Memorable Battles in World History
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Battles of Saratoga

Title: John Burgoyne surrenders at Saratoga
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Two battles fought at Saratoga, New York, in September and October 1777 marked a turning point in the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783). The Saratoga Campaign originated with British major general John Burgoyne. He had returned to England early in 1777, and presented to King George III and Secretary of State for the Colonies Lord George Germain a plan to split off New England, the font of the rebellion, from the remainder of the colonies and thus snuff out the revolt. Burgoyne envisioned a three-pronged campaign. The major thrust would drive from Canada down the Lake Champlain–Hudson Valley corridor, while a secondary effort pushed eastward from Lake Erie up the Mohawk Valley. The two forces were to meet at Albany and join the third prong, a British drive up the Hudson from New York City.

There were two principal problems with Burgoyne's plan. First, it took little account of logistics and, second, it depended heavily on simultaneous execution. It was further hampered by the fact that, while he was approving Burgoyne's plan, Germain also approved a different plan submitted by Major General William Howe. Howe proposed to move south from New York against Philadelphia. He believed that Continental Army commander General George Washington would have to commit the bulk of his army to defend the capital and that the rebel army might thus be destroyed.

Germain made no effort to reconcile these two plans. Neither did he order the two commanders to cooperate. Neither Howe nor Burgoyne made any effort to coordinate with the other, although Howe did inform British commander in Canada Major General Sir Guy Carleton of his intentions. Howe promised to position a corps in the lower Hudson River area to maintain communications through the Highlands, which might then "act in favor of the northern army." Later this force went up the Hudson to a point above Hyde Park. Although Burgoyne saw this letter, it did not affect his planning.

Burgoyne and the main British force assembled at Saint Jean, south of Montreal. Lieutenant Colonel Barry St. Leger led the secondary effort at Lachine. St. Leger had only 875 British, Loyalist, and Hessian troops, assisted by 1,000 Iroquois Indians under Joseph Brant. This force struck from Oswego into the Mohawk Valley, but the Indian massacre of civilians produced a widespread mobilization of militia, supported by units of the Continental Army under Major General Benedict Arnold. Although St. Leger's force campaigned on the Mohawk during July 25–August 25, much of this time was spent in a fruitless siege of Fort Stanwix (Fort Schuyler, present-day Rome, New York), and they never joined Burgoyne.

Howe, meanwhile, left about one-third of his army under Major General Sir Henry Clinton to garrison New York and put to sea with some 16,000 men, sailing to the head of the Chesapeake Bay to approach Philadelphia from the south. Washington shifted his army to central New Jersey so he could act in either direction. As Burgoyne moved deeper into upper New York from Canada, however, Washington detached some of his best troops and most capable commanders to reinforce that front. The opportunity to cut off and destroy a British army away from Royal Navy support was simply too tempting. Once Howe's intent was clear, Washington had ample time to move south and protect Philadelphia. The Continental Army met defeat in the Battle of Brandywine Creek on September 11, 1777, but it managed to withdraw in good order. By the end of September, Howe had seized Philadelphia, but it was a hollow victory, devoid of military significance.

Burgoyne now faced a difficult decision. After capturing Fort Ticonderoga in early July, he had advanced slowly. By early August he knew Howe would not be reinforcing him and that St. Leger had been blocked. He also knew that winter would freeze over his Lake Champlain supply line, and communications to Canada were threatened by colonial actions against Fort Ticonderoga. Then, on August 16, Burgoyne suffered a disaster in the Battle of Bennington. He had detached a sizable force of Hessian mercenaries to secure provisions, and the American militia cut off and surrounded them at Bennington (in present-day Vermont). The British lost 207 killed and 696 captured, versus American casualties of only 30 killed and wounded. The Americans also secured supplies and weapons.

Burgoyne had only 30 days of provisions for his 7,000 men, some 2,000 women, and a number of children who accompanied the troops. Local supplies were practically non-existent due to the work of Major General Philip Schuyler, commander of the Northern Department and the unsung hero of the campaign. Burgoyne's long supply lines and Schuyler's skillfully planned retreat (after he had destroyed the countryside) were the keys to the campaign. Schuyler's continued withdrawals and aloof manner made him unpopular with his men, however. With Major General Horatio Gates also intriguing against him, Congress relieved Schuyler of command on August 19 and replaced him with Gates, who subsequently quarreled with Arnold.

