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Mike Duncan (00:04):
Hello and welcome to Revolutions, Episode 24, Saratoga.
So last week, we dropped off General Washington at Valley Forge, where he would try to hold his army together over the rough winter of 1777-1778. Meanwhile, we will be going back in time to cover the Saratoga Campaign of 1777 that did so much to turn the course of the war. At least in hindsight. Because though Saratoga is the correct response if you’re like on Jeopardy and the answer is the turning point of the American Revolution, there are so many moving parts at work here that to completely isolate one part and say that’s the one is a gross oversimplification. And that doesn’t even take into account the fact that after Saratoga, the war could have spun off in a wildly different direction than it did. But it didn’t. So thanks in part to the American victory at Saratoga, the French got into the war and their involvement turned out to be critical to the final victory at Yorktown. Therefore, Saratoga is the turning point of the American Revolution. I’ll take famous titles for 200 please, Alex.
But before we even get into the Saratoga Campaign, we need to hop back even further to the American retreat from Canada. When last we left the Northern Department, the Americans had failed to take Quebec on New Year’s Eve 1775. Benedict Arnold found himself in charge of the bedraggled remnants of the Continental and Militia forces. Arnold laid a siege to Quebec City through the winter, but come the spring of 1776, it was pointless to stick around. The British sent in massive reinforcements and the Americans had to pull back.
Arnold by this point had been promoted to Brigadier General and made military governor of Montreal and though he craved even more responsibility, he remained a few rungs down on the chain of command. Philip Schuyler, I got his name right this time, remained in overall command of the Northern Department and then in June 1776, General Horatio Gates was given command over the loosely defined Canadian Department. So let’s talk about Horatio Gates.
Horatio Gates was born in England in 1728. As a young man, he bought an officer’s commission and served on the continent before following his military mentor to Canada on the eve of the French and Indian War. He was, along with George Washington and Charles Lee and Thomas Gage, present on Braddock’s disastrous opening march and then he served in North America continuously for the rest of the war, though not in any important capacity.
After the war, he didn’t have the money to buy the higher rank that would allow him to remain in the rapidly demobilizing British regular army and after a few years of doing this and that, he emigrated to Virginia in 1772, where he made contact with his old comrade George Washington. When the Revolutionary War broke out, he joined immediately and with the enthusiastic recommendation of Washington, was appointed the first Adjutant General, basically the Chief Administrative Officer of the Continental Army because though Gates was not really a great field officer, he was a hell of an organizer and deserves a lot of credit for helping build the new Continental Army from scratch.
He yearned for that field command, though, and as I said in June 1776, the Congress gave way and put him in command of the Canadian Department, which was supposed to be nested in the larger Northern Department, but Gates and his supposed boss General Schuyler hated each other. Schuyler was aristocratic and stiff, while Gates was an easygoing friend of the common soldier. General Schuyler claimed command over Gates and Gates claimed autonomy from Schuyler.
Eventually Congress had to step in to resolve this petty bickering by giving Gates a free hand from Fort Ticonderoga North. This victory in office politics, though, netted Gates very little because at that same moment the Americans were abandoning everything north of Fort Ticonderoga.
So as I said, the British were massively reinforced in the spring of 1776 and the totally inadequate American forces pulled back to Montreal and then out of Montreal. By June, that is, when Gates showed up, the Americans had retreated to their two main bases on the south end of Lake Champlain, Fort Ticonderoga of course, but also another one further north called Fort Crown Point. What Gates walked into was a report that some 9,000 British were massing at the north end of Lake Champlain under the British governor of Quebec Guy Carleton. The long anticipated British invasion from Canada appeared to be on the way, but Carleton quickly discovered that the retreating Americans had commandeered what ships on Lake Champlain they could and then burned the rest. Since there was no land route south to speak of, the British had to spend the summer of 1776 building a navy.
Having bought themselves some time, the Americans set to work building a little navy of their own to hopefully further slow the British advance. The outnumbered and outclassed American army might not be able to stop the British invasion, but winter sure could if we can tie them up that long. The newly arrived Horatio Gates, by his own admission, had absolutely no clue when it came to navy stuff, so he turned over the whole building operation to Benedict Arnold because among the things Arnold had been uniformly successful at in his younger days was being a merchant sailor.
