Saturday, October 7, 2017

Notes From the Northern Department: The Battles of Saratoga

By Andrew Bertorelli

On September 19, 1777, at approximately 12:30 pm, the opening volleys of the first Battle of Saratoga crackled across the field at Bemis Heights, in what is today northern Stillwater and southern Saratoga, NY. In what may be considered a typical confrontation between the two forces by this stage in the war, the first battle lasted three hours, ending with neither side able to claim a decisive victory.
 
The Battlefield at Saratoga as it appears today.
Major General Horatio Gates, as painted by Gilbert Stuart
The site at Bemis Heights was chosen by General Horatio Gates, a political and military rival of Philip Schuyler and the man who replaced him as the commander of the Northern Department in August, and who had become a major proponent of Schuyler’s dismissal from his post as commander after the loss of Fort Ticonderoga. Gates’ army was accompanied by troops commanded by Major General Benjamin Lincoln, as well as a group of sharpshooters from the new Provisional Rifle Corps, commanded by Colonel Daniel Morgan. Gates was also joined by forces under the aggressive young general, Benedict Arnold, who had just returned from his encounter with the western pincer of the British forces at Fort Stanwix. Although the developed an early rapport, Arnold had infuriated Gates with his friendly relationship with Philip Schuyler and by bringing several of Schuyler’s former officers onto his staff.


Major General John Burgoyne,
as painted by Joshua Reynolds
Morgan’s rifle company engaged Burgoyne’s right flank, which was a combination of British regulars, light infantry, and grenadiers commanded by Fraser. Units such as the light infantry and grenadiers in Fraser’s force surely would have considered themselves a cut above the rest as compared to the regular regiments and militias of the 18th century. Light infantry units derived their classification from the fact that they were highly mobile units, able to move fast from one position to another after their highly-trained men fire aimed shots. This strategic agility would allow them to consistently be just beyond the reach of the enemy’s fire, as well as allowing the commanding general to hastily place them on the battlefield and quickly adjust their position however he saw fit. For their increased usefulness to their commander and their high level of training, light infantrymen were often regarded as having slightly more status than a regular infantryman.

An artistic depiction of British Grenadiers
Unlike their fast and mobile comrades, grenadier regiments were the heavy hitters of an 18th century battlefield. Grenadier units would specially select recruits who were taller and stronger than most, and would then give them arduous training to instill extreme discipline, making them less likely to rout in battle. Furthermore, grenadiers’ regimental uniforms were easy to tell apart from regular units because of the upturned miter caps, later replaced by bearskin miters, they wore into combat. These hats had initially helped the men in grenadier regiments to hurl their small bombs, or hand grenades (from whence they derive their name), overhand without hitting their arms on the brim of their hats and thus knocking them off. Grenadiers would often enjoy extra pay, and of course elevated status among their peers. At Saratoga, Burgoyne had tasked these men with trekking through the heavily wooded high ground northwest of the center-field and thus forcing the American left flank to turn and fight them, diverting some American fire away from Burgoyne’s center line. This maneuver, however was anticipated by General Arnold and he was granted a reconnaissance-in-force, consisting of Morgan’s rifle company and a Continental light infantry unit.

A detail cut-away of a rifled barrel.
The distinction between an early muzzle-loaded rifle, as used by Morgan’s men, and the typical Brown Bess smooth bore musket used by regular troops during the war is important to note. The rifling grooves forged into the barrel by the gunsmiths had originally come to North America with German immigrants settling the frontiers of Pennsylvania and Kentucky. Initially intended to ease the long, methodical process of cleaning a black powder gun, shooters and hunters quickly realized that guns with spiraled grooves running the length of the inside bore of the gun’s barrel would improve effective range and accuracy of the weapon. Today we know this accuracy is due to the gyroscopic stability achieved by a spinning ball in flight, such as with footballs. This difference in equipment between the American and British forces on the northwestern flank of the battle lines would allow Morgan to intentionally place skilled marksmen and their accurate rifles in positions enabling them to shoot the British officers whilst commanding their troops. However, Morgan’s men quickly found themselves fighting the bulk of Burgoyne’s main army which had come to reinforce Fraser and his men.

The Continental Army at this initial battle on September 19th was numerically superior, having roughly a quarter more troops than the British. Nevertheless, the Americans were still be beaten back by aggressive British and German flanking movements under the command of Gen. Fraser and the Baron Von Riedesel, respectively.  As darkness set in, the hostilities gave way to a lull in the battle, bringing an inconclusive end to the day. While the British succeeded in holding the field, they remained outnumbered by the Continental Army who, though battered, remained intact. The battle on the first day cost the Continental Army about 300 casualties, while the British suffered approximately 460. The resulting damage to crops and buildings was also quite considerable.

