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The season was changing. Hot afternoons gave way to cool evenings and cooler mornings as summer turned to autumn in New York’s upper Hudson Valley. Beneath the green, red, and orange canopy of leaves shrouding the hills that straddled the Hudson River, a different sort of transformation was taking place. Four months into British Lieutenant General John Burgoyne’s invasion of the northern colonies, his army had collided with Major General Horatio Gates’s entrenched Americans. Now, on September 19, 1777, the first of two fateful battles–bound to alter the course of the American Revolution–had begun.

At Gates’s headquarters behind the American lines on Bemis Heights (named for Jotham Bemis, a local tavern keeper), 36-year-old Major General Benedict Arnold seethed with impatience. The fiery Connecticut native held command of the American left wing, which Burgoyne had attacked that morning. After directing the American defense for much of the day, Arnold now found himself wasting his energy by repeatedly requesting that Gates give him reinforcements. He ached to sweep the field before dark.

Gates eventually sent portions of Brigadier General Ebenezer Learned’s brigade to support the Americans who were battling across a wide, stump-filled field called Freeman’s Farm. Shortly afterward, Deputy Quartermaster Colonel Morgan Lewis reported in at headquarters and told Gates of the indecisive fighting. That was enough for Arnold. ‘By God, I will soon put an end to it’ he declared, and mounted a horse to go and lead the troops himself.

‘You had better order him back,’ Lewis told Gates. ‘The action is going well. He may, by some rash act, do mischief.’

Gates immediately sent an aide to bring him back, and Arnold angrily complied. By this time Learned’s unguided infantry had wandered too far to the west, where they were all but wiped out by Brigadier General Simon Fraser’s British troops. Meanwhile, 500 German soldiers under Major General Baron Friedrich von Riedesel had marched to Freeman’s Farm and stopped the final American advance. Darkness then descended, ending the contest.

Left in command of the field, Burgoyne could technically claim victory in the First Battle of Saratoga (also known as the Battle of Freeman’s Farm), but he had suffered 560 casualties, almost twice the American total. The British Army had shrunk to less than 7,000 effectives, while Gates could boast of nearly 12,000 Continentals and militia. The Americans could still win a victory. All the soldiers needed, Arnold believed, was inspiration, but he doubted it would come from his commander.

Horatio Gates, American commander of the Northern Department, held a military position in America that far exceeded anything he could have achieved in his native England, where he had been born a commoner. Writer Hoffman Nickerson characterized Gates as ‘a snob of the first water’ who possessed ‘an unctuously pious way with him.’ Although Gates was an ambitious man, dynamic leadership was not part of his makeup. The former British officer did not believe American troops could stand up to British infantry in the open field. Though his men clearly outnumbered those of his opponent, Gates remained cautious and believed his army was better off fighting from behind fortifications.

Arnold, in contrast, was daring and imaginative. He had proven his abilities during the doomed attempt to capture Quebec in 1775 and at the Battle of Valcour Island the next year. At Saratoga his views differed from those held by Gates. From the first reports of British movement on the morning of September 19, Arnold pestered his commander for permission to send riflemen to the woods west of Freeman’s Farm. There, Arnold believed, the quick-moving Americans could set an ambush for the approaching columns. Gates permitted him to send out a ‘reconnaissance in force’ shortly before 1:00 p.m., and Arnold eagerly dispatched Colonel Daniel Morgan’s famed Rangers and Major Henry Dearborn’s light infantry.

Arnold fed additional regiments into the fray, about 3,000 Continental troops and militia in total. Captain Ebenezer Wakefield remembered Arnold ‘in front of the line, his eyes flashing, pointing with his sword to the advancing foe, with a voice that rang clear as a trumpet and electrified the line.’ Arnold’s division tangled with Fraser’s column on the left and Burgoyne’s personally led column in the center. Hemmed in by the river and Gates’s right wing on the heights, Riedesel’s German units sat motionless until 5:00 p.m., when Burgoyne sent for him to reinforce his besieged center. If Gates had countered this move, Arnold felt, the Americans would have carried the day. But Gates, citing a shortage of ammunition, was content with a draw.

Within days of the battle, tension between Gates and Arnold boiled over. Gates made no mention of Arnold or his division in his battle report to Congress, though they had done all of the fighting. Even more galling to the ultra-sensitive Arnold was his commander’s September 22 decree that Daniel Morgan would thereafter report only to him. Arnold stormed into Gates’s headquarters. A loud argument ensued, and the two men exchanged ‘high words and gross language.’ Gates questioned Arnold’s very qualification for command. He also told Arnold that he planned to assume direct command of the left wing as soon as Major General Benjamin Lincoln arrived to take over the right.