The Indians in Burgoyne's service also helped to create hostility against the British. This included the scalping of a white woman, ironically the fiancée of a British officer. Gates played this up with great success. Burgoyne did not understand this, and indeed inflamed the situation by threatening Indian reprisals against resisting Americans, which served to bring out militia in large numbers. Later, anticipating disaster, the Indians melted away, a serious loss for the British in gathering intelligence on American dispositions.

Burgoyne's advance, impeded at every turn by the Americans and slowed by the need to construct dozens of bridges and causeways across swamps and creeks, now was only a mile a day. On September 13–14 the British crossed to the west side of the Hudson River on a bridge of rafts. The troops at last reached Saratoga, only a few miles from their goal of Albany, but found their way blocked in a series of battles for control of the main Albany road. Collectively known as the Battles of Saratoga, these were: Freeman's Farm, or First Saratoga; and Bemis Heights, or Second Saratoga.

The Battle of Freeman's Farm occurred on the afternoon of September 19. Some 6,000 Americans, their right flank anchored on the Hudson River, had established a fortified position of redoubts and breastworks on Bemis Heights, south of a 15-acre clearing known as Freeman's Farm. Burgoyne opened the battle when he ordered three regiments to attack across the clearing and dislodge the Americans from Bemis Heights. The British attack went poorly. Brigadier General Daniel Morgan and Arnold halted the advance, with Morgan's riflemen inflicting heavy casualties on the British, especially officers. Fortunately for Burgoyne, Gates refused to leave his entrenchments to support Arnold and Morgan. Hessian forces turned the American right flank and that night the British encamped in the field, but they had failed to dislodge the Americans on Bemis Heights, the object of their attack. The British had also sustained some 600 casualties to only 300 for the Americans.

The Americans were now reinforced and, by the time of the second battle, Gates had some 11,500 men to only 6,617 for Burgoyne. At a council of war on October 5, Burgoyne's officers pressed him to retreat while there was still an opportunity, but he steadfastly refused and ordered a full-scale attack to turn the American flank. This prompted the second battle on October 7. Gates committed Morgan's riflemen on the British right flank. Brigadier General Ebenezer Learned's brigade was in the center, and Brigadier General Enoch Poor's brigade on the left. Gates's refusal to commit his entire force mitigated the British defeat, but Arnold, who had quarreled with Gates and been removed from command, disregarded orders and charged onto the field to lead a general American assault that took two British redoubts. The Americans sustained only about 130 casualties to 600 for the British.

On October 8 Burgoyne ordered a general retreat, only to find the Americans had blocked that possibility. On October 17, aware that Clinton would be unable to relieve him, Burgoyne formally surrendered his army of 5,895 officers and men. Gates granted the British paroles on condition that they not serve again in America, an action Congress subsequently disallowed. Burgoyne was eventually cleared of any misconduct but it was the end of his military career.

The British lost not only at Saratoga but also Ticonderoga and the Highlands as well. All they had to show for the year's campaigning was the occupation of Philadelphia. The war now became a major issue in British politics. More important, the Battle of Saratoga caused France to enter the war openly. On December 4 Benjamin Franklin, in Paris as an ambassador for the colonists, received the news of Burgoyne's surrender; two days later King Louis XVI approved an alliance with the United States. A treaty was signed on February 6, 1778, and on March 11 Great Britain and France were at war.

For two years, France had been actively assisting the rebels with substantial quantities of military supplies, but the actual entry of France into the war was a threat to every part of the British Empire. The war then became largely a problem of sea power, accentuated when in 1779 Spain declared war on England, followed by Holland in 1780. Participation of French Army regiments in concert with the French Navy made possible the defeat of the British Army in America.

Spencer C. Tucker


Further Reading
Black, Jeremy. War for America: The Fight for Independence, 1775–1783. Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Alan Sutton, 1991; Ketchum, Richard M. Saratoga: Turning Point of America's Revolutionary War. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1997; Lunt, James. John Burgoyne of Saratoga. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1975; Ward, Christopher. The War of the Revolution. Vol. 2. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1952.
 

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