Day of Decision: The Battle of Saratoga

Background

In 1777, the American Revolutionary War had dragged on for two years. The British had some major successes, both in the South, and in the Middle Colonies where they had chased George Washington’s Army out of New York and across the Delaware River. Even though Washington had struck back, winning victories at Trenton and Princeton, the British found themselves in a strong position for subduing the American rebels.

The British decided to launch a campaign to isolate the New England colonies from the rest of America and destroy the American forces there in detail. For that purpose, they planned to march three columns from three different directions to converge at Albany, New York, seizing the Hudson River Valley.

General Henry Clinton would lead a force out of New York City, north up the Hudson River Valley. General Barry St. Leger would lead a small, diversionary force east from Canada along the Mohawk Valley. General John “Gentleman Johney” Burgoyne would lead the main force south, down the Hudson River Valley from Canada. The three columns would meet at Albany some time in the summer.

At first, even though Clinton’s column was delayed, the plan seemed to be working. Burgoyne won victories at Hubbardton and Fort Ticonderoga and seemed on the brink of overrun the Hudson River Valley. But by late July, his progress slowed to a crawl. Burgoyne was hampered by a lack of supplies and by the guerilla tactics of the Americans, who sniped at his soldiers from behind trees and fences, and destroyed bridges in his path.

Burgoyne sent a column of Hessians (actually soldiers from Brunswick in Germany), Loyalist Americans, Canadians, and Indians under Lt. Colonel Friedrich Baum to raid the American supply depot at Bennington. Unfortunately for Baum, he faced far more American militia than he had counted on, about 1500 led by General John Stark, who defeated the Hessians at the Battle of Bennington on August 16th, which is still a legal holiday in Vermont.

Meanwhile, St. Leger was stuck in a siege of Fort Stanwix starting on the 3rd of August. St. Leger’s forces, mixed British, Loyalist Americans, and Indians were mauled at the Battle of Oriskany on the 6th of August when a British force ambushed a relief column led by General Herkimer. Though technically a British victory, the Americans in Fort Stanwix took the opportunity to sortie, sacking St. Leger’s camp, making off with his supplies and artillery. With no supplies or cannon, and with the approach of another American column under General Benedict Arnold, St. Leger was forced to retreat back to Canada.

Thus, the only column still marching as planned was Burgoyne’s. With the failure at Bennington, it took Burgoyne until the 13th of September to accumulate sufficient supplies, brought down from Canada over rudimentary roads, to commence offensive operations. On the 19th of September, Burgoyne’s force crossed to the west bank of the Hudson River and approached the fortified American position on the Benis Heights about nine miles south of Saratoga, New York.

The Battle of Freeman’s Farm

The Battle of Freeman’s Farm is sometimes referred to as the First Battle of Saratoga. Burgoyne faced fifteen thousand American regulars and militia with ten thousand British, Brunswick, Canadian, Loyal American, and Indian troops. The American force was nominally commanded by General Horatio Gates, who unfortunately proved to be indecisive and uncertain. Most of the leadership among the Americans during the battle was provided by General Benedict Arnold, who had arrived from the Mohawk River operation that had turned back St. Leger and now commanded the American left wing.

Burgoyne approached the American positions in three columns. One, by the river on the American right was commanded by German Colonel Riedesel. The main force, attacking the center, was commanded by Burgoyne himself. Sweeping wide to the American left was a third column commanded by Simon Fraser.

Arnold urged Gates to attack while the British were still in march order, but Gates would only authorize a reconnaissance in force. Stretching that authorization to the limit, Arnold rode out to the far left flank and ordered Daniel Morgan’s Virginia riflemen to advance and ambush Fraser’s column.

Morgan’s men opened fire at long range at the Freeman’s Farm clearing, dropping every officer in Fraser’s advanced force. Then they charged recklessly, driving Fraser’s column into the British center. They were finally repulsed by the bayonets of the Grenadiers and forced to retreat to the south of the battle to reform.

Arnold extended the American left with New Hampshire and New York regulars and a regiment of Connecticut militia, then sent in four regiments of Continental regulars in to support Morgan. Initially, the British were driven back, but then rallied and repulsed the American attack. Arnold himself led a charge with five regiments but was unable to break the British formation.

Arnold begged Gates to send him more reinforcements to continue the attack, but Gates demurred. Finally, exasperated by the continued entreaties of a subordinate, Gates had Arnold relieved of his command and taken from the field.

