The clash at Saratoga in the early autumn of 1777 was a crucial victory–some historians argue the crucial victory–on the road to American independence. As Thomas Fleming points out, it was not just a clash of arms, but also a clash of ambitions and personalities. On the British side, the competition among Generals William Howe, John Burgoyne, and Henry Clinton undermined the Crowns effort to invade from Canada and slice through to the Hudson River. Across the lines, the American leaders Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold carried on a personal feud that threatened to initiate the American effort. But one partnership did hold firm, and, Fleming reminds us, it was ultimately decisive: the partnership of the Continental Army and the patriot militia.
THE CAMPAIGN THAT REACHED A HISTORIC CLIMAX IN THE TWO BATTLES OF SARATOGA began with news that left George Washington temporarily speechless–and the rest of the fragile union known as the United States of America in a fever of anxiety: Fort Ticonderoga had fallen with scarcely a shot fired in its defense. America’s so-called Northern Army had fled the place in headlong retreat before an 8,000-man British force commanded by General John Burgoyne, which had appeared as if by magic before their ramparts on June 30, 1777.
Incredibly, no one in the American army–0r Congress, for that matter–had believed in the existence of this imposing host. American attempts to scout into Canada had been frustrated by the screen of Indians the British spread along the border. The Americans had remained convinced that the main British army of 25,000 men under Sir William Howe would soon sally from New York to attack Philadelphia–and Burgoyne, who they had known was in Canada, would assemble every man who could be spared from the defense of that colony and sail south to join him. That was why Washington had husbanded the 9,200-man main American army in New Jersey and more or less ignored worried letters from Major General Philip Schuyler about the weakness of his Northern Army.
More bad news cascaded south on the heels of Ticonderoga’s collapse. The rear guard of the Northern Army had apparently been routed in a fire fight at Hubbardton, Vermont, in which two militia regiments had run like proverbial rabbits. But this was merely dismaying compared to the coup de main the British had managed at Skenesborough (now Whitehall), to which some 600 refugees from Ticonderoga had retreated by water with all the food, ammunition, and movable cannon from the fort. The Americans had cruised down Lake Champlain, enjoying band music and a bit of tippling, secure in the illusion that the entrance to the lower part of the lake was blocked by a sturdy bridge and a massive chain across the narrows. But British sailors chopped down the bridge and broke the chain with a few well-placed cannonballs. Descending on the stunned Americans at Skenesborough, the British captured most of their fleet and forced them to abandon all their can non and staggering amounts of flour and salted meats.
With his retreat through Skenesborough blocked, the mortified commander of Ticonderoga, Major General Arthur St. Clair, had to lead his men on a seven-day detour into the wilderness to reach Fort Edward, on the east bank of the Hudson River. There he found a distraught Philip Schuyler with a paltry 700 Continentals and 1,400 jittery militia–all of the Northern Army’s reserve.
No sooner had the disgruntled Ticonderoga fugitives, most of them New Englanders, arrived at dilapidated Fort Edward than they began accusing Generals Schuyler and St. Clair of treason. They claimed the British had fired “silver balls” from their cannon into the fort to bribe them into surrendering the bastion. In fact, St. Clair had made one of the most courageous decisions of the war: Knowing he was wrecking his military reputation, he had chosen to evacuate the fort to preserve his precious Continentals. Schuyler, once he calmed down, realized this and made no reproaches when they joined forces at Fort Edward. But in humid Philadelphia, reproaches filled the July air as Ticonderoga’s previous commander, Major General Horatio Gates, loudly supported by New England delegates, blamed both men for the loss.
New Englanders did not like the aristocratic Schuyler. He was something of a martinet. He also owned huge slices of land along the Hudson and Mohawk rivers and found it hard to practice the rude and often crude democracy favored by the Yankees. But few men made a larger contribution to the American cause. His skillful diplomacy kept most of the Iroquois neutral for the first years of the war. Without his talents for organization and supply, the Northern Army would have collapsed long before.
Schuyler was soon reporting more bad news to Washington. “A very great proportion of the [local] inhabitants are taking protection from General Burgoyne.” Worse, another British army was heading for Albany. Some 1,800 regulars, Indians, and Loyalists under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Barry St. Leger had sailed across Lake Ontario and debouched toward Fort Stanwix, the flimsy bastion that was supposed to guard the Mohawk Valley. The mere threat made it impossible to raise any militia from this populous region to defend the Hudson Valley from Burgoyne.
