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The Battles of Saratoga: Turning Point of the American revolution


Historians refer to the Saratoga Campaign of the American Revolution as the "turning point" of the war. It was a major defeat of British forces on American soil. What were the reasons? Why was there a need for a revolt? What were the ultimate consequences of this American victory? To probe these questions, the events leading to the start of the war, the circumstances which led to defeat, and the results of the outcome will be examined.

The seeds of insurgence were sown when the British Empire grew to such an extent that it became too cumbersome to govern adequately. The well-known saying of the time was "The sun never sets on the British Empire." This implied that their colonies extended throughout the world. England did possess holdings in Africa, the Far East, the Pacific and the Americas. It would be a remarkable government which could successfully manage, supply and defend its territories thousands of miles away over land and ocean.

The administration of the colonies was the responsibility of the King. He turned it over to the Secretary of State. The Secretary gave it to the Board of Trade. The Board told the Secretary what to do. He told the Royal Governors, the governors told the colonists, and the colonists did what they pleased (Morgan, 10-11). Both the colonists and the governors became accustomed to this liberty. The governors sent to oversee the colonies often took advantage of the lax supervision, thereby opening the doors of corruption.

As new territories were added, the costs of support in administration, commerce and defense also increased. Parliament attempted to allay the expense and strengthen its jurisdiction by adding further taxes and regulations on the already overburdened citizens both home and abroad. Among the new laws were the Navigation Acts. These laws were attempts by Parliament to regulate colonial commerce. In actuality, it created a monopoly of trade by requiring all raw materials produced be traded solely with Great Britain and manufactured goods be purchased only from there (Morgan 8-9). At first, these regulations did not inhibit the American colonies since land, labor and resources were readily available and inexpensive. In addition, the laws were not often enforced. Due to rampant administrative corruption, inspectors could be bribed to overlook non-compliance. The colonies, therefore, became accustomed to such a privilege, even if it was purchased.

Further trouble began in 1763 when George Grenville, Chancellor of the Exchequer, discovered that the American customs service was showing significant losses. He ordered more severe duties on direct commerce, papers to be filed for each cargo, violators tried in admiralty courts without juries, and a stamp tax which was a fee paid for legal documents and other paper items (Morgan, 16). When this act was passed in 1765, there were riots in the colonies with threats of boycotting English goods. The Marquis of Rockingham (Grenville's sucessor) and William Pitt successfully appealed to Parliament for repeal. However, in the same stroke, Parliament passed the Declaratory Act which stated that Britain had unlimited jurisdiction in America. "Britain, while rejecting in theory the constitutional position of the colonists, had yielded when it came to practical application." (Alden, 5).

In 1766, another crisis occurred when a tax on molasses was extended to cover all imported from British territories including the West Indies. Later that year, the New York Legislature was ordered to comply with the Quartering Act which allowed the British military to occupy private property. After this came the Townsend Act of 1767 in which taxes were levied on imported paper, glass, paint and tea. The monies collected would be used for the salaries of royal officials in America who had previously been paid by the colonial assemblies. Now with their wages paid by Britain, they would be more likely to see things in favor of England (Alden, 6). The American were not misled by the ploy. They recognized it as a way for King George to execute his power while depriving the colonists of theirs. Another boycott ensued headed by merchants who agreed not to import the taxed articles. Parliament then decided to rescind all taxes except that on tea. "This duty was retained, not for the money it would yield, but to maintain the right of the British government to tax the colonists." (Montgomery, 57).

Although the colonists would have like to continue consuming this beverage, they declared that they would not have it even if the smallest tax was levied on it. England, yet determined to have its way, sent ships with cargoes of tea to New York, Philadelphia and Charleston where they were destroyed or turned away unloaded. In Boston, three ships were not permitted to unload the cargo. The existing law stated that if the ships were not unloaded in twenty days, the customs officials had a right to order them unloaded (Montgomery, 158). As the deadline approached, a meeting of concerned citizens was held where it was decided what to do with the unwanted tea. The next night, December 16, 1773, a group of men disguised as Native Americans boarded the ships and threw every chest of tea into Boston Harbor.


When Parliament heard of the colonist's "tea party," they passed what became known as the Intolerable Acts. First, the port of Boston was closed until the citizens paid for the tea and made a formal apology to the King. Second, the government was taken entirely out of the hands of the people and placed under the control of General Thomas Gage. Gage commanded several regiments to enforce his authority. Third, accused British officers would be taken to England for trial where circumstance would be more in their favor. Fourth, accused Americans would be taken to England where they would find circumstances very unfavorable. Fifth, the Quebec Act was established whereby territories north of the Ohio River and west of the Mississippi were ceded to Canada with the hope of appeasing the French Canadians in the event their assistance was needed in an action against the American colonists.

