Burgoyne's Offensive

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Burgoyne's Offensive

BURGOYNE'S OFFENSIVE. June-October 1777. The notion of a British invasion from Canada along the traditional Champlain-Hudson route was certainly not a novel idea. In 1775 fear of such a course of action prompted the American efforts to control Lake Champlain, and both General Thomas Gage and Lieutenant General Richard Howe mentioned it that year. In 1776 Sir Guy Carleton, commander of British forces in Quebec, attempted the move but ran out of time. On 13 December 1776 the king himself urged the ministry to undertake another offensive in 1777, and to have Lieutenant General John Burgoyne lead it instead of Carleton because he was more "energetic." In February the government toyed with having Lieutenant General Henry Clinton and Burgoyne exchange places (both men were in England on leave for the winter), but in the end left matters as they had stood in 1776. Keeping in mind that Carleton exercised a completely separate command in Canada from Howe, and thus carried out independent operations, the ministry maintained overall coordination because no military action could be exercised without approval from one of the three secretaries of state. George Germain, the American Secretary and himself a former general, watched over both commanders but knew that the transatlantic communication problem mandated leaving the men on the ground the maximum amount of flexibility to adjust to changing conditions. The specifics of the northern part of the 1777 campaign that he finally approved came from Burgoyne's "Thoughts for Conducting the War on the Side of Canada," submitted on 28 February.

After various meetings on 18 March Germain informed the king that instructions would be prepared for the various commanders to explain the objectives of the campaign, beginning with Burgoyne so that he could depart for Canada as soon as possible. He arrived in Quebec on 6 May on a frigate carrying Germain's orders to Carleton, followed by convoys bringing some reinforcements. Germain told Carleton to stay in Canada with a garrison of 3,770 troops, while Burgoyne led a two-pronged offensive southward. The main effort by some 7,000 men under Burgoyne himself would move south across Lake Champlain, capture the fortified complex at Ticonderoga, and push on to Albany. As a diversion, Barry St. Leger's offensive would move east along the Mohawk River with about 2,000 more. At Albany the two forces would unite, and at that point Burgoyne would come under Howe's orders. Howe's responsibilities were to conduct operations to facilitate Burgoyne's movement, not to make physical contact.

Controversy erupted the following winter as various generals tried to blame each other for the failure of the campaign, and their charges and countercharges have confused historians ever since. Older interpretations followed allegations made by Burgoyne's defense and concluded that the campaign was doomed when Howe opted to attack Philadelphia instead of moving up the Hudson River to Albany. Others blamed Germain for not giving specific orders to the various commanders directing step-by-step moves, and even alleged that bureaucratic sloppiness "lost" just such a memo. Both lines of reasoning were discredited by William Willcox in a 1962 Journal of British Studies article, "Too Many Cooks: British Planning Before Saratoga." In point of fact, none of the British military or civilian leaders felt that Burgoyne had any danger in moving as far as Albany; they also knew that Howe had ample forces in New York and Rhode Island to hold those bases and that he intended to try to bring Washington to decisive battle, and that he would probably need to attack Philadelphia to make that happen. What they all expected was that Howe would use part of his forces to pin down American troops near his own bases so that they could not move north to assist in opposing Burgoyne. Actions after Burgoyne arrived in Albany remained deliberately flexible because no one in the winter could predict how things would stand in the fall. Germain, Carleton, Howe, Clinton, and Burgoyne all knew that Burgoyne could either push southeast and coordinate with troops moving up from Rhode Island in a strike to break the heart of resistance in New England, or push south to meet an advance up the Hudson by New York-City based troops, severing New England from the other colonies, which London believed had substantial Loyalist sympathies and would rally to the Crown in the aftermath of a string of victories.


