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  • James Houser

October 7, 1777 - The Battle of Saratoga

Updated: Jun 13, 2021

Note: After further research, I may have been a bit too harsh to George Grenville in this post. But only a bit.

October 7, 1777. The British have a plan. March an army down from Canada along the Hudson River, splitting the Thirteen Colonies down the middle through New York. But General John Burgoyne is drastically unprepared for what he will face. Today he will run into trouble near the small town of Saratoga, in what will prove the turning point of the American Revolution. Gentleman Johnny’s Party Train is about to come to a screeching halt.

What was wrong with these people? That must have been the question on the minds of British generals and political leaders as the American Revolution wore on. 1776 had been a bad year for the infant United States, with Washington’s army badly defeated and driven from New York City. Even though he delivered a surprising rebuke to the British in December, when he crossed the Delaware and routed forces at Trenton and Princeton, the prospects for the Americans looked bleak by 1777 – but they refused to give up, and were actively hostile to British invasion. Clearly, a new strategy was required to defeat the American rebels. Britain wasn’t made of money or armies, and they had limited numbers of troops to commit to America.

The strategic leader of the British war effort was George Grenville, Lord Sackville, who was Secretary of State for the Colonies under the administration of Prime Minister Lord North. Grenville was pondering that very question when the young, arrogant General John Burgoyne walked into his office in December 1776. Burgoyne was ambitious, mercurial, and full of excellent ideas. Burgoyne pitched Grenville a proposal. He believed – as most British officers did – that somewhere in the Colonies, there was a huge population of Loyalists seeking liberation from the petty tyrants of the so-called American government. Burgoyne believed that these people were concentrated in the Middle Colonies – New York and Pennsylvania.

Under Burgoyne’s plan, he himself would lead an army south from Canada, while General William Howe – the current commander in America – would lead a force north from New York City. They would link up at Albany, thus cutting the Thirteen Colonies in two down the Hudson River. This would separate the New England colonies, basically ground zero of the rebellion, from the rest of the colonies to the south, making it easy to take them out piece by piece. This strategy delighted Grenville, and on February 23, 1777 he sent Burgoyne off with approval to carry out his plan.

Now is a good time to mention how wrongheaded the British strategy for the Revolutionary War was. The British war effort relied on a certain set of assumptions: that there was a huge pocket of loyalists waiting to be liberated (untrue), that occupying key colonial cities would force a surrender (untrue) and that European-style armies could operate in the wilderness of America (totally untrue.) This was a particularly unforgivable mistake for the British, since they had just fought a long war in America some two decades beforehand. They had remembered the tactical lessons from the French and Indian War: how to fight in skirmish mode, how to use the terrain. They had forgotten the strategic lessons: that holding cities does not mean you hold the land, and that logistics were everything in the American wilderness.

But British strategy, already hamstrung by these problems, suffered from one other major issue: divided command. See, there were TWO commanders on their side of the Atlantic: the commander in Canada, and the commander in America. These two men reported directly to Lord George Grenville, but did not communicate with each other. There was no one on the scene to coordinate between these two forces. The upshot of this was that it would take MONTHS for one side to learn what the other was doing. A letter from Canada had to make it all the way to Britain for its information to get retransmitted back to America, which would take another trans-Atlantic trip. These guys didn’t have Internet, or even radio, so it took a surprisingly long amount of time for even basic information to pass between the two fronts of the American War.

This would have drastic consequences – mainly for Burgoyne. I mean, George Grenville was utterly incompetent in many aspects, but he was SHIT at communication in particular. When Burgoyne left for America on February 23, it had been seven days since Grenville had received a message from General Howe. Howe, based in New York, wanted to attack the new rebel capital at Philadelphia. A decent strategy, but this meant going in the OPPOSITE direction from Burgoyne’s plan, which required Howe to move north up the Hudson to Albany.

For some reason (!!!) Grenville not only approved of Howe’s plan, but never told Burgoyne of this fact. For the next eight months, Burgoyne would be under the impression that he was undertaking a pincer movement in conjunction with Howe. Howe was told to coordinate as much as possible with Burgoyne, but was also given clearance to undertake his own plan. These obviously confusing instructions, information, and reports passed between America, Britain and Canada like molasses. Burgoyne would only learn that Howe was NOT working with him until it was far, far too late.

Burgoyne arrived in Canada in spring 1777 and began assembling his army for the attack into New York. He repeatedly butted heads with Canada’s Governor, Guy Carleton, who Burgoyne outranked but who still controlled large forces. This further division of command continued to erode British capabilities. When it all shook out, Burgoyne had assembled 8,000 troops in Canada to march directly south the 220 miles to Albany. Simultaneously, another force of 1,000 under Colonel Barry St. Leger would advance overland from Lake Ontario, down the Mohawk River, to link up with him at Albany. Of course, Howe was supposed to send troops from the south too – but Howe replied that of COURSE he would cooperate. Just as soon as he had conquered Philadelphia. Which should be quick and easy.