What to do? Washington dispatched two of his best generals, Benjamin Lincoln of Massachusetts and Benedict Arnold of Connecticut, to Schuyler’s aid, hoping they could tum out New England’s cantankerous militia. Arnold had been sulking in Connecticut because Congress had promoted five other men to major general over his head. The nervous lawmakers finally decided to give Arnold the coveted rank, though still leaving him junior to those previously elevated, presumably to teach him a lesson in humility. They also fired Schuyler and St. Clair and appointed Horatio Gates the commander of everything north of Albany.
Washington debated marching his main army through the Hudson Highlands pass known as the Clove to West Point. He and everyone on his staff now assumed the British commander in chief, Sir William Howe, planned to fight his way up the Hudson and meet Burgoyne in a pincer movement designed to cut off militant New England from the rest of the colonies. On July 24 Washington had most of his army in the Clove when he received the amazing news that the British fleet, with General Howe and most of the main royal army aboard, had put to sea and was last seen tacking south! On July 27, they were spotted off Egg Harbor, New Jersey. A bewildered Washington turned his footsore soldiers around and headed for Philadelphia. “Howe’s in a manner abandoning Burgoyne,” he wrote to Horatio Gates, “is so unaccountable a matter that…I cannot help casting my eyes continually behind me.”
The Americans were only beginning to discern the rivalries dividing the British high command. Howe was determined to prove he had been right when he left detachments along the Delaware River at the end of 1776 to protect Loyalists in Pennsylvania and western New Jersey, even though the risky policy had given Washington his crucial victory at Trenton. Meanwhile Burgoyne had gone back to London and lobbied himself into command of the northern invasion without consulting Howe. They were competitors, not allies.
Horatio Gates, the new commander of the Northern Army, was one of the few generals on the American side who understood this tangled British psychology. This might explain the eagerness with which he sought the seemingly thankless job. Gray-haired, ruddy-faced, with thick spectacles that often slid down his long pointed nose to give him an old-womanish look, the 50-year-old Gates had risen to major in the British army thanks to his talents as a staff officer. Frustrated by his failure to advance beyond that rank, he had moved to Virginia and ingratiated himself with George Washington, among others. As the American army’s first adjutant general, he had proven himself an invaluable organizer and administrator in 1775. But his combat experience was almost zero–about 15 minutes before being struck down by an Indian bullet in the 1754 debacle known as Braddock’s defeat.
Gates’s New England admirers ignored his shortcomings and attributed to him nearly miraculous powers. One declared that his mere arrival in Albany had lifted them from “this miserable state of despondency and terror.” Unquestionably, getting rid of Schuyler and St. Clair eliminated the rampant paranoia in the New England Continental regiments. Gates was also the beneficiary of the first good news the Northern Army had received in a long time: On the left flank, Mohawk Valley militia marching to relieve besieged Fort Stanwix had fought a bloody drawn battle with St. Leger’s army at Oriskany, inflicting particularly heavy casualties on his Indian allies. On the right, a 1,500-man force of Germans that Burgoyne had dispatched to Bennington to seize stores and horses had been attacked and destroyed by New Hampshire militia under Colonel John Stark and Continentals under Colonel Seth Warner.
Gates also benefited from Burgoyne’s decision to rebuild a 23 mile road through the primeval forest from Skenesborough to Fort Edward, a task that consumed three weeks and gave the Americans time to regroup. Schuyler skillfully impeded Burgoyne’s progress, putting a thousand axmen to work felling huge pines and hemlocks in his path, destroying some 40 bridges over the numerous creeks and ravines. Burgoyne made no attempt to interfere. One reason may have been that the Americans had mauled the light infantry at Hubbardton–inflicting casualties of 21 percent in the brief firefight. Relaxing in the fine stone house of William Skene, the principal citizen of Skenesborough, Gentleman Johnny, as his admiring troops called him, enjoyed a new mistress–the wife of his commissary–and remained euphoric over the easy capture of Ticonderoga.
Still another reason American morale rebounded was a resupply of cannon. Some had come from Washington’s army, others from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where a French ship had slipped through the British blockade with thousands of muskets and other war materiel, including 58 brass cannon. By mid-September, the Northern Army had 22 big guns.
At this point, we encounter one of the myths of Saratoga, the story of Jane McCrea. The Americans withdrew from Fort Edward, except for a small picket guard. Two days before the British arrived at the fort, a party of Indians (there were some 400 in Burgoyne’s ranks) attacked it. The pickets fled, and the Indians found Jane in the cellar of a nearby house. She greeted them warmly and made it clear that she was a friend. As the Indians led Jane off on a captured horse toward the British camp, some of the picket guard whose commander had been scalped in the melee–drifted back through the trees and blazed away at them. Three bullets hit Jane, killing her instantly. One of the Indians, Wyandot Panther, decided to scalp her as well, to see if he could collect the bounty Burgoyne was paying for such grisly proofs of slaughter. (Other versions of the story say Panther was arguing with a fellow tribesman over whose prisoner Jane was when he brained and scalped her to prove his point. Years later, when Jane’s corpse was exhumed, her skull was intact–and the three bullet wounds were still visible in her body.)
