Saratoga: The downfall of Gentleman Johnny

The fall of 1777 was the turning point American Revolutionary War. The fighting in what would be the United States continued until 1781 but it was during the fall of 1777 that the foundation for American success was laid. It was the battle of Saratoga and the Americans’ decisive victory there led the French into signing a concrete alliance to aid in winning the war against the British.

The Americans, led by Benjamin Franklin’s efforts in Paris, had received some back channel funding from the French to support their revolutionary efforts against the hated British but Saratoga put America in cahoots with the French. Official recognition from a foreign power and their assistance would be absolutely crucial for the success of the American revolt. The French brought more than guns and troops, they had an established navy that was a decisive reason why the Americans would win the war at Yorktown a few years later. This victory at Saratoga was not only important for the northern campaign against the British but since it convinced the French to pledge resources through a formal alliance, it should be recognized for its importance.

Saratoga is in upstate NY, along the Hudson River north of New York City. The British, led by General “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne had plans to cross the Hudson at Saratoga on the way to Albany, but the Americans had prepared for this. Burgoyne was leading a force down from Quebec (the long feared Canadian invasion come true), through the Hudson Valley with goal of reaching Albany, where he thought he would join forces with General William Howe, who was stationed at NYC when Burgoyne had set off on his luxurious trek south. Patriotic and troublesome New England would be separated from supposed more loyalist southern colonies, and this revolution would be put down if Burgoyne was successful. Burgoyne was entirely confident (when he left Britain he bet a British politician that he would single handedly end the war within a year), he brought along fine food and dinnerware, wives and girlfriends (and even children) of the senior officers on their battle train, he was not concerned about the American rebel rabble.

Burgoyne’s mistakes, and there were many, along this trek doomed his luxury battle train. His men ran through supplies quite quickly and there was not much to replace them and when he did send men to accumulate some supplies, it was their defeat at the battle of bennington that led the indians he had under his command abandoning him. With his troops dwindling, supplies and morale low; Burgoyne got word that General Howe had left NYC and moved his forces to Philadelphia. Burgoyne was now alone in New York State, his planned ‘pincer’ movement to end the war would not come to fruition. Moving his forces towards Saratoga with the intention of crossing the Hudson, Burgoyne ran into the Americans, led by General Horatio Gates and one Benedict Arnold. The Americans had increasing troop numbers, the news of the dwindling British force (and how the native indians had abandoned Burgoyne) had led local militia men to flock to Gates’s force, swelling his ranks so the Americans now held a sizeable numerical advantage

The first battle was a pyrrhic victory for the British. They did win the position on the battlefield, but they lost quite a lot of troops (partly due to a legendary battalion of sharpshooters) and had no reinforcements within any reasonable distance. The Americans on the other hand, strengthened and were prepared for the second stage of the battle, which ended with over 6 thousand British captured, a catastrophic loss for the British. News of the American victory was met with disbelief in Europe, Burgoyne a highly regarded military mind and he was soundly defeated by the American rabble? That can not be true. The French now saw the Americans as a decent bet and threw their lot in with them, pledging men, supplies and naval support. Now a days the French get a lot of insults about their supposed predilection for surrendering and running away but if it were not for their help, the revolution would have ended quite differently. (They also spent money they could not afford, directly leading to their own revolution. Thanks France! Your help cost your king his head.)

This victory was a tremendous boost to American morale. Not much had gone well in the revolutionary war up to this point, and this crucial triumph not only ensured French assistance but strengthened American resolve that they could win their independence. The underdog Americans had resoundingly defeated one of Britain’s most respected military men. But this battle was also a serious misstep by the British. The long feared invasion from Canada had been routed, but if Howe had come through with his men to Albany instead of capturing Philadelphia (the coordination between Howe and Burgoyne was non-existent), the war could have ended and Burgoyne would have won his bet. Gentleman Johnny became a joke because of his loss. For the Americans, a certain major general named Benedict Arnold won plaudits from his fellow soldiers and field commanders for his leadership and battlefield strategy at Saratoga. We will discuss Arnold another time, but know that Saratoga was where he ‘made his bones’ as it were.

Saratoga: decisive American victory, foreign assistance against the British gained, northern invasion deflected, the fighting in the northern colonies all but ended at Saratoga. There would be a few battles here and there until the end of the revolutionary war but there would not be anything as significant as Saratoga.