The eruption between Gates and Arnold had been coming for some time. The two had once been friends, but army politics and petty jealousy had turned them into rivals. Arnold had angrily resigned his commission in July after Congress promoted five junior officers to major general ahead of him. The promotions were part of a new political system that balanced the number of generals from each state, and Connecticut already had their fair share with two major generals, Israel Putnam and Joseph Spencer. At General George Washington’s request, Arnold had agreed to set the issue aside.

Arnold had infuriated Gates by becoming friendly with Major General Philip Schuyler while serving under Schuyler in the Northern Department. Gates hated Schuyler because Schuyler held a command that Gates desired for himself. Arnold’s friendship with his enemy irked him. Congress replaced Schuyler with Gates in August, but friction between Gates and Arnold remained. Arnold immediately annoyed Gates by adding two Schuyler partisans, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Brockholst Livingston and Lieutenant Colonel Richard Varick, to his staff. Gates, in turn, leaned increasingly on his aide, James Wilkinson, a 20-year-old lieutenant colonel and schemer of questionable principles. Arnold soon became an unwelcome guest at army headquarters.

Following his argument with Gates, Arnold drafted a long letter to his superior. The grievances he detailed included the poor treatment he had received since Gates arrived and the lack of credit extended to his division following the First Battle of Saratoga. ‘I am thought of in no consequence in this department,’ he complained. Arnold asked for a pass to leave camp, and Gates sent it over the next day, but Arnold hesitated, desperately wanting to participate in the coming fight. Gates requested that Arnold dismiss Livingston. He refused, but Arnold’s loyal aide left on his own accord. Gates then issued general orders thanking Arnold’s division for its gallant service in the battle but again did not mention its commander. Meanwhile, Brigadier General Enoch Poor circulated a petition asking Arnold to remain, and every line officer, except the newly arrived Lincoln, signed it.

Arnold agreed to stay, but he had become essentially a man without a job. For the moment he quenched his restlessness by irritating Gates with a series of notes filled with military advice. Gates ignored him, and on October 1 Gates assumed command of the left wing and handed Lincoln the right.

While intrigue enveloped the American camp, Burgoyne’s deteriorating army had not moved. Nearly a year earlier, ‘Gentleman Johnny’–a nickname Burgoyne’s men had given to him as a tribute to the humane way he treated them–had bet a friend that he would ‘be home victorious from America by Christmas Day, 1777.’ In June of that year, Burgoyne had led his army south from Canada down the Champlain-Hudson corridor with a grand plan for dividing New England from the other colonies. He expected to link up with General William Howe’s army at Albany, and their combined force would move south to crush Washington’s main Continental Army. Howe instead sailed south to capture Philadelphia, leaving Burgoyne to fend for himself.

Burgoyne captured Fort Ticonderoga on July 6, 1777, but after that his plan began to unravel. On August 16, General John Stark’s New Hampshire militia smashed a 1,200-man column of German and British soldiers sent into nearby Bennington, Vermont, in search of horses. A week later Arnold led an American force that scattered Lieutenant Colonel Barry St. Leger’s 2,000-man column as it approached from the west.

Now, Burgoyne was considering a follow-up attack for the morning of August 21 when he received a note from Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton in New York City. Clinton was about to march north with 2,000 men to menace the Americans at Forts Montgomery and Clinton. The possibility that Gates would be forced to dispatch troops to the forts or–even better–that Clinton would come to his support convinced Burgoyne to dig in and wait. In fact, he really had nowhere else to go. Retreat north was not only distasteful, it was no longer a practical option. His army’s rations would last, at best, another two to three weeks. And, although British forces controlled Fort Ticonderoga 60 miles to the north, American soldiers freely roamed the area north of Saratoga. Burgoyne decided his only real choice was to persevere–to drive through Gates’s army and on to Albany.

On October 7, as the last wisps of morning fog disappeared under the rising sun, 1,500 British and German troops, backed by another 500 Loyalists, Indians, and Canadians, moved out from the main British camp. Burgoyne personally led the three columns, which he had placed under Fraser on the right, Riedesel in the center, and Major John Dyke Acland on the left. By about 2:00 p.m. the force had reached a wheat field just west of Freeman’s Farm. The long lines of red and blue-coated soldiers sat quietly as Burgoyne, Riedesel, and Major General William Phillips (Burgoyne’s long-time artillery chief) climbed to the roof of a cabin for a better look at the American position. They were disheartened–Burgoyne’s spyglass revealed only a depthless sea of trees.