Back at the British camp, Wyandot Panther found himself accused of murdering the young woman. Burgoyne demanded that the Indians surrender him for trial and execution. The Indians threatened to go home en masse, and Burgoyne backed down. The next day, many of them went home any way, perhaps because they were intimidated by the losses of their cohorts at Oriskany. Some blamed it on their notoriously fickle habits of warfare, which made them unsuited for long campaigns.
Propaganda about Jane’s death supposedly caused the New England militia to turn out in droves. In fact, on August 27, Gates was complaining to Washington that he had yet to see very many of them. Benedict Arnold, whom Schuyler had sent to relieve Fort Stanwix in late July, also tried to use Jane’s death to arouse the Mohawk Valley militia–with almost total lack of success. On August 24, he was stranded at Fort Dayton, 30 miles from Stanwix, with 913 Continentals and “a fine militia, not exceeding one hundred, on whom little dependence can be placed.”
Lacking manpower, Arnold used brainpower to rescue Stanwix. He sent a captured Dutch Loyalist named Hon Yost Schuyler (no relation to the general) to Stanwix, along with an Oneida ally, to spread lies and confusion in St. Leger’s army. Hon Yost was supposedly somewhat crazy-which gave him great influence among the Indians, who regarded the insane as holy men. Wearing a coat that Arnold had shot full of holes to simulate hot pursuit, Schuyler rushed to Stanwix and told St. Leger’s Indians that the fearsome Arnold was on the march with 3,000 men. The Oneida confirmed everything Hon Yost said, and most of St. Leger’s Indians began vanishing into the woods. He had no choice but to follow them, abandoning his cannon and leaving his tents standing, with some of his men still asleep in them.
This news, which Arnold triumphantly announced when he returned from Stanwix in early September with 1,200 men behind him, probably had far more to do with turning out the militia than the murder of Jane McCrea. Another arrival had an equally large impact on their willingness to march. Into the American camp swaggered huge Colonel Daniel Morgan and his corps of 331 frontier riflemen. No soldier, except perhaps Arnold, was closer to a living legend in the American army. Morgan had slogged up the Kennebec with Arnold in the fall of 1775 and assaulted Quebec on the last day of that year. The attack had gone awry and Morgan had been captured he was later paroled-but his performance only added to his fame.
Washington had sent Morgan north, demonstrating how seriously he took the maxim he had laid down in late 1776–that the militia required an army to look the enemy in the face before they could stand up to British regulars. Along with Morgan, he dispatched two Continental brigades from the Hudson Highlands, totaling some 1,500 rank and file-manpower he badly needed to defend Philadelphia from Howe. This generosity raised Gates’s Continental strength to about 6,500. He also had about 1,500 militia.
When Gates took command of the Northern Army, Schuyler had retreated to Van Schaick’s Island, at the mouth of the Mohawk River, nine miles north of Albany. There he was able to block the main road and stay in touch with operations in the vital Mohawk Valley. The New England officers told their hero the men were disgusted by Schuyler’s constant retreating. Gates decided it would be good for morale if they marched north “to meet the enemy.” Some say the aggressive Arnold had not a little to do with urging this move on Gates.
Beginning on September 8, the army marched 13 miles north to rugged country overlooking the Hudson called Bemis Heights, after a tavern on the riverbank. There, the Polish engineering officer, Thaddeus Kosciusko, constructed an elaborate array of field fortifications on the 100-foot-high bluffs and the 500-foot-wide strip of level ground along the Hudson. To the west, in case the British tried to outflank the position rather than storm it, the ground was thickly forested, broken by occasional clearings, and cut by deep east-west ravines–ideal terrain for American light-infantry tactics.
If Arnold was responsible for this move, it was the last advice Gates took from his fellow major general. An intriguer himself, he saw conspiracies everywhere–though when it came to touchiness, Arnold was in a class by himself. As Gates began countermanding his routine orders and excluding him from staff meetings, the hot-tempered ex-apothecary grew surly and obnoxious in return.
In Burgoyne’s camp at Fort Edward, after the disaster at Bennington and St. Leger’s collapse at Fort Stanwix, second thoughts were the order of the day. In the flush times of July, Burgoyne had written Howe assuring him he would need no assistance to reach Albany. Now, with his army shrunk to 4,600 rank and file, as well as about 800 Tories and Canadians and a mere 50 dispirited Indians, Gentleman Johnny began to realize the road to Albany had some large, forbidding bumps in it. But he could not bring himself to abandon a scheme on which he had staked his reputation as a soldier.
