Battle of Saratoga

A Brief History

Historians consider the Battle of Saratoga to be the major turning point of the American Revolution. This battle proved to the world that the fledgling American army was an effective fighting force capable of defeating the highly trained British forces in a major confrontation. As a result of this successful battle, the European powers, particularly the French, took interest in the cause of the Americans and began to support them.

In the British Campaign of 1777, Major General Burgoyne planned a concentric advance of three columns to meet in Albany, New York. He led the main column, which moved southward along the Hudson River. A second column under General Barry St. Leger served as a diversionary attack, moving eastward from Canada along the Mohawk River. General Howe was expected to direct the third element of the attack. According to the plan, General Henry Clinton, under the direction of Howe, would move northward along the Hudson River and link up with Burgoyne in Albany. Through this campaign, the British hoped to isolate and destroy the Continental forces of New England.

Initially, the British plan appeared to be working, with British victories at Ticonderoga and Hubbardton. Burgoyne's army continually pushed back the Americans southward along the Hudson River with only minor casualties. The Battle of Bennington marked the first significant American victory, when General John Stark led the American militia to victory against a British resupply expedition.

In an attempt to slow the British advance, the American General Philip Schuyler detached 1000 men under the command of Major General Benedict Arnold. This force moved west to thwart St. Leger's eastward advance along the Mohawk River. Arnold returned with his detachment after repelling St. Leger in time serve in the Battle of Saratoga.

At the Battle of Freeman's Farm, the new commander of the Northern Department of the American army, General Horatio Gates, lost an indecisive battle. During this First Battle of Saratoga, fought 19 September 1777, the American forces lost ground to the British forces under General Burgoyne. Disagreements in tactics and personalities led to a heated argument between Generals Gates and Arnold. General Gates relieved Arnold of command as a result. The Battle of Bemis Heights was the second battle of Saratoga, taking place October 7th when Burgoyne desperately attacked rebel defenses with his tired, demoralized army. At Bemis Heights, Gate's defensive tactics insured a tactical victory for the Patriots. However, Arnold saw an opportunity to seize the offensive while Burgoyne was vulnerable and led a counterattack. This bold move so badly wounded the British forces that Burgoyne surrendered days later at Saratoga.

Overview of Events Precipitating Battle

Key Events Prior to Start of Action

1. Battle Preparations at Freeman's Farm
12SEP77 Gates moved his 7000 men to fortify positions at Bemis Heights. Burgoyne lacked reconnaissance of rebel position due to loss of Indian scouts and desperately needed supplies.
13SEP77 Expedition resupplied plus 300 regulars and artillery added to Burgoyne's forces.
14SEP77 Burgoyne's forces crossed the Hudson River.
16SEP77 Sound of American reveille alerted Burgoyne to rebel presence.
17SEP77 American patrol surprised British foraging party, several British soldiers wounded and 20 prisoners taken. British advanced 3 miles to occupy Sword's Farm.
(later) Gates organized forces and awaited British approach. Loss of foraging party forced Burgoyne to seek reliable enemy intelligence.

Burgoyne completed plans for reconnaissance in force.

19SEP77 11:00 American patrol observed deployment of three British columns.

12:00 Morgan's Rifle Corps and Dearborn's Light Infantry moved to make contact.

Arnold's division alerted to provide flank support.
Learned's brigade readied to fortify line against main attack.

11:00 Burgoyne's troops advanced southward in three columns, generals Fraser, Hamilton, and Riedesel commanding (west to east).

12:30 Burgoyne advanced with Brigadier General James Hamilton's column to occupy cabin at Freeman's Farm.

2. Battle Preparations at Bemis Heights
19SEP77 Burgoyne considered taking the offensive but decided to allow the men to rest one day.

American forces busy with reorganization after the battle.

Burgoyne received a dispatch from Sir Henry Clinton describing his plans to assault northward against the American forts along the river. Burgoyne decided to hold his position and await developments of Clinton's campaign, hoping that Gates would be forced to detach units to support the other forts.
21SEP77-06OCT77 Interim Actions Continental forces remained in fortified positions at Bemis Heights.

Gates tracked British movement through outpost reporting system.

Americans kept pressure on the British with constant harassing fires by small patrols.

Arnold fortified the high ground west of Fort Nielson.

Gates and Arnold argue in dispute which results in Arnold losing his command.

Militia units from the New York area sporadically arrive to bolster Gates' roster.

Burgoyne directed fortification of:
  • Great Redoubt at Hudson River bank
  • Balcarres Redoubt south of Freeman's Farm
  • Breymann Redoubt at extreme right
During the interim, Burgoyne's men were on half rations of salt pork and flour and the horses were dying of starvation.

Desertions and battle losses reduced the British forces from 8,000 to 5,000 men.

04OCT77 (More of the same) Burgoyne called for a council of war with generals Phillips, Riedesel, and Fraser. At the meeting he presented plans for a second reconnaissance.

If the rebel position was revealed to be too strongly fortified, Burgoyne allowed a contingency for retreat to Battenkill 11 October. Otherwise, he planned to attack in force 8 October.

07OCT77 Gates' adjutant-general LTC James Wilkinson returned with reports that the enemy was forming along Mill Creek.

In response to COL Morgan's suggestion, Gates deployed units of Morgan (attacking west) and Poor (attacking east) against the British column.

British advanced in three columns comprised of 1,500 of the remaining 5,000 regulars and the entire auxiliary complement of 600 men.

CPT Fraser provided flank security, traveling southward through the woods to the west while the main body of three columns moved southward on line.

Definition of Subject Matter

Staff Ride Qualifications

  • Echelons of Command : Corps level engagement
  • Terrain Quality : The terrain remains much the same as it was during the battle, but the battlefield was more heavily forested in 1777.
  • Types of Units Involved : Musket Infantry, Light Infantry, Grenadiers, and Artillery
  • Availability of Sources : A variety of sources exist.
  • Availability of Logistic Support : The immediate area of the battlefield is rural and does not provide much support. However, Saratoga New York provides for most necessities.

Battle of Saratoga Staff Ride

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The Surrender of Gen. Burgoyne at Saratoga, New York, 1777
Painting © The Frick Collection, New York

John Trumbull painted this portrait of the surrender of General Burgoyne at the Battle of Saratoga. In the painting, General Burgoyne surrenders his sword to General Gates, commander of the American forces at Saratoga.