Carleton's excellent preparations during the winter of 1776–1777 and subsequent cooperation with his former subordinate enabled Burgoyne to start operations within six weeks of his arrival in Canada. Unlike the previous fall, Schuyler could not challenge the British for naval control of the lake. Carleton's British and German regulars came out of their winter quarters rested and well-equipped; most of the American regiments had been sent home to reorganize, and needed to undergo smallpox inoculation, draw uniforms and weapons, and then march back to the front. Major General Philip Schuyler had much greater difficulty moving his forces to their forward positions than Carleton did in assembling Burgoyne's army at St. Johns and then linking up with the squadron at Cumberland Head (now Plattsburgh, N.Y.). On 20 June a "splendid regatta" started south, reached Crown Point on 27 June, and approached Fort Ticonderoga on 30 June.

Burgoyne had well over 10,000 troops, seamen, and Indians under his command, and up to 1,000 noncombatant laborers or authorized camp followers complicating his logistics. Some 3,700 of the troops were British regulars and another 3,000 the contingents from Brunswick-Lunenburg and Hesse-Hanau. The flotilla included the larger armed craft as escorts and for gunfire support, over 20 gunboats, and about 800 bateaux needed to move troops and supplies. He also brought forward an extensive array of artillery with their gunners, including light and medium pieces as a field train to take on to Albany and heavier weapons to pound Ticonderoga into submission.


Brigadier Simon Fraser led the Advance Corps, which had British and German components. Fraser himself led his own Twenty-fourth Foot and composite battalions of grenadier and light infantry battalions composed of the flank companies of the British regiments. Lieutenant Colonel Heinrich Breymann's comparable German force contained Chasseur Battalion von Barner (the four Brunswick light infantry companies and the single Brunswick jäger company) and his own battalion formed from the four Brunswick grenadier companies. Assorted Indians, Loyalists, and Canadian militia formations loosely operated with the Advance Corps.

Burgoyne's main body had a British ("Right") Wing and a German ("Left") Wing, each divided into two brigades. Major General William Phillips, an artillery officer, was made second in command so that he could command troops of the line (infantry and cavalry). Major General Friedrich von Riedesel led the wings. Henry Powell led the First Brigade, James Hamilton the Second. On the German side, Colonel Johann Specht and Colonel Wilhelm von Gall led brigades of Germans.

The guns were manned by 250 British artillery regulars augmented by 150 men attached from the British infantry; direct support guns for the Germans came from the Hesse-Hanau artillery company. Unlike his other forces, the irregulars fell short of the numbers Burgoyne had expected. About 400 Indians followed some of the same French Canadian leaders who had led in the previous war. Only 100 or so Loyalist and 150 Canadian militia started with the expedition. More ominously, Burgoyne's forces had excellent transportation as long as they stuck to major waterways but came woefully underequipped with the wagons, carts, and horses necessary to move on land.


When the British began their advance Schuyler was still in the process of assembling his new forces and releasing the formations that had held the posts over the winter. Under the strategic dispositions designed by Washington at the start of the spring, Schuyler's Northern Department had half of the Massachusetts regiments (eight), all three of the New Hampshire regiments, and three of the five from New York, plus several miscellaneous units and a provisional battalion of artillery. Schuyler pushed the bulk of the men forward to the Ticonderoga complex under Major General Arthur St. Clair (probably 2,500-3,000 Continentals), where roughly 900 militia also assembled. Smaller detachments at Skenesboro, Fort Anne, Fort Edward, and Albany kept open the lines of communications. Schuyler also allocated several Continental regiments to defend the Mohawk Valley, basing most of them at Fort Stanwix but still counting on the militia from the upstate New York counties to carry the bulk of the burden in defending his flanks.


