In Which I Visit Saratoga National Historic Park

The first thing you should know is that this is the battle that convinces the French to help us. Not six months after the British surrendered at Saratoga, and not without irony, I suppose, Ben Franklin is in Paris, with his spectacles, his hippy hair and his drab, homespun clothes, closing a deal for money, troops, ships and, I imagine, not a little cheese with the well-perfumed king of France.

Portrait of British General John Burgoyne.

Portrait of British General John Burgoyne. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The way the battle starts is — and I am fudging here — that the British get the idea to invade from Canada. And by “British get the idea” I mean that a foppish, self-promoting general named Burgoyne gets the idea. His plan is for three British armies to meet in Albany, which at the time is a fairly important colonial town and conveniently at the head of navigation for the Hudson River. The first army, led by Burgoyne himself, was to head south from Montreal; a second, smaller one was to head east from Lake Erie; and a third, led by Britain’s senior commander in North America, a guy named Howe, would head north from New York City.

Burgoyne, and not a few of the king’s ministers, figured the campaign would be a tactical masterstroke, delivering a devastating blow to the no-match-for-the-redcoats-anyway Continental Army, sending a clear message to covetous, saber-rattling European rivals, as well as isolating the irritating, agitating, pen-scratching rebels in New England.

Not surprisingly, there were two problems.

One was that, literally, no one sends a memo to Howe in New York. I mean, they tell him what Burgoyne is up to, but no one tells Howe that he should pack his swim trunks and water wings for the lake country. The second is that beyond Albany and all the way to Canada is gloomy mosquito- and Indian-infested wilderness. It was, to be sure, regularly traversed without much fuss by hunters and traders and other half-wit loners, but it was a formidable obstacle for just about anyone else, never mind the horses and heavy wagons of an 18th century army. Franklin, in his early 70s, makes the trip himself shortly before the battle and it damn near killed him.

Burgoyne, for his part, thinks he has this licked because he builds a fleet for himself on Lake Champlain. And, no kidding, it’s a fleet. Ships with cannon on them and sails and flat-bottomed transports, the whole bit. He figures he can float his way south, and for the most part he pulls this off. Burgoyne gets most of his army, 8,000-some regulars and mercenaries, plus militia, Indians and his own sizable baggage train, all the way down the lake to a place called Ticonderoga.

Now, this was an old French fort that had been captured (embarrassing!) by the Americans from the British just two years earlier. Wags in the press called it the Gibraltar of the North, but that imposing nickname did nothing for the confidence of the American soldiers who were there now. And with good reason — it was pointed the wrong direction. The French who designed the fort had anticipated an attack from the south; in 1777, the American garrison was facing an attack from the north. When Burgoyne showed up with his homemade fleet, his redcoats and his sausage-stained Hessians, the rebels realized they were out of their league and promptly — the British would say, predictably — skedaddled.

Burgoyne could not believe his luck. He had, despite a late start and after a laborious journey, effortlessly seized a significant obstacle. It was still just July, and Burgoyne probably figured this was going to be the best camping trip he ever went on. In fact, he gets the idea to send a big chunk of his army into New Hampshire to scrounge up extra supplies and horses and a whole herd of beef cattle — apparently with the notion of throwing the biggest barbecue New York had ever seen.

But, as with many summer parties, things did not turn out as expected.

For one thing, the Indians that Burgoyne had counted on to be scouts and raiders and such were starting to head home, unhappy with his scolding, dismissive treatment. For another, the British army that was supposed to come over from Lake Erie in the west crapped out not quite halfway along. For a third, his expedition to pick up party supplies in New Hampshire was more or less wiped out by an all-business Puritan American general named (gulp) Stark.

Burgoyne now realizes he has a problem on his hands. First of all, he is running out of men: between the soldiers killed in New Hampshire, the Indians and militiamen who are deserting and the troops he has to leave behind to defend Ticonderoga, his invasion force is now down to maybe 6,000 guys — about half of what his original plan called for. Second, he is running short of food and ammunition, though he and his staff still religiously convene camp dinners with candles, tablecloths and lots of wine. And most disturbing, he gets a message from Howe, or rather the guy Howe left behind in New York, that says, Oh, hey, everyone here just left for Philadelphia.

To be fair, for Howe, still preening from his victory in the Battle of Brooklyn the summer before, this made sense. Philadelphia was perhaps North America’s most important city, or thereabouts, and the seat of the Continental Congress. Anyway, Howe did not actually have orders to help Burgoyne, and given Burgoyne’s recent success at Ticonderoga, Howe probably felt he needed a comparable triumph on his side of the ledger.

For Burgoyne, it meant that his much-needed supplies and reinforcements were now 190 miles farther away. Still, being British and an inveterate gambler, Burgoyne was inclined to keep going. And, anyway, his scouts finally had a handle on the American army, which by now was fattened by thousands of reinforcements and a whole cast of squabbling generals, and hunkered down like a swollen tick on a hilltop near Saratoga. Burgoyne, who was not a complete fool, assessed the scene and rightly concluded that the Americans were vulnerable on their left side.

Benedict Arnold.

Benedict Arnold. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Enter Benedict Arnold. Yes, that Benedict Arnold, who is only beginning to build the resentment that would lead him, in a few years, to sell out to the British. Fresh off some minor military triumphs on the frontier, Arnold shows up in the American camp expecting everyone to be thrilled. The American commander, a fellow named Gates, is anything but, and the two begin a rancorous rivalry that warps the rest of our story.

One day in the middle of September, not long after Burgoyne has sent his troops off to try to turn the left side of the American line, Arnold is haranguing Gates about how his left really is vulnerable. Gates finally has enough, and tells him, Fine. Take your boys, reinforce the left. Just leave me alone.

And so Arnold does, and his troops reach a place called Freeman’s Farm (see photo below) a little before the British stumble into them. A bloodbath ensues. At the end of a long afternoon, the Americans retreat to their well-supplied hilltop, where more recruits are arriving every day. The British are in possession of the field, but have taken heavy casualties that they can’t replace. Burgoyne considers it a victory; after all, he didn’t retreat. But he licks his wounds for nearly a month before trying to move again.

By now it is October, and it is too late to pull back to Ticonderoga and be assured of an ice-free retreat to Montreal. Burgoyne, who has put his troops on half-rations, resolves again to try to turn the American left. Arnold, who has so thoroughly irritated Gates that he has basically been kicked out of the army, is filling his left leg with booze when a messenger rides in to tell Gates that (ahem) the British are coming.

Arnold steals a horse and rides to the front, waving his sword in the air, leading charges, rallying troops and basically clinching a convincing victory for the American army. It isn’t all beer and skittles for Arnold, of course, he takes a bullet up the strap. But his heroic display, and his decorous timing in getting gravely wounded, softens Gates’s feelings toward him. And the British are so thoroughly defeated that, in a month, they surrender.

It’s the happy ending every patriot was hoping for. Except for, you know, the fact that the war drags on for six more years.

View, toward the east, of Freeman’s Farm as it is today.