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Battles of Saratoga

The Battles of Saratoga in September and October 1777 were decisive American victories resulting in the surrender of an entire British army of over 9,000 men invading New York from Canada during the American Revolutionary War. This action, often referred to in the singular as the "battle of Saratoga", was actually two battles eighteen days apart: the Battle of Freeman's Farm on September 19 and the Battle of Bemis Heights on October 7. Both actions took place on the same ground, nine miles south of Saratoga, New York.

Forced to retreat after his defeat on October 7, General John Burgoyne and his entire army surrendered a few days later after being surrounded by much larger American militia forces. The capture of an entire British army secured the northern American states from further attacks out of Canada and prevented New England from being isolated. A major result was that France entered the conflict on behalf of the Americans, thus dramatically improving the Americans' chances in the war. The battles of Saratoga, and the entire Saratoga campaign that concluded with the surrender of Burgoyne, are commonly seen as the turning point of the Revolution.


The British plan, and Howe's blunder

The original conception of the campaign had been for Burgoyne, with some eight thousand men, to advance south via Lake Champlain and Lake George to the Hudson River and then to Albany. There he would meet Colonel Barry St. Leger coming east along the Mohawk River valley with a mixed force of about 600 Tories, Canadians and 1,000 Iroquois Indians. At the same time, William Howe, commanding the main British army in New York City, would march north, taking control of the lower Hudson and joining Burgoyne in Albany. This would cut off the New England states from the rest of America. However, Howe decided instead to make a strategically irrelevant assault on the American capitol of Philadelphia. In addition, Howe chose to approach the city by sailing the army to Chesapeake Bay rather than marching overland across New Jersey, rendering his army totally unable to come to Burgoyne's aid. On July 23, 1777, Howe and his army set sail and did not return to the mainland until August 25. Howe succeeded in taking Philadelphia, winning victories at Brandywine on September 11 and Germantown on October 4, but the Continental Congress simply retreated to York, Pennsylvania, and evaded capture. Because of the slow and difficult communications of the period Burgoyne did not hear of this change in Howe's plans for several weeks; by then it was too late.

Burgoyne heads south

Burgoyne set out in June with about 3,000 red-coated British regulars, 3,900 blue-coated German soldiers from the Duchy of Brunswick-Lüneburg and Hesse-Hanau, 650 Canadians, Tories and Indians from Canada. The British advance beyond the southern ends of Lake Champlain and Lake George went without a hitch through July 6, when the British took possession of Fort Ticonderoga, the main American fortress on the chain of lakes. However, the American garrison inside Ticonderoga was able to escape and retreat south, remaining as a source of resistance. The next day Burgoyne's force fought a pitched battle with the retreating Americans, the Battle of Hubbardton, which ended in another British victory and the surviving American force in full flight. After the victory at Hubbardton, Burgoyne made a decision which has been greatly criticized ever since: instead of taking the water route south via Lake George and then over a short portage to the Hudson River and Albany, he elected to travel overland via Fort Anne and Fort Edward. This allowed the exhausted, fleeing Americans time to rest and recover and slow the pace of Burgoyne's advance to a few miles per day by chopping down trees to block the forest route.

British setbacks at Bennington and Fort Stanwix

When, on August 1, 1777, Burgoyne's forces finally reached the Hudson River at Fort Edward, he was running out of supplies. On August 11, he detached some 1200 mostly German troops to obtain cattle, horses and other supplies from the farms near Bennington, Vermont. The detachment was met and destroyed by aroused American militia on August 16 at the Battle of Bennington. Almost all of the Germans were killed or captured. It was a severe setback that cost Burgoyne 15% of his invasion force, a major loss for an army that was deep in enemy country without hope of reinforcement. Meanwhile, on August 3, he finally received a letter from Howe with the very bad news that Howe was sailing out of New York and heading for Philadelphia rather than marching north to meet Burgoyne's force.

