The Saratoga Campaign Of The American Revolution – Part Four: First Battle of Freeman’s Farm

October 12, 2017 by oriskany

Welcome again, Beasts of War, to our continuing series commemorating the 240th anniversary of the Saratoga Campaign in 1777, turning point of the American Revolution. Through a series of 20mm wargames, we’ve been tracking the movements and clashes of armies slowly drawing toward an inevitable crossroads of destiny.

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At last, we are here.

If you’re just joining us, here’s the basic situation. In the third year of the Revolution, British General John Burgoyne has launched an invasion out of Canada down into New York State. By seizing the lines of Lake Champlain and the Hudson River, he hopes to split off New England from the rest of the colonies and win the war for the Crown.

So far we’ve covered the British invasion plan in Part One, including the desperate delaying action at the Battle of Hubbardton. Part Two saw the British try to bring in an additional invasion, largely halted at the Battle of Oriskany. In Part Three we saw the Battle of Bennington, where British fortunes truly started to falter.

Now at last, after two months of skirmishes, preliminary battles, and brutally difficult wilderness marches, General “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne’s main army finally emerges into the Hudson Valley. Marching south, they are soon drawing near Albany, the capital of New York State, their ultimate objective.

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This is also where the Burgoyne’s army will finally meet the main body of the northern American Army, well entrenched under the command of Horatio Gates. Gates and Burgoyne are actually old friends, comrades in British service during the Seven Years War. Now they’ve met again, both leaders of armies, but friends no more.

The Battles Of Saratoga

Setting Up The Chessboard

As August bleeds into September, “Gentleman Johnny” finds himself, his army, and his grand invasion plan in ever more dire straits. Yes, he’s made it to the Hudson. But he’s also been informed that the two other British armies scheduled to meet him in Albany are in fact not coming.

First, the expected British support from occupied New York City has been cancelled. General Howe has instead launched an invasion toward Philadelphia, Pennsylvania…leaving Burgoyne on his own in upstate New York. And we’ve already discussed where Colonel St. Leger’s army was defeated at Fort Stanwix and the Battle of Oriskany.

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Many of Burgoyne’s generals are recommending that the campaign is given up for the year. Better to fall back to the fortified position of Fort Ticonderoga and try for Albany in the spring. Besides, the Americans facing them have been heavily reinforced and deeply fortified on commanding high ground. The situation doesn’t look good.

Indeed, the Americans are pretty comfortable with their situation. The Polish-born military engineer Tadeusz Kościuszko has selected Bemis Heights for their position and expertly fortified it with plenty of well-supplied artillery. This position commands the Hudson and blocks the route south toward Albany.

The American commander, General Horatio “Granny” Gates, is content to sit still and leave the first move to Burgoyne. His subordinates are far more aggressive, especially the dynamic and ambitious Benedict Arnold, who repeatedly insists on hitting the outnumbered and badly-positioned Burgoyne at first opportunity.

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Burgoyne knows he can’t go through the American position, so he sketches up a plan to go around it. He divides his army roughly into thirds, with Major-General Baron von Riedesel and his German troops advancing south down the river (on the Crown left) to hit the Americans in the front and pin them in place.

Meanwhile, two more elements (a central division under Major-General Phillips, led by Hamilton’s brigade – and a right-wing division under Brigadier General Simon Fraser to the west) will angle out to the west and then south, hoping to work himself around the powerful American fortifications at Bemis Heights and perhaps hit them in the flank.

On the morning of September 19th, 1777 Burgoyne’s army begins to move. Sources differ about how many men he has. Some say 6,000, others put the number as high as 8,000. Two things are certain. He has far less than the 10,000 he started with in June, and the Americans definitely outnumber him.

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Such a movement is impossible to hide from the Americans. The people here are sympathetic to the rebel cause, every farmhouse houses potential spies. Burgoyne has also lost most of his Iroquois allies, so American scouts are able to get much closer to Burgoyne’s formations and report his every move.

So with greater numbers, the better intelligence of enemy intentions, and a strongly-fortified base of operations, why aren’t the Americans doing anything? That’s exactly what Benedict Arnold (American second-in-command) wants to know. He argues furiously with his boss, but the timid “Granny Gates” still won’t budge.

Finally, Arnold takes matters into his own hands. Assuming personal command of whatever units he can, he heads out to engage the foremost element of Burgoyne’s army, Brigadier Hamilton’s column advancing down the centre. They will meet at a fateful clearing in the thick New York woods called Freeman’s Farm.

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Arnold has chosen his men well. He has the 11th Virginia Regiment, expert marksmen under the command of Daniel Morgan. Widely regarded as the father of US Army special forces, Morgan has fought with Arnold as far back as Canada in late 1775. Morgan is beyond tough, and his riflemen are the deadliest “widow makers” in America.

Supporting Morgan is Henry Dearborn’s battalion of light infantry. Armed with muskets and bayonets, they are an important part of this unit since Morgan’s riflemen (for all their range and accuracy) are slow-firing, and useless in melee combat since they have no bayonets and are not trained to fight when in formation.

