Revolutionary War Historical Article
The Battle of Saratoga - Freeman's Farm
By James Frassett
Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from Vol.4 Issue 2 of the Lock Stock and Barrel Living History Newsletter and Event Calendar, 2001
The "Battle of Freeman's Farm" was the first of two battles that were later to be collectively called the "Battle of Saratoga." The second battle was called the "Battle of Bemis Heights." There are several accounts of how the Freeman's Farm battle began and I think it is important to present all three accounts for the purpose of providing historical interpreters all of the perspectives available.
The first two accounts of the beginning of the battle are taken from Page Smith's, "A New Age Now Begins" as follows: "There are conflicting accounts of the opening of the engagement. Ebenezer Mattoon, a Continental officer reported that Arnold was with Gates when word arrived that contact had been made between Morgan's riflemen and some Indians. Mattoon reports that Arnold declared: 'That is nothing; you must send a strong force,' to which Gates understandably irritated, answered, 'General Arnold, I have nothing for you to do, you have no business here.' Benjamin Lincoln repeated Arnold's advice, and the additional reinforcements from Learned's and Nixon's brigades were sent to support Morgan and Dearborn."
By another account, when Tories and Canadians, decked out in Indian regalia, began to harass the American lines from the cover of a wood filled with down-timber, Arnold, who had persuaded Gates to allow the Americans to advance to meet the British right, rode up to the man who had marched with him to Quebec and said, "Colonel Morgan, you and I have seen too many redskins to be deceived by that garb of paint and feathers; they are asses in lions' skins, Canadians and Tories, let your riflemen cure them of their borrowed plumes." The 'Indians' were promptly driven off by the accuracy of the Virginia riflemen.
The following account is taken from the book, "The Life and Times of General Daniel Morgan of the Virginia Line of the Army of the United States", by James Graham. It is the account that I prefer as the book was assembled in 1856 by James Graham, the husband of Daniel Morgan's granddaughter, who had access to all of Morgan's personal papers and includes excerpts from Colonel Wilkinson's journal to elaborate on the activities of the engagement.
It is significant to note that in the days before the encounter at Freeman's Farm the British army under General Burgoyne had assembled a 30-day supply of food for the army. This left the General with a great decision: should he take the supplies and retreat back up Lake Champlain to Fort Ticonderoga or should he attempt to press on towards Albany where he hoped to join forces with Sir Henry Clinton who was moving north from New York City to rendezvous with Burgoyne. Quite possibly, because this was his fIrst independent command, Burgoyne, ever the ambitious one, could not stomach the thought of retreat. He had boldly told the army at the beginning of the campaign, "This army must not retreat!" and perhaps the pressure of his bombastic statement had come back to haunt him. He knew Colonel St. Leger, and the third leg of the campaign, had retreated back to Fort Oswego, and thus eventually to Quebec, and therefore would be of no assistance. He had lost a force of 900 men at Bennington. His Canadians, Tories and Indian allies had almost to a company deserted the army, and finally his soldiers, many of whom were wounded and sick, were at least exhausted. Morale was at an all time low.
Burgoyne decided to strike for Albany. He did not know the strength of the American army in numbers and neither did he know of the formidable fortifications that had been instructed by the Polish engineer, Thaddeus Kosciusko at Bemis Heights. What Burgoyne did know was that it was necessary to cross the river here at Stillwater in order to march on towards Albany. It would be impossible to cross the Hudson at Albany. If he could have done so, he could have stayed on the eastern side of the Hudson River and simply bypassed the American forces that were waiting for him at Stillwater and Bemis Heights.
The Americans had arrived at Bemis Heights on September 12th and immediately began strengthening and fortifying their position. It was believed that Burgoyne might have already crossed the Hudson and Colonel Morgan was sent to ascertain the position, strength, and objectives of the enemy. Morgan was positioned on the left of the American army and was directed to observe and provide information to headquarters of any movement of the British army.
General Gates, commanding officer of the northern army, was determined to stop the advance of the British there at Bemis Heights. He redoubled the efforts to strengthen the encampment and sent word to all of the countryside to call out the militia. Colonel Morgan and his sharpshooters, acting as reconnaissance were also given the opportunity to attack whenever the opportunity presented itself. No British regular dared to advance beyond the outposts of the camp without fear of a rifled round ball stealing his life.
