It is doubtful that any military event can be said to have exercised more important influence on the future fortunes of mankind than the complete defeat of Burgoyne's expedition in 1777, a defeat which rescued the revolted colonists from certain subjection, and which, by inducing the courts of France and Spain to attack England in their behalf, insured the independence of the United States, and the formation of that trans-Atlantic power which not only America but both Europe and Asia now see and feel.
Seven thousand veterans were sent out from England for this expedition, which was accompanied by two or three thousand Canadians and a large body of Indians, whom Burgoyne had induced to join his army.
It was intended that the force thus collected should march southward by the line of the lakes, and thence along the banks of the Hudson River. The British army from New York (or a large detachment of it) was to make a simultaneous movement northward, up the line of the Hudson, and the two expeditions were to unite at Albany, a town on that river. By these operations, all communication between the Northern colonies and those of the centre and South would be cut off. An irresistible force would be concentrated, so as to crush all further opposition in New England; and when this was done, it was believed that the other colonies would speedily submit. The Americans had no troops in the field that seemed able to baffle these movements. Their principal army, under Washington, was occupied in watching over Pennsylvania and the South. At any rate, it was believed that, in order to oppose the plan intended for the new campaign, the insurgents must risk a pitched battle, in which the superiority of the royalists, in numbers, in discipline, and in equipment, seemed to promise to the latter a crowning victory. Without question, the plan was ably formed; and had the success of the execution been equal to the ingenuity of the design, the reconquest or submission of the thirteen United States must in all probability have followed, and the independence which they proclaimed in 1776 would have been extinguished before it existed a second year.
No European power had as yet come forward to aid America. It is true that England was generally regarded with jealousy and ill will, and was thought to have acquire, at the treaty of Paris, a preponderance of dominion which was perilous to the balance of power; but, though many were willing to wound, none had yet ventured to strike; and America, if defeated in 1777, would have been suffered to fall unaided.
Burgoyne reached the left bank of the Hudson River on the 30th of July. Hitherto he had overcome every difficulty which the enemy and the nature of the country had placed in his way. His army was in excellent order and in the highest spirits, and the peril of the expedition seemed over when they were once on the bank of the river which was to be the channel of communication between them and the British army in the South.
The success of this march had been viewed by the Americans with the greatest alarm, and every effort was made to raise an army to repel the triumphant foe.
The local governments of the New England States, as well as the Congress, acted with vigor and firmness in their efforts to repel the enemy. General Gates was sent to take the command of the army at Saratoga; and Arnold, a favorite leader of the Americans, was despatched by Washington to act under him, with reinforcements of troops and guns from the main American army. Burgoyne's employment of the Indians now produced the worst possible effects. Though he had labored hard to check the atrocities which they were accustomed to commit, he could not prevent the occurrence of many barbarous outrages, repugnant both to the feelings of humanity and to the laws of civilized warfare. The American commanders took care that the reports of these excesses should be circulated far and wide, well knowing that they would make the stern New Englanders not droop, but rage..
While resolute recruits, accustomed to the use of firearms, and all partially trained by service in the provincial militias, were flocking to the standard of Gates and Arnold at Saratoga, and while Burgoyne was engaged at Fort Edward in providing the means for the further advance of his army through the intricate and hostile country that still lay before him, two events occurred, in each of which the British sustained loss and the Americans obtained advantage, the, moral effects of which were even more important than the immediate result of the encounters..
One of these events was the siege and relief of Fort Schuyler. The panic flight of St. Leger's force was the first check to the triumphant march of the enemy.
At the very time that General Burgoyne heard of this disaster he experienced one still more severe, in the defeat of Colonel Baum, with a large detachment of German troops, at Bennington, whither Burgoyne had sent them for the purpose of capturing some magazines of provisions, of which the British army stood greatly in need. The Americans, augmented by continual accessions of strength, succeeded, after many attacks, in breaking this corps, which fled into the woods and left its commander mortally wounded on the field; they then marched against a force of five hundred grenadiers and light infantry which was advancing to Colonel Baum's assistance under Lieutenant-Colonel Breyman, who, after a gallant resistance, was obliged to retreat on the main army. The British loss in these two actions exceeded six hundred men; and a party of American loyalists on their way to join the army, having attached themselves to Colonel Baum's corps, were destroyed with it.
