April 25, 2016 by crew
Rally to the colours, Beasts of War, as we continue our wargaming explorations of the American Revolution (presented by @oriskany and @chrisg). We’re examining some of the war’s most pivotal battles from both sides, as well as four distinct “echelon levels” of gaming … from the general’s table to the most intimate, visceral skirmish.
For those of you just joining us…
- Part One – The Shot Heard Round the World
- Part Two – Initial Battles & Campaigns
- Part Three – The Central Theatre
Now I know you you’re thinking. “Oh, look. Blue Continentals and British Redcoats in neat little lines.”
Not true, because this article explores a campaign with Hessians, six nations of Native Americans, and one of the bloodiest battles in American history with barely an Englishman within fifty miles. Simply put, this is the War in the North.
As we see in the above map, the Northern Theatre got underway barely a month after the Revolution started at Lexington and Concord. First, Benedict Arnold (yes, eventually the infamous traitor) and Ethan Allen surprised and captured Fort Ticonderoga, seizing the artillery that Washington would use to bluff the British out of Boston.
Next came an abortive American attempt to invade Canada and make it the “Fourteenth Colony.” Months of nightmarish starvation marches from two directions finally led to a failed assault and stalemated siege on Quebec. Again, Benedict Arnold was the key player here, despite suffering a terrible leg wound.
When this siege was broken, however, the Americans were driven away from Quebec and out of Montreal, back down into New York. By the summer of 1776, the British were ready to counter-invade down into New York.
The British invaded upper New York State in the summer of 1776. Their general plan was to take Lake Champlain, a deep mountain lake stretching 100 miles down through the virgin New York wilderness toward the headwaters of the Hudson River. Taking both the Hudson and Lake Champlain would basically cut the American colonies in half.
This precipitated one of the most curious naval battles in history, and one of the very few “fleet battles” of the Revolution. In preparation, the British sailed a flotilla up Canada’s St. Lawrence River, took it apart, carried the pieces overland, and reassembled their ships at the north tip of Lake Champlain.
Benedict Arnold, meanwhile, had to build his fleet the hard way. Vastly outclassed, the American “ships” managed to wedge themselves in a bottleneck near Valcour Island, and fight the British to a draw on Oct 11th, 1776. In the end, he’d have to burn his fleet to prevent capture, but Benedict Arnold had forestalled the British invasion for a year.
Northern Campaign – 1777
The British were fixated on their Champlain-Hudson invasion plan, and in 1777, a new general named “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne was determined to make it work. He’d take 9,000 British troops, Loyalists, Hessians, and Native American allies south down Lake Champlain and reach Albany, the capital of New York state.
Meanwhile, a supporting column (2,000 men) under General St. Ledger would swing west and drive along the Mohawk River, meeting Burgoyne in Albany. Most important of all, a heavy thrust from the main British army in New York would come north to complete the slicing off of New England from the rest of the colonies.
Things started off well for Burgoyne. His men called him “Gentleman Johnny” because he was unusually kind to them. He also liked to drink, gamble, write plays, and had with him on this campaign a mistress of legendary beauty. Some dismissed him as a playboy, but he was quick to show that he actually had a head on his shoulders for tactics.
When Burgoyne reached Fort Ticonderoga (the “Gibraltar or the North”), he managed to get cannon up on nearby Mount Defiance. The Americans had assumed the mountain was too steep. Just that fast, however, these guns were looking down right over the fort’s ramparts. Rendered instantly untenable, Ticonderoga had to be abandoned.
As the Americans retreated (without firing a shot), Burgoyne aggressively sent his advance guard after them. A desperate American rear guard was fought at the Battle of Hubbardton (July 7th, 1777), an easy British and Hessian victory that nevertheless took just enough time for most of the Ticonderoga garrison to escape.
Other parts of the plan weren’t going so great. General St. Ledger’s support column (2,000 British troops, Loyalist militia, and Indians) that was supposed to be coming in from the west … was stalled at Fort Stanwix. The fort wouldn’t fall, and worse, a Patriot relief column was on its way, under a local commander named Nicholas Herkimer.
A mixed force of Loyalist militia and Iroquois ambushed this relief column of Patriot militia and pro-American natives at the Battle of Oriskany (August 6th, 1777). The two sides positively mauled each other, resulting in one of the bloodiest battles in American history (proportionate to numbers involved), not to mention an Iroquois civil war.
