Gateway to the Classics: The Boy's Book of Battles by Eric Wood
The Boy's Book of Battles by  Eric Wood


Where the Americans Struck a Decisive Blow for Independence

Sheer pluck won Canada for England; sheer obstinacy lost us what is now the United States of America. Ministerial pig-headedness, administrative shortsightedness, caused the American Colonies to revolt; but for a time it seemed as though British arms would remedy the state of things that British statesmanship had brought about. True, the Americans had declared their independence, but the defeat of a Colonial invasion of Canada, the capture of Philadelphia, and one or two other little events, combined to suggest that Britain was going to win. To follow up this advantage it was decided to strike a crushing blow. The crushing blow was struck—but not by England.

The plan of campaign was for General Burgoyne, a gallant and moderately able officer, to make an expedition into Canada at the head of seven thousand men, with the object of fighting his way along the Lakes, thence along the Hudson River, to join another army under Lord Howe at Albany.

The object of the campaign was to cut the communications between the various sections of the American army, which must ultimately have resulted in quelling the rebellion.

It was a well-laid plan; but it went wrong.

Burgoyne arrived in Quebec in March, 1777; in June he had collected his forces, and, reinforced by a number of Indians—which caused much anger and forebodings amongst the Americans, who knew the kind of warfare carried on by these warriors—embarked on board the vessels waiting for him, and proceeded down Lake Champlain. He landed at Crown Point, and then proceeded to clear the way by compelling the Americans to evacuate Ticonderoga. This done, he swept down the Lake to Skenesborough, captured some American stores, and on July 6th began his march across country. It was an arduous journey; roads were bad, bridgeless rivers had to be crossed, and all this with a harassing foe cutting off stragglers. General Schuyler, commanding the Americans, having an insufficient force under him to oppose Burgoyne, fell back before the advancing British, who, a fortnight after leaving Skenesborough, reached Fort Edward on the left bank of the Hudson, having so far been able to carry their scheme into operation.

Schuyler had fallen back on Stillwater, on the right bank of the Hudson, and there waited until reinforcements came up. Meanwhile he had been compelled to send a detachment to relieve Fort Schuyler, which General St. Leger, who had crossed Lake Ontario at the same time that Burgoyne left Quebec, was besieging. St. Leger had to retire, leaving his stores behind.

Thus did the scheme begin to go astray.

Moreover, Burgoyne was in a precarious position. Many of his Indians, on whom he had placed a good deal of reliance, deserted him; his stores were well nigh used up, and it became necessary to put the men on short rations.

To remedy this he sent out a foraging expedition under General Baum to capture some stores at Bennington; the foragers were met by the New England militia, who defeated them and sent them scurrying off to Fort Edward again.

And Burgoyne got no stores.

Still more desertions followed; and all the time the Americans were being reinforced. There was nothing to be done but to wait at Fort Edward until stores could be brought up Lake Champlain.

Meanwhile Schuyler had been superseded in the command by General Gates, who took up a strong position on Bemis's Heights near Stillwater. Amongst his officers he numbered Benedict Arnold—a hoot in himself—Schuyler, and Stark. Having put his battle-force in order, he awaited the coming of Burgoyne; he wanted him to come quickly.

General Lincoln was in Burgoyne's rear. He made some skirmishes, did some damage, and then decided to fall upon the English flank.

Things were getting too warm for Burgoyne at Fort Edward, and on September 13th and 14th he made a bold move, crossing the Hudson by a bridge of boats, and encamping on the heights of Saratoga, five miles from the American position.

On the 18th he moved down to within two miles of Gates, and prepared to give battle.

We now come to the fighting round Saratoga, which had three phases, and it is necessary to describe all three in order to understand the campaign.

Early on the morning of the 19th, the two armies were face to face, each extending from the river westward over the hills. Gates commanded the main body of the American army on the right wing, the British left wing under Generals Phillips and Reidesel opposing him with a large force of artillery and infantry. General Poor commanded the American left wing, having Burgoyne himself opposed to him, supported by General Fraser and Colonel Breyman with their grenadiers and infantry.

