The war which rent away the North American colonies from England is, of all subjects in history, the most painful for an Englishman to dwell on. It was commenced and carried on by the British ministry in iniquity and folly, and it was concluded in disaster and shame. But the contemplation of it can not be evaded by the historian, however much it may be abhorred. Nor can any military event be said to have exercised more important influence on the future fortunes of mankind than the complete defeat of Burgoyne's expedition in 1777; a defeat which rescued the revolted colonists from certain subjection, and which, by inducing the courts of France and Spain to attack England in their behalf, insured the independence of the United States, and the formation of that transatlantic power which not only America, but both Europe and Asia, now see and feel.
The English had a considerable force in Canada, and in 1776 had completely repulsed an attack which the Americans had made upon that province. The British ministry resolved to avail themselves, in the next year, of the advantage which the occupation of Canada gave them, not merely for the purpose of defense, but for the purpose of striking a vigorous and crushing blow against the revolted colonies. With this view the army in Canada was largely reenforced. Seven thousand veteran troops were sent out from England, with a corps of artillery, abundantly supplied and led by select and experienced officers. Large quantities of military stores were also furnished for the equipment of the Canadian volunteers, who were expected to join the expedition.
It was intended that the force thus collected should march southward by the line of the Lakes, and thence along the banks of the Hudson River. The British army from New Yorkor a large detachment of itwas to make a simultaneous movement northward, up the line of the Hudson, and the two expeditions were to unite at Albany, a town on that river. By these operations, all communication between the Northern colonies and those of the Center and South would be cut off. An irresistible force would be concentrated, so as to crush all further opposition in New England; and when this was done, it was believed that the other colonies would speedily submit. The Americans had no troops in the field that seemed able to baffle these movements. Their principal army, under Washington, was occupied in watching over Pennsylvania and the South.
Burgoyne had gained celebrity by some bold and dashing exploits in Portugal during the last war; he was personally as brave an officer as ever headed British troops, he had considerable skill as a tactician; and his general intellectual abilities and acquirements were of a high order. He had several very able and experienced officers under him, among whom were Major-General Philips and Brigadier-General Frazer. His regular troops amounted, exclusively of the corps of artillery, to about seven thousand two hundred men, rank and file. Nearly half of these were Germans. . .
Burgoyne reached the left bank of the Hudson River on July 30th. Hitherto he had overcome every difficulty which the enemy and the nature of the country had placed in his way. His army was in excellent order, and in the highest spirits, and the peril of the expedition seemed over when they were once on the bank of the river which was to be the channel of communication between them and the British army in the South. . . .
The astonishment and alarm which these events produced among the Americans were naturally great; but the colonists showed no disposition to submit. The local governments of the New England States, as well as the Congress, acted with vigor and firmness in their efforts to repel the enemy. General Gates was sent to take the command of the army at Saratoga; and Arnold, a favorite leader of the Americans, was dispatched by Washington to act under him, with reenforcements of troops and guns from the main American army.
Burgoyne's employment of the Indians now produced the worst possible effects. Tho he labored hard to check the atrocities which they were accustomed to commit, he could not prevent the occurrence of many barbarous outrages, repugnant both to the feelings of humanity and to the laws of civilized warfare. The American commanders took care that the reports of these excesses should be circulated far and wide, well knowing that they would make the stern New Englanders, not droop, but rage. . . .
