2) The Fortune of War

Bemis Heights

The fortune of war, General Gates, has made me your prisoner.
–General Burgoyne


Despite the bloody check he received at Freeman’s Farm on the 19th of September, Burgoyne’s resolve was by no means weakened. In fact, much to the horror of his senior officers, he wanted to attack again the very next day. In the end, he was persuaded to give the ranks at least a day to catch their breath and tend to their wounded. That same day, though, a dispatch arrived that changed Burgoyne’s mind. Dated 11 September, it was from Sir Henry Clinton, who was holding New York while Howe was campaigning in the south, and it seemed full of promise to Burgoyne. “You know my good will,” Clinton wrote. “If you think 2,000 men can assist you effectually, I will make a push at [Fort] Montgomery in about ten days. But ever jealous of my flanks if they make a move in force… I must return to New York to save this important post.” Exactly what this promised in Burgoyne’s mind is hard to say, miraculous deliverance perhaps. But the hard facts were that the Hudson River forts, Montgomery and Clinton, were well down river–just forty miles north of New York–and Clinton wrote candidly that he did not expect to reach Albany. Two full weeks were to pass before Clinton got in motion, but when he moved he moved briskly. On 4 October in a sharp little fight with vastly outnumbered militiamen, both forts fell. The next day Clinton’s sailors cut through a ponderous boom and chain that blocked passage up the Hudson, but at this point the British general had accomplished all he promised and returned to New York. He was turning his back on Burgoyne and on opportunity also. He had a force of 4,000 men and the Royal navy to transport it. Americans in genuine alarm expected him in Albany at any moment; had Clinton reached dry ground on the west bank of the river, Gates might very well have been caught between two fires. Indeed, Americans had more alarming news with word of Washington’s defeat on Brandywine Creek on 11 September. It soon became clear, though, that Clinton had done all the harm he intended to do in the north country, and meanwhile Gates strengthened his hold on John Burgoyne. By the first week of October Gates’ army, flush with the half-victory Arnold had won at Freeman’s Farm, had grown to 11,000. Even John Burgoyne was beginning to see how desperate his predicament was.

Since his decision on 20 September to wait for Clinton’s move against the highland forts, matters had gone from bad to worse for Burgoyne. Indian summer was slipping away and there were hard frosts at night now. His sick and wounded numbered 300, with more falling out each day. And with good reason: the army had been on half-rations; now it was down to one-third, and none too healthy at that, the fare consisting mainly of rancid pork and moldy flour. The Americans might starve this army into submission without firing another shot, but as far as shooting went, they were relentlessly active. “Not a night passes,” one weary redcoat complained, “but there is firing and continual attacks on the advanced picquets.” For the British there was no food, no rest, no relief. In Burgoyne’s rear was even more trouble: 1,500 militiamen under General Benjamin Lincoln had swooped down on the portage between Lake Champlain and Lake George, seizing supplies, taking prisoners, burning boats. Restless John Stark had come marching down from the Grants and made a raid on Burgoyne’s own bateaux. Without these boats it might be impossible to retreat to Canada if it came to that. In fact, Burgoyne’s senior officers were quite convinced that it had come to that. Riedesel and Fraser argued that at the very least the army ought to fall back behind the Batten Kill before it was completely chewed up right where it stood.

It was good advice too: start for Canada now, while the army was still on its feet. But Burgoyne would not take it. On 6 October, the day after Henry Clinton had come and gone on the lower Hudson, Gentleman Johnny resolved to smash through to Albany. The move would begin with a reconnaissance in force the next day; 1,500 of his fittest men supported by ten field pieces would march for the American left, probing for a weak spot. Once the advance corps discovered the likely spot, the rest of the army would pile through it the following day. They were long odds, but as Gates said of his antagonist, Burgoyne was “an old gamester.” It was like him to “risque all upon one throw.” On the evening of the 6th, Burgoyne issued a ration of rum to the advance corps, an infallible sign of an impending collision. The next morning Gentleman Johnny cast the dice. The reconnaissance in force marched in three columns for the American left, advanced for some three-quarters of a mile before shaking out a battle line a thousand yards wide on a gentle slope just west of Freeman’s Farm. Word of the British advance came to Gates at a gallop: the British appeared ready to give battle, their front open and both flanks resting on woods. To their immediate right was a wooded hill from which a telling blow might be struck. “Well, then,” Gates decided, “order on Morgan to begin the game.”

