In the late summer and fall of 1777, after two years of indecisive fighting on both sides, the outcome of the American War of Independence hung in the balance. Having successfully expelled the Americans from Canada in 1776, the British were determined to end the rebellion the following year and devised what they believed a war-winning strategy, sending General John Burgoyne south to rout the Americans and take Albany. When British forces captured Fort Ticonderoga with unexpected ease in July of 1777, it looked as if it was a matter of time before they would break the rebellion in the North. Less than three and a half months later, however, a combination of the Continental Army and Militia forces, commanded by Major General Horatio Gates and inspired by the heroics of Benedict Arnold, forced Burgoyne to surrender his entire army. The American victory stunned the world and changed the course of the war.
Kevin J. Weddle offers the most authoritative history of the Battle of Saratoga to date, explaining with verve and clarity why events unfolded the way they did. In the end, British plans were undone by a combination of distance, geography, logistics, and an underestimation of American leadership and fighting ability. Taking Ticonderoga had misled Burgoyne and his army into thinking victory was assured. Saratoga, which began as a British foraging expedition, turned into a rout. The outcome forced the British to rethink their strategy, inflamed public opinion in England against the war, boosted Patriot morale, and, perhaps most critical of all, led directly to the Franco-American alliance. Weddle unravels the web of contingencies and the play of personalities that ultimately led to what one American general called “the Compleat Victory.”
Excerpt from Chapter 18 “The Battle of Freeman’s Farm,” pages 272-276
By Thursday, September 18, 1777, only 3 miles separated the two armies. About halfway between Swords’s house and Bemis Heights was a deep gully cut by a stream framed by steep banks that later became known as the Great Ravine. Any Burgoyne advance would have to negotiate not only the Great Ravine, described by one of his aides as “one of the deepest I ever saw,” but many smaller valleys that crisscrossed the landscape, formed by creeks as they made their way to the Hudson River. He also had to contend with more downed and destroyed bridges along the Albany Road and the densely wooded areas, traversed by narrow paths and crude roads and pockmarked by scattered, cultivated fields and small farms.
Burgoyne wanted to keep moving. He knew the Americans were on favorable terrain that guarded the road to Albany, but he lacked the detailed intelligence that would allow him to plan and conduct a thorough, deliberate attack. Hence he decided to conduct a forward movement to find and engage Gates and to develop the situation to his advantage. Burgoyne most likely wanted to fix Gates in position and then outflank him from the west, hoping to force the Americans to abandon their strong position on Bemis Heights and retreat south.
Delayed by thick ground fog, Burgoyne’s forces prepared themselves to battle the Americans. Ammunition, a hundred rounds for each man, and rations were distributed, baggage packed onto carts, bateaux loaded and readied to be floated down the river parallel to the army’s advance, and the men formed into ranks. Burgoyne began his advance at 9:00 am on the 19th, using three columns, with his remaining Indians, Loyalists, and Canadians in the lead acting as scouts. The columns would advance together along different routes while remaining within supporting distance of each other. The right column consisted of the advanced corps (2,400) and Breymann’s Corps (530) along with two 6-pounder guns. Fraser’s mission was to skirt the Great Ravine and seize and hold the high ground to the west of Bemis Heights. The center column, referred to as the “British Line” and accompanied by Burgoyne himself, consisted of the 9th, 20th, 21st, and 62nd Regiments of Foot and an artillery detachment of four 6-pounders (1,700). Brigadier General James Hamilton commanded the center column, which acted as the army’s main effort. The left column, commanded by Riedesel and accompanied by Phillips, consisted of Riedesel’s Corps of the three Braunschweig musketeer regiments, the surviving Braunschweig dragoons, and the Hesse-Hanau artillery (1,600). This column was followed by the hospital, the army’s baggage and artillery train, and the followers. The Hesse-Hanau infantry regiment (590) acted as the army’s rear guard at Swords’s house. Riedesel was charged with opening the Albany Road and fixing Gates in position. A signal gun fired from the center column would announce the launch of a synchronized attack on the American positions on Bemis Heights.
