New York: Saratoga Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Site of two Revolutionary War battles in which the Continental forces under Major General Horatio Gates defeated the British under General John Burgoyne. The victory was crucial for the colonies, for it led to their formal alliance with France. On the centennial of Burgoyne’s October 17, 1777, surrender, the cornerstone of Saratoga Monument was laid in the nearby town of Schuylerville, on the site of Burgoyne’s camp the night prior to the surrender. The 155-foot granite monument was completed in 1883. In 1927 the battlefield was declared a New York State Park, and in 1938 it was declared a National Historical Park. The Saratoga Monument became part of the park in 1980.

Site Office

Saratoga National Historical Park

648 Route 32

Stillwater, NY 12170-1604

ph.: (518) 664-9821

fax: (518) 664-9830

Web site: www.nps.gov/sara/

Saratoga National Historical Park commemorates two of the most decisive battles of the Revolutionary War. Although located in the community of Stillwater, it carries the name Saratoga because the battles that took place there in 1777 came to an end with the signing of a treaty in the town then known as Saratoga and since renamed Schuylerville, eight miles north of the battlefield.

Historical Misconceptions

The events of the campaign of 1777 have often been portrayed inaccurately and shrouded in myths. Some reports have attempted to explain the British defeat by claiming that General William Howe’s army was supposed to move north to Albany to meet General John Burgoyne’s army, but this was never the plan. Other historians have exaggerated and romanticized the roles of General Philip Schuyler and General Benedict Arnold. It was, in fact, General Horatio Gates who led the Continental Army to victory over Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga.

General Burgoyne, fifty-five years old, was a member of eighteenth century England’s upper class. He was intelligent, handsome, and well liked by his troops, who called him “Gentleman Johnny.” He also was vain and ambitious to a fault. During the winter of 1776-1777, he was at home on leave in London. This visit gave him the perfect opportunity to win favor with Lord George Germain, Britain’s secretary of state for the colonies, who had grown impatient with the military leadership of Sir Guy Carleton, governor of Canada and commander of British forces there. Burgoyne had served in Canada under Carleton and believed he knew what needed to be done to win the conflict there.

British Campaign Plans

On February 28, 1777, Burgoyne presented to Germain his “Thoughts for Conducting the War from the Side of Canada.” In it he discussed alternatives for the campaign, but he did not define his objectives. He left the overall strategic planning to the king and his ministers. Burgoyne felt that with a force of eight thousand soldiers, two thousand Canadians, one thousand Indians, and some artillery, he would be able to take Fort Ticonderoga by early summer. He could then push onward to Albany, opening up communications along the Hudson River with General William Howe’s army in New York City. A second offensive line could be launched eastward through the Mohawk Valley at the same time as a diversionary tactic. It was an ambitious plan for a man who had never commanded Indians and who knew little about the difficulties of traveling across the mountainous American terrain. He was quite sure of himself, however, and he reportedly made a bet with a friend for the amount of fifty guineas that he would return victorious to London by the following Christmas.

On March 26 Burgoyne’s plan was approved in the form of orders to Carleton to provide Burgoyne with the men and matériel he needed to carry out his advance to Albany. Lieutenant Colonel Barry St. Leger would move eastward down the Mohawk Valley simultaneously in the diversionary offensive. Both were then to put themselves under General Howe’s command once they reached Albany. Until then they were to make their own decisions as to what would be necessary to suppress the rebellion.

At the same time, General Howe was formulating his own plans for a campaign. Howe repeatedly changed his plans to reflect the changes in the Continental defense. His initial plan for 1777 included an advance up the Hudson to Canada and the capture of Boston. A month later he changed the strategy to defer the attack on Boston in favor of a push on Philadelphia, considered a colonial stronghold.

Howe changed his plan again following the successful offensives by George Washington’s army in New Jersey in January, 1777. He still would advance toward Philadelphia, but by sea. He would leave some troops stationed at the lower Hudson to retain control of New York City and to open connections with the northern army once they had pushed through to the Highlands. Germain approved the plan, adding that he hoped the Philadelphia campaign would be over by the time the northern army reached Albany, so that Burgoyne and St. Leger could put their armies under Howe’s command. Given the obstacles of the rugged country and the unpredictable weather, this was an unrealistic goal. Germain had authorized two separate campaigns hundreds of miles apart with little coordination between the two.