In the first bloody game opposite Bemis Heights, Gates had really given only two meaningful orders: first to let Arnold pitch into the British right and then to call him off when he had nearly broken their center. Today he seemed resolved to handle his command with more dispatch. While Morgan’s men were on a wide circuit through the woods searching for the British right, Gates sent General Enoch Poor’s tough New Hampshire brigade with two militia outfits in support to attack the British left and Ebenezer Learned’s brigade against their center. A little past 2:30 the New Hampshire Continentals piled into the grenadiers on the right and smashed them up. The grenadiers rallied, went scrambling back down the slope in a counterattack, only to run into a punishing volley of musketry that broke them for good. Over the roar of the fighting here Poor’s brigade could now hear the pop and rattle of fighting from their far left, where Morgan’s men were now falling on the flank and rear of the light infantry at that end of the line. These redcoats struggled to change front to meet the threat here, but the steady sharpshooting of Morgan’s riflemen and the disciplined volleys of Dearborn’s light infantry were deadly. Soon both flanks of the British advance were falling back in disorder. The Germans in the center were already under fire from Learned’s brigade on their front. When Morgan and Poor closed in on their flanks, they too began to buckle.

Seeing his flanks crumpled and his center wavering, Burgoyne sent an aide forward to order a retreat before all was lost irretrievably, but his courier was shot from the saddle before he reached Riedesel. About this time one of Morgan’s riflemen finally drew a bead on Simon Fraser, and Burgoyne’s ablest subordinate tumbled from his horse with a mortal wound. The retreat Burgoyne intended was now a rout, the wreckage of his battle lines stumbling rearward through the woods. If Burgoyne could rally his men and make a stand at all, it would have to be on his right, where two sturdy redoubts had been dug: the Balcarres Redoubt just behind Mill Creek and the Breymann Redoubt to its right rear. Meanwhile, into the battle at this critical juncture galloped Benedict Arnold. What Arnold had been doing all day is not entirely clear, though it is certain that he was fuming with rage and drinking heavily. The source of his rage was not the fleeing redcoats but his commander, Horatio Gates. After the fight at Freeman’s Farm, Gates had written Congress of his victory, conspicuously neglecting any mention of the part that Arnold, Morgan, and Dearborn had played in the battle. A man of vaulting ambition and prickly pride, Arnold had swept into Gates’ tent, showered him with insults, and stalked off in a fury. Gates for his part relieved him of command and said, in effect, ride to Philadelphia and tell your tale to Congress if you like. Arnold’s comrades, well aware of his abilities, prevailed on him to stay, but on the day of battle he was a commander without a command.

But Arnold was not the sort to sulk in his tent while the British were in full retreat. In defiance of Gates’ order, he rode into the fight where Learned’s Continentals were pushing the Germans before them. The Continentals, only too happy to see that bold soul ride among them, gave a rousing cheer and drove on with renewed energy. They piled headlong into the Balcarres Redoubt only to find that the light infantry there had a good deal of fight left in them after all. With their backs against the wall, they poured a furious fire into Arnold’s attack and blunted it. Frustrated, Arnold now scooped up an advancing brigade and swung them left for a drive at the Breymann Redoubt and the British flank. The Brunswickers here, in danger of being completely cut off from the main body, seem to have been in the process of falling back when Arnold struck. They let loose a ragged volley and began to flee. Breymann tried to rally them but was himself shot down (some thought by his own men). In the last minutes of the fighting, Arnold galloped into the sally port of the redoubt. His horse was shot out from under him, and a wounded German shattered his leg with a musketball–the same leg that had been shattered before the walls of Quebec. Arnold had struck his last blow for the American cause. With Arnold’s driving force out of the fight, the American advance slowed and then stalled. But it was no matter really, the British right was broken, and the weary survivors of the reconnaissance in force were seeking the safety of the main line in their rear. Indeed, Burgoyne’s army was hopelessly shattered. The Second Battle of Freeman’s Farm cost him 600 in killed, wounded, and captured against an American loss of 150. Under cover of darkness that night Burgoyne began to pull his exhausted and dispirited men out of line and start them north toward the high ground at Saratoga.