Burgoyne and Hamilton’s center column made good time, crossing the Great Ravine quickly and without opposition, the Americans having failed to destroy a bridge across the stream, reaching the vicinity of Freeman’s Farm by noon. The Americans passed up an opportunity to inflict serious damage on the center column by failing to defend the south bank of the Great Ravine. Burgoyne’s men quickly crossed the unattended obstacle. The other two columns took much longer to get into their assigned positions, hindered by the dense woods, poor roads, fallen trees, morning fog, and three bridges along the river road that had been destroyed by the Americans. Fraser and the right column also had to negotiate a longer, more circuitous route to march. The movement was particularly frustrating for Riedesel and his troops, who seemed to encounter a downed bridge every quarter mile. Although Burgoyne had established a system of cannon signals to coordinate the three columns’ movements, managing an army divided into three parts across miles of rough terrain and thick woodlands was a difficult task. By noon the columns had all reached their designated positions, and a signal of three cannon shots announced the order for the columns to continue their advance. Hamilton dispatched Major Gordon Forbes and one hundred men to scout ahead of the main column and to brush away some American pickets who had harassed the British advance.
As Burgoyne and his army approached the Americans’ positions, Gates enjoyed some major advantages over the enemy. He only had to defend, not attack. This was Gates’s preferred mode of fighting, and using the militia fit it perfectly. Militia forces were most effective when used on the defensive and behind fortifications. Gates could, therefore, afford to wait for Burgoyne’s advance. Gates also had a secure line of communications to Stillwater and then on to Albany.
Still, all was not rosy in the American camp. Gates and his temporary second in command Arnold (Lincoln was senior to Arnold but was still in Vermont) disagreed on the best way to counter Burgoyne’s advance. Arnold wanted to seize the initiative and attack; he believed they could catch Burgoyne on the move and inflict maximum damage. Gates settled on a compromise course of action, one that failed to appease his fiery subordinate and led to a bitter disagreement between the two men in the coming days.
The American positions on and around Bemis Heights were formidable indeed, but mainly due to the terrain since the fortifications were still incomplete. Because the river and the road to Albany were critical to Burgoyne’s movement southward, the Americans put most of their efforts into denying the enemy access to both. They built trench lines across the floodplain from the base of Bemis Heights to the road and the river, along with batteries covering the earthworks and the river itself. Three artillery batteries—the North Redan, the Bemis Heights Redoubt, and the South Redan—were also posted on the eastern summit of Bemis Heights, where they commanded the low ground, the road, and the river. From the batteries covering the road and river, the entrenchments extended almost a mile west along the northern slope of the heights and all the way to the Neilson Farm, which was located on high ground that anchored the defenses.
This long line of field fortifications faced another deep ravine (not the Great Ravine) just to the north, making a frontal attack difficult. The army’s right wing, commanded personally by Gates, manned the positions along the river and to the front, while Arnold’s left wing occupied the western entrenchments. At the Neilson Farm, the line angled back south for about a half-mile until it reached an east-west road that ran all the way to the river near the Bemis Tavern. This part of the line guarded against an enemy flank attack from the west. Gates’s headquarters was located at the Woodworth Farm, about a third of a mile south of the Neilson Farm. The Americans had constructed a floating bridge near the Bemis Tavern, linking their positions to the east bank of the Hudson and facilitating the movement of troops and supplies, and especially militia from the New England states. Kosciuszko had done his work very well, indeed.
In addition to being incomplete, the American defenses on Bemis Heights, though strong and well sited, were not impregnable. If Burgoyne could place a sizeable force on the high ground to the west of Neilson Farm, they could potentially outflank Gates’s fortifications. However, given that the American positions formed a horseshoe-like shape with the open end facing south, Gates had the advantage of tactical interior lines and thus could shift forces to face any threat, whether they came along the Albany Road or through the woods against his weaker left flank. Burgoyne, on the other hand, had to operate on exterior lines, forcing him to march farther through dense woods along unmapped paths and in and out of a labyrinth of ravines.
Gates was well aware that Burgoyne’s army was getting ready to move. Though he anticipated that they would head in the direction of the American positions, he was unable to get his scouts close enough to have an exact sense of the British preparations. He, therefore, on September 18, sent some New Hampshire troops under Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Colburn to the east side of the Hudson directly across the river from Swords’s house. When Burgoyne’s army broke camp, and the three columns moved out, Colburn immediately sent word to Gates and Arnold. Taking Arnold’s advice, Gates sent Morgan and his men “to observe their direction, & harrass their advance.” Morgan and Dearborn left the security of the American fortifications and moved into the woods and toward the enemy middle column, while the rest of the army manned the fortifications.
“The Compleat Victory” is available for purchase online here.
Kevin J. Weddle is Professor of Military Theory and Strategy at the U.S. Army War College at Carlisle, Pennsylvania. A West Point graduate, he served in the Army for 28 years on active duty in command and staff positions in the United States and overseas, including Operations Desert Storm and Enduring Freedom, before retiring as a colonel. He is the author of “Lincoln’s Tragic Admiral: The Life of Samuel Francis Du Pont,” which was awarded the William E. Colby Award.
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