Indignation was rampant among colonial patriots. Patrick Henry pleaded at the Virginia Convention, "There is no longer any room for hope. We must fight." (Montgomery, 159). The far from contrite Bostonians vowed to stop all trade with England and appealed for similar action in the other colonies. An inter-colonial congress was created to lend authority to any action undertaken in the rebel cause. The first Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia in September 1774 (Morgan, 61). The delegates were nearly all members of their respective local political committees. "The spirit of that Congress was unmistakable. It was perfectly calm, perfectly respectable, but perfectly determined." (Montgomery, 159). They demanded the right to levy all taxes and make all laws except those regarding foreign commerce. The Congress denounced Parliamentary taxation as well as the despised Intolerable Acts.

The only authority this Congress possessed came from the American colonists and was not lawfully recognized by England. When Congress attempted to enforce any action, the Colonists were always divided into two sides. The Patriots accepted Congressional authority, but the Loyalists (Tories) were willing to abide by English laws and constantly pleaded for reconciliation with Britain.

Actual armed conflict did not take place until April 1775. This occurred when General Thomas Gage learned of a store of provisions and ammunition located in Concord, Massachusetts. He ordered a secret mission to destroy the stores and also arrest Samuel Adams and John Hancock, the infamous Patriot leaders who were known to be in Lexington. On discovering the British plans, Paul Revere and William Dawes rode from Boston to alert Hancock and Adams and also call the Patriot militia, the Minutemen, to prepare for confrontation.


As Hancock and Adams made their escape, the Minutemen assembled on Lexington Green, however no one was quite sure what they were supposed to do (Morgan, 1). Captain John Parker, American commander, had planned to only stage a visible display of protest without gunplay. Major Pitcairn, in charge of the British troops, had other ideas. He confronted the Americans and ordered then to lay down their arms and disperse. In the ensuing awkward moments "on both sides the men were out of control, and before anyone knew what was happening, firing began." (Morgan, 2). The American forces were temporarily routed leaving eighteen casualties as the British continued towards Concord. "Shooting began almost by accident at Lexington, but the shots that started the British on their way back from Concord was nobody's mistake." (Morgan, 69). Turned away from Concord, the British returned to Boston, encamped outside the city limits and began a siege.


When the second Continental Congress convened on May 10,1775, it recognized George III at the rightful sovereign of the American colonies. It also voted to raise 15,000 men to defend the liberty of the country (Montgomery, 162). On the same day, a troop of 80 Americans under the leadership of Ethan Allen, forced the surrender of Fort Ticonderoga on the New York shore of Lake Champlain. The fort was vital for the control of the lake and contained a windfall of sorely needed munitions and stores. Crown Point, just north of "Ti", was taken the next day.

These victories inspired Jonathan Brewer of Massachusetts to propose a march through the state of Maine to assault the Canadian city of Quebec. If the Americans could capture this stronghold, they would gain territory in a British held province and also protect the northern borders from invasion. Benedict Arnold, however, suggested the attack be routed through Ticonderoga then up the St. Lawrence River (Alden, 48). When Congress learned that the British were planning an attack on northern New York, General Montgomery and Benedict Arnold were sent via Brewer's route to capture Quebec. The march through the Maine wilderness in early winter proved strenuous. "The suffering was so terrible that many men deserted, and the rest. . .nearly perished" (Montgomery, 165). The sadly depleted and weakened army attempted to conquer the strongest fortified city in the Americas on New Year's Eve 1775 in a severe snowstorm. Montgomery was slain; Arnold badly wounded - a complete victory for the British as the Americans were driven out of Canada.

In January 1776, the King's statement reached Congress that the British army would defeat "the rebellion" in America. This was the answer to a petition for justice. Congress now realized that there was no hope for a peaceful reconciliation. "The Americans had not sought separation; the King - not the English people - had forced it on them. There was no choice left" (Montgomery, 167). On May 15, 1776, Congress passes a resolution instructing individual colonies to take the responsibility of their own government. Then in June, Richard Henry Lee, representative of Virginia, motioned for a resolution formally declaring the colonies independent from Britain. On July second, this resolution was adopted and the Declaration of Independence drafted. The Declaration did not establish independence, it only stated the reasons for this course of action and the intentions of the colonial leaders. Now the colonists would literally have to fight for their rights.


