THE episode in New Jersey, resulting in the retreat of Washington across the state and his later success at Trenton and Princeton, did not belong to the immediate general plan of the British ministry. That body, of which Lord George Germain, the secretary of state, was the mouthpiece and one of the leading spirits, had set its heart on dividing the colonies into two parts by conquering the great valley of the Hudson River. A year had passed since this work begun, and the conquest of Manhattan Island alone had been accomplished, while all the vast region to the north, even to the Canadian border, was still held by the Americans. The British now determined on a desperate and final
Struggle for the Hudson Valley
It was decided that an army should invade New York from Canada, and that it should be commanded by Lieutenant General John Burgoyne, who had succeeded Guy Carleton, the governor of Canada, in command at the north. From this army a detachment of a thousand men under St. Leger was sent by way of Lake Ontario to land at Oswego, to proceed inland, capture Fort Stanwix on the upper Mohawk, sweep down the Mohawk Valley, and eventually join Burgoyne at Albany. From the south, General Howe was to move up the Hudson, destroying every vestige of opposition to the Crown, and at length to join his brethren in the general festivities at Albany. This was the plan for the summer of 1777. It would
divide colonial America; it would sever New England from the south, break down the rebellion, and bring back the erring colonists to their former allegiance. And it was perfectly easy to carry out -- on paper.
The defeat of the whole enterprise had its origin in a little slip of the memory amounting to criminal negligence on the part of the one who, above all men, except his sovereign, desired the conquest of America -- Lord George Germain. He had sent Burgoyne peremptory instructions to proceed down the Hudson, and the instructions to Howe to move up that river were equally peremptory. But before the latter order was signed he made a holiday excursion to the country, and on his return he forgot all about the paper, which lay in a pigeonhole for several weeks. The delay was fatal. At length the mistake was discovered and the order sent; but when it reached Howe, late in August, he was far from New York, -- he had sailed to the Chesapeake, and was moving northward to meet Washington on the banks of the Brandywine. Who can measure the importance to American
liberty of this little blunder? The fate of Burgoyne hung on the cooperation of Howe, and the fate of the Revolution hung on the success or failure of this campaign.
During the closing days of June, 1777, General Burgoyne, with a well-trained army of eight thousand men, was sailing in high spirits up Lake Champlain toward Fort Ticonderoga. Four thousand of these were British regulars, three thousand were Hessians or Germans, a few were Canadians, and some five hundred were Indians.
Burgoyne was a gentleman of culture and education, eloquent, generous, and brave. He was a member of the British Parliament, as were several others in his army. Among his subordinates were, General Phillips, an artillerist with an enviable reputation; General Fraser, a veteran commander of much ability; and, not inferior to either, Baron Riedesel, who commanded the Germans. The American commander at the north was General Schuyler, who had recently placed Arthur St. Clair in command of Ticonderoga. The garrison numbered three thousand men, and the fort was considered impregnable. But scarcely had the British landed near the fort when they scaled a rocky height -- Mount Defiance, as it was afterward called -- which commanded the fort, and which had been considered inaccessible. The Americans were completely surprised when they beheld the British and the frowning cannon on the brow of the hill overlooking the fort. The only thing to do was to abandon the place with all speed. In the darkness of that night St. Clair embarked his little army upon the lake, and they might have escaped untouched but for the light of a burning house that told the story of the flight. Before the coming of dawn Fraser and Riedesel were in hot pursuit, and the British flag was waving again over the walls of the noble fort from which it had been so unceremoniously dragged by Ethan Allen two years before. After several days of flight and a few sharp encounters with their pursuers, the Americans joined Schuyler with the main army at Fort Edward.
The news of the fall of this citadel of the Hudson Valley soon reached England, and occasioned the greatest rejoicing among the Tory party. The end of the rebellion was believed to be at hand. The king lost his self-control and, rushing into the queen's aparment, clapped his hands and shouted, "I have beat them! I have beat all the Americans!"1 On the other hand, the Americans were deeply depressed by the news. Schuyler and St. Clair were fiercely denounced for not having fortified Mount Defiance, and St. Clair was tried the next year by court-martial, but acquitted.
The strange fact remained, which neither the English nor the Americans at that moment saw, that Burgoyne had done nothing toward conquering the Hudson Valley. He had done himself injury rather than good. He had captured the great fort, but the Americans did not need it; and it became a burden to its possessor, as a goodly portion of his army was required to hold it.2
But, what was still more important, the people of New York and New England were aroused as never before since the battle of Lexington, and they soon began pouring into Schuyler's camp by hundreds. Washington sent Arnold and Lincoln with reenforcements and Daniel Morgan with his five hundred Virginia sharpshooters. Schuyler rose to the occasion. He removed all the cattle and provisions from
the country round and forced the enemy to draw his daily bread from Canada and England; he felled trees and otherwise obstructed the roads, destroyed all bridges, and placed great stones and logs in the fords of the streams. Thus he obstructed the progress of the enemy, while his own army was daily increasing. Burgoyne was twenty-four days marching twenty-six miles, and every soldier that fell by
the way -- and they were many -- was a net loss, for none could be replaced. It was now the middle of August, and ere the close of that month an irreparable double calamity befell the British in the battles of Oriskany and Bennington.
