The American Revolution: Battles of the North, 1777

The spirits of the patriots were greatly revived; public confidence in General Schuyler, so rudely shaken by misfortune and slander, was rapidly returning, and as a consequence recruits for the Northern Army were flocking into camp, with daily-increasing volume. Schuyler was preparing to march to an easy victory over his hopelessly crippled foe, and so win the laurels which he fairly deserved, when, on the 19th of August, 1777, General Gates arrived in camp, and took command of the army, in accordance with the following resolution passed by Congress:

"Resolved, That Major-General Schuyler be directed to repair to headquarters.

"That General Washington be directed to order such general officer as he shall think proper to repair immediately to the Northern Department, to relieve Major-General Schuyler in his command there."

This was evidently the work of intrigue, faction, and conspiracy. Washington, who was then in his camp at Germantown, near Philadelphia, was fully aware of the schemes of Gates and his friends, and would not consent to be a scapegoat for them; so he declined to nominate a successor to Schuyler, and the Congress proceeded to appoint Gates to that office. They clothed him with powers which they had never conferred on his predecessor, and voted him all the aid Schuyler had ever asked, and which had been withheld. The patriotic general felt the indignity keenly, yet he did not allow his personal grievances to interfere with his duty to his country. He received Gates cordially, furnished him with every kind of useful information respecting the army, and offered him all the aid in his power to give. This generosity was requited by jealousy and coldness. Yet this despicable treatment did not abate Schuyler's efforts to secure the defeat of Burgoyne, although he knew the laurels that would thereby be won would be placed on the brow of his undeserving successor.

Had Gates acted promptly, he might have ended the campaign in the Northern Department, within a fortnight after his arrival. But he lingered twenty days in needless inactivity near the mouth of the Mohawk River, nine miles above Albany, to which place Schuyler, pursuant to a decision of a council of officers, had removed the army from Stillwater. At the end of the twenty days, Gates moved up the valley of the Hudson with an effective force of nine thousand men; and upon Bemis's Heights, an elevated rolling plain a short distance above Stillwater, he established a fortified camp, having Kosciuszko, the brave Polish patriot, as chief engineer. In the meantime, one hundred and eighty boats had been brought over the country by teams and soldiers, from Lakes Champlain and George, with a month's provisions for the use of Burgoyne's army, then reduced to less than six thousand men.

Seeing the advance of Gates, Burgoyne called in his outposts, and with his shattered forces and his splendid train of artillery, he crossed the Hudson River over a bridge of boats on the 13th of September, and encamped on the heights at Saratoga, where Schuylerville now stands. There he made immediate preparations to attempt to force his way to Albany. He then knew that Howe had sailed southward and would not co-operate with him; and he perceived the necessity of acting promptly, for General Lincoln was gathering a force of New Englanders on his flank, and detachments of Republican troops were menacing his communications with his base of supplies. The American army, every day increasing in strength, were well posted on Bemis's Heights. Their right rested upon the Hudson River below the Heights; their left was upon gentle hills that could not be commanded by hostile cannon from any point; and a well-constructed line of intrenchment stretched along their front. Here an army more numerous than that of Burgoyne lay directly across his path to Albany, and must be dislodged before he could go forward.

Burgoyne felt compelled, by imperious circumstances, to move forward. Orders had been sent to General Lincoln, stationed at Manchester, to make a movement in the rear of the invades, and he sent Colonel John Brown (the officer who failed to co-operate with Ethan Allen at Montreal), with five hundred light troops and some artillery, to cut off Burgoyne's sources of supplies. At dawn on the 18th of September (1777), Brown surprised an outpost at the foot of Lake George; captured a British provision vessel; seized the post at the falls of the outlet of the lake; took possession of Mount Hope and Mount Defiance, with the French lines, and demanded the surrender of Ticonderoga and Mount Independence. He destroyed two hundred vessels in that outlet, including seventeen gun-boats and an armed-sloop; released a hundred American prisoners, and captured about three hundred of the enemy. He also assailed a British post on Diamond Island, in Lake George; but this, and the two forts, were too strong for his little force to capture, and he returned to Manchester with his trophies; among them were five field-pieces.