After issuing Burgoyne's Proclamation and delivering a flamboyant speech to his Indians, "Gentleman Johnny" moved south and captured Ticonderoga on 2-5 July, with a speed and ease that badly shook American morale. Senior American officers knew that "the Gibraltar of America" really depended on control of Lake Champlain for its defense. They also understood that the original French fortifications sat on terrain that could not withstand an attack by any large force with the proper artillery; they had been working for over a year to try to turn the position into a complex (including Mount Independence on the opposite shore) but did not have anywhere near enough men to hold such long lines. Schuyler and St. Clair had been running a bluff, and when Major General William Phillips found a dominating position for the British guns, St. Clair conducted a well-conceived night evacuation that saved the garrison and thereby gave Schuyler an army that could continue to fight another day. The detachment left to cover the departure, however, bungled their mission, and Burgoyne's seamen cut through the boom obstructing access to Lake George in far less time than the Americans thought. These factors cost St. Clair the head start time he needed to escape unmolested. There being no short road from Ticonderoga to Skenesboro, St. Clair led the largest part of his command on a forty-five-mile, roundabout route through Castleton; the rest with the guns, stores, and sick took the water route over Lake George. American mistakes and British vigor allowed the lead elements of the pursuit to catch up with the rear element on each line of retreat. The overland rearguard engaged at Hubbardton on 7 July; the other force at Skenesboro on 6 July and at Fort Anne on 7 July. St. Clair finally reached Fort Edward on 12 July.


By the time Howe sailed for Philadelphia on 23 July he knew that Burgoyne had captured Ticonderoga, which everyone had assumed would be the hardest part of the northern campaign. Howe therefore left Sir Henry Clinton in and around New York City with about 8,500 troops. Back in the spring Washington had designated two other concentration points for the American forces in addition to Schuyler's Northern Department. The bulk of the army gathered in northern New Jersey under Washington's direct command and formed the Main Army. A somewhat smaller element occupied the vital strategic position in the mountains astride the Hudson River and were designated as the Highlands Department. Howe's slow pace in starting the 1777 campaign puzzled the American leaders, in part because the British actions made no military sense. As time elapsed Burgoyne's movements and Howe's inaction led Washington to reinforce Schuyler. The remaining Massachusetts regiments (Nixon's and Glover's brigades) shifted up from Major General Israel Putnam's Highlands command; Colonel Daniel Morgan's riflemen were detached from the main army (then near Ramapo, N.J.); and the fiery Major General Benedict Arnold, just recovering from wounds, got orders to join Schuyler. At Washington's suggestion, Major General Benjamin Lincoln was ordered to the Vermont area to organize and command New England militia being assembled there. Governors of the New England colonies and New York were urged to fill their quotas of Continentals and to turn out their militia.

In St. Leger's Expedition, an unsuccessful diversion, St. Leger left Oswego, New York, on 26 July, reached Fort Stanwix with his main body on 3 August, and repulsed a militia relief column at Oriskany on 6 August. But he started withdrawing on 22 August when Arnold led a Continental column from Schuyler's army into the Mohawk Valley. That column returned to Schuyler before any decisive battle occurred, making St. Leger's entire expedition ineffectual in furthering the British campaign plan.


In his "Thoughts," Burgoyne had stated an assumption that the Americans would have a sizable flotilla on Lake George that might bar use of this "most expeditious and most commodious route to Albany." In the same paper he also foresaw that along the alternate route overland from Skenesboro "considerable difficulties may be expected, as the narrow parts of the river [Wood Creek] may be easily choaked up and rendered impassable, and at best there will be necessity for a great deal of land carriage for the artillery, provisions, etc., which can only be supplied from Canada." Despite inadequate transport and the lack of opposition on Lake George, however, Burgoyne still elected to take the alternate route, using Lake George only for the movement of supplies and heavy artillery. He later justified this decision on two grounds: since he needed all his boats to move supplies, he could not have reached Fort Edward with his army any faster via Lake George than by the route along Wood Creek; and, he said, falling back from Fort Anne after the skirmishes might have been construed as weakness by "enemies and friends." There is no substance to the legend that Loyalist Philip Skene talked him into the shorter land route with the personal motive of getting a road built between Skene's property and the Hudson.