Oriskany was, without exception, the bloodiest single conflict in the war of the Revolution. It occurred near Fort Stanwix, at the head waters of the Mohawk, and General Nicholas Herkimer was its hero. Herkimer was an aged German resident of that country, a veteran of the French War and now commander of the oounty militia. Hearing of the approach of St. Leger, he raised an army of eight hundred men for the relief of Fort Stanwix. He started toward
the fort and fell into an ambush at Oriskany, about eight miles from the place. It was in a deep ravine crossing the road. Here the army of St. Leger, led by Sir John Johnson, son of the famous Sir William of earlier days, and Joseph Brant, the great Mohawk chieftain, met the army of Herkimer. Nothing more horrible than the carnage of that battle has ever occurred in the history of warfare. Men grappled and shot and stabbed and cursed and dashed out one another's brains. To add to the lurid horror of the scene, a terrific electric storm broke forth, and the thunders of heaven pealed answers to the booming artillery below. The livid lightning lit up the scene in quick flashes, and the rain poured in torrents; but the men fought on like demons.
A ball killed Herkimer's horse and gave him a mortal wound; but he placed his saddle at the root of a tree, sat on it, and continued shouting his orders to the end of the battle.3
At length, when both armies were exhausted and one third of each had been cut down, the British and Indians left the Americans in possession of the field. Two weeks later Benedict Arnold came to the rescue of the fort, and, by a most clever ruse, frightened St. Leger and his Indian allies from the country. So scared they were, it was said, that they scarcely stopped running till they reached Canada.
Burgoyne's army was beginning to suffer from hunger. At the foot of the Green Mountains, in the village of Bennington, were patriot stores and ammunition, and the British commander decided that he must have them. On August 13th he sent five hundred Germans and one hundred Indians with two cannon to make the capture. Perhaps Burgoyne did not know that John Stark was in the neighborhood. Stark had done valiant service at Bunker Hill and Trenton, but he had retired to his Vermont home because Congress had promoted others and not him, as it should have done. But now he
redeemed himself, and posterity remembers him more for Bennington than for anything else. His speech to his men is well known, "They are ours to-night, or Molly Stark is a widow" -- and so they were, and Molly Stark's husband survived the battle for forty-five years.
The British troops were attacked on three sides, Baum, the commander, was mortally wounded, and the whole force was made captive after a desperate battle. Meanwhile Colonel Breyman had been sent with several hundred men to the rescue of Baum. But at the moment of his arrival Colonel Seth Warner reached the scene with five hundred more Green Mountain boys eager for battle. The fight was renewed and lasted till night, when Breyman, with but sixty or seventy men, escaped in the darkness. The Americans captured in all seven hundred men and a thousand stand of arms. Forty Americans and two hundred of the enemy were killed.
Burgoyne's difficulties were now multiplying. His provisions were well-nigh exhausted, and his ranks were diminishing while those of his enemy were increasing. Now came the news of the disaster at Bennington, and ere he had recovered from the shock he heard of Oriskany and of the disgraceful flight of St. Leger. His only salvation lay in cooperation from the South, and for news from that quarter he waited daily, but he waited in vain.
With sincere regret we must now record an act of Congress by which Schuyler was superseded by Gates in command of the army. The latter was a self-seeker, and his intrigues in Congress had at last been successful. Schuyler was a truer patriot, an abler soldier; but he had enemies, and they now gained the object they had sought. So perfectly had Schuyler managed that the Americans must have won, even without a commander, and Gates came only to receive the laurels that had been gathered by other hands. Schuyler bore the humiliation like a true patriot and offered to serve Gates in any capacity.
Burgoyne's condition grew worse day by day. Lincoln harassed him from the rear, the main army of the patriots confronted him, while the men of New Hampshire "hung," to use his own words, "like a gathering storm on the left." To retreat to Canada was impossible; to risk a battle was perilous, as the Americans now numbered fifteen thousand; and he longed for Howe, but Howe was far away on the banks of the Brandywine. At length, in despertion, the gallant Burgoyne determined to hazard a battle. He led his army across the Hudson in mid-September, and on the 19th a desperate battle was fought. The Americans were strongly intrenched at Bemis Heights, which had been fortified by the Polish patriot, Kosciusko. Gates had intended to act wholly on the defensive, but the dashing Arnold begged and received permission to advance upon the enemy. With three thousand men he met the British, at Freeman's Farm.4 After a sharp fight Fraser attacked Arnold fiercely, and later in the day Riedesel joined him. Arnold sent to Gates for reŽnforcements, but the latter, with more than ten thousand idle troops about him, refused; and Arnold, though with inferior numbers, again dashed into the battle and kept it up till nightfall. Neither side could claim a victory; but the advantage lay with the Americans, who had lost but three hundred men, while the enemy's loss was nearly twice that number.5
The conduct of Gates in refusing Arnold reenforcements was outrageous, and can be explained only on the ground of jealousy. In the account of the battle he sent to Congress, Gates took the entire credit to himself and did not even mention Arnold's name! The army, however, sounded his praises, and this awakened the envy of Gates. A quarrel arose between the two, and Gates dismissed Arnold from his command. The latter was about to leave for Pennsylvania, but his brother officers begged him to remain, and he did so.