In the meantime Burgoyne had advanced to a point very near the American lines; and on the morning of the 19th, he moved his army in three columns to offer battle. The left wing, with the immense train of artillery, under the command of Generals Phillips and Riedesel, kept upon the plain near the river. The centre, composed largely of Germans, extended to a range of hills that were touched by the American left, and was led by Burgoyne in person. Upon these hills Fraser and Breyman, with grenadiers and infantry, were posted, with the intention of outflanking the republicans. The front and flank of the invading army were covered by the Canadians, Indians, and Tories who remained in camp. Burgoyne's men had slept on their arms for several nights, expecting an attack in force from the Americans, for the active Arnold, with about fifteen hundred men, had annoyed the British continually, by sudden assaults at night.

Gates, who lacked personal courage and the skill of a good commander, had resolved to act on the defensive within his lines. Arnold and others had been observing, through vistas in the woods, evident preparations for battle all the morning, and had urged Gates to send out a detachment to smite the enemy. But he would give no order and evinced no disposition to fight. Even when, at eleven o'clock, the boom of cannon awoke the echoes of the hills, and which was Burgoyne's signal for a general advance of his army, Gates seemed almost indifferent. His officers became very impatient as the peril to the camp drew nearer. Arnold was as restive as a hound in a leash; he was finally permitted to order out Morgan with his riflemen and Dearborn with infantry, to attack the Canadians and Indians who were swarming upon the hills in advance of Burgoyne's right. This detachment fell vigorously upon the foe and drove them back. Morgan's men pursued them so eagerly, that his riflemen became scattered and weakened, and a reinforcement of Tories drove them back. For a moment Morgan thought his corps was ruined. He sounded his shrill whistle, when they rallied around him, and with Massachusetts and New Hampshire troops, the former under Dearborn and the latter under Scammell and Cilley, they repeated the charge. After a short, sharp fight, the parties withdrew to their respective lines, with the loss of twenty men made prisoners, on the part of the Americans. Morgan had his horse shot under him.

Burgoyne, in the meantime, had made a rapid movement for the purpose of falling heavily upon the American left and centre. At the same time, Fraser, on the extreme right, made a quick movement to turn the American left. The vigilant Arnold, with equal celerity of movement, attempted to turn the British right at the same time. He might have succeeded had not Gates denied him reinforcements and done everything in his power to restrain him. Masked by the thick woods, neither party could know much about the doings of the other, and they suddenly and unexpectedly met in a ravine, west of Freeman's Farm at which Burgoyne had halted. There they fought desperately for awhile. Arnold was forced back, when Fraser, by a quick movement, called up some German troops from Burgoyne's centre, to his aid. Arnold rallied his men, and with the assistance of New England troops under Brooks, Dearborn, Scammell, Cilley, and Hull, he smote the enemy so lustily that their line began to waver and fall into confusion. General Phillips, from his position below the Heights, heard the din of battle resounding through the woods, and hurried over the hills with fresh troops and some artillery, followed by a portion of the Germans under Riedesel, and appeared upon the ground when the victory seemed about to rest with the Americans. Still the battle raged. The ranks of the British were fearfully thinning, when Riedesel made a furious attack on the flank of the Americans with cannon and musketry, which compelled them to give way. So the Germans saved the British army from ruin.

There was now a lull in the tempest of battle. It was at the middle of the afternoon of a bright September day. That lull was succeeded by a more violent outburst of fury. Burgoyne opened a heavy cannonade upon the Americans, who made no response. Then he ordered a bayonet charge. Column after column of British troops were soon moving over the gently rolling ground, toward the American lines. As they rushed forward to charge upon the republicans, their silent enemy sprang forward like tigers from a covert, and assailed the British so furiously, with ball and bayonet, that they recoiled, and were pushed far back. At that time Arnold was at headquarters, seated upon his large, black charger, and begging in vain of Gates for reinforcements. When he heard that the battle was raging, but with no decisive results, he could no longer brook delay. Turning his horse's head toward the storm, and exclaiming, "I'll soon put an end to it," he went off at full gallop, followed by an officer whom Gates sent after him to order him back. The subaltern could not overtake the gallant general, who, by his words and example, animated the republican troops. For three hours the battle raged, the combatants surging backward and forward across the fields like the ebb and flow of a tide, each winning and losing victory alternately. All too late, Gates sent out the New York regiments of Van Cortlandt and Livingston, and the whole brigade of Learned. The Americans had lately almost turned the British flank, when Colonel Breyman, with his Germans fighting bravely, prevented the blow that might have been fatal to the British army.