Howe’s change of plan, to advance by sea, was to have important repercussions on the results of the war. By removing most of his army from New York, he allowed Washington to send troops northward to stop the advance from Canada. The seven thousand British troops left behind under Sir Henry Clinton would not in the end prove to be of any use to Burgoyne.

The Lake Champlain-Hudson River Waterway

Long before the American Revolution, the Lake Champlain-Hudson River waterway was an important link between Canada and Manhattan for traders, missionaries, Indians, and soldiers. General Burgoyne chose this route for his advance toward Albany. On June 17, 1777, he set out from St. Johns, Canada, with nine thousand troops, including British regulars, German mercenaries, Canadians, and Indians.

In early July the Continentals defending Fort Ticonderoga were caught off guard by the British led by Lieutenant Colonel John Hill and decided to retreat south to Fort Anne. General Arthur St. Clair, who was in command of the Americans, made the decision to evacuate Fort Ticonderoga when it became apparent that the fort could not be defended against British artillery that had been carried up to the summit of a nearby mountain. The reaction to the retreat was one of surprise and dismay by the leaders of the Continental Army and jubilation by the British, who felt that victory could not be far away. Both armies shifted their focus from New York City and New Jersey to northern New York.

On July 8, the Continentals, camped at Fort Anne, took the offensive and attacked the British camp, forcing Colonel Hill to send for more reinforcements. Both sides stood their ground for nearly three hours until the Continentals, who were running out of ammunition, burned what was left of Fort Anne and retreated to Fort Edward. General Burgoyne sent orders for Hill to pull back until all of the artillery and provisions could be moved closer to Fort Edward. This delay gave the Continentals time to thwart Burgoyne’s advance by felling trees across the roadways, making the transport of matériel difficult.

One of the major weaknesses in Burgoyne’s army was that it did not have an effective transport system. Lacking the necessary vehicles and animals, his army had to depend on civilians to transport its artillery and provisions on overland routes. By July 30, Burgoyne reached Fort Edward, but with only a fraction of his artillery. The Continentals under General Philip Schuyler had done an excellent job of slowing their passage from Lake George. Meanwhile the Continentals, about 4,500 strong, having decided that Fort Edward was not in good condition, moved south to a location north of Albany and began to build fortifications there.

Burgoyne, knowing that he was going to need more horses and provisions, sent some of his men to a site near Bennington, Vermont, with the intention of capturing animals and supplies from the New England militia. This attempt failed when the British were beaten back to their camp by the troops under General John Stark. The British lost more than five hundred soldiers in the skirmish. This was bad news for Burgoyne, who by this time had received word that Howe was moving toward Philadelphia. His next setback was the news that St. Leger had abandoned the advance down the Mohawk and had retreated to Canada. Now there would be no diversion from the west to occupy the enemy while he carried out his plan. Determined not to retreat, Burgoyne’s army braved heavy rains and crossed to the west bank of the Hudson near Saratoga on September 13.

By this time, the Continental Congress had removed Schuyler from command of the army’s Northern Department and replaced him with General Horatio Gates. For some time the Americans had wanted a more aggressive commander than Schuyler, whom they held responsible for the loss of Fort Ticonderoga.

General Horatio Gates

Gates came from humble beginnings as the son of the housekeeper to the duke of Leeds. He worked his way up in the British Army, which was highly unusual, since most officers’ commissions were purchased by wealthy gentlemen. Gates earned a recommendation during the War of the Austrian Succession and was quickly promoted to serve in Nova Scotia in 1752. He was then promoted again during the French and Indian War. Convinced that he would be unable to find a profitable position in peacetime, Gates sold his commission in 1769 and settled in Virginia, where he met George Washington’s brother. Ambitious and reliable, Gates was first appointed as the adjutant general of the Continental Army, then promoted to major general in 1776. His appointment on August 3, 1977, to command the Northern Department revitalized the Continental Army.

