14. Saratoga! September 19, 1777

“Damned Vermont!”, General Burgoyne angrily complained (but with a tinge of begrudging admiration),“It abounds with the most active and most rebellious race of the continent, and hangs like a gathering storm on my left.” An eighth of his army had just been lost in that awful Bennington misadventure. Furthermore, the last of his Indian allies, believing his ship to be sinking, also abandoned him.[i] What should Burgoyne do now? One option was to retreat to Fort Ticonderoga and spend the coming winter there recuperating. This would be a terrible blow to his pride, however, and likewise to his reputation among his colleagues at home in England to whom he had boasted so assuredly about his brilliant strategy.

There was a bit of encouraging news. Clinton in New York might at last be moving a large contingent of troops up the Hudson to help, exactly as the original plan had called for. Hoping the news might be correct, Burgoyne opted to keep on pushing south toward Albany, even though with a much diminished fighting force critically short of supplies.

Meanwhile, the American army was gathering strength west of the Hudson River just above Albany near the town of Stillwater (see the Google road map to the right above:  both armies, south and north respectively, were stretched along present NY highway 4).  The Americans were also receiving a new commander, Major General Horatio Gates, just appointed by Congress to replace General Phillip Schuyler who was blamed for the loss of Ticonderoga. Also arriving was Major General Benedict Arnold who had finally been promoted that May.  Accompanying him was another detachment of troops, freed up from the fight at Fort Stanwyx where Arnold had cleverly forced Barry St. Leger’s British army to retreat, thus preventing it from uniting with Burgoyne. Indeed, the American side was growing in numbers daily, joined further by many former Tories disgusted by Burgoyne’s Indian atrocities.

By mid-September, 1777, Gates was in command of some twelve-thousand troops. Confidant of a decisive victory and personal glory, he even imagined himself replacing George Washington as commander in chief of the entire continental army. Such  grandiose ambition made him especially wary of his equally ambitious,  flamboyant subordinate, Benedict Arnold. They were bound to conflict, but with an extraordinary unexpected  result!

Burgoyne’s army, shrunken to less than seven thousand soldiers, was further plagued by demoralization and desertions. Draconian measures were taken, like frequent firing squads and punishments of a thousand lashes.  But finally, in early September after  slowly collecting whatever supplies it could through local foraging around Fort Edward, the army was ready again to move south. The British general had also learned that Fort  Ticonderoga had just suffered an embarrassing raid by another of those pesky Vermont and Massachusetts militias,[ii] thus exposing the weakness of his supply line and the danger of any attempt to retreat to Canada. There was no longer an alternative. It was now Albany or bust.

The choice of his route was once more by land.  The main American force was assumed to be ranged along the west side of the Hudson River, so he dared not expose his men to enemy fire should the British take the easier water route. Instead, Burgoyne decided to march down the east bank,  cross over just above where now is the town of Schuylerville (originally Saratoga), and then continue along the west bank.  By September 11, 1777, Burgoyne had covered about twenty-miles, then paused waiting to learn exactly where the Americans were. The weather was becoming colder.  Already there were morning frosts. Burgoyne was hoping that the Americans were somewhere behind him, thus leaving a clear rode ahead to Albany, only twenty-three more short miles away. There he might finally meet up with Clinton, or at least retire to winter quarters in what he was led to believe was a friendly neighborhood. In any case, his momentary position on the same side of the river as the Americans was not the place to tarry.

General Washington,  in Pennsylvania during August, 1777 warily watching the whereabouts of British General Howe,  was just told the exhilarating news about the Bennington victory. Suddenly the heretofore neglected Northern theater of operations loomed in importance. Everything should now be done to halt Burgoyne’s advance. Congress not only dispatched a new commander but also urged Washington to detach two of his own regiments and send that along also. The Commander in Chief said yes, since it was not yet certain where General Howe, who had just put to sea, was headed.  This was an ironic decision. Had those extra troops been held back, they might have saved the day for Washington at Brandywine, the crucial battle he lost on September 10, 1777, which led to the British occupation of Philadelphia. On the other hand, by releasing them to General Gates, those same troops certainly helped achieve the eventual victory at Saratoga. A most fortunate  if inadvertent trade-off:  Philadelphia sacrificed,  but in return an American victory that ultimately won the war

General Gates, with his army bivouacked around Stillwater had learned in the meantime that Burgoyne had paused just north of him below the village of Saratoga. He cautiously decided to advance within a few miles, find a good defensive position, and wait for the British to attack.  The American general’s scouts also informed him about some high cliffs, known as Bemis Heights along the Hudson River, that offered a commanding view of anyone advancing from the north. Also, their location right at the river’s edge provided a protective anchor for the right flank of the American line. Finally, the deep ravines between the bluffs would make it easy for the defenders to thwart  any enemy frontal assault.