The British were now even more determined to strike a decisive blow. Their ambition turned towards New York State. The strategy planned by General John Burgoyne was to mount a three-way attack. Burgoyne would march south from Canada through the Champlain and upper Hudson Valleys. Colonel Barry St. Leger would capture the Mohawk River valley region while Sir Henry Clinton would conquer the lower Hudson Valley between New York City and Albany. The object would be to join forces in Albany. In theory, this plan would effectively sever New England (the hotbed of revolution) from the other states. This would disrupt communication and commerce thereby driving a physical and psychological wedge between the colonies.


General Burgoyne, returning from England, took command of the Royal Forces on May 16, 1777 and began moving the troops southward from Montreal. Little did he suspect what events were in his future. So clad a crisp new uniform, fully confident in his military strategy, his own intellect and his superior forces (3700 British regulars and about the same number of German mercenaries, plus hired Tories and Indians), he led his troops to St. Johns. He insisted on bringing 138 pieces of artillery ranging in size from small mortars to one large cannon (Ellis. 17-19).

From St. Johns, the Redcoats sailed down the Richelieu River to Lake Champlain which had reverted to British control since Arnold's defeat in a naval battle there the previous year. Burgoyne's destination was the weakly held American fortress at Ticonderoga. During the first days of July, Burgoyne deployed the troops in the vicinity of the fort. He sent Germans to circle Mount Independence, thereby cutting off the eastern retreat route. The lake at this point was only about 3500 feet wide and Mount Independence and the fort were connected by a floating bridge. However, once on land, Burgoyne's troubles began. The Germans, in their impractical uniforms, found progress slow and painful. "High brass helmets banged against tree branches, long sabers caught on underbrush, heavy boots stuck in mud" (Byrd, 44). The main body, landing on the western shore found the maneuvering easier and surrounded the fort on the western side, preventing escape by way of Lake George.

By July fifth, General St. Clair, commander at Fort Ticonderoga, realized the enemy's plan and knew he was in an undefendable position when he saw the British constructing breastworks on Mt. Defiance. Calling a meeting of officers, St. Clair decided to abandon the fort during the cover of night. This allowed Burgoyne to capture "the key to holding the Hudson waterway" without a struggle. Pursuing the retreating Americans, the British overtook one party near Skenesboro (now Whitehall), where the American naval fleet was anchored. The entire fleet was destroyed. Burgoyne then ordered Colonel John Hill to pursue other fleeing Americans. Hill caught up to one fragment near Fort Ann. The Americans, running short of ammunition, were forced to burn Fort Ann and retreat further towards Fort Edward.

"Almost exactly a year earlier, Congress had issued the Declaration of Independence. . .Now, during the first two weeks of July 1777, rebel fortunes seemed to have reached a new low. Ticonderoga, widely believed to be the key to defense from the north, had fallen with ridiculous ease, and only a small, demoralized army stood between Burgoyne and Albany" (Byrd, 51).

Burgoyne, now cocky with his easy successes, rallied his troops at Skenesboro. However, he now made an error of judgement which probably cost him the campaign. Instead of continuing to Lake George and using the easier water route, he decided to change his plan and strike south from Skenesboro overland to Fort Edward. General Philip Schuyler, crafty American officer, knowing this route was scarcely more than a path through the forest, ordered the felling of trees across the way. To further stymie the British advance, huge boulders were rolled into creeks. Trenches and dams were constructed to flood the lowlands and turn the route into an impassable swamp. The British could only move about a mile a day because of the delays in having to cut away obstructions and rebuild some forty bridges over ravines and streams. "In one place they constructed a log causeway over two miles of swamp" (Ellis, 40-41; Byrd, 55). Approaching mid-summer, the British soldiers were becoming demoralized by the heat, humidity and maddening swarms of insects. The British did not reach Fort Edward until July 29th and found it only a dilapidated, worthless structure.

In the meantime, as the British inched their way through the forest, an advance scouting party of Indians perpetrated an incident which would have far-reaching effects on the outcome of the Burgoyne campaign. This was the murder of Jane McCrea. The details of this event are many and conflicting, but a consensus from different sources relates the following general account: On or about July 27th, Miss McCrea was being escorted to meet her fiancÚ, David Jones, a lieutenant in Burgoyne's army, by a party of Indians in the employ of the British. Jane was described as a woman of great beauty and having long, lustrous hair. Accompanying her was Mrs. McNeil, cousin of British general Simon Fraser. Jane had no reason to be apprehensive about her journey, but her escorts had the misfortune to encounter another band of marauding Indians. A fight ensued between the leaders of the two groups wherein Jane was mortally wounded. One Indian seized the opportunity to add her scalp to his collection. When the Indians reached the British camp, her tresses were recognized by Lt. Jones. The incident was confirmed by Mrs. McNeil who also complained bitterly of her treatment by the Native Americans.


