October 19, 2017 by oriskany
Here we are at last, Beasts of War, at the end of our 240th anniversary commemorative series on the Saratoga Campaign. Fought between the forces of the British Crown and American Patriot rebels, the Saratoga campaign was fought in July-October 1777 and changed the course of the American Revolution.
If you’re just joining us, please take a moment to check out and comment on some of our previous instalments, which outline how we’ve come to this momentous and climactic juncture:
- Part One: Invasion Plan & Opening Battles
- Part Two: Battle of Oriskany
- Part Three: Battle of Bennington
- Part Four: First Battle of Freeman’s Farm
Now it’s time to bring down the curtain on this saga, and look at how America’s fortunes turned once and for all in their war for independence.
Burgoyne Takes Stock
Where Did It All Go Wrong?
For the British commander here in upstate New York, General “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne, things haven’t exactly worked out as he planned. His 1777 invasion of New York, pushing down from Canada through Lake Champlain and on to the Hudson River, has been let down by failed supporting drives from the west and New York City to the south.
Left on his own, he’s marched down the Hudson River anyway, intent on reaching Albany, the capital of New York. From here he hoped to split the most rebellious colonies of New England off from the rest of country, and thus divide and conquer this troublesome American rebellion.
But through the Battles of Hubbardton (July 7th), Oriskany (August 6th), and Bennington (August 16th), things steadily got worse for Gentleman Johnny.
His American loyalists and Iroquois have largely deserted, while Patriot militias have swarmed to the rebel cause after threats of Indian raids.
Let down by his fellow British generals, his American Loyalists, his Iroquois allies, Burgoyne nevertheless tried to shove his weakened army around and past the fortified American position at Bemis Heights, triggering the First Battle of Freeman’s Farm on September 19, 1777.
While Burgoyne technically held the field, he lost twice as many troops as the Americans, and he’s no closer to actually getting past the main American position and marching on Albany.
Meanwhile, his army continues to weaken through disease and desertion, while the Americans grow stronger with more militias joining every day.
A final ray of hope is snuffed out when General Henry Clinton, commanding British troops in New York City, finally sends a small force to invade up the Hudson. There’s a little fighting near Fort Montgomery, but never enough to help Burgoyne at Saratoga. Gentleman Johnny is truly on his own.
Trouble In The American Camp
Never Enough Drama …
After the First Battle of Freeman’s Farm, you’d think all would be peachy in the American camp. They’re well-fortified on high ground, blocking Burgoyne’s only possible route of advance, they outnumber the British and Germans over two-to-one, and the Americans are growing stronger every day.
But these are Americans, and so are legally required to argue about something. Here the bone of contention lies between the two American commanders, Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold. Gates is technically in command, but is furious with Arnold for winning the First Battle of Freeman’s Farm … without Gates’ permission.
Now Arnold wants to hit Burgoyne again. This is only natural, Arnold is an aggressive tactician and born battlefield commander. Things are also going very badly for the Americans elsewhere in the war. Hundreds of miles away, Washington has just lost the Battles of Brandywine (Sept 11th), Paoli (Sept 20th), and Germantown (Oct 4th).
Even worse, the American capital, Philadelphia, has fallen to the British. By all rights, the war is already over … with a solid British victory. So if the Americans ever needed a redeeming victory, it’s now. But Gates won’t let Arnold attack, convinced Burgoyne will attack first.
Gates and Burgoyne know each other, remember, old friends from the Seven Years War. “Perhaps his despair will dictate him to risk all upon one throw,” Gates writes. “He [Burgoyne] is an old gamester, and in his time has known many chances.”
I’m not going to lie, I despise “Granny” Gates, but on this occasion he is absolutely right. Perhaps out of desperation, delusion, or simply to put himself out of his own misery, Burgoyne gathers everything he has left and strikes on October 7th, 1777. The Second Battle of Freeman’s Farm has begun.
Second Freeman’s Farm
If At First You Don’t Succeed…Fail, Fail Again
Again, Burgoyne throws his weight to the west, hoping to hedge around the American left wing. His plan is half-hearted at best, basically a “reconnaissance in force.” But if the situation gets too thick, the British will fall back and maybe start a limited withdrawal up the Hudson.
Such a plan hardly inspires confidence in the officers or men. Yet the regiments form up in a heavy autumn mist and march out at around 10:00. Major Acland, with a heavy force of British grenadiers, leads on the left. Von Riedesel commands Germans in the centre and Fraser leads light infantry and the 24th Regiment of Foot on the British right.
Together this force totals about 1700, and heads toward the western end of the American position. The mood is hardly a good one, everyone knows this force is too small to fight a pitched battle, and too big to hide from enemy pickets. When they run into the Americans, there’s going to be hell to pay.
In the American camp, General Gates and his officers are enjoying a lunch of ox heart when the first snaps of musketry start echoing through the woods. Brusquely Arnold demands that permission to attack. Gates refuses. Arnold presses. Finally Gates loses his patience, fires Arnold, and sends him to sulk in his sent.
