The Battle of Saratoga was actually two separate battles that occurred in September and October 1777, during the American Revolution. The two crucial battles, fought 18 days apart, were decisive victories for the Continental Army and are widely considered as the crucial turning point in the Revolutionary War.
The Continental victory was the driving force for France to enter the conflict on the side of the Americans, convinced that they had an actual chance of winning their independence. And as a result, France gave loans, donations, weapons, and supplies to General George Washington’s Continental Army.
The American Revolution had been ongoing for more than two years and the British government, having believed that they would crush the colonial farmers in the rebellion against the Crown easily, wanted to end the conflict quickly.
The British Army planned to split the New England colonies from the more Loyalist middle and southern colonies by moving an Army from Canada south through upstate New York. General John Burgoyne planned to move his men in a three-way pincer movement. The plan called for a northern pincer movement to move from Montreal, while the southern pincer was ordered up the Hudson River valley from New York City. The western pincer was ordered to march from Ontario into western New York along the Mohawk River.
General William Howe moved his army towards Philadelphia from New York City, instead of turning towards Albany. Washington replaced Major General Phillip Schullyer with Horatio Gates in command of the Continental Army troops in Stillwater, NY. He also sent MG Benedict Arnold and MG Benjamin Lincoln north to join Gates.
The Polish Engineer
Gates’s army was growing by the day, as local commanders of the various militias were answering the call and joining. On September 7, Gates ordered his men north about 10 miles south of Saratoga to a strategic location known as Bemis Heights.
The army spent a week constructing defensive positions in the area. The Polish-Lithuanian military engineer, statesman, and military leader Colonel Tadeusz Kościuszko helped in the construction. Kościuszko is now a national hero in Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and the United States.
Kościuszko’s expertise was in the construction of military fortifications and he also was placed in command of constructing the fortifications at West Point, NY. During the earlier battle of Fort Ticonderoga, his recommendations were ignored and the British seized the high ground forcing the Continental Army to retreat. But he executed a brilliant delaying campaign and slowed the British advance by cutting and felling trees, damming streams, and destroying bridges to allow the Continental Army to escape.
His fortifications at Bemis Heights made any British attacks against Saratoga hopeless. The defensive positions dominated the high ground overlooking the battlefield and commanded the only road to Albany.
Battle of Freeman’s Farm
On September 16, Burgoyne’s army reached the edge of the Continental’s positions as small skirmishes between the two armies erupted. Gates and Arnold began feuding as their egos got in the way of preparation. Despite this, Gates gave command of the left flank of the defenses to Arnold, while he’d command the right.
The battle commenced on September 19, as British forces approached the abandoned farm of Loyalist John Freeman. Arnold had deployed sharpshooters under the command of Daniel Morgan, and they methodically sniped nearly every one of the British officers in the advance company.
The fighting raged back and forth all day. Morgan’s men killed so many of the British artillerymen that they occupied the guns for a time, before being driven off by subsequent British attacks. However, they continued to exact a heavy toll on the British officers. A late afternoon attack by German Hessians pushed the Americans back and gave the British control of the field.
The British had suffered 600 casualties to the Americans’ 300. With the numbers of the Continental Army continuing to swell, this was a ratio that Burgoyne couldn’t continue to suffer, so, he had to pull up and wait for reinforcements. Burgoyne was hoping that General Clinton would arrive with men, food, and supplies from New York City.
In the days between the battles, the ongoing feud between Arnold and Gates exploded after Gates’s report on the battle didn’t mention Arnold at all, despite the fact that Arnold and his troops did all of the fighting. Gates ended up relieving Arnold of command.
When Burgoyne became aware that Clinton wouldn’t be coming, he sought a council with his senior officers. Some lobbied for a retreat which Burgoyne rejected, calling it “disgraceful.” He instead decided to assault the left flank of the Americans with 2,000 men. But Gates’ troops now numbered 12,000 and held the high ground. Even more importantly, Gates was aware of Burgoyne’s situation, having captured several deserters as well as correspondence from Burgoyne to Clinton pleading for help.
Battle of Bemis Heights
The two sides were maneuvering into position all morning. The British were moving their artillery into a wheat field, but their flanks were dangerously exposed. Shortly after 2 p.m., the British grenadiers attacked although their artillery fire had been ineffective.
The Americans held their fire until the British were in close range. Only then did they open fire devastating the British charge. Most of the grenadiers were killed, wounded, or captured; six of the 10 cannons were captured as well. Burgoyne was nearly killed as Morgan’s sharpshooters hit his horse, hat, and waistcoat with well-aimed shots. The British suffered about 400 casualties.
The Americans were buoyed by the arrival of General Arnold who rode out to the battlefield and led a charge on horseback which helped the Americans break the British lines and force them into retreat. His leg was severely wounded again during the attack and he was carried back to headquarters on a litter.
Burgoyne withdrew to the lines he had occupied in early September, but his troops were soon surrounded by vastly superior American forces. The British surrendered on October 17. Burgoyne was never given command of a major British force again.
‘The Astonishment of Everyone’
As one British officer wrote after the battle, the British learned that the fledgling American army was not going to give in easily. They now had a newfound respect for the colonials.
“The courage and obstinacy with which the Americans fought were the astonishment of everyone, and we now became fully convinced that they are not that contemptible enemy we had hitherto imagined them, incapable of standing a regular engagement and that they would only fight behind strong and powerful works,” the officer wrote.
Arnold’s reputation was restored but he remained bitter at the army. While in command of American forces in Philadelphia, he would commit treason by offering to turn over the defenses of West Point to the British.