The British columns were exposed and their opponents knew it. American pickets had been watching the advance every step of the way and reporting back to Gates. After some urging, Gates sent Wilkinson off to the left with the message, ‘Order on Morgan to begin the game.’

With battle about to begin anew, Benedict Arnold itched to join in. Swallowing his pride, he asked Gates for permission to ride to the front to see what was happening. ‘I am afraid to trust you, Arnold,’ Gates warily replied. On September 19, against Gates’s wishes, Arnold had brought on a general engagement and added to his reputation in the process. Gates did not want an encore. But when Arnold promised not to do anything hasty, Gates sent him out–with Lincoln alongside as a precaution.

The two generals returned a short time later with the news that the enemy was moving strongly on the left. Gates said he would send Morgan’s riflemen and Dearborn’s infantry west, to flank the enemy. Arnold knew the situation demanded more vigor, and his reply betrayed his disgust. ‘That is nothing, ‘ he declared, ‘you must send a strong force.’

Determined not to go down that road again, Gates fumed, ‘General Arnold, I have nothing for you to do. You have no business here.’

With Arnold apparently out of the picture, Lincoln finally convinced Gates that more men were indeed needed. Poor’s brigade would storm the British left while Morgan flanked Burgoyne. When these two pincers squeezed the trapped enemy, Learned’s brigade would be sent in to overrun the center.

Morgan’s 300 riflemen quickly closed in on Fraser’s position while Poor’s 800 veteran New Hampshire Continentals crept through the woods toward the British left. Just after 3:00 p.m., Acland’s men opened fire from the crest of a hill on Poor’s approaching troops. The British were about to mount a bayonet charge when the Americans raced up the hill in a frenzy, swarming over the stunned grenadiers and wounding Acland in both legs. With exquisite timing, Morgan’s men smashed through the outnumbered infantry of Major Alexander Lindsay, Earl of Balcarres, on Fraser’s far right. Then Dearborn’s light infantry suddenly appeared behind the wavering British, scattering them in all directions.

In less than an hour Burgoyne’s ambitious foray had devolved into a desperate fight for survival. Most of his shocked troops were retreating. Only the center, composed mainly of Germans under Colonel Johann Friedrich Specht, refused to budge.

About this time the fate of Burgoyne’s army was sealed. Two miles away at the American headquarters, Arnold had been fuming impatiently while the battle raged. Gates had humiliated him. But Arnold had seen his superior squander a clear-cut victory three weeks earlier and–command or no command–he was not going to let that happen again. He mounted a horse and headed for the front. Gates sent Major John Armstrong galloping after him, but Arnold outran him.

A few minutes later Arnold caught up with some of Learned’s Connecticut militia. ‘My old Norwich and New London friends,’ he shouted as he rode by, and the cheers of the men rang in his ears. Within moments Arnold was at the head of Learned’s brigade, exhorting the troops to follow him, ‘Come on brave boys, come on!’ Three of Learned’s regiments charged uphill into withering fire from Specht’s men. American and German cannon exchanged canister fire. Finally, as Balcarres’ British troops fled past their position, the Germans broke.

Fraser was still trying to form a new line on the right, but one of Morgan’s sharpshooters put an end to that. Conspicuous in his scarlet and white uniform and mounted on a large gray horse, Fraser suddenly crumpled backward with a bullet in his abdomen. He would die the next morning.

By this time most of Burgoyne’s men had fallen back to the protection of the two massive redoubts the British had built at Freeman’s Farm during the weeks after the first battle. Arnold wasted no time leading a charge against the nearest to him, the Balcarres Redoubt. He waved his sword and dashed among the troops as musket balls and grapeshot whizzed around them. But the huge log walls–bristling with abatis and defended by desperate infantry–kept the Americans out.

Looking north toward the less-heavily defended Breymann Redoubt, Arnold spied an opening, and in a heartbeat he raced for it through a hail of lead. As Morgan and Dearborn attacked it head-on, Arnold led a furious charge toward a pair of cabins that separated the fortifications, then turned his force headlong into the Breymann Redoubt’s unprotected left flank. Dozens of shocked Germans dropped in the rush; countless others ran for their lives.