As the British pickets emerge from the woods on the north side of Freeman’s Farm, they are immediately engaged by Morgan’s sharpshooters. Down go the officers first. Major Forbes commands a screening force of the 9th Regiment of foot, he loses every officer but one in the opening minute of fire.

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The British react. Brigadier Hamilton, coordinating with Brigadier Fraser to the west, commit Canadian Rangers on Morgan’s west flank, driving back the riflemen. Here’s where Dearborn’s light infantry earn their pay, setting up a line of muskets and bayonets behind which the vulnerable riflemen can withdraw.

British firepower begins to pile on. Captain Jones brings up his four six-pounder artillery pieces. After putting a shell through Freeman’s farmhouse to make sure it is unoccupied, they then open fire on the Americans. But more American infantry is arriving, the bulk of Enoch Poor’s brigade pushing up to support Arnold’s battle.

The battle is also spreading westwards. As Simon Fraser (the victorious Scot commander at the Battle of Hubbardton) pushes down through McBride’s Farm, he is engaged by more American infantry under Ebenezer Learned. Soon the McBride Farm battle and Freeman’s Farm battle bleed together into one continuous brawl.

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British discipline and firepower continue to tell, with American infantry regiments being torn up by artillery. Morgan’s sharpshooters then start picking off British artillery crews, their rifles are so accurate they actually outrange British artillery. Jones’ guns are bloodily removed from the equation.

The British mount a number of bayonet charges, which are usually their battle-winning “coup de grace” manoeuvre. But here British regiments are taking such losses to American gunfire, and American numbers are just large enough, where the unprecedented starts to happen: American infantry are actually REPELLING the British bayonet.

Another big reason American regiments are doing better here is the incomparable leadership of some of their commanders. Benedict Arnold, Daniel Morgan, Henry Dearborn, these are some of the best battlefield commanders the Americans will ever have in the Revolution. Galvanized and inspired, the men stand and fight.

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But so do the British. At Freeman’s Farm, the 9th, 62nd, and 21st Regiments of Foot are soon joined by the 20th as Major-General Phillips commits more of his division to support Hamilton. They push into the firestorm from the northeast. The Americans are then reinforced by Connecticut militia, entering the field from the southeast.

Fighting also rages perhaps half a mile to the west, where Learned’s New Yorkers and General Fraser’s British slug it out on McBride’s Farm. They also try to work around each other’s exposed west wing. Captain Fraser’s British marksmen, the few remaining Iroquois, and German jäger light infantry fight it out with American militia.

On Freeman’s Farm, however, things are getting desperate for the British. Their line is starting to buckle in places, forcing some regiments (especially the 62nd) to “refuse” their fronts, setting up at an angle to fight in two directions at once. American muskets and riflemen take cruel advantage, putting these angles in murderous crossfires.

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For the British, the day is saved by Baron von Riedesel and his Germans. As per his orders, he’s pushed down along the Hudson River to the east, ready to fix the main American position from the front with a “masking” attack. But when he hears the intensity of the gunfire to the west, he knows the situation is serious.

Acting fast and without orders, von Reidesel detaches some of his men and sends them west to help Hamilton and Phillips at Freeman’s Farm. They emerge squarely on the flank of Arnold’s force fighting Hamilton, practically behind the Connecticut Militia.

With a whole new enemy force on their right flank (and partially behind them as well), the Americans are forced to finally withdraw from the field. The sun is going down, and frankly, both sides are more than happy to call it a day.

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Technically, First Freeman’s Farm is sometimes called a British “pyrrhic victory” as they retained possession of the field. But in no realistic sense can Burgoyne call this battle a success. He’s lost 600 men. The Americans have barely lost 300. And if the day has proven anything, there is just no way Burgoyne is breaking through to Albany.

Through the days following the First Battle of Freeman’s Farm, Burgoyne’s position continues to deteriorate. Through disease and desertion, his army shrinks every day. Conversely, the Americans continue to gather militia from practically every county of New York, New Hampshire, and western Massachusetts.

Even so, not all is well in the American camp. “Granny Gates” is positively furious with Benedict Arnold for engaging Burgoyne without permission. Despite the battle’s success (or perhaps because of it), Gates sees Arnold as an insubordinate hothead, trying to steal the glory of command for himself.

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Big trouble is brewing between these two men, trouble that will boil over with potentially disastrous results just in time for the Second Battle of Freeman’s Farm. Indeed, history isn’t quite done with this tiny corner of New York state.

We hope you’ll come back next week for our grand finale of the Saratoga Campaign. On October 7th, 1777, Burgoyne makes one last attempt to salvage victory from his ruined campaign. As for the Americans, Washington has just lost huge battles in Brandywine and Germantown, Pennsylvania…costing them Philadelphia, their capital city.

If the Americans have ever, EVER needed a victory…they need it now. Will the Second Battle of Freeman’s Farm, the climax of the Saratoga Campaign, give them the win they so desperately need? Come back next week and find out as we conclude this commemorative series on this epic campaign.

By @oriskany@aras

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"Marching south, they are soon drawing near Albany, the capital of New York State, their ultimate objective..."

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