On 16 October 1777, British General Burgoyne at Saratoga wrote American General Horatio Gates the following letter.:
Camp at Saratoga,
16th Oct. 1777
In the course of the night Lieutenant-general Burgoyne has received intelligence that a considerable force has been detached from the army under the command of Major-general gates, during the course of the negotiation of the treaty depending between them. Lieutenant-general Burgoyne conceives this, if true, to be not only a violation of the cessation of arms, but subversive of the principles on which the treaty originated, viz. A great superiority of numbers in General Gates’s army. Lieutenant-general Burgoyne therefore requires that two officers on his part, be permitted to see that the strength of the force now opposed to him is such as will convince him that no such detachments have been made, and that the same principles of superiority on which the treaty first began still exists.
Gates’s reply is quick and decisive. He outright rejects Burgoyne’s request, and promises that no detachment had been sent and that a reply from Burgoyne must come immediately.
This verbal message is delivered to Burgoyne in person by Lieutenant Colonel James Wilkinson, Gates’s Deputy Adjutant General.
From the beginning of the American War of Impendence, the British had understood the importance of gaining control of the Richelieu River – Lake Champlain-Lake George-Hudson River water route to effectively cut off the colonies north of New York from those to the south. Almost all the troubles leading to the war had originated from New England, and the British thought that if they could put down the rebellion there, the rest of the colonies would give up. British dominance of this traditional pathway of war would also make it difficult or impossible for the Americans to move troops and supplies between the northern and southern colonies.
The British make their first attempt to seize this waterway in 1776. The British army, under Gen. Sir William Howe, was successful in taking New York City and some of the lower Hudson Valley area. The force moving south from Canada under Gen. Sir Guy Carleton was stalled by Benedict Arnold on Lake Champlain however, and forced to retreat due to the coming of winter.
In 1777, General John Burgoyne proposed the plan be tried again, submitting “Thoughts for Conducting the War on the Side of Canada,” this time with himself in command. This paper was his attempt to strengthen the existing New York strategy and was soon approved by Lord Germain (Secretary of State for America). This plan called for Burgoyne to advance south from Canada, up to Lake Champlain, capture Ft. Ticonderoga, and then march south along the Hudson to Albany.
In Albany, Burgoyne would form a junction with British General Sir William Howe, who would advance north along the Hudson River from New York City, already under British control. British Colonel Barry St. Leger would come as a third force, advancing west along the Mohawk River Valley. St. Leger’s Force was to act as a diversion, recruiting loyalists along the way and additionally securing a western water route between Canada and New York City. Howe, however, became engaged in a campaign to capture Philadelphia (a plan Lord Germain had also approved believing that American General Washington may become a hindrance to New York, and that Howe would be done in time to reach Burgoyne) and would never reach Albany. St. Leger became entangled in a futile 21-day siege of Fort Stanwix and was forced to retreat to Canada as American forces from the Albany area began to advance upon him.
Burgoyne, however, was never informed in a timely manner of his colleagues’ setbacks and continued his march to Albany. Burgoyne’s troubles began as he prepared to cross twenty-two miles of wilderness between Lake Champlain and the Hudson River. Burgoyne’s army struggle to cross the rugged terrain. American General Philip Schuyler directed the Americans to sabotage the narrow route through the wilderness to slow the progress of Burgoyne’s men. An unseasonably hot and humid July, combined with Burgoyne’s need to surround himself with the luxuries of British aristocratic life, which translated into over thirty wagons laden with personal belongings, proved to be a major hindrance to the progress of the British troops. As Burgoyne’s supply lines stretched further, he sent a detachment of Hessian troops to Bennington to capture additional horses and supplies held by the colonists.
What Burgoyne did not understand was that there was great disaffection among the Continentals who were enraged by widespread stories of brutalities against women and children. One story that was widely popular was Jane McCrea, an American woman betrothed to a British officer, who was scalped by Indians. The fear of further savagery throughout the frontier by Burgoyne’s native allies helped Americans organize a surprise attack on the Hessians, killing some 900 men at the Battle of Bennington. This first real setback created considerable risk for Burgoyne as he approached Saratoga with no reinforcements.
The American Northern Army’s General Horatio Gates moved Americans northward from its camp near the Mohawk River in early September, 1777. There were three distinct phases of the Battle of Saratoga. The first and second battles were fought in Stillwater, on September 19 and October 7, 1777.
From October 10-17, 1777 Burgoyne’s British troops took refuge in a fortified camp at the siege field in Saratoga (Schuylerville). During the siege, the American force had grown to nearly 20,000 men which surrounded the exhausted British army of 3,000 men. Faced with such overwhelming numbers, Burgoyne surrendered on October 17, 1777. By the terms of the Convention of Saratoga, Burgoyne’s depleted army marched out of its camp “with Honors of War” and grounded (or stacked) their arms at the “Field of Grounded Arms” which is now Fort Hardy Park in Schuylerville.
A few months after Burgoyne’s defeat in Saratoga, France entered a formal alliance with the recognized American nation in the spring of 1778, and set in motion a chain of events that eventually led to victory for the American War of Independence.
Saratoga is known for being the turning point of the American Revolution. The Americans’ determined resistance at Saratoga, coupled with British strategic blunders, resulted in a stunning defeat and surrender for a British army. This timely victory reversed American military fortunes, boosted patriot morale, and gained them international recognition and support, including military assistance. That is why studying the Battles of Saratoga is integral to a good understanding of the American freedoms.