The American centre under General Learned had the Canadians, Indians, and loyalists to encounter.

While Gates was bent on remaining on the defensive, Burgoyne determined to force the pace. Accordingly Phillips and Reidesel were ordered to march along the river and attack the American right while Burgoyne and Fraser manúuvred by separate routes round through the woods to fall on the enemy's rear, the centre simultaneously to attack the central outposts. As soon as Burgoyne and Fraser effected a junction the signal was to be given to fall to.

Such comprehensive movements of the English troops could not escape the notice of the Americans, but, although informed of them, Gates showed no signs of pressing forward to the attack.

On the other hand, Arnold was eager for the fight, and did not hesitate to urge Gates to begin. At last Gates consented, and sent Colonel Morgan and his detachment of light horse to attack the Canadians and Indians.

Morgan needed no second bidding, and away his cavalry went, meeting the Canadians in a ravine. Bang through the crowd of warriors and colonists they charged, scattered them, and sent them flying in all directions. But so furious had been Morgan's charge that he found his own men scattered in the woods, and at the mercy of a detachment of loyalists under Major Forbes.

Charging down upon the woods, the loyalists succeeded in driving the Americans back, but Morgan rallied his men for a last great charge, and once more returned to the fray. The plunging horses, well-handled swords, and daring courage of the Americans eventually caused Forbes to fall back on his lines.

Meanwhile Burgoyne was pushing forward, and Arnold sallied forth to tackle him; he soon found that it was impossible to achieve any good, owing to the presence of Fraser's supporting division. He therefore fell back to obtain reinforcements, and then decided to cut Fraser off.

Between the two forces lay a dense forest which hid their operations from each other, and it was with mutual surprise that they suddenly came face to face—although this was their object.

But face to face they were, and no time was lost in getting hand to hand. At the head of his men, Arnold rushed impetuously to the attack, to be met by a terrific fire from the English. Through the hail of bullets Arnold went, bearing a charmed life. Then bayonets were brought into play, and gradually the Americans were repulsed.

Fraser then assumed the offensive, and attacked the left flank of the American army. Here he met more than his match. For one thing he had to guard his line against an attack by Arnold when he should have rallied his men, and, moreover, the Americans subjected him to so galling a fire that his own men began to give way. There was no standing against the enemy, who, knowing the importance of preserving their line, stuck boldly to their posts in face of overwhelming numbers, and eventually caused the English to fall back in confusion.

The Americans, indeed, might have pressed forward and carried the day, but at that critical moment General Phillips and his large force of artillery appeared on the scene. With a roar the cannons opened fire upon the advancing Americans, tore great gaps in their ranks, and inch by inch forced them back. For an hour the heavy firing and fighting went on, and at last the Americans were compelled to retire on their lines, having fought stubbornly for every yard they had had to surrender.

For a while the battle ceased, but about three o'clock it was resumed with increased vigour. Between the two forces was a wood into which Burgoyne poured a heavy cannonade, and then sent his infantry at the charge toward the American lines.

Through the wood the English rushed, fired a volley as they emerged, and then charged, bayonets fixed. The Americans allowed them to come almost upon them; then, at the word, they were up and at it. Swords flashed, bayonets prodded, muskets spat out their deadly messages, and a battle royal ensued.

Now the English seemed to gain ground; now they were repulsed, only to come on again, to meet the same fate. For three hours the battle raged, and only ceased when the sun went down and made fighting impossible, although there were a few skirmishes even then.

The result of the conflict was that the English remained masters of the field, but the battle was an indecisive one, Burgoyne not having been able to advance.

Next day Burgoyne fell back on the river, although had he but known it he might have pushed his advantage and have won a victory, for the American left wing had all but exhausted its ammunition.

However, the vigorous resistance with which he had been met made him decide to rest upon his laurels until he could get news of Lord Howe, and he therefore occupied himself with strengthening his position; as also did Gates, who moved on to Stillwater.

Meanwhile Howe had been unable to carry out his part of the campaign, but Sir Henry Clinton moved up the Hudson with the intention of joining forces with Burgoyne. He had but three thousand men, and with these he had to clear away the forts which barred progress on the river. Clinton managed to send a messenger through to Burgoyne, who urged him to get to work at once.