While resolute recruits, accustomed to the use of firearms, and all partially trained by service in the provincial militias, were thus flocking to the standard of Gates and Arnold at Saratoga, and while Burgoyne was engaged at Fort Edward in providing the means of the further advance of the army through the intricate and hostile country that still lay before him, two events occurred, in each of which the British sustained loss and the Americans obtained advantage, the moral effects of which were even more important than the immediate result of the encounters. When Burgoyne left Canada, General St. Leger was detached from that province with a mixed force of about one thousand men and some light field-pieces across Lake Ontario against Fort Stanwix,2 which the Americans held. After capturing this, he was to march along the Mohawk River to its confluence with the Hudson, between Saratoga and Albany,3 where his force and that of Burgoyne's were to unite. But, after some successes, St. Leger was obliged to retreat, and to abandon his tents and large quantities of stores to the garrison.4
At the very time that General Burgoyne heard of this disaster he experienced one still more severe in the defeat of Colonel Baum, with a large detachment of German troops, at Bennington, whither Burgoyne had sent them for the Purpose of capturing some magazines of provisions, of which the British army stood greatly in need. The Americans, augmented by continual accessions of strength, succeeded, after many attacks, in breaking this corps, which fled into the woods, and left its commander mortally wounded on the field: they then marched against a force of five hundred grenadiers and light infantry, which was advancing to Colonel Baum's assistance under Lieutenant-Colonel Breyman, who, after a gallant resistance, was obliged to retreat on the main army.5 The British loss in these two actions exceeded six hundred men; and a party of American loyalists, on their way to join the army, having attached themselves to Colonel Baum's corps, were destroyed with it.
Notwithstanding these reverses, which added greatly to the spirit and numbers of the American forces, Burgoyne determined to advance. It was impossible any longer to keep up his communications with Canada by way of the Lakes, so as to supply his army on his southward march; but having, by unremitting exertions, collected provisions for thirty days, he crossed the Hudson by means of a bridge of rafts, and, marching a short distance along its western bank, he encamped on September 14th on the heights of Saratoga, about sixteen miles from Albany. The Americans had fallen back from Saratoga, and were now strongly posted near Stillwater, about half way between Saratoga and Albany, and showed a determination to recede no farther.
Meanwhile Lord Howe, with the bulk of the British army that had lain at New York, had sailed away to the Delaware, and there commenced a campaign against Washington, in which the English general took Philadelphia, and gained other showy but unprofitable successes. But Sir Henry Clinton, a brave and skilful officer, was left with a considerable force at New York, and he undertook the task of moving up the Hudson to cooperate with Burgoyne. Clinton was obliged for this purpose to wait for reenforcements which had been promised from England, and these did not arrive till September. As soon as he received them, Clinton embarked about three thousand of his men on a flotilla, convoyed by some ships-of-war under Commander Hotham, and proceeded to force his way up the river.
The country between Burgoyne's position at Saratoga and that of the Americans at Stillwater was rugged, and seamed with creeks and watercourses; but, after great labor in making bridges and temporary causeways, the British army moved forward. About four miles from Saratoga, on the afternoon of September 19th, a sharp encounter took place between part of the English right wing, under Burgoyne himself, and a strong body of the enemy, under Gates and Arnold. The conflict lasted till sunset. The British remained masters of the field; but the loss on each side was nearly equalfrom five to six hundred menand the spirits of the Americans were greatly raised by having withstood the best regular troops of the English army.
Burgoyne now halted again, and strengthened his position by field-works and redoubts; and the Americans also improved their defenses. The two armies remained nearly within cannon-shot of each other for a considerable time, during which Burgoyne was anxiously looking for intelligence of the promised expedition from New York, which, according to the original plan, ought by this time to have been approaching Albany from the south. At last a messenger from Clinton made his way, with great difficulty, to Burgoyne's camp, and brought the information that Clinton was on his way up the Hudson to attack the American forts which barred the passage up that river to Albany. Burgoyne, in reply, stated his hopes that the promised cooperation would be speedy and decisive, and added that, unless he received assistance before October 10th, he would be obliged to retreat to the Lakes through want of provisions.
The Indians and Canadians now began to desert Burgoyne, while, on the other hand, Gates' army was continually reenforced by fresh bodies of the militia. Burgoyne's force was now reduced to less than six thousand men. The right of his camp was on high ground a little to the west of the river; thence his entrenchments extended along the lower ground to the bank of the Hudson, their line being nearly at a right angle with the course of the stream. The lines were fortified in the center and on the left with redoubts and field-works. The numerical force of the Americans was now greater than the British, even in regular troops, and the numbers of the militia and volunteers which had joined Gates and Arnold were greater still. . . .
