17. A Day Visit to the Saratoga battlefield

As you drive south from Schuylerville along rte 4, imagine that you are joining Burgoyne’s dispirited troops inching toward Albany only 32 miles away,  where – hoping – hoping – they might meet up with that other fresh British army under General Howe, supposedly pushing north from New York City. Together, this combined force would then be strong enough to  sever New England from the rest of the colonies, thus defeat the Americans and finally end their foolish rebellion.  But so far,  nothing  has gone right.  Because of that August fiasco near Bennington,  Burgoyne’s once formidable army has been  reduced to less than six thousand men. His supplies are nearly exhausted. His Indian guides on whom he depends for scouting the enemy, have deserted him.  He has just crossed to the west side of the Hudson River knowing that the main American army is somewhere in this very vicinity. But where?  With luck, it could be to the north, far enough behind him, leaving a clear road ahead to Albany.

But what if the Americans are in front of him?

In fact they are!

An entire corps of the Continental army, nearly ten thousand strong (with new militia recruits arriving every day) is indeed blocking the Albany road (still rte 4) a few miles further south near the town of Stillwater.  It is led by newly appointed Major General Horatio Gates  with also newly appointed Major General Benedict Arnold in command of the left flank (a very combustible pairing of personalities as you shall soon see). As American scouts report the British advancing toward them, General Gates, on the advice of his brilliant military engineer, Polish General Thaddeus Kosciuszko, has ordered his forces forward to occupy a high plateau called Bemis Heights along the western edge of the river. He has  deployed his army in a strong defensive position with artillery posted on his right flank on a bluff above the river road, threatening any enemy attempt to pass from that direction. While this end of the American army is safely anchored on the river, General Arnold, ever bold and impetuous,  observes that his left flank dangles in the woods and is still dangerously exposed to an enemy attack from the west. He insists that he be permitted to attack first in order to allay that possibility.  General Gates, ever cautious and suspicious of Arnold’s impetuousness, is hesitant. He prefers to sit tight and wait for the British to make the initial move.

It is mid September, 1777. The weather is turning chilly already with morning frosts.  A disappointed General Burgoyne now realizes that his only option in order to reach his goal is to pierce the American front by whatever means in spite of his inferior numbers.  He must find some point in the enemy’s line that is weak, concentrate his forces there and hope that the sudden surprise will allow him to break through.  That point, he believes is at the dangling American far left, just as Arnold feared.


Look now at the above top half of the site map showing the present routes for driving through the Saratoga Battlefield National Park.  Near the middle of the right edge of the map is a red dot marking where rte 4 passes the Saratoga Park sign,  you turn right here onto a long park entrance road (colored black) that more or less parallels the original British line from its left along a deep ravine and extending a mile and a half to the west.  Follow the entrance road for this length until you reach the Park Visitor Center where you need to register and pay a five-dollar per car entrance fee. Then continue along the same road (now colored blue) which turns south toward the original American line. It passes a number of stop-offs , each marking where a major event of the battle – actually two battles – occurred in 1777, the first on September 19, and the second October 7.

The first stop-off is at Freeman’s Farm,  far to the right of the British line,  where Burgoyne on September 19 began a three-pronged sweep intending to turn the American left. It was anticipated by Benedict Arnold, however, who, overcoming Gates’ objection, had already advanced to  meet the British spearhead.  After a ferocious fight,  Arnold had to withdraw,  ceding the field to Burgoyne but not before preserving his own defensive position and inflicting heavy (and eventually unsustainable) losses on the British (see Chapter 15 of “Hasty History”).

Burgoyne, on the other hand, believes he has actually achieved a victory and prepares for a second assault. For the next several days after the battle at Freeman’s Farm, he has his troops erect a series of fortified redoubts all along his line where now are stop-offs #6, #7 and #9. These consisted of earthworks ten to twelve feet high laced with heavy logs, and with “hedgehogs” of interlaced pointed sticks in front (the early modern forerunner of WWI barbed wire). Each stretched several hundred yards and was equipped with protected embrasures for heavy artillery as well as infantry.

After Freeman’s Farm, and following on the bottom half of the site map above, drive further on for about a mile until you reach the Neilson House (stop-off #2), headquarters of the field officers just behind the American line, and then a short distance further east, the road leads to the far right of the American defense anchored on the high bluff above the Hudson River (stop-off #3). Now turn around and drive north on the same road, bearing right toward the Chatfield Farm (stop-off #4) from where, on October 7, American pickets spotted suspicious movements of Burgoyne’s army,  indicating another  attempt to turn the American left flank.


Here once more is the upper half of the site map showing where the decisive action of the continuing battle took place on October 7.  From the Chatfield Farm, you now drive to stop-off #5, the Barber Wheat Field.  General Burgoyne has just sent contingents of his army to this place, again off to his right,  as he plans another assault on the American left. The field is full of ripened wheat, and the redcoats,  so lacking in supplies, pause to reap this   sudden bounty.  They are observed by the American pickets who report this advance to their general officers gathered for mess back in Gates’ supreme headquarters (at the very bottom of the full site map).

General Arnold immediately insists upon sending out a sizable force to confront the British troops in the Barber field. General Gates becomes incensed at Arnold’s aggressive tone, impugning his own hesitance as indecisiveness.  A fierce argument breaks out between them. Gates, the senior officer, explodes. He orders Arnold off the field and relieves him his command. Arnold cursing Gates stalks off.  The other officers are aghast and urge both generals to cool it. Gates nevertheless does order three brigades forward to drive the British away, while Arnold retires to his quarters, sulking like Achilles. He writes a bitter letter  resigning from the Continental army, but is persuaded by his other officers not to submit it.