This brutal atrocity was completely contrary to Burgoyne's rules of war and had previously explained to the Indian scouts. The General proposed to punish the accused Indian, Wyandot Panther, by execution. However, St. Luc de la Corne, the French-Canadian Indian leader, persuaded Burgoyne that such a move would cause the desertion of all the Indians. Now the British leader found himself in an awkward position, but rather than have a mass desertion, he swallowed his principles and pardoned Wyandot after a severe reprimand. By this time the damage was already done which set about a movement which would have the most deleterious consequences for the British.

"The Americans used the story of Jane McCrea to whip up indignation against the invaders" (Ellis, 42). Many newspapers in New England printed a letter of General Horatio Gates in which he accused Burgoyne of buying scalps. No doubt the whole tragedy with its true and false rumors angered hundreds who rushed to join the American militia facing Burgoyne. The defeats at Ticonderoga, Skenesboro and Fort Edward had undermined American confidence in their own military capability. The army needed an incentive to boost manpower. Until the McCrea incident: "Each day dozens of patriot militiamen deserted the army, until by August 1st, only some 400 were left. Of these about a third were boys, old men and Negro servants" (Ellis, 42).

Circumstances were also growing difficult for Burgoyne. His main concern was how to feed his men, fodder the horses and transport equipment. With each advance, his supply line was stretched farther from the base in Montreal. Transport through the hills and forests of upstate New York was slow and tedious. New supply wagons soon fell apart and abandoned along the way since they had been hastily constructed from unseasoned wood. Horses suffered from overwork and underfeeding. Realizing his plight, Burgoyne gave orders to send all non-essentials back to Ticonderoga. However, he excluded his own personal possessions which included "30 carts carrying his wine, uniforms, and personal effects" (Ellis, 44).

Colonel Fredrich Baum was commanded to march to nearby Bennington, Vermont for supplies. General Burgoyne's fatal mistake here was in assuming the state of Vermont would be sympathetic, or at least neutral. He relied on Tory support which seldom materialized. Baum's forces were in for an unpleasant surprise. Defending Bennington were the New Hampshire Militia commanded by General John Stark. "On August 15, three days after leaving the Hudson, Baum's column encountered Stark's detachment at Van Schaick's mill on the Walloomsac River" (Luzader, 28). While setting up a defensive position, Baum sent word to Burgoyne asking for reinforcements. Colonel Heinrich Breymann was dispatched. Again, Burgoyne used bad judgement. Breymann's grenadiers were slow marchers. "A strict disciplinarian, Breymann insisted that his men march in close order, stopping to reform their ranks every five minutes. He also brought along two cannon which bogged down in the muddy road. Sloshing through the rain, Breymann managed to cover only 8 miles a day" (Ellis, 51). The weather at that time was not conducive to battle. It continually rained heavily, dampening gunpowder so it could not be detonated. Every hour of delay allowed more American militiamen to join the Patriot forces.

When the rain stopped, the fighting began in earnest. "The hottest I've ever saw in my life," said Stark. The Americans manage to surround the Germans and kill Baum. The rest surrendered with a loss of over 200 men. Breymann, learning of the debacle from retreating soldiers, ordered the retreat of his own forces. The Yankees pursued, captured the cannon, and seriously wounded Breymann. This victory also spurred Patriot morale as the British failed to gain the badly needed stores and lost almost 600 men in the attempt. Sobered, but not panicked by the defeat, Burgoyne mused, "The American force hangs like a gathering storm upon my left" (Ellis, 56).


Meanwhile, Colonel St.Leger was having his own troubles at Fort Stanwix. The arrival of his detachment in the Mohawk Valley alarmed the residents between Oswego and present day Rome. General Nicholas Herkimer mustered a force of about 800 soldiers to confront St. Leger, but the Americans were ambushed and thwarted near Oriskany. Herkimer was wounded (later proving fatal) early in the battle, but managed to direct the troops propped on a saddle under a tree.


