Saturday, July 4, 2015

Saratoga: When Britain Lost America

The campaign which, ultimately, helped decide the fate of a continent during the American War for Independence was fought in and around upper New York in 1777. It came one year after the American declaration of independence, following a string of brilliant but inconclusive British victories. The colonial rebels were down but not out and at the end of the previous year two inconsequential but much lauded successful skirmishes had boosted rebel morale. The Crown authorities in London wanted an end to these troubles and a decisive victory for the British Empire in America. One man claimed to have a plan to bring that about and that man was General “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne. He was a well known figure in British high society, known for his gambling, charm and flamboyant attire. The plan he put forward, however, was not truly his own but rather an elaboration on a plan developed earlier by General Sir Guy Carleton, the governor of Canada but which Burgoyne was happy to present as his own. If it all worked out, he was confident it would effectively end the rebellion in America once and for all.

"Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne
The plan was a basic “divide and conquer” strategy. Identifying New England as the nest of revolutionary activity in North America, Burgoyne’s plan called for cutting off the New England colonies from the middle and southern colonies so that each could be more easily pacified in turn. To do this, there was to be a three-pronged invasion of New York. General Burgoyne would lead the British army in Canada south along Lake Champlain and the upper Hudson, a smaller diversionary column would launch raids and enlist native support along the New York frontier to draw rebel attention and at the same time the main British army under General Sir William Howe would march north, up the Hudson and join forces with Burgoyne at Albany. This would cut New England off from the rest of the colonies and Burgoyne expected to benefit from the sizeable loyalist population in New York as well. It was, on the whole, an excellent plan but one that required proper coordination. General Burgoyne submitted his plan to the secretary of state for America, Lord Germain, who approved it and it was well received by King George III himself. Ever the gambler, before setting off for America, General Burgoyne wagered a sizeable sum that he would return victorious as the man who had won the war in North America.

Unfortunately for the British, the coordination the plan required was lacking from the start. General Sir Guy Carleton was offended that Burgoyne had taken credit for his plan and been appointed to command the expedition south over him. As a result, he was not prepared to be very helpful in carrying it out. Likewise, General Howe was not prepared to submit himself to being directed by an officer who was his junior and, in any event, had his own plan to march on the rebel capital at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It would be wrong, however, to blame General Howe for what was to come but rather more of the responsibility must fall on the shoulders of Lord Germain who, for some reason, authorized General Howe to move on Philadelphia which sent the main British army moving south when Burgoyne’s plan, which Germain had just authorized, depended in large part on Howe moving north to join forces with Burgoyne in Albany. There was simply no way that Howe could have done both. Upon arriving in Canada, General Burgoyne was informed that Howe was moving on Pennsylvania as well as being told that General Carleton was not prepared to assist his operation. Nonetheless, Burgoyne the gambler decided to roll the dice and set out on his campaign anyway.

Lt Col Barry St Leger
On June 17, 1777 General John Burgoyne set out from St John’s, Newfoundland bound for Lake Champlain with 7,000 troops (British regulars and Hessian mercenaries from Germany) plus artillery, 400 Native Americans and a smaller number of Canadian and American loyalist militia. Altogether, he had about 7,700 men and 138 cannon which was certainly not large enough to be completely invulnerable but which was large enough to be difficult to move through the heavily forested and mountainous regions he would have to cross. Still, Burgoyne trusted his luck and in the early stages things seemed to go well. On July 5, 1777 the Crown forces re-captured Fort Ticonderoga, the “Gibraltar of America” without firing a shot. At the same time, Lt. Colonel Barry St Leger led a detachment of British troops down Lake Ontario and surrounded Fort Stanwix on the upper Mohawk River. Just as predicted, the rebel forces responded and soon a rebel army of about 740 colonials plus 100 allied Native Americans were coming to confront his column of 500 British, loyalist and Native American soldiers. In the Battle of Oriskany, the quality of the Crown forces was shown and St Leger defeated the rebels and forced them back, inflicting heavy losses on the colonials. However, despite winning the battle, more rebel troops were on the way and Colonel St Leger had no choice but to retreat or be overwhelmed by numbers and wiped out completely

One of the Americans sent to relieve Ft Stanwix was General Benedict Arnold and he played a key part in forcing St Leger to back off, making the British believe that he had far more troops than he actually did. This news caused most of the Native Americans to abandon the British and left St Leger with no other option but to retreat. In command of the rebel troops gathering to oppose Burgoyne were generals Philip Schuyler and Horatio Gates. Neither were much to write home about. Schuyler had planned the first patriot invasion of Canada, which had failed miserably and after he lost Ft Ticonderoga without a struggle he was replaced by Horatio Gates, a man who would become known for taking credit for victories won by his subordinates before later in the war being humiliatingly defeated in the south at the Battle of Camden when he abandoned his army and ran for his life. However, Gates had some subordinates who were prepared to fight, none more so than Benedict Arnold. General Burgoyne, for his part, was starting to feel the wilderness closing in around him. His troops were woefully short of provisions and this was prompting many of his men to desert, driven by hunger. With his small army becoming ever smaller, Burgoyne decided to remedy this situation by sending a detachment of Hessian mercenaries under Lt. Colonel Friedrich Baum to raid Bennington, Vermont for supplies.