After the battle, the two armies proceeded to encamp within a few miles of each other, both awaiting reinforcements and supplies. While the British army remained static in number and experienced a diminishment of supplies, militiamen and supplies continued to pour into the American camp, including critical increases in ammunition, which had been severely depleted. During this lull in the fighting, the relationship between Arnold and Gates became even more strained. The situation came to a boiling point with a yelling match between the two men, which ultimately led General Gates to relieve Arnold of his command in favor of Lincoln, transferring Arnold to Washington’s army.

An artistic depiction of Fraser's death.
On October 7th, 1777 hostilities were reignited as Burgoyne ordered another movement on the American left flank, this time with Grenadiers, the 24th regiment of foot (British regulars capable of acting as both line troops and light infantry), and ten cannon. The men would march almost a mile into what was a wheat field overlooking Mill Brook, a good vantage point to be sure. Gates commanded Morgan’s riflemen, General Poor, and General Learner’s forces to meet the British in what would become the decisive victory of the two-and-a-half-week battle. The British Grenadiers gave ineffective fire to Gen. Poor’s men, before charging with fixed bayonets. As soon as the British were in range, Poor gave the order to fire with devastating effect, leading to a full rout by the Grenadiers. Meanwhile, Morgan’s rifles were engaged in heavy fighting with the British Canadians and Native Auxiliary forces, routing them before engaging Fraser’s main force of regulars. At a critical moment in the fighting, Fraser was shot from his horse by a long-range shot from one of Morgan’s riflemen with what would prove to be a mortal wound.
A contemporary depiction of Burgoyne's encampment following the second engagement at Saratoga.
General Fraser's funeral procession is depicted marching across the face of the second-to-rightmost hill.

Abraham Ten Broeck. The arrival of his New York troops
sealed the American victory at Saratoga.
The death of Gen. Fraser was followed by the arrival of a massive force of New York Militiamen led by Abraham Ten Broeck, forcing the British to fall back to their defensive lines en-masse. Ten Broeck, the Brigadier General leading the militia, was a lifelong friend of Philip Schuyle. Both had grown up in Albany close in age, and shared the privilege of being born into wealthy Dutch families in the New York Province. His arrival on this battlefield with a force of militiamen equal in size to that of the entire British expeditionary force must have truly solidified the realization of defeat in the British troops as they fled.

The famous "Unnamed Boot" monument at
Saratoga National Battlefield Park
honors Benedict Arnold's role in the battle.
His name is left off however, due to
his infamous later betrayal.
Burgoyne would ultimately lose over 400 men on this day and six of the ten artillery pieces sent with the Grenadiers. Following the break of the British line, Gen. Arnold left the camp and took command of Gen. Poor’s men who were in pursuit of the fleeing British. Arnold led an attack on one of the British redoubts, but when the attack stalled he quickly rode through the lines to take charge of Gen. Learned’s men in an attack on the second British redoubt. The capture of the second redoubt provided a gap in the British camp’s defenses, allowing the Americans to pour in and completely break the British force. Arnold himself, however was shot from his horse during this daring charge; the resulting injury to his leg, from both the shot and the force of the horse falling onto it, led to a long and painful recovery for the General.

Burgoyne’s remaining men retreated roughly ten miles to what is modern day Schuylerville, New York. He had lost approximately a thousand men during the two battles, and by October 13th, he and his men were completely surrounded and outnumbered three to one. On October 17th, he surrendered to Gates. This was not only an American victory in military terms, but also political. By defeating Burgoyne in open combat, Gates had shown the world that the American colonists had a real chance of winning the fight against the British on their own, bolstering the newly solidified French support for the Patriot’s cause in earnest. In addition to support in North America, the French would bring the war with Britain onto the global stage, forcing the British to divert attention away from the colonies.
The Surrender of General Burgoyne, by John Trumbull, 1821. Key figures include General Burgoyne presenting his sword to Horatio Gates in center, Daniel Morgan in white the left near the cannon, and Philip Schuyler in civilian clothing just behind the cannon wheel. A full key to the figures can be found here.


 The Saratoga battlefield is today preserved through the National Parks Service, and is available for visitation. Click here to learn more. We're nearly at the end of our regular tour season, so stay tuned for more articles over the late-Fall and Winter months. You can find other information on the Revolutionary War in Northern New York with our "Notes From the Northern Department" series. Check out our other series as well to learn about the Women of Schuyler Mansion, artifacts in our collections, slavery and the lives of the people enslaved at the house, ongoing restoration, and much more.

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