This conflict raged for six hours when the Indians on the American side began to tire of the battle and desert the field. This caused subsequent heavy losses. "Herkimer's force was so weakened that there was no question of continuing to Fort Stanwix. Taking their wounded with them, they retreated eastward" (Cook, 72). Colonel Marinus Willett, commander at Fort Stanwix, had his own methods. He systematically plundered the nearest of St. Leger's and Indian camps, carrying off their supplies. Encouraged by his easy raids, Willett adamantly refused to surrender at the demand of St. Leger. The British had no option but to retreat, regroup and re-attack.

When the wily General Schuyler heard of Herkimer's defeat and the courage of Willett, he felt obligated to send reinforcements. He met with opposition from most other American commanders who believed the brunt of the American force should be against Burgoyne. If troops were sent west, this would weaken the army waiting at the Hudson. However, Benedict Arnold, always eager for battle (like an 18th century Patton), jumped at the chance to lead a relief unit, taking Learned's brigade and another 100 militiamen with him. When Arnold reached a point 30 miles east of Fort Stanwix, he halted. Gambling on the superstitions of the Indians, he used the captive Hon Yost to gain a psychological advantage. Yost was, by today's terminology, "mentally challenged", but the Indians believed such people had direct communication with the Great Spirit. Arnold promised Yost freedom in exchange for giving the British an exaggerated report on the size of the American force. "The delighted Yost played his role to the hilt. When St. Leger's Indians asked about the size of Arnold's army, Yost pointed vaguely to thousands of leaves on the trees" (Cook, 76). Already discouraged because of Willett's raids, low supplies and general dissatisfaction, they deserted St. Leger en masse. Without his Indians, St. Leger was helpless. On August 23, St. Leger lifted the siege of Fort Stanwix and began such a hasty retreat that one sleeping soldier was left behind. Arnold's plan is a prime example of good military strategy. A victory was achieved without firing a shot or the loss of a single man. Just knowing the enemy's weakness and capitalizing on that advantage can win many a bloodless battle. Arnold left reinforcements at the fort and returned to Stillwater where he had yet to play another role.
Adding to the American victory at Bennington, the defeat of St. Leger dealt a severe blow to Burgoyne's scheme. The British leader had been stymied to the east and to the west. His only remaining hope was Clinton's detachment, but the patriot upswing had already begun. The movement in New England and New York had already shifted in favor of the Americans.

Whatever were Burgoynes' misgivings at this point, he never showed to his troops. "His aides found him gay and carefree as he drank wine, played cards and sang songs around the dinner table" (Ellis, 68). He now decided to cross the Hudson River at a narrow point near Saratoga (now Schuylerville). Here occurred another tactical error. By this action, he cut himself off from the British bases on Lake George and Lake Champlain. Then, once across, he advanced with his entire army of 6000 leaving no guards to protect the rear (Ellis, 68). The boat bridge used in the crossing was ordered disassembled, cutting off a retreat route if necessary. Burgoyne seemed to be putting his neck in a noose and pulling the rope with his own hand. Seemingly oblivious to his situation, Burgoyne reviewed the troops in their new milieu with bands playing and flags flying in the brilliant sunshine. He continued to encourage the men with the slogan "Britons never retreat!" However, as he was to discover shortly, they do surrender.

The advance of the British continued slowly since the terrain was in a similar condition to that around Fort Edward. Bridges had to be constructed over numerous streams. Most of the Indians had deserted after the McCrea incident. The British troops were under almost constant attacks from Patriot snipers hiding in the forest and underbrush. Meanwhile, General Horatio Gates, after relieving General Schuyler, was in command of the American Army at Stillwater. His one objective was to block the British advance. Although not an aggressive leader (his nickname was "Granny"), he had capable and experienced officers within the American ranks. Most notable was Benedict Arnold, just returned from Fort Stanwix; Colonel Daniel Morgan, experienced Indian fighter; and Major Henry Dearborn, a man of steady determination (Byrd, 80).


Still slowly advancing, Burgoyne realized from the intermittent but relentless attacks on his troops, that the main force of Americans were ahead. Exactly where or how many was indeterminate. It was then that he decided to divide his army into three units, a decision that has always mystified students of military history. The three units advanced while completely out of each other's sight. When someone in Burgoyne's party estimated that the columns were abreast, a gun would be fired as a signal for general advance (Lancaster, 233). Baron Riedesel commanded the left column which would skirt the river plain. General Simon Fraser led the right flank which was to advance three miles westward, then turn south. The center column was under joint command of General James Hamilton and Burgoyne. All were to converge on the Freeman farmstead which advance scouts had reported was cleared and abandoned. In splitting his forces, Burgoyne was taking another of his famous gambles since a divided army is easier to surround and defeat.

