In August 1777, British troops under Gen. John Burgoyne were finding the march from Fort Ticonderoga to Albany, N.Y., a difficult one.
Not only was the terrain hostile, but colonists Burgoyne thought would be loyal to the crown were proving anything but; and colonial troops under Philip Schuyler had scorched the crops and scattered the cattle as they retreated ahead of Burgoyne’s march, making foraging difficult. And Burgoyne suffered 800 casualties — one-seventh of his army — when Gen. John Stark and a troop of American farmers attacked his force near Bennnington, N.H.
But Burgoyne remained inspired by his defeat of Schuyler at Ticonderoga and continued to press on. In fact, the one-line summary of strategy he offered his troops was, “This army must not retreat.”
Gen. Horatio Gates took over Schuyler’s army when it arrived at Albany. He chose a plateau named Bemis Heights to set up his defenses and determined to stop Burgoyne in his tracks. He had about 7,000 men under his command.
As Gates dug in, Burgoyne and his army of almost 6,000 men crossed the Hudson River carrying about one month’s rations. After a brief respite, Burgoyne, in a magnificent display, marched his troops toward Bemis Heights. On Sept. 15, they set up camp four miles from the entrenched Americans.
Early on Sept. 19, Burgoyne got his troops on the move. Scouts told Gates the British were headed toward a 15-acre clearing owned by a farmer named Freeman. As usual, Benedict Arnold counseled an aggressive response. But Gates disagreed, concerned about how his troops might respond to warfare on open ground.
At Arnold’s insistence, Gates sent out riflemen and some infantry to harass the Brits from a dense pocket of forest. The armies fought all day in a battle that ended in stalemate. But despite Burgoyne’s insistence that he had won the battle, his troops knew different. The Americans had proven themselves ferocious in battle, and Burgoyne had lost two men for every one the Americans lost. His army had been reduced by one-third, and he was no closer to Albany.
For the next several weeks, the armies rested only two miles apart. British soldiers were forced to sleep on their arms lest the Americans attack. Each night, American raiding parties attacked the British camp, harassing their sleep. During the day, sharpshooters took aim at every British officer that stepped into view.
With his troops on half rations and his situation becoming increasingly difficult, Burgoyne disregarded the advice of his generals and led a force of 1,500 of his best men on a reconnaissance mission on Oct. 1. He hoped to catch the Americans in a vulnerable position, attack their flank, push them aside and move to Albany. When Burgoyne paused near a wheat field to ascertain the American position, some of his troops moved into a wheat field to cut some wheat. They lingered there much too long, and Gates decided to pounce.
He sent three regiments to attack the enemy in the field. Outnumbered six to one, Burgoyne’s entire left wing collapsed; and the Brits fled into the woods back toward their camp.
The next morning, Burgoyne struck camp, abandoned his field hospital, left the camp fires burning and retreated toward Saratoga. He decided against a forced march to Lake George and safety, instead gambling on the prospect of digging in and fighting from a fortified position. He also hoped to hold on until Gen. Sir Henry Clinton arrived with reinforcements from New York.
By Oct. 14, Burgoyne was surrounded by Gates’ forces, which had grown to more than 20,000; and he had rations for only 24 hours. Already his oxen and horses were dead of starvation. Clinton was nowhere in sight.
He convened his council and discussed surrender. His question: Did national dignity and military honor ever justify an army of 3,500 fighting men, who were well armed, in capitulating? His generals offered their lives once more if the fighting would produce results; but if such an action would lead to nothing, it was wiser to capitulate on honorable terms. A soldier with a flag of truce was sent to the American lines.
Burgoyne and Gates haggled over terms for the next three days as Burgoyne stalled for time. But on Oct. 17, Burgoyne surrendered. It was the first large-scale surrender of British forces in the Revolutionary War.
When word of the British defeat at Saratoga reached France, King Louis XVI agreed to recognize U.S. independence and told U.S. Ambassador Benjamin Franklin that France would provide aid to the patriot cause.
Sources: Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution, by A.J. Langguth.