By September, Arnold had managed to build up a little fleet of 15 ships run by about 500 men, which was pretty good… until you learn that up north the British have put together a fleet of 25 ships, and among that 25 there were two heavily loaded ones that alone carried more firepower than Arnold’s entire fleet. So when the British launched in early October, Arnold’s mission was merely to delay the British, he had no chance of stopping them. But Arnold was a crafty soldier, and he selected a nice little spot between Valcour Island and the main shoreline of Lake Champlain to make his stand and negate as much as possible the superior British numbers and firepower.
On October the 11th, Arnold managed to lure the British into this narrow strait, and from noon till sunset the two sides blasted away at each other. The Americans inflicted some not inconsequential damage to the British, but the outcome of the Battle of Valcour Island, one of the very few naval battles of the war, was never much in doubt, especially once one of those heavy ships came lumbering into the fray in the late afternoon.
When the sun finally set, Arnold did not hesitate to run for it. The path of his retreat was soon littered with ships too heavily damaged to continue. Two days later, a favorable wind helped the British catch up with what was left of the American fleet, and Arnold raced for a shallow bay, where the heavier British ships couldn’t follow. He ran his ships aground, burned them, and then continued overland with his remaining 200 men for Fort Crown Point.
When he got there, Arnold discovered that a few of the ships that had gone missing in the retreat had made their way to Crown Point, which was great. He also discovered that there was no earthly way they could defend Crown Point, which was not so great, so Arnold burned the fort and led everyone south to Ticonderoga. Luckily for the Americans, though, when the British landed at the smoldering remains of Fort Crown Point, early winter snows had already fallen. There was no way to continue south given the terrain and the weather, so Carlton was forced to call it good for the year. A Hessian officer noted in his diary that had the expedition set out just four weeks earlier, they would have steamrolled all the way down the Hudson River and ended the war.
Back in London, news that the invasion had been halted was met with incredulous disdain. I mean, why the hell had it taken Carlton all year just to get to Crown Point? He hasn’t even taken Ticonderoga yet. Seems like we might need someone in there with a bit more verve. Which brings us to the second of the original triumvirate of reputation that had been sent by the British Ministry to take over the war in 1775. John Burgoyne.
John Burgoyne was born in England in 1722. At the age of 15, he purchased a commission in a showpiece cavalry regiment and soon earned himself a reputation for athleticism, good-natured grace, and fancy living, and he was soon dubbed Gentleman Johnny. He served during the War of Austrian Succession, but after that war ended, his career stalled, and he wound up eloping with the daughter of a prominent, and now furious, English lord. The couple went to live in France and Italy until they managed to patch things up with daddy on the eve of war with France. When that war broke out, Burgoyne wound up a lieutenant colonel serving on the continent, and eventually he rose to the rank of brigadier general in Portugal, where he commanded, among others, the irascible future American general Charles Lee.
Burgoyne was forward thinking when it came to strategy and tactics, and popular enough with his men that after the war, he turned to politics, and served as an actively engaged MP, leading the charge, for example, against the hopelessly corrupt East India Company. On the eve of war in America, John Burgoyne was easily one of the most popular soldiers in Britain, and it came as no surprise that he was selected to head over with William Howe and Henry Clinton to put the colonials back in their place.
But the early days of the war had left Burgoyne dissatisfied with his role as Howe and Clinton’s third wheel. So, with the siege of Boston still slogging along, he headed back to London to beg for a better opportunity, and was given command of those massive reinforcements that arrived in Quebec in the spring of 1776. He then served as one of the lead officers under Carlton in the run down Lake Champlain that we just covered.
Believing that Carlton had botched things by being too timid, Burgoyne again returned to London over the winter and talked the ministry into letting him run the invasion when it restarted in the spring of 1777. He promised to push all the way down the Hudson River. With General Howe occupying New York, the patriot-heavy New England colonies would then be cut off from the Middle and Southern colonies. Thus divided, there would be no further hope of unified colonial resistance, and the war would practically win itself after that.
