The End Of The Iroquois

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At last, on August 27, with summer near its end, the army was ready to move. A detachment was left in the fort at Tioga, which had been named Fort Sullivan. It is recorded that the musicians, the sick, the women and children, remained there. The children! What children? Perhaps refugees from outlying farms, though Tioga stood beyond the region of general settlement.

The expeditionary force now consisted of about three thousand men, burdened with equipment. They had cut up their tents to make flour sacks, to be carried by pack horses. Some cattle, “beef on the hoof,” accompanied the army. Nine pieces of artillery were transported—four six-pounders; four three-pounders; and a “coehorn,” or “grasshopper,” a small mortar that could be lifted by hand. The guns were supplied with solid shot and canister shot, timed to explode in the air and shower small projectiles on the enemy. The guns, too wide-tracked for the forest paths, too heavy to be pulled readily up the steep sides of the ravines, made only trouble. A sergeant wrote in his journal: “Such Cursing, Cutting, and Diging, over seting Wagons, Cannon and Pack Horses into the river &c is not to Be Seen Every Day.”

The army struggled up the narrow valley of the Chemung River. On the twenty-ninth they approached the Indian village of Newtown. Here the path led through a narrow defile between the north bank of the river and a steep hill seven hundred feet high. The scouts led the way with great circumspection. One of them climbed a tree and perceived painted Indians crouching behind log breastworks camouflaged with green branches.

The enemy had chosen their position astutely. They commanded the path and had posted a strong detachment on the hill to the north to check any effort to turn their flank. Their forces were, however, spread very thin, and certainly they had too little ammunition for a long defense. They numbered about a thousand Indian warriors, under the famous Joseph Brant, aided by two hundred and fifty loyalist rangers and fifteen British regulars, all under the command of John Butler.

When the Indians were discovered, Sullivan called a halt and sent a strong force to climb the hill and endeavor to take the enemy from the rear. He emplaced his artillery and opened fire on the barricades with solid shot, and on the defenders’ persons with canister spraying grapeshot and iron spikes. The Indians endured this new and terrifying experience for only half an hour; the bombs bursting in air behind them gave them the idea that the artillery had penetrated their rear. Despite the furious exhortations of Brant and Butler the Indians turned and ran, and the loyalists followed. Meanwhile the Americans’ flanking party on the hill gallantly engaged the enemy outpost with musket and bayonet, until Brant’s retreat signal caused the defenders to flee.

 

After the battle eleven Indian warriors and one woman were found dead. The men were scalped; Lieutenant William Barton amused himself by skinning two Indians from the hips down to make two pairs of leggings, one pair for himself, the other a present for his major. A white man and a Negro were captured. Sullivan lost three killed and thirty-six wounded.

This was the Battle of Newtown, commemorated today by an imposing monument in a state reservation. As modern battles go it was obviously nothing much; it would hardly deserve more than a paragraph in our daily news. But wars are not necessarily decided by body counts. Newtown was one of the decisive battles of the Revolution. Its character and outcome so terrified the Iroquois that they would never again meet the invaders in battle. The unhappy fate of the great Iroquois Confederacy was decided at Newtown; the battle monument is the gravestone of the Iroquois civilization.

General Sullivan now sent back his four six-pounders with their ammunition wagons to Tioga, to the great relief of the army. Major Jeremiah Fogg remarked in his journal that “[their] transportation … to Genesee appears to the army in general, as impracticable and absurd as an attempt to level the Alleghany mountains.” Sullivan, who seems to have been a very democratic commander, now assembled his troops and asked if they would be content to accept half rations for the rest of the campaign. The soldiers unanimously proclaimed their readiness with three rousing cheers. The General was touched by “this truly noble and virtuous resolution.” To be sure, they were not destitute: he had on hand twenty-two pounds of flour and sixteen pounds of beef per man, and the soldiers must have foreseen that they would not lack for corn and succotash.