At this point, General Gates favored delay allowing an increase in the American force from men entering the camp every day. "The longer he could avoid a decisive battle, the more chance he had to win" (Ellis, 76). General Arnold convinced Gates to use the skills and tactics of Morgan to meet the British as they thrashed their way through the forest. This would also stymie Burgoyne's maneuverability of artillery.

The first confrontation took place on September 19, 1777. When Burgoyne's center division emerged in the Freeman's farm clearing, they were greeted with a volley of bullets from Morgan's riflemen. This was enough to kill most of the British officers present and many of the infantry (Cook, 127; Ellis, 78). When the Redcoats retreated, the Americans impetuously rushed forward, convinced of a rout, only to encounter the enemy's main column. The Americans were driven back across the clearing, yielding the open space to the British. After this, the battle continued for several hours. During this time, the petulant Arnold ordered two regiments to assist Morgan (Ellis, 78; Cook 128) overstepping Gates' authority. Gates preferred a "wait and see" attitude and believed Arnold had acted rashly and committed American forces to a major engagement.

It was a "confused, milling battle" which raged around Freeman's farm (Cook, 129). The New Hampshire Continentals managed to stop Fraser's advance. Arnold confronted the main column while Morgan continued to pick at the Redcoats from the treetops. "Six times charges and counter-charges swept across the clearing as piles of dead and wounded mounted" (Cook, 129). Meanwhile, Baron Riedesel, hearing the noise of battle, made a wise decision and ordered his men to the aid of Burgoyne. The Americans were caught by the Baron's aggressive charge and fled back into the woods. Darkness descended and the Americans were unable to continue the fight for the conquest they had so eagerly sought. Neither side could claim victory. Burgoyne was able to occupy the field of battle, but the Patriots has stopped and blunted the British thrust. "Both sides were exhausted and too disorganized to do any more fighting that day. Burgoyne lost over 600 men, many of his best officers and artillerymen" (Ellis, 80-1). The American side did not fare that much better. Supplies of food and ammunition were seriously depleted. If either side had been able to attack the other the next day, it would have been a rousing triumph for the offense.


Bloodied but unbowed, Burgoyne returned to his camp and encouraged the men with exaggerated reports of victory. He was further heartened when on September 21, a messenger arrived with a communique from Sir Henry Clinton, "If you think 2000 men can assist you effectually, I will make a push at Fort Montgomery in about ten days. I expect reinforcements every day. Let me know what you wish" (Lancaster, 236). General Howe also sent vaguely worded letters suggesting that he might also sent help (Ellis, 85). On these ambiguous half-promises, Burgoyne buoyed his hopes. However, unknown to "Gentleman Johnny," Clinton had no intention of doing anything more than creating a diversion. He did not have the manpower or authority to support Burgoyne's battalion (Ellis, 91). The Redcoats dug in and prepared to wait for reinforcements. By this error, Burgoyne lost his only chance for a victory. Every day he waited, his army became weaker. American raids destroyed arms and desperately needed stores. His soldiers were tired, hungry and discouraged. They began to desert. From this day until October 7th, an uneasy situation existed. Burgoyne would not retreat, nor could he advance. Gates would not instigate further warfare.

Burgoyne continued to send messages to New York City pleading for help and instructions. Most of the communications were intercepted (Byrd, 91). About this time, Burgoyne learned of the defeat of St. Leger, the Vermonter's raids on Ticonderoga and the capture of Fort George on Lake George. "Nevertheless, officers and men kept hoping that Clinton would deliver them from their distress (Ellis, 97).

On October 4th, Burgoyne held a conference with his three senior officers: Fraser, Phillips and Riedesel. Many plans were proposed and turned down by one or the other (Ellis, 100). At last, all agreed on the plan for about 1500 men to scout the American position. If the intelligence was favorable, he would advance on the Americans. If unfavorable, he would retreat to the Battenkill Creek. On the morning of October 7th, Burgoyne deployed the 1500 infantrymen in three columns in a open field in front of Balcarres' redoubt. American intelligence quickly reported the Redcoat movements to Gates. Colonel James Wilkinson suggested that the British were massing for another battle, pointed out the sorry plight and easy vulnerability of the columns and urged Gates to engage them. Gates replied, "Well, then order on Morgan to begin the game" (Byrd, 100; Furneaux, 224). The American strategy called for Morgan to attack the westernmost British column. General Enoch Poor would meet the eastern contingent while Learned's brigade would strike at the center.