But for Arnold, no doubt Burgoyne would have reached Albany within a day, a victor. Had Gates complied with Arnold's wishes for reinforcements early, the surrender of Burgoyne's army might not have been deferred a month. To Arnold and his division was chiefly due the credit of successfully resisting the invaders at Bemis's Heights. The jealous Gates, angry because the army praised Arnold, did not mention his name, nor that of the gallant Morgan, in his official report of the battle, in which the Americans lost less than three hundred men.

On the morning of the 20th (September, 1777), Burgoyne perceived the desperate condition of his army, encamped so near the American lines that they could not make a movement unperceived by their foe. He had lost about six hundred men. His broken army were utterly dispirited. Arnold wished to attack him at dawn, but Gates would not consent. Burgoyne withdrew to a point two miles from the American lines, where he cast up intrenchments, hoping hourly for good news from Sir Henry Clinton at New York. He harangued his troops to revive their courage, and declared his determination to force his way to Albany or to leave his body on the field. His own spirits were revived the next morning by a message from Sir Henry, who promised to make a diversion in his favor by an expedition up the Hudson River. The same messenger brought a despatch from Howe announcing his victory over Washington on the Brandywine. These glad tidings were communicated to his army, and Burgoyne wrote to Clinton that he could maintain his position until the 12th of October. But his condition rapidly grew worse. The American army on his front increased, while his own decreased. The American militia were swarming on his flanks and rear, and his foraging parties were so harassed by them, that they could gather very little food for the starving horses. In his hospitals were at least eight hundred sick and wounded men, and his effective troops had to be fed with diminished rations. The Indians deserted him, while through the exertions of Schuyler, Oneida warriors joined the army of Gates. General Lincoln arrived with two thousand militia on the 22nd, and took command of the right wing of the army.

With all his advantages over the enemy, Gates remained inactive. His officers were chagrined. Arnold, chafed by Gates's apathy, could not restrain his impatience, and he wrote a note to his commander, saying: "I think it my duty (which nothing shall deter me from doing) to acquaint you the army is becoming clamorous for action. The militia (who compose a quarter part of the army) are already threatening to go home. One fortnight's inaction will, I make no doubt, lessen your army, by sickness and desertion, at least four thousand men, in which time the enemy may be reinforced, and make good their retreat. I have reason to think that had we improved the 20th of September, it might have ruined the enemy. That is past; let me entreat you to improve the present time." This proper impertinence on the part of a subordinate, Gates treated with silent contempt.

Burgoyne waited many days for tidings from Clinton, but none came; and on the evening of the 4th of October he called Phillips, Riedesel, and Fraser to a council. Burgoyne proposed to attempt to turn the American left by a swift circuitous march. Riedesel favored a rapid retreat to Fort Edward; but Fraser was willing to fight. The latter course was agreed upon; and on the morning of the 7th of October, after liquors and rations for four days had been given to the whole army, Burgoyne moved toward the left of the American lines with fifteen hundred picked men, eight brass cannon, and two howitzers. When within three-fourths of a mile of their works, he formed a battle-line behind a forest screen. He had left the main army on the Heights in command of Brigadiers Hamilton and Specht, and the redoubts near the river with Brigadier-General Gall. Phillips, Riedesel, and Fraser were with the commanding-general. There were never better troops or better commanders on a field of battle. Burgoyne sent out a party, composed of Canadian rangers, loyalists and Indians, to make a circuit through the woods and hang on the American rear, and so keep them in check, while he should attack their front.

