Sitting under a tree in north-central New York, suffering from a painful and mortal leg wound, yet still managing a successful defense after a powerful ambush, is a characteristic of a great military leader. All the while nonchalantly smoking his pipe!
Nicholas Herkimer was the epitome of a successful militia commander. The Battle of Oriskany was a turning point. Herkimer, sitting on a once innocuous hillside, was a major reason why.
Even George Washington recognized the importance of Herkimer and made mention of his decision to not seek a commission in anything more than the militia of his home state. Not only that simple fact of service recognized by the commander-in-chief, but also his pivotal role in the Northern campaign of 1777.
“It was Herkimer who first reversed the gloomy scene of the Northern campaign. The hero of the Mohawk Valley served from love of Country, not for reward. He did not want a Continental command or money.”
Herkimer would succumb to the mortal leg wound ten days after the battle, but his role in what was described as “one of the bloodiest battles of the war” solidified his place in the category of “greatest leaders of the American Revolution you have never heard of.”
Born in the Mohawk Valley of New York to Palatinate immigrants, Nicholas was described as a slender built, dark complexioned, dark haired individual. When he was finished growing, he stood near six feet tall, a rather tall height in 18th century Colonial America. He could also boast of being multilingual, fluently speaking English, German, and Iroquois.
He saw action in the French and Indian War, helping to repel the French and Native American attack on German Flatts, New York on November 12, 1757. Although a disastrous day for the German community, as many were taken prisoner by the French and Native Americans, Herkimer’s role led to his promotion to captain in the militia within two months of the fighting on January 5, 1758. Thirty-years after his promotion to captain the town would be renamed “Herkimer” for the actions of this New Yorker during the subsequent war.
In April of 1758, Herkimer was present and assisted in the successful repulse of the French and Indian force.
With peace established in 1763, Herkimer looked toward personal matters, building a house on the south side of the Mohawk River in 1764. He married two ladies, both named Maria. One died and the other would remarry and move north of the border to Canada, after Herkimer’s death in 1777.
With tensions increasing in the 1770s between Great Britain and the colonies, Herkimer led the Tryon County, New York Committee of Safety and was elected colonel of the local militia. The Provincial Congress on September 5, 1776 promoted him to brigadier general of the militia. One of his first roles was to meet with Joseph Brant, a Mohawk military and political leader in an effort to try and keep the Native Americans neutral in the conflict between the colonies and Great Britain. He was unsuccessful.
During the Northern Campaign of 1777, with the thrust southward by British General John Burgoyne being the main column on its way to its destiny at Saratoga, a secondary column entered the Mohawk Valley under British General Barrimore”Barry” St. Leger. The combined British, German, Loyalist, and Native American force laid siege to Fort Stanwix, in present-day Rome, New York.
Herkimer heard about this and marched his militia to help raise the siege. His force was ambushed on August 6, as they were nearing Fort Stanwix. After the initial surprise, in which Herkimer received his wound, the militia responded well and a drawn out battle ensued.
Part of the reason that the majority of the militia recovered from the shock and endured the ensuing bloody carnage was directly related to the inspired leadership of Colonel Samuel Campbell who led one of the militia regiments in the force and Herkimer himself.
Herkimer, after having his horse shot and receiving his mortal wound in the opening shots of the engagement asked to be propped under a tree on the hillside his forces had utilized for their defensive stand He then calmly lit a pipe and with a continued cool demeanor directed the rest of the engagement.
After the day-long battle, Herkimer ensured he was the last to leave the field, after all the wounded that could be collected had been removed.
Although his wound was dressed on the field, the injury became infected and amputation was the only course of action. In the woods of western New York, the surgeon doing the operation was inexperienced and the wound bled tremendously. Herkimer would succumb to the wound on August 16, at the age of 49. He was buried near Little Falls, where he had built his home in the 1760s. The cemetery today is known as the “Herkimer Home Burial Ground.”
*Nicholas Herkimer’s role in the war and the Battle of Oriskany and the St. Leger campaign is described wonderfully by Michael O. Logusz in Volume 2 of “With Musket and Tomahawk” published by Savas Beatie LLC in March 2012.*