Without his Indian scouts, Burgoyne had no idea where the Americans were. Crossing the Hudson on September 13 on a bridge of boats near Saratoga, the British commander groped southward in slow, cautious marches. Not until September 18, when an American patrol fired on a group of his soldiers who were digging up potatoes on an abandoned farm, killing or wounding 20 of them, did he realize the rebels were close. Although he still had only the dimmest idea of the American position on Bemis Heights, Burgoyne decided to attack it the next day.
Gentleman Johnny divided his army into three columns. On the right, Brigadier Simon Fraser, with about 2,000 light infantry of both the British and German regiments, swung wide in an attempt to outflank the American fortifications. Burgoyne stationed himself in the center, where Brigadier Gustavus Hamilton commanded four British regiments numbering about 1,100. Along the riverbank marched Baron Friedrich von Riedesel with about the same number of Germans, plus six companies of the British 47th Regiment to protect the supplies and bateaux.
It was a risky, even foolhardy plan, revealing the contempt in which Burgoyne and his senior officers still held the Americans. Separated by as much as a half mile of thick woods, the columns would be forced to communicate through messengers and signal guns. An alert, aggressive enemy could easily defeat them in detail. But if the Americans remained as passive as they had been at Ticonderoga, the scheme had its merits. Fraser and his men stood a fair chance of seizing undefended high ground to the west, from which British heavy guns–Burgoyne had 42 of them–could wreak havoc on the American defenses.
If it had been left to Horatio Gates, this is what might have happened. He was in favor of sitting inside Kosciusko’s works and letting the British attack where and when they pleased. Benedict Arnold, who had been given command of the army’s left wing, argued furiously against this fatal idea. He urged a fight in the woods against any attempt to outflank them. Gates grudgingly consented to send Morgan’s riflemen, as well as 250 light infantry under Major Henry Dearborn, to contest the British maneuver and agreed to let Arnold support them with more men from his wing if they were needed.
Around 1:00 p.m. Morgan’s Rangers collided with scouts from Fraser’s column and sent them flying with a volley that killed all their officers. Losing their heads, the riflemen pursued the British into a ravine not far from a clearing called Freeman’s Farm, after a Tory farmer who had fled to Canada. The riflemen collided with four times their number of British, who blasted them with musketry from front and flank. Twenty were taken prisoners and the rest fled past Morgan–who burst into tears, thinking his regiment was ruined. But when he gave his signal, a perfect imitation of a wild turkey call, it soon regrouped around him.
Fearing Morgan was in trouble, Arnold sent two New Hampshire regiments, former fugitives from Ticonderoga, to his support. They spread out to Morgan’s left as Burgoyne and his four regiments emerged from the woods on the north side of Freeman’s Farm. By this time, Arnold was on the battlefield. With the instinct of a born tactician, he saw a chance to drive a wedge between Burgoyne and Fraser, wreck the British plan of attack, and possibly destroy the enemy army. But Fraser detached several companies to support Burgoyne, and in the center the 20th Regiment dropped back and swung west to counter the American thrust. The Yankees were beaten back, and the battle turned into a slugging match between Arnold’s men and Burgoyne’s regiments, with Freeman’s Farm as the cockpit.
Within an hour, Arnold poured in seven Continental regiments and one of New York militia. Back and forth through the tall grass the two sides surged, the British trying to close with the bayonet, to be repeatedly beaten back by American musketry. The 62nd Regiment, exposed to fire from flank and front when the 20th fell back, took fearful punishment from both directions. On horseback, Burgoyne repeatedly rallied his men, ignoring whizzing bullets from Morgan’s marksmen, even when they shot his aide out of the saddle a few feet away from him.
For the Americans, the prize was the British artillery, which filled the air with screaming grapeshot. Several times they seized the guns but were driven back by a bayonet charge before they could turn them on the enemy or drag them away. It was, Brigadier General John Glover of Massachusetts said, “one continual blaze [of musketry] until dark.”
Arnold whirled up and down the line like a dervish, shouting encouragement, leading some of the charges personally. He was convinced that they had a chance to break the center and destroy the British army. By the end of the afternoon, Burgoyne and other senior officers were in panicky agreement. The 62nd Regiment was on the brink of collapse. In the artillery, every officer and four-fifths of the gunners were dead or wounded. At five o’clock Burgoyne sent a frantic call for help to Riedesel on the riverbank.
