At the outbreak of hostilities the thoughts of the colonists naturally turned to the Canadian border, the old battleground of the French and Indian War. Then and now a hostility was felt for Canada which had not slumbered since the burning of Schenectady in 1690.
May 10, 1775, Ethan Allen, at the head of a party of "Green Mountain Boys," surprised Fort Ticonderoga. Crown Point was taken two days later. Two hundred and twenty cannon, besides other much-needed military stores, fell into the hands of the Americans. Some of these heavy guns, hauled over the Green Mountains on oxsleds the next winter, were planted by Washington on Dorchester Heights.
In November, 1775, St. Johns and Montreal were captured by a small force under General Montgomery. The Americans now seemed in a fair way to get control of all Canada, which contained only 700 regular troops. It was even hoped that Canada would make common cause with the colonies. Late in the fall Benedict Arnold led 1,000 men up the Kennebec River and through the wilderness--a terrible journey--to Quebec. Here he was joined by Montgomery. On the night of December 30th, which was dark and stormy, Montgomery and Arnold led their joint forces, numbering some 3,000, against the city. Arnold was to attack the lower town, while Montgomery sought to gain the citadel. Montgomery had hardly passed the first line of barricades when he was shot dead, and his troops retreated in confusion. Arnold, too, was early wounded. Morgan, with 500 of his famous riflemen, forced an entrance into the lower town. But they were not re-enforced, and after a desperate street fight were taken prisoners.
A dreary and useless blockade was maintained for several months; until in May the garrison sallied forth and routed the besiegers. The British were successful in several small engagements during the summer of 1776; and the Americans finally had to fall back to Crown Point and Ticonderoga.
[Illustration: Portrait.] Richard Montgomery.
In June of the next year a splendid expedition set sail from St. Johns and swept proudly up Lake Champlain. Eight thousand British and Hessian troops, under strict discipline and ably officered, forty cannon of the best make, a horde of merciless Indians--with these forces General Burgoyne, the commander of the expedition, expected to make an easy conquest of upper New York, form a junction with Clinton at Albany, and, by thus isolating New England from the Middle and Southern States, break the back of the rebellion.
Ticonderoga was the first point of attack. Sugar Loaf Mountain, which rose six hundred feet above the lake, had been neglected as too difficult of access. Burgoyne's skilful engineers easily fortified this on the night of July 4th, and Fort Ticonderoga became untenable. General St. Clair, with his garrison of 3,000, at once evacuated it, and fled south under cover of the night. He was pursued, and his rear guard of 1,200 men was shattered. The rest of his force reached Fort Edward.
[Illustration: Four soldiers in battle; two on the left holding muskets, one just fