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Twice battled to a standstill by fiery Benedict Arnold, Lt. Gen. John Burgoyne lost his army—and Britain’s best shot at ending our Revolution.

King George III was so excited by the news that he broke into the queen’s bedchamber, where she sat dressed only in a chemise. Highly irregular, perhaps, but understandable. It seemed that General John Burgoyne’s troops had taken Ticonderoga—the “Gibraltar of North America”—on July 6, 1777. Now the upstart colonists— who had shown the insufferable cheek to assemble in Philadelphia just a year earlier and announce to the world a repudiation of their sovereign—would be broken in two and defeated in detail.

The king was in a state of such high emotion that, as he read to the queen from the letter he had just received, he didn’t even notice her immodest state.

Nor, evidently, did he recognize that as Burgoyne moved closer to Albany, his supply lines were becoming dangerously extended and his army more and more vulnerable. It was England’s neck in the noose, and the rope was tightening. In three months, those troops under Burgoyne’s command that had not been killed, wounded or captured—and had not deserted— would march onto a field near what is now Schuylerville, N.Y., on the west bank of the Hudson River, and ground their arms. The surrender of Burgoyne’s army in October 1777 would be the turning point in the American Revolution, an event that changed everything by bringing France into the war on the side of the colonists and by demonstrating to the world—and more important, to the revolutionaries themselves—that the British could be beaten.

In the words of the eminent military historian J.F.C. Fuller, “At Saratoga [as the campaign came to be known], the sword of Damocles fell, not only on Great Britain, but, because of the fervor of the American Revolution, upon most part of the Western world.”

Fuller, being British and a Tory to his toes, wouldn’t be inclined to celebrate the victory of the Americans and would dwell, instead, on the forces unleashed in Europe by the battle that validated, by arms, the Declaration of Independence. Studying Saratoga, he saw the seeds of the French Revolution, which flowered into Napoleon and the fall of the old European order.

Americans might be expected to think a little differently about the battle, but in truth, when they hear the word “Saratoga” today, most probably think of horse racing. The great battle that saved our revolution seems oddly overlooked, in a way that, say, Gettysburg is not— and for a variety of reasons. That George Washington was not in command of the Americans at Saratoga may account, in part, for why the victory is not more conspicuously celebrated. In the minds of most Americans, Washington is the general of the Revolutionary War, and they would be hard-pressed to name another. At Saratoga, the nominal commander of the American forces was a man named Gates who never got close to the action. It is unlikely that parents ever urged their sons to model themselves after the example of Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates, remembered as cold, remote, vain and inclined to petty feuds.

Among those he quarreled with is the man who earned and got credit for leading the colonists to success in two of the bloody battles that determined the fate of the Saratoga campaign. That man was Benedict Arnold.

It feels awkward, at best, to celebrate a battle when the hero of the fight is also the greatest traitor in your history. Still, it is impossible to deny the key role Benedict Arnold played in the Saratoga campaign. He unwaveringly rode to the sound of battle, rallied troops, inspired them by his own bravery and aggressiveness. One of the men who fought under Arnold described him thus: “He was dark-skinned, with black hair, and [of] middling height: There wasn’t any waste of timber in him. He was our fighting general, and a bloody fellow he was. He didn’t care for nothing; he’d ride right in. It was, ‘Come on boys!’—it wasn’t, ‘Go boys.’ He was as brave a man as ever lived.”

After the Battle of Freeman’s Farm on September 19, where Arnold’s leadership first helped secure an American victory, Gates spitefully relieved him of command. But when the next major action began, some days later, Arnold listened to the sounds of battle until he could stand it no longer. “No man shall keep me in my tent today!” he finally shouted. “If I am without command, I will fight in the ranks; but the soldiers, God bless them, will follow my lead. Come on! Victory or death!”

So once again he charged into battle, rallied disorganized soldiers and led them in repeated attacks against the enemy, until his horse was killed and he was badly wounded in a leg that had been injured earlier in the war. While Arnold was up fighting, Gates was back at his headquarters, a good mile from the shooting, arguing politics with a captured British officer.

Arnold was a man whose resentments eventually consumed him, and the slights he suffered at the hands of Gates were, no doubt, among the justifications he employed when he decided on treason.

Arnold’s role makes Saratoga a problematic subject for Americans. You don’t compose odes to heroes who betray you. And then there is the complexity of the campaign. What we call Saratoga was not a single battle but a long campaign of many battles, at least four of them major actions by the standards of the time. Saratoga was a large strategic undertaking, and judged on those terms, the British initiative was militarily sound. One large British force was to move on Albany from Canada, down Lakes Champlain and George. This army, commanded by General Burgoyne, was supposed to move and supply itself by water, except for one 12- mile stretch of dry land. A second force, under the command of Lt. Gen. William Howe, was to advance up the Hudson River toward a junction with Burgoyne, effectively cutting off New England from the rest of the colonies.

Good plans may be necessary to military success, but they certainly are not sufficient. There is also the matter of execution. In this case, two widely separated armies were required to move in coordination, a tricky business under the best of circumstances. There was no one in overall charge of the operation, and there were no reliable communications between Howe and Burgoyne. At one point late in the campaign, when growing desperate for Howe to arrive and relieve the increasing American pressure on his army, Burgoyne attempted to send a message concealed inside a silver bullet. The messenger was captured and executed as a spy.

Howe, for his part, received conflicting and tardy instructions from London and, in the end, relied on his own cautious instincts. He never made it to Albany; indeed, he never really tried. Burgoyne was left on his own, pushing deeper and deeper into densely wooded terrain that favored the enemy.

Despite the setbacks, in the weeks before Burgoyne began sending messages for assistance that never came, his campaign seemed headed for success. The force that sailed up Lake Champlain on July 1 comprised 8,200 officers and men—British regulars and German regiments, along with a few Canadians and some Indians, whose presence in the enemy’s ranks later in the campaign worked to the Americans’ advantage as a propaganda tool. Morale was, by all accounts, high. The men believed in their officers, especially Burgoyne. With regard to their mission, Thomas Anburey, one of Burgoyne’s officers, wrote, “As to our army, I can only say if good discipline, joined to health and spirit among the men at being led by General Burgoyne, who is universally esteemed and respected, can ensure success, it may be expected.”

Burgoyne and his fine army came to grief, though, and one can point to several reasons for their failure. First, as noted, the anticipated junction with Howe never occurred. Howe’s lack of follow-through is neither Burgoyne’s fault nor due to any great feat of generalship on the American side, though it could be argued Washington’s two victories—at Trenton and Princeton—the previous winter had made Howe and other British generals more cautious.

But Burgoyne and his officers made mistakes of their own. One was leaving the water after they had taken Ticonderoga—the fort that commands the narrows between Lakes Champlain and George—and striking out over land. Burgoyne may have been intoxicated by victory and disinclined to backtrack to the fort (he had pursued the colonists beyond it), thus losing both time and contact with the enemy. So he pushed on into increasingly difficult terrain that required heavy labor by his troops. Roads had to be cut, bridges built, supplies carried and dragged along behind the army. When he left the water, Burgoyne gave up the advantage of secure supply lines and mobility and allowed his enemy to fight on ground where it was most comfortable. To many minds, he had committed the greatest error of his campaign: He simply underestimated his enemy.

Although the Americans were on the defensive, and Washington had yet to win what could be called a major victory, the commander of the Continental Army was an able strategic thinker. Washington not only read his enemy’s intentions, he also saw how to exploit flaws in the British plans. “As they can never think of advancing,” Washington wrote, “without securing their rear by leaving garrisons in the fortresses behind, the force which can come against [the Americans] will be reduced greatly by the detachments necessary for this purpose.”

Washington saw opportunity and moved to exploit it by, among other actions, sending his hardest-fighting general, Arnold, and some of his best troops, Daniel Morgan’s riflemen, to take part in the fight. If the British held American generalship in low esteem, they felt absolute contempt for its soldiers—an arrogant attitude that would cost them dearly.