The fighting quickly heats up. The redcoats are driven from the wheat field  abandoning their booty, but do retreat in order into their long redoubts at stop-offs #6 and #7.  Here they rally, especially behind the Balcarres Redoubt #6 (named after the British officer who supervised the construction). The American attack seems to falter before these impervious British defenses.


Meanwhile Benedict Arnold is watching from a window in the Neilson House. He is exceedingly agitated, drinking and pacing nervously. Finally, he can no longer stand the uncertainty of what he is observing. Suddenly, gulping another draft of rum, he races from the house, leaps on his horse tethered outside, and gallops furiously toward the battle.  General Gates sees him pass and is horrified. He orders an adjutant to chase after Arnold and call him back, but too late.

Arnold then with raised sword wheels his horse into the American line, calling upon his old command to follow him. With a  welcome cheer from the tired troops and even from the new flank commander, his former subordinate Brigadier General Ebenezer Learned, they fall in eagerly behind him in a re-energized assault. Arnold has also noticed a British officer, sitting high on his horse who obviously is rallying the British resistance.  Arnold beckons to a near by New Hampshire sharp-shooter armed with  a special long-range rifled musket and tells him to pick off the redcoat leader.  The latter falls, mortally wounded. He is Brigadier Simon Fraser, Burgoyne’s most admired and valiant junior officer, as brave and charismatic as Arnold himself.  When the other redcoat soldiers see him down, they begin to lose their elan, and start to fall back.

At this moment Arnold does another amazing feat, He races ahead of his troops, turns to the left and gallops right in front of the Balcarres Redoubt,  all five hundred yards of it with eight cannon and a thousand muskets all firing point blank in his direction. He is even in front of his own men firing back at the redoubt.  Miraculously neither he nor his horse are hit from either side; again his old command is inspired to follow.  They turn to their left and drive through the lesser defenses between the Balcarres Redoubt and another two-hundred yard long redoubt at the extreme right of the British line.

This redoubt, stop-off #7, is commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Breymann and is manned by several hundred Braunschweig mercenaries. It is intended to be the anchor of Burgoyne’s right flank and Arnold instinctively realizes that this is the jugular of the entire British defensive position.  As he breaches the line between the two redoubts and rushes with Learned’s troops  toward Breymann’s defenders to attack them from behind, Colonel Daniel Morgan, Arnold’s other former brigade commander, swings his troops further left to attack the Breymann redoubt from the front. Their raging assault from both sides overwhelms the Germans who flee in panic, leaping over the parapets falling on their own hedgehog as well as American bayonets.

But Benedict Arnold is suddenly hit.

He is shot in his left leg, and his horse is simultaneously fatally struck, falling over and further shattering  the already badly wounded limb.  He has to be carried from the field, out of the fray at the very moment that Burgoyne’s army, its right flank destroyed by his valiant charge,  is retreating to its last tenable position, the so-called Great Redoubt built at the river’s edge originally to protect the far left of the British line (stop-off #9).  There the redcoats gather to consider their next move. They have no other choice; they must escape back to Fort Edward.

As you drive from stop-off #6, the Ballcarres Redoubt, to stop-off #7, the Breymann Redoubt, you are tracing Arnold’s heroic dash to get behind and attack the latter. If you walk up the path to the original site of the redoubt you will be standing exactly where Arnold and his soldiers fell upon the Germans from their rear.  Press the button under the marker before you and  hear a German accented voice plaintively describing the chaos as Arnold charged into the fort.

Now follow the path to the left for a few yards to a clump of trees where you will see the spot where Arnold was wounded, and also a unique and most peculiar memorial, a stone with no name carved on it, just a relief of a booted left leg. It was erected after Arnold’s infamous treachery , and so depicts  the only part of his body still worthy of being honored here!

You have now re-experienced all the American highs during the Battle of Saratoga. As you head toward the Park exit, you might for a moment ponder the British lows.  How  devastated “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne must have felt!  Holed up in his headquarters at stop-off #8, he watches as the remnants of his defeated army pour into the Great Redoubt (at stop-off #9)! What should he do next?  First he has to  bury his dear friend  Brigadier Fraser (at stop-off #10),  and then prepare the remainder of his army for a hasty retreat to the river crossing eight miles north at Saratoga.  From there he might escape into friendlier country, and possibly make it all the way to Fort Ticonderoga.

To compound his army’s misery, the weather has become cold with heavy rain, turning the road to Saratoga into a gooey morass. As the tattered redcoats slogged in ankle-deep mud along what is now paved rte 4, the eager Americans are in hot pursuit, even closing off the river crossing before the British can reach it. Now, completely surrounded, Burgoyne realizes the jig is up. He calls for a “convention,” his still proud euphemism for what in fact is unconditional surrender.

Ten days after the battle , on October 17, he humbly presented his sword to General Horatio Gates. That classic gesture of military defeat was later recorded in a large painting by John Trumbull now hanging in the rotunda of the US capitol in Washington DC. Benedict Arnold is not depicted among the victorious American officers.

Driving home by way Schuylerville on rte 4,  just before you reach the stoplight where you turn right onto rte 29 to head toward Massachusetts, you will see a sign on the left directing you up a side road to the Saratoga Monument. Take that left for a short distance and in a minute you will see a very tall structure commemorating the battle. Large niches, one above each of the four side entrance portals, contain bronze statues of the generals responsible for the victory: Horatio Gates, Daniel Morgan and Philip Schuyler. The fourth niche, intended for the most important of all the heroes of Saratoga, was deliberately left empty.

For Arnold’s fateful downfall after the Battle of Saratoga, see Chapter 16 of “Hasty History” above.


 

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