The Battle of Saratoga in September and October 1777, was a decisive American victory resulting in the surrender of an entire British army of 9,000 men who were invading New York from Canada during the American Revolutionary War. The Battle of Saratoga was actually two battles about 9 miles south of Saratoga, New York, namely the Battle of Freeman's Farm and the Battle of Bemis Heights, as well as the Battle of Bennington, about 15 miles east of Saratoga. The surrender of General John Burgoyne, who was surrounded by much larger American militia forces, took place after his retreat to Saratoga.
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 battle has been called a turning point for America during its Revolutionary War.
British General John Burgoyne set out with 3,300 red-coated British regulars, 3,900 blue-coated German mercenaries from Brunswick, and 650 Canadians, Tories, and Indians from Canada in June. The objective was to reach Albany, New York and there meet up with 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, and General William Howe coming up the Hudson valley with a large force from New York City. This would result in control of upstate New York, and isolation of New England. The complex plan required coordination and communication among the three units.
The British advance beyond the southern ends of Lakes Champlain and George was slowed to a few miles per day by Americans who cut the trees to block the forest route. 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 troops to obtain cattle and other supplies from the farms near Bennington, Vermont. The detachment was overwhelmed and defeated by aroused American militia at the Battle of Bennington. Burgoyne continued south and crossed to the west side of the Hudson at Saratoga (now Schuylerville). He marched another 9 miles down the Hudson but was eventually blocked at Stillwater by regular soldiers and militia under General Horatio 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, and as far as Virginia.
Knowing a battle was on the horizon, George Washington held Howe's army to Philadelphia 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. From the main army in Pennsylvania he ordered 750 men from Putnam's force in the New York highlands to join Gates. Then he put the word out for any available militia groups to form up on Gates. 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. Morgan's men were given specific instructions to concentrate on officers and artillerymen. In the battle, the sharpshooters were accurate at well over 200 yards (183 m), but suffered from their long reload times and their lack of bayonets when the enemy got too close. The Americans eventually learned to mix the sharpshooters with trained men armed with muskets and bayonets, in order to protect them.
The original conception of the campaign had been for Burgoyne to advance south via Lakes Champlain and George to the Hudson River, and then to Albany, where he would meet with the forces of William Howe, advancing north from the British fortress at New York City. 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 capital of Philadelphia, striking at American morale. 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 Sept. 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.
The second major blow to British aims came on August 6, when British reinforcements—about 1,000 Iroquois Indians and 600 Loyalists advancing down the Mohawk River valley—were unable to reach Burgoyne. They were blocked by a successful militia defense of Fort Stanwix near Rome, New York, and the Battle of Oriskany. Colonists were outraged that the British had allied with their long-time enemies, the Native Americans. The 800 American militia in this battle were poorly trained German-Americans and farmers from Tryon County, New York, commanded by General Nicholas Herkimer. The militia was accompanied by about 40 Oneida Indians.
General Herkimer and over 160 local militia lost their lives in this engagement, which lasted almost six hours and included some intense hand-to-hand combat. News of the imminent arrival of General Benedict Arnold and 1,000 reinforcements broke the stalemate. Colonel Barry St. Leger and his forces retreated back up the Mohawk valley to Canada, minus most of their supplies, which had been captured by the Fort Stanwix garrison during the fighting at Oriskany. The garrison hauled what they could inside their fort and destroyed the rest. It was a serious blow to Native American morale when all of their valuables and food disappeared.
The Battles of Saratoga consisted of two main engagements, the first of these being the Battle of Freeman's Farm. The British were past Saratoga and advancing on their destination of Albany, and on September 19, 1777, they ran into American forces in a clearing near the woods at Freeman's Farm, 10 miles south of Saratoga. General Benedict Arnold, commanding the left wing of the American forces, ordered Colonel Daniel Morgan and his 400 sharpshooters to assault and harass the British while they were still advancing through the woods in separate columns. Morgan charged aggressively into British General Simon Fraser's column and inflicted severe casualties before being forced back across the field. Arnold sent forward the brigades of Generals Enoch Poor and Ebenezer Learned to support Morgan.
Burgoyne sent forward James Inglis Hamilton and Fraser to attack the Americans across Freeman's Farm. Arnold's reinforced line repulsed the British attack with heavy losses. By the end of the battle the British and German troops had repulsed one last attack from the Americans, and Arnold was relieved of command. Although they had to relinquish the field, the Americans had halted Burgoyne's advance and inflicted losses the British could ill afford.
Burgoyne built redoubts and fortified his current position. Two miles (3 km) to the south, the Americans also built fortifications.
The second and final engagement of the Battles of Saratoga was known as the Battle of Bemis Heights, which took place on October 7, 1777. Burgoyne made plans to assault the American lines in three columns and drive them from the field. The main assault would be made by the German Brunswickers (called Hessians), under Major General Riedesel, against the American forces on Bemis Heights.
American General Benjamin Lincoln now commanded the division of Poor's and Learned's brigades positioned on Bemis Heights. Holding their fire until the Brunswick troops were well within range, Poor's brigade devastated the British in the first attack and routed the survivors in a counter attack. Colonel Morgan and his sharpshooters attacked and routed the Canadian infantry and began to engage Fraser's British regulars. Fraser began to rally his division, and Benedict Arnold arrived on the field (despite his prior dismissal) and ordered Morgan to concentrate his fire on the officers, particularly the generals. One of Morgan's sharpshooters fired and mortally wounded Fraser. After finishing on Morgan's front, Arnold next rode to Learned's brigade. Learned's men, facing the Brunswickers' assault, were beginning to falter.
In the cover of darkness, 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 few options. 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.
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 eighteenth century military practice. Instead, the Continental Congress refused to ratify the "convention" (the document detailing the terms 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 became Americans.
Burgoyne returned to England as a hero—he was a prominent leader in London society. The news that an entire British army had been defeated and captured gave the Americans great credibility. France, in particular, threw its support behind the American Revolution.
The Americans' victory would provide them with a useful French ally and a subsequent flow of weaponry and supplies from them. The French navy would be vital in protecting ports along the cost from English penetration, as the latter attempted to resupply its troops with men and supplies.
The war would become an international affair at this point. It would prove a turning point for Americans, who showed themselves capable of defeating British forces on the battlefield and possibly capable of winning the entire war.
A group called "Morgans Rifles" tours Daniel Morgan's significant battle sites in period costumes each year. There are also groups of Hessian descendants that stage battle re-enactments in period costumes using period weapons.
The Boot Monument on the battlefield commemorates the heroism of Benedict Arnold during the conflict, when he was wounded in the foot. Arnold was to later switch sides and became a British general after offering to deliver West Point to the British for cash.
According to legend, Arnold, as a British general, asked an American captive in Virginia what the Americans would do with him. The reply was:
The monument is dedicated to "the most brilliant soldier of the Continental Army," but does not mention Arnold by name.
It was donated by General John Watts de Peyster.
The historian Robert Sobel, of Hofstra University, published For Want of a Nail in 1973, an alternate history novel in which Burgoyne won the Battle of Saratoga.
Gone to Meet the British by Gregory T. Edgar is a historical fiction novel for young adult readers about the Battles of Saratoga 1777 and Bennington 1777. It won first place in the 2010 Premier Book Award for Historical Fiction Novel. It has a teacher guide.
All links retrieved October 4, 2011.
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