Burgoyne’s army was quite the unique lot. About half of the regular troops were German mercenaries from Hesse and Brunswick – despite their evil reputation, certainly no worse than the redcoats – commanded by the Baron von Riedesel. He also heavily recruited from the local Indian populations, knowing they had little good will towards the colonists. This move proved to be a mistake since the Indians went to war with their own objectives in mind, namely tribal glory and exacting revenge on the colonists – which would trigger a major reaction and keep the local American civilians from helping Burgoyne’s army.

Burgoyne, in general, failed to prepare for war in the Americas. Unlike other officers such as Howe, Burgoyne had never fought in the Americas and did not understand the rugged terrain or lack of infrastructure. He outfitted his army lavishly, and the small force – especially the Germans – carried all their worldly possessions with them, including wives and children. Baron Riedesel’s fierce wife Frederika Charlotte accompanied him on the campaign with their infant daughters; her account of the Saratoga Campaign is an important primary source. (Incidentally, the Riedesels would introduce to America the tradition of lights on a Christmas tree.) Along with families and excess baggage, Burgoyne equipped his army with extensive batteries of heavy artillery that would prove impossible to transport over the hills and valleys of upstate New York. In short, Burgoyne’s expedition was almost a traveling city more than an army.

Gentleman Johnny’s Party Train, as one of my favorite podcasters has called it, finally got underway in late June. They quickly captured the northernmost rebel position at Crown Point on June 30, and marched slowly down the west side of Lake Champlain to take Fort Ticonderoga on July 6. Burgoyne’s main opponent in the north was Philip Schuyler; if his name rings a bell, you might have seen “Hamilton,” since he would eventually become Alexander Hamilton’s father-in-law. Schuyler delayed Burgoyne’s march by felling trees along the rough roads in his path, along with using scorched-earth tactics to deny food and provisions to the advancing British. But Burgoyne was in no hurry. Rather than a quick, devastating military thrust, he seemed to believe he was leading a leisurely stroll down to Albany – more of a procession than a campaign.

The procession was not going to go as planned. As Burgoyne’s army crept down the Hudson, they ate into their rations and began to suffer from supply shortages. There were few roads in the region worth the name, and Burgoyne had suffered from a lack of wagons and transport from the beginning of the march. Rebel raids on his supply lines back to Canada constricted his movement still further, and Schuyler’s delaying tactics only increased his frustration. His heavy artillery had to be transported by water, which required its own set of problems. Rather than the stately procession and victorious campaign he envisaged, Burgoyne was moving deeper and deeper into the wilderness of New York – in enemy territory.

Burgoyne’s Indian allies caused him further issues. The local settlers and the Indians were, um, not friends, and they continually plundered and murdered each other as the campaign went on. The Indians began indiscriminate raids on local settlements as Burgoyne crept south at his glacial pace throughout July and August. Among the most famous incidents was the sensationalized murder of young Jane McCrea, the fiancé of an American Loyalist soldier in Burgoyne’s army; outrage ensued when Burgoyne refused to punish the perpetrators, worried that he might alienate the Indians.

This had the effect of increasing local support for the Americans, and soon recruits for the Continental Army were flooding in from all over New York and the other colonies. Burgoyne’s slow advance meant that news of Indian atrocities had plenty of chance to spread, and soon a formidable force was accumulating to his immediate front.

Things went badly elsewhere as well. Colonel Barry St. Leger’s column, which was supposed to rendezvous with Burgoyne, had invaded at about the same time and laid siege to Fort Stanwix to the west of Burgoyne’s march. After fending off a powerful relief effort at the Battle of Oriskany on August 6, St. Leger learned that a second force under General Benedict Arnold was on its way to save Fort Stanwix. Panicked, St. Leger abandoned his supplies and retreated back to Canada.

Only a few days later, Burgoyne ran into trouble to his east. Increasingly worried about his supply and transport difficulties, and hearing of a large supply cache near the town of Bennington (in modern Vermont), he sent a force of German mercenaries to capture it. This detachment ran head-on into a force of 2,000 militia at the Battle of Bennington on August 16 and was totally defeated. Not only had Burgoyne failed to gain his much-needed supplies, but he had lost almost 1,000 experienced troops.

His army was only getting smaller – but the American force was getting larger. General Horatio Gates had taken over from the ailing Schuyler. Not only did Gates have 5,000 Continental Army troops from Washington’s army, including the crack Virginia riflemen of Colonel Daniel Morgan, but militia and volunteers were flooding in from across the colonies in response both to Gates’ call to arms and to the murder of Jane McCrea. Gates was aware of Burgoyne’s problems, and decided to set up a blocking position midway between Albany and the town of Saratoga along the west bank of the Hudson. Burgoyne would have to attack him – or retreat.