Arnold had just entered the works when a German soldier fired at him, striking him in the same leg he had nearly lost in the Quebec Expedition. Another bullet killed his horse, which fell and crushed Arnold’s leg beneath it. As Massachusetts soldiers chased off enemy soldiers and burned British tents, Connecticut militiamen carried Arnold off the field. His left leg was ruined, but Arnold would not allow it to be amputated. Several agonizing months of recovery would leave it two inches shorter than the right.

By now darkness had fallen and the Second Battle of Saratoga had ended. At 1:00 a.m., with his army shattered, Burgoyne issued an order for the troops still on the field to withdraw. British and German losses for the day totaled 278 killed, 331 wounded, and 285 captured–roughly half the force that had ventured forth that morning. America

Burgoyne’s army began a quiet retreat north late the next night. Hampered by heavy rain and harassed by American militia, the infantry, artillery, and the bateaux floating up the Hudson River made slow progress. By the evening of October 9 the army had reached Saratoga, only eight miles from the battlefield, with American forces completely surrounding it. Burgoyne opened negotiations on October 14, and after some haggling over terms, Gentleman Johnny surrendered his army three days later.

The most significant result of the American victory was that it convinced Louis XVI of France to support the American cause. On February 6, 1778, American commissioners and the French government signed the Franco-American Alliance. By the middle of March, France and Great Britain were in a state of war. American fortunes would ebb and flow for some time, but French cash, soldiers, and naval support would permanently buttress their efforts.

Gates, whom Arnold called ‘the greatest poltroon in the world and many other genteel qualifications,’ had contributed little to either battle. His plan to hold his position and fight from behind breastworks made tactical sense. But it smacked of extreme caution at a time when his army had a decisive edge in manpower and when aggression was the order of the day. ‘This gentleman [Gates] is a mere child of fortune,’ Major General Nathanael Greene wrote to Brigadier General Alexander McDougall the following January; ‘the foundation of all the Northern successes was laid long before his arrival there; and Arnold and Lincoln were the principal instruments in compleating the work.’ Washington agreed and presented both men with elaborate sets of French epaulets as symbols of his thanks.

Nevertheless, Gates made his name with the victory. Congress authorized the minting of a gold medal in his honor. New Jersey governor William Livingston declared that Gates’s ‘glory is as yet unrivalled in the annals of America.’ In 1780 a crushing defeat in the Battle of Camden, South Carolina, would take much of the luster off Gates’s reputation. The capable Greene would replace him.

Arnold was conspicuously absent from the formal British surrender ceremony at Saratoga. By mid-October he lay convalescing in an Albany hospital. (Lincoln, wounded on October 8, also missed the ceremony.) Gates downplayed Arnold’s role in the battles, but Arnold had essentially directed the first battle and clinched victory in the second. Burgoyne later told Parliament that he had expected, with good reason, that Gates would keep his men within their fixed lines. But when ‘Arnold chose to give rather than receive the attack,’ Burgoyne lost the chance to follow up with a move on Gates’s right (particularly during the second battle). The aggressive tactics convinced British Lieutenant Thomas Anburey, for one, that the Americans were ‘not that contemptible enemy we had hitherto imagined them, incapable of standing a regular engagement, and that they would only fight behind strong earthworks.’

Arnold never again led American troops in battle. His wound kept him on inactive duty until the summer of 1780. On September 25 Arnold fled to the enemy. Papers captured from British officer and spy Major John André revealed that Arnold had plotted to turn West Point over to the British.

Arnold ultimately defected due to perceived grievances he had suffered at the hands of Congress and the military, his mounting debts, corruption charges filed against him by Pennsylvania civil authorities that resulted in Arnold demanding an investigation to clear his name, and his indignation at the French alliance.

Only in recent years have historians fully acknowledged Arnold’s contributions to the American cause. The virtual burial of his outstanding military reputation began as soon as news of his treason came to light. Brigadier General ‘Mad Anthony’ Wayne, for one, suddenly attributed Arnold’s bravery to heavy drinking, ‘even to intoxication.’ In the years since, the name Benedict Arnold has become virtually synonymous with ‘traitor.’

Ironically, it was Arnold–the American general and the hero of Saratoga–who sealed the French alliance that helped guarantee independence for the country he had betrayed.

This article was written by Eric Ethier and originally published in the August 2001 issue of American History Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to American History magazine today!