Although Burgoyne would not find out for some time, another setback had come a few days before Bennington. St. Leger's force—about 1,000 Iroquois Indians and 600 Loyalists advancing down the Mohawk River valley—were unable to reach Burgoyne. St. Leger's column reached Fort Stanwix near Rome, New York and laid siege to the fort. The Loyalists defeated a Patriot relief force at the Battle of Oriskany on August 6, but while this was taking place the Stanwix garrison marched out and raided the Loyalist camp, capturing most of their supplies. Finally, news of the imminent arrival of General Benedict Arnold and 1,000 reinforcements broke the stalemate, as the British forces besieging Stanwix retreated. St. Leger and his forces fell back up the Mohawk valley to Canada. Burgoyne would not hear of this second setback until August 28, when his army was approaching the American main body. Thus it was that at almost the same time a large number of the troops in Burgoyne's command were destroyed at Bennington while his only source of reinforcement had to turn back and retreat from Fort Stanwix. The odds were beginning to turn against the British and Germans.

Washington sends reinforcements

Knowing a battle was shaping up, George Washington, even though he had no idea of where and when Howe intended to land his army, took the risk and sent aid north. He first dispatched Major General Benedict Arnold, his most aggressive field commander, and Major General Benjamin Lincoln, a Massachusetts man noted for his influence with the New England militia. He ordered 750 men from Israel Putnam's force in the New York highlands to the Northern Department. Then he put the word out for any available militia groups to join the forces opposing Burgoyne. In mid-August he detached forces under Colonel Daniel Morgan of the 11th Virginia Regiment with over 400 specially selected Virginia riflemen, chosen for their sharpshooting ability. These were some of the best troops in Washington's army, and Washington knew that Howe could move on him at any time, but still he sent them north. Militia from all over New York and the New England states, responding to Washington's call, were making their way to the American camp as Burgoyne drew closer. While the British invasion force was being steadily reduced by battle casualties and the need to leave behind garrisons at the forts along the way, the American army was growing.

Meanwhile, as matters were coming to a head, the Americans got a new commander. Congress, angry at the evacuation of Fort Ticonderoga without a fight, relieved General Philip Schuyler and gave command of the Northern Department to Horatio Gates. Gates assumed command on August 19. He had never led troops in battle before.

Burgoyne continued south and crossed to the west side of the Hudson on September 13 at Saratoga (now Schuylerville). He marched another 9 miles down the Hudson but was eventually blocked on the 16th at Stillwater by regular soldiers and militia under Gates. Over the course of the summer the American forces had grown to roughly 15,000 men as militia poured in from Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and as far as Virginia. Now they were dug in and waiting for him.

First Saratoga: Battle of Freeman's Farm (Sept. 19)

The Americans had fortified the elevation known as Bemis Heights, 10 miles south of Saratoga. The way south to Albany was blocked. Burgoyne faced a series of undesirable options: attack the now numerically superior American forces, attempt a crossing to the opposite bank of the Hudson under hostile American fire, or admit defeat and withdraw north. He chose to attack. However, rather than assault the American fortifications directly, he would send his troops around the British right, through a clearing where a Loyalist named John Freeman kept a farm, and to the heights on the American left, where he would take them in flank. Freeman's farm was between the two armies, off to the American left (British right). It gave its name to the battle to follow.

The American forces were not particularly well organized or prepared for this engagement. Benedict Arnold nominally had command of the left wing, but he and Gates hated each other. On the day of the battle, Gates' plan was to do nothing, and wait in his fortifications for the British attack he knew was coming. Arnold correctly predicted that the British would try to hit the American left, and asked Gates to let him send a force through Freeman's farm to meet them. Gates grudgingly agreed to a reconnaissance-in-force to see if the British and Germans really were coming through the farm to the heights.

The British advanced in three columns toward the heights 2 miles (3 km) to their south. Major General Riedesel led the left column of Brunswickers on the river road, bringing the main artillery and guarding supplies and the boats on the river. General James Inglis Hamilton commanded the center which would attack the heights. General Simon Fraser led the right wing with his 24th Regiment of Foot and both the light infantry and grenadier battalions, to turn the American left flank. The American right was anchored by the Hudson River.