Burgoyne's movement was discovered before he was ready for battle, and the drums of the advanced-guard of the Americans beat to arms. The alarm rang along the lines. Gates had then over ten thousand troops in his camp--enough, if properly managed, to have crushed the weakened invaders at a single blow. He ordered his officers to their alarm-posts, and sent his favorite aide (Wilkinson) to inquire the cause of the disturbance. When informed that the enemy were about to attack his left, he listened to the advice of Colonel Morgan, and ordered that officer to go out with his riflemen and "begin the game." Morgan was soon moving with celerity with his corps and some infantry, to secure a position on the Heights on the flank and rear of the British right. At the same time General Poor, with his own New Hampshire brigade and followed by New York militia under Ten Broeck, advanced against the British left. Meanwhile the rangers and their companions had successfully turned the flank of the Americans, and partly gaining their rear, had attacked their pickets. These were soon joined by British grenadiers, who drove the Americans back to their lines, where a hot engagement for half an hour ensued. In that fight Morgan was engaged, and his brave riflemen charged the assailants so vigorously, that they retreated in confusion to the British line which now appeared in battle order on an open field. The grenadiers, under Major Ackland, with the artillery under Major Williams, formed the left upon rising ground; the centre was composed of Brunswickers under Riedesel and British under Phillips: and the extreme left was composed of light infantry under Earl Balcarras. General Fraser was at the head of five hundred picked men a short distance in advance of the British right, ready to fall upon the left flank of the Americans when the action in front should begin.

It was now half-past three o'clock. Just as Burgoyne was about to advance, he was astounded by the thunder of cannon on his left, and the crack and rattle of rifle and muskets on his right. Poor had advanced stealthily up the slope on which the troops of Ackland and Williams were posted, and in perfect silence had pressed on through the thick wood toward the batteries of the latter. When they were discovered, the enemy opened a heavy storm of musket-balls and grape-shot upon the republicans. These made terrible havoc among the leaves and branches over their heads, but scarcely a shot struck one of the Americans. This was the signal for the latter to break silence. They sprang forward with a shout, delivered fire in rapid volleys, and then opened right and left, to seek the shelter of the trees on the margin of the ridge on which the British artillery was planted. A fierce conflict now ensued. The Americans rushed up to the very mouths of the cannon, and struggled hand-to-hand with the enemy for victory, among the carriages of the field-pieces. Five times one of the cannon was taken and retaken. When, at last, the British fell back, and the cannon remained with the Americans, Colonel Cilley, who had fought gallantly at the head of his regiment, leaped upon the captured gun, waved his sword high in air, and dedicated the weapon "to the American cause." Then he wheeled its muzzle toward the enemy, and with their own ammunition opened its destructive energies upon them. This act gave fresh courage to the republicans, who yet had much to do. The contest was long and obstinate, until Major Ackland was severely wounded and Major Williams was made a prisoner. Then the grenadiers and artillerymen, panic-struck, fled in confusion. Sir Francis Clarke, Burgoyne's chief aide, who was sent to secure the cannon, was mortally wounded, made a prisoner, and was carried to Gates's tent. The whole eight pieces of artillery and the possession of the field remained with the Americans.

Meanwhile Morgan had assailed Fraser's flanking corps in advance of the British right with such a tempest of rifle-balls, that they were driven hastily back to their lines. Then, with the speed of a gale, Morgan wheeled, and fell upon the British right with such appalling force and impetuosity that their ranks were quickly thrown into confusion. This attack was so unexpected by the enemy, that a panic immediately pervaded their columns. It was instantly followed by an onslaught in front by Major Dearborn, with fresh troops, when the British broke and fled in terror. They were soon rallied by Earl Balcarras, who placed them in battle attitude again. This shock on the right convulsed the British centre, composed chiefly of Germans, but it maintained its position.

Soon after the battle of the 19th, Gates, jealous of Arnold and offended by his impertinence, had deprived that officer of all command. He was stripped of authority to give an order or even to fight. The impetuous, quarrelsome, insubordinate brigadier, thirsting for the glory which he might win on that field, and inspired by patriotism, stood chafing with impatience and irritation, a chained spectator of the battle. At length, when he could no longer restrain himself, he sprang upon the back of his big black charger, as before, and started on a full gallop for the field of action. Gates sent Major Armstrong to order him back. Arnold saw the subaltern in chase and divined his errand. He put spurs to his horse, and left Armstrong far behind; and placing himself at the head of three regiments of Learned's brigade, who received their old commander with three hearty cheers, he led them against the British centre. With the desperation of a madman he rushed into the thickest of the fight, or rode along the lines with rapid and erratic movements, brandishing his sword over his head, and delivering his orders everywhere, in person. Armstrong followed him half an hour, but Arnold's course was so varied and perilous that he gave up the chase.