Meanwhile back in America, Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold both headed south over that same winter to help Washington try to stave off defeat. Arnold wound up taking a command in Rhode Island, but Gates was actually on hand for the Battle of Trenton, though it was there that he first flashed his true colors. Because on the night of the attack, he claimed he was too sick to fight, and then he ran down to Baltimore, where the Second Continental Congress was temporarily sitting, to lobby for Washington’s job. The success of Trenton of course stalled any further moves on that front, so Gates returned to the north and served as the number two officer still stuck under Schuyler. Arnold meanwhile started down his road to treason when he was passed over for promotion in February, not for anything he had done, but simply because the Congress had to play politics with spreading commands around and Connecticut already had its allotment of senior generals. There’s no reason to delve too deeply into the dizzying career drama of Benedict Arnold, but suffice it to say he tried to resign, was talked out of it, and returned to service, still bitter over the insult.
In May 1777, General John Burgoyne headed to Canada to drive what he believed would be the final stake through the heart of the American rebellion, utterly convinced that by the end of the year, he would be the hero of the war.
He laid out a two-pronged invasion. Key would lead the main army of about 8,000 south down Lake Champlain, while a diversionary army of about 2,000 would sweep in from the west by way of Lake Ontario. The two forces, both composed of a mix of British regulars and Hessian mercenaries, loyalist Canadians and allied Indians, would link up at Albany for the final drive down the Hudson where they would link up with Howe, who would no doubt already be on his way north by then. Of course, we know thanks to last week’s episode that Howe isn’t coming, but we’ll let Burgoyne find that out in his own good time.
As he put his expedition together, gentleman Johnny Burgoyne paid close attention to the details, and he brought along crates of fancy dining sets, luxurious foods and wine, snappy uniform, because I mean, what’s the fun in marching off to eternal glory, wearing rags and eating hardtack? Senior officers even brought along wives, girlfriends, and children. That there weren’t really enough carts or pack animals to haul everything didn’t seem to bother anyone. Sure, they might move a little slower, but that was okay. Upstate New York is beautiful this time of year.
On June the 17th, gentleman Johnny’s party train set out from the last British fort north of Lake Champlain. It took all of three days for Burgoyne to make his first major mistake. He issued an open letter to the effect that if the rebels didn’t give up that he would be forced to unleash his Indian allies to do their very worst. This was supposed to scare the local citizens into compliance, but of course it had the opposite effect. I mean, remember, this is the summer of 1777. Suddenly nothing has gone right for the Americans, and morale was pretty low. All Burgoyne’s ill-advised threat did was simply remind everyone in Upstate New York why they had to keep fighting.
This mistake was compounded a month later when an advance guard of Indians killed a few local settlers, including, most sensationally, a woman named Jane McRae. The truth of what happened out there was murky then and is murky now, but what’s important is that the killing of Jane McRae was blown up by patriot propaganda into a vicious act of barbarism that put lie to the notion that the British were somehow the more civilized army conducting a more civilized war.
But that was still in the future. For the time being, all was well. Burgoyne’s army was soon at the former site of Fort Crown Point, just north of Ticonderoga. The 2,000 or so Americans garrisoning Ticonderoga started preparing for a fight, but on July 5th, the British cut their way up an unoccupied hill that commanded the fort. Any defense was now doomed to failure, so the 2,000 Americans ran southeast as fast as they could, and the British followed.
Over the next couple of days, the British pursued the fleeing American soldiers, with the advanced British units catching up with the American rearguard on at least three separate occasions. But though these running battles took their toll, the Americans were ultimately able to move way faster than Gentleman Johnny’s party train, which left Burgoyne with a choice to make. And boy howdy, did he make the wrong one.
Now on the east side of the Hudson River, Burgoyne had to decide how he was going to get to Albany, which was on the west side of the Hudson. He could either circle back to Ticonderoga, transfer his army over to Lake George and take an easy shot down the Hudson, or he could continue to move forward, plunge into the wilderness and just hope for the best. Burgoyne inexplicably chose the latter.
He later said it was because his men would have reacted badly to a retreat, which is frankly kind of a weird and not very good excuse. And some historians have pointed out that the easy shot down the Hudson he forsook would have been harder to pull off than Burgoyne’s later critics made it seem. Whatever the reason though, Burgoyne’s column plunged into the wilderness, even though they had neither the supplies nor the equipment necessary to efficiently hack their way through the dense forest.
