Battle of Johnstown
The Battle of Johnstown was one of the last battles in the northern theatre of the American Revolutionary War, with approximately 1,400 engaged at Johnstown, New York on October 25, 1781. British regulars and militia, commanded by Major John Ross of the King’s Royal Regiment of New York and Captain Walter Butler of Butler’s Rangers, had raided the border area. Local American forces, led by Colonel Marinus Willett, blocked the British advance. As the British withdrew northwards Willett and his men marched to German Flatts to try to cut them off. The British managed to escape, but Walter Butler was killed.
New York’s Mohawk Valley had been a major area of internecine warfare throughout the American Revolution. By 1780 raids conducted by British soldiers, mercenaries, loyalist militia, and their Mohawk allies had devastated the valley. The 1780 fall crop had been destroyed before harvest, and a number of small settlements had been abandoned as settlers sought safety from the attacks.
In addition to the hundreds of buildings burned and the civilian casualties, amounting to 197 dead in 1780 alone, these raids threatened the American supply routes to Fort Plain and Fort Stanwix on the frontier. Repeated raids further depleted the ranks of the local militia, already decimated by the Battle of Oriskany, by desertions, abandonment of the valley, and occasional casualties. In response to these increasing threats, the Governor of New York, George Clinton, sent Colonel Marinus Willett to take charge of the militia and organize the defense of the valley.
That spring and summer, there were a series of small clashes between the opposing forces. On July 9 a Mohawk raiding party attacked Currytown (also known as Corrystown), but was later chased down and defeated by Willett’s men. Another raiding force soon after was forced to retreat after one of its members warned local settlers. Willett’s militia was successful in warding off these and other attacks.
In the fall, however, a much larger force made up of British regulars, loyalists, and Mohawk warriors entered the valley, several hundred strong. On October 24, 1781, they once again captured Currytown, but did not burn it to prevent rising smoke from warning Willett and the militia of the raid. The raid was discovered by a pair of militia scouts and warning of their presence was spread throughout the county. Before Willett was able to organize the valley’s defense, the raiding party attacked a number of small towns and homesteads, burning buildings and killing settlers along the way.
On October 25, 1781, the raiding party made up of British soldiers led by Major John Ross, loyalist militiamen led by Walter Butler, and Mohawk warriors traveled through the Mohawk Valley and approached the village of Johnstown. Colonel Willett had gathered a force of patriot militiamen and begun pursuing the raiding party. Willett’s force caught up with the British at Johnstown itself after noon. As the forces approached each other, a series of small skirmishes broke out in and around Johnstown.
Willett was outnumbered, but he divided his forces and sent a small group of men around the enemy flank to attack them from the rear. He advanced his men across an open field towards the British, who withdrew into the edge of a forest. There followed an intense fight, and the only artillery piece on the field, which began in the possession of Willett’s men, was captured and recaptured repeatedly. For unknown reasons, the militia on Willett’s right flank suddenly turned and fled in a panic, and Willett tried to halt the retreat and turn his men.
Willett was saved by the arrival of his flanking force, which attacked the British rear when they were on the verge of capitalizing on the collapse of the American right flank. The battle then broke up into small groups on both sides fighting each other. Surrounded, the British began retreating from the area towards a nearby mountaintop. Each side suffered a number of killed and wounded, though the British lost more men to capture than the Americans.
Over the days following the battle, the British force withdrew towards their landing on Lake Oneida, still pursued by Willett’s militia, despite a snowstorm which slowed both forces. Willett caught up with the British near West Canada Creek, and in the ensuing skirmish the captain of the Loyalist militia, Walter Butler, was killed. Several men who were present during the event or shortly thereafter testified to the specifics in their (Revolutionary War) pension applications (RWPA).
Concerning the events of that day, Henry Shaver, one of forty white men chosen at Fort Plank by Lieutenant Colonel Marinus Willett to accompany a band of Oneida Indians under the command of Colonel Lewis Cook in pursuit of Major John Ross forces after the Battle of Johnstown, stated … “That he” [Butler] “cried out to his pursuers to “Shoot and be damned” which he had no sooner done than he was struck by a Ball from one Louis [the words “An Oneida” are crossed out] The Indian [the word “swam:” is crossed out here] waded over [the words “and tomahawked” are crossed out] and scalped him.” … The words of Shaver are echoed by Richard Casler who states … “When Willett’s men came upon the enemy they were drying their cloaths by fires & were surprised at that place Walter Butler was killed by an indian (he believes) an Oneida indian. He (Casler) was there & saw the indian who killed Butler & who had Butlers Coat and scalp The indian shot Butler from across the Creek Butlers Sergeant was also killed at this place.” … John Stalker also states that … “Col. Butler was killed by an Indian by the name of Lewey who had the command of the American Indians.”… But, Nicholas Smith & John Kennada both state that the Indian who shot Butler was “Saucy Nic:”, not “Louis”, and Rozel Holmes states that it was “Harmanus”, a Schoharie Indian, who actually killed Butler and scalped him. Thus it is doubtful we will never know which one of these three men actually dispatched Mister Butler, but there is no doubt that he was killed and scalped. Concerning the fate of Walter’s body, John Canada [sic: John Kenneda] testifying in favor of Tall William receiving a Revolutionary War Pension stated: … “That he was together with the said Tall William engaged in a battle at West Canada Creek in which Col. Butler was shot through the head and killed and in which the enemy were defeated and after the battle was over I took from the pocket of Col. Butler a half guinea and Black William took the shoe Buckles from his feet and saucy Nick another member of our Tribe [the words “took his” are crossed out here] & the one who shot Col. Butler took his [a “u” is crossed out here] Clothing and occasionally after that wore the same”. …
That portion of the river was later named Butler’s Ford. Following this skirmish and satisfied with their victory, Willett and his forces turned around and headed for their homes.
Willett’s victory at Johnstown occurred at about the same time that word reached the area of the British surrender at Yorktown. Consequently, it marked the last significant conflict in the Mohawk Valley. The Treaty of Paris formally concluded the American War of Independence in 1783.
- ^ Jump up to:
a b c d e f g h i Berry, A.J. (2005). A Time of Terror. Trafford Publishing. pp. 153–160. ISBN 978-1-4120-6527-6.254 families abandoned their farms during 1780.
- ^ Henry Shaver, RWPA# S11371.
- ^ Richard Casler, RWPA #W6637.
- ^ John Stalker, RWPA #S19478.
- ^ Nicholas Smith, RWPA #S16252.
- ^ Jump up to:
a b Tall William, RWPA, #R21851.
- ^ Rozel Holmes, RWPA #S13445.
- ^ “American Revolution, Haudenosaunee involvement”. Encyclopedia of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy). Greenwood Publishing Group. 2000. pp. 21–23. ISBN 9780313308802. Retrieved 2009-06-24.
- ^ “Treaty of Paris, 1783”. United States Department of State. Retrieved 2009-06-24.