The Wargamer

26 May 2017

Book Review: With Musket and Tomahawk

The Mohawk Valley Campaign in the Wilderness War of 1777

Published on 1 JUL 2014 6:16am by Paul Robinson
  1. ground combat, north america, background / research material, 18th century, intermediate, english, no

This is the second part of Michael O. Logusz’s history of the Wilderness War of 1777, which formed part of the American War of Independence.  The first volume covered the Saratoga Campaign and described how the British General Burgoyne’s thrust down the Hudson River was ultimately destroyed.  Burgoyne had hoped to be met by an attack from New York but this never came about. However the British launched a third strike from Lake Ontario to the west and this is the subject of Mr Logusz’s latest work.

The book covers this campaign over twenty one Chapters concluding with a pretty comprehensive bibliography.  The Chapters are generally short and punchy covering discrete elements of the action.  Each is followed by extensive foot notes that set out in greater some of the points in the main narrative (eg the background information to particular unit strengths or the relationships between the key personalities).

Before getting into the main body of the work it is worth commenting on the Author’s Acknowledgements at the start of the books. These give the budding historian a fascinating insight into what goes into a book like this and how many people are really involved-in terms of contributions, suggestions and conversations!  It is amazing (but not surprising) how many people give generously of their own research and effort to enable another to detail a sometime obscure or forgotten piece of a nation’s military history.

The Introduction brings anyone who has not read Volume I quickly up-to-speed with the main element of the Wilderness War (Burgoyne’s campaign as mentioned briefly above).  And also reminds the reader that the balance of forces lay quite strongly with the British rather than the Patriots.  The latter’s Northern Army being described as “Lacking men, material, and firepower, the loosely organized and scattered forces barely had a supply or support system”.

Chapter One describes the preparations of the British Commander Lieutenant Colonel Barrimore Matthew “Barry” St Leger.  Interestingly while a seasoned soldier he had no experience of commanding irregulars, Indians (the term used by the Author) or campaigning in the remote wilderness of upper New York State.  The terrain was heavily forested, with “Numerous creeks, streams, rivers, ponds, lakes and swamps” plus “deep gullies, ravines, natural fields and rolling hills”.

Chapter Two provides some background to two of the key characters on the opposing sides the pro-British Mohawk leader Joseph Brant (aka Thayendanegea) and Patriot militia General Nicholas Herkimer; this reveals some of the difficult politics and social relationships that made what was essentially a Civil War such a bloody and atrocity filled affair.  The book then proceeds in a broadly chronological and geographic fashion taking us through Barry St Leger’s advance down the Mohawk to besiege Fort Stanwix.  It is the siege of this Patriot outpost and the efforts of, initially, General Herkimer to relieve it that make up the bulk of the story.  St Leger with unwilling Indian allies, unreliable Canadian auxiliaries and only a few regular British, German and Loyalist formations with little artillery makes the best of what is really a very poor force to achieve his objective (of joining up with Burgoyne in Albany).  Herkimer with somewhat more willing Indian allies and a mixed bag of militia bravely advances on Fort Stanwix.  This results in the one major battlefield confrontation of the two sides at Oriskany, when brand ambushes Herkimer and a bloody battle ensures.  Initial British success slowly turning to tactical and eventual strategic defeat despite Herkimer’s force having to withdraw and give up its relief attempt.   The Author’s description of the battle is both blood thirsty and rip roaring, a real page turner in the nature of the best fiction. 

In the middle of all this sits the garrison of Fort Stanwix; a force mainly of Continentals commanded by Colonel Gansevoort.  They resist a short but savage siege, rebuff all attempts to get them to surrender peacefully and actually launch a highly successful sally to wreak havoc in the British camps whilst the bulk of the British force is sent to reinforce the ambushers at Oriskany. 

The fort is eventually relieved by a combination of the impact of Herkimer’s strong resistance at Oriskany, the Fort Stanwix garrison’s sally and deployment of a man with mental health problems by the commander of the Northern Army who managed to scare away St Leger’s Indian allies at a crucial point in the siege (you really couldn’t make it up).  Some of the other smaller Loyalist and Patriot fighting in the area of the main Campaign is also described in some of the latter Chapters of the book

The action in the book has wargames campaign or scenario written all over it (or even a mid-budget TV mini-series to be honest).  The Author provides enough information on the forces deployed in terms of numbers and unit descriptions for a wargamers’ needs.  And the variety of troops on both sides –Indians of numerous tribes, Loyalist troops, Germans, British regulars, continentals and Patriot militia-would give a great effect on a table as a demonstration game!

The text is supported by only two maps.  However given the fairly restricted combat area there is little need for anything further.  The odd place mentioned that is not on the map can easily be located from the Author’s descriptions.  In the centre of the book are a number of contemporary black and white drawings and paintings of key personalities; there are also a number of modern paintings re-produced which are quite atmospheric and finally a number of photographs of a modern recreation of Fort Stanwix (again useful for the wargamer of modeller).

Overall I’d recommend this book wholeheartedly to any fan of the American War of Independence who is not currently familiar with this arena of the conflict; I have to say it is not an area that I was at all familiar with.  Also for anyone interested in 18th century warfare or military history more generally will find this an excellent read such is the quality of the Author’s penmanship. 

“With Musket and Tomahawk” is available now in paperback from Casemate Publishing, normal price $18.95/£11.99 (ISBN 978161200225). Link for the book itself here.