Thursday, July 3, 2008

Military History and Warfare: The American War of Independence: Saratoga 1777

The American victory at Saratoga was arguably the most important battle of the American Revolution. It simultaneously reduced the British presence to the north of the thirteen colonies and gave the American rebels a much needed victory in a set piece battle. Most importantly, it triggered the French government to recognize the United States as an independent country. This would have important political ramifications in later ensuring French military support.

During the early days of the war, the British hoped for a climatic battle that would dishearten the revolutionaries and crush the rebellion. General John Burgoyne (popularly known as ‘Gentleman Johnny’) led an army of six thousand regulars from the British base in Montreal. He planned to march south and join up with the New York garrison and disrupt rebel communications between New England and Pennsylvania – the very heart of the Revolution. Success would depend upon a high level of co-ordination between Burgoyne’s forces striking from Canada and the main British army attacking from New York under General Sir William Howe and Henry Clinton. Burgoyne was a popular general and had several notable sub-ordinates commanders in his army. These included Major-General Phillips of the Royal Artillery, Brigadier-General Simon Fraser and Major-General Riedesel, commanding the German contingent. The army itself was a mixed force of 8000 men consisting of British regulars, Canadian militia and German mercenaries.

Little did Burgoyne realise that whilst he had been preparing his campaign to attack southwards, events were being decided in London by the Secretary of State for America, Lord George Germain. Howe had requested permission to move his forces towards Philadelphia. Incredibly, Germain approved Howe’s plan within a week of giving precise orders to Burgoyne to carry out a separate plan to attack in the opposite direction. Although Burgoyne was not to realise this until later, the decision to divert troops to Philadelphia allowed Washington to redeploy thousands of troops to stop him.

The start of the campaign went well, with Burgoyne’s troops capturing Fort Ticonderoga on the 6th July. However, this also meant that he had to leave troops behind to hold the newly captured fort. Hoping to reach Albany and link up with Henry Clinton’s troops from New York, the British found themselves under constant fire from American snipers. Using the terrain to their advantage, American troops blocked roads with fallen trees and flooded the trails upon which the British advance depended. It did not help that the British were also carrying a large baggage train. Burgoyne’s alone filled thirty carts, including his library, wardrobe and liquor. The Americans also adopted scorched earth tactics leaving little in the way of supplies for the lumbering British.

By July, Burgoyne’s force found itself at Saratoga short on supplies. Hearing of an American depot of horses and cattle twenty miles away at Bennington, Burgoyne dispatched a force of four-hundred men to seize it. Learning of Americans forces operating in the area, he dispatched another five-hundred men in support. Both forces were surrounded and destroyed by American militia reinforced by Colonel Seth Warner’s ‘Green Mountain Boys’. More bad news followed in August as a separate British divisionary force also (striking from Canada) was soundly beaten by Benedict Arnold and forced to retreat.

By the 13th September, Burgoyne marched his army out of Saratoga with the aim of linking up with General’s Howe’s forces. Burgoyne’s own force was by now reduced to only 5000 men. Against him, the American rebels had assembled 14,000 Continentals under Horatio Gates. Gates drew up his force at a position called Bemis Heights, overlooking the Hudson River. This enabled him to control the road upon which the British would have to pass. Burgoyne was quick to note the terrain. On the 19th September he divided his army into three columns in an attempt to turn the American position by its left. On the American side, Benedict Arnold saw the danger of the flanking movement and sent forward the light infantry along with Colonel Daniel Morgan’s corps of rifleman. Arnold’s troops then proceeded to fight the British to a standstill in the centre.

By nightfall the British had lost 600 men. The Americans had lost 300, but still had 9,000 in reserve. That night Burgoyne’s men camped on the field, whilst the Americans prepared themselves for more British attacks. However, Burgoyne had found out that Clinton had at last set out to support him. He therefore ordered his men to dig in and await the arrival of reinforcements. Although Clinton’s army made some progress working its way on the lower Hudson, his forces were not sufficient to fight their way to Burgoyne. Burgoyne therefore waited for weeks unable to advance. Supplies of flour and salt pork began to run out. Forage for the horses was all but gone and the General began to suspect he and his men had been deliberately sacrificed.

On the 7th October, Burgoyne attempted to advance again. However, this time he was only able to put some 1,500 men into the field. With the odds so heavily stacked against the British, the battle was a foregone conclusion. American troops led by Arnold drove the British back to their camp with heavy losses. A week later, with nowhere left to go, Burgoyne decided to abandon his guns and attempt an escape. It was already too late. On the 17th October, Burgoyne surrendered 5,721 troops, seven generals and twenty-seven guns. However, such was the repute of the British force and its commander that they were allowed to surrender on the understanding that they would be given parole and passage back to Great Britain. Later the U.S. Congress repudiated the Saratoga Convention. Burgoyne’s men were not repatriated and many died in captivity in miserable conditions.

The Battle of Saratoga was a crucial turning point for the American rebellion. Their victory over one of Britain’s top commanders encouraged France to recognise the infant ‘United States’ as an independent country. France, Spain and Holland all joined the war on the side of the Americans, turning what had been a rebellion in the American colonies, into a world war. By 1780, almost 12,000 French soldiers and sailors had arrived in America to support the Revolution. Therefore arguably, Saratoga was not only the most significant battle of the War of Independence, but probably in the history of the United States.

If you are interested in reading more about the Battle of Saratoga, have a look at these books;

Philip J. Haythornwaite, ‘Invincible Generals’ (Poole, 1991)

Holger Herwig, Christian Archer, Timothy Travers, John Ferris, ‘Cassell’s World History of Warfare’ (London, 2003)

Richard Worth, ‘Saratoga (Battles that changed the world)’ (2002)

Rupert Furneaux, ‘Saratoga: the Decisive Battle’ (1971)

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