Inside Fort Stanwix, you're likely to meet a Revolutionary War soldier. Maybe it will be Chuck Oliver, or "Doctor Oliver," who tells visitors that, as a doctor, he might treat your headache by bleeding you. Or, if you have a stomachache, he says, he'll probably give you something to make you throw up.
"They think I'm going to make them feel much worse," Oliver says, "and sometimes that's true."
Oliver, a retired New York state employee, has been volunteering at Fort Stanwix for a quarter of a century. He started as an infantryman, but he told me the 20-pound rifle could feel like 100 pounds at the end of the day, so he became "Doctor" Oliver, a role he now plays two or three times a month.
Sometimes there are dozens of soldiers at the fort, men and women re-enacting roles that were filled with vivid reality more than two centuries ago.
The amateur actors add both a sense of reality and fun to a visit to the fort. But it's important to remember that the fort and the nearby Oriskany Battlefield are where the American Revolution was almost lost.
In 1777, a British and Iroquois army was interrupted in its march eastward toward Albany, where they intended to become part of a three-prong force designed to split New England from colonies to the south. A larger army under British Gen. John Burgoyne was marching south, and a third one was supposed to come north from British-occupied New York City.
Because of a mix-up or misunderstanding in communications, the army from New York City wasn't dispatched until it was too late to be useful. And because of what happened at Fort Stanwix and Oriskany, Burgoyne had to face the American rebels with only his army -- at Saratoga. The result was the first major American victory of the war, which preserved the geographical unity of the rebelling colonies and disheartened the British public.
Also, the Oneidas, one of the member nations of the Iroquois confederacy, sided with the Americans, and the Mohawks and Senecas sided with the British, causing a civil war within the native confederacy. That conflict helped to effectively neutralize the Indians who, at first, seemed to be staunch British allies.
If the British had triumphed at Oriskany, many historians believe, it's possible the rebellion would have collapsed. That was in October 1777.
Today Fort Stanwix is the dominating structure in Rome. It is run by the National Park Service. The original fort, built by the British between 1758 and 1762, was the location of the signing of a treaty between the Iroquois and British in 1768, in which both sides agreed on areas in the Mohawk Valley where whites would be allowed to settle. By the time of the treaty, however, the fort had been allowed to deteriorate so much it was not usable. Eight days after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Americans occupied the fort and began rebuilding it. In 1828, long after the war and when peace with the Iroquois was assumed to be permanent, the fort was dismantled.
The fort that exists today was built by the National Park Service in the mid-1970s. The site includes a visitor center that contains a small museum detailing many Revolutionary War episodes in New York and a gift shop. The fort itself covers several acres and includes barracks, storerooms, officers quarters and other buildings. A thorough tour of the fort and museum may take several hours.
Six miles southeast of the fort is the Oriskany Battlefield, where most of the casualties associated with the defense of the fort took place. A relief army of more than 800 men (mostly members of the Tryon County militia, but including up to 100 Oneidas) rushed to the aid of the besieged fort. On Aug. 6, they were ambushed by a force of about 500 men. Most members of this force were Mohawks, but it included some British soldiers and some colonists who remained loyal to the British crown.
Exact numbers for long-ago battles are always hard to verify, but the most widely accepted figures for the outcome of fighting at Oriskany say about 400 revolutionaries were killed, about 50 wounded, and about 30 captured, while the British side lost less than 100, about half of whom may have been killed. Those numbers make the battle sound like a British victory, but because the British retreated after the battle, historians often speak of it as a victory for the Continental Army.
A sign at the entrance reminds visitors that the battlefield is "hallowed ground."
When you tour the battlefield, which is run by the state parks system, you can follow a series of signs that point out many of the key events of the day, including where the ambush began and where the American commander, Nicholas Herkimer, directed the battle from beneath a tree despite a serious wound. Herkimer's aides tried to carry him away to safety, but he insisted on staying within sight of the battle, saying, "I will face the enemy." He died 10 days later.
Because of the percentage of Americans who died at Oriskany, it is sometimes considered the bloodiest battle of the war.
If you go:
Rome is off Exit 33 on the Thruway; from there take Route 365 into Rome. Once you approach downtown, Fort Stanwix is visible on your right. There is free parking on the street and in parking lots across the street. From now until the end of the year, the fort is open 9:15 a.m. to 4 p.m. and the visitor center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free.
To go to the Oriskany Battlefield, take Route 69 southeast out of town. It is about six miles and on your left. The gate to the battlefield is closed Monday and Tuesday; it is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday; on Sunday it is open from 1 to 5 p.m. Admission is free.
If after visiting the fort and battlefield you're looking for a good place to eat, you might try Boys From Italy, at 262 W. Dominick St., about two blocks from the Fort Stanwix Visitor Center. It has a full Italian menu, but the "Diablo" Buffalo wings are particularly appetizing -- ample servings of meaty wings, with a sauce almost as hot as the menu claimed it was.