15. Saratoga! October 7, 1777 Benedict Arnold’s Finest Hour

Between the battle of September 19, 1777 and the first week of October, there was little action.  The British however were building their own defensive fortifications, a series of raised redoubts extending from the Hudson River all the way west to Freeman’s farm. Meanwhile the American army was being daily reinforced by new militia companies.  Ever cautious, General Gage was sitting pat on Bemis Heights waiting for Burgoyne to make a move.   His  numbers were now swelling upwards of twelve thousand troops.

On the other hand, Burgoyne, whose forces were diminished to barely six thousand, was deep in council with his senior officers as to what next to do. Retreat to Fort Edward?  It was reported the American General Stark, the victor at Bennington, was moving west to harass the road. Might General Clinton be on route up the Hudson?  Would he arrive in time to help?  That was the only hope.  So once again Burgoyne decided that the best alternative was  to get to Albany.  But how to break through the seemingly impenetrable American line in front of him?  If that line had any weakness at all, it was its open left flank, against which (in his mind) the British forces had won a modest victory on September 19. So Burgoyne devised another similarly bold but now more dangerous plan, especially with his lesser numbers. He would divide his army, concentrate some five thousand troops in a sweeping attack around the American left, and hope to punch through the American front. But that would also mean that his own left flank would be covered by barely a thousand men to defend against any Americans counter attack.

Burgoyne’s generals argued strenuously against such a risky maneuver, but did agree that a smaller force of some fifteen hundred men be sent to probe the strength of the American left, and also to forage for much needed food stores.

At the same time in the American camp relations between Gates and Arnold was rapidly deteriorating. The senior general was openly goading his hair-trigger rival to resign. Not only did Gates fail to mention Arnold in his report to Congress about the battle at Freeman’s farm, but also removed Arnold from command of the army’s left flank. Arnold almost took the bait and was even writing a letter to that effect.  Fortunately, the other officers intervened and persuaded Arnold  not to do anything irrevocable. Reluctantly, he decided to stay on as a junior officer and serve in whatever capacity.

During their noon mess, the American officers heard shots being fired off to the left. General Gates immediately ordered some regiments forward to see what was going on. Arnold  realized that something more serious might be happening and, somewhat insolently, demanded that Gates send a larger contingent. For Gates that was the last straw. Arnold was ordered forthwith to stay out of the army’s affairs and off the battlefield altogether. Arnold retired  to sulk like a petulant Achilles. Drinking heavily and cursing Gates, he paced back and forth and watched through  the window of the Neilson House (photo below) as his former troops were beginning to move into action.

Let us pause for a moment and study on the map below the two army’s opposing positions. On the morning of October 7, 1777, the Americans under Gates were stretched across Bemis Heights. The British, about a mile to the north, were separated from the Americans by a pair of creeks and  ravines.  The afore-mentioned redoubts they had erected consisted of earthworks about ten feet high, laced with heavy logs and fronted with fences intertwined with pointed sticks (the “barbed-wire” of  pre-WWI warfare).  ).

Note the positions of the two redoubts at the far right of the British line (to the left in the map), one, extending about three hundred yards, was commanded by Major Alexander Lindsay, Earl of Balcarre, and the other, about a hundred yards long, covered the far right flank of the entire British line and was manned by German  mercenaries under Colonel Heinrich Breymann (the same who was overwhelmed at Bennington).  Both redoubts both faced south and west, and were armed with artillery capable of laying heavy fire upon anything approaching from the American left flank.

By early afternoon on October 7, the lead brigade of Burgoyne’s fifteen-hundred man force under the command of his most brave and favorite officer, Brigadier General Simon Fraser had advanced west and south toward the Barber farm, finding to their delight that its wheat field  lay ready for harvesting. The troops began immediately to gather in the sheaves when they encountered some American pickets shooting from the nearby woods. These were the shots General Gates heard at lunch, and it wasn’t long before the troops Gates had sent to find what was going on, ran headlong into the whole British reconnaissance force. A fierce fight broke out in the wheat field. The British at first fell back in some disorder. Confusion and carnage reigned as the red coats abandoned their forage and scattered in all directions.  Somehow General Fraser rallied his troops, pulling them into the Balcarre redoubt, which now became the strong point stabilizing the British line.  The American assault was beginning to falter.

