Saratoga, Second Battle of

views updated

Saratoga, Second Battle of

SARATOGA, SECOND BATTLE OF. 7 October 1777. Lieutenant General John Burgoyne held his first council of war in the evening of 4 October to discuss options with his key subordinates, a day after the British went on reduced rations after the damage they had suffered during the first battle of Saratoga (also called the battle of Freeman's Farm). At this point, it was clear that the American right was too strong to attack, and Burgoyne proposed moving with most of his troops to strike Gates's left. The other generals objected to the high risk of leaving only 800 men behind to guard the camp and escape route, pointing out that if the Americans struck them during the flanking maneuver, the whole force would be trapped. In a second meeting on the next night, Major General Friedrich Riedesel suggested falling back. Burgoyne rejected the idea of retreat but did agree to a compromise, in which the British would conduct another reconnaissance in force on 7 October. For this second probe, Burgoyne planned to use 1,500 of his remaining regulars and all of the 600 auxiliaries remaining (50 Indians, 100 Canadians, and 450 Loyalists). The regulars would advance in three columns, while Captain Alexander Fraser with the auxiliaries and his marksmen swung west to screen the right column. If the effort discovered weakness, then a full attack would be made the next day. If it did not, then Burgoyne would begin withdrawing to the Batten Kill River on 11 October. To boost morale, rum was distributed to the troops on 6 October.


Between 11 p.m. and midnight, Captain Fraser's force set out to take up screening positions in the western hills. At about 1 a.m. the three columns started to advance southwest from their entrenchments, moving slowly to open roads for the artillery. After moving less than a mile, Burgoyne's main body formed a line 1,000 yards long on a gentle rise north of Mill Creek. While staff officers standing on the roof of an abandoned cabin tried unsuccessfully to locate Patriot general Horatio Gates's position with spyglasses, the men started digging in and a party was called up from the rear to collect forage in the 300-yard wide wheat field in front of the line. Major Alexander (Lindsay), Earl of Balcarres held the right (west) side of the line with his light infantry and the Twenty-fourth Foot; Riedesel took the center with a composite group of 500 Germans and two Hesse-Hanau six-pound cannons; on the left were the British grenadiers under Major John Acland.

By European standards it was a good position, although 1,000 yards of front overextended the 1,500 troops. It also furnished excellent observation and fields of fire to the front for the two German guns, and for a Royal Artillery force equipped with two twelve-pounders, four more six-pounders, and two howitzers. The defect of the position lay in the fact that woods on both flanks could provide cover for approaching Americans.

When Lieutenant Colonel James Wilkinson returned from checking outpost reports that the enemy was forming along Mill Creek, Gates—who apparently had learned something from the previous battle (at Freeman's Farm)—accepted Colonel Daniel Morgan's suggestion that his riflemen move out against the British west flank. "Order on Morgan to begin the game," is the theatrical quote attributed to Gates, by historian Richard Ketchum (Saratoga, p. 394). While Morgan worked around the high ground to turn Burgoyne's west flank, Major General Benedict Arnold (suspended from command earlier) arrived and asked Gates for permission to move forward and check if the 300-man picket needed help. Gates reluctantly agreed, but sent Major General Benjamin Lincoln along as well. They came back in a half-hour and reported that the British were maneuvering in strength against the west flank. Arnold became agitated and was sent away, but Lincoln talked Gates into sending Brigadier General Enoch Poor, with three regiments from his brigade, to reinforce Morgan. This was a modest part of the 12,000-man army in the American camp (half of them Continentals), but it was a significant challenge for Burgoyne's reconnaissance party.

The battle actually started when Poor's Continental regiments under Colonels John Cilley (First New Hampshire), Nathan Hale (Second New Hampshire), and Alexander Scammell (Third New Hampshire) reached Burgoyne's left (east) flank and formed up about 2:30 p.m. They coolly ignored twelve-pounder artillery fire and started forward against Acland's grenadiers, who were posted on higher ground. Major Acland mistakenly ordered a bayonet charge that Poor shattered with accurate fire; the major himself went down with wounds in both legs and was captured. The disorderly retreat of his men threw the adjacent German troops into confusion as well. The New Hampshire veterans also overran the four British guns on this flank before the British could fire a shot. Meanwhile, American reinforcements started arriving to build up the firing line and extend it to the west.

The collapse of so many of the British and German infantrymen turned the cabin, which the British had hastily augmented with earthworks, into a semi-isolated strongpoint. The British twelve-pounders and the two Hesse-Hanau six-pounders carried the burden of holding this improvised fort, with the assistance of pockets of musketmen who were still putting up resistance. The gunners drove back two American charges, expending three wagon-loads of ammunition in the process, before the cannon became too hot to touch and mounting casualties made their position untenable. They had to abandon all the guns in order to get away.

