Revolutionary War: The Siege of Fort Stanwix



Fort Stanwix / U.S. National Parks Service

By Donald N. Moran



To the casual reader, Fort Stanwix is somewhat of an enigma being located on the New York frontier, miles away from the major theatres of the Revolutionary War. Its only claim to fame is a British siege in August of 1777 in which the defenders of the Fort sustained only seven killed and eighteen wounded. How could such a ‘siege’ be of any historic significance? To understand the significance one must be able to grasp the entirety of the New York frontier situation – the political, topographical and the composition of the population.

Fort Stanwix controls the ancient east-west water route through upstate New York. It is situated on the southeast bank of the headwaters of the Mohawk River, a tributary of the North (Hudson) River, which flows to the Atlantic. On the northern side of the Fort is Wood Creek, which flows into Fish Kill (kill is Dutch for Creek), which flows into Lake Oneida, thence to the Oswego River onto Lake Ontario, the western gateway to the Great Lakes and the Saint Lawrence River. Using this route an Army could move, entirely by water, from New York City to Eastern Canada, having only one portage of three miles, and that was over level land. Therefore, Fort Stanwix was strategically positioned, and was the westernmost fort on the New York Frontier.

During the French and Indian Wars (1754-1763), the British recognized the strategic importance of this north-south waterway. Major General William Shirley dispatched Captain William Williams of the 51st Regiment of Foot to build four forts to protect the portage. Williams, aided by another Captain, Marcus Petri, started construction. Fort “Williams” was built at the Mohawk River landing, mounted several cannon and was the largest of the four Forts. Fort Craven was built just south of the Mohawk landing, Fort Newport was built at the upper landing on Wood Creek, and finally, Fort Bull was built a mile and a quarter west on Wood Creek. Fort Bull was constructed out of logs with two palisades. The outer being between 15 and 18 feet in height, while the inner one was barely the height of a standing man. It contained no artillery and was garrisoned by approximately 30 men.


Fort Bull Marker / Mohawk Valley History

On March 27th, 1756, the French, commanded by an Officer named De Lery, launched a surprise dawn attack on Fort Bull. Everyone in the Fort, except one woman was killed. The French appear to have been too weak to attack the other forts, now fully alerted, so they withdrew.


Fort Oswego /

The following year, August 20th, 1757, saw the French strike again, this time defeating the English garrison at Fort Oswego. Word of battle reached the British at Fort Williams and warned them that a force of some six thousand French and Indians were marching against them. The British evacuated their forts in the face of such a formidable enemy, destroyed them, and retreated to German Flats. The French raids continued and finally General Abercromby ordered Brigadier General John Stanwix to re-occupy the Forts at the portage and construct a Fort that would be impervious to French attack. Stanwix appointed a Captain of Engineers, William Green, to erect the Fort.

The first log was laid on August 26th, 1758 and the Fort completed in November of that year at a cost of $266,000. As the British had hoped, Fort Stanwix contained the Franco-Indian advances into the Mohawk Valley.

After the war, Fort Stanwix was the site chosen for the treaty with the Iroquois. Sir William Johnson convinced the Indians to give up all their lands south of a line running between Fort Pitt and Fort Stanwix and from there along the southern bank of the Ohio River. As peace with both the French and the Indians lasted over a decade, the need for maintain the frontier forts became unnecessary, so Fort Stanwix was allowed to fall into ruin.

A year after the opening shots of the Revolutionary War were fired, the importance of controlling the Mohawk Valley and the north-south waterways was recognized once again, this time by the Continental Congress. In June of 1776 Colonel Elias Dayton and his 3rd New Jersey Regiment of the Continental Line was dispatched to reconstruct Fort Stanwix. Colonel Dayton was to distinguish himself throughout the War and led a 1,300 man brigade in the final assaults at the siege of Yorktown. He was a personal friend of George Washington and it was said that he strongly resembled General Washington. On the 7th of January, 1783 he was promoted to Brigadier General and later Major General of New Jersey Militia. Dayton made the Fort inhabitable and defensible, renaming it after General Philip Schuyler. However, on the site of the present City of Utica there was another Fort, also named “Fort Schuyler”. That one was named after General Schuyler’s Uncle, who served during the French and Indian Wars. Hence, Fort Schuyler retained its original name.