As soon as Burgoyne stopped to regroup, Schuyler immediately launched a brilliant tactical operation. Schuyler correctly recognized that time was his ally in 1777, just as it had been in 1776. The British had to achieve victory before winter froze the lakes and cut their lines of communications, so he set about enhancing the obstructions nature had placed in Burgoyne's path to Fort Edward (on the Hudson). Schuyler sent 1,000 axmen to fell trees across Wood Creek and across the trails. They dug ditches to create additional quagmires in a region that was boggy to start with; they rolled boulders into the creek to obstruct boats and to cause overflows. It took the British twenty days to cover the twenty-two miles. They had to bridge at least forty deep ravines, and in one place constructed a two-mile causeway. On 29 July Burgoyne reached Fort Edward, and his supply column, commanded by General Phillips, took Fort George, fifteen miles to the northwest at the tip of Lake George. The murder of Jane McCrea had taken place on 27 July and was to have an unexpectedly great effect on subsequent operations.

It now became apparent that "the fatal defect in Burgoyne's plan was the inability to supply his army" (Greene, p. 109). From Fort Edward the British line of communications stretched 185 miles back to Montreal. The only other option for procuring food and fodder for the horses would have been to employ foragers. But the area north of Stillwater had very few inhabitants or farms, and Schuyler's men had made sure nothing of value remained to fall into British hands. The Bennington Raid, 6-16 August, prompted by Burgoyne's need for supplies, turned into a disaster that hastened his doom.


Despite his shortcomings as a commander, Schuyler had scored successes that left Burgoyne no sound alternative but retreat. The virus of sectional factionalism finally led to Schuyler's being relieved, however, and Major General Horatio Gates arrived on 19 August to command the Northern Department. When he took over the department's main combat forces (about 4,000 men), they were camped at the junction of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers, where supply was easiest. In addition to the detachments still working on the obstruction program, Gates inherited the large force under Arnold relieving Fort Stanwix to the west and the slightly smaller Bennington veterans thirty miles to the east. He also benefited from earlier calls to mobilize New York and New England militia; the need to assemble and organize those forces had taken time, but units were now starting to arrive, and more Continentals were on their way from the Highlands. Burgoyne probably could have saved his army by a prompt retreat. Oblivious of the growing danger, he continued on toward Albany. (Burgoyne would later claim that he had positive orders from Germain to march to that location, but no such orders had been issued.) Because Albany lay on the west side of the Hudson, and the river got wider as it flowed south, Burgoyne opted to cross to the west side near Saratoga. The problem of numbers and losses dogging the invaders since mid-July finally became critical here. If he kept heading south he would not have enough spare troops to guard the crossing site. So in order to keep going, Burgoyne chose to cut his own lines of communications with the lakes, built up thirty days' supplies to take with him, and counted on drawing supplies from Clinton in New York City after he reached Albany.

On 13 September, with about 6,000 rank and file, he started crossing to Saratoga, and two days later he dismantled his bridge of boats. All but fifty of his Indians had deserted by now, and Burgoyne was in the dark as to the enemy situation; Gates, on the other hand, was well informed. On 12 September the Americans had advanced north a short distance from Stillwater to occupy strong defensive terrain at Bemis Heights, where Arnold and Thaddeus Kosciuszko, colonel of engineers in the Continental Army, had laid out the lines.

The First Battle of Saratoga, 19 September 1777, was fought around Freeman's Farm. The next day Burgoyne considered attacking Gates in full force. Simon Fraser argued that his grenadiers and light infantrymen, who would spearhead the attack, needed a day's rest, and Burgoyne decided to wait. The British were ready to attack on the twenty-first when Burgoyne received Clinton's letter of 12 September. Burgoyne had sent numbers of messengers in civilian clothing overland to New York, and since he had left Fort Miller had been calling on Clinton to come north in support. Clinton's letter was the first to reach Burgoyne, and in it Clinton offered to make a diversion against the Highlands. Burgoyne's misunderstanding of what Clinton proposed (and his own instructions from London stated) led him to conclude that he did not need to attack, but instead should await the outcome of Clinton's move. The same day, 21 September, the British heard sounds of rejoicing from the unseen American positions on Bemis Heights. A few days later they learned the noise was occasioned by news of John Brown's Ticonderoga Raid.