In the midst of this action, Arnold rode back to Gates’s headquarters (a mile and a half away) several times to beg for reinforcements. Gates primly rejected his pleas and finally ordered him to stay inside the Bemis Heights fortifications, claiming his rashness was endangering the whole army. Only around four o’clock did Gates consent to send a brigade from the American right wing under the command of Brigadier General Ebenezer Learned of Massachusetts. Learned only marched his men in a wide semicircle around Freeman’s Farm and skirmished with Fraser’s column–which contributed nothing to the battle Arnold was trying to fight.
Baron von Riedesel marched to the rescue of the British. Taking over 500 men with him, the German major general stripped the right-flank column of its ability to defend the precious stores and bateaux on the riverbank. But Gates, who should have been watching closely for this opportunity, did nothing, and the 500 fresh Germans stormed into the American right flank at sun set, beating drums and shouting religious slogans. Even more useful were two six-pounders that Riedesel’s artillery officer, Captain Georg Pausch, man handled into action to belch grapeshot at the charging rebels.
Without Arnold’s leadership the American attack faltered, and they began falling back through the woods. Retreating down a twilit footpath, Colonel Philip Van Cortlandt ordered his 2nd New York Regiment to direct their aim “below the flash” of the British fire, which soon discouraged pursuit. The dazed, exhausted British had no stomach for more shooting any way. The four regiments in the center had lost over 600 men. Only 60 rank and file from the 62nd were still on their feet–the other 230 were dead or wounded. American casualties totaled 319, including 65 killed.
Captain Thomas Anburey, who had spent the day with Fraser and seen very little action, was put in charge of burying the British dead. This grisly task inspired him to confide to his journal the “astonishment” of the British at the ferocity with which the Americans had fought. “They are not that contemptible enemy we had hitherto thought them, incapable of standing a regular engagement.” The words underscore the assumptions on which Burgoyne had based his tactics–and the crucial nature of Arnold’s response. The next day, Burgoyne startled everyone in his army by announcing that he wanted to attack again. All his senior officers advised against it-the men were too spent to obey the order. Burgoyne then resolved to resume the offensive the following day. Many in the American army later admitted that if he had done so, he might have won his gamble. Arnold’s regiments were also shaken by their heavy losses, and there was an acute shortage of ammunition in the American camp. But Philip Schuyler rescued the situation. Swallowing his detestation of Horatio Gates, he went around Albany tearing the lead sashes out of windows and melting them into bullets, which he then rushed to the army.
On the same day–September 21–Burgoyne received a letter that changed his mind about another attack. The writer was Henry Clinton, the general whom Howe had left in command in New York. He told Burgoyne that he had received reinforcements from England and now had enough men to make a foray up the Hudson in Burgoyne’s favor. Gentleman Johnny seized on the proposal as heaven-sent. “Even the menace of an attack” on the Hudson Highlands forts some 25 miles north of New York City would be of “great use,” he replied. He begged Clinton to “do it my dear friend, directly.” Burgoyne proceeded to entrench Freeman’s Farm and the high ground north of it and wait for Clinton.
It took Clinton two weeks to get his expedition under way. With 3,000 men and a naval escort, he captured the thinly held forts with an ease that amazed him. Garrisoning them, he sent one of his brigadiers with 1,700 men up the river–past West Point, which was not yet fortified–with orders to “feel for General Burgoyne, to assist his operations, and even to join him if that general required it.”
This looming British presence on the upper Hudson badly rattled the Americans. They had no idea of the exact size of Clinton’s force. Adding to the American alarm was the news that, on September 11, Washington’s army had lost a major battle with Howe at Brandywine Creek in Pennsylvania, and the British would soon be in possession of Philadelphia. It was logical to assume Howe might have sent Clinton substantial reinforcements to rescue Burgoyne.
Meanwhile, Burgoyne was forced on October 4 to cut by a third the rations of vile salt pork and moldy flour on which his army was living. Shivering in summer uniforms in the chilly fall nights, his sick multiplied until the hospital cases, including the wounded from Freeman’s Farm, numbered 800. The Americans gave them no rest. “Not a single night passes but there is firing and continual attacks on the advanced picquets,” Captain Anburey glumly noted. “The officers rest in their cloaths, and the field officers are up frequently in the night.”
American militia, under the overall command of Major General Benjamin Lincoln, added to Burgoyne’s woes. In three columns, 1,500 of them attacked Ticonderoga, the outpost guard at the vital portage between Lake Champlain and Lake George, and Skenesborough. They got nowhere at Fort Ticonderoga but at the portage, the column under Colonel John Brown surprised and captured 243 redcoats, freed 100 American prisoners, and burned 17 sloops and 200 bateaux. Burgoyne’s supply line to Canada went up in those flames.