Instead, General Benjamin Lincoln is sent forward with General Poor’s brigade, along with Morgan’s riflemen and Henry Dearborn’s supporting light infantry. General Learned’s brigade is sent up as a reserve.
Confined to his tent like a five-year old, Arnold fumes and by some accounts, starts drinking heavily. As the sounds of the battle draw closer, Arnold finally loses what remains of his temper. Storming out of his tent and draining a final tankard of New England rum, he “borrows” someone’s horse and rides out to the fight.
Completely without military authority or any kind of lawful command, Arnold rides out behind a line of Connecticut militia (he’s from Connecticut himself) and basically steals command of Learned’s brigade (which is still in reserve). Learned goes with it, he’s an easy-going guy his men positively love Arnold, the hard-charging hero.
Arnold and his stolen brigade hits the advancing British columns at Barber’s Wheatfield, and that’s the end of Burgoyne’s “reconnaissance in force.” British and German casualties are horrific, and what’s left of their regiments start to withdraw.
So intense is the fire, in fact, that Burgoyne’s waistcoat is shot through, his horse is shot from under him, and his hat is shot away. Say what you will about the “playboy general,” but Burgoyne is no coward. Yet Gentleman Johnny’s gambler’s luck holds out, and he’s never hit himself. Other generals, however, aren’t so lucky.
Brigadier-General Simon Fraser’s force is covering the British retreat. The Scotsman Fraser is among Burgoyne’s best commanders, having placed the guns that took Fort Ticonderoga, won the Battle of Hubbardton, and commanded the advanced corps through the course of this whole campaign.
But Timothy Murphy, one of Morgan’s riflemen, has Fraser in his sights. After two near-misses, his men beg him to fall back, but Fraser refuses. Murphy’s third bullet hits Fraser through the bowels. He will die in agony early the next morning.
The British line comes apart, Arnold leading the Americans in a wheeling motion around Burgoyne’s west wing. Here the ground is held by more Germans, including a redoubt anchoring the Crown’s far right wing commanded by Lt. Colonel Heinrich Breymann. If this “Breymann Redoubt” falls, so does Burgoyne’s whole line.
Arnold sees this, and immediately leads a climactic charge. Morgan and Dearborn’s troops hit the redoubt from the right, Learned’s men hit the redoubt’s front and left, and Arnold himself leads troops straight into the rear of this key position. The redoubt is in chaos, and Breymann will wind up dead, shot in the back by one of his own men.
Yet it is also at this moment of supreme triumph that Arnold himself is hideously wounded. A bullet smashes through his thigh and kills his borrowed horse. As the horse falls, it further shatters Arnold’s wounded leg. It will be three months before he can sit up in bed, and nine months before he re-joins the army.
Still, the battle is over. With his wing gone, Burgoyne must fall back to a small pocket by the Hudson River. That night, be begins his retreat. Yet even this is soon denied him as yet over 5000 of his men are forced to surrender.
Saratoga – Conclusions
What Did This All Mean?
The impact that this campaign has on the course of the American Revolution, and by extension, world history, is difficult to overstate. Although it takes months for the news to cross the Atlantic, once American and French ambassadors learn of this victory, they are finally able to sign an alliance between America and King Louis XVI.
With France in the war on America’s side, victory in the Revolution becomes possible. Britain’s focus in the war abruptly changes, and they withdraw from Philadelphia (the American capital) the next spring.
The war shifts largely to the Caribbean and the American south, there the Battle of Yorktown will win the war for America in late 1781.
Burgoyne will eventually return to Great Britain, where he will be forgiven (to an extent) for this turn of events. History is less kind to Horatio Gates, who unfairly gets the credit for Saratoga. He is defeated and humiliated at the Battle of Camden, South Carolina in 1780, personally fleeing the field in terrified disgrace. He is never forgiven.
Worst of all, however, is Benedict Arnold. After an agonizing recovery, he not only lives but miraculously keeps his leg. Gates has stolen the glory for Saratoga, however, and yet again Arnold is slighted, overlooked for promotion, and actually brought to trial by political enemies in Congress.
It’s all too much. Hurt and angered by a country and a government he sees as supremely ungrateful, one of America’s greatest heroes makes the tragic mistake of turning to the other side. He never accomplishes much as a British general, and dies in obscurity in London in 1801.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this series on the Saratoga Campaign. I’d like to thank Justin and Az for the great interview, Lance and Ben and Tom Guthrie for the help with publication and web layout, and Warren and the team for letting me publish on the Beasts of War site.
As always, my greatest thanks goes to all of you who take the time to read and leave a comment on these article threads. With your help, we can keep working to ensure a strong historical wargaming presence here in the community. Thanks so much, and I hope to see you next time.
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"As the sounds of the battle draw closer, Arnold finally loses what remains of his temper..."
"History is less kind to Horatio Gates, who unfairly gets the credit for Saratoga..."