On October 6th Clinton had been so far successful as to have reduced a couple of forts, destroyed a fleet on the Hudson, and was hastening on to Albany.

But Burgoyne did not know. He waited in vain for news, and at last, seeing his army daily reduced by desertions, his men growing weak from lack of food, and the enemy growing in strength every day, he decided that he must either advance at once or retire ignominiously.

He chose advance.

On October 7th, therefore, at the head of fifteen hundred men, two twelve-pounders, Six six-pounders, and two howitzers, he advanced on the American right, now commanded by Gates.

Unaware of Burgoyne's intention, Gates himself had dispatched a detachment to attack the English rear, but as soon as news arrived of the enemy's movements, he cancelled the order and drew his army up in battle array.

There was a sharp half-hour's tussle between the outposts, in which the English were forced back, but the battle did not actually begin until about half-past two, when General Poor and a large force bore down upon the English left. In face of a hot musketry and artillery fire they pressed on, reserving their own fire until they were well within range. Then they fired their volleys in rapid succession, opened out, and under cover of trees reached the foot of the ridge where the English artillery was placed.

Up the slope they scrambled, men falling on every side; but still they went up, and at last they were in the midst of the batteries.

Then began a gallant struggle for the guns; hand to hand, bayonet to bayonet, they fought, neither side giving way before the onslaught of the other. Time and time again one of the guns was captured; and time and time again was it retaken by the English, who, however, at last had to relinquish it.

The triumph put the Americans in good heart; cheering madly, they turned the captured gun on its former owners, poured in on them a stiff fire which sent them flying—one of their officers wounded and another in the hands of the enemy.

Almost at the same time that Poor attacked the English left, Colonel Morgan and fifteen hundred men fell upon the right. First Morgan attacked the flanking party sent out by Fraser, poured in on them a hail of bullets which sent them back in confusion, and then, swinging his column round, with a ringing cheer, led his men down upon Fraser's right flank with an impetuosity which fairly staggered the Britishers.

For a time they stood firm, giving shot for shot, and thrust for thrust, but, taken unawares as they had been, they were at a disadvantage, and presently they were in the greatest dismay and disorder.

As if this were not enough, a batch of fresh American troops appeared on the scene and fell to with such a will that the Britishers, demoralised as they were already, broke their ranks—and fled.

After them went Morgan.

But the English rallied at last. Earl Balcarras, sword in hand, gathered them together in some sort of order, put himself at their head, and led them back to the fight. Then they fought like demons, fought to win back the ground they had lost, fought to drive off the conquering Americans.

Thus the battle raged on the right and left, and meanwhile the British centre, held mainly by the Hessian and German troops, stood firm, waiting their turn.

It came—from an unexpected quarter; not even the Americans knew that it was coming.

Benedict Arnold, after the fighting on the 19th, had fallen into disfavour with Gates, who deprived him of his command, and refused him permission to fight. Impetuous fire-eater that he was, Arnold was like a maddened horse chafing at the restraining bit, and at last, unable to control himself any longer, he leaped into his saddle, and galloped off for the fray.

Gates immediately sent after him to order him back. Arnold but spurred his horse the harder, and placed himself at the head of three regiments which he had commanded before. He was the darling of his men, who received him with loud cheers, and at once followed him as he charged down upon the English centre. On they went; and at last the Germans' turn had come. They fought well and long, but Arnold was not to be denied. The first charge failed to break the British ranks, but Arnold quickly rallied his men, and, sword in hand, bore down once more. Muskets flashed and bayonets clashed as the foes met, and wherever the fight was thickest Arnold was there, urging his men on by word and deed. The onslaught was dreadful, and brave men as they were the Germans at last broke their ranks, and went scurrying off towards their lines.

Meanwhile Morgan was still busy with Fraser. What Arnold was doing for the Americans, Fraser was doing for the English. He fought as Scotsmen know how to fight; he led his men as Scotsmen know how to lead. As fast as his lines broke before the onrush of the Americans he rallied them, and led them to the charge, or kept them firm to their ground.

