The Saratoga Campaign Of The American Revolution – Part Three: Burgoyne Runs Into Trouble

September 28, 2017 by oriskany

We’re back, Beasts of War, for our continuing series highlighting the 240th Anniversary of the Saratoga Campaign of the American Revolution. Fought between the forces of the British Crown and Patriot rebels in the summer and fall of 1777, it would turn the tide of the war and is thus directly instrumental to the founding of the United States.

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Thus far we’ve outlined the campaign’s background in Part One, as well as presented a 20mm wargame recreating the Battle of Hubbardton. In Part Two we looked at a supporting British drive from the west meant to support the Crown’s main invasion of New York State. This, of course, led us to a wargame recreating the Battle of Oriskany.

So let’s get stuck back in, and see where the Saratoga Campaign goes from here.

“This Was Going So Well”

Burgoyne Assesses His Options

Just to quickly recap, the British commander of this invasion was General Johnny “Gentleman” Burgoyne. His overall plan was to advance from Canada down into upper New York State. By seizing the line of Lake Champlain and the Hudson River, he hoped to split off the “core” of the rebellion in New England and win the war for Great Britain.

To execute this plan, he gathered an army of some 10,000 British regulars, Crown Germans from Hesse-Hanau and Brunswick, Canadian Rangers, American Loyalists and Iroquois warriors. Initially “Gentleman Johnny’s” plan was going smoothly, taking Fort Ticonderoga almost without a shot fired and winning the Battle of Hubbardton.

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As July gave way to August, however, the British started to run into problems. A smaller supporting invasion from the west had broken down completely, stalemated by an American garrison at Fort Stanwix and the bloodbath that was the Battle of Oriskany.

So although he didn’t know it yet, Burgoyne had lost his supporting invasion from the west (expected to meet him in Albany, capital of New York). More bad news arrived from British-occupied New York City, where another planned invasion had been postponed. Of three original participating armies, only one remained. Burgoyne was on his own.

Burgoyne’s main body had also entered much, much more difficult terrain. His problem was that Lake Champlain and the headwaters of the Hudson don’t quite touch, and the few dozen miles between them are mountainous, cut by steep ravines, and impassably wooded.

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The American commander, Major-General Phillip Schuyler, heavily outnumbered, tried to make the most of this tough terrain. American woodsmen and militia fanned out through the woods, cutting down trees along the precious few hunting trails and wagon tracks Burgoyne might use as “roads.”

Canadian woodsmen were sent to clear this damage and build small bridges over (not kidding here) up to fifty separate ravines. But Burgoyne’s army had to chop and hack their way through the sweltering summer heat, endless trees, clouds of mosquitoes, and struggle across repeated ravines and rocky brooks.

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So difficult was this terrain, in fact, that while Burgoyne had “blitzkrieg-ed” his way down 132 miles of Lake Champlain in no time, but it took him twenty-one days to advance the twenty-three miles from the southern tip of Lake Champlain to Fort Anne.

Burgoyne bears plenty of blame for this. As much as he bemoaned his tenuous wilderness supply lines and his slow advance, his army carried with him a huge convoy of champagne, fine uniforms, musical instruments, furniture, crystal, everything needed to party in the rarefied style to which a gentleman of note might be accustomed.

Burgoyne was also enjoying a vivacious affair with the wife of one of one of his commissary officers, and the two would stay up half the night drinking, singing, composing songs, all while his army marched ever deeper into the jaws of very serious trouble.

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Burgoyne then made a disastrous error. Determined to intimidate the local populace into joining his Loyalist ranks rather than growing Patriot militias, he issued a proclamation in which he outright threatened to “give stretch to the Indians” and release his Iroquois warriors on any local farms or towns not signing up to Burgoyne’s cause.

This led to a controversial incident in which a locally famous woman, Jane McCrae, was murdered and scalped, the top of her skull and long red hair presented triumphantly to Burgoyne. Burgoyne was disgusted, but the damage had been done. The news spread like wildfire and soon American generals were drowning in enraged Patriot volunteers.

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As Burgoyne finally reached the headwaters of the Hudson, skirmishing heated up along his route of advance. He was able to set up bases of supply at places like Fort George and Fort Anne, but the extended length of time it had taken him to get here meant that he had practically no supplies left to put in these forts.

This sharpening need for supplies, horses for his German dragoons, and Loyalist reinforcements prompted Burgoyne to send Lt. Colonel Friedrich Baum, one of his Brunswick officers, to lead a force of 800 Crown Germans, British marksmen, and Iroquois scouts eastward to capture a rumoured depot of American supplies, horses, and carts.

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Unfortunately for Baum, he and his column would run into a Patriot militia force almost three times their size at the Battle of Bennington. Burgoyne was about to suffer the next hobbling setback in his planned invasion down the Hudson River.

The Battle Of Bennington

August 16th, 1777

Lt. Colonel Baum led his force (mostly dismounted dragoon cavalrymen of the Prinz Ludwig Regiment) eastward toward Bennington. They skirmished with American militia along the way, and by August 14th were in no doubt that a very large American force stood in their way.