It is a common belief that the British operated in parade-field formation while the Americans fought almost intuitively, using terrain for concealment. The distinction is fundamentally accurate at this stage in the war, though by most accounts, Burgoyne’s men adapted well enough to the terrain. But they were facing a Continental Army whose tactics and temperament were perfectly suited to the ground on which they fought. These men didn’t have to adapt; they were in their natural element. And many of those American troops were using a weapon that gave them an enormous advantage over the old smoothbore Brown Bess muskets their enemy carried.

American gunsmiths had perfected a piece that fired a smaller ball than the British musket, its barrel rifled with grooves to spin the projectile. The barrel was also much longer than those of the old muskets, hence the name “long rifle.” The extra barrel length and rifling made the weapon exceedingly accurate out beyond 100 yards (twice the range of the smoothbore) and dangerous well beyond that. It was suited to the needs of the American frontier, where men hunted for meat and became good shots or went hungry. During the Revolution, these frontiersmen—often dressed in clothes made from hides of game they had killed—formed units of riflemen, like the one commanded by Dan Morgan.

In a fight, riflemen could take out enemy troops—especially the conspicuously uniformed officers—from concealed ground positions or trees they had climbed. It was exceedingly demoralizing for British and German soldiers to take casualties at the hands of an enemy they could not see and from ranges at which their own weapons were useless. British officers, especially, thought it unsporting. The Americans didn’t see it that way.

Morgan and his men used the terrain and their effective new weapons with an ease that came from experience. To signal one another, they would imitate the gobbling of a wild turkey. One can only imagine the feelings of one of Burgoyne’s men, an ocean away from anything familiar, dressed in a brilliantly colored uniform that made him a spectacular target for strange men who had just taken down his officer at more than hundred paces and were gobbling back and forth to one another from positions in the dark tangle of what could only be called a wilderness.

The British lost several fights to such men. Among those battles was one near Bennington in August 1777 against a unit commanded by Brig. Gen. John Stark, who is described, pungently, by Fuller as “one of those many intractable Americans who could command, but who could not be commanded.” When he gave the order to attack, Stark shouted, “We will gain the victory, or Molly Stark shall be a widow to-night.”

Fine words, but at one point it looked as though they would not be enough. Stark’s men were collecting prizes on the battlefield when a British relief force arrived. Just as Stark’s men were falling back, however, Seth Warner and several hundred Vermont militiamen, the Green Mountain Boys, arrived on the field and tipped the balance once again in the Americans’ favor.

Bennington had been an attempt by Burgoyne to capture much-needed supplies—horses, cattle, forage, ammunition and other items an army on the march needed to survive and fight. The battle not only deprived him of those supplies but also cost him almost 600 men, dead or missing. Among the dead was one of his most able subordinates, Lt. Col. Friedrich Baum.

Burgoyne now realized his enemy was no pushover: It could fight and was growing numerically stronger by the day. No British reinforcements would be coming unless Howe made his move up the Hudson. Before he could fight his way on to Albany, Burgoyne would need to resupply. This process took almost a month, during which time he remained camped on the eastern side of the Hudson. By September 11, the British force had accumulated what Burgoyne estimated to be five weeks’ worth of supplies. He crossed the Hudson on a makeshift bridge of supply boats, which his men then broke up. Metaphorically, he had burned his bridges. Now he had no real choice but to fight his way to Albany.

Gates, by now, was waiting with his army of 7,000 men, entrenched at a place called Freeman’s Farm. Burgoyne advanced, determined to defeat the colonists.

The fighting began around noon on September 19 when the Americans, including Morgan’s men, engaged the British. What began as a kind of picket action soon developed into a general battle. When things began to go against the Americans, Benedict Arnold begged Gates for permission to join the fight and finally rode out to the action on his own initiative. He rallied troops who had advanced directly into the massed British formation and scattered. The fight then settled into a seesaw action that lasted all afternoon. The British had the advantage in artillery, the Americans in riflemen. While Gates remained in his headquarters, Burgoyne rode into battle and was nearly picked off by one of the American riflemen, who instead shot the general’s aide-de-camp, a target thanks to the lace saddle blanket on his horse.

