Saratoga, First Battle of

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Saratoga, First Battle of

SARATOGA, FIRST BATTLE OF. 19 September 1777. John Burgoyne's offensive entered its final phase on 13 September when he crossed to the west side of the Hudson River. The slow movement southward resulted partly from inadequate transportation, but also from a collapse of intelligence. The losses suffered at Bennington and the constant attrition of sniping and disease had stripped away most of the Loyalists, Canadians, and Indians who had been his sources of information. In fact, he only realized that Horatio Gates's main force was nearby when he heard the reveille drums of the American camp on 16 September. He halted and only moved another three miles on the 17th. At that point he deployed along a front extending about a mile and a half west from Sword's House. The 18th produced no further intelligence, and he developed plans to carry out a reconnaissance in force to assess the situation.

The Americans had observed Burgoyne's every move, and their patrols harassed his advance. Gates's army now numbered at least seven thousand, with more militia arriving every day. They had been digging in on the commanding ground of Bemis Heights since 12 September. Knowing that time was on his side because Burgoyne had cut his own lines of communication, the American commander chose to exploit the tactical advantage of defending a fortified position.


The reconnaissance in force would be executed by three task forces. Brigadier Simon Fraser, with about twenty-two hundred men, would make a wide sweep on the right to the vicinity of the clearing known as Freeman's Farm. His command consisted of his own Twenty-fourth Foot; Major John Ackland's light infantry battalion; Major Alexander, earl Balcarres's battalion of grenadiers; Lieutenant Colonel Heinrich Breymann's battalions of Brunswick grenadiers; and the remaining Canadians, Indians, and Loyalists. The center column of about eleven hundred men from the Twentieth, Twenty-first, and Sixty-second Foot under Brigadier James Hamilton was to move south and then turn west to make contact with Fraser. Burgoyne accompanied Hamilton, and the reserve (Ninth Foot) followed closely behind. The left (east) column, eleven hundred Germans commanded by General Friedrich Riedesel and accompanied by General William Phillips and the artillery, took the river road. Hoffman Nickerson is on target with his comment: "What was next to be done—if the Americans did not come out and attack one or more of the advancing columns—we do not know" (p. 305). Since Burgoyne's troops were moving in broken, wooded terrain without the means of coordinating the three columns, the plan invited defeat in detail.

The 19th dawned cold and foggy but turned bright and clear by 11 a.m. A signal gun then set the columns in motion; an American patrol on the east bank of the Hudson quickly reported this to Gates. At about 12:30 the advance guard of the center column occupied the cabin of Freeman's Farm, and Burgoyne halted for word of Fraser's location. Riedesel, slowed by the need to repair bridges, was on the river road due east of Freeman's Farm and about a mile and a half away.

Gates waited passively until Benedict Arnold's arguments finally persuaded him to send Daniel Morgan's riflemen and Dearborn's light infantry out from his left (east) to make contact. Arnold's division, on this flank, was alerted to support them.


About 1 p.m., Morgan encountered the pickets of the center column. Accurate fire picked off every British officer and many of the men and drove the survivors back to Hamilton's line. The riflemen pursued too aggressively and were in turn driven off by the British. In the heavy brush Morgan at first thought that his corps had been destroyed, but the scattered soldiers reassembled at the sound of his turkey call.

The skirmish briefly unnerved the some of Hamilton's men, but order returned quickly and Burgoyne decided he could no longer sit idle while waiting for word from Fraser. Again a signal gun told the other two forces to move. The center column moved out into the clearing of Freeman's Farm with the Twentieth on the left, the Twenty-first on the right, and the Sixty-second in the middle; the Ninth Foot continued as the reserve.


Morgan and Dearborn held positions along the southern edge of the clearing, and Arnold had already started at least seven of his regiments forward from Bemis Heights to support them. The First and Third New Hampshire Regiments, under Colonels Joseph Cilley and Alexander Scammell, were the first to arrive, and they formed to the left; others extended the line to the right as they arrived. Arnold arrive fairly soon, although charges and countercharges in his later argument with Gates have confused some historians on this point.

The fighting in the clearing became heavy at about 3 p.m. and continued until sunset. Each side advanced multiple times, but every advance was repulsed. Americans relied on numbers and accurate musket fire, the British on supporting artillery fire. It is a myth that this part of the engagement pitted inappropriate European tactics against American militiamen adept at frontier warfare. The heavy fighting at the clearing took place between two bodies of regular troops, both using linear tactics and both fully under the control of their officers.