Even now, the Iroquois remember Oriskany as the “Place of Great Sadness.”
In the end, General St. Ledger would never take Fort Stanwix, eliminating one-third of Burgoyne’s three-pronged advance on Albany. Worse news soon came from New York City when General Clinton reported that with Howe’s main army chasing Washington near Philadelphia, he could not spare troops to advance on Albany from the south.
Just that fast, Burgoyne was on his own. He was also in the middle of nowhere. The patch of land between Lake Champlain and the Hudson River looks narrow on a map but in 1777 not a single road existed in this dense, hot, primordial forest. Burgoyne’s advance was soon reduced to a crawl, barely one mile per day.
Supplies were soon running short, and the Native American allies were deserting. Even draft animals and horses started dying. When Burgoyne detached a force of Hessians to get more horses, they were met by ferocious Patriot militia at nearby Bennington (August 16th, 1777) and practically annihilated.
The Battle Of Saratoga
The Turning Point
Finally, Burgoyne’s exhausted army broke into more open country. By now, however, the Americans had massed a powerful army in his way, under the command of General Horatio Gates. His men hated him, calling him “Granny Gates” because of his British ways (he was formerly a major in the British Army) and his excessive caution.
Subordinate to Gates was the American hero of the hour, Benedict Arnold. When Burgoyne tried to flank Gates’ position along the fortified high ground of Bemis Heights, he ran into Arnold’s force and started the First Battle of Freeman’s Farm (Sept 19th, 1777). Burgoyne failed, losing 600 men in the process.
Of course there would eventually be two battles at Freeman’s Farm, shortened in his history books to a single name synonymous with American victory, and a turning point in the whole Revolutionary War: Saratoga.
Burgoyne still hoped that Clinton might assist him with an attack from the south out of New York City. Movements were made and some battles fought, but never enough. Meanwhile, the deteriorating condition of Burgoyne’s army left him no option. The gambler gathered what strength he had left … and made one last throw of the dice.
The Second Battle of Freeman’s Farm came on October 7th, 1777. Burgoyne’s attack was quickly halted, and his troops fell back to their fortified positions. That wasn’t the end of it, though. Benedict Arnold, despite having no actual command (he and Gates hated each other), basically “hijacked” the American army and led a counterattack.
The position that truly won the day stood on Burgoyne’s far right, the “Breymann Redoubt.” This was a fortified anchor of the Crown wing, held by Hessian troops under Lt. Colonel Breymann. In a historic charge, Arnold severed, flanked, and destroyed the position (suffering another terrible leg wound in the process).
With that redoubt gone, Burgoyne’s whole wing was left exposed. He’d also lost another 900 men, including Simon Frasier, one of his best generals. Outnumbered, outflanked, and soon to be starving, Burgoyne knew his invasion of New York had finally failed. The Battles of Saratoga were over. This war, and the world, would never be the same.
Finally, Burgoyne began a retreat. The Americans harassed his withdrawal, finally cutting off their retreat and forcing the surrender of 6,000 soldiers on October 17th (almost seven times as many as Washington had taken at Trenton). This was no detachment of Hessians, an entire British army had been wiped from the order of battle.
Of course, what made the American victories at Saratoga so important was the entry of France into the war, without which America could never have won this conflict. The diplomat Benjamin Franklin had been at the court of Louis XVI for over a year, but so far France refused to join until America “proved viable” with a major battlefield victory.
Saratoga proved to be that victory. With France in the war (and soon Spain and even the Netherlands after that), American victory finally became remotely possible, although still by no means certain. The war would now shift focus to the south, closer to Britain’s valuable assets in the Caribbean, as the conflict took on a global scope.
It was down here, in the American south, where the final historic chapter of this epic conflict would unfold. Add your comments, additions, and questions below … but above all come back next week for the final chapter in the amazing story that is the American War of Independence.
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"First, Benedict Arnold (yes, eventually the infamous traitor) and Ethan Allen surprised and captured Fort Ticonderoga, seizing the artillery that Washington would use to bluff the British out of Boston..."
"Meanwhile, the deteriorating condition of Burgoyne’s army left him no option. The gambler gathered what strength he had left and made one last throw of the dice..."