The Revolutionary War in Massachusetts and New York: The Battle of Saratoga by Tom Best Station Historian

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And Now You Know More: The Revolutionary war in Massachusetts and New York: Today: Wrapping up: The Battle of Saratoga, New York

The Revolutionary War, while so distant from us in time, remains part of our patriotic and mythical past.  Yet, despite the importance of these historical characters, critical historic sites, and ideological connections to our days, I find that we need periodic reminders of the value of these Revolutionary days to strengthen our connections as Americans and to bolster our resolve as believers in liberty.

One of the most pivotal battles in the era of the Revolutionary War is found around Saratoga, New York in 1777.

Nestled in the meadows and forested groves of east central New York next to the hilly upper Hudson River Valley, this pivotal revolutionary conflict reminds me of other battle sites around our nation that are so crucial to our understanding of our history, but are not always that heavily visited.  Despite a few miles jaunt off Interstate 87, and near Saratoga Springs and the heart of horse country, I know my wife and I were among few historical travelers on an admittedly drizzly day.

So why are the events and battle of Saratoga so worthy of renewed consideration and a visit?

Let’s begin with a review the state of the Revolutionary War in 1777.  Ever since the opening shots were fired at Lexington Green in April 1775 (last week’s topic), the state of the revolutionary movement was one in flux and marked by both significant victories and defeats.  Yes, the British had been driven from Boston Harbor, but their army had since occupied New York City.  Victories in the days surrounding Christmas in New Jersey in 1776—most memorably at Trenton with Washington’s crossing of the Delaware—had enlived the spirit of those seeking independence, as expressed in Jefferson’s document of July 1776; however, the British army was nowhere being driven from our shores. 

A newly—self-declared United States—was about to be beset by a new invasion of British troops in the pivotal middle colonies of Pennsylvania and New York.  And the British meant business as they planned to isolate the Middle Colonies from troublesome New England and the divided loyalties of patriots and loyalists in the Southern colonies.  The New York portion of their strategy would be a three-prong affair.  Advancing east from Lake Ontario was Barry St. Leger.  Coming up the Hudson River was Henry Clinton.  And the leader who would play the major role in this series of battles at Saratoga was General Johnny Burgoyne.  A soldier as well as an accomplished play-write and member of Parliament, he was nicknamed “Gentleman Johnny” for his stylish habits in high society.  Burgoyne would embark from British Canada advancing south by way of Lake Champlain into the Hudson River Valley.  His army would be accompanied by both German mercenary soldiers and Native Americans.  The plan, of course, was for all three elements of the advancing armies to rendezvous in the area of Albany, the colonial capitol.

However, St. Leger was held up by a costly siege of Fort Stanwix in early August and then retreated when he received a report that a large force led by Benedict Arnold was headed his way.  Yes, this is that Benedict Arnold, whose skills were excellent, but whose angst with his commanders had worn thin.  General Clinton’s advance from New York City were thwarted by a series of fights up the Hudson River.  By early October, he was no where near Albany, or near to help.

Burgoyne, in the meantime, was more successful as he defeated multiple patriot forces from Fort Ticonderoga southward.  American General Philip Schulyer is continually losing fights and evacuating forts throughout July.  But Burgoyne’s easy advance is soon slowed down and then thrashed by Gen. John Stark’s New England militia, further delaying his advance. 

Now bolstered by new reinforcements and a new commander, Horatio Gates, the Continental forces marched on to meet Burgoyne head on.  He was joined by Benedict Arnold, returning from Fort Stanwix, and Col. Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a Polish engineer—one of many valuable European soldiers who would offer their help to the defeat the British.  And, with a local connection, giving credit to this Polish hero, his name, was considered as one of the three names to be used to choose for the fledgling village that was to become Monmouth.  Legend has it that Kosciuszko’s name was drawn first.  When it was agreed that this would be too difficult to spell or pronounce, a compromise came to choose “Monmouth.”  I know some folks of Polish descent in our community—like Al Kulczewski—would likely disagree with that renaming.

By mid-September, Burgoyne’s army reached the heights overlooking Saratoga.  Angling west to the area of the Freeman farm, Burgoyne encountered fierce fighting led by Col. Daniel Morgan’s famed rifleman and troops under Benedict Arnold.  After three hours of fighting, with Gates denying Arnold’s request for reinforcements, the Americans withdrew.  While this appeared a British victory, British losses that were nearly twice that of the Americans worried Burgoyne.  With supplies of food shrinking, Burgoyne dug in along the heights.  American numbers and their resolve to win only grew.

On October 7, Burgoyne marched 1,700 men out to the west of Bemus Heights to gather wheat to feed his men.  Gates sent out Arnold to investigate, but after a short set-back, Arnold convinced Gates to stage an all-out assault.  Arnold envisioning fortune’s fate along a weakly defended flank, carried out a victorious charge, and by nightfall, the British experienced 630 casualties to the American’s 150.  Burgoyne retreated northward in the midst of a thunderstorm and soon his exhausted, cold, and half-starved army went back into camp, only to be soon surrounded by Gates’s army.  Now outnumbered by three to one odds, Burgoyne, with no hope of reinforcements, decided on October 17 to surrender to Gates.  The grand strategy to divide and conquer the patriot cause had failed.

What was this battle’s result and legacy?  Perceiving the futility of the British invasion, the patriots were soon aided through a Franco-American alliance that triggered warfare between these two long-time enemies in both North America and around the globe and across oceans all the way to India.  By 1779, Spain also recognized the advantage of a weakened British empire and declared war as well.

From the American perspective, the victorious Benedict Arnold was not hailed by the antagonistic Gates, and would eventually have graver doubts about his allegiance to the patriot cause.  His treasonous intentions would later end his service and brand him the traitor that he is so now long remembered for.  Note: there was eventually a monument to Arnold’s wounding and his exploits placed on the battlefield in 1887.  Nicknamed the ”Boot Monument,” it unceremoniously renders Arnold’s service less noteworthy by not having Arnold’s name engraved upon the stone. Furthermore, Gates, while initially praised for his victory, had his own vainglorious dreams of replacing George Washington squashed. His plot failed and his reputation is damaged, he was transferred to fighting in the southern colonies where he later was soundly defeated in a crucial battle.

The scenic battlefield is undergoing some major updates and thus we were only able to hike a portion of the trails and roads.  The small visitor center is still fascinating with its upgraded graphics and artifacts, but it’s gift shop is one of the smallest I have ever visited for such an important battle site.  More people should learn the history of this pivotal military campaign and battle.

Thank you for your interest.  Next week, tune in for a lively reflection on our trip to Niagara Falls. 

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