prepared to resist this raid, and a large body of trained militia had been collected under Stark to defend Bennington. The exact number cannot be given, but there were no doubt upward of 2,000, that being the figure mentioned in General Lincoln’s letter to Schuyler, which was forwarded to the provincial convention. Baum finding that the Americans were strong in numbers encamped and entrenched himself hastily, and sent back to Burgoyne for reinforcements. The latter ordered Lieut.- Colonel Breymaun with 642 German soldiers to march to Baum’s support. Before he got there however, the force he was sent to relieve had been destroyed. Baum’s force was attacked on the morning of the 16th, and defeated with severe loss, while Breymaun who was advancing to his relief fell into an ambush and lost a third of his force. The total loss suffered by both detachments amounted to nearly 1,000 men, Baum himself being mortally wounded, 207 men were killed, and 700 including the wounded were captured; the loss of the Americans only about 100 killed, and as many wounded. Peters Queen’s Rangers lost 298 out of 452 on the field. Breymaun with the remnant of his Germans and a few Loyalists, among whom was Peters, made his escape to Burgoyne’s army to relate the disastrous result of an expedition which had been undertaken against the advice of those Loyalist officers who knew the country, and also contrary to the good council of General Fraser and other able British officers who understood something of warfare. It appears that Burgoyne’s adviser in this matter was Skene, whose advice to proceed by way of Skenesborough to the Hudson had already resulted in the loss of so much precious time. It will be noticed here HOW ONE ERROR BEGAT ANOTHER. The delay in reaching the Hudson which was due to proceeding by the wrong route made it appear necessary to attempt to obtain supplies for the army, and brought about the unfortunate expedition to Bennington. How differently things might have turned out if Burgoyne had but listened to the advice of those who were qualified to give it from their local knowledge and experience. General DePeyster a careful student of this campaign says: "Burgoyne could have been reassembled at Ticonderoga by the 10th July, could have been transported to Fort George by the 12th, and having left his guns and all his light artillery and indispensable material there or at Ticonderoga in depot, with a sufficient guard; could have reached Fort Edward on the evening of the 13th July. From this point to Albany is about 50 miles. With six or ten days rations, and an extra supply of ammunition efficient for a battle of that period, Burgoyne could have swept Schuyler out of his path with ease, and allowing one days delay for a fight could have occupied Albany on the 16th July." Had such measures been taken Burgoyne’s campaign would have been an immense success instead of the disastrous failure that it proved to be.