General Gates had on his staff a talented Polish engineer, Thaddeus Kosciuszko, who selected an excellent site north of Stillwater where Gates’s army would be able to make a stand. It was called Bemis Heights, after Jotham Bemis, the owner of a tavern at the foot of the hill. At this point on the river, the bluffs rising up on the west bank left only a narrow passage between them and the Hudson. To the west the terrain was difficult to pass through. They would be able to guard the river by cannon placed on the bluffs. To fortify the site, the Continentals built log walls at strategic points to defend their line, which ran north along the river and then southwest to Neilson’s Farm.

By September 17, Burgoyne had moved south to within four miles of the American camp. He prepared to attack. On September 19, the British sent out three columns. One, under General Simon Fraser, was to move west and southwest along the wagon road; the center column, under General James Hamilton, moved south on a road two miles inland; the left column, consisting of German mercenaries, marched along the river road.

A Continental light infantry unit was formed by joining together Colonel Daniel Morgan’s corps of 350 riflemen and an equal number of Major Henry Dearborn’s musketmen. The accuracy of the rifles and the rapid firepower of the muskets were an effective combination. The unit caught the British advance guard by surprise at Freeman’s Farm. While the British sent for more reinforcements, Colonel Morgan used a turkey call to call in other Continental units. They were able to hold off the British advance for the entire afternoon. The British had the advantage of cannon, but Morgan’s riflemen were able to shoot the gunners with remarkable accuracy. By the time General Friedrich von Riedesel arrived with his German troops from the river road, the day had begun to grow dark and the firing stopped.

For the next seventeen days, both sides fortified their positions. The British strengthened their line from the Great Redoubt on the bluffs to Freeman’s Farm. They built the Balcarres Redoubt and the Breymann Redoubt. The Continentals sent for more men and supplies.

During this time a quarrel arose between General Gates and General Benedict Arnold, who felt slighted by Gates’s omission of his name from the report of the battle to the Continental Congress. Gates relieved him of his command and took over Arnold’s division himself. The situation could have divided the colonists along regional and personal lines, but they remained unified and resolved.

Burgoyne postponed his next offensive awaiting word that General Clinton would be able to attack the Highlands to the south. The delay that this caused was critical, given the low supply of British provisions. By the end of September, there was still no help from Clinton, and the Continentals had cut off Burgoyne’s communication with Canada by attacking Fort Ticonderoga. The British were isolated.

The British Attack

Realizing that his provisions would not last beyond October 20, Burgoyne decided to risk everything and launch an attack on October 7. He proposed a compromise to Fraser and von Riedesel, who wanted to retreat: he would attack the left wing with a third of his troops on October 7. If necessary, the rest of the troops could back them up on October 8. Only if the situation proved to be impossible would they retreat on October 11.

By this time the Continentals had built up their force to about 13,000. The British had only about 4,400 regulars remaining; they marched southward steadily to a clearing on the Barber’s Farm, the left and right flanks advancing through the woods. General Enoch Poor’s New Hampshire brigade forced the grenadiers of the left flank back to the ridge where the original line had formed. Morgan’s men attacked the right flank. Burgoyne sent word to the troops to pull back to camp. The German line held their own for a while at the center against General Ebenezer Learned’s men, but once they were exposed on either side by the retreat of both flanks, they, too, had to retreat. In the course of the battle, General Fraser was killed by a rifleman. By late afternoon General Abraham Ten Broeck’s New York militia arrived to join in the battle. The British had no choice but to retreat to their camp.

Inspired by their victory on the battlefield, the Continentals decided to attack the Balcarres Redoubt. They charged across the open field, but they were successfully repelled by the British firing from behind the log walls. General Learned, joined by Benedict Arnold, began an attack on the stockades beyond the Freeman farmhouse, which were only lightly manned. This opened the way to attack the Breymann Redoubt, where only two hundred Germans were left defending the fortification. Far outnumbered by the Continentals, most of the Germans fled when their commander fell. During the attack, Arnold’s horse was shot, causing him to fall and break his leg.

At dusk the fighting stopped, and Burgoyne and his troops retreated to the Great Redoubt. At sunset the following day, a group of officers carried the body of General Fraser up the hill of the Great Redoubt to be buried. The Americans continued to shoot cannon even during the service. Burgoyne knew he had either to surrender or to retreat.