From his window in the Neilson house, Benedict Arnold could see how both the redoubts were frustrating the American attackers. In fact, if they succeeded, the whole British army might rally and turn the tide on the American left.  He could stand it no longer. He suddenly bolted out the door, took a big swig of rum, leaped on a horse just outside and galloped pell-mell toward the melee. General Gates seeing Arnold rush by was horrified and immediately dispatched a courier to order him back. Arnold easily outran the messenger, waving his sword in the air, he yelled for the troops in the field to follow him. Cheers went up as Arnold headed for the redoubts. His old command, General Ebenezer Learned’s brigade, eagerly joined behind.

Suddenly, as the energized Americans renewed their charge against Balcarre’s redoubt, Arnold noticed that one mounted redcoat leader seemed to be inspiring the men in the fort to   valorous resistance. Arnold quickly ordered a close-by New Hampshire marksmen to target the imposing figure, no less than Brigadier General Fraser. Mortally wounded, Fraser fell from his mount. Seeing their commander down, the soldiers in Balcarre’s redoubt began to waiver. Then, Arnold with utter bravado  turned his horse and raced between the lines of American attackers and British defenders . Heedless of bullets flying from both directions and with the fired-up Americans blindly following him, Arnold wheeled around to the rear of the Breymann redoubt on the British far right, charged into it from the backside, and fell upon the shocked Germans. Those who could, tried to escape by leaping over the crest of the redoubt, only to  tumble down upon the spiked fence and onto the bayonets of the American troops attacking from the front. Among the many unfortunate defenders, Colonel Breymann too was killed, some say by one of his own men. The rest of the survivors fled in total disorder.

But then, in the peak of the fray, a bullet struck Arnold in his left leg, the same that was wounded during the battle at Quebec. Simultaneously, his horse was also hit and  toppled over,  falling upon and shattering the bone in that very limb.  The scene below depicts that extraordinary moment, the zenith of Benedict Arnold’s brilliant career. The surgeons attending Arnold insisted his leg be amputated, but he adamantly refused, and was remanded to a hospital in Albany where he was to lay in bed recuperating for the next seven months.  The rest of the British force, seeing the soldiers running from Braymann’s redoubt, and realizing that their whole right wing had been flanked, retreated to the last of their strongholds, the so-called Great Redoubt which Burgoyne had built at the Hudson’s edge on his left to protect the one retreat route along the  river. There they gathered in tattered disarray. No other course was now left for Burgoyne but to withdraw what remained of his army, and, as quickly as possible, find a river crossing and escape north to safety.

A glorious American victory! Perhaps had Arnold not been wounded, he might even have driven Burgoyne’s battered troops right over the bluffs into the Hudson River!   In any case, the Americans did not immediately follow up. General Gates never left his own headquarters, directing the American army from well behind its own lines.  Burgoyne was allowed to leave the field further unscathed,  as he did the following evening, beginning a slow lugubrious march up the river road toward the village of Saratoga (now Schuylerville NY).

The story of Benedict Arnold’s career from this point on reads as if written by novelist Patrick O’Brien. Like the author’s swashbuckling hero, “Lucky Jack Aubrey,” Arnold performed unbelievable acts of derring-do bravery, rightfully deserving the plaudits of his countrymen but also encountering envy and indifference among his bureaucratic rivals. He then retires to his estates, and just like “Lucky Jack,” became utterly incompetent away from the battlefield. He married a beautiful woman, but overly indulged in the pleasures – and the heavy debts – of a landed gentleman in high society. His business ventures were a disaster, and as O’Brien’s hero was almost tempted to do but fortunately resisted, Arnold lapsed more and more into illicit dealings – until that inevitable act which has consigned him into the lowest pit of Dante’s hell, forever frozen in infamy along side of Judas Iscariot.


With the assistance of Andrew B. Crider & Dorothy D. Edgerton

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