Revolutionary War Historical Article

The Road to Saratoga

By James Frassett

Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from Vol.4 Issue 1 of the Lock Stock and Barrel Living History Newsletter and Event Calendar, 2001

 

The failure to capture Quebec was a devastating loss to the American cause. Congress as well as the military leadership of the war had looked to Canada as the fourteenth colony. They wanted to take Quebec and insure that royal army would find it difficult to attack the colonies from the north. The defeat had also been costly. General Montgomery had been killed during the assault and Daniel Morgan along with fifty­five officers and three hundred and seventy-three soldiers were now prisoners under Sir Guy Carleton.

The royal army had experienced first hand the valor and courage of Daniel Morgan, as he and his men had almost succeeded in capturing the city without Montgomery's help. Had benedict Arnold not made several questionable decisions during the approach and the as­sault on the city, Morgan might have been able to take it. Now as a prisoner of Sir Guy Carleton, the British tried to offer him a commission as a colonel in the royal army. Morgan's reply to this request was filled with disdain as he answered, "I hope, sir, you will never again insult me in my present distressed and unfortunate situation, by making me offers which plainly imply you think me a scoundrel. "

Morgan and the other officers and men remained prisoners for the next eight months. Carleton treated all of the captured officers with marked kindness and consideration. In September of 1776, the officers presented a petition to Carleton asking for their parole. In an act of extreme generosity, Carleton obliged the officers and men and on August 10th the prisoners embarked on five transports bound for New York. A month later on September 11th they landed at Elizabethtown Point. As the boats approached land, Morgan sprang towards shore and throwing himself on the ground, cried out in a burst of patriotism, "Oh, my country!"

Morgan immediately headed for Washington's headquarters where the General warmly greeted him. His fame for his heroics at Quebec had already spread across the colonies. Morgan communicated to the Commander-in-Chief the desire he had to again enter into the service of his country once his parole would permit. Before Morgan left for his home in Virginia, Washington wrote a sparkling letter to Congress requesting that once the formal prisoner exchange transpired that Morgan be promoted to Colonel.

Before the year was concluded Morgan was formally exchanged and Congress acted on behalf of Washington's recommendation and promoted Morgan to Colonel. He was instructed to begin recruiting a new regiment and to do so as quickly as possible. Recruiting was slow for the new officer and by March 1777 Morgan had been able to recruit only 180 men for the new regiment. The reason may have been because Morgan would only take men accustomed to the woods and expert in the use of the rifle.

Patrick Henry's letter to Morgan asking that he leave immediately for Morristown prompted Morgan to head north on the 15th of March. He arrived at Washington's headquarters at Morristown in the beginning of April. His meeting with Washington was marked with kindness and consideration. Washington, familiar with war and understanding the value of a rifle company, determined to forge a regiment of 500 riflemen with Morgan as its commanding officer. Morgan went about hand picking the regiment from the body of the main army. Richard Butler of Pennsylvania was given the position of lieutenant colonel and eight captains were appointed to command the eight companies. His choices for officers displayed that knowledge of human nature and soundness of judgment that were to mark Morgan's career and life. His Captains were Cobel, Posey, Knox, Long, Swearingin, Parr, Boone, and Henderson. These men were to be severely tested over the next months and not one of them failed to realize the expectations of his commander, nor to distinguish himself on one or more occasion.

General John Burgoyne

While General Morgan was in the process of being paroled and exchanged, General John Burgoyne was pitching his plan of British victory to King George III and Lord George Germain, Secretary of War. On May 6, 1777 Burgoyne stepped ashore in Quebec with an independent command that everyone believed would end the rebellion in America. The plan was not new and had been drawn up and considered by several other officers prior to Burgoyne's meeting with King George and Lord Germain. The plan called, "Thoughts for Conducting the War from the Side of Canada," called for a large force to proceed southward from Lake Champlain to the Hudson River and on to Albany. A smaller force to be commanded by Colonel Barry St. Leger, would sail up the St. Lawrence to Lake Ontario and disembark at Fort Oswego. From Oswego they would head south through the Mohawk Valley and on to Albany to meet Burgoyne. The third prong of the attack would leave New York City and head north to Albany where the three forces would rendezvous. This strategy would effectively cut off the New England colonies from the rest of the colonies and allow the combined forces to hunt down Washington and destroy the Continental Army.

