December 1975 | Volume 27, Issue 1
BATTLES OF THE REVOLUTION
On July first of 1777 the able, affable “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne set out from Crown Point on Lake Champlain with his competent Hessian ally, Baron Friedrich von Riedesel, thereby opening a campaign that he had wagered would see him home victorious by Christmas. Burgoyne’s plan was to bisect the colonies; Colonel Barry St. Leger would move east through the Mohawk Valley with seventeen hundred men, Howe would march north from New York, and Burgoyne would take his ninety-five hundred troops south to Albany, where he would meet with Howe and St. Leger. But it was not to be. St. Leger, laying siege to Fort Stanwix in the Mohawk Valley, was discouraged by rumors that Benedict Arnold was pounding north with reinforcements to relieve the fort. His Indian allies panicked, and St. Leger was driven out of the campaign. Howe, committed to taking Philadelphia, never started north at all.
Still, Burgoyne did well enough at first. On July 6 he took Fort Ticonderoga without a fight. Then, rather than continue his advance to the upper reaches of the Hudson by way of Lake George, he inexplicably plunged into the dense wilderness south of the fort. It took nearly a month to build a road through the woods, and the task so sapped British supplies that Burgoyne was forced to send most of his left wing to Bennington to replenish his stores. There the contingent was set upon and destroyed by militia under John Stark.
Faced with mounting disaster and the knowledge now that there would be no help from Howe, Burgoyne decided nonetheless to push on to Albany. He was some thirty miles north of his goal on September 19 when his army, ragged and dispirited and now only six thousand strong, came up against an American force of roughly the same size under Major General Horatio Gates. Gates was a vainglorious and uninspired commander, but lie had some good men under him, among them Colonel Daniel Morgan and his riflemen. These boys struck the first blow against Burgoyne’s regiments as the British advanced into lands cleared by a farmer named Freeman. The rough, wearing battle that ensued cost the British more than six hundred men before von Riedesel swept down from the east and saved them from total destruction. Burgoyne dug in and waited for reinforcements that never came while British morale was chipped away by constant American raids. At last, on October 7, Burgoyne made his final cast at victory. Fifteen hundred men left their trenches and formed into battle order under a cloudless autumn sky. They were hit on the left by tough New Hampshiremen under Enoch Poor and on the right by Dan Morgan’s riflemen. The British units began to disintegrate and then fled back to a pair of redoubts that had been prepared while Burgoyne waited for reinforcements. This might have been the end of the fight but for an extraordinary display of personal courage by Benedict Arnold. A sulky Gates had relieved him of command after a squabble some weeks before, but Arnold, with no authority save boldness, rushed into the fight and led an attack against the redoubt on the American right. When this was checked, he galloped across the entire front, rallied Ebenezer Learned’s Massachusetts brigade, took two stockaded log cabins between the redoubts, and went on to capture, at the cost of a ball in the leg, the other redoubt. Gates never went near the battlefield.
Burgoyne withdrew to a place called Saratoga, dogged by a force now three times his strength. He waited four days; then Stark blocked his last possible escape route. On October 14 Burgoyne asked Gates for terms of surrender.
The import of this momentous victory was not lost on the watchers overseas. Less than four months after Burgoyne surrendered, France cast in her lot with the fledgling American republic.