On October 6, against the advice of all his senior officers, who urged him to retreat, Burgoyne decided on another attack. Gates predicted the move, calling him an “old gamester” who was likely to “risque all upon one throw.” The next day, with 2,000 picked men and ten cannon, Burgoyne led a reconnaissance in force to explore the vulnerable American left. If he saw a chance of a possible breakthrough, he planned to attack the following day with every man he had left in his army.
In the American camp, a demoralizing quarrel had been raging between Gates and Arnold. With malice aforethought, Gates had sent Congress a report of the Battle of Freeman’s Farm that totally omitted Arnold’s name, as well as those of his friends Morgan and Major Dearborn. Enraged, Arnold had burst into Gates’s tent and exchanged insults with him. Gates had retaliated by removing Arnold from command of the left wing and offering him a pass to Philadelphia. Many of the army’s senior officers were appalled. Several prevailed on Arnold to stay, hoping Gates would relent. But on the day Burgoyne marched out of his camp, the two men were still not speaking and Gates was in command of the left wing.
Arnold had used the news of Clinton’s foray to taunt Gates for his failure to attack Burgoyne during the 17-day hiatus. “Let me entreat you to improve the present time,” he wrote, claiming he cared neither for glory nor for credit but was deeply concerned that Gates was about to let a great victory slip from their grasp. When Burgoyne’s reconnaissance in force appeared, Gates realized he could not hunker behind his barricades without losing face. “Order on Morgan to begin the game,” he said.
The British formed a battle line on a long, low ridge about three-quarters of a mile west of Bemis Heights, while Burgoyne and his senior officers climbed to the top of a log cabin to peer at the American position through spyglasses. They could see nothing. The tall trees beyond Freeman’s Farm were a wall of impenetrable fall colors, rendering the expedition pointless. While they debated what to do next, and camp women and foragers furiously harvested wheat on two nearby abandoned farms, Morgan’s riflemen circled wide to hit their right flank.
Gates also dispatched Brigadier General Enoch Poor of New Hampshire with a brigade of Continentals and two Connecticut militia regiments to attack Burgoyne’s left. Although the British had a clear field of fire in their front, both flanks rested on thick woods in which they distributed some German light infantry and American Loyalists. Poor, having less distance to traverse than Morgan, made contact first, about 2:30 pm. His 800 men quickly cleared the woods on their side and attacked without waiting for Morgan.
The British left consisted of grenadier companies commanded by Major John Dyke Acland. When Poor’s men burst from the woods and charged up the slope at them, the British blasted them with musketry and grapeshot, but most of the metal flew over their heads. Acland called for a bayonet charge, and the Americans replied with a decimating fire that sent the surviving grenadiers fleeing. Acland, shot in both legs, was taken prisoner. The Yankees seized two cannon and turned them on the retreating grenadiers and on the 400 Brunswick Germans who had held the center.
By this time, Morgan’s men were attacking the light infantry on the other flank, charging from the shelter of the trees “like a torrent” while their sharpshooters did their usual deadly job of picking off officers. As the British light infantry changed front to meet them, Dearborn and his light troops appeared on Morgan’s right and hit them with a destructive volley. The British broke and fled, leaving the Germans exposed to attack on three sides. Burgoyne’s aide, sent to order a general retreat, was shot out of the saddle. The Germans fought on.
At this point Arnold appeared on the battlefield, in direct defiance of Gates’s orders. Taking charge of Ebenezer Learned’s brigade, who were just entering the battle, Arnold led them up the hill against the Germans in two furious charges. They were repulsed by musketry and grapeshot. Seeing the flight of the light infantry, Arnold quickly shifted men to the left and, with the assistance of Morgan and Dearborn, enveloped the Germans’ flank.
The Germans began falling back, and the battle teetered toward total rout. Burgoyne, with bullet holes in his coat and hat, his horse shot out from under him, was helpless. Only Brigadier Simon Fraser showed any semblance of command, riding on horseback into the fleeing ranks of the light infantry and rallying them to make a momentarily successful stand. Arnold pointed to him and shouted to Morgan: “That man on the gray horse is a host unto himself and must be disposed of.” Morgan passed the order to Tun Murphy, one of his best sharpshooters, who quickly climbed a tree and put a bullet through the brigadier’s belly.
Fraser’s fall took the heart out of the reconnaissance in force, and the survivors ran for the protection of their fortified camp. But Arnold was not satisfied. He wanted to destroy Burgoyne before Clinton arrived. For two years he had fought to eliminate the threat of an invasion from the north; he was not going to let the British break off the action again to fight another day while he listened to more lectures from Gates on rashness and insubordination.
