Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Battle of Wyoming Commemoration, 2018

The Battle of Wyoming, also known as the Wyoming Massacre, took place on July 3, 1778 in what is now Exeter, Pennsylvania.

At that time, the Wyoming Valley was the northwestern frontier of the American Colonies. It was an agricultural region, and supplied grains and other provisions for the fledgling Continental Army. It was largely undefended, since the bulk of the fighting was taking place on other fronts, such as Philadelphia. So when a coalition of loyalists led by Butler's Rangers, a seasoned fighting force from Canada, in the company of Native Americans from the Iroquois Confederacy (who had previously been encouraged to stay neutral by both sides, a policy that broke down with the death of the chief architect for this policy on the part of the British), loyalist forces from the region, and a handful of freed slaves, began a series of raids and harassment attacks on the Wyoming Valley, the locals - mostly old men and young boys too young to join the army, women, and children - became understandably concerned, and sent word to the Continental Army that aid was needed. But word came back that no troops could be spared. A few local soldiers essentially deserted their posts to go home and defend their homes as best they could.

A ragtag militia formed of old men, young boys, and the few soldiers recently returned from the front. After much debate, and over the objections of the soldiers, the decision was made for the militia to leave the protection of the local fort - known as Forty Fort, a name that is still in use - to meet the enemy in the field. And so the doomed march began, a long, slow, four-mile march  along the Susquehanna river. Debate raged on, and some of the militia turned back, but the rest encountered skirmishers along their march, telling them the bulk of the enemy force was near.

They marched into a trap.

We like to think that the Colonial Army had an advantage over the British because they knew the terrain. They knew how to melt into the forest, and how to attack by surprise. But these weren't heavily regimented Redcoats or imported Hessian mercenaries. These were Rangers, a skilled frontier fighting force, clad in green  and knowing all the tricks of forest fighting. And their Native American allies knew all these things and more. When the militia was in a vulnerable spot, they found themselves confronted by concealed Rangers - and then set upon from the left flank by the Native American troops that melted out of the woods. The Colonial irregulars found themselves outnumbered, outmaneuvered, and, within forty-five minutes, routed. They beat as best a retreat as they could, but it wasn't good enough.

Many of them fell in battle. Some were captured and slain. Others escaped. The first sign for the settlers in the protection of Forty Fort that the battle had gone badly was the sight of bodies of their relatives, friends, and neighbors floating down the Susquehanna.

For the settlers in Forty Fort, a grim choice was presented: stay and die, or leave with nothing but the clothes on their backs and live. The soldiers would be paroled - allowed to live upon taking a vow not to fight again - a vow most of them quickly renounced. The rest were allowed to leave in peace. But their possessions were to be left behind as spoils of war, or destroyed along with the stores of grain intended to supply the Colonial Army.

Survivors escaped through the forests and mountains. Not all of them made it to the safety of Colonial territory, but those who did told the tale of the battle and their defeat. Poets and newspapermen embellished the tale slightly into the Wyoming Massacre. Survivors were likely surprised to hear that they had been brutally slaughtered by the murderous British forces, their villainous Loyalist neighbors, and bloodthirsty Indian savages. But it made good copy, and it sold the handbills.

The humiliating defeat turned into a propaganda victory. The tale of the Wyoming Massacre helped persuade fencesitters in the Colonies who were uncertain of whether to throw in with the Rebellion or stay loyal to the Crown. It turned international opinion against the British, and helped galvanize French assistance to the Colonial cause.

The bodies of those who died in the Battle of Wyoming and its aftermath lay where they fell for the rest of the summer, and the fall, and the following winter, and into the next rear. Eventually the bones were gathered and buried in a common grave. The bones were eventually moved to the community of Exeter, near the site of the battle itself. A sixty-three foot obelisk marks the location of these bones.

Floral tributes from the descendants of the men who marched in the Battle of Wyoming and various civic and historical organizations await presentation as people gather for the commemoration ceremony

UPDATE: From the Wyoming Commemorative Association, more complete lists of the dead. Over three hundred defenders died, with just a handful of casualties on the other side. This was no small skirmish, but a battle that involved thousands of fighters.

Reenactors of the 24th Connecticut Militia. I wonder how many of the Colonial irregulars even had this much of a uniform?

A volley tribute with flintlocks.

Clark Sweitzer of the History Department of Wyoming Seminary presents "That's the Rest of the Story," adding flesh to the bones of the history of the Wyoming Valley. 

Floral tributes around the Wyoming Monument.

For years I have wanted to go to this ceremony, but usually found out about it after the fact, or was working that day. This year I happened to have the day off, and a Facebook post this morning alerted me to today's event with enough time for me to get ready. I'm glad I got to go, and hope to go again sometime.

July 3, 1778

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