Meanwhile Morgan had also been in action. After first routing Captain Fraser's flank security in the woods, Morgan swung around and came in to hit Balcarres' end of the British line in the flank and rear. As the British light infantry were changing forward to meet his attack, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Dearborn's own light infantry arrived routed them with devastating musket fire. Balcarres rallied his men a short distance to the rear, but was unable to hold his position. Burgoyne sent his aide, Captain Sir Francis Carr Clerke, forward to order the last of the reconnaissance force to withdraw, but Clerke was mortally wounded and captured before he could complete the mission. Brigadier General Ebenezer Learned's brigade now came onto the field between Morgan and Poor, further tipping the scales in favor of the Americans. The opening round to the action ended as Arnold, who had no official standing whatsoever, appeared and led Learned's men directly at Lieutenant Colonel Ernst von Speth's German reinforcements. Speth stood his ground to cover the British withdrawal into the formidable earthworks known as the Balcarres and Breymann redoubts, and then fell back himself.

British General Simon Fraser had been conspicuous throughout the action. Now he committed his own regiment, the Twenty-fourth Foot, which was still relatively fresh, in attempt to cover the light infantry survivors. Either Arnold or Morgan recognized that Fraser's inspired leadership was a decisive factor holding the British together. Orders were given to rifleman Timothy Murphy to take him out. Murphy climbed up a tree to get into a better firing position, and with his third shot hit Fraser in the stomach. As their general was carried off the field, the British delaying position collapsed. Further strengthening the Patriot forces were Brigadier General Abraham Ten Broeck's 1,800 militiamen, who now arrived to augment Arnold's force.


At this point in the action, the Americans had accomplished their original objective of driving back Burgoyne before he could gain any information about Gates's main line of resistance on Bemis Heights, New York, and they had inflicted punishing casualties on the enemy, but Arnold was not satisfied. Drawing in elements from two Massachusetts Continental brigades—Brigadier General John Glover's Second and Brigadier General John Paterson's Third—he resumed the attack in an effort to make this battle the decisive one of the campaign. His assault on the Balcarres redoubt got through the abatis (defensive shields made of felled trees and brush) but was stopped by the light infantry and other survivors of the initial action who had taken refuge here and driven back.

Leaving men behind to keep this outpost neutralized, Arnold raced off to see what could be done elsewhere. Finding Learned's Fourth Massachusetts Brigade arriving on the field, Arnold led it in an attack that cleared several stockaded cabins that covered the gap between the Balcarres and the Breymann redoubts. Then he took men through the newly created hole and overran Lieutenant Colonel Heinrich Breymann's position from the rear. Arnold himself went down with a wound—this was the third time in the war that his leg had been hit. Breymann was killed—tradition holds that one of his own men killed him for using his sword on the grenadiers to keep them from fleeing. Darkness and exhaustion brought the battle to an end.


Gates's losses were estimated at about 30 killed and 100 wounded. Burgoyne's troops suffered much worse. His losses numbered 184 killed, 264 wounded, and 183 captured. Thirty one of his officers were casualties, including Fraser, who died from his wounds. Riedesel's Germans had 94 killed, 67 wounded, and 102 prisoners of war. Loyalists, Indians, and Canadians appear to have suffered relatively few losses. While not all of these casualties were from the actual reconnaissance force, Burgoyne's "butcher's bill" represented a total equal to more than half of the number he had committed to action that morning.

It is hard to rate this engagement as decisive, since Burgoyne was already effectively doomed and Gates merely had to hold on and wait for starvation to eliminate the invaders. Nor did it make much sense from the British point of view, as Burgoyne had nothing to gain even if the reconnaissance had been unopposed. However, it did have enormous political consequences for the victors, for it helped enormously in gaining support both within the Americas and abroad. Arnold's role was controversial on that day, and has remained so ever since, thanks to the Gates-Schuyler Controversy: General Philip Schuyler supporters in the summer political dispute over who would command the Northern Department tend to exaggerate Arnold's impact (he was on Schuyler's side), while Gates's advocates went to the other extreme.

Personalities aside, the deeper impact of the campaign in general, and this battle in particular, came in the struggle that winter for the future course of the Revolution's military institutions. The more radical Whig politicians and many subsequent historians portrayed the militia as playing a critical role, and therefore thought that Washington's insistence on a large, well-trained regular army was excessive and potentially anti-democratic. A close examination of the day's events, however, shows very clearly that virtually the entire combat on the American side was carried out by the Continentals: Morgan's rifle corps, the New Hampshire Brigade, and the three Massachusetts Brigades, with their supporting artillery. The militia had been invaluable in isolating the battlefield but it was the regulars who had to carry the fight.

SEE ALSO Burgoyne's Offensive; Gates-Schuyler Controversy; Saratoga, First Battle of.


Furneaux, Rupert. Saratoga: The Decisive Battle. London: George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., 1971.

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

Mintz, Max M. The Generals of Saratoga: John Burgoyne and Horatio Gates. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.

Nickerson, Hoffman. The Turning Point of the Revolution; or, Burgoyne in America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1928.

                              revised by Robert K. Wright Jr.