Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Battle of Oriskany Commemoration

Last month, I had the privilege of speaking briefly at the annual commemoration of the Battle of Oriskany. This decisive Revolutionary War battle was fought on August 6, 1777. My ancestor, Nicholas Van Slyke, was a young fifer who survived this bloody battle; in fact, there were several Van Slykes present at the battle, including Nicholas's father Gerrit.

My short talk, pasted below, gives a brief description of the battle scene, but you can find out more about the site and the battle at the Oriskany Battlefield Web site , or at the National Park Service Web page about the battlefield.

“Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are considered equal.”

I’m sure you are all familiar with the opening lines of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. But we are not here to commemorate the Battle of Gettysburg, which took place 87 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed, but instead of course the Battle of Oriskany, which took place a mere one year, one month, and two days after the Declaration was signed.

The outcome of this earlier conflict was of course by no means assured at that time. But in more ways than one, it was also a form of civil war. First of all, here in what is now central New York, it pitted neighbor against neighbor, brother against brother, those we now call Patriots against the Loyalists or Tories who were loyal to the British crown. Secondly, the battle here at Oriskany represented a break within the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois confederacy, where for the first time, Mohawk and Seneca warriors fought against their Oneida brothers, who were loyal to the Patriots.

You’re probably familiar with the historical context here, with British Lt. Col. Barry St. Leger and his troops on the move through the Mohawk Valley to lay siege to Fort Stanwix, which was an American occupied garrison in what is now Rome, NY; and Brigadier General Nicholas Herkimer mustering the Tryon County Militia at Fort Dayton, the present-day village of Herkimer, with the intention of relieving the siege of Fort Stanwix.

But, as you know, General Herkimer and his troops never made it to the Fort in time. They were ambushed right here in this marshy ravine, by British and Loyalist troops under Sir John Johnson and Col. John Butler, and Mohawk forces led by Joseph Brant. Loaded down by supply wagons that could neither advance nor retreat in the crush, Gen. Herkimer and his men were caught in the bloody hand-to-hand combat that was the typical way to wage war in those days.

The site is so peaceful now, with the sounds of crickets and bird calls, that it is difficult to imagine the chaos and din of the battle on that day: the militia and British forces calling back and forth to each other in English, Dutch, and German, and their Iroquois allies in the Mohawk, Seneca, and Oneida languages. Against that backdrop, could also be heard the war cries, the moans of the dying, and the sounds of gunshots and cannon.

A couple of vignettes from the chaotic battle scene stand out in my mind’s eye: I’m sure you’re all familiar with the painting of General Herkimer directing the actions of his men from his location seated on the battleground, after being wounded in the leg, insisting that he would still face the enemy.

I picture also the Oneida war chief, Han Yerry Doxtater, who while wounded could not reload his gun, he remained on horseback while his young wife, Senagena (“Two Kettles”), repeatedly loaded the musket for him, and fired her own pistols as well.

I also cannot resist mentioning my own ancestor, Nicholas Van Slyke, who was present at the battle along with his father Gerrit. Nicholas was a teenaged fifer, whose task it was to signal, along with the drummers, troop movements or to load and fire muskets. The fife was, of course a high-pitched flute whose sound could be heard for quite a distance, even through the sounds of battle.

There is apparently no definitive list of those present at the Battle of Oriskany, including a definitive listing of survivors and casualties. So you may have seen a list that indicated that one Nicholas Van Slyke was killed at Oriskany. There were in fact, two Nicholas Van Slykes present here, since according to the Dutch naming customs of the day, children were often named after aunts, uncles, or grandparents.

But my family knows that we are descended from the Nicholas who did survive, because we have in our possession a daguerreotype from the mid-19th century that portrays Nicholas’s son David Van Slyke, born in 1787, thus the first Van Slyke in our line who was born after the Revolution.

I began my remarks by quoting from the Gettysburg address, but I’m sure I’ve gone on longer than President Lincoln did in 1863. But consistent with Lincoln’s closing sentence, it is appropriate to state here as well that those who gave their all on this battlefield also did not die in vain. The Battle of Oriskany was indeed one of the decisive battles of the American Revolution, so we owe our thanks to the brave men (and women) who fought here on our behalf.

Our democracy may not be perfect, but when we feel that it is not, we have the right, guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, to speak up and speak out, and to assemble peacefully in order to make our opinions heard, in part due to the actions of those who gave their lives here on this hallowed ground 238 years ago.

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