On paper, it was a good plan, perhaps even a great plan, but it required great leadership to accomplish its goals. Burgoyne, although well liked by his men and considered an able general at fifty-five years of age, was a man of questionable reputation. He was fiercely ambitious and had risen to prominence after he had eloped with the daughter of the Earl of Derby. He had served in the Seven Years War and had distinguished himself with several daring exploits during on a lower command level; but most of his promotions came because of political connections and family influence. Burgoyne had a reputation as a playboy, a gambler, and a heavy drinker. He guarded his reputation and was extremely sensitive to ridicule or criticism.

On June 17th Burgoyne embarked from St. Johns in a mile long flotilla. His force consisted of 7,000 trained, disciplined, and experienced British and German troops. He also had 138 cannons with 600 artillerymen and 650 Canadians, Tories, and Indians. His second in command was General William Phillips, a distinguished artillerist with 20 years experience. In charge of the German division was 38 year old Major General Baron von Riedesel, an extremely capable and aggressive officer with more than 20 years experience.

By June 30 the expedition reached Crown Point, ten miles north of Fort Ticonderoga. The flotilla stopped to make last minute preparations for the attack on the Fort. That evening Burgoyne issued a General Order that ended with the famous bombastic declaration: "This army must not retreat." This blast summed up Burgoyne's personal reputation, pride and ambition. It was Burgoyne's desire to get across to his men that the Americans would always give way to regular troops and that regular troops would always prevail over untrained militia.

Ticonderoga was under the command of Major General Arthur St. Clair. He had only been in command of the Fort for three weeks prior to Burgoyne's arrival. St. Clair was severely undermanned with only 2000 soldiers to hold the long line of fortifications. On July 1, Burgoyne landed his army a few miles north of the fort. The next few days saw sporadic fighting between the two forces and finally the Americans decided to abandon their outer works and retreat into the main works.

Just southwest of the Ticonderoga was a steep, thickly forested eminence called Sugar Loaf Hill that towered more than 700 feet over the lake and which commanded the whole American line. Even some of the junior officers believed that it should have been fortified, but Gates, who had been in command of the fort prior to St. Clair had declared it to be inaccessible because of its height and steepness. When the brilliant artillerist, General Phillips, gazed upon the mountain he declared, "Where a goat can go, a man can go and where a man can go he can drag a gun."

On the morning of July 5, St. Clair was dismayed to see the enemy in the process of mounting two 12­pound cannons on the summit of Sugar Loaf. His position was indefensible; retreat was the only course open to him. That night, under cover of darkness, the invalids and women, along with as many supplies and cannon as possible were loaded onto the bateaux's and sent south down Lake Champlain towards Skenesborough, about 30 miles away. A guard of 600 men accompanied the flotilla of 200 bateaux south. The main body of the army under St. Clair struck out on a rough wagon road through the wilderness.

Not until daybreak did Burgoyne learn of he American retreat. Burgoyne dispatched General Simon Fraser with a small force of light infantry and grenadiers along with Riedsel and the German troops overland in pursuit of St. Claire while he himself went with the fleet in pursuit of the American supplies at Skenesborough.

The American flotilla was enjoying a cool trip down Lake Champlain with no sense of urgency, as they believed the obstructions that had been placed in the lake would give them at least a day's head start. About 3:00 PM while unloading their supplies, the British fleet in hot pursuit opened up with a discharge of cannon. Burgoyne was right behind them. The invalids were sent up Wood Creek in the bateaux and the men struck out through the wilderness to join St. Clair at Fort Edward, about twenty-three miles away on the Hudson. The move was extremely costly as all of the cannon, provisions and the bulk of the baggage fell into enemy hands.

