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This Week in History
October 12-18, 2014

The American Victory at Saratoga
Convinces the French to Become Our Allies

October 17, 1777

by Colin Lowry

The year 1777 began what the British nicknamed ‘the year of the hangman’, as they planned to crush the American Rebellion, and hang most of its leaders from the gallows. While America had declared itself independent in 1776, the situation militarily seemed to be in favor of the British, who occupied New York City, held parts of Rhode Island, and all of Canada. General George Washington had surprised the British and Hessian troops on Christmas Day at Trenton, and had won the ensuing Battle of Princeton, but other than those victories, the year had been a series of defeats for the American Army.

Sir William Howe was the top British General in charge of the war in America, and while he occupied New York in January 1777, two other British Generals, John Burgoyne and Henry Clinton, returned to England, each to present their own ideas for the upcoming campaign, motivated by their desire for fame and fortune. General Burgoyne wrote a long letter to Lord George Germain, the British minister in charge of the war, outlining his thoughts for an attack starting from Canada, down the Hudson River, with the goal of taking Albany, and joining another British force that would come up the Hudson River from New York City, effectively shutting off New England from the rest of the colonies. While Lord George consulted on what the military plans would be for the spring of 1777 with other ministers, Burgoyne managed to get a personal audience with King George, where he enthusiastically promoted his plan, and his willingness to lead the attack personally.

Gentleman Johnny

‘Gentleman Johnny’ Burgoyne, as he was called by other officers, was a dashing young man, eager for glory and a higher station in the empire, and also a notorious gambler, but his energy and bravado could be very persuasive. The King liked Burgoyne’s plan, but there were a few problems politically that needed to be solved before it could be put into motion. First, Burgoyne was a junior General, and was under the command of General Guy Carleton, the Governor of Canada, so his rank would have to be improved to a Major General. Secondly, General Henry Clinton was in London, pressing his own case for more recognition and honors, and wishing to break free from being under the command of Lord William Howe, whom he hated. Lord George Germain dealt with General Clinton by awarding him the Order of the Red Ribbon, and soothed him with the increase in money that brought, but did not release him from Lord Howe’s command. Now Lord George had to carefully manage what Howe himself was planning for 1777, as he could not directly undermine his overall commander in America, so he wrote him a letter, outlining what Burgoyne’s plan was, but did not order Lord Howe to actually take a force and meet up with Burgoyne at Albany. By the time Johnny Burgoyne sailed for Canada, he had no confirmation of what Lord Howe would do, and it was not until April that Howe wrote to Lord George Germain informing him that he had decided to take his forces by ship from New York to invade Philadelphia. Howe also let Germain know that he would be leaving General Henry Clinton with a smaller force behind in New York, and he thought that at most Clinton could manage a diversion into the Hudson as far as West Point, but certainly not to Albany. Lord George Germain, not understanding at all the distances and difficulties in moving an army through the wilderness in America, approved Howe’s plan to attack Philadelphia, thinking the army could simply move north to join up with Burgoyne at Albany later, but he did not write to Canada to inform Burgoyne of this change.

"Burgoyne 1777". Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In early May, Burgoyne and his army landed in Canada, and proceeded to Montreal, where they would gather the needed supplies and more men for their expedition. Montreal was the headquarters of Sir Guy Carleton, who was previously the commanding officer under whom Burgoyne had served, and he now returned on an equal footing as commander of the expedition. General Carleton had made very few preparations for equipping Burgoyne’s forces, and it was not until June that they were ready to march south into the wilderness.

Burgoyne planned to take his main body of troops overland, and then use Lake Champlain and the Hudson River to move south towards Albany, while sending a smaller force of about 1000 men to the west by boat using Lake Ontario, who would then attack the American defenses along the Mohawk River. This he hoped would split the American army into defending two fronts, and he would then have this force meet him again at Albany. Since the British garrison in Canada could not spare most of its regular troops, Burgoyne had to recruit Indians and Loyalists for the expedition, but had to carry enough supplies for 9000 men into the wilderness, plus boats and carts and wagons. In addition, Gentleman Johnny had 20 wagons loaded with fine spirits and wine, and the personal belongings of himself and his officers added to his convoy, which slowed the pace of the army to about 8-10 miles per day.

