The Turning Point

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A few hundred yards west of the Hudson, as you enter Schuylerville on Route 29, the sign is on your right. It’s an old, faded sign, not very large, and unless you slow down, you’ll miss it. And that would be a shame, because it carries a profound and haunting message for all Americans:

ON THESE FIELDS THE BRITISH ARMY GROUNDED ARMS AT THE SURRENDER

Think of it. On the morning of October 17, 1777, on what is now a town athletic field, Lt. Gen. John Burgoyne’s entire army of 5,895 British and German soldiers, some of the finest troops in the world, marched out of their camp and stacked their arms. Since this extraordinary event led directly to France’s active intervention in the Revolution on the side of the rebels, which turned a colonial uprising into a world war, which led to the defeat of Great Britain, which led to American nationhood, you could say the most powerful country on earth was begat on this little field in Schuvlerville, New York.

In those days Schuylerville was known as Saratoga, from the Indian word meaning “place of swift water,” and the two battles that precipitated the surrender here were fought eight miles down the Hudson, at places with the ordinary-sounding names of Freeman’s Farm and Barber’s wheat field, Bemis Heights, and the Neilson Farm. The silent fields beyond the hills and ravines hardly suggest that on a single day Burgoyne’s force lost in killed, wounded, and captured more than half the total number engaged. Here is the spot where Benedict Arnold was badly wounded, there is where the Brunswick lieutenant colonel Heinrich Breymann was shot (some said by his own men), here where Simon Fraser, Burgoyne’s ablest general, breathed his last. To pull it all together for you are maps and exhibits in the visitors’ center, interpretive markers on the battlefield, and a network of roads and walking trails connecting it all.

Near the ghosts of the vanished hotels and casinos there are greater ghosts; you’ll find them on the little field where America was born

On the day of the surrender, above that little field in eighteenth-century Saratoga, the proud regiments of the British line—9th, 20th, 21st, 24th, and 62d —marched out of camp, colors flying, fifes and drums 1 playing, followed by the Royal Artillery. Then came a procession of blue-uniformed runswickers—the Rhetz, Riedesel, and Specht regiments, dragoons and grenadiers—plus green-clad Hesse-Hanau infantrymen and artillery, moving in precise formation toward the flat field by the river, where scores of horses lay dead and the intolerable stench of decaying bodies added to the mortifying task that engaged the troops. Even though no American soldier was there —Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates had ordered them all withdrawn so they could not witness the enemy’s humiliation—the experience was too much for some; a number of angry foot soldiers smashed the butts of their muskets.

In the rebel camp across Fish Creek, Gates’s troops lined up on both sides of the river road that led to Coveville and on to the battlefield. Early in the day the British commander, Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne, put on the gorgeous scarlet coat with gleaming gold braid that he had planned to wear at his triumphal entry into Albany, and about noon he and his top generals forded the swollen Fish Creek and rode past the blackened remains of the house of the American general Philip Schuyler, which had been burned by the British during their retreat. Half a mile from here was the American headquarters, and the British troops’ conqueror emerged from what someone called a “small hovel” that served as his lodging, looking seedy, stooped, and old in his simple blue coat. Gates squinted at his visitors through spectacles and greeted the general whose name—by the most extraordinary coincidence—had appeared next to his own on the roster of the British regiment they had both joined in 1745.

 

While the American officers offered their opposite numbers food, cider, and New England rum, Burgoyne’s soldiers, brigade by brigade, their jaws tight with anger and pride, swung down the muddy road that was lined with as many as twenty thousand absolutely silent rebels, most of them staring straight ahead or with eyes lowered in deference to the defeated. At some point Burgoyne met Major General Schuyler and expressed regret at the destruction of the American’s house, but Schuyler, with his customary noblesse oblige, told him that was “the fate of war.” (Soon afterward the house there today was built.)

The man credited by so many rebels as the hero of the battle, Benedict Arnold, was conspicuously absent from the surrender he had done so much to bring about. He lay in a hospital at Albany, where he remained until January, until it was at last clear that he would not lose the leg wounded in the wild fighting at the Breymann Redoubt near Barber’s wheat field. Since it was his daring charge that routed the German defenders in the battle’s final moments, the absence of any memorial to his feat is curious. But the citizens responsible for commemorating the engagement in the nineteenth century were understandably reluctant to honor a traitor. Yet they could hardly ignore Arnold’s crucial role in the fighting, so in the customary manner of committees, they compromised.