The fertile Mohawk Valley was sparsely populated in 1776, with an estimated 5,000 white settlers in the in area. Along the northern reaches of the Valley were the Germans from the Rhenish Palatinates. They preferred the disciplined control of the King’s government. Along the lower reaches of the Mohawk were the Dutch, who settled that area more than one hundred years earlier. They too, preferred the Royal Government.

Settled throughout the entire Valley were English, Irish and Scotch Irish, whose sentiment was mixed. Around Johnstown lived numerous Highland Scots, who like their countrymen in the Carolinas, were fiercely loyal to the Crown.

William L. Stone in his monumental work, “Border Wars of the American Revolution” (2 Vols. New York 1864) wrote: “The Loyalists in that [Mohawk] Valley were probably more numerous, in proportion to the whole population than in almost any other section of the Northern States . . .”


Six Nations / Six Nations Indian Museum

To the west of Fort Stanwix was the heart of the Great Iroquois League or the Six Nations – The Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, Sencas and the Tuscaroras. The thought of their alliance with England terrified the entire frontier.

Several conferences had been held with them. Notably at Oswego where nearly 1,500 Iroquois warriors listened to speeches encouraging their support of the crown. Another conference, held in Montreal, was attended by 3,000 warriors, with little effect. Major General Sir Guy Carleton, Governor of Canada, requested that they only hold themselves in readiness. It would appear that Sir Guy, in spite of instructions from London, was unwilling to incite the frontier, as he was well aware that the Indians would commit atrocities that would lead to another invasion of Canada by the Americans – and one that he was ill-prepared to defend against.

The Americans held a similar conference in August of 1775 at Albany, New York, and they too urged the Iroquois to either join the Patriot cause or stay neutral. The Iroquois believed it was a “family feud” and stated they would take no part in it. In reality, they elected to sit back and watch, thereby determining who the stronger was, and join the “winning” side.

The British lavished gifts on them, which the Americans were wholly unable to match. Only the Oneidas and Tuscaroras maintained the agreement and eventually joined with the Americans.

Thus it becomes clear that Fort Stanwix was the “key” to the Mohawk Valley. Once it was reduced by the British military, the large Tory populations, the Six Nations, would rise up and fall upon the rebellious Americans. This would prevent another invasion of Canada, it would deny the American Army of much of its grain and beef, and above all, force the Americans to split up their forces to protect the frontier – FORT STANWIX HAD TO BE CAPTURED.

The Siege


Colonel Peter Gansevoort / Creative Commons

Colonel Peter Gansevoort (1749-1812) commanded the Third New York Continental

Line Regiment which relieved Colonel Dayton at Fort Stanwix in April of 1777. He immediately set his Regiment to completing the work of strengthening the fortifications reconstructed by Colonel Dayton. He was one of the most capable men in the New York area. Only 28 years of age, he had already proved himself a leader in the siege of Montreal, serving under General Montgomery. He was promoted to Lt. Colonel and placed in command of Fort George. On November 21st, 1776 he was again promoted, this time to full Colonel and given the Command of the 3rd New York. He was ably seconded by a courageous, enterprising officer, Lt. Colonel Marinus Willett. Through their combined efforts, Fort Stanwix was readied for its supreme test.


Brigadier General Barry St. Leger / Creative Commons

Their opponent, Brigadier General Barry St. Leger, an experienced soldier who had spent twenty of his forty years in His Majesty’s service, had taken part in the siege of Louisburg and the capture of French Quebec during The French and Indian Wars. He was normally the Lt. Colonel of the crack 34th Regiment of Foot, but was given the temporary rank of Brigadier General for this operation. His force consisted of 100 men each from the 8th and 34th Regiments of Foot, a Regiment of Tories, called the “Royal Greens” numbering some 133 men, a Company of Tory Rangers under Colonel John Butler, and approximately 350 Hanau Jaegers (Germans). He also had two Six-pounders and two Three-pounders, and four small Mortars, along with forty artillerists to operate them, a large number of Canadian irregulars and an estimated 1,000 Iroquois led by Joseph Brant.