The invaders now entrenched the positions they had taken up on 20 September in preparation for the canceled attack. Facing south along the plateau between the Hudson and the North Branch (of Mill Creek) were the Germans of Riedesel's column (on the east) and Hamilton with four regiments. Outposts sat a few hundred yards in front of these positions. Continuing west, the line was manned by Fraser's Advance Corps. The British light infantry, under Alexander Balcarres, occupied the key terrain feature of Burgoyne's entire position: the salient at Freeman's Farm, where they built the fortification known as the Balcarres Redoubt. The Breymann's remnants of the German flank troops held another redoubt about 500 yards farther north, in effect creating as a refused flank (a tactical disposition in which the end of a line is bent backwards to prevent an enemy from taking the position from the side or rear). A handful of Canadians in stockaded cabins screened the intervening gap. Bateaux and stores were collected at the mouth of the Great Ravine (Wilbur's Basin) and a bridge of boats was constructed across the Hudson at this point. Three redoubts, one known as the Great Redoubt, were started on the high ground over-looking this area and about 600 yards west of the river's edge.

Burgoyne's strength had dwindled to about 5,000, and desertions were mounting. The troops had been on a diet of salt pork and flour for some time, and on 3 October their rations were reduced by one third. Horses were starving to death. To add to the misery, the Americans harassed the invading forces continually. "I do not believe that either officer or soldier ever slept during that interval [20 September-7 October] without his cloaths, or that any general officer, or commander of a regiment, passed a single night without being upon his legs occasionally at different hours and constantly an hour before daylight," Burgoyne wrote.


The only change in the defenses of Bemis Heights was the fortification of the high ground half a mile west of the Neilson House, which Burgoyne had selected as his objective on 19 September. But in contrast to Burgoyne's, Gates's numbers had been growing at a steady rate. With Burgoyne no longer a threat to move east, Gates pulled Lincoln's militia from the Bennington area, and other militia arrived from New England and New York. By 4 October Gates had more than 7,000 troops; three days later he had 11,000. Thanks to Schuyler, Gates's ammunition had been replenished. Gates held all of his Continentals (about 3,000) and much of the militia in the fortified lines, but took advantage of the huge numbers of militia to send out combat patrols to attack British outposts all the way north to Ticonderoga and to maintain a counter-reconnaissance screen that left Burgoyne completely in the dark. Patriot morale soared.


On 4 October Burgoyne proposed a turning movement around the American west flank while 800 men remained behind to guard the supplies. His senior officers talked him out of this foolhardy plan. Riedesel then proposed a retreat to the vicinity of Fort Miller, where they could reestablish communications with Canada and await help from Clinton, but Burgoyne insisted on making one more attempt to accomplish his mission. This took the form of a reconnaissance in force to try to find out the actual strength of Gates's position and led to the Battle of Bemis Heights, or Second Battle of Saratoga, on 7 October.

His defeat in this action included the loss of Breymann's Redoubt. Without that bastion Burgoyne's entrenched position became untenable, and he withdrew, in good order, to the Great Redoubt and vicinity. The Americans occupied his former positions on 8 October, and Gates sent Brigadier General John Fellows with 1,300 militia to get astride the enemy's line of retreat to Saratoga. Fellows moved up the east side of the Hudson, forded the river to Saratoga, and encamped west of there. Brigadier General Jacob Bayley already had 2,000 more militia near Fort Edward. Gates's own need to resupply and feed his Continentals, the troops who had born the brunt of the fight on 4 October, kept him from putting direct pressure on Burgoyne.

