The Saratoga Campaign Of The American Revolution – Part One: Opening Battles

September 16, 2017 by oriskany

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Here at the Beasts of War historical desk, we try to present historical wargaming content across a broad range of topics. With that in mind, we’re winding the historical timeline back a few centuries to kick off a new article series set firmly in the “Black Powder” era. We’ll be exploring the Saratoga Campaign of the American Revolution.

The American Revolution (or War of American Independence as some prefer) was fought by American colonial rebels seeking freedom from the British Empire. Fighting lasted from 1775 to 1781, with a final peace only signed in 1783. This peace won independence for a new nation that would one day become the truly “United” States.


The 1777 Saratoga Campaign was crucial to the outcome of the American Revolution. It’s the “Stalingrad” or “El Alamein” that broke a long and nearly constant string of American defeats. So resonating was the victory at Saratoga that France was convinced to support the American cause – such support being the only hope for American victory.

This seemed an especially good time for this series because September and October marks the 240th Anniversary of this complex campaign. It’s an amazing story involving half a dozen nations, stinging defeats and valiant victories, heroes before they turned villains, a war on the frontier, and a cast of characters Hollywood could never make up.

Over the course of this series, my friend Alex (BoW @aras) and I will be wargaming our way through just five of the most important engagements of this campaign. We’ll have 20mm armies of American Continentals, Rebel militia, British regulars and Loyalist militia, regiments of Crown Germans, Iroquois warbands, and much more.


So let’s get started by setting the stage for the Saratoga Campaign – and discuss what made it so important for the destiny of the United States, the Western Hemisphere, and eventually the world.


It Is A Dark Time For The Rebellion

As the summer of 1777 opened, the American Revolution was entering its third year. It was a rebellion that had started almost by accident, with large numbers of disorganized rebels winning startling victories against British garrison troops – mostly through luck, surprise, and the British knack of underestimating these “rustic colonials.”

After the British were chased from Boston in March of 1776, however, they stopped underestimating their enemy. No sooner had the American Continental Congress issued their world-changing “Declaration of Independence” than the British returned to the colonies with a huge fleet and massive army, invading the city of New York.


The New York campaign of 1776 was probably the worst string of disasters, debacles, and defeats in the history of the United States military. By the end of the year General George Washington’s “Continental Army” was reduced to less than 2,000 sick, wounded, and starving scarecrows, outnumbered at least fifteen to one.

Beware The North

Meanwhile, 1776 also saw the American rebels under pressure from the far north. After an abortive attempt to conquer Canada had only barely failed, the Americans were chased back down past Lake Champlain by a counter-invading British army out of Quebec and St. Jean.


The British were stopped, just barely, at the Battle of Valcour Island on October 11th, 1776. To accomplish this, the American commander (Brigadier-General Benedict Arnold) had to build a naval fleet from scratch to fight the British to a draw on Lake Champlain. The British were delayed until the onset of winter, which brings us to 1777.

A Gentleman’s Wager

The Northern British Plan For 1777

While the overall British commander in America (General William Howe) engaged Washington near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (the American capital city at that time), a new British commander in the northern theatre had a plan to split the American colonies in half, delivering a fatal blow from which the American rebellion would never recover.

This was General “Gentleman” Johnny Burgoyne, a vainglorious socialite, playboy, gambler, and playwright who occasionally dabbled in the “hobby” of actually leading His Majesty’s armies in combat. Immensely popular with his men, he’d bet ten pounds sterling that his campaign would succeed in ending the American Revolution.

The plan was a complex one. While his main army invaded south from Canada, down past Lake Champlain, a supporting forces would invade from Lake Ontario in the west and British-occupied New York City in the south. The three armies would meet at Albany, thus splitting New England (cradle of the rebellion) off from the rest of the colonies.


Burgoyne meant to win his wager (he had to, he was constantly up to his eyeballs in debt). So he made sure his invasion force was as powerful as possible. His main army would number almost 10,000 (a sizable force for the American Revolution). The supporting army from the west (Colonel Barry St. Leger) would bring another 2,000.

Burgoyne’s army would include not only British regulars, but also German regiments contracted from Hesse-Hanau and Brunswick. Canadian irregulars, American “Tory” Loyalists, and a large force of Native Americans from the Cayuga, Mohawk, Onondaga, and Seneca tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy rounded out the invasion force.

Arriving in Canada in May, “Gentleman Johnny” presented his orders to the British governor in Quebec, assembled his staff, and gathered his army at St. Jean, near the northern tip of Lake Champlain. In early June he sailed aboard his flagship HMS Thunderer, and led his army and fleet down into northern New York. The 1777 invasion had begun.


In contrast to Burgoyne’s well-organised and impressive force, the Americans who would oppose him presented only a ragged patchwork of “Continental Army” regiments, dilapidated forts left over from the French & Indian War (Seven Years War), and badly-organised, undisciplined, and mutually antagonistic local militias.

Commanding the American “Northern Department” was Major-General Philip Schuyler, a landowner patrician of Dutch descent and veteran of the French & Indian War. He’d pulled political strings to get this job, but failing health and plenty of political enemies would soon see him replaced by someone even worse, Horatio Gates.


