October, 1777: Battle of Saratoga Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

For the campaign of 1777 of the American Revolution, the British devised a bold strategy designed to bring the war to an immediate end. It involved military action in three different locales: the capture of Philadelphia, the seat of the American congress, by an army led by William Howe and transported to the vicinity by the British Royal Navy; an attack from Canada down the Lake Champlain-Lake George waterway, under the command of General John Burgoyne, to assault and seize Albany; and a movement of British forces from their base in New York City up the Hudson River, to meet Burgoyne at Albany. The effect would be to split the colonies in two—in particular to seal off New England, where revolutionary fervor was greatest, from the colonies to the south. Although all participants agreed on the plan, the exact role each was to play, and especially their coordination with one another, was never made clear.

For the campaign of 1777 of the American Revolution, the British devised a bold strategy designed to bring the war to an immediate end. It involved military action in three different locales: the capture of Philadelphia, the seat of the American congress, by an army led by William Howe and transported to the vicinity by the British Royal Navy; an attack from Canada down the Lake Champlain-Lake George waterway, under the command of General John Burgoyne, to assault and seize Albany; and a movement of British forces from their base in New York City up the Hudson River, to meet Burgoyne at Albany. The effect would be to split the colonies in two—in particular to seal off New England, where revolutionary fervor was greatest, from the colonies to the south. Although all participants agreed on the plan, the exact role each was to play, and especially their coordination with one another, was never made clear.

Saratoga, October 7, 1777

George Washington, the American commander in chief, realized early the nature of the British plan but was powerless to do much about it. He felt compelled to try to protect Philadelphia, but his efforts led only to defeat by Howe. Recognizing the significance of the Burgoyne expedition, Washington sent Colonel Daniel Morgan’s detachment of sharpshooters north to join the American army defending Albany. Morgan’s unit at Saratoga helped to neutralize the Native American forces fighting on the British side and played a vital role in overcoming the British officers.

General Horatio Gates. (National Archives)

Burgoyne’s Advance

General Burgoyne’s army, about eight thousand strong, was successfully advancing toward Albany. A large flotilla had been assembled, able to proceed by water down the Richelieu River to Lake Champlain, where it defeated American attempts to halt it. The British disembarked at the foot of Lake George and successfully seized the lightly guarded fort at Ticonderoga, from which the American force was compelled to withdraw. Burgoyne then proceeded overland toward the Hudson River, but the terrain, the weather, and the lack of adequate oxen and horses to draw his supplies slowed his advance substantially. Burgoyne detached a force of Germans serving under him to invade Vermont and capture any supplies and animals they could find. This force was wiped out by the Americans at the Battle of Bennington on August 16. The American victory did much to enhance American morale and to motivate recruits to join the American army defending Albany.

The American army, previously under the command of General Philip Schuyler, was now turned over to the command of General Horatio Gates. Gates’s talent was organization, not battlefield tactics, and he has been much criticized for taking a defensive posture against Burgoyne’s advancing army. However, he did realize the importance of a strong defensive position, and this led him to move the American forces northward, to a position above Stillwater on the heights overlooking the Hudson River. The American forces heavily fortified their position.

On September 19, 1777, the opposing forces came face to face with each other. Burgoyne, recognizing the folly of attempting to advance further on the road to Albany, deployed his forces, now down to about five thousand. His plan was to attack the American left wing, on the heights, with his British troops, leaving the Germans to anchor the position on the road and along the river. The attack on the heights was fought largely in the woods, but partly in a clearing around an isolated farm called Freeman’s Farm. The American sharpshooters shot down the officers; the British suffered heavy casualties.

Burgoyne regrouped his forces to consider what to do next. He had received little news of the cooperating army, under Henry Clinton, that was supposed to advance up the Hudson River and meet him at Albany. He did learn that many of the supplies he had left behind at Ticonderoga had been seized by American forces, leaving him with only enough supplies to last until mid-October. Burgoyne therefore staged a second, hotly contested attack on the American positions on October 7. Benedict Arnold again led the Americans in battle, and the British were unable to overcome the American forces. Unable to advance, Burgoyne on October 8 ordered his army to retreat toward Saratoga.

General Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga. From a painting by John Trumbull (1756–1843). (National Archives)

Americans Surround the British

Meanwhile, American forces had seized more of the line of retreat toward Canada. Burgoyne’s army was effectively surrounded. On October 13, Burgoyne began to negotiate terms of surrender with Gates, negotiations that were completed on October 16. Under the terms of the Convention of Saratoga, the British troops laid down their arms on October 17. They were to be marched to a port of embarkation and sent back to Europe, on condition that they would take no further part in the conflict. In the end, Congress reneged on this commitment and the captured troops spent the rest of the war in prisoner-of-war camps in America.

The defeat of Burgoyne’s expedition meant the failure of the British strategy to end the war in 1777. France took steps to support the Americans, and this cooperation led eventually to the American victory at Yorktown.

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