Notwithstanding these reverses, which added greatly to the spirit and numbers of the American forces, Burgoyne determined to advance. It was impossible any longer to keep up his communication with Canada by way of the lakes, so as to supply his army on his southward march; but, having by unremitting exertions collected provisions for thirty days, he crossed the Hudson by means of a bridge of rafts, and marching a short distance along its western bank, he encamped on the 14th of September on the heights of Saratoga, about thirty-nine miles from Albany. The Americans had fallen back from Saratoga, and were now strongly posted near Stillwater, about halfway between Saratoga and Albany, and showed a determination to recede no farther.
Meanwhile, Clinton was ascending the Hudson, with about three thousand men, convoyed by some ships of war, with the design of forcing his way past the American defences of the river.
The country between Burgoyne's position at Saratoga and that of the Americans at Stillwater was rugged, and seamed with creeks and watercourses; but, after great labor in making bridges and temporary causeways, the British army moved forward. About four miles from Saratoga, on the afternoon of the 19th of September, a sharp encounter took place between part of the English right wing, under Burgoyne himself, and a strong body of the enemy, under Gates and Arnold. The conflict lasted till sunset. The British remained masters of the field; but the loss on each side was nearly equal (from five hundred to six hundred men), and the spirits of the Americans were greatly raised by having withstood the best regular troops of the English army. Burgoyne now halted again, and strengthened his position by field-works and redoubts; and the Americans also improved their defences. The two armies remained nearly within cannon-shot of each other for a considerable time, during which Burgoyne was anxiously looking for intelligence of the promised expedition from New York, which, according to the original plan, ought by this time to have been approaching Albany from the south. At last a messenger from Clinton made his way, with great difficulty, to Burgoyne's camp, and brought the information that Clinton was on his way up the Hudson to attack the American forts which barred the passage up that river to Albany. Burgoyne, in reply, stated his hopes that the promised co-operation would be speedy and decisive, and added that unless he received assistance before the 10th of October he would be obliged to retreat to the lakes through want of provisions.
The Indians and Canadians now began to desert Burgoyne, while, on the other hand, Gates's army was continually reinforced by fresh bodies of the militia. An expeditionary force was detached by the Americans which made a bold though unsuccessful attempt to retake Ticonderoga. Finding the number and spirit of the enemy to increase daily, and his own stores of provisions to diminish, Burgoyne determined on attacking the Americans in front of him, and, by dislodging them from their position, to gain the means of moving upon Albany, or, at least, of relieving his troops from the straitened position in which they were cooped up.
Burgoyne's force was now reduced to less than six thousand men. The right of his camp was on some high ground a little to the west of the river; thence his intrenchments extended along the lower ground to the bank of the Hudson, their line being nearly at a right angle with the course of the stream. The lines were fortified in the centre and on the left with redoubts and field-works. The numerical force of the Americans was now greater than the British, even in regular troops, and the numbers of the militia and volunteers which had joined Gates and Arnold were greater still. The right of the American position, that is to say, the part of it nearest to the river, was too strong to be assailed with any prospect of success, and Burgoyne therefore determined to endeavor to force their left. For this purpose he formed a column of fifteen hundred regular troops, with two twelve-pounders, two howitzers, and six six-pounders. He headed this in person, having Generals Phillips, Riedesel, and Fraser under him. The enemy's force immediately in front of his lines was so strong that he dared not weaken the troops who guarded them by detaching any more to strengthen his column of attack. The right of the camp was commanded by Generals Hamilton and Spaight; the left part of it was committed to the charge of Brigadier Goll.
It was on the 7th of October that Burgoyne led his column on to the attack; and on the preceding day, the 6th, Clinton had successfully executed a brilliant enterprise against the two American forts which barred his progress up the Hudson. He had captured them both, with severe loss to the American forces opposed to him; he had destroyed the fleet which the Americans had been forming on the Hudson, under the protection of their forts; and the upward river was laid open to his squadron. He was now only a hundred and fifty-six miles distant from Burgoyne, and a detachment of seventeen hundred men actually advanced within forty miles of Albany. Unfortunately, Burgoyne and Clinton were each ignorant of the other's movements; but if Burgoyne had won his battle on the 7th he must, on advancing, have soon learned the tidings of Clinton's success, and Clinton would have heard of his. A junction would soon have been made of the two victorious armies, and the great objects of the campaign might yet have been accomplished. All depended on the fortune of the column with which Burgoyne, on the eventful 7th of October, 1777, advanced against the American position. There were brave men, both English and German, in its ranks; and, in particular, it comprised one of the best bodies of grenadiers in the British service.
Burgoyne pushed forward some bodies of irregular troops to distract the enemy's attention, and led his column to within three-quarters of a mile from the left of Gates's camp, and then deployed his men into line. The grenadiers under Major Ackland were drawn up on the left, a corps of Germans in the centre, and the English light infantry and the 24th regiment on the right. But Gates did not wait to be attacked; and directly the British line was formed and began to advance, the American general, with admirable skill, caused a strong force to make a sudden and vehement rush against its left. The grenadiers under Ackland sustained the charge of superior numbers nobly. But Gates sent more Americans forward, and in a few minutes the action became general along the centre, so as to prevent the Germans from sending any help to the grenadiers. Burgoyne's right was not yet engaged; but a mass of the enemy were observed advancing from their extreme left, with the evident intention of turning the British right and cutting off its retreat. The light infantry and the 24th now fell back, and formed an oblique second line, which enabled them to baffle this manoeuvre, and also to succor their comrades in the left wing, the gallant grenadiers, who were overpowered by superior numbers, and, but for this aid, must have been cut to pieces. Arnold now came up with three American regiments, and attacked the right flanks of the English double line. Burgoyne's whole force was soon compelled to retreat towards their camp; the left and centre were in complete disorder; but the light infantry and the 24th checked the fury of the assailants, and the remains of Burgoyne's column with great difficulty effected their return to their camp, leaving six of their guns in the possession of the enemy, and great numbers of killed and wounded on the field; and especially a large proportion of the artillerymen, who had stood to their guns until shot down or bayoneted beside them by the advancing Americans.
Burgoyne's column had been defeated, but the action was not yet over. The English had scarcely entered the camp, when the Americans, pursuing their success, assaulted it in several places with uncommon fierceness, rushing to the lines through a severe fire of grape-shot and musketry with the utmost fury Arnold, especially, who on this day appeared maddened with the thirst of combat and carnage, urged on the attack against a part of the intrenchments which was occupied by the light infantry under Lord Balcarras. But the English received him with vigor and spirit. The struggle here was obstinate and sanguinary. At length, as it grew towards evening, Arnold, having forced all obstacles, entered the works with some of the most fearless of his followers. But in this critical moment of glory and danger he received a painful wound in the same leg which had already been wounded in the assault on Quebec. To this bitter regret, he was obliged to be carried back. His party still continued the attack; but the English also continued their obstinate resistance, and at last night fell, and the assailants withdrew from this quarter of the British intrenchments. But in another part the attack had been more successful. A body of the Americans, under Colonel Brooke, forced their way in through a part of the intrenchments on the extreme right, which was defended by the German reserve under Colonel Breyman. The Germans resisted well, and Breyman died in defence of his post; but the Americans made good the ground which they had won, and captured baggage, tents, artillery, and a store of ammunition, which they were greatly in need of. They had, by establishing themselves on this point, acquired the means of completely turning the right flank of the British and gaining their rear. To prevent this calamity, Burgoyne effected during the night a complete change of position. With great skill, he removed his whole army to some heights near the river, a little north-ward of the former camp, and he there drew up his men, expecting to be attacked on the following day. But Gates was resolved not to risk the certain triumph which his success had already secured for him. He harassed the English with skirmishes, but attempted no regular attack. Meanwhile, he detached bodies of troops on both sides of the Hudson to prevent the British from recrossing the river and to bar their retreat. When night fell, it became absolutely necessary for Burgoyne to retire again, and accordingly the troops were marched through a stormy and rainy night towards Saratoga, abandoning their sick and wounded and the greater part of their baggage to the enemy.
Before the rear-guard quitted the camp, the last sad honors were paid to the brave General Fraser, who had been mortally wounded on the 7th, and expired on the following day. The funeral of this gallant soldier is thus described by the Italian historian Botta:
"Towards midnight the body of General Fraser was buried in the British camp. His brother officers gathered sadly round while the funeral service was read over the remains of their brave comrade, and his body was committed to the hostile earth. The ceremony, always mournful and solemn of itself, was rendered even terrible by the sense of recent losses, of present and future dangers, and of regret for the deceased. Meanwhile, the blaze and roar of the American artillery amid the natural darkness and stillness of the night came on the senses with startling awe. The grave had been dug within range of the enemy's batteries; and while the service was proceeding, a cannon-ball struck the ground close to the coffin, and spattered earth over the face of the officiating chaplain."
Burgoyne now took up his last position on the heights near Saratoga; and hemmed in by the enemy, who refused any encounter, and baffled in all his attempts at finding a path of escape, he there lingered until famine compelled him to capitulate. The fortitude of the British army during this melancholy period has been justly eulogized by many native historians, but I prefer quoting the testimony of a foreign writer, as free from all possibility of partiality. Botta says,-
"It exceeds the power of words to describe the pitiable condition to which the British army was now reduced. The troops were worn down by a series of toil, privation, sickness, and desperate fighting. They were abandoned by the Indians and Canadians, and the effective force of the whole army was now diminished by repeated and heavy losses, which had principally fallen on the best soldiers and the most distinguished officers, from ten thousand combatants to less than one-half that number. Of this remnant little more than three thousand were English.
"In these circumstances, and thus weakened, they were invested by an army of four times their number, whose position extended three parts of a circle round them; who refused to fight them, as knowing their weakness, and who, from the nature of the ground, could not be attacked in any part. In this helpless condition, obliged to be constantly under arms, while the enemy's cannon played on every part of their camp, and even the American riffle-balls whistled in many parts of the lines, the troops of Burgoyne retained their customary firmness, and, while sinking under a hard necessity, they showed themselves worthy of a better fate. They could not be reproached with an action or a word which betrayed a want of temper or fortitude."
At length the 13th of October arrived, and, as no prospect of assistance appeared, and the provisions were nearly exhausted, Burgoyne, by the unanimous advice of a council of war, sent a messenger to the American camp to treat of a convention.
General Gates in the first instance demanded that the royal army should surrender prisoners of war. He also proposed that the British should ground their arms. Burgoyne replied, "This article is inadmissible in every extremity: sooner than this army will consent to ground their arms in their encampment, they will rush on the enemy, determined to take no quarter." After various messages, a convention for the surrender of the army was settled, which provided that "the troops under General Burgoyne were to march out of their camp with the honors of war, and the artillery of the intrenchments, to the verge of the river, where the arms and artillery were to be left. The arms to be piled by word of command from their own officers. A free passage was to be granted to the army under Lieutenant-General Burgoyne to Great Britain, upon condition of not serving again in North America during the present contest."
The articles of capitulation were settled on the 15th of October; and on that very evening a messenger arrived from Clinton with an account of his successes, and with the tidings that part of his force had penetrated as far as Esopus, within fifty miles of Burgoyne's camp. But it was too late. The public faith was pledged; and the army was indeed too debilitated by fatigue and hunger to resist an attack, if made; and Gates certainly would have made it if the convention had been broken off. Accordingly, on the 17th, the convention of Saratoga was carried into effect. By this convention five thousand seven hundred and ninety men surrendered themselves as prisoners. The sick and wounded left in the camp when the British retreated to Saratoga, together with the numbers of the British, German, and Canadian troops who were killed, wounded, or taken, and who had deserted in the preceding part of the expedition, were reckoned to be four thousand six hundred and eighty-nine.
The British sick and wounded were treated with great humanity, and Gates showed much delicacy of feeling in his intercourse with his captives, avoiding every indication of triumphant display. Congress long refused to carry out the provision for the transportation of Burgoyne's men to Europe, though Gates was in no sense responsible for this. The news of the victory was received with the utmost joy and enthusiasm throughout America, and produced a radical change in the attitude of the Europeans. France, in particular, at once consented to the treaty, which had been long delayed, and the negotiations towards which had been almost broken off by the preceding tidings of the victorious march of Burgoyne towards Albany.
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