On July 25th, 1777 St. Leger arrived at Stanwix and the 3rd N.Y. Rt. British controlled Fort Oswego and immediately started his march on Fort Stanwix. His method of march was both innovative and cautious. Five single-file columns of Iroquois spread out widely, insured that his force would not be ambushed. The advance guard of soldiers followed, with its men spaced ten paces apart, back to the main column, thereby insuring communication. He covered his flanks with Indians and Royal Greens. His rate of march was an incredible 10 miles a day.

St. Leger’s Indian scouts reported that a relief column with reinforcements and supplies was en route to Fort Stanwix. He was determined to prevent them from reaching the Fort. He dispatched a “Flying Column” of thirty Regulars from the 8th Regiment and 200 Iroquois to make the intercept. The mixed force of British and Indians reached the Fort on August 2nd, just in time to fire on the last of the two-hundred man reinforcements. They wounded two, killed one and captured one. All of these were boatmen.

Late on the 3rd of August, General St. Leger and his entire force arrived. His plan was simple – intimidate the garrison to surrender by a show of force. He ordered all of his sizable force to parade in front of the Fort. With their colorful uniforms, scarlet for the British, Blue for the Jaegers, Green for the Rangers and Tories, they made a spectacular display. But contrary to his intentions, all that made an impression on the Garrison was the presence of 1,000 war-painted Iroquois. This made the defenders resolved in not letting them pass.


Journal of William Colbrath / Creative Commons

We are indebted to a young soldier-scholar of the Third New York Regiment who left us a complete journal of the siege that followed. The journal is attributed to a young Ensign, William Colbrath, whose name appears on the back cover of the notebook. However, the official records show that Colbrath did not arrive at Fort Stanwix until 19 July, whereas the Journal starts on April 17th. For the sake of this article, we will report it as Colbrath even though there is some doubt as to the actual authorship.

Colbrath – August 3rd. “Early this morning, a Continental Flags made by the Officers of Col. Gansevoort’s Regiment was hoisted and a cannon levelled at the Enemies Camp was fired on the occasion.” Many historians believe this was the first time the 13-star flag was flown in battle.

St. Leger realized that the Fort was much to strong and too well garrisoned for him to make a frontal assault. He then deployed his forces for a formal siege. On August 6th, St. Leger’s scouts advised him of the approach of the relief force led by General Herkimer. St. Leger hastily pulled the majority of his forces from the siege lines and moved them east for the ambush that became known as the Battle of Oriskany.

Herkimer’s messengers to Fort Stanwix requested that the Garrison send a force out to meet him upon his approach but did not reach the Fort until the Battle was at its height. Upon receipt of the message from Herkimer, Col. Gansevoort dispatched Lt. Col. Willett with a force of 250 men and one field piece. Willett found that the siege lines were barely defended and proceeded to attack the camp area of the British and Indians unaware of the terrible battle that was taking place. As he attacked, the British and Indians abandoned their positions and allowed Willett and his men to loot the camps. He very methodically took or destroyed all the British supplies. He took twenty-one wagon loads of equipment and supplies. Five British flags were raised “Under the Continental Flag”, stated Colbrath The psychological impact of the loss of all their equipment took a severe toll on the British and the Indians.

Having stopped the reinforcement column from reaching Fort Stanwix, St. Leger appears to have believed that the Fort would surrender. He dispatched Colonel Butler, Major Ancron and an unnamed British officer under a flag of truce with a demand for their immediate surrender. According to Willett and Colbrath, the surrender demand stated that he [St. Leger] had prevailed on his Indian allies to spare the lives of the garrison should they now surrender, but if they did not, the Indians would massacre the whole garrison then proceed down the Valley killing all they encountered, including women and children.

Col. Willett replied for the 3rd New York – “Do I understand you Sir? I think you say you come from a British Colonel, who is commander of the army that invests this Fort; and by your uniform you appear to be an officer in the British service . . . you come from a British Colonel to the Commandant of this garrison to him that, if he does not deliver up the garrison…..he will send his Indians to murder our women and children.” Willett went on to scorn Major Ancron that no officer should deliver a degrading message , and that Fort Stanwix would not surrender.