On the night of 8 October the rest of the army slogged north in a sullen rain, leaving 300 of their wounded comrades behind to Gates’ mercy. The march was misery itself. Horses were played out and wagons were abandoned; the barges carrying the last of their supplies upriver were soon overtaken and seized; men simply fell out of line and collapsed in the muck. The fine invasion force that had mustered at the mouth of the Richelieu had now hardly anything to eat nor the slightest rag to cover itself with. Even in pursuit of a crippled enemy, however, Gates was no very hard driver. By 9 October Burgoyne had managed to get across the Fishkill and dig in at Saratoga. It was no place to make a stand, even a last one, and Burgoyne’s senior officers knew it. Gates’ lumbering pursuit had given them one more chance–slim as it was–to hike for Ticonderoga as hard as they could go. But while Burgoyne waited, Morgan and Learned came up behind, and soon Massachusetts militiamen were closing in from the east. On 13 October John Stark came down from the north and slammed the door shut. There would be no knighthood for John Burgoyne.

On the 16th Burgoyne met with Gates to discuss the terms of surrender. In the end, he would have more success at the negotiating table than he had on the battlefield. When Gates demanded unconditional surrender, Burgoyne refused furiously. Gates demurred and a “Convention” (not a “capitulation”) was cobbled together, allowing the British and their allies to stack their arms with the full honors of war. This may have been simply proper respect for a brave but beaten enemy, but the most important clause of the Convention threatened to squander the very fruits of the American victory. The British were to be paroled and returned to England on the condition that they would not serve again in America. Instead of taking a British army off the board, the Convention would simply exchange it for another now on garrison duty elsewhere. Gates later argued that he had to take what he could get then and there because Clinton was again on the move up the Hudson. While Gates and Burgoyne were still at the table on 16 October, Clinton did attack and burn Kingston; he even sailed as far upriver as Livingston Manor, 85 miles south of Saratoga. But with militia now active on both banks of the river, Clinton thought better of this belated expedition and returned to New York. That same day Burgoyne signed the Convention. On the 17th Burgoyne’s 5,800 survivors marched out into a little meadow north of the Fishkill, furled their flags and lay down their arms in a simple ceremony. “The fortune of war, General Gates, has made me your prisoner,” said Gentleman Johnny with a final flourish. In the end the Convention was a moot point. When Congress learned of Gates’ overgenerous and extralegal terms, they rightly feared that the British would return the troops to America regardless of the agreement and promptly abrogated it. The so-called Convention Army, having suffered so much under John Burgoyne, now had a good deal to suffer at the hands of Congress. They were marched hither and yon–to Massachusetts, on to Virginia, and finally to Pennsylvania–to sit out the war in miserable captivity.

Gates of course was swift to inform Congress of his shining success. So flush with victory was he that this time he was willing to give due regard to “the gallant Arnold.” He was a good deal slower to inform Washington, however, who was fighting for his life in Pennsylvania just then and could have used the now-idle troops at Saratoga. The reason was not hard to see: Gates was already angling for Washington’s job on the basis of a victory that had been won in large part by the shrewd and resourceful leadership of Schuyler and St. Clair and the bold fighting of Arnold. But a victory it was and decisive too. Burgoyne’s army was wrecked, the northern front secure, and New England safe from invasion. More than that, the Americans were discovering what could be accomplished by the steady performance of the Continental Line in conjunction with the timely cooperation of the local militias. In Paris, the statesmen were inching closer toward recognition of and alliance with the American cause. In London, Lord George Germain announced to Parliament the “very unhappy intelligence” from Saratoga. It came as quite a shock to those who had been jollied along by Burgoyne’s swift stroke at Fort Ti and Howe’s victory at Brandywine Creek. The news also seemed to make a prophet of Sir Edmund Burke, who had warned against trying to manage an American campaign from London. Sir Guy Carleton in Canada was among the few who understood the full meaning of Burke’s warning and the disaster at Saratoga. He hoped that this “unfortunate event… will in future prevent ministers from pretending to direct operations of war in a country at three thousand miles distance, of which they have so little knowledge as not to be able to distinguish good, bad, or interested advice.” Of course, the ministers would continue to try anyway, but for the time being Britain’s cause would be in the hands of Sir William Howe in Pennsylvania.