The British did not get an early start. They had very little knowledge of the American forces or their arrangement, and a morning fog limited their vision. By noon it had burned off, and they got underway.

Arnold, meanwhile, had ridden out to the far left flank and asked Colonel Daniel Morgan's men to stop Fraser's advance. Both Morgan and Arnold preferred to strike while the British were in columns moving through the woods. Arnold took advantage of his earlier orders—which would permit an in-force reconnaissance—to order Morgan's and Henry Dearborn's light infantry battalion forward. As Morgan's Virginia riflemen came up to the clearing at Freeman's Farm, they found the advance party of Fraser's column in the field. The first shots dropped every officer in the advance and threw the others into retreat.

When they saw this, Morgan's men charged recklessly forward. Supported by Dearborn's fire, they managed to drive Fraser's light infantry back into the center column of General Hamilton. But this enthusiasm broke when they ran into the grenadier battalion's bayonets, and the American advance became a quick retreat. This set the pattern for the remainder of the battle.

Morgan was working hard to reform his regiment south of the field. Knowing that Morgan was in trouble, Arnold ordered Enoch Poor's brigade of New York and New Hampshire regulars (1st New Hampshire, 2nd New Hampshire, 3rd New Hampshire, 2nd New York and 4th New York) with Connecticut militia to extend the American left shaft. He also ordered General Ebenezer Learned with four regiments of the Continental Army (1st Canadian, 2nd, 8th and 9th Massachusetts Regiments) to support Morgan toward the center. Burgoyne was not idle and ordered both Fraser and Hamilton to form up using the farm's fields as their rallying point.

As the British gathered in the field, massed fire from Poor's regiments drove them back, with serious losses. Again, the British repulsed an American charge. Arnold himself led a charge toward the center with five regiments but could not succeed in separating Fraser's wing from Burgoyne's other forces. Three times Arnold rode back to headquarters, begging Gates to attack or give him enough men to break the British. His only response was an order to release Alexander Scammel's 3rd New Hampshire Regiment to guard headquarters, and finally an order removing Arnold from the battle.

The final stroke of the battle belonged to the British. Burgoyne ordered Riedesel to leave a light guard with the column and advance on Freeman's farm. Riedesel led his Brunswickers, with artillery support through a ravine that the Americans had thought impassable. This additional force allowed the British to succeed in claiming the fields and the farm.

Burgoyne had taken the farm but suffered nearly 600 casualties, most of them to Hamilton's center column. Not only could he ill afford the men and equipment lost, he had lost the initiative. American losses were nearly 300 killed and seriously wounded. The British and Brunswick forces constructed redoubts on the farm and fortified their original crossing point of the Hudson.

At the end of the battle, both sides were dug in about 2 miles (3 km) apart. Burgoyne's force was down to about 6,000 effective fighters and was short on supplies and rations. Gates still had about 7,000, with more militia arriving daily.

Burgoyne waits; Arnold relieved of command

Burgoyne had won a victory of sorts, having taken the heights around Freeman's farm, but his army had been weakened by some six hundred irreplaceable casualties, his food stores continued to decrease, and the strategic situation had not changed. Meanwhile, the American army continued to grow as more and more militia arrived. Time was against him. Yet he decided to wait. The reason for this decision was a letter dated Sept. 12 from Henry Clinton, commanding the remaining British troops in New York City. In the letter, which Burgoyne received on the 21st, Clinton suggested that he could "make a push at [Fort] Montgomery in about ten days." (Fort Montgomery was an American post on the Hudson River, in the New York Highlands south of Saratoga). If Clinton left New York on Sept. 22, "about ten days" after he wrote the letter, he still could not hope to arrive in the vicinity of Saratoga before the end of the month. Thus Burgoyne, running low on men and food, was still in a very difficult position. Still he decided to wait in the hope that Clinton would arrive to save his army. As it happened, Clinton did not leave New York until October 3, and he never attempted to move past the Highlands forts and come to Burgoyne's aid.