Fraser and Riedesel caught up with St. Clair's rear at Hubbardton, Vermont on July 7 and a sharp and bitter engagement took place. The Americans suffered over 300 casualties and the British about 200. St. Clair and the rest of the main force safely reached Fort Edwards on July 12 where they were joined by the small force that had escaped Burgoyne at Skenesborough.

The story of Burgoyne's questionable character begins to unfold at this point. Forgetting that he had 16 baggage carts for his personal wardrobe, a literal wine cellar in motion, and was sleeping with his personal cook's wife, he now was about to make an unforgivable mistake. Rather than "retreat" back to Fort Ticonderoga and take the leisurely sail down Lake George to a well established road and on to Fort Edwards, he chose to take his army overland, across 20 miles of terrible terrain. When he had presented his plan to the King in February he had stated that taking the overland route from Skenesborough would offer, "considerable difficulties, the narrow parts of the river may be easily choked up and rendered impassable; and at best, there will be necessity for a great deal of land-carriage for the artillery, provisions, etc, while the latter (sailing down Lake George) he believed to be the most expeditious and commodious route to Albany." Yet he now selected the route through the wilderness.

Legend says that the British general was persuaded to take the Wood Creek route by Philip Skene (Skenesborough) who felt the value of his property would be enhanced if the army were to build a military road across it to Fort Edwards. Burgoyne defended his selection by alleging that the morale of is troops would have been harmed if they had retired from Skenesborough to Ticonderoga to begin another advance by way of Lake George.

This incredible mistake to tackle the American swamp from Skenesborough to Fort Edwards was preceded by another of Burgoyne's bombastic statements. Burgoyne issued a statement calling on the people of certain town­ships to return to British allegiance by the fifteenth of the month, "under pain of military execution on failure to pay obedience to such order."

The Tories, which Burgoyne and British Ministry had so counted on began to show up in Burgoyne's camp. Most of them came offering their service as soldiers, but since few had guns, they were assigned to clearing roads and building bridges. But nowhere was there any sign of a general rising of Loyalists on which the British had been so convinced.

General Schuyler, Commander of the Northern Army, responded to Burgoyne with a statement of his own warning, "to all traitors who should in any way assist, give comfort to, or hold correspondence with, or take protection from the enemy."

Schuyler quickly followed up the war of words with a scorched earth policy. If Burgoyne was to make it to Fort Edwards by ground, it would be a tortuous route indeed. The ground itself was swampy and filled with creeks. The Americans, under orders from Schuyler, began collecting all of the livestock and food supplies throughout the entire area in which the British would be forced to march. Over 40 bridges were destroyed, streams were diverted to intersect the route of the march, and hundreds of trees were cut down to block trails and roads.

The British soldier was totally unprepared for such an expedition. Carrying a knapsack, a blanket, a haversack that contains all of his provisions, a canteen, a hatchet, and. a proportion of the equipage belonging to his tent, combined with all of his additional accouterments made an enormous bulk weighing about 60 pounds. The Germans were in even worse condition with their grenadiers wearing a cap with a very heavy brass front, a sword of enormous size, a canteen that cannot hold less than a gallon, along with boots that the dismounted dragoons wore that weighed 5 pounds or more each.

A rift between Burgoyne and Riedsel continued to grow. In councils of war, Riedsel was frequently left out and the German troops were given the less honorable assignments. Baron von Riedsel's wife, a pious lady, was scandalized by Burgoyne's way of life, in which she persisted despite the hardships of the march. "He spent half the nights," she noted disapprovingly, "in singing and drinking, and amusing himself with the wife of a commissary, who was his mistress, and who, as well as he, loved champagne."

Burgoyne, perhaps in his drunken, bawy6 state of mind, did not see the beginning of the end. His march of 23 miles was to take him 24 days. His supply lines were now long and drawn out and always in danger of ambush in the swamp. His defeat of the garrison at Ticonderoga had depleted his force by 1,000 men who had to be left to garrison the fort. In his mind, the invasion was a swimming success.