Within the next four days, the visceral difference between cautious and conservative General Gates, and brash and daring General Arnold inevitably led to open acrimony. Having all his defenses remarkably prepared, Gates was determined to sit tight and let Burgoyne move first, believing the Americans to have the ultimate advantage in both manpower and impregnable location. Arnold, in command of the army’s left flank, quickly saw a major weakness in the American defenses: while the right flank was safely protected on the high plateau above the river, his left extended only so far as a single bluff,  while yet further to the left there were other higher, unoccupied hills which, if taken by  the enemy, would allow them to enfilade the entire American front, turn its  flank, and drive the whole army into the river. Arnold thus urged an immediate attack on the British right  to forestall such action on Burgoyne’s part. Gates reluctantly allowed Arnold to move his detachments forward on the left to counter whatever the British intention. On the afternoon of September 19,  Arnold advanced in two columns for about a mile through forest until arriving at an open clearing known as Freeman’s Farm.

General Burgoyne, now aware that the Americans were massing before him and blocking his way to Albany, was desperate to make a bold move. His scouts reported exactly what Arnold had recognized, a weakness on the American left. He therefore decided to divide his army into three prongs: one on the right commanded by audacious General Simon Fraser, Burgoyne’s close friend and British equivalent to Benedict Arnold; another in the center under himself and that on the left, the German contingent commanded by Baron Friedrich von Riedesel. The plan was for Fraser and Burgoyne to assault Gates’s left flank simultaneously, and for Riedesel to feint toward the American right, then swing sharply to his own right and suddenly reinforce the ongoing assault on the American left. A kind of military “statue of liberty” play!

Arnold’s and the two British contingents quickly ran into each other at Freeman’s Farm. The fight was fierce, and Arnold fought as usual with his characteristic fury. The Americans nearly drove off the red-coats, until von Riedesel appeared with his fresh troops and regained the advantage.  Arnold was forced to withdraw.  By evening the British had retained the field, thus technically winning this encounter, but not without suffering twice as many casualties as the Americans, a loss the Americans could tolerate but the British not.

Both sides now backed off to lick their wounds. Nevertheless, each believed it had won the  battle at Freeman’s farm. In the American camp, however, General Gates growing ever more jealous of Benedict Arnold whose battlefield bravery was legendary among the troops, sent a report to Congress about the recent engagement, taking full credit for himself with no mention at all of Arnold. Needless to say, when Arnold heard of this, he was furious. Gates continued to goad him by pricking every trigger point in Arnold’s vaunted vanity. He even removed Arnold from his command of the left flank, but did not dismiss him from the field itself, as we shall see.

Next installment: SARATOGA!  OCTOBER 7, 1777

BENEDICT ARNOLD’S FINEST HOUR


[i] . During the hearing in London when Burgoyne was called on the carpet to explain his loss at Saratoga, he made the following statement  about the leader of the Indians who had abandoned him in his hour of need:

“Sir, a gentleman has been in London the great part

of the winter, who I wish had been called to your

bar* It is for the sake of truth only I wish it, for he

is certainly no friend of mine His name is St. Luc

La Corne, a distinguished partisan of the French in

the last war, and now in the British service as a

leader of the Indians. He owes us indeed some

service, having been formerly instrumental in scalp-

ing many hundred British soldiers upon the very

ground where, though with a different sort of latitude,

he was this year employed. He is by nature, edu-

cation, and practice, artful, ambitious and a courtier,”

[ii].  The leader of the raid on Fort Ticonderoga was John Brown of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, whom we remember was the person who first realized Ticonderoga’s weakness back in 1775, and who prompted Ethan Allen to make his famous attack. Benedict Arnold was furious with Brown for not sharing the  same information with him. The two men fell out and Brown became one of the many enemies Arnold was accumulating as his career waned after its high point in the Battle of Saratoga

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