As long as Fraser lived to encourage his force, there was little prospect of beating them back, Morgan quickly realised this, and decided that Fraser must die.

Without delay, therefore, he called up a batch of marksmen, hid them in a clump of trees, saying, as he pointed to the British general:

"That gallant officer is General Fraser. I admire him and honour him, but it is necessary he should die. Victory for the enemy depends upon him. Do your duty."

The men did their duty, for in less than five minutes a bullet found Fraser, and he dropped on the redoubt he had so bravely defended.

As Morgan had thought, Fraser's fall sent dismay through his force, which, a little later, finally broke and set off post-haste for their camp by the river. Very soon the rest of the British line began to waver, and presently the whole army turned and fled, hotly pursued by the Americans.

Fortunately, Reidesel and Phillips were at hand with their artillery, which although it did not stay the American rush at least made it less effective, and enabled the British to reach their entrenchments.

Heedless, however, of the artillery and musketry fire poured in amongst them, the Americans' pressed forward, practically the whole line advancing. Right up to Burgoyne's earthworks they went, and, arrived there, assaulted them with a vigour that would not be denied.

If the battle had been furious before, it was now almost incredibly fierce. The English knew that their last chance had come; the Americans realised that victory was within their reach, and for these respective reasons both sides fought like demons.

Once again, Arnold was to the fore. First he led his men against a strong redoubt held by the infantry under Earl Balcarras, carried it at the point of the bayonet, and attempted to force his way into the very heart of the camp. But numbers were against him, and he had to fall back, only to rush to some other point of the conflict.

This time he made for the English right flank, to reach which he had to pass between the cross-fires of the two armies. Meeting a brigade under Learned about to attempt to carry a redoubt held by Canadians and loyalists, he immediately placed himself at their head. Sending a small body to attack one side of the redoubt, he himself fell upon the front. The Americans won, the Canadians fell back— thus exposing Breyman's Germans to the attack.

Arnold at once called Morgan's and several other brigades to his help, and ordered a general assault on the earthworks. At them they went with a ringing cheer, broke through, received a volley from the Germans, who then took to their heels—filled with terror at the firebrand who had fallen amongst them.

Down went Arnold's horse; down, too, went Arnold with a bullet in his leg, but still bravely shouting to urge his men on. Then came the message he had been dodging for the last two hours! Gates's messenger, who had been trying to get near him, at last managed to reach him—only because the hero lay wounded on the field which he had won. He was ordered back to head-quarters, "lest he should do some rash thing!" One is tempted to say "Thank Heaven for the man who does some rash thing!"

So back to camp went Arnold—carried thither by couple of officers; but he at least had the satisfaction that, disobedient though he had been, he had won the battle, for the Germans had fled, and would not answer to the rally, Breyman was mortally wounded, and, do what he would, Burgoyne could not prevail upon his retreating army to return to the fight.

Even then Burgoyne's crowning humiliation was still to come, for when night fell the Americans were so worn out by the hard day's fighting that they were unable to press forward and take advantage of the blow they had struck.

Lincoln, however, who had some time before found the main body, and had been commanding the right wing of the American army, appeared on the scene with fresh troops and took possession of the camp which Burgoyne had been compelled to forsake. The latter, fearing what the dawn might bring forth, resolved to retire further during the night, and next day had taken up a position at Wilbur's Basin, about a mile north of his previous camp.

The following day was spent in occasional stiff skirmishes, desultory firing, and the burying of the dead on both sides, and during the night and day after the royalist army marched off to Saratoga. It was the woeful retreat of a demoralised army; rain fell in torrents, the roads were sodden, the men were weary and battle-worn. Burgoyne had been so anxious to get into safety that he had left his wounded in camp, and there they were tended well by the Americans.

Gates followed as quickly as the wretched roads would allow, and on the afternoon of the 10th took up position on the heights above Saratoga, opposite Burgoyne's army, which was on a ridge on the other side of Fish Creek. Burgoyne's idea was to cross the Hudson by the ford near at hand, but he found this so well guarded that it was impracticable, and he therefore decided to follow the river till he came opposite Fort Edward. In this again the Americans foiled him, and kept up an incessant Cannonade which did great havoc in his ranks.