In the midst of all of his "success" came the Jane McCrea incident. A young woman named Jane McCrea was engaged to one of the Tories attached to Burgoyne's army. She was seized by a band of marauding Indians led by a chief named Wyandot Panther. In a dispute over which Indian had captured her, she was tomahawked, stripped of her clothing, and scalped. The Indians took her scalp, along with that of an American officer back to camp, and in the evening they had a victory dance. Later the girl's body was discovered, and soon word of the killing spread through the British army.

Burgoyne was caught in a trap of his own making. If he executed the guilty savage, ad he as at first disposed to do, he might turn his Indian allies into enemies. If on the other hand, he took no action, he would seem to condone the murder. He chose the latter course; he pardoned the murderer and gave the Indians a stern lecture on restraint. Far from being grateful for his clemency, the Indians resented Burgoyne's efforts to interfere with their ways of waging war, and their, "ill humor and mutinous disposition strongly manifested itself." A few days later a large number of them departed, "loaded with such plunder as they had collected..." In the words of Du Roi: "It did not make any difference to the Indians, if they attacked a subject loyal to the king, or one friendly to the rebels; they set fire to all their homes, took away everything, killed the cattle, leaving them dead on the spot...It would certainly have been better, if we had not had the Indians with us."

The Americans were horrified at the death of Jane McCrea. It was to be sure, only one of numerous instances of murderous action by Burgoyne's Indians, but it touched off a doleful and romantic chord. The story of the murder spread like wildfire to the north, south, east and west that Burgoyne and his Indian allies were willing to rape, plunder and kill every man, woman and child in their path. The militia began to turn out in droves to protect their homes and families from Burgoyne and his Indian and German marauders. Once again "Gentleman" Johnny was aiding the American cause.

On July 30, Burgoyne finally reached Fort Edwards. General Schuyler had long since abandoned the fort as he deemed the dilapidated fortress as indefensible. Schuyler had moved the army to Saratoga. Washington, who was keeping abreast of Burgoyne's movements, sent Benedict Arnold north to help raise an army to defeat Burgoyne. Washington, always the best judge of character, prophesied that Johnny would make a mistake. Washington wrote: "Though our affairs have for days past worn a dark and gloomy aspect, I yet look forward to a fortunate and happy change. I trust General Burgoyne's army will meet sooner or later an important check, and as I have suggested before... that the success he has had will precipitate his ruin. Burgoyne's practice of acting in detachments would certainly give room for enterprise on our part and expose his parties to a great hazard. Could we be so happy as to cut one of them off, though it should not exceed four, five or six hundred men. It would inspirit the people and so away with much of this present anxiety. In such an event they would lose sight of past misfortunes; and, urged at the same time by a regard for their own security, they would fly to arms and afford every aid in their power." The letter proved to be a remarkably accurate analysis and prediction; it demonstrated once more, if any demonstration was needed, the soundness of Washington's own strategic instincts. But beyond the strategy, intelligence, and instinct of General Washington, it showed that God was in the midst of the American cause. The man under the authority of the rulers of this world was about to encounter a battle with a people who called themselves Christians and who were led by a man of God. In these types of incidents we see the Providence of God in the American struggle against tyranny. Providence caused King George to put Burgoyne in charge and Providence caused Burgoyne to continue to make one exceptional blunder after another. The American army, Congress, every pastor and every citizen knew we could not win without Divine help, and Divine help was showing up every time Burgoyne spoke or moved his endangered army.

The end was rapidly approaching for "Gentleman" Johnny, even though he couldn't see it through his drunken and lust filled eyes. His men arrived at Fort Edwards exhausted and in short supply. They believed that the rest of the journey to Albany would be an easy one.

General Burgoyne, desperate for additional supplies for his beleaguered army, was told of a store of food and horses at a small town called Bennington in nearby Vermont. Colonel Frederich Baum departed from Fort Edwards on August 12 with 500 men. The original plan was a movement against Seth Warner in Manchester and then on to Bennington, but that plan was changed at the last minute over Riedesel's objections. Riedesel argued that to leave Warner undisturbed on the left flank of an expeditionary force was risky. In the end Riedesel's fears were confirmed.