German reinforcements under Maj. Gen. Friedrich Riedesel from another part of the battlefield arrived late in the day, and the Americans, running low on ammunition, fell back behind their earthworks. By the traditional measure, the British had won the battle, as they remained in possession of the battlefield. In a letter, Burgoyne called it a “smart and very honorable action.”

Again, fine words. But Burgoyne was no doubt aware that while he hadn’t given any ground, neither had he advanced any closer to Albany. And he would still have to fight his way through a formidable enemy force if he wanted to get there. His army had suffered far more casualties than the Americans, who could, unlike him, count on reinforcements. Burgoyne’s losses amounted to some 600 killed and wounded—almost a third of those engaged. The Americans lost 65 killed, 218 wounded and 33 missing— less than 10 percent of those engaged.

The battle established conclusively, if proof were still needed, that the Americans could, and would, fight and were not, as Anburey put it, “that contemptible enemy we had hitherto imagined them, incapable of standing a regular engagement, and that they would only fight behind strong earthworks.”

Burgoyne wanted to press the attack the next day, but his army was in no condition to continue the fight. The arrival of reinforcements at the end of the day had forced the Americans to retire from the field. Burgoyne may have consoled himself by calling it a victory, but it was, by any measure, an exceedingly hollow one.

On October 3, Burgoyne was obliged to cut his troops’ rations. A gambler, the British general was reduced to one last throw of the dice. He called a council of war: A proposed general attack on his enemy’s left flank was rejected as too risky, so he adopted a more conservative plan. With some 1,500 men, Burgoyne would lead a “reconnaissance in force” that would attempt to find a suitable place to attack the Americans.

His troops moved out on October 7. The subsequent Battle of Bemis Heights began around midday. Again, Gates remained in his headquarters while Burgoyne was in the thick of things. And Arnold, who had been relieved of all command, rode impetuously into the fight.

The British were outnumbered 3-to-1. Still, they held their own in a struggle that lasted some five hours. The fight, however, seemed to go out of Burgoyne after one deadly episode: Arnold had noticed a particular British officer who seemed, like him, to be especially good at rallying his troops. He pointed out the officer to Morgan, who gave the order to a rifleman named Tim Murphy. Murphy climbed a tree and took aim at Brigadier Simon Fraser. His first shot cut a leather strap on Fraser’s horse. The second went through the horse’s mane. Fraser ignored pleas from his aide to get out of the sharpshooter’s sights. Murphy’s next shot hit Fraser in the abdomen. He was taken to the rear, laid out on the very table at which he had planned on dining that night, and died the next morning.

A horse had been shot from under Burgoyne. Another bullet had gone through his hat, and one more nicked his jacket. But it was the loss of Fraser, the subordinate he counted on most, that convinced him the battle was not one he could win. He ordered the retreat to save what was left of his force.

Arnold, meanwhile, couldn’t seem to get enough. He rallied some disorganized troops and led them in an attack on a British defensive position known as Breymann’s Redoubt. During the attack, he was shot in the leg. It was a serious wound, the second in that leg, and he had to argue doctors out of amputating. He was hospitalized for three months but eventually returned to duty…and infamy.

Burgoyne tried to extricate his army, but the trap had now closed. It was October. The ground was wet, and movement was difficult. Several of his senior officers were dead or badly wounded. His supplies were almost gone, and there was no way to replenish. According to one British sergeant, the troops were still “willing and ready to face any danger when led on by officers whom they loved and respected and who shared with them in every toil and hardship.” But they were beaten, and in the fashion of those times, Burgoyne and Gates met as gentlemen to work out the details of a surrender.

Three weeks after Burgoyne’s men grounded their arms, Benjamin Franklin got the news in Paris. France saw the opportunity and took it. In London, meanwhile, according to Horace Walpole, on hearing of the “total annihilation…of Burgoyne’s army,” King George, “fell into agonies…but the next morning, at his levee to disguise his concern, affected to laugh and be so indecently merry that Lord North endeavored to stop him.”

Perhaps the king understood what history has since made clear. Saratoga had made the Americans’ victory in the war not merely possible but inevitable.


For further reading, Geoffrey Norman recommends: Saratoga: Turning Point of America’s Revolutionary War, by Richard M. Ketchum.