Decisive Battles: The Battle of Saratoga (1777)

The fighting around the woods is furious. The rifleman well knows the reputation of the redcoats, who had brought the Patriot cause to the brink of disaster less than a year ago. Nevertheless, with his weapon, he aims to turn the tide. A British officer is in his sights. General Arnold himself directed him to take the shot. He may not know it, but his trigger finger is about to tip the scales of this battle, and with it, the war and the course of history itself.

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The Background

New Yorkers today tend to take the Hudson River for granted. In the early 21st century, it’s a nice view that boosts real estate values and makes for a pleasant trip to Hudson River Park. In the turbulent times of the Revolutionary War, however, this seemingly inconspicuous river was the most important military highway in North America. Connected to Canada via Lake Champlain in upstate New York, the waterway was fated by geography to act not only as a gate to the north, but also as the key to the heart of the Revolution – New England. Whoever was master of the Hudson River controlled New England’s fate. If Britain could secure its passage, it could cut the hotbed of rebellion off from the rest of the colonies, and from there, a peace could be made. The colonies would be brought back into the British fold.

At the outset of the American Revolution, the various European powers, foremost among them France, closely watched the events that were taking place across the Atlantic. Still reeling from its defeat in the Seven Years’ War, France longed to strike back against its age-old enemy, Great Britain, but would not throw its hat into a losing cause, which the American Revolution certainly appeared to be in 1776. The Continental Congress astutely sent Benjamin Franklin and John Adams to obtain French recognition and an alliance, but the exercise of American arms had thus far left much to be desired. A victory, and a relatively decisive one, was needed to demonstrate to the French that they wouldn’t be wasting their time in supporting the Americans against Britain.

Meanwhile, the British were laying plans of their own. After a stunningly successful 1776, the minor annoyance of the Battle of Trenton at the very end notwithstanding, they were planning their knockout blow.

Battle of Saratoga 1777

The 1777 campaign (which ended at Saratoga) was meant to be a three-pronged attack. General William Howe, the British commander-in-chief in North America, would move up the Hudson with the main force from New York City. General John Burgoyne would move southward from Canada and down through upstate New York. A third force under Colonel Barry St. Leger would move via Lake Ontario eastward.[i] All three columns would combine at Albany and secure mastery of the Hudson. From there, New England could be isolated and defeated and the other colonies would be forced to sue for peace.

This advance upon the Hudson had been the British battle plan all along once rebellion had broken out in the colonies. However, due to the actions of George Washington and Benedict Arnold, one holding the British off in the New York area long enough for the campaigning season to end, the other inflicting a strategic draw at the Battle of Valcour Island on October 11th, the British were forced to withdraw. The campaign of 1776 had dragged on too long for Britain to achieve its strategic objective. It would have to wait another year.

When things got started up again, the campaign seemed to go well. Fort Ticonderoga fell after a brief siege. The loss of the fort was a shock to the rebels. To make matters worse, the way to the Hudson now seemed clear. However, things began to turn sour for the British from this point onward.

The loss of Fort Ticonderoga was a wakeup call and Congress sent Major General Horatio Gates to command the northern portion of the Continental Army, with Benedict Arnold sent by George Washington to act as his subordinate. Detachments were made from the main army to reinforce the northern theater, including some of Washington’s best troops, a unit of riflemen under Colonel Daniel Morgan.

The American Revolutionary War seems to be the first in which rifles saw significant use on the battlefield. Unlike traditional firearms, rifles had spiraled grooves cut into the barrel. This gave the bullet a spin when flying through the air, allowing for a more aerodynamic shot which greatly increased range and accuracy. There was a drawback, though. Early rifles took twice as long to reload as a musket due to the carbon buildup in the barrel. Nevertheless, a soldier carrying one of these new rifles was to play a critical role in the events that were to come.

As he continued to advance, Burgoyne made a number of mistakes that would seriously threaten his march. The first mistake was in his route of advance. Instead of continuing with the waterborne route over Lake George to the Hudson, Burgoyne decided to move his force straight through the forest southward. His march was opposed by the Americans at every turn, delaying his advance and incurring significant casualties.[ii]

The second mistake was when Burgoyne employed Native American troops to bolster his numbers. While technically this was the correct decision, the Native troops were hard to effectively mold into the disciplined fighting force that he needed to command. This loss of cohesion would play right into his enemies’ hands.

The American propaganda machine raged against the British use of Indians in their armies, crying high and low of how it violated the rules of civilized warfare (if such an oxymoron can be tolerated). The most infamous action that was taken by the Natives fighting for the British was the scalping of a Miss Jane McCrea, a young woman from a Loyalist family engaged to a Loyalist officer serving under Burgoyne. When the news of her slaying became public, it was a powerful rallying cry against the British, and volunteers flocked into the Continental Army.[iii]

Things were not going well for the British campaign on other fronts either. The force under St. Leger was eventually forced to retreat after a series of maneuvers by Benedict Arnold. As such, it was unable to rejoin Burgoyne, leaving him with a shortage of manpower. Meanwhile, a large detachment of German mercenaries under Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Baum sent by Burgoyne on a supply mission was crushed at the Battle of Benington. Baum himself was killed and the detachment lost over 650 men, along with some Loyalists on their way to join the army.[iv] This would be a sorely-missed force when the decisive moment came.

The biggest mistake of the campaign, however, was made by the commander-in-chief. General William Howe…

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[i] Mitchell, Joseph, B. Twenty Decisive Battles of the World. Page 202. Konecky & Konecky. Old Saybrook, CT. 1964.

[ii] Ibid, 203.

[iii] Ibid, 204.

[iv] Ibid, 204.

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