When Baum arrived at Bennington, he was met, not by a group of untrained militia, but by General John Stark, a hero of Bunker Hill, and 1500 well-trained soldiers. On August 14 Baum decided to dig in on a small hill four miles from Bennington on the Walloomscoick River. On the 15th Burgoyne, hearing of Baum's encounter with a powerful force, dispatched Lieutenant Colonel Heinrich von Breyman from Cambridge with a force to support Baum.

Here again Divine Providence showed up. A torrential rain turned the roads into muddy swamps, and the troops were able to make no better than half a mile an hour. An artillery cart overturned, the guide lost the way, and the party made only seven miles the first day.

Colonel Baum was convinced that the Tories were so plentiful in Bennington, that they would turn out to support the British. When the American attack came, he thought the attackers were 1oya1ists flocking to his standard and ordered his men not to shoot. By the time the order was given to fire, the Americans were almost on them. The conflict became a bloody hand-to-hand fight and the Brunswickers outnumbered and seeing their ranks broken, fled or surrendered. Just as the Americans began to sense the triumph of the battle, Breyman showed up with his relief column finding the American army fatigued from the fight and in disarray. At exactly the same moment that Breyman arrived, Seth Warner arrived from Manchester and Riedesel's fears were confirmed. Warner's fresh troops combined with Stark's battle weary but inspired troops quickly routed Breyman and forced his column back to Cambridge.

Washington's prophecy had indeed been realized. The British army had lost 207 killed in the fighting and 600 prisoners were taken. The American's seized four brass cannon, several hundred muskets, drums and swords.

The victory was complete. The British had failed to secure any of the much needed supplies they had sought. They had lost over 800 men and two very capable officers. Burgoyne was reeling from the defeat. St. Leger and the smaller force from Oswego had failed to take Fort Stanwix and had returned to Oswego rather than fight Benedict Arnold and his force moving up from Albany. Howe had sailed to Philadelphia to capture the city and therefore would not be coming up the Hudson to rendezvous with Burgoyne.

While all of this activity was transpiring in the northern campaign, Colonel Morgan was busy with several harassing attacks on the flanks and rear of General Cornwallis and De Heister who had ventured out of New Brunswick in the hope of encouraging an all out fight with Washington. When Washington would not bite, Howe evacuated New Brunswick and headed for Amboy. Morgan and his regiment were involved in several encounters with Howe's rear guard during the march to Amboy. Morgan's men distinguished themselves, but not without great loss. Many of Morgan's men were wounded or killed during the almost daily encounters.

After several other foyers out of New York, it became clear that the British were loading their ships for some objective. With Burgoyne moving down from the north it was originally suspected that the army would sail up the Hudson to Albany, but when they put to sea, Washington believed their intention was Philadelphia. Washington dispatched Morgan on to Philadelphia and once he had arrived at Trenton he was ordered to wait for further orders. Washington was still waiting for assurance of Howe's intention and the direction of the fleet. When Washington was positive Howe was moving on Philadelphia, coupled with Burgoyne's rapid success in the north, he decided to send his ablest field commander, Daniel Morgan, and his regiment of riflemen to assist General Gates in the northern campaign. On August 16, 1777 Washington sent the following order to Colonel Morgan:

 

Sir: After you receive this, you will march, as soon as possible, wit the corps under your command, to Peekskill, taking with you all the baggage belonging to it. When you arrive there, you will take directions from General Putnam, who, I expect, will have vessels provided to carry you to Albany. The approach of the enemy in that quarter has made a further reinforcement necessary, and I know of no corps so likely to check their progress, in proportion to its number, as that under your command. I have great dependence on you, your officers and men, and I am persuaded you will do honor to yourselves, and essential service to your country.....

I am, sir, your most obedient servant

George Washington

 The stage was almost completely set for the great battle that was to turn the tide of the American War for Independence. The players were all in place, the circumstances were all in. The once proud and arrogant British army under the command of an actor and a poet named "Johnny Burgoyne" was about to encounter the hard-nosed reality of a Ranger Regiment under the command of Daniel Morgan. Saratoga was the playing field and America was the prize.

Back to Battles Index

Back to Historical Archives

 

 

link to aboutus

1