By now, General Schuyler, for once actually doing something, came up to take command of Fort Edward, which was south of Burgoyne on the east side of the Hudson River, and Burgoyne’s likely destination. Schuyler ordered his forces to make life excruciating for the slow-moving British procession. The Americans burned every bridge and chopped down every tree in Burgoyne’s way, bridges that had to be rebuilt, and trees that had to be removed one by one. This is about the time that everyone kind of wanted to get off of Gentleman Johnny’s party train, but there was nowhere to go but forward, so they kept slogging forward.
When scouts reported that Burgoyne’s army was finally getting close, General Schuyler pulled back even further south, and on July the 30th Burgoyne’s army finally emerged from the woods at Fort Edward, and they were in bad shape when they got there. Though they had started off stocked to the gills, supplies were now running low, as there had been no ready access to local sources of anything that an army needs. The commander of the Hessians recommended that Burgoyne allow him to lead a party east to the Connecticut River to forage, but Burgoyne sat on the idea. Better to wait and figure out where Howe was before they started making drastic moves. But on August the 3rd Burgoyne got the news. Howe had long since put to sea on his way to Philadelphia.
Uh… what? So let’s work through this a little bit, because obviously we’ve got a massive case of miscommunication on our hands. There are three parties involved in this massive case of miscommunication, two of whom you already know. General Burgoyne and General Howe. But then there’s also Lord George Germain, Secretary of State for American Affairs in the British Ministry, and basically the guy running the war back in London.
The order of events goes something like this. After chasing Washington out of New York in late 1776, Howe sent Germain a letter making all kinds of bold proposals about the next year’s campaigning, including sending a 10,000-man expedition up the Hudson River. But shortly thereafter Howe abandoned the idea and sent Germain a revised plan for 1777 that no longer involved any such Hudson River expedition. Amazingly, Germain had this letter in hand in February when he approved Burgoyne’s plan to come down from Canada, which at least tacitly assumed some kind of support from Howe. Then over the next few months, Germain sent Howe at least eight letters within which he mentioned not once that Burgoyne would shortly be marching down from Canada. Howe was left completely in the dark about those plans, though it is worth noting that Howe didn’t really go out of his way to ask. The British, no less than the Americans, were plagued by rivalries between their senior commanders. Howe had no interest in playing a supporting role in Gentleman Johnny’s great triumph.
In an interesting little twist to all this, Germain was in every way socially and politically inferior to Howe, which may have played a role in him not doing the super-obvious thing and ordering Howe to help Burgoyne. So with the right hand, not knowing what the left hand was doing because the guy in between wasn’t telling them, Howe sailed off for Philadelphia while Burgoyne was busy hacking his way through the forests of upstate New York. In terms of strategic coordination, the British campaigns of 1777 are an all-time great fail.
While Burgoyne pondered what the hell he was going to do next, the Continental Congress was wondering the same thing. Because though the tactical reasons for just abandoning Ticonderoga had been obvious, when word got out that the fort had been given up without a fight, it caused quite an uproar in the Congress. This coupled with further reports from disgruntled underlings about bad morale and constant retreating convinced them that it was time to sack General Schuyler. On August the 4th, they ordered Horatio Gates, who just happened to be hanging around passing along reports from disgruntled underlings, to go take command of the Northern Department.
Gates showed up just in time to start getting credit for the death spiral of Gentleman Johnny’s no-longer-that-much-of-a-party train. Burgoyne finally decided to send a detachment of 600 Hessians east to forage for supplies, but on August 16th, these Hessians were surrounded at Bennington by an American force twice their size and mowed down. When word of this disaster got back to Burgoyne, even the false bravado deserted him. Still on the east side of the Hudson, he decided all he could do now was make a run for Albany. But to get there, he would have to cross the Hudson, and the place he elected to make that crossing was at Saratoga.