The last stroke belonged to Burgoyne, as Colonel Riedesel led a force of Brunswickians, supported by artillery, to attack the American right, relieving the pressure on the British, taking the Freeman’s farm.

The British had carried the day, but at a horrible cost. The British lost six hundred killed and wounded as opposed to three hundred American casualties. Burgoyne fortified the Freeman’s Farm with redoubts to try to rest and refit. The Americans constructed their own fortifications about two miles south on the Benis Heights.

The Battle of Benis Heights

Burgoyne was heartened by the news that Clinton was finally moving north toward, up the Hudson River. He reasoned that all he had to do was wait and he would have the Americans caught in a vise between his forces and Clinton’s.

However, three weeks passed and Clinton had not arrived. In the meantime, the American forces continued to grow with the arrival of more militia. Reasoning that he needed to attack or the opportunity would be lost, Burgoyne moved out from his position in three columns on the early morning of the 7th of October.

Simon Fraser would lead a movement on the American left and place it under bombardment with artillery. Fraser had light infantry, Canadians, and Indians. The main attack would be led by Riedesel and his Brunswickians directly at the American left. Major General William Phillips led the third column of Grenadiers that would separate the American left from the rest of the American force. With luck, Burgoyne would turn the American flank and route the colonials from the field.

The first action took place against General Phillip’s Grenadiers, who fired on the American position, then closed with the bayonet. The Americans, New Hampshire and New York men under General Poor, waited until just the right moment to open fire. When they did so, the effect was devastating, killing many of the Grenadiers and routing the rest. Poor advanced to take prisoners and to take possession of the British artillery.

Things were not going well for the British on the far left of the American line either. Daniel Morgan’s sharp shooters had swept aside the Canadians and Indians and had closed to engage Simon Fraser’s light infantry.

At that point, Benedict Arnold, who did not have permission to even be on the field, not to mention give orders, rode up to appreciate the situation. He noticed that Simon Fraser was rallying his men and suggested to Morgan that Fraser be shot down, as he was worth a regiment. A sharpshooter named Timothy Murphy obliged, mortally wounding Fraser. The British light infantry fell apart.

Next, Arnold galloped to the center of the action. General Learned’s New York and Massachusetts men were having a rough time with Riedesel’s Brunswickians. Arnold rallied the Americans and checked the Brunswickian advance. With Morgan on the left and Poor on the right threatening to envelope them, the Hessians were forced to withdraw.

Arnold led a counter attack with Learned’s men, carrying the Brunswickian redoubts, but getting seriously wounded in the leg. Finally, the riders that Gates had sent to restrain Arnold had caught up with him and he was forced to retire from the field. That and the coming of darkness spared Burgoyne from further bloodshed.

Burgoyne had lost a thousand men to the American’s five hundred in this battle, also called the Second Battle of Saratoga. Because his line of redoubts had been breached, he was forced to withdraw eight miles north to the town of Saratoga and dig in. The Americans followed and quickly surrounded him. Burgoyne still hoped for the arrival of Clinton to save him, but after ten days he could see that his situation was hopeless. With supplies dwindling and winter coming, Burgoyne surrendered his army. It was the greatest British defeat of the 18th Century.

Aftermath

Benedict Arnold was acknowledged by all who had been at the battle except for his commander as the real hero of Saratoga. Gates made sure that his report to the Continental Congress cast him as the architect of the victory and not Arnold. This injustice brought great bitterness to Arnold’s heart as he spent months recovering from his wounds. Eventually he would turn traitor to the American cause. One of the great ironies of history is that had Arnold died at Saratoga, he would have been considered one of the greatest heroes of American history. But his name instead became synonymous with treason.

News of the British defeat at Saratoga sent shock waves throughout the capitals of Europe. The American Revolution, hitherto seen as a minor nuisance at the far reaches of the British Empire, suddenly became something that could create a new nation. More importantly, from the point of view of England’s European enemies, it had become a means to take the British down a peg. France and Spain declared war against the British, openly supporting the Americans with arms, supplies, troops, and ships. What had been a rebellion had become for the British a world war. It was finally the coordinated movement of an American and French Army and a French fleet that brought Lord Cornwallis and his Army into the bag at Yorktown. The mightiest empire in the world had been defeated and the world had turned upside down.

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