Riedesel had heard the firefight start and sent two companies of the Rhetz Regiment forward to find out what lay in front; Phillips left to learn about the firing. On his own initiative he also called artillery forward, sent four guns to support Hamilton, and sent his aide to ask Burgoyne for orders. The latter returned around 5 o'clock with instructions to leave a force to defend the river road and bring the rest to attack the American east flank and take pressure off the center column. The buildup of American forces had required the three regiments at Freeman's Farm to thin out to prevent being overlapped, especially on their right. This left the Sixty-second Foot in the center in a particularly exposed position, especially when it surged forward in a counterattack. The center column was in a desperate situation when the Germans came to its support.

Riedesel, on the other hand, risked annihilation of his force on the river as well as loss of the vital bateaux and supply train he was protecting on that flank. But he accepted this risk and moved out with about five hundred infantry and two guns (his own regiment, the other two companies of the Rhetz, and six-pounders from the Hesse-Hanau Artillery Company). With the same vigor he had shown at Hubbardton in rescuing Fraser, the major general led the two Rhetz companies west along a road that he had previously reconnoitered. Reaching the top of a hill, he saw the desperate situation of the British and immediately committed the two companies without waiting for the rest of his men to catch up; as at Hubbardton, he ordered them to advance cheering and beating their drums.

The American right flank (the New Hampshire regiments and a detachment of Massachusetts Continentals) rested on the North Branch Ravine, which prevented their extending in Riedesel's direction. Instead, as fresh regiments came up from Bemis Heights, they reinforced the west end of the line. Furthermore, three hours of heavy combat left them tired and unable to devote any men to patrol beyond their flank. The sound of Riedesel's volley fire from this quarter took them by surprise. The Americans still outnumbered the enemy by about two to one and Hamilton's troops were almost fought out at this point, but Arnold was with Gates at Bemis Heights when the Germans arrived on the battlefield and was not in a position to exploit the situation; he had ridden back to get more troops. Gates did release Learned's Brigade, but it went to the west flank as well and engaged Fraser's wing, contributing nothing to the main fight at Freeman's Farm.

Burgoyne launched a counterattack when Riedesel's reinforcements were available. The Americans held their ground at first, but then started drawing back. Darkness was falling and they lacked unity of command.

Fraser had been off in the wilderness while Burgoyne and the center column fought for their lives. Late in the day his forward elements exchanged fire with those of Learned, but that was the extent of the action in this part of the battlefield.


Burgoyne lost about 160 men killed, 364 wounded and 42 missing. But they were not evenly distributed. The Germans only had eighteen men wounded, and Fraser's units also came out relatively unscathed. It appears that Hamilton's three regiments went into action with about 800 effectives and took 350 casualties (44 percent). The Sixty-second Foot alone went into action with 300; three officers and 50 men died and another eight officers and 101 enlisted men were wounded.

Americans suffered half as many casualties. Estimates vary—and because the troops engaged were from militia units or detachments, the number could be off—but casualties probably totaled 319: 8 officers and 57 men killed, 21 officers and 197 men wounded, and 36 reported missing.


Burgoyne could and did claim the victory, since he camped on the battlefield. But he had no chance of defeating Gates before the battle began, and the day's losses doomed his expedition.

Gates's performance in the battle was cautious. Unwilling to risk an unnecessary defeat, he failed to see that he had an opportunity to crush Burgoyne on the spot by defeating the columns in detail. Suspicions that the personality conflict between Gates and Arnold played a large part in Gates's reluctance to give Arnold free rein are probably overstated. They fell apart after the action, not before.

Many historians refer to this engagement as the First Battle of Freeman's Farm, a more precise designation. But as in the case of Bunker Hill, Saratoga is more popular.

SEE ALSO Arnold, Benedict; Bennington Raid; Burgoyne's Offensive; Dearborn, Henry; Defeat in Detail; Fraser, Simon (1729–1777); Hubbardton, Vermont; Learned, Ebenezer; Morgan, Daniel; Phillips, William; Riedesel, Baron Friedrich Adolphus; Scammell, Alexander.


Furneaux, Rupert. Saratoga: The Decisive Battle. London: Allen and Unwin, 1971.

Ketchum, Richard. Saratoga: Turning Point of America's Revolutionary War. New York: Holt, 1997.

Nickerson, Hoffman. Turning Point of the Revolution; or, Burgoyne in America. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1928.

                         revised by Robert K. Wright Jr.