For Burgoyne, retreat was not a possibility – politically or logistically. Not only would his plan, and the entire campaign plan of 1777, fail. His troops had been marching for months through the dense American wilderness, with far too much baggage and with scolding women and crying children along the entire path; trying to retreat now would cause the Indians to desert and expose the entire force to terrible hardship. There was no good option – especially not after August 3, when Burgoyne got his first direct message from Howe. (The Americans had captured all the previous messengers.) This notice, dated July 17, informed Burgoyne that Howe was preparing to depart by sea to capture Philadelphia, so “good luck” basically. I imagine Burgoyne read this message and then stared into the sky for a while. The note meant that he was on his own: help was not coming, and he and his army were stranded deep in New York to face the full brunt of local American fury.

Burgoyne really had no choice but to continue his move south in the hope of cracking through the American lines. He went all in on this plan, pulling his troops that had been guarding his communications to the north into his main army. This would give him more troops for the upcoming struggle, but meant that there would be no escape – already, the American militia was moving in to cut off his retreat to the north. As Burgoyne marched south to confront the Americans at Saratoga, he was cut off from the outside world. The only way to escape was to move farther into the trap.

What followed would be called the “Battle of Saratoga,” but was really about a month’s worth of maneuvers and battles around the American positions midway between Saratoga and Albany. Burgoyne had scraped up almost 7,200 men for this fight, but he was confronted by over 10,000 Americans – and their numbers were growing rapidly. The Polish engineer Tadeusz Kosciuszko – later leader of the 1794 Polish war of independence, I talked about it in April – had built a solid line of defenses for the Americans along Bemis Heights, blocked by a series of obstacles including fallen trees known as “abatis.” When Benedict Arnold’s reinforcements arrived in late September, he was given command of the leftmost portion of the American line.

Burgoyne had arrived in front of the American position on September 18, and immediately formulated a plan of attack. On September 19, his flanking column clashed with Benedict Arnold and Daniel Morgan at Freeman’s Farm, a sharp little fight that left the British in possession of the field but cost them 600 casualties – unsustainable losses for Burgoyne’s small army. Burgoyne soon received word that the British army in New York was planning to try and move north to draw pressure off of him, so he decided that it was a good idea to sit back and wait for this move to occur. Unfortunately for the redcoats, this move would never happen – and time was not on Burgoyne’s side. The longer he waited, the sicker and weaker his starving army grew, and the stronger the Americans got.

As Gentleman Johnny’s Party Train began to fall apart, the Americans were moving. An American force had captured Fort Ticonderoga on September 18, completely cutting Burgoyne’s route of retreat. Desperate to escape, Burgoyne launched one last effort to break the American line. Gates anticipated his move, and positioned Daniel Morgan’s riflemen to once again break the British attack. With Benedict Arnold taking a central role once again, the Americans drove off the British attack on October 7, 1777 at the Battle of Bemis Heights. With several of his key commanders killed or wounded, and having suffered heavy losses, Burgoyne ordered his army to retreat to a position near Saratoga where they could defend themselves.

But it was hopeless. Burgoyne was cut off in upstate New York, and he was out of supplies. St. Leger had been defeated and turned back. Howe was not coming, and never had been. His line of retreat to the north was cut off. And all his boys were there with everything they owned in the world, and their wives and children begging for some reprieve, and the Indians were deserting in droves, and American farmers from everywhere were pouring in with their hunting muskets. Burgoyne had no other option. On October 17, Burgoyne surrendered his army to Gates. The Saratoga Campaign was over.

And it was the turning point of the war, full stop. Almost 8,500 British and German soldiers had been taken out of the war, which doesn’t seem like a lot but was almost a sixth of the whole British Army. The British plan to divide the colonies had utterly failed due to divided command and lack of coordination; it was honestly the best plan they had in the whole war, and it was a bust. The expected upsurge of Loyalist support had never materialized, especially not after the Jane McCrea debacle. The loss of the Hudson River crossings had been Washington’s greatest fear, but after the Saratoga disaster the British were never able to threaten upstate New York again – the last serious danger was Benedict Arnold’s attempted betrayal of West Point in 1781.

The most important of Saratoga’s results was the response from Europe. Whether or not the British or Americans knew it, the French had been tracking the campaign in New York very closely, and Benjamin Franklin had been in Paris lobbying the French government to lend help to the Americans. France had resisted because their financial system was in turmoil and because the British posed a major threat. Up to Saratoga, the Americans had merely survived – but now, it looked like they could actually win this thing. If the rebels had beaten Burgoyne’s army in a stand-up fight, then the Americans might be a worthwhile ally after all.

In February 1778, the French signed a treaty of alliance with the newborn United States. As Burgoyne, along with Baron Riedesel (and his wife, and his daughters) marched into captivity, the British suddenly had to face a European war as well as an American one. This would be their ultimate downfall. The United States, in all honestly, could not have won the war without the French; the French would not have joined the war without Saratoga.

It’s good to have friends. Friends that don’t run around killing your officer’s girlfriends, at any rate.

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