As Burgoyne’s expedition moved south along Lake Champlain, things seemed to go smoothly. His first target was to be the American defenses at Crown Point, and then Fort Ticonderoga. American scouts had been following Burgoyne’s slow progress, but his superior force of 9000 men forced the American troops to withdraw from Fort Ticonderoga. After taking Ticonderoga on July 6, Burgoyne left a small garrison there to guard it, and proceeded south after the retreating American Army, engaging them at the Battle of Hubbardton, after which the Americans moved south and started to reorganize their forces. Flushed with his initial victories, Gentleman Johnny wrote a pompous proclamation, intended to frighten the local American inhabitants into submission, which included a threat to unleash his Indian allies on the surrounding towns. This he had printed and distributed in the surrounding New York and Vermont towns, thinking it would rally Loyalist forces to his side. The effect was quite the opposite, as Patriot resolve increased, with thousands more men joining into militia companies, determined to stop Burgoyne’s invading forces. Burgoyne’s expedition now faced tough terrain, and had to move by land near the Hudson river to continue, while American raids on his supplies continued nightly, in a war of attrition.

The Americans Attack the Flanks

By mid-August, Burgoyne’s supplies of food were dangerously low, and he was isolated deep in American territory. He had several thousand German troops in his expedition, and he decided to send about 1000 of these under the command of Colonel Baum toward Bennington, Vermont, in an effort to find crucial supplies for the rest of the army. Baum’s slow moving columns were seen by American scouts west of Bennington, who reported directly to Colonel John Stark, commanding the militia. He immediately marched his men to stop Baum’s advance on Bennington, as the town contained thousands of pounds of grain, plus farm animals and horses that would be of great value to the British forces. After a skirmish on August 14, Baum began to dig in on a small hillside, as his Indian scouts had found he was facing about 1800 militia, and more were coming from the east. Colonel Baum was trained for traditional European style warfare, and had very little understanding of how the American militia he faced would fight, and did not know the surrounding area. Colonel Stark, now joined by Colonel Seth Warner’s Green Mountain Rangers, split his forces into three parts, moving quickly in a coordinated three prong attack on the enemy left flank, rear, and then the front, routing the German and British troops in a furious assault, and taking the survivors prisoner. The Indian scouts escaped, and reported the grim news back to Burgoyne that his attempt to get supplies had failed, and he had lost 1000 men he could not really spare from his expedition.

Burgoyne was now in a desperate position in need of supplies, and he was still unsure what General Howe was planning, or even what his other small army he sent to attack along the Mohawk River under the command of General Barry St. Leger was doing. Despite this, he continued to slowly move south, refusing to consider changing his plans, in spite of objections from some of his officers. On August 22, the British troops that had attacked the Americans holding Fort Stanwix in the Mohawk valley were defeated, and the news reached Burgoyne about a week later. Now his plan was unravelling, as there would be no diversion or a second front for the American army to worry about. Worse yet, a letter came from General Clinton, informing him that General Howe and his main army had left New York City, and were heading to attack Philadelphia, leaving him without any British forces that could come and meet Burgoyne at Albany. Burgoyne wrote back to General Clinton, pleading with him to march a force from New York up the Hudson to Albany. Clinton replied his orders from Howe contained no such instructions, and he could only take a small force up the Hudson as far as West Point, but not to Albany, as he had no intention of defying his orders from his superior.

General Horatio Gates by Gilbert Stuart.

The delays and losses of Burgoyne’s forces allowed the American army crucial time to reorganize, and with a change of command, the army of about 12,000 troops under General Horatio Gates moved north from Albany along the Hudson River, reinforcing the high ground overlooking the river at Bemis Heights. Burgoyne’s scouts had seen the American fortification at Bemis Heights, and so he decided to move most of his army inland from the river, though he did not know the exact location of the rest of the American army. On September 19, Burgoyne’s troops were spotted from the woods around Freeman’s Farm by Colonel Daniel Morgan and his riflemen. Positioning his men to flank the British, Morgan’s men opened fire with deadly accuracy from the woods, inflicting heavy casualties on the surprised British troops. The battle then widened to include four American brigades, with neither side able to hold the field for long during the afternoon. Just as the American’s were gaining the advantage late in the day, the German regiments marching from the riverside smashed into the American flank, forcing them to retreat, and as darkness fell, the British held the field, but had suffered heavy casualties. The American’s still blocked the way to Albany, so Burgoyne fell back slightly and fortified the ground of the Freeman Farm, building earthworks, including large redoubts, and still hoping that General Clinton would come to his aid from New York City. As the days passed, Burgoyne’s supplies were so low he cut food rations in half, and he now did not have enough horses and oxen to effectively move his army with its cannon. Meanwhile, at the American camp only 3 miles away, reinforcements were streaming in, and by early October, Gates had almost 20,000 men under his command.