Shouting “Victory or death!” he led the thoroughly aroused Americans in an assault on the British camp. An appalled Burgoyne, looking over his shoulder, told Captain Anburey, who was guarding a sally port: “Sir, you must defend this post to the very last man!” To Anburey’s relief, Arnold’s first target was the outlying redoubt commanded by the earl of Balcarres, in the center of Freeman’s Farm. It was supported by Canadian irregulars in two stock aded cabins. Routing the Canadians, Arnold and parts of two Continental brigades hurled themselves at the light infantry and assorted other fugitives manning the walls of the redoubt. But cannon fire and musketry tore cruel gaps in the American ranks, and they were forced to retreat.
Looking around, Arnold saw another brigade of Continentals arriving on the battlefield, heading for the British right. Riding his horse the length of Freeman’s Farm with several hundred British muskets and cannon shooting at him, Arnold seized command of the newcomers and swung them around another outlying redoubt, defended by Germans under Colonel Heinrich von Breymann. Gaining the rear, Arnold rode his horse into the sally port with the Continentals swarming behind him, shouting and shooting. Men from Morgan’s and Dearborn’s commands scaled the front walls. When Breymann started sabering men who tried to run away, one of his own men shot him dead. Another wounded German got off a final shot at Arnold, breaking the thighbone of the same leg that had been wounded in the assault on Quebec in 1775. In agony, Arnold was carried back to Bemis Heights in a litter.
By this time the British had abandoned the field. They had lost another 600 men and all ten cannon they had dragged along on their reconnaissance. American losses were around 150. Far more important than these statistics was Arnold’s capture of the Breymann redoubt. On high ground, its cannon commanded the Balcarres redoubt and the rest of the British camp. This time, no matter what Gates thought of Arnold’s performance, he tacitly confessed his approval by rushing orders from his tent to hold the little fort “at all hazards.”
At 9:00 p.m. on October 8, after burying General Fraser, Burgoyne began a slow, agonized retreat, leaving 300 sick and wounded behind in the hospital, along with a letter begging Gates’s mercy. Heavy rain turned the road into a quagmire, forcing the British to abandon wagons with their tents and baggage. Most of their bateaux, following along the riverbank, were eventually captured or destroyed by the Americans. It took the British 24 hours to cover the eight miles to their old camp north of Fishkill Creek, near Saratoga (now Schuylerville), where the exhausted men fell in the mud and slept in their sodden uniforms.
Gates made a feeble effort to cut off the retreat, rushing 1,500 militiamen along the east bank of the Hudson with orders to cross at Saratoga and set up a blocking position. But the Americans were much too weak to deal with the whole British army; when it appeared, they hastily fell back. The next day Burgoyne sent two regiments north to build a bridge across the river at Fort Edward. Again, the Americans were so beat up–or so timid–that the regiments marched all around them unchallenged.
The departure of these regiments upset Gates, who was still very tense about Clinton’s whereabouts. He thought most of Burgoyne’s army was retreating and, without sending out so much as a patrol to explore the situation, ordered an assault on their rear guard. Around daybreak on October 11, the Americans advanced in a heavy fog. Morgan crossed the upper reaches of the Fishkill to get to the British rear. Four brigades of Continentals crossed the river lower down. General Glover’s brigade picked up a British deserter, who told them nine-tenths of Burgoyne’s army was still in camp, hoping the Americans would be foolish enough to attack them.
The appalled Glover sent messengers racing back to Gates, urging the other brigades that had crossed the Fishkill to fall back as fast as possible. A few minutes later the fog lifted, and there was Burgoyne’s army on their out works, bristling with cannon. The Americans retreated under a hail of grapeshot and bullets, losing about 20 men.
That was Burgoyne’s last chance to reverse his collapse. The two regiments returned to report that militia were swarming on the east bank of the Hudson around Fort Edward, so crossing the river was out of the question. Soon New Hampshire militiamen, led by pugnacious John Stark, the victor at Bennington, took up positions directly north of the royal army, sealing off the last escape route.
Including all his militia, Gates now had over 14,000 men. He saw that Burgoyne could not tell the difference between a Continental and a militia-man. Any American with a gun in his hand was a menace. But Gates anxiously–and wisely–kept his 6,000 Continentals together, lest Clinton appear to his rear, or Burgoyne turn on him for another assault out of desperation. He refused to detach even a company to defend Albany against Clinton. Instead he ordered a regiment from Fort Stanwix, along with the Albany County militia, to take on that responsibility.