With the demand for surrender refused, St. Leger attempted to tighten his hold on the Fort. He built new redoubts and started to dig trenches closer to the Fort. Each day the firing grew hotter. According to Colbrath’ s journal “. . . at 1:00 0′ clock Col. Willett and Lt. Stockwell went out of the Fort on a secret expedition.” That mission was to obtain help for the Fort. Two days later, they arrived at Fort Dayton. having evaded the Indians by traveling at night, through the swamps.

Reporting the situation to General Schuyler, the General called a council of war, proposing to send a strong detachment to relieve Fort Stanwix. Many of his officers opposed the move as General Burgoyne was approaching from the North with a very strong force, and they felt it necessary to keep their small Army intact to oppose him. When Scbuyler insisted, some of the officers insinuated that Schuyler’s plan was deliberately weakening their Army and was treason. Schuyler overheard this comment and bit the stem off his clay pipe. He angrily threw the two pieces away stating, “Gentlemen, I shall take the responsibility upon myself. Fort Stanwix and the Mohawk Valley shall be saved! Where is the Brigadier who wi11 command the relief? I shall beat up for volunteers tomorrow.”


Major General Benedict Arnold / Creative Commons

Benedict Arnold offered his services which were accepted by Schuyler. Arnold was a Major General, and a strong supporter of Philip Schuyler. His second in command was Brigadier General Ebenezer Learned of Massachusetts. Together they led a nine-hundred man relief expedition.

Before leaving Fort Dayton with the relief column, General Arnold developed a plan to further the relief. A Mohawk Valley German, Hon Yost Schuyler, a distant cousin of General Schuyler and nephew of General Herkimer had been sentenced to death for having attempted to lure men into deserting. Hon Yost was partially insane – a half-idiot. The Indians believed that the “Great Spirit” talked to the insane, and so they could be prophets. Arnold offered Hon Yost a pardon if he, assisted by an Oneida Indian, would go into St. Leger’s Indian Camp and spread the news that General Arnold was marching on them with a force of 3,000 men, and was only a few miles away. Benedict Arnold was feared by the British and the Indians alike. Leading a force of some 3,000 men would mean utter destruction for them.

Hon Yost agreed and started for Fort Stanwix. Upon his arrival at the Indian encampment in the siege lines, he spread the news of Arnold’ s coming. The Indians accepted the information as truth, took what they could carry, rioted, stealing liquor and other equipment from the British camp, and fled into the woods.

This left St. Leger with a much too small force to hold out against the large force coming against him. His men were tired from the two weeks of laying siege to Fort Stanwix, and moreover, he had lost many of his Tory allies in the hard fought Battle of Oriskany. He ordered his remaining men to take what they could carry on their backs and retreat to Fort Oswego. He left his tents standing, along with his artillery train, ammunition and all his supplies that Lt. Col. Willett had not captured in his raid on their camp.

Arnold received the news that he had completely routed the sieging Army without firing a shot. There was nothing left to do but to continue on his march and formally relieve the besieged Fort. Ensign Colbrath noted in his journal on August 23rd: “This afternoon the Honorable Major General Arnold arrived with near 1,000 men. They were saluted with a discharge of powder from our Mortars, formerly the Enemy’s, and all the cannon from the Bastions amounting in whole to 13, attended with three cheers from the troops on the Bastions. – Finis.”

The results of the siege of Fort Stanwix and the Battle of Oriskany were two-fold. First, General Burgoyne was now totally alone. There were no forces doing anything to assist him. There would be no one to join him at Albany. The second accomplishment was that the Mohawk Valley was now firmly held by the Americans.



FORT STANWIX AND ORISKANY – John Albert Scott (Rome 1927)

LIFE OF BENEDICT ARNOLD – Isaac Arnold (Chicago, 1880)

FORT STANWIX – Orville W. Carroll -(Washington 1976)

BURGOYNE OF SARATOGA – Gerald Howson (New York 1979)

THE TURNING POINT OF THE REVOLUTION – Hoffman-Nickerson (Boston 1928)

THE WAR OF THE REVOLUTION – Christopher Ward ( New York 1952)

VISITS TO THE SARATOGA BATTLE GROUNDS – William L. Stone (Port Washington l895)


GENTLEMEN JOHNNY BUGOYNE – F. J. Hudleston (New York 1927)