A S many of the Americans had foreseen, the British had from the first formed the design of cutting the colonies in two by taking possession of the great waterway from the Hudson to the St. Lawrence. Their plans had been long delayed, but in the spring of 1777, they determined to carry them out.
General Burgoyne was now in command of the Canadian troops. He was a genial man of fashion, a writer of plays, and a great gambler. But he was a brave soldier, too, and his men adored him. For in days when it was common to treat the rank and file as little better than dogs, Burgoyne treated them like reasoning beings.
It was arranged that Burgoyne should move southward with his main force, by way of Lake Champlain to Ticonderoga, and that a smaller force should go by Lake Ontario and seize Fort Stanwix. Howe, at the same time, was in Albany, having, it was to be supposed, swept the whole country free of "rebels."
It was a very fine plan, but it was not carried out as intended—because, although Burgoyne received his orders, Howe did not receive his. For the British minister, who ought to have sent them, went off on a holiday and forgot all about the matter for several weeks. When at length he remembered, and sent the order, Howe was far away from the Hudson, at his old game of trying to run Washington to earth.
Burgoyne, however, knew nothing of this and cheerfully set out from Canada with a well drilled, well equipped, and well fed army of about eight thousand men, and on the 1st of July reached Ticonderoga.
Since this fort had been taken by Ethan Allen it had been greatly strengthened, and the Americans believed that now it could withstand any assault, however vigorous. But while strengthening the fort itself they failed to fortify a little hill near. They had already much experience of the danger of heights commanding a town or fort. But they thought that this hill was too steep and rugged to be a danger. No cannon, it was said, could ever be dragged up to the top of it. When the British came, however, they thought otherwise. They at once saw the value of the hill, and determined that guns should be dragged up it. For forty-eight hours they worked furiously, and when day dawned on the 5th of August both men and guns were on the summit.
The American commander, St. Clair, saw them with despair in his heart. Every corner of the fort was commanded by the guns, and the garrison utterly at the mercy of the enemy. To remain, he knew, would mean the loss of his whole force. So he resolved to abandon the fort, and as soon as the sun set the work was begun. Guns and stores were laden on boats, cannon too heavy to be removed were spiked, and nearly all the garrison had left when a fire broke out in the officers' quarters.
The light of the flames showed the British sentinels what was going on. The alarm was given. The British made a dash for the fort, and as day dawned the Union Jack was once more planted upon its ramparts.
Then a hot pursuit began. At the village of Hubbardton the Americans made a valiant stand, but they were worsted and fled, and five days later St. Clair brought the remnant of his force into Fort Edward, where the main army under Schuyler was stationed.
Burgoyne had begun well, and when King George heard the news he clapped his hands with joy. "I have beat them," he cried, dashing into the Queen's rooms, "I have beat all the Americans." But over America the loss cast a gloom. St. Clair and Schuyler were severely blamed and court-martialled. But both were honourably acquitted. Nothing could have saved the garrison from being utterly wiped out; and when men came to judge the matter calmly they admitted that it was better to lose the fort than to lose the fort and garrison also. Meanwhile Burgoyne was chasing hot-foot after the fugitives. As he approached, Schuyler abandoned Fort Edward, for it was a mere shell and impossible of defence for a single day. But as he fell back, he broke up the roads behind him. Trees were felled and laid across them every two or three yards, bridges were burned, fords destroyed. So thoroughly was the work done that Burgoyne, in pursuit, could only march about a mile a day, and had to build no fewer than forty bridges in a distance of little more than twenty-four miles.
Besides destroying the roads Schuyler also made the country a desert. He carried away and destroyed the crops, drove off the sheep and cattle, sweeping the country so bare that the hostile army could find no food, and were forced to depend altogether on their own supplies. Before long these gave out, and the British began to suffer from hunger.