Burgoyne was helpless.

But a ray of hope came. Rumour led Gates to believe that Burgoyne had after all managed to get away towards Fort Edward, taking the main body of his army with him, and leaving only a small force to guard the camp. Gates determined to fall upon the camp, capture it, and then march off after the retreating British general.

Three brigades were therefore sent over the creek early in the morning of the 11th under cover of a fog. Hardly had they reached the farther side of the creek than they ran into the British pickets, who sent a valley into them, and did some amount of damage. The Americans quickly divined that the rumour was false, and that it was indeed only a trap to catch them napping. It almost succeeded, but Morgan, who was with the brigades, immediately sent a messenger to warn Gates of the ruse. A British deserter was captured as he was fording the creek, and from him Gates received corroboration of the suspicions which had been aroused. The order for a general advance was therefore cancelled. It was just in time, for the American troops had by now almost run into the British lines, the fog having hidden their danger from them.

The British immediately opened fire upon them, and were fired upon in return, but by quick manúuvring the American advance party managed to retreat in good order, and so saved themselves from almost certain annihilation; saved, too, their main army from defeat, for had Burgoyne's ruse succeeded he would undoubtedly have been able to break through the opposing lines and make his way to Albany.

But Burgoyne was doomed to failure.

The end was in sight. Desertions followed each other in quick succession; his men numbered but some five thousand against Gates's fifteen thousand; food was growing scarcer every day; men were getting weary of warfare that brought no success; Burgoyne himself was losing heart; and Clinton was dumb. Not a word of news came from him.

There was nothing to do but to wait—and to wait when one might fight is fatal. Two alternatives lay before Burgoyne—a general and dishonourable retreat, or a surrender on honourable terms. In view of the state of the roads, the idea of retreat was cast aside, and on the 13th Burgoyne called his officers together, and to the music of cannon and the accompaniment of musketry fire, it was decided to open up negotiations with Gates.

That evening a flag of truce was sent to the American lines, an appointment was made for early next morning; and the overtures for surrender had commenced.

On the 14th, therefore, Burgoyne's adjutant-general carried a message to Gates, who agreed to an armistice, proposing a schedule of terms, including the surrender of the British as prisoners of war, and the laying down of their arms in, their encampment.

"My army, however reduced," was Burgoyne's reply, "will never admit their retreat is cut off while they have arms in their hands. And sooner than this army will consent to ground their arms in their encampment, they shall rush on the enemy, determined to take no quarter."

Eventually it was decided that the British army should march out of their camp with all the honours of war, their colours flying, and then lay down their arms at the command of their own officers. Free passage was to be allowed to the troops from Boston to Europe upon condition of their not serving again in America. The treaty to be signed on the morning of the 17th.

Then, with the irony of fate, on the 16th Burgoyne received a message from Clinton saying that he had been successful in capturing several forts on the Hudson, and was hastening on Albany. Burgoyne's first thought was to postpone signing the convention of surrender, but Gates heard of this—heard, too, the reason for it.

His reply was much to the point. He immediately drew his army up in battle array, and early in the morning on the 17th sent a messenger to Burgoyne insisting that the treaty should be signed forthwith—else the American army would open fire.

Burgoyne signed.

His army, lined up for the last time, marched out of camp with their colours flying, piled their arms, and Burgoyne rode over to the American lines, met Gates, was introduced and said:

"The fortune of war, General Gates, has made me your prisoner."

"I shall always be ready to bear testimony that it has not been through any fault of your excellency," said the victorious American.

And these courtesies duly observed, victor and vanquished went to dinner.

Then the army marched off to Boston, a journey of three hundred miles, to find that, instead of being transported to England, they were kept prisoners of war.

And the effect of Saratoga?

The Americans won their fight for Independence—nations which till then had been neutral, took their side, and England became involved in a great European war, though she also kept up her fight in America; but at last peace was restored, and the Independence of the United States was acknowledged by England.

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