On September 13th and 14th the British crossed from the east side of the Hudson River to the west. By the 18th the British army had advanced to within 3 miles of the American encampment at Bemis Heights and by the afternoon of the 18th the British set camp approximately 2 miles from the Americans. There was a brief encounter on the 18th between members of Morgan's corps and who were joined by members of General Poor's brigade, under the direction of Benedict Arnold. The encounter was brief and was instigated by Morgan. Several members of a German regiment and members of Morgan's corps were killed and several Germans were taken prisoner.
It is important at this point in the narrative to attempt to imagine the lay of the ground as it looked in September of 1777. The space between the opposing armies was partly wooded and partly cleared. The land along the Hudson River was partly cultivated, while the land on the elevations overlooking the river were covered with forest, with the exception of three or four small farms separated by intervals of forest. The ground between the centers of each army was rugged and covered with an impenetrable thicket
Morgan's corps was placed on the left flank of the American army in the highest area of the forest. To his right was the center of the American army and the center of the British army, which was doomed to slug it out in the impenetrable thickets of the terrain. Morgan's position was absolutely necessary for the British to obtain in order to outflank the Americans and render the fortifications at Bemis Heights undefendable.
On the morning of the 19th the British were discovered moving from the bank of the river towards the high ground on the American left. Gates immediately sent orders to Morgan to advance and retard their march, and to cripple them as much as possible. The corps was divided into two lines. The first line, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Butler, was composed of two companies of riflemen, headed by Major Morris, followed by Major Dearborn's light infantry. The second line, which formed the main body, was under the command of Colonel Morgan.
The first line advanced forward towards the British advance and after a half hour they came upon an advance picket of the enemy of about 300. The volley that opened up on them was treacherous and the charge that followed caused the [British] advance to break and run in great disorder. The Americans pursued with great determination into the forest and subsequently found themselves a few paces from a large body of the enemy. The British opened fire, killing several of the pursuing Americans and sending the rest of the pursuers into retreat. During this encounter Captain Swearingen and Lieutenant Moore were killed and several others were taken prisoner.
Major Morris who had pursued with great determination, found himself in the midst of the British and gallantly dashed his horse through their ranks under a hail of lead. He succeeded in jumping over a half a dozen men and escaping to rejoin his men.
The men were scattered in every direction but were soon reunited. Morgan's Rangers were trained to collect, disperse, flee and pursue as an integral part of their tactics.
When Morgan heard the firing in front of him, he quickly moved the second line forward to take part in the engagement. Upon his advance he was met with a number of retreating fugitives. Morgan was indignant and alarmed that his officers seemingly had recklessly rushed forward and that the first division had been destroyed.
Colonel Wilkinson relates in his memoirs Colonel Morgan arriving upon the scene against Gates' orders: "The first officer I fell in with," he says, "was Major Dearborn, who with great animation and not a little warmth, was forming thirty or forty file of his infantry. I exchanged a few words with him, passed on, and met Major Morris, who was never so sprightly as under a hot fire."
After receiving a description of the events of the action from the major, and being cautioned against exposing himself to the enemies' sharpshooters, Wilkinson proceeds: "I crossed the angle of the field, leaped the fence, and just before me on a ridge, discovered Lieutenant Colonel Butler with three men, all treed. From him 1 learned that they had 'caught a Scotch prize:' that having forced the picket, they had closed with the British line, had been instantly routed and from the suddenness of the shock and the nature of the ground, were broken and scattered in all directions." Returning to the camp to report to the general, Wilkinson continues, "my ears were saluted by an uncommon noise, when I approached and perceived Colonel Morgan, attended by two men only, and who, with a turkey-call [an instrument make from a turkey-bone for decoying a wild turkey], was collecting his dispersed troops. The moment I came up to him, he burst into tears, and exclaimed, 'I am ruined, by God! Major Morris ran on so rapidly with his front, that they were beaten before I could get up with the rear, and my men are scattered God knows where'."
Partly from discipline and partly from the directing sounds of the turkey call, a brief time sufficed to bring the dispersed division of the corps together again. This being effected, the whole regiment advanced in a body towards the scene of the recent conflict.