Burgoyne now learned that at the village of Bennington the patriots had a depot containing large stores of food and ammunition. These he determined to have for his own army, and he sent a force of six hundred men, mostly Germans and Indians, to make the capture.
The old trapper, Captain John Stark, was in command of the American force at Bennington. He had fought in many battles from Bunker Hill to Princeton. But, finding himself passed over, when others were promoted, he had gone off homeward in dudgeon. But now in his country's hour of need he forgot his grievances and once more girded on his sword. He led his men with splendid dash and the enemy was utterly defeated, and Stark was made a brigadier general as a reward. It was a disaster for Burgoyne, and on the heels of this defeat came the news that the second force marching by way of Lake Ontario had also met with disaster at Oriskany near Fort Stanwix.
This force had surrounded Fort Stanwix, and General Nicholas Herkimer had marched to its relief.
General Herkimer was an old German of over sixty, and although he had lived all his life in America, and loved the country with his whole heart, he spoke English very badly, and wrote it worse. It must have sadly puzzled his officers sometimes to make out his dispatches and orders. One is said to have run as follows: "Ser, yu will orter yur bodellyen to merchs Immetdielich do ford edward weid for das broflesen and amenieschen fied for en betell. Dis yu will desben at yur berrel." This being translated means:" Sir, you will order your battalion to march immediately to Fort Edward with four days' provisions, and ammunition for one battle. This you will disobey at your peril."
As this doughty old German marched to the relief of Fort Stanwix he fell into an ambush prepared for him by the famous Indian chief, Joseph Brant, who, with his braves, was fighting on the side of the British. A terrible hand to hand struggle followed. The air was filled with wild yells and still wilder curses as the two foes grappled. It was war in all its savagery. Tomahawks and knives were used as freely as rifles. Stabbing, shooting, wrestling, the men fought each other more like wildcats than human beings. A fearful thunderstorm burst forth, too. Rain fell in torrents, a raging wind tore through the tree tops, thunder and lightning added their terrors to the scene.
For five hours the savage warfare lasted. Almost at the beginning a ball shattered Herkimer's leg and killed his horse. But the stout old warrior refused to leave the field. He bade his men take the saddle from his horse and place it at the root of a great beech tree. Sitting there he directed the battle, shouting his orders in his quaint guttural English, and calmly smoking a pipe the while. They were the last orders he was to give. For, ten days after the battle he died from his wound, serenely smoking his pipe, and reading his old German Bible almost to the last.
Soon the noise of the battle was heard at Fort Stanwix, and the garrison, led by Colonel Marinus Willett, sallied forth to the aid of their comrades, put a detachment of the enemy to flight, and captured their stores of food and ammunition, together with five flags. And now for the first time the Stars and Stripes were unfurled.
When Washington had taken command of the army there had still been no real thought of separating from Britain. So for his flag he had used the British ensign with the Union Jack in the corner. But instead of a red ground he had used a ground of thirteen red and white stripes, on stripe for each colony. But when all hope of reconciliation was gone Congress decided that the Union Jack must be cut out of the flag altogether, and in its place a blue square was to be used with thirteen white stars in a circle, one star for each state, just as there was one stripe for each state.
People, however, were too busy doing other things and had no time to see to the making of flags. So the first one was hoisted by Colonel Willett, after the battle of Oriskany. He had captured five standards. These, as victor, he hoisted on the fort. To make his triumph complete, however, he wanted an American flag to hoist over them. But he had none. So a soldier's wife gave her red petticoat, some one else supplied a white shirt, and out of that and an old blue jacket was made the first American flag to float upon the breeze.
This, of course, was only a rough and ready flag, and Betsy Ross, a seamstress, who lived in Arch Street, Philadelphia, had the honour of making the first real one. While in Philadelphia Washington and some members of council called upon Betsy to ask her to make the flag. Washington had brought a sketch with him, but Betsy suggested some alterations. So Washington drew another sketch, and there and then Betsy set to work, and very soon her flag also was floating in the breeze.