A FTER all the fierce fighting at Oriskany neither side could claim a victory. The British had received a check, but were by no means beaten. Fort Stanwix was still besieged, and unless relief came must soon fall into the hands of the enemy.
Colonel Gansewoort, the commandant of the fort, therefore now sent to Schuyler asking for help, and Benedict Arnold, who had but lately arrived, volunteering for the service, was soon on his way with twelve hundred men. Arnold was ready enough to fight, as he was. But he knew that his force was much smaller than that of the British, and, after some thought, he fell upon a plan by which theirs could be made less.
A spy had been caught within the American lines, and was condemned to death. He was an almost half-witted creature, with queer cunning ways, and the Indians looked upon him as a sort of Medicine Man, and feared him accordingly. Knowing this, Arnold thought that he might be useful to him, and promised to spare his life if he would go to the British camp and spread a report among their Indian allies that the Americans were coming down upon them in tremendous force.
The man was glad enough to get a chance to escape being hanged, and his brother being held as hostage, he set out. He acted his part well. Panting and breathless, with his coat torn in many places by bullets, and a face twisted with fear, he dashed into the enemy camp. There he told his eager listeners that he had barely escaped with his life from the Americans (which was true enough) and that they were marching towards them in vast numbers, and showed his bullet-riddled coat as proof of his story.
"How many are they?" he was asked.
In reply the man spread his hands abroad, pointing to the leaves of the trees and shaking his head as if in awe.
The Indians were greatly disturbed, and began to hold a council. While they were still consulting, an Indian, friendly to the Americans, who was in the plot, arrived. He told the same story as the spy, pointing like him to the numberless trees of the forest when asked how many of the enemy were coming.
Then another and still another Indian arrived. They all told the same tale. A mysterious bird had come to warn them, they said, that the whole valley was filled with warriors.
At length the Indians could bear no more. Already many of their best warriors had been slain. They would no longer stay to be utterly wiped out, and they prepared to flee.
In vain the British commander implored them to stay. Bribes, threats, and promises were all alike useless. At last he offered them "fire water." For if only he could make them drunk, he thought, they might forget their fear. But even the much coveted "fire water" had no power to still their terrors. They refused to drink, and with clamour and noise they fled.
The panic spread to the rest of the army. Two battalions of white men followed in the wake of their redskin brothers, and the commander, deserted by the bulk of his army, was forced to join in the general retreat.
It was a humiliating and disorderly flight. The Indians, when they recovered from their terror, had lost every vestige of respect for their white brothers. Soon they became insolent, and amused themselves by playing on their fears. "They are coming! They are coming!" they would cry whenever the weary fugitives lay down to rest. Then they would laugh to see the white men leap up again, fling away their knapsacks and their rifles, so as to make the greater haste, and stumble onward.
At length the shameful retreat came to an end, and, hungry and ragged, a feeble remnant of the expedition reached the shores of Lake Ontario, and passed over into Canada.
Such was the news brought to Burgoyne soon after the defeat at Bennington. It made his dark outlook darker still. No help could ever come to him now from the north, and all his hopes were fixed on Howe's advancing host from the south. But no news of Howe's approach reached him. Day by day the American force round him was increasing. Day by day his own was growing weaker. At last in desperation he decided to risk a battle. For he saw that he must either soon cut his way through the hostile forces or perish miserably.
General Horatio Gates was now in command of the Americans instead of Schuyler. Gates was nothing of a soldier. Indeed it was said of him that all through the beginning of the war he never so much as heard the sound of a gun, and that when there was a battle to the fore he always had business elsewhere. Like Lee he was an Englishman by birth. And even as Lee had been jealous of Washington so Gates was jealous of Schuyler, and at last he succeeded in ousting him. He did so at a good time for himself, for all the hard work of this campaign was done, and Gates stepped in in time to reap the glory.
Burgoyne thought little of Gates, and called him an old woman. So he was the more ready to give battle. But the Americans were now so thoroughly aroused that they would have fought well without a leader. Besides, Arnold was with them, and Arnold they would have followed anywhere.
The Americans were strongly entrenched on Bemis Heights, and on the day of battle Gates would have done nothing but sit still and let the enemy wear himself out in attacks. But this did not suit Arnold's fiery temper, and he begged hard to be allowed to charge the enemy. Gates grudgingly gave him leave, and with a small force he bore down upon the British. The fight was fierce, and finding his force too small Arnold sent to Gates asking for reinforcements. But Gates, although he had ten thousand troops standing idle, refused to send a man. So, with his always diminishing handful of troops, Arnold fought on till night fell.
Again neither side could claim a victory. But Burgoyne had lost nearly six hundred men, and his position was not one whit the better. Gates took all the credit to himself, and when he sent his account of the battle to Congress he did not so much as mention Arnold's name. Out of this, and his refusal to send reinforcements, a furious quarrel arouse between the two men, and Gates told Arnold that he had no further use for his services and that he could go. Arnold, shaken with wrath, would have gone had not his brother officers with one voice begged him to stay. So he stayed, but he had no longer any command.
Like a caged and wounded lion Burgoyne now sought a way out of the trap in which he was. But turn which way he would there was no escape. He was hemmed in on all sides. So eighteen days after the battle of Bemis Heights he took the field again on the same ground. It was a desperate adventure, for what could six thousand worn and weary men do against twenty thousand already conscious of success?
The British fought with dogged courage. Chafing with impatience Arnold watched the battle from the heights. He saw how an attack might be made with advantage, how victory might be won. At length he could bear inaction no longer, and, leaping on to his horse, he dashed into the fray.
"Go after that fellow and bring him back," shouted Gates; "he will be doing something rash."
The messenger sped after him. But Arnold was too quick, and the battle was well nigh won before Gates' order reached him. As Arnold came his men gave a ringing cheer, and for the rest of the day he and Daniel Morgan were the leaders of the battle, Gates never leaving his headquarters.
Where the bullets flew thickest, there Arnold was to be found. The madness of battle was upon him, and, like one possessed, he rode through flame and smoke, his clear voice raised above the hideous clamour, cheering and directing his men.
The fight was fierce and long, but as the day wore on there could be no more doubt about the end. The British were defeated. Yet so long as daylight lasted they fought on.
Just as the sun was setting Arnold and his men had routed a party of Germans, and a wounded German, lying on the ground, shot at Arnold, killing his horse and shattering his leg—the same leg which had been wounded at Quebec.
As Arnold fell, one of his men, with a cry of rage dashed at the German and would have killed him where he lay. But Arnold stopped him. "For God's sake, don't hurt him." he cried, "he's a fine fellow." So the man's life was spared.
Arnold's leg was so badly shattered that the doctors talked of cutting it off. Arnold, however, would not hear of it.
"If that is all you can do for me," he said, "put me on another horse and let me see the battle out."
But the battle was over, for night had put an end to the dreadful strife.
With this defeat Burgoyne's last hope vanished. To fight again would be merely to sacrifice his brave soldiers. He had only food in the camp for a week, and there was still no sign of help coming from the south. There was nothing left to him but to surrender.
So on October 17th he surrendered to General Gates, with all his cannon, ammunition, and great stores, and nearly six thousand men.
As his soldiers laid down their arms many of them wept bitterly. But there was no one there to see or deride their grief. For the Americans, having no wish to add to the sorrow of their brave foe, stayed within their lines. Then, as the disarmed soldiers marched away, Burgoyne stepped out of the ranks, and, drawing his sword, gave it to General Gates.
"The fortune of war has made me your prisoner," he said.
"It was through no fault of yours," replied Gates, with a grave courtesy, as he handed back the sword.