Poor's target were the grenadiers of Major John Acland. As the rebels stormed up the hill towards the grenadiers, they were fired on with muskets and grapeshot, but the gunners had not allowed for the slope of the ground, so most of the shots passed over the heads of the charging men (Cook, 161). The desperate Acland ordered a bayonet charge which was met with point-blank fire as Acland fell, shot in both legs. Poor's men poured over the grenadier's position, seized the cannon and began to use it against the British. Burgoyne's left wing was crushed.

On the right perimeter, Morgan and Dearborn engaged Balcarres' troops on the front flank. Under a relentless assault, the British lines broke and were driven off the battlefield leaving behind all their cannon (Cook, 162).

This left only the advancing center commanded by Riedesel, now exposed with the rout of Acland and Balcarres. As Learned advanced toward the enemy lines, Benedict Arnold, again defying the orders of Gates, was seen galloping furiously toward the most active part of the battle shouting "Victory or death!" (Cook, 162). When Gates learned that Arnold had again flouted his command, he sent Major Armstrong to accost Arnold and return him to headquarters. Arnold saw Armstrong approaching and, guessing his purpose, galloped evasively away. "What ensued was sheer farce - the spectacle of the American's greatest field commander being pursued all over the battlefield by an officer intent on ordering him to stop fighting and come back" (Cook, 163). Continuing in his enthusiasm, Arnold brandished a sword and accidentally wounded Captain Ball of Dearborn's infantry. "The first impulse of that officer was to shoot Arnold, for which purpose he raised his musket" (Furneaux, 237). Arnold, seemingly oblivious of his own danger or the hazard he created for others, had already darted off to another area of the battlefield. Arnold was described as "riding everywhere and commanding everybody", but he helped win the Breyman redoubt which otherwise might have resisted assault. If Gates had used Arnold in the role for which he was best suited (aggressive combat) instead of letting petty jealousies prevent effective tactics, the Americans would have had an even greater advantage. Arnold's career in the battle was cut short when a bullet wounded him in the same leg that has been injured in Quebec. Even before Arnold's misfortune, Simon Fraser was mortally wounded. After this, his troops lost their determination since he had been a capable and highly respected officer (Byrd, 103).


By this time, the British had lost eight of their ten cannon and about a third of their manpower. The loss of the Breyman redoubt ended all hopes that Burgoyne could defend his position. Only the coming darkness prevented his complete destruction (Byrd, 104). He ordered the evacuation of the battlefield, leaving the Freeman farm to the Americans. With casualties four times that of the 150 Americans, plus 250mmen captured, Burgoyne had no choice but to withdraw.


"In the aftermath of the battle, the top commanders on both sides, Gates and Burgoyne, distinguished themselves by their incompetence" (Cook, 169). The Redcoat leader should have retreated more quickly before the Americans could rally and block the retreat. Burgoyne was further burdened with the duty of burying Simon Fraser as well as the heavy rain that bogged down artillery and wagons. "One can only guess why the commander did not strip his forces to the bone and dash northward. No doubt he still hoped that somehow or other Sir Henry Clinton would reach Albany and rescue him" (Ellis, 110).

Gates was satisfied to play the waiting game since he also feared Clinton's advance. After several days with no imminent threat to the south, he mustered the troops and pursued the British. By now, they had fortified a position on the hills overlooking Saratoga. When the fog lifted on the morning of October 11th, the Americans observed the strength of the British situation. They fell back, but only to capture Burgoyne's bateaux and eliminate a water retreat. The Patriots continued to mass around Burgoyne and "only his rear, that vital path to the north remained open, and only the most unrealistic optimist could have imagined it would stay open for long" (Cook, 172). Gates' main body covered the south, Morgan and Learned were to the west, Stark and the New Hampshire Militia defended the northwest, and to the east, General John Fellows and the Massachusetts Militia held a strong position (Byrd, 107).

On October 12th, Burgoyne again summoned a meeting of officers. They outlined five possible courses of action: 1) stand firm and wait for Clinton; 2) attack; 3) attempt a retreat taking guns and baggage; 4) abandon all encumbrances and make a swift escape; and 5) make a strike toward Albany (Byrd, 109; Furneaux, 256-7). All the officers favored the Albany plan except Riedesel who proposed a retreat-by-night strategy with no more equipment than the soldiers could carry on their backs. The decision came too late as the Americans finally blocked the north road. On October 13th, in council with his officers, Burgoyne decided to surrender.