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On the evening of 8 October, leaving campfires burning to deceive the enemy, Burgoyne started north. Lieutenant Colonel Nicholas Sutherland had moved out earlier with the Ninth and Forty-seventh Foot to reconnoiter the route, and he reported back that Fellows's camp was unguarded. Burgoyne refused to let Sutherland attack it, and at 2 a.m. the main body of Burgoyne's army stopped to rest three miles short of Fellows's; it did not reach Saratoga until late evening of 9 October. Its movements had been slowed by heavy rain and the need to keep abreast of the bateaux being rowed laboriously up the river. Burgoyne left his hospital behind with more than 300 sick and wounded. Tents and much of the remaining baggage had to be abandoned on the march when wagons could no longer be manhandled through the deepening mud. And to complete his misery, aggressive American patrols hanging on the rear and flanks snapped up all stragglers and many of the bateaux. Exhausted, the British dug in once again.

Gates finally started serious pursuit in the afternoon of 10 October, sometime near 4 p.m. His van watched the British rear guard withdraw across a creek after burning the Schuyler Mansion. Sutherland had started for Fort Edward from Saratoga on 10 October with the two regiments mentioned earlier, some Canadians, and a party of artificers to build a bridge across the Hudson for Burgoyne's retreat. When this movement was reported to Gates, he assumed that it was Burgoyne's main body. The morning of 11 October had a heavy fog. Hurrying up to crush what he thought was merely a rear guard north of the Fishkill, Gates called off the attack when John Glover picked up a British deserter who revealed the true situation. But that day the Americans captured most of the enemy's remaining bateaux, which deprived Burgoyne of his bridging equipment while simultaneously increasing Gates's capability for moving troops across the Hudson.

As Gates tightened the noose on 12 October, taking up positions on all sides except the north, Burgoyne presented a council of war with five proposals: (1) Stand fast and await events (he still hoped Clinton's expedition would help him); (2) Attack; (3) Fight northward to Fort Edward, taking all guns and baggage; (4) Abandon the latter and slip away under cover of darkness; or, (5) Should Gates shift more strength westward (perhaps to cut them off), to strike south for Albany. Burgoyne, Phillips, and Hamilton inclined toward the fifth proposal, but Riedesel convinced them that only the fourth made sense. The way north was still open when this plan was adopted, but by 10 p.m., when Riedesel was ready to move, word came back that the operation was canceled. It turned out that the gap had been closed on the north by the arrival of John Stark's command. The Saratoga surrender, on 17 October 1777, was inevitable.


For many years historians called this campaign the turning point of the Revolution because it led to the French Alliance. Although we now know that Louis XVI decided to enter the war before news of Burgoyne's capture reached him, Saratoga did bolster American morale at a time when the Philadelphia Campaign was giving it a beating. The losses effectively ended any further effort by the British to conduct major offensive operations from Canada (they even abandoned Ticonderoga). But perhaps the campaign's most important effects were political. Charges of blame and heated replies plagued London for years. The apparent contrast between a "militia" victory in the north and the failure of Washington's army of Continentals in the south led to the political machinations known as the Conway cabal.

SEE ALSO Bennington Raid; Burgoyne's Proclamation at Bouguet River; Canada Invasion; Carleton-Germain Feud; Champlain Squadrons; Clinton's Expedition; Conway Cabal; Factionalism in America during the Revolution; Flank Companies; Fort Anne, New York; French Alliance; Hubbardton, Vermont; Kosciuszko, Thaddeus Andrzej Bonawentura; McCrea Atrocity; Oriskany, New York; Philadelphia Campaign; Saratoga Surrender; Saratoga, First Battle of; Saratoga, Second Battle of; Skene, Philip; Skenesboro, New York; St. Leger's Expedition; Ticonderoga Raid; Ticonderoga, New York, British Capture of.


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Willcox, William. "Too Many Cooks: British Planning Before Saratoga." Journal of British Studies 2 (Nov. 1962): 56-91.

                         revised by Robert K. Wright Jr.