Eighteen days after this battle a second took place on the same ground as the first. Burgoyne found that he must cut his way out of the trap in which he was placed, or perish, and he had a little hope of success. He had heard that the dashing Arnold was now without a command, and he had little respect for Gates, whom he called "an old midwife." With fifteen hundred picked men he attempted to turn the American left, but was driven back at every point by Morgan's sharpshooters and the New England regulars.
Arnold was watching the conflict from a distance and could endure being a spectator no longer; he leaped upon his charger and was soon in the midst of the battle. The men shouted for joy at the sight of their old commander, and from then to the end of the day it was Arnold's voice that they obeyed. The British were thoroughly defeated, and General Fraser, one of Burgoyne's ablest commanders, was mortally wounded. As evening was closing the battle, a wounded German soldier lying on the ground fired at Arnold and shattered his left leg, the same that had been wounded at Quebec. A rifleman who saw the incident rushed upon the German with his bayonet and would have run him through the body, but Arnold cried, "For God's sake, don't hurt him! he's a fine fellow!" and the man was spared. It has been well said that this was the hour when Benedict Arnold should have died.6 Had it been so, what a name he would have left in the annals of America! but how painful for the historian to record the later career of this daring, brilliant soldier.
The British army was now weary unto death, and a braver army never wielded the sword. The Hudson was guarded at every point by the Americans, who were fast closing around their intrepid foes. The wife of General Riedesel, with her three little children, had followed the fortunes of her husband through the war. For six days she crouched in the cellar of a large house with her children, her maids, and several wounded officers, while the Americans, thinking the place a lodging for officers, trained their guns on the house, and eleven cannon balls passed through it in one night.
General Fraser died soon after the battle. He had requested that his body be buried at the twilight hour on a green hill not far from the river. This was done, and as the little group of officers stood sadly around the grave of their fallen comrade, the scene was rendered more solemn and awful by the peals of the American artillery that mingled with the broken voice of the chaplain.7
What now could the British army do but surrender? It was practically surrounded by the Americans, whose cannonade was incessant, day and night; its supplies were cut off, and there was no hope of rescue. Sir Henry Clinton8 was at last moving up the Hudson with a small army, and had won some successes; but it was not possible for him to reach Burgoyne before the surrender. Had he done so the result might have been the surrender of two British armies instead of one, for the patriots were now twenty thousand strong and were still swarming in from the valleys and the hills.
Burgoyne asked for a conference with Gates on October 12. The latter at first demanded unconditional surrender, but the English general refused and declared that his men would first fall upon their foe and accept no quarter.9 Gates then gave better terms. The British were permitted to stack their own arms and were promised transportation to England on the condition that they must not serve again during the war.10 The number of men surrendered was 5799, with all the cannon, muskets, and munitions of war; but the entire British losses from the beginning of the campaign exceeded ten thousand men.
After the surrender the American army melted away as rapidly as it had assembled, leaving but an nucleus of regulars. The militia returned to their homes, feeling confident (and this feeling was shared throughout the country) that the crisis of the war was past and that
the complete independence of America must in the end be achieved.
1Fiske's "American Revolution," Vol. I, p.271. [return]
2Ibid., p. 272. [return]
3Ibid., p. 290. [return]
4Of the four names by which this battle is known the reader can take his choice: Saratoga, Stillwater, Bemis Heights, and Freeman's Farm [return]
5Some writers make the losses much greater. [return]
6I have borrowed the account of this incident from Fiske. [return]
7Baroness Riedesel's diary. [return]
8Clinton had sent a messenger to Burgoyne with a letter written on very thin paper and encased in a silver bullet. At Kingston the messenger was caught. He swallowed the bullet, but it was recovered by means of an emetic. The messenger was hanged, and Burgoyne waited in vain for the news from Clinton. [return]
9See Creasy's "Fifteen Decisive Battles," "Saratoga." [return]
10Congress declined to carry out these terms fully. See note at the end of the chapter. [return]
Source: "History of the United States of America," by Henry William Elson, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Chapter XIII p. 268-275. Transcribed by Kathy Leigh.