Slowed by rain and by fighting the current upstream, weakened by a lack of provisions for their animals, the British army suffered an increasing number of deserters with each day of their retreat. On October 9 they reached Saratoga and set up camp. They burned the Schuyler estate so that the Continentals, who were following them from behind, could not use the buildings as shelter.

While Gates’s men followed the British northward, General John Stark’s men moved southward from Fort Edward. By October 12, Burgoyne realized that he was surrounded. His food rations were running out, and his men were constantly under siege. The next day his council of war voted to open negotiations to surrender honorably. An advance guard moved forward under a white flag. Negotiations continued for two days. Burgoyne, still hopeful that Clinton’s men would be able to reach them from the south, tried to forestall the inevitable. The terms were finally set on the evening of October 15.

The British Surrender

The surrender ceremony took place at Saratoga on October 17. The British laid down their arms and ammunition and prepared for their march to Boston, from where they were to sail to England. The Continental Congress did not like the terms of the Saratoga Convention, however, and managed to find reasons to delay the British troops in America until the end of the war.

The victory did much to raise the morale of the Americans, who had begun to lose heart after General Howe took Philadelphia. More important, it helped to enlist the support of France, who had maintained a neutral position, at least publicly. The French had been waiting for a decisive victory such as the one at Saratoga to join in the effort to inflict defeat on the British Empire. On January 8, 1778, France agreed to enter an official alliance with the United States, giving assistance to the Americans in the form of men, materiel, and sea power.

Modern Preservation Efforts

Today’s visitor to the Saratoga National Historical Park will find a site that looks remarkably the same as it did in the fall of 1777. The visitors’ center provides guides and maps which, together with the exhibits inside the center and the historical plaques marking each stopping point, will help the visitor to visualize the two battles that took place there.

The Schuyler House is located in Schuylerville, formerly called Saratoga, eight miles north of the park on U.S. Route 4. Built by Philip Schuyler in 1777 to replace the original house that was burned by the British, it has since been restored. Before the American Revolution, Schuyler’s 1,900-acre estate was a center of farming and trade. Today the house and twenty-five acres of land surrounding it are owned by the National Park Service. The interior furnishings were secured by the Old Saratoga Historical Association.

The Saratoga Monument, also in Schuylerville, commemorates the surrender of Burgoyne’s army on October 17, 1777. The cornerstone was laid on the occasion of the centennial of the surrender in 1877, and the monument was erected with funds donated by individuals and by the state and federal governments. The 155-foot tower was completed in 1883 on the site of Burgoyne’s camp on the eve of the surrender. Overlooking the Hudson, the monument combines Gothic and Egyptian architectural styles. There are three bronze statues commemorating Generals Schuyler and Gates and Colonel Morgan. The fourth niche is empty, symbolizing the role played by Benedict Arnold at Saratoga. In 1980 New York State relinquished control of the monument to the National Park Service as part of the Saratoga National Historical Park.

For Further Information
  • Cuneo, John R. The Battles of Saratoga: The Turning of the Tide. New York: Macmillan, 1967. A concise and scholarly account of the two battles. It includes a chronology of important events from November 30, 1776, to January 9, 1778. In his epilogue Cuneo addresses some of the problems with other historians’ accounts and invites the reader to read all written history with a healthy degree of skepticism.
  • Elting, John R. The Battles of Saratoga. Monmouth Beach, N.J.: Philip Freneau Press, 1977. A detailed analysis of the campaign of 1777 written by a military historian with a special emphasis on weaponry and tactics. Colonel Elting’s scholarly research of primary source material helps to debunk some of the myths that have plagued the history of Saratoga for over two hundred years. The book includes appendices explaining the weapons and nomenclature of the period, as well as a list of officers serving in each of the armies.
  • Luzader, John. Decision on the Hudson: The Saratoga Campaign of 1777. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 1975. Offers the reader a detailed account of the two battles and other related battles, such as Bennington, Fort Ticonderoga, and Fort Stanwix. There are many quotes from journals written by men in both armies. A detailed appendix gives information on weapons, tactics, and military organization.
  • Murray, Stuart. The Honor of Command: General Burgoyne’s Saratoga Campaign. Bennington, Vt.: Images from the Past, 1998. Discusses the role of Saratoga in the Revolutionary War. Includes bibliographical references.
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