Meanwhile, in the Patriot camp, the mutual resentment between Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold exploded into open hostility. Gates quickly reported the action of September 19 to the Congress and New York's governor. While the field commanders and men universally credited Arnold for their success--almost all the troops involved were from Arnold's command and in fact Arnold was the one directing the battle while Gates sat in his tent--Gates did not even mention Arnold's name in his dispatch. Arnold protested, and the dispute escalated into a shouting argument which ended with Gates relieving Arnold of his command and giving it to Benjamin Lincoln. Arnold asked permission to leave for Philadelphia, which was granted, but instead of leaving he remained in his tent. Thus Gates' best commander had no troops to command as another battle approached.

As September passed into October it became clear that Clinton was not coming to help Burgoyne. Burgoyne called a council of war on October 4, and decided to conduct an assault on the American left flank with two thousand men, that by now being two-fifths of his army, on October 7.

Second Saratoga: Battle of Bemis Heights (Oct. 7)

The American forces had been growing during the time between battles. Burgoyne's attack on the American left now faced Major General Benjamin Lincoln's division. The division had General Ebenezer Learned's and Enoch Poor's brigades, Colonel Henry Dearborn's light infantry battalion, and Colonel Daniel Morgan's riflemen. Expanded by militia units, the division now had about 3,800 men with another 1,200 militia available for immediate support.

Burgoyne's plan was to use three assault elements. Brigadier Simon Fraser was to slide past the Americans on their left and secure the positions for the artillery. Since he was going through woodlands, he had the light infantry, along with the Canadian militia and ranger forces and Indian allies, for a total of about 700 men. Major General Riedesel's Brunswickers would make the main attack to occupy the American left, with about 1,100 men and supporting artillery. Meanwhile, Major General William Phillips would attack in a left hook to separate the left from the main American forces positioned at Bemis Heights overlooking the Hudson River. Phillip's force was just over 400 men of Grenadier Battalion under Major John Dyke Acland and the Royal Artillery under Major Williams.

General Lincoln's men were extended northwest from Gates' fortifications on Bemis Heights. On the far left or western end were Colonels Morgan and Dearborn with a total of about 600 men. In his center was General Learned's brigade (1st New York, 1st Canadian, 2nd, 8th and 9th Massachusetts Regiments), expanded by militia to about 1,800 men. Tying his forces to the main positions was General Poor's brigade (1st, 2nd, and 3rd New Hampshire; and 2nd and 4th New York Regiments) of just over 1,400. Behind Learned, Brigadier General Abraham Ten Broeck led 1,200 New York militia in reserve.

Having learned from the battle two weeks before, the attack started in the early afternoon. This would allow Burgoyne to withdraw at nightfall if necessary. The opening fire came from the Grenadiers' advance on Lincoln's right. Poor's men held fire, and the terrain made the shooting largely ineffective. When Major Acland led a bayonet charge on their position, the Americans finally began shooting at close range. Acland fell, shot in both legs, and many of the Grenadiers also went down. Their column was in a total rout, and Poor's men advanced to take both force leaders prisoner and capture their artillery. Those that escaped returned to the Breymann and Balcarres Redoubts at Freeman's Farm, which together anchored the British right.

On the western end, things were also not going well for the British. Morgan's men swept aside the Canadians and Indians to engage Fraser's regulars. Although slightly outnumbered, Morgan managed to break up several British attempts to move west. Meanwhile, at Gates' headquarters, Benedict Arnold paced nervously at the sounds of battle. He had been removed from command, and Gates refused to see him. Finally, he leapt to his horse and rode towards the firing. Gates' only reaction was to send Major Armstrong out to order his return, but Armstrong could not catch up with him.

Arnold went to the light battalions on the west of the line. When he saw Fraser rally his men repeatedly, he told Morgan that the man was worth a regiment. Morgan reacted by ordering him shot, and a marksman named Timothy Murphy obliged. He shot Fraser at 275mFraser fell from his horse, mortally wounded, and his advance fell apart.