As they approached the clearing, a large force of the enemy were found occupying the ground. The Americans attacked with such vigor that the British were forced to retreat.
The British reached an eminence fronting an open piece of ground called "Freeman's Field" and here through the vigorous encouragement of their officers, made their stand. It was here that a fierce and deadly struggle ensued. The British held the superiority in numbers and artillery and this yielded to them a temporary triumph.
Morgan was forced to yield the attack and retreat to the safety of the woods. The move to the woods became even more necessary as the British began a flanking movement with a large force on Morgan's left. At precisely this moment two regiments of New Hampshire troops, commanded by Colonels Scammel and Cilley appeared and secured Morgan's left and engaged and halted the flanking maneuver of the enemy.
Morgan now feeling that his flanks were secure, the left being secured by the New Hampshire regiments and the right by the impenetrable thicket, renewed his action on the front with redoubled vigor. The well directed fire of six hundred marksmen soon forced the enemy once more to seek safety of the woody eminence, not, however, before the ground was covered with their killed and wounded. Upon retiring, they were forced to leave their artillery, but took the precaution to carry away with them the linstocks, rendering their immediate use by the Americans impossible. The Americans decided to carry them off, but the nature of the ground would not permit a speedy removal and the enemy, under cover of the woods above the field, rallied in their defense. The attempt to seize the artillery was met with a destructive fire that decimated those attempting to take the cannons and the effort was finally abandoned.
The British now maintained a commanding position over the Americans and Morgan was forced to retreat to the cover of the woods on the opposite side of the open field where the battle had begun. This step, however, was not executed until the Americans had tried on several occasions to flush the British from their position at the cost of much bloodshed on both sides.
As the fighting had intensified so had the numbers of men involved on both sides. After Scammel's and Cilley's New Hampshire regiment had joined Morgan they were followed by the whole of General Poor's brigade which included five additional regiments. These regiments joined the New Hampshire's to form an extension of the left flank of Morgan. The British countered by reinforcing their right with approximately the same number of men and so the additional forces remained arrayed against one another. The American force now numbered about 2,500 men and the British considerably more along with several pieces of artillery of which the Americans had none.
By 3 o'clock the action was general from right to left of the line and the fighting was very fierce. The battle did not subside until darkness forced the cessation of fire. The British had attempted several charges on Morgan's position and again and again Morgan's men had driven them back to the woods above Freeman's clearing. Almost all of the artillery men the British had employed were dead or wounded and the cannons by late afternoon had become useless to the enemy.
The battle waged for over 5 hours with an obstinacy never before witnessed in America. Victory hovered over the contending armies, undecided, as it were, in whose favor she would declare herself. While one body of Americans seemed to be retreating on one end of the field, another might be seen gallantly driving their opponents from the field. The triumphant shouts of friends and enemies were often heard at the same moment, coming from different parts of the field, and blending together in a strange and terrible dissonance.
As the sun began to set the Americans were again reinforced by General Learned and his entire brigade and one regiment from General Patterson's brigade. A body of German and British troops had been sent from their main camp, and were occupying the right of the British line, in a position to outflank the American left. The fresh reinforcements brought these troops to action, but the battle was feeble and soon both sides ceased altogether.
The darkness put an end to the conflict. The Americans returned to their camp, but the British, apprehensive of a renewal of the contest before the next morning, slept on their arms in front of their camp, a short distance from the field.
The American losses at the "Battle of Freeman's Farm" amounted to eighty killed, two hundred and eighteen wounded and twenty-three missing. The killed and wounded of the British amounted to nearly six hundred, along with many Canadians, Tories and Indians who deserted at the end of the action. Morgan's corps took the brunt of the losses with fifty men killed, sixty-two wounded and six missing. The sixty-second regiment of Hamilton's brigade, who had opposed Morgan for most of the day, lost one hundred and fifty of its men.
The force of. the Americans engaged throughout the day was nearly three thousand men. About one thousand more arrived late in the day but too late to actually participate in the battle. The British force was at all times during the day superior in number, and when the action closed their numbers amounted to nearly four thousand.
