Saturday, October 17, 2015

British Surrender at Saratoga

Today marks the 238th anniversary of British General John Burgoyne's surrender to American General Horatio Gates at Saratoga, New York, turning the tide of the Revolutionary War in the American's favor.

Surrender of General Burgoyne by John Trumbull; image courtesy of the
Architect of the Capitol

General Burgoyne left Canada in the summer of 1777 and planned to march his troops to Albany, New York, where his army would meet other British troops and cut off New England from the rest of the colonies. The hope was without the fervor of New England, the war would sputter out and end. However, American troops dug in on the highlands above the Hudson River near Saratoga. Their objective was to stall Burgoyne's progress.

The opening battle began on 19 September 1777 and became known as The Battle of Freeman's Farm. John Freeman was a loyalist, who abandoned his farm and went north to join Burgoyne. These are the fields where the opening battle took place:

These fields once belonged to John Freeman and were where the opening
battle of Saratoga, which became known as the Battle of Freeman's Farm;
personal collection

General Burgoyne won a tactical victory but took high casualties, thanks in part to Daniel Morgan and his troop of riflemen, specially selected from Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia for their marksman skill. During the battle, they picked off the officers of British units. In the month-long period between the opening engagement and Burgoyne's surrender, the British general received no reinforcements while Gates' army outnumbered the British by several thousand troops. In addition a continual stream of militia streamed in during the battles.

John Neilson's restored house which was taken over by American troops
during the Battle of Saratoga; personal collection

American Revolutionary War re-enactors encamp on John Neilson's farm;
personal collection

General Burgoyne had a decision to make after the initial battle. He could continue to attack or retreat. Believing retreat to be dishonorable, he decided to attack. Again, Burgoyne had decisions to make, stay near the Hudson River, or move inland into highlands. He had to make this decision with little information about his enemy. General Gates on the other hand, received consistent intelligence about the British from deserters and had intercepted some British communications.

The Battle of Bermis Heights began on 7 October 1777 with a British reconnaissance of the American left flank. Gates had placed Morgan's riflemen on the far left of his line with American General Enoch Poor's men firing on the British. The battle began in the afternoon. Morgan's men swept aside the opposition and continued to break up British attempts to move west. On the other side of Gates' line, the British were routed. The battle lasted little more than an hour. Burgoyne lost over 400 men, several officers and most of his field artillery.

"These [rebel riflemen]... hovered upon the flanks in small detachments, and were very expert in securing themselves, and in shifting the ground... many placed themselves in high trees in the rear of their own line, and there was seldom a minute's interval in any part of our line without officers being taken off by a single shot." -- General John Burgoyne, State of Expedition, 1777, after he surrendered.

Chatfield Farm where American and British pickets exchanged fire before
the Battle of Bermis Heights; personal collection

Revolutionary War artillery piece which changed hands many times during
the Battle of Saratoga; personal collection

General Burgoyne retreated under the cover of darkness a few miles north near present day Schulyerville. By 13 October he was surrounded at Saratoga Springs and he surrendered on 17 October. Burgoyne returned to England and never held another military command.

Today, 238 years ago, the British learned the Americans would fight effectively. One British officer said:

"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 battles around Saratoga were pivotal. The victory led the French to openly side with Americans, providing crucial assistance throughout the remainder of the war.

In a case of pure serendipity, my husband and I visited the Saratoga National Historic Park and toured the battlefield on 20 September 2015 during the 238th anniversary celebration at the park. Our visit was enriched by the British and American re-enactors, who gave several talks about Army life and the battle. The photographs in this post were taken during that visit.

Morgan memorial tablet; personal collection

Saratoga 1777
Here Morgan reluctant to destroy so noble a foe was forced by patriotic necessity to defeat and slay the gentle and gallant Fraser.

To commemorate the magnanimity of Morgan's heroic nature and his stern sense of duty to his country, this tablet is here inscribed by Virginia Neville Taylor, great granddaughter of Gen. Daniel Morgan.

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