It was on October 7th that Burgoyne led his column on to the attack; and on the preceding day, the 6th, Clinton had successfully executed a brilliant enterprise against the two American forts which barred his progress up the Hudson. He had captured them both, with severe loss to the American forces opposed to him; he had destroyed the fleet which the Americans had been forming on the Hudson, under the protection of their forts; and the upward river was laid open to his squadron. He was now only a hundred fifty-six miles distant from Burgoyne, and a detachment of one thousand seven hundred men actually advanced within forty miles of Albany. Unfortunately, Burgoyne and Clinton were each ignorant of the other's movements; but if Burgoyne had won his battle on the 7th, he must, on advancing, have soon learned the tidings of Clinton's success, and Clinton would have heard of his.
A junction would soon have been made of the two victorious armies, and the great objects of the campaign might yet have been accomplished. All depended on the fortune of the column with which Burgoyne, on the eventful October 7, 1777, advanced against the American position. There were brave men, both English and German, in its ranks; and, in particular, it comprized one of the best bodies of grenadiers in the British service.
Burgoyne's whole force was soon compelled to retreat toward their camp; the left and center were in complete disorder; but the light infantry and the Twenty-fourth checked the fury of the assailants, and the remains of Burgoyne's column with great difficulty effected their return to their camp, leaving six of their guns in the possession of the enemy, and great numbers of killed and wounded on the field; and especially a large proportion of the artillerymen, who had stood to their guns until shot down or bayoneted beside them by the advancing Americans.
Burgoyne's column had been defeated, but the action was not yet over. The English had scarcely entered the camp, when the Americans, pursuing their success, assaulted it in several places with uncommon fierceness, rushing to the lines through a severe fire of grape-shot and musketry with the utmost fury. Arnold especially, who on this day appeared maddened with the thirst of combat and carnage, urged on the attack against a part of the entrenchments which was occupied by the light infantry under Lord Balcarras. But the English received him with vigor and spirit. The struggle here was obstinate and sanguinary. At length, as it grew toward evening, Arnold having forced all obstacles, entered the works with some of the most fearless of his followers. But in this critical moment of glory and danger, he received a painful wound in the same leg which had already been injured at the assault on Quebec. To his bitter regret, he was obliged to be carried back. His party still continued the attack; but the English also continued their obstinate resistance and at last night fell, and the assailants withdrew from this quarter of the British entrenchments. . . .
Burgoyne now took up his last position on the heights near Saratoga; and hemmed in by the enemy, who refused any encounter, and baffled in all his attempts at finding a path of escape, he there lingered until famine compelled him to capitulate. The fortitude of the British army during this melancholy period has been justly eulogized by many native historians. . . .
The articles of capitulation were settled on October 15th, and on that very evening a messenger arrived from Clinton with an account of his successes, and with the tidings that part of his force had penetrated as far as Esopus, within fifty miles of Burgoyne's camp. But it was too late. The public faith was pledged; and the army was indeed too debilitated by fatigue and hunger to resist an attack, if made; and Gates certainly would have made it if the convention had been broken off. Accordingly, on the 17th, the Convention of Saratoga was carried into effect. . .
When the news of Saratoga reached Paris the whole scene was changed. Franklin and his brother-commissioners found all their difficulties with the French Government vanish. The time seemed to have arrived for the house of Bourbon to take a full revenge for all its humiliations and losses in previous wars. In December a treaty was arranged, and formally signed in the February following, by which France acknowledged the independent United States. This was, of course, tantamount to a declaration of war with England.
Spain soon followed France; and, before long, Holland took the same course. Largely aided by French fleets and troops, the Americans vigorously maintained the war against the armies which England, in spite of her European foes, continued to send across the Atlantic. The treaties of 1783 restored peace to the world; the independence of the United States was reluctantly recognized by their ancient parent and recent enemy.
1From Cressy's "Decisive Battles."
2 Now Rome, Oneida County, New York.
3 At Cohoes, four miles above Albany.
4 Creasy does not mention here the battle of Oriskany which, combined with the unsuccessful siege of Fort Stanwix, obliged St. Leger and his Indians under Joseph Brant to return to Oswego.
5 It was at Bennington that General John Stark, at the beginning of the battle, made his famous remark, "We shall win this fight, or Molly Stark becomes a widow."