The one point that most historians will agree on concerning this battle, is that the Americans earned an indisputable victory. The goal of the Americans was to check the advance of the British army and the engagement completely checked the enemy advance towards Albany. Although the battle had begun as a skirmish in the early hours of the morning, by the end of the day over seven thousand troops had been engaged. Burgoyne, determined to crash the left flank of the Americans, was thrown back again and again. Gates, who had seen the battle as insignificant early in the day had continued to reinforce Morgan throughout the day, while continuing to keep an eye on the American right and the road to Albany, expecting Burgoyne to engage at that point at any time.
The fact remains, that during one of the most obstinately contested actions of the war, in which nearly seven thousand men were engaged, not a single officer above the rank of a colonel appeared upon the ground until night began to fall upon the combatants, when General Learned arrived with his brigade. Although all of General Arnold's division took an active part in the battle, that officer never appeared in the action. General Wilkinson informs us that Arnold was forbidden by Gates to visit the field and direct the operations of his command. The object in stating these well authenticated facts is to show that the credit of this glorious action, so generally accorded either to Arnold or to Gates, or to both, properly belongs to neither. It should go to enrich the memory of those gallant men, who, unassisted by the directing hand of either of their commanders, but cooperating in purpose from the impulses of a courage common to all, fought the battle and won the day.
Among this glorious band of heroes - - it is no injustice to the memory of any one of them to assert - Morgan was preeminently distinguished. His regiment was the first in the field, and the last out of it. Where it was engaged, the battle was more deadly and less interrupted, than in any other position. Its loss was greater in proportion to its numbers than that of any other regiment engaged, while the number of the enemy which fell by its hands, was nearly one-half of that admitted by General Burgoyne to have fallen in the battle. Though Morgan was denied the merited mention in Gates' communications to Congress regarding this battle, justice claims for him the foremost position among those who had a share in the glories of the day. Posterity will freely accord him this, and hail him - as did his friends and neighbors on his return home a few months after as "the hero of Stillwater."
The news of the victory was received throughout the country with joy. It was a precursor of the great victories that were to follow and Gates and Arnold both reaped a rich harvest of undeserved honors and applause. The militia came flocking into the American camp along with a large number of Indians. Everything began to fall into place for a speedy capture of Burgoyne's entire army.
Related Article: Eye Witness Account of the Battle of Freeman's Farm
Journal of Lieutenant William Digby of the Shropsire Regiment of His Majesty's Army:
"September 19th. At day break intelligence was received that Colonel Morgan, with the advance party of the enemy consisting of a corps of rifle men, were strong about 3 miles from us; their main body amounting to great numbers encamped on a very strong post about half a mile in their rear, and about 9 o' clock we began our march, every man prepared with 60 rounds of cartridge and ready for instant action. We moved in 3 columns, ours to the right on the heights and farthest from the river in thick woods. A little after 12 our advanced picquets came up with Colonel Morgan and engaged, but from the great superiority of fire received from him - his numbers being much greater - they were obliged to fall back, every officer being either killed or wounded except one, when the line came up to their support and obliged Morgan in his turn to retreat with loss.
About half past one, the fire seemed to slacken a little; but it was only to come on with double force, as between 2 and 3 the action became general on their side. From the situation of the ground, and their being perfectly acquainted with it, the whole of our troops could not be brought to engage together, which was a very material disadvantage, though everything possible was tried to remedy the inconvenience, but to no effect. Such an explosion of fire I never had any idea of before, and the heavy artillery joining in concert like great peals of thunder, assisted by the echoes of the woods, almost deafened us with the noise. To the unconcerned spectator, it must have had the most awful and glorious appearance, the different battalions moving to relieve each other, some being pressed and almost broke by their superior numbers. The crash of cannon and musketry never ceased till darkness parted us, when they retired to their camp, leaving us masters of the field, but it was a dear-bought victory if I can give it that name, as we lost many brave men. The 62nd had scarce 10 men a company left, and other regiments suffered much; and no very great advantage, honor excepted, was gained by the day.
On its turning dusk we were near firing on a body of Germans, mistaking their dark clothing for that of the enemy. General Burgoyne was everywhere and did every thing [that] could be expected from a brave officer, and Brig. Gen. Frazier gained great honour by exposing himself to every danger."