Meanwhile, out west, that diversionary force of 2,000 men, 1,000 of which were allied Indians, was making their own way towards Albany. They had sailed up the St. Lawrence River, crossed Lake Ontario, and put to shore just about due west of Burgoyne’s position on July the 25th. On August the 2nd, they laid siege to the Americans guarding Fort Stanwix on the Mohawk River. An American militia force, with a contingent of their own Indian allies, marched to relieve Stanwix, but they were surprised at Oriscani. The resulting battle was bloody for both sides, but in the end the Americans managed to hold the field, though they were also forced to pull back due to heavy casualties.
A few days later, Benedict Arnold talked General Schuyler, who did not yet know he had been relieved of his command, into letting Arnold take 800 continentals in relief of Fort Stanwix. But when he arrived in the vicinity a few weeks later, he failed to convince the local militiamen to join the effort. Most of them had fought at Oriscani, and frankly, wanted no more to do with any of this.
So Arnold let a captured loyalist escape, back to the British, with the false report that a huge relief army was on the way, and that it would be there any minute. This convinced the Iroquois who were allied with the British, and who had already borne the brunt of the fighting, to say, okay, we’re done here, taking almost all the supplies with them. This forced the British contingent to make their own retreat, and Arnold hustled back east for the coming battles at Saratoga.
With no relief coming from any direction, Burgoyne’s men built a bridge across the Hudson in early September and crossed over. Horatio Gates, meanwhile, had parlayed his own popularity with the rank and file, and the victory at Bennington and the murder of Jane McCrae, into an army that now numbered six or seven thousand, with more volunteer militiamen pouring in every day.
While Burgoyne crossed the Hudson on September the 13th, Gates was ten miles south, fortifying an east-west line at Bemis Heights, a set of steep hills that ran right up against the Hudson. It was the perfect wall to block Burgoyne if he did the obvious thing and followed the river south, which Burgoyne is about to do, though he did have the foresight to divide his men into three columns to at least make things interesting.
Five days later, light skirmishing between the two sides gave hints as to Burgoyne’s strategy, which was not a bad one because, I mean, Burgoyne has made a lot of unforced errors, but he was a really good field commander, and his strategy was to send down a column of Hessians to flank the American left and then crush the rebels against the river. On September 19th, the first of the two full-scale battles that have been mashed together by history into the Battle of Saratoga broke out about a mile north of Bemis Heights.
Benedict Arnold, back now with the main army and in command of that all-important American left, begged Gates to let him advance so they wouldn’t get trapped on the Heights. Finally, at noon, Gates decided to let Arnold go, and Arnold either sent, or led himself – there appears to be some dispute about this – a portion of his troops down from the Heights, including a now legendary company of sharpshooters. These troops finally encountered what turned out to be the middle column of the British advance at a clearing in the woods next to Freeman’s Farm.
This clearing was about 350 yards wide, the British controlling the North Treeline, and the Americans the South. The mutual attacks got going right away, with each side advancing into the clearing to try to drive the other side back. But this turns out to be just about as effective as your standard issue World War I senseless slaughter. Both sides just got mowed down in turn, especially the British who were getting picked off with terrifying ease by the American sharpshooters. One British company started the day with 350 men. By the end of the battle, they were down to just 60.
The Battle of Freeman’s Farm was finally called on account of darkness and the arrival of some Hessian reinforcements. Arnold ordered his men to fall back. This all turned out a little bit like Bunker Hill. The British win a tactical victory. They controlled the field, but only after taking heavy casualties, almost 600 dead. After everything is taken into account since Burgoyne left Canada, the dead, the wounded, the sick, the missing, the deserted, the left behind, the British were now down to just 5,000 men.
Down in the American camp, the senior commanders capitalized on Burgoyne’s difficulties by getting in a huge fight with each other over who should get credit for Freeman’s Farm. Because when Gates sent his report to the Congress, he did not even mention Benedict Arnold. As you can imagine, Arnold was pretty ticked off about it. A yelling match between the two men resulted in Arnold demanding a transfer and Gates granting it. But critically, Arnold did not immediately pack up and leave. This will be really important in a second.
But though the American officers were at each other’s throats, they were enjoying a massive influx of new recruits. There’s nothing like a good bandwagon to hop onto. And with word of Burgoyne’s plight spreading across the countryside, every man with a musket rushed in to help finish him off. Soon Gates was in charge of something like 11,000 men.
