A STORY OF BEHMUS’ HEIGHTS – a poem

On this day, October 7, in the year 1777, the second battle of Saratoga was fought in Stillwater NY.

As a piece of background, I altered this selection from the county tourism website:  In 1777, For nearly three weeks the British army waited in Stillwater.   British General Burgoyne’s situation was critical. Faced by a growing American army without hope of help from the south (Clinton’s army just started North from New York City), and with supplies rapidly diminishing, the British army became weaker with each passing day. Burgoyne had to choose between advancing or retreating. He decided to risk a second engagement, and on October 7 ordered a reconnaissance-in-force to test the American left flank. Ably led and supported by eight cannon, a force of 1,500 men moved out of the British camp. After marching southwesterly about three-quarters of a mile, the troops deployed in a clearing on the Barber Farm. Most of the British front faced an open field, but both flanks rested in woods, thus exposing them to surprise attack. By now the Americans knew that Burgoyne’s army was again on the move and at about 3 p.m. attacked in three columns under Colonel Morgan, Gen. Ebenezer Learned, and Gen. Enoch Poor. Repeatedly the British line was broken, then rallied, and both flanks were severely punished and driven back. Gen. Simon Fraser, who commanded the British right, was mortally wounded as he rode among his men to encourage them to make a stand and cover the developing withdrawal. Before the enemy’s flanks could be rallied, Gen. Benedict Arnold -who had been relieved of command after a quarrel with Gates- rode onto the field and led Learned’s brigade against the German troops holding the British center. Under tremendous pressure from all sides, the Germans joined a general withdrawal into the fortifications on the Freeman Farm. Within an hour after the opening clash, Burgoyne lost eight cannon and more than 400 officers and men. Flushed with success, the Americans believed that victory was near. Arnold led one column in a series of savage attacks on the Balcarres Redoubt, a powerful British fieldwork on the Freeman Farm. After failing repeatedly to carry this position, Arnold wheeled his horse and, dashing through the crossfire of both armies, spurred northwest to the Breymann Redoubt. Arriving just as American troops began to assault the fortification, he joined in the final surge that overwhelmed the German soldiers defending the work. Upon entering the redoubt, he was wounded in the leg. Had he died there, posterity would have known few names brighter than that of Benedict Arnold. Darkness ended the day’s fighting and saved Burgoyne’s army from immediate disaster.

The following poem was written by E. W. B. Canning, a trustee of the Saratoga Monument Association, for the Springfield Republican, December 13th, 1885.

” Please tell us,” said the boys who stood,

With eyes brimful of fun,

Beside their grandsire—” how you fought Red-

coats at Bennington

And Col. Cilley’s battle-tug

Over the twelve-pound gun.”

” You’ve got a little mixed, my boys,

‘Twas not at Bennington,

But Behmus’ Heights, where Cilley took

And christened that big gun ;

And I was there and helped hurrah,

When the brave deed was done.

You see we’d been a fighting hard

Through all the afternoon ;

And ‘mongst the trees a thousand balls

Still sung their deadly tune ;

And shot and shell knocked bark and boughs

Over our whole platoon.

We drove the red-coats rods away,

And then they drove us back;

Briton and Yankee lay in scores

Along the bloody track ;

And neither side would bate a jot—

‘Twas give and take the whack.

So back and forth the battle swayed,

As ocean’s surges sway

And round that gun that stood between

The dead lay piled that day.

Though captured oft, we had no time

To pull the thing away.

Four times ’twas ours, and four times, too.

They drove us from our prize.

Which made the sparks of anger flash

From Cilley’s gleaming eyes.

The next time, boys, we’ll hold it, or

Beside it die’—he cries.

Arush,ashout,avolley’scrash,

And it was ours again ;

And furious as a horde of wolves,

We drove them down the glen.

Then on the war-dog Cilley sprang

And waved his sword amain.

“And cried aloud, ‘To Liberty

I dedicate the gun !

Then whirled it round and bade its charge

Help its late owners run.

We shouted it to camp, and thus

Was the twelve-pounder won.”

BALLADS AND POEMS RELATING TO THE BURGOYNE CAMPAIGN ANNOTATED B WILLIAM L.  STONE, ALBANY, N. Y. JOEL MUNSELL’S SONS 1893

This poem is a work of historical poetry that is over 120 years old. It is not historic fact. Our historical understanding of the battles has evolved over the past 120 years. In writing a historical poem, poets have a slightly different responsibility than do historians. A modern historian is expected to present factually correct narratives. A poet who writes historical poems can adhere to this ideal, but may also use artistic license to communicate ideas beyond mere fact, such as mythical or emotional truths.  Please enjoy this for what it is.

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