Next, Arnold rode to the central action. Learned's men were having a rough time handling the Hessian advance and were yielding ground. Arnold helped to rally them, and with Learned he led their counter attack. When Morgan, Dearborn, and Poor began to close on their sides, the Hessians also withdrew to their starting positions.

After just about an hour of heavy fighting, the British were back to their starting position. Not content with stopping the British advance, Arnold led Learned and his men in a charge on the Breymann Redoubt on the right flank of the British fortifications. Arnold, leading the charge personally on horseback, was shot in the same leg he had earlier injured during the invasion of Canada. Then his horse fell on him and broke that same leg. Arnold was out of the battle, but Learned's brigade carried the redoubt.

Even though his injury kept him from combat, Arnold went to Brigadier General John Paterson's brigade (10th, 11th, 12th and 14th Massachusetts Regiments) to encourage him to support the earlier attacks. But here, Gates' orders caught up with him and removed him from action. Darkness ended the battle and saved Burgoyne from further defeat.

Burgoyne's surrender

Burgoyne, already outnumbered 3 to 1, had lost 1,000 men total including the casualties sustained during the Battle of Freeman's Farm, while American losses came to about 500 killed and wounded. He had lost several of his most effective leaders. The maneuver had failed, and his forward line was now breached. That night he lit fires at his remaining forward positions and withdrew under the cover of darkness. So on the morning of October 8, he was back in the fortified positions he had held on September 16.

Again under cover of darkness, the British forces retreated north, but their attempted retreat to Fort Ticonderoga was blocked by American forces under the command of General Gates. The British were attempting to cross back over to the east side of the Hudson at Saratoga, the same point they had crossed in August, but by then they were surrounded and badly outnumbered. Forty miles (60 km) south of Fort Ticonderoga, with supplies dwindling and winter not far off, Burgoyne had little option. He set up camp at Saratoga and decided to open discussions with the Americans.

At first Gates demanded unconditional surrender, which the British general flatly turned down, declaring he would sooner fight to the death. Gates eventually agreed to a "treaty of convention," whereby the British would technically not surrender nor be taken as prisoners but be marched to Boston and returned to England on the condition that they were not to serve again in America. Gates was concerned that a fight to the death with Burgoyne could still prove costly, and he was also concerned about reports of General Sir Henry Clinton advancing from New York to relieve his compatriots stranded at Saratoga. Resplendent in full ceremonial uniform, General Burgoyne led his troops out from his camp on October 17, 1777, and was greeted with formal cordiality by General Gates. Others lay wounded or were helping the large contingent of officers' wives prepare for captivity.

In the grounding of arms at Saratoga, 5,791 men were surrendered. Riedesel had stated that not more than 4,000 of these were fit for duty. The number of Germans surrendering is set down by Eelking at 2,431 men, and of Germans killed, wounded, captured or missing down to October 6, at 1,122 including the losses at Bennington. The total loss of the British and their German auxiliaries, in killed, wounded, prisoners, and deserters, during the campaign, was 9,000 men.

Convention Army

Burgoyne's troops were disarmed and should have been paroled (returned to Britain on the condition that they engage in no further conflict with America), a common 18th century military practice. Instead, the Continental Congress, believing correctly that the British Government would simply replace the Saratoga troops with soldiers in Britain who would be sent to America, refused to ratify the "convention" of surrender agreed to by Gates and Burgoyne. Though some of the British and German officers were eventually exchanged for captured American officers, most of the enlisted men in the "Convention Army," as it became known, were held captive in camps in New England, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, until the end of the war.

Another serious difficulty encountered was that Charles I, Duke of Brunswick, did not want his soldiers back, fearing they would hinder future recruitment. The Brunswickers did not appreciate this and deserted in large numbers; of 5,723 Brunswick troops, only 3,015 returned in 1783. Most settled in the colonies, eventually becoming American citizens.