The negotiations of surrender proved to be another kind of war - a battle of wits - with each side insisting on the most advantageous terms (Byrd, 110). Gates first demanded unconditional surrender. Burgoyne countered with a proposal that his troops would relinquish only their arms, and that the soldiers be allowed to return to England. After several days of bickering, Gates suddenly accepted Burgoyne's terms stipulating that capitulation take place before 3 P.M. and all troops lay down arms by 5 P.M. (Furneaux, 262). Burgoyne acceded to the treaty with the stipulation that the word "capitulation" be changed to "convention." However, the next morning, the proud and stubborn Burgoyne reneged on his agreement, possibly still hoping for rescue by Clinton. As a delaying tactic, he insisted that two of his officers be allowed to inspect the American army. This pussy-footing infuriated the usually placid Gates who feared the hostilities would begin anew. Burgoyne's officers managed to convince him that he was honor-bound to abide by his agreement. "So on the afternoon of October 16, Burgoyne and his staff rode out of camp and met Gates" (Cook, 176). "The fortune of war, General Gates, has made me your prisoner." simply stated the defeated, humiliated Burgoyne. The next morning the British regulars convened near the Hudson River to stack arms and empty munitions unobserved. Gates had ordered his army to stay away. Then the Redcoats marched through the American camp unmolested. "The soldiers on each side respected the courage shown by their enemies in the bloody battles of Freeman farm" (Ellis, 119).


This hard-won victory, considered one of the fifteen most decisive battles in history, served to boost the morale of the Patriots and increase their incentive for continuing the rebellion after Washington's defeat at Philadelphia. The news had the opposite effect on the British and caused political panic in England. The governmental leaders now realized their failure and knew the colonists would be spurred by their new confidence to push toward a final victory. Parliament offered many concessions, but the colonists had tasted success. Nothing but full independence would satisfy them now. The British were never again to gain the upper hand in the Revolution after the failure of the Burgoyne campaign.

The brilliantly conceived but botched stratagem was doomed from its inauguration. What looked good on paper turned out to be a more difficult task than the old gambler, Burgoyne, could have imagined in the arrogance of his own military capability. This campaign could be considered a tragedy of errors in bad judgement, overconfidence, bungled communications and poor organization. The British were in such bad circumstances by the time they reached Saratoga, that even a commander the calibre of Gates had only moderate trouble overpowering the enemy.

England's long-time nemesis, France, now joined the fray. Observing that the Americans now had a fighting chance, they were more eager to assist with manpower and supplies. On January 8, 1778, Louis XVI offered the Americans a treaty of alliance. When France entered the war, its ally, Spain, also declared war on England. Now the American Revolution had become an international war (Luzader, 70). The success of an uprising which would have otherwise been in doubt was now assured. One battle in the war had made this possible. As Sir Edward Creasy, noted historian, has aptly penned:

Nor can any military event be said to have
exercised more important influence on the
future fortunes of mankind than the complete
defeat of Burgoyne's expedition in 1777; a
defeat which rescued the revolted colonists
from certain subjection; and which, by
inducing the courts of France and Spain to
attack England in their behalf, ensured the
independence of the United States, and the
formation of the Transatlantic power which,
not only America, but both Europe and Asia,
now see and feel" Cook, 183; Byrd, 115)


WORKS CITED

Alden, John R. The American Revolution. New York: Harper, 1962.

Byrd, Martha. Saratoga: Turning Point in the American Revolution. Philadelphia: Auerbach, 1973.

Cook, Fred J. Dawn Over Saratoga: The Turning Point of the Revolutionary War. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1973.

Ellis, Davis M. The Saratoga Campaign. New York: McGraw, 1969.

Furneaux, Rupert. The Battle of Saratoga. New York: Stein & Day, 1971.

Lancaster, Bruce and J. H. Plumb. The American Heritage Book of the Revolution. New York: Dell, 1958.

Luzader, John F. Decision on the Hudson: The Saratoga Campaign of 1777. Washington, DC: U.S> Dept. Interior, 1975.

Montgomery, D. H. The Leading Facts of American History. Boston: Ginn, 1899.

Morgan, Edmund S. The Birth of the Republic. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1956.




The Battles of Saratoga
Saratoga National Historical Park
Battles of Saratoga
Re-enactment of the Battle of Saratoga
Saratoga Battlefield, NY
The Surrender of General John Burgoyne


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