Burgoyne’s situation rapidly grew hopeless. While rations dwindled and horses starved to death, the surrounding Americans sniped by day and bombarded by night. The Americans also unveiled a new weapon, about 150 Mohawk Indians whom Schuyler had persuaded to join the war. These made life even more hazardous for British pickets and sentries. Desertions multiplied, and there was not a word from Clinton. Finally, on October 13, Gentleman Johnny asked Gates for a parley.
Instead of letting Burgoyne propose the first set of terms, Gates nervously asked for an unconditional surrender. When Burgoyne furiously rejected the idea and insisted on the full honors of war, Gates accepted with out a murmur. Burgoyne, suspecting Gates knew something about Clinton’s approach, sparred for time by insisting that the word “capitulation” be excised from the terms. Instead, he offered to sign a “convention” that would permit his troops to return to Europe, on the promise that they would not be used again in the war. The jittery Gates accepted this demand–which would permit the British to send fresh troops from England or Ireland, whom Burgoyne’s men would replace. Perhaps he knew–or hoped–the Continental Congress would find ways to circumvent the agreement, which, to their dishonor, they eventually managed to do.
More suspicious than ever, Burgoyne noticed large bodies of militia marching off from Gates’s army and wondered if Clinton’s approach was causing panic. He suddenly demanded the right to count the American force to ensure it was the same size as when he had opened negotiations. Gates angrily rejected this, explaining that some militia were simply going home when their time was up, in their usual style, indifferent to larger matters. Burgoyne asked his senior officers if he could honorably break off negotiations at this point. They unanimously said he could not-and added that they no longer had any confidence in their men’s readiness to fight. After a few more hours of hesitation, Burgoyne signed the convention on October 16, 1777.
That same day, Clinton’s troops attacked and burned Kingston, where the New York state government had been meeting, and sailed up the Hudson to Livingston Manor, 45 miles below Albany and 85 miles from Saratoga. Militia on both banks–and the uncertain navigation of the river discouraged them from going farther.
Just how sincere Clinton had ever been about trying to rescue Burgoyne is open to doubt. He specialized in embroidering orders with “little hints” about what he really wanted his subordinates to do. If he had been serious about reaching Albany, Clinton should have embarked his men in bateaux. Instead he chose seagoing transports, which drew too much water to get that far, though they offered his men better protection from potshotting militia on the riverbanks. From the start, Clinton had neither the manpower nor a burning desire to risk much to rescue Burgoyne. He also knew he was in line to succeed Howe as commander in chief, an event that Burgoyne’s surrender made almost inevitable.
On October 17, Burgoyne’s men marched out and stacked their arms in a meadow north of Fishkill Creek. The gleeful Gates wrote to his wife that “Burgoyne and his great army have laid down their arms…to me and my Yankees.” With New England’s politicians behind him in Congress, Gates thought he was now in a position to supplant George Washington as the American commander in chief. He made this clear by reporting his victory directly to Congress, only casually mentioning it to Washington in a letter on November 6.
Gates did not seem to realize that his claim to victory at Saratoga was forever tainted by his failure to get within a mile of the actual fighting and by the meanness and pettiness he had displayed to both Schuyler and Arnold. In the following year, when he tried to persuade Daniel Morgan to join him in a campaign to unseat Washington, Morgan told him never to mention “that detestable subject” to him again. “Under Washington and none but Washington, will I serve,” he roared.
It has become traditional to point to Saratoga as a historic turning point that transformed the war by persuading France to become America’s public ally. The victory unquestionably contributed to the French decision. But Louis XVI and his ministers were equally impressed by Washington’s skill at keeping the main American army intact outside Philadelphia, aggressively staring the enemy in the face. His ferocious attack on Howe’s army at Germantown on October 4, only three weeks after the defeat at Brandywine, was explosive proof that Britain’s 1777 campaign had failed on all fronts.
At least as important as France’s decision to intervene was the way Saratoga transformed the British attitude toward their American opponents. In a private letter after the surrender, Burgoyne told Lord George Germain, who as colonial secretary was the war’s civilian commander, that “a near inspection of the rebel troops” had convinced him that “the standing corps [his term for Continentals] are disciplined.” Burgoyne added that he was not using the word lightly. He was applying it “to the great fundamental points of military institution, sobriety, subordination, regularity and courage.”
Saratoga demonstrated how an artful mix of regulars and militia could create mutual inspiration and support. As the Continentals marched south to rejoin the main American army, they knew that they now had a strategy for victory–if they had the perseverance and steady nerves to make it work.
Thomas Fleming is the author of the previous essay on George Washington.
This article originally appeared in the Autumn 1993 issue (Vol. 6, No. 1) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: George Washington, General
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