Burgoyne’s camp was brought a message from the garrison at Fort Ticonderoga, that an American force had attacked Crown Point, and the smaller fortifications in the area, and had freed hundreds of American prisoners being held there, as well as damaging crucial supplies and boats the British would need if they retreated to Canada. With his escape route now in jeopardy, Burgoyne made the decision he would attempt to get around the American left flank, attacking in force if an opening could be found, while leaving the remaining British troops with the German troops guarding the camp and the way to the Hudson River. Taking about 1500 men plus an artillery unit, he moved about ¾ of a mile into a field on the Barber Farm, trying to scout the position of the American army. Again Colonel Morgan’s men had seen Burgoyne’s troops moving, and three brigades under General Learned, General Poor and Morgan, attacked in three columns. Morgan’s men opened the attack from the woods, with the others hitting the flank and front, driving the British back. British General Fraser rallied his men to stand their ground in the center, but was shot down from his horse by Morgan’s sharpshooters. At this point, General Benedict Arnold, who had been relieved of command in a quarrel with Gates, rode onto the field, and led General Learned’s Brigade into a charge on the German troops holding the center of the British line, causing a full- fledged running retreat of the British and German troops back into their two redoubts on the Freeman Farm. General Arnold continued to attack the first redoubt, called Balcarre’s, but the American’s could not break through. Wheeling his horse, and riding through the crossfire, Arnold then led the charge on the Breymann redoubt, joining in the final surge that broke the Germans defending it, suffering a serious leg wound, and then ended up pinned under his horse after it was shot, breaking his leg. The remainder of Burgoyne’s badly damaged army retreated to the large redoubt near the river as darkness fell.

The British Surrender

Burgoyne’s army suffered over 1000 casualties, while the American losses were about half that. That night, Burgoyne left his campfires burning, and slowly moved his army north along the river, moving about 8 miles to a position near Saratoga. The American’s surrounded Burgoyne’s position, and with his situation hopeless, General Burgoyne surrendered to General Gates on October 17. His men stacked their weapons in front of the victorious Americans, and were marched off toward Boston as prisoners of war.

American General Henry Dearborn, commenting on the heroic performance of his troops, said that “we had something more at stake than fighting for six pence a day.” The wife of German General Riedesel, who was with him during the Burgoyne expedition, wrote in her letters home about the Americans, that “the thought of fighting for their country and for freedom made them braver than ever.”

The news of Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga spread quickly throughout America, bringing hope and confidence that independence could be won. But its most important effect would be in convincing France to support the young nation militarily. Benjamin Franklin had already been in France for a year, attempting to negotiate an alliance with King Louis’ government, when a messenger from Boston landed in France, and proceeded to Franklin’s residence at Passy on December 4. Franklin had already heard rumors that Philadelphia had been taken by the British, and so when the messenger arrived, he rushed out to meet him, and before the messenger could say a word, Franklin asked him, “Is Philadelphia taken?” The messenger replied, “yes sir”, and hearing this Franklin clasped his hands to his heart, as if he had just felt some terrible pain in his chest. Upon seeing this display, the messenger blurted out, “But sir, I have greater news than that. General Burgoyne and his whole army are prisoners of war!” With that news, Franklin rejoiced, the effect upon the people present described as “being electrical.” Once the news reached Versailles, the entire court celebrated the British defeat, and by February 6, 1778, the treaty was signed making official the alliance between France and the United States. The alliance brought much needed French military supplies to the Americans, and brought France with its mighty army and navy into the war against the British, which would provide the decisive blow in the defeat of the British at Yorktown in 1781.


The Fate of John Burgoyne

When Jack, the King’s commander,
Was going to his duty,
Through all the crowd he smiled and bowed,
To every blooming beauty.
The city rung with feats he’d done,
In Portugal and Flanders,
And all the town thought he’d be crowned,
The first of Alexanders.
To Hampton Court he first repairs,
To kiss great George’s hand, sirs
Then to harangue on state affairs,
Before he left the land, sirs.
The lower house sat mute as mouse,
To hear his grand oration,
And all the peers with loudest cheers,
Proclaimed him to the nation.
Then off he went to Canada,
Next to Ticonderoga,
And quitting those away he goes,
Straightway to Saratoga.
With great parade his march he made,
To gain his wished for station,
When far and wide his minions hied,
To spread his proclamation.
To such as staid he offers made.
Of pardon on submission,
But savage bands should waste the lands
Of all in opposition.
But ah, the cruel fate of war,
This boasted son of Britain,
When mounting his triumphal car,
With sudden fear was smitten.
The sons of freedom gathered round,
His hostile bands confounded,
And when they’d fain have turned their back,
They found themselves surrounded!
In vain they fought, in vain they fled,
Their chief humane and tender,
To save the rest, soon thought it best
His forces to surrender.
Brave St. Clair when he first retired,
Knew what the fates portended,
And Arnold and heroic Gates,
His conduct have defended.
Thus may America’s brave sons
With honor be rewarded,
And be the fate of all her foes,
The same as here recorded.

—One of the well known American Revolutionary Ballads from Griswold’s “Curiosities of American Literature.” 1843.

Benjamin Franklin