Still, Lt. Col Baum wasn’t too worried. American militia had a habit of fleeing the battlefield practically at the first sound of gunfire. Also, as the Crown forces reached the main bulk of the American militia force, Baum fortified his position (including three-pounder artillery support) atop a tall hill overlooking the Walloomsac River.

The American commander was Brigadier-General John Stark, a rough, surly, and combat-hardened New Hampshire veteran of Bunker Hill, the 1775 Invasion of Canada, Trenton, and Princeton, as well as the French and Indian War. As a colonel, he’d quit the Continental Army when less experienced officers were promoted ahead of him.

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Now Stark was back, coaxed back into service by promotion to brigadier-general. Stark had accepted, but only on the condition that his New Hampshire militia would be independent of Continental Army command. Many of his “militia” were also former Continental regulars, and so would not “run from the first shot” as militia often did.

Stark saw that the Germans (reinforced by Loyalists, Iroquois, and a company of British sharpshooters) were well fortified on high ground north of the Walloomsac River, just across the New York-Vermont line. For two days his men probed the Crown position, unable to do much more because of intense rainstorms on August 14-15.

Finally, on August 16th, the weather was clear. Stark took a risky gamble by dividing his force, hoping to attack the German position from multiple sides. His men also managed to get closer to the Germans by disguising themselves as Loyalist militia. Finally at 15:00 hours, Stark launched his attack.

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Although the Baum’s Germans and their Crown allies fought bitterly, they never really stood a chance. The American militia was also not “running away,” fired up when Brigadier Stark exclaimed: “The enemy is ours, or tonight Molly Stark [his wife] sleeps a widow!”

Surrounded and outnumbered almost three-to-one, Lt. Colonel Baum’s Brunswickers tried to break out by mounting desperate sabre charges on foot. Baum was mortally wounded in one of these charges, and his surviving men would soon surrender.

Yet news of this unfolding disaster had already reached other Crown forces. Another column of Germans, this one under the command of Lt. Colonel Heinrich Breymann, had already arrived and attacked Stark’s militia. Disorganised by battle in which they’d just defeated Baum, the Patriot militia was driven back.

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Just short of dusk, however, yet another force arrived on the scene, some of Colonel Seth Warner’s militia, some of whom had fought at the previous Battle of Hubbardton (see Part One of this series). This was enough to halt Breymann’s column, which sustained heavy casualties and lost all their artillery in the closing hour of battle.

The Battle of Bennington was over. After the humiliation of losing Fort Ticonderoga, the defeat at Hubbardton, and the bloodbath at Oriskany, here, at last, was a clear Patriot victory. Baum’s force had been virtually wiped out to the last man (if you include prisoners). Breymann’s relief column had been badly mauled and driven back.

For Burgoyne, however, the bad news was just beginning. The results of Bennington triggered a congress among the Iroquois leaders scouting for Burgoyne’s divisions. A majority of them decided to quit, no longer convinced Burgoyne or the British were worth supporting. Burgoyne had lost the eyes and ears of his army.

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Still, things were not peachy in the American camp, either. For “surrendering” Fort Ticonderoga without firing a shot, the American commander (Phillip Schuyler, a man with many political enemies anyway) was finally fired and replaced with a general nowhere near as good, the former British major Horatio Gates.

Also, the Americans were hardly in a position to follow up on the victory at Bennington. After winning this battle, Stark, Warner, and most of the Vermont and New Hampshire militia simply decided they’d done enough. Now that Burgoyne’s columns had recoiled back into New York, his British army was no longer their concern.

This left General Gates with a rather small (but growing) force to stand against Burgoyne’s army, which was gathering speed again now that they’d finally reached the Hudson River. Fortunately for him, Gates had some stellar officers working for him, far better commanders than himself.

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The first of these was Tadeusz Kosciuszko. Originally Polish-Lithuanian, he’d fought in Poland’s wars against Russia and Prussia. Now in American service, he applied his genius of engineering to picking the place on which the American army would fortify, and design the emplacements and artillery positions around it.

Then we have Daniel Morgan, leader of the famed “Virginia Riflemen” and widely regarded as the father of US Army Special Forces. He’d survived 500 lashes from the British during the French and Indian War, during which an Indian bullet had also smashed all the teeth from one side of his mouth … a seriously tough customer.

Perhaps even more important was Benedict Arnold. In the days before he was America’s greatest villain, he was one of America’s greatest heroes, easily the most effective leader in the Revolution’s northern theatre. At Saratoga, his courage and tactical command would win the battles that quite simply, make the rest of American history possible.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this third instalment in our Saratoga article series. Get ready, because in Parts Four and Five we will feature the First and Second Battle of Freeman’s Farm (historically, the Battle of Saratoga) – where the outcome of this pivotal campaign was finally decided.

Comment below, and tell us what you think of wargaming in this complex and dynamic theatre!

By @oriskany@aras

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