Bennington Flag
Unfortunately for the Germans, their raid ended in a confrontation with a much larger force of colonial militia on August 16. The Battle of Bennington was a clear rebel victory, the Germans suffering much heavier losses, including Colonel Baum, though his top subordinate, Lt. Colonel Heinrich von Breymann, survived the ordeal. The operation cost Burgoyne around 900 men killed or captured which he could not afford to lose, had gained him no provisions for his army and more rebel troops were moving in on his position with each passing day. North of Albany, the rebels had an army of about 6,000 men entrenched in a long line on Bemis Heights, blocking the way for the British. Burgoyne had gathered about 8,500 men by this time but that still was not enough to make a frontal attack on a fortified position. As the American line extended into some woods to the west, Burgoyne decided to target that area and flank the rebels on their left. On September 19, at the Battle of Freeman’s Farm, he sent his attack force in (the battle was named for the nearby farm of John Freeman, who happened to be a loyalist). Benedict Arnold suspected such a move and with great difficulty persuaded Gates to send some forces there and they ran into the attacking column of British General Simon Fraser.

American riflemen picked off the British officers and artillerymen but the British and German troops fought stubbornly. The battle flared off and on all day until finally, as darkness approached, the rebels retreated, leaving the field to the British. Burgoyne had won a minor victory but had lost twice as many men as the colonials doing it and had not managed to achieve his ultimate goal. His army had been reduced and every day brought more rebel troops to oppose him and his logistical situation grew ever worse. The prudent thing to do would have been to abandon the campaign and retreat to Canada immediately. However, that was not Burgoyne’s style and he decided to press on and fight it out no matter the odds against him. Unfortunately for the Crown forces, the luck of Burgoyne the gambler had finally run out. On October 7, Burgoyne mounted another attack on the American left at Freeman’s Farm with 1,650 troops but, this time, his forces were repulsed and driven back by the colonial rebels. The tide had turned and the British were forced to retreat. However, in their weakened state, it was extremely difficult to disengage and move away quickly. More and more rebel militia arrived and moved around to encircle the British army. Near Saratoga, New York General Burgoyne found himself surrounded by 17,000 men. He had only 5,000 in his own command by that time and these were weak and growing weaker.

Burgoyne surrenders to Gates
With no other option available, on October 17, 1777 General John Burgoyne surrendered his army to General Horatio Gates. The Crown forces laid down their arms as the colonial bands played “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and Burgoyne was the guest of General Gates, each toasting the enemy side. General Burgoyne was paroled and returned to England where he abandoned the Tories for the Whigs and was later made commander-in-chief of Ireland when they came to power. General Gates was lauded as the “Hero of Saratoga” in spite of the fact that he had not directed the battle and, indeed, usually opposed every move argued by Benedict Arnold that ultimately brought victory. Arnold was wounded in action but survived to become the most infamous “traitor” in American history. Ironically, if he had died on the field at Freeman’s Farm, he would have been a war hero and pigeons would be relieving themselves on statues of Arnold all over New England to this day. It would take another campaign and a disastrous, ignominious defeat before the American public learned just how overrated General Gates was as a battlefield commander. Meanwhile, far to the south, British forces under General Sir William Howe won the Battle of Brandywine and captured the rebel capital of Philadelphia but the surrender at Saratoga proved more significant.

Burgoyne’s capitulation at Saratoga marked the first time that a British army was forced to surrender to the American rebels and, indeed, it was really the first decisive victory the colonials had won. It was most decisive because it proved to the very reluctant King Louis XVI of France and his advisors that the Americans just might be able to win and this, along with the cajoling of Benjamin Franklin, at last persuaded the Kingdom of France to recognize the independence of the United States of America and form a Franco-American alliance against Great Britain. Had Burgoyne not lost at Saratoga and had the French not subsequently joined in support of the American rebels, it is almost certain that the War for Independence would have ended in a British victory, at least of some degree. In short, as much as some might not want to admit it, without the aid of the Kingdom of France there would be no United States of America and had Burgoyne not been defeated at Saratoga, there would likely have been no aid from France. It was the one American victory that ultimately mattered the most in determining the outcome of the war.


  1. Happy ungrateful colonial day

  2. Dear Britain,

    You have brought the Western world great refinement and intellectual brilliance.
    You've brought us the stereotypical view of the Medieval times, the Elizabethan period, the Georgian age, and who could forget the Victorian period?
    You've given us some of the greatest and revered artists and writers in the English language, you held an Empire,
    You defeated the great Napoleon,
    And yet you couldn't even keep thirteen colonies?


    1. They could but the Allied forces made it so difficult that they chose not to. You could likewise say about the United States; "You had the most advanced military on earth, you had nuclear weapons, you defeated Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan *simultaneously* and so on and yet you couldn't defeat half a third world country of rice farmers? Seriously?"

      The will was simply lacking. Even after the disaster at Yorktown, Britain still held the most key strategic points, the major ports and had naval supremacy. They still had large numbers of troops in the field and the primary army had not been defeated. However, with no clear path to victory in sight, France, Spain and Holland joining forces against them, Lord North's government fell and the British just didn't want to keep fighting. It's happened to most major powers.

  3. I am not opposed to the USA's existence today but had I been in the 1770s or 1780s I would vigorously oppose

  4. Had America remained part of the British Empire, there probably wouldn't have been a WWI or II. The Germans wouldn't have bothered fighting something so large.


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