The importance of the battles of Saratoga and the surrender of Burgoyne's army cannot be overstated. The French, who had been providing covert aid to the American rebels for some time, now decided that the Americans were a good bet to win. France and the United States signed a treaty of mutual alliance in February 1778 and France entered the war against Britain soon after. The presence of France in the war as a belligerent not only threatened the British Isles directly but also menaced Britain's colonies all over the world--Canada, the West Indies, Gibraltar, India. Thus the British, faced with much more territory at risk, ended all offensive operations in the northern American colonies. Less than a year after William Howe went to such trouble to take Philadelphia while Burgoyne marched to disaster, the British evacuated that city and retired to New York. The new British offensives would be in the southern colonies, Georgia and the Carolinas, where Loyalists were believed to be more numerous. The British had many successes from 1778 to 1780, conquering Georgia and most of South Carolina, but the tide turned in 1780-81 with American victories at King's Mountain and Cowpens, until the United States and its new French ally won the war by capturing another British army at Yorktown.

Horatio Gates in fact had done little to bring about the victory at Saratoga. The overall campaign strategy of drawing the British into the wilderness while scorching the earth to deny them supplies was Philip Schuyler's. Also, Gates had done almost nothing to influence the battles of Sept. 19 and Oct. 7 other than send off reinforcements from time to time. It was the valor of the American soldiers and the leadership of officers actually in the fighting, such as Arnold, that won the day. However that did not stop Gates, as commanding general of the army that had won by far the biggest victory of the war, from getting most of the credit. There was even a movement to replace Washington with Gates. Instead, Gates got command of the principal American army in the South as the focus of the war shifted to the southern colonies. He led that army to a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Camden in 1780. Worse, as his army collapsed Gates fled the field, getting on his horse and not stopping until he was 60 miles away from the scene of battle. He never commanded troops in the field again.

Benedict Arnold's brave charge on the Breymann Redoubt on Oct. 7 was the climax of over two years of brilliant service for the American cause all over the northern theater. His leg wound would leave him bedridden for the better part of a year. After that, when he was walking with a cane but still not fit for field service, Washington made him military governor of Philadelphia. It was there that Arnold, resentful over Congress' failure to promote him, angry at (true) charges that he was using his office for war profiteering, and influenced by his new Loyalist wife, entered into treasonous correspondence with the British. By 1780, when he was ready to take the field again, Washington offered Arnold command of half of the Continental Army. Instead Arnold asked for the fort at West Point, which he was plotting to hand over to the enemy. Later that year his treason was exposed and Arnold fled to the British to avoid arrest.

Arnold's name is nowhere to be found on the statues and monuments at the Saratoga battlefield. The Saratoga Monument obelisk has niches which hold statues of three American generals on three of its sides: Gates, Schuyler, and Morgan. The fourth side, where Arnold's would go, is empty. A more dramatic memorial to his heroism is the Boot Monument. The Boot Monument, donated by General John Watts de Peyster, shows a boot with spurs and the stars of a major general. It stands at the spot where Arnold was shot on October 7 charging the Breymann Redoubt. The monument is dedicated to "the most brilliant soldier of the Continental Army". Like the obelisk, it does not include his name.


Further reading

  • Creasy, Sir Edward; The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World 1908 online
  • Ketchum, Richard M.; Saratoga: Turning Point of America's Revolutionary War; 1997, Henry Holt & Company, ISBN 0-8050-4681-X; (Paperback ISBN 0-8050-6123-1)
  • Luzader, John; Saratoga: A Military History of the Decisive Campaign of the American Revolution; Savas Beatie LLC, 2008, ISBN 978-1-932714-44-9;
  • Mintz, Max M.; The Generals of Saratoga: John Burgoyne and Horatio Gates; 1990, Yale University Press, ISBN 0-300-04778-9;
  • Nickerson, Hoffman; The Turning Point of the Revolution: Or, Burgoyne in America (1928) online
  • Patterson, Samuel White; Horatio Gates: Defender of American Liberties Columbia University Press, 1941 online
  • Savas, Theodore P., and Dameron, J. David; A Guide to the Battles of the American Revolution; Savas Beatie LLC, 2005, ISBN 1-932714-12-X

External links

Links to sites that discuss the Hessian soldiers—some with pictures

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