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St. Leger in the Mohawk Valley

Lieutenant Colonel Barry St. Leger’s role in the British war plan of 1777 was to lead his army from Montréal to the western end of the Mohawk Valley in central New York. He was to proceed east to Fort Stanwix (present-day Rome), the key bastion on the river, subdue it, then push on to Albany where his forces would converge with those of John Burgoyne. St. Leger reached Fort Stanwix, known to the Americans as Fort Schuyler, on August 3. Colonel Peter Gansevoort, the American commander, declined the British demand for surrender, being aware that a relief party was marching to his aid. That force, however, was ambushed at Oriskany on August 6, an encounter that resulted in heavy American losses and the mortal wounding of its commander, Nicholas Herkimer. The British then turned their full attention to Fort Stanwix and were again rebuffed after calling for the American garrison's surrender. Then they unwisely granted a short truce. The defenders took advantage of the lull in the fighting to slip two scouts through the British lines. They headed to Fort Dayton to plead for assistance. The apparent position of strength enjoyed by St. Leger dissipated quickly. Two factors led to this reversal of fortune:

  1. The Indian allies of the British who had participated in the ambush of Herkimer had returned to their camp and discovered that their supplies and other possessions had been taken in a raid by American forces. The natives were dispirited by these losses and were persuaded to remain only by an impassioned appeal from St. Leger.
  2. Benedict Arnold headed a second relief force intended to aid Fort Stanwix. He was concerned that his numbers might be insufficient for the task, so he sent an agent to St. Leger posing as an American deserter. The British were given a highly inflated report on Arnold’s strength — a bit of subterfuge that resulted in the defection of the Indian allies and sudden lifting of the siege.
On August 22, St. Leger began a retreat to Fort Oswego and later back to Montréal. No British column would descend on Albany from the west. Burgoyne would be left to his own devices at Saratoga in what many have regarded as the turning point of the war.