The Germans received the assault of the troops led by Arnold with brave resistance; but when he dashed in among them at the head of his men, they broke and fled in dismay. At this time, the battle became general all along the lines. Burgoyne, perceiving that the fate of his army hung upon the result of the conflict that day, exposed himself fearlessly at the head of his troops, and bade them defend their positions while a man was left alive. Arnold and Morgan were the ruling spirits among the Americans. The gallant Fraser was the soul that directed the most potent energies of the British. Like Arnold, his voice and example were electric in their power, when directing attacks and in bringing order out of confusion. He was dressed in full uniform and rode a splendid gray gelding, both making conspicuous objects on the field. Morgan perceived that the fate of the battle depended upon that officer. Suppressing his better feelings, he called a file of his most expert sharp-shooters, and pointing toward the scarlet-clad leader, said: "That gallant officer is General Fraser. I admire and honor him, but it is necessary he should die; victory for the enemy depends upon him. Take your stations in that clump of bushes, and do your duty." Within five minutes after this order was given, General Fraser fell, mortally wounded, and was carried sorrowfully to the British camp, for he was truly loved by all. A bullet from the rifle of Timothy Murphy, mounted in a sapling, had passed through his body.

When the gallant Fraser fell, a panic ran along the British line. It might have been temporary, had not General Ten Broeck appeared at that critical moment with three thousand fresh New York militia. At sight of them, the wavering line gave way, and the troops retreated to their intrenchments covered by Phillips and Riedesel. They left their artillery behind, for all the horses, and nearly all the men who had defended the pieces were slain or wounded. Up to these intrenchments, in the face of a terrible storm of grape-shot and bullets, the Americans, with Arnold at their head, eagerly pressed, and assailed the works with small arms. Balcarras bravely defended them, until he could resist no longer. Above the din of battle the voice of Arnold was heard, and his form was seen in the midst of the sulphurous smoke, dashing from point to point and encouraging his men. With a part of the brigades of Paterson and Glover, he drove the troops of the Earl from an abatis--an obstruction of fallen trees--at the point of the bayonet, and attempted to force his way into the British camp. Failing in this, he placed himself at the head of Learned's brigade, and made a vigorous assault upon the enemy's right, which was defended by Canadians and Loyalists, who were flanked by a stockade redoubt on each side. For awhile the result appeared doubtful. At length the English gave way, leaving the Germans under General Specht entirely exposed.

Arnold now ordered up from the left the New York regiments of Wesson and Livingston, and Morgan's riflemen, to make a general assault, while Colonel Brooks, with his Massachusetts regiment, accompanied by Arnold, attacked the German troops commanded by Breyman. Arnold rushed into the sally-port on his powerful horse, and spread terror among the Hessians there. They had seen him in the thickest of the fight, for two hours, unhurt, and regarding him with superstitious awe, as one possessed of a charmed life, they fled. They gave a parting volley in their retreat, which killed Arnold's horse and severely wounded the same leg that was badly hurt at Quebec. Then, at the moment of victory, and at the head of his troops, wounded and disabled, he was overtaken by Major Armstrong, who had resumed the chase, and received from him the order from Gates to return to camp, for the commander-in-chief feared Arnold might "do some rash thing." He had done a "rash thing" in achieving a decisive victory--a triumph which proved to be a turning-point in the war in favor of the Americans--without the orders or even the permission of his commander.