But the real commander up here was one of the Revolution’s most able and dynamic battlefield commanders, a peerless hero named Benedict Arnold. For over two years he’d pulled off impossible battlefield feats time and time again, and this campaign would see him to even greater glory...yet also set him on the path to villainous treason.

Gibraltar Of The North

The Fall Of Fort Ticonderoga

As the Americans prepared to meet the British invasion, Burgoyne was already laying plans to tackle his first big obstacle. This was Fort Ticonderoga, about halfway down the long, thin Lake Champlain. The fort commanded the lake, and had been occupied since the Benedict Arnold had taken it for the Americans in May of 1775.

The Americans called Ticonderoga “The Gibraltar of the North,” and indeed this had been a formidable fort in the 1750's during the French & Indian War. But now it wasn’t in the best shape, much of the artillery had been removed to supply Washington’s army. Still, to assault this position would be a costly delay for Burgoyne’s advance.


Burgoyne had a way around this. Near the fort was high ground of Mount Defiance, which the Americans didn’t see as a threat since the hill was so steep and heavily wooded. British engineers, however, managed the impossible feat of dragging artillery up the hill, and could now fire down straight over the walls, directly into Fort Ticonderoga.

Battle Of Hubbardton

A Desperate Delaying Action

With even a handful of British cannon atop Mount Defiance, Fort Ticonderoga was rendered completely untenable. The American commander (General Arthur St. Clair) saw no choice but to evacuate the fort. Some of the garrison was evacuated by boat over Lake Champlain, while others retreated overland into what is today Vermont.

Burgoyne led his main army after St Clair’s force (withdrawing south by water). He dispatched his advanced corps commander, the Scotsman Brigadier-General Simon Fraser, in a pursuit of the Americans retreating overland into Vermont. This triggered a small but intense delaying action, the Battle of Hubbardton, on July 7th, 1777.


This is the first battle Alex and I have recreated in 20mm Battlesystem. With each figure representing ten men, and a combined miniature count of about 200 figures, we were just able to recreate the whole Battle of Hubbardton on one wargaming table. I took the army of American patriots, Alex commanded the forces of the Crown.

The order of battle is daunting for the American player, to say the least. The British are commanded by General Fraser, who has a full battalion of elite grenadiers and light infantry, along with American Loyalist militia, and Mohawk scouts. Worst of all, fearsome German reinforcements arrive part way through the battle.


The Americans, on the other hand, are hardly formidable. Hundreds fled before the battle even started, so we didn’t include these in our order of battle. Colonel Ebenezer Francis did have a few solid Continental regiments remaining, and Seth Warner led a force of Vermont militia, the brave but undisciplined “Green Mountain Boys.”

If numbers are on the side of the Crown, terrain is on the side of the rebels. This is “frontier” Vermont, with dense woods practically filling the table. The Crown army is barrelling down a narrow military road, which passes through a narrow file between two hills. The Americans are set up in advance, and must only DELAY the Crown’s advance.

It’s this delaying mission that is crucial. Colonels Francis and Warner are only trying to buy time for the bulk of St. Clair’s army to complete its withdrawal to the southeast. This is something I have to bear in mind in my deployment and gameplay, dragging the game through as many turns as possible without being cut off and destroyed.


Alex, playing the Crown’s forces, has to overcome the difficulties of terrain and move as quickly as he can. Making use of “Forced March” rules and his lightning-fast Mohawk scouts, he managed to pinch off a Continental battalion on my left wing and annihilate it in place. Things got worse on Turn Four when the Germans arrived on my right.

Still, I managed to refuse what remained of my left wing, falling back while holding on my right. I shattered all three of his grenadier companies, routed the 24th of Foot, and even broke two companies of his German infantry. The game lasted until Turn Nine (quite long for a Battlesystem game), but in the end, I was shoved completely off the table.

Of course, our deployments and manoeuvres differed from the historical course of the battle, but the overall result was about the same. The Americans had suffered heavily but the bulk of St. Clair’s army had escaped, and many of these regiments would see action at the climactic First and Second Battles of Freeman’s Farm (Saratoga).


We hope you’ve enjoyed this first instalment of the Saratoga Campaign. Of course, we’re just getting started, Burgoyne has a long way to go before he gets to Albany. We also have to check in with what’s happening to the west, where Colonel Barry St. Leger’s smaller army is invading from the west.

Here’s a quick preview: St. Leger find his advance blocked by an American garrison at Fort Stanwix. The British lay siege to the fort, but the Americans will send a relief column to the fort’s aid. This sparks a ferociously bloody melee that history the Battle of Oriskany. Now, why does that name sound familiar?

So come back next week for the next chapter in this story, and leave your comments and questions below! What kind of black powder games to do play? American Revolution? American Civil War, Napoleonics, English Civil War? Keep the conversation going, and see you next week!

By @oriskany & @aras

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"Over the course of this series, my friend Alex (BoW @aras) and I will be wargaming our way through just five of the most important engagements of this campaign..."

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"What kind of black powder games to do play? American Revolution? American Civil War, Napoleonics, English Civil War?"

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