But Burgoyne was not done yet. He was gearing up for another advance a few days later when a letter arrived from Henry Clinton of all people, hinting that he might be able to show up and bail Burgoyne out because Clinton had stayed behind in New York when Howe sailed away. This letter obviously picked up Burgoyne’s flagging spirits. But unfortunately, by the time he got the letter, Clinton had already decided that such a move was totally unfeasible. After a few weeks hunkered down in a hastily fortified camp waiting for Clinton, Burgoyne finally realized that he had to advance or surrender. So on October 7, he advanced.
He let a test force of 1,600 men down to investigate the possibility of breaking through what Burgoyne believed now marked the far left of the American line. But it wasn’t the far left. There was an even further left. And among them were those legendary sharpshooters. With Arnold relieved of duty, Gates now commanded the left flank personally and he sent those sharpshooters to swing around behind the advancing British test force while he sent two other strong columns to hold down the middle and the right. Burgoyne had not really been expecting this kind of response. He wasn’t even planning to fight until the next morning, but now he was pinned down.
After an hour of listening to the intense fighting, the relieved of duty and very possibly drunk Benedict Arnold decided he couldn’t take it anymore, and he rode down to join the fray. When he arrived, he rallied the faltering American middle into forcing the British back towards their fortified camp, which was protected by two redoubts. Running a very fine line between bravery and insanity, Arnold charged after them and his men followed. The battle then moved on to those two redoubts, and Arnold recklessly charged around seemingly oblivious to the fact that he really ought to be riddled with bullets by now.
Though it was not easy, the Americans finally broke through the fortifications that guarded the British camp, but not before Arnold was finally hit in the leg and had to be carted off the field. Burgoyne’s battered army might have surrendered right then and there, but darkness forced the Americans to hold off on delivering the final blow.
So Benedict Arnold was in every way the hero of the Saratoga Campaign, starting with the little trick that forced the British to pull back from Fort Stanwix to correctly identifying and then parrying Burgoyne’s thrust at Freeman’s Farm, and now obviously here at the somewhat erroneously labeled Battle of Bemis Heights. And that’s not even counting his little naval campaign on Lake Champlain that forced the British to put their invasion plans off for a year. It has been mentioned by historians more than once that had Arnold been killed leading that final charge, he would have gone down as one of the most beloved men in American history. Instead, he lived long enough to go down as one of the most hated.
Burgoyne was able to pull his battered forces back to Saratoga on October the 9th, but by the 12th Gates had moved in and cut off the British from the Hudson River, so on October the 16th, a conference was held in Saratoga to discuss terms — terms, by the way, that would soon be countermanned by Congress as excessively lenient. On October the 17th, 1777, General John Burgoyne, in one of those snappy uniforms he had brought along, formally surrendered himself and the 5,800 men he had left. Adding up everybody that had been killed, wounded, gone missing, deserted, or was now captured, Burgoyne had lost 9,000 men since leaving Canada.
News of this crushing defeat sent shockwaves across Europe. Being George refused to believe it, the ministry was in a state of shock and now under heavy fire for botching the war. Down on the continent, the French finally had the proof they had been looking for that the Americans were capable of winning the war, if they had a little extra help.
Next time, the war will shift into its next phase, as the British try to regroup and refocus, and Benjamin Franklin successfully talks the French into joining the war. I say next time, because I’m going to have to take a week off. Mrs. Revolutions will be out of town, and I will have sole custody of a two-year-old. If I survive, we’ll be back in two weeks to start turning our attention to the southern colonies, where the British ministry hoped to revive a war effort that had suddenly become a quagmire.
- Benedict Arnold
- Philip Schuyler
- Horatio Gates
- George Washington
- Charles Lee (general)
- Thomas Gage
- Guy Carleton (United States Army officer)
- John Burgoyne
- William Howe, 5th Viscount Howe
- Jane McCrea
- Benjamin Franklin
- Henry Clinton (British Army officer, born 1730)
- George Germain, 1st Viscount Sackville
Gentleman Johnny's Party Train ran into some trouble in 1777.
If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider buying Mike Duncan's books:
- Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution: https://amzn.to/3VNqViT
- The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic: https://amzn.to/3h26YpW
- The History of Rome: The Republic: https://amzn.to/3UAvImK
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