The glamour of false light which often surrounds the commander of a victorious army frequently conceals the truth, and deprives the most meritorious of the actors of their just reward. The dazzled public lauded Gates as a great general, because he was the commander of the victorious army on this occasion, when the truth assures us that he was a hindrance instead of an aid, in the achievement of the triumph. While Arnold was reaping golden sheaves of glory for Gates's garner, by wielding the fierce sickle of war, the latter and General Lincoln, his second in command, did not appear upon the field of battle. Gates, it is said, did not leave his tent at all that day, for he had not recovered from a debauch in which he had indulged the night before. His favorite aide (Wilkinson) said afterward, that when he went to headquarters for orders in the afternoon, he found Gates more intent upon discussing the merits of the Revolution with Burgoyne's dying aide than upon winning the battle then raging. He followed Wilkinson as he went out, and asked him-- "Did you ever hear so impudent a son of a --," referring to the wounded officer, who had ventured to differ with him. Poor Sir Francis Clarke died that night upon the bed of his coarse and vulgar antagonist.

It was twilight when the wounded Arnold was carried from the field. The rout of the Germans was complete. They threw down their arms and ran, and could not be rallied. Colonel Breyman was mortally wounded. The conflict ceased when the curtain of night fell upon the scene. At about midnight, the division of Lincoln marched out to the relief of those upon the field; and before the dawn, Burgoyne, who had resolved to retreat, removed his whole force a mile or two north of his intrenchments, which the Americans immediately took possession of.

General Fraser died on the morning after the battle, and his body was buried, at the evening twilight of the same day, within a redoubt upon a gentle eminence, which the hero had chosen for his place of sepulture. A very touching account of his death and his funeral is given in the published letters and memoirs of the Baroness de Riedesel, wife of the Brunswick general, who, with her children, accompanied her husband while he was in America. The body of Fraser was followed to the grave by Burgoyne and a large number of officers led by Mr. Brudenell, the faithful chaplain of the artillerists. As the funeral procession moved up the slope in the dim light, it appeared to Americans like a hostile movement, and they opened a cannonade upon it from the eastern side of the Hudson; but as soon as its solemn character was made known, the cannonade for destruction was changed to the firing of minute-guns in honor of the memory of the brave soldier.

The wife of Major Ackland (a daughter of the Earl of Ilchester), who accompanied her husband, and was with Madame Riedesel during the battle of the 7th of October, when she heard that her husband was wounded and a prisoner, resolved to go to the American camp in search of him. On a dark and stormy night she descended the Hudson in an open boat, accompanied by Chaplain Brudenell, and bearing a letter of introduction from Burgoyne to Gates. She found her husband at the headquarters of Arnold, now (1876) the residence of Mr. Neilson, on Bemis's Heights, where she was permitted to nurse him until he was able to travel to New York and sail for England.

On the night of the 8th, Burgoyne, with his shattered and dispirited army, retreated to the Heights of Saratoga, reaching there, after a wretched march in a heavy rainstorm, on the morning of the 10th. At the passage of the Fish Creek at Saratoga, they destroyed the mansion, mills, outbuildings, and other property belonging to General Schuyler, and valued at fifty thousand dollars. The main army of the Americans also moved northward. The brigade of General Fellows were posted on the hills eastward of the Hudson, within cannon-range of the British camp, which their batteries commanded. Burgoyne now despaired; and at a council of general officers, it was determined to open negotiations with Gates for a surrender on honorable terms. These were finally agreed upon, and at eleven o'clock on the morning of the 17th of October, 1777, the vanquished troops laid down their arms upon the plain near the Hudson River, in front of the present village of Schuylerville. Then Burgoyne rode toward the headquarters of Gates, with his staff. They met that officer on the road not far from the ruined mansion of General Schuyler, when Burgoyne, in the presence of that patriot and many other American officers, and his own, surrendered his sword to the commander of the victorious republican army. Then they all returned to Gates's headquarters, and dined together.

The whole number of troops surrendered was five thousand seven hundred and ninety-nine, of whom two thousand four hundred and twelve were Brunswickers and Hessians. Besides these, there were eighteen hundred prisoners of war, including the sick and wounded abandoned to the Americans. The entire loss of the British army after they entered the province of New York, including those under St. Leger disabled or captured at Fort Schuyler and Oriskany, was almost ten thousand men. On Burgoyne's staff were six members of Parliament. Among the spoils of war that fell to the Americans were forty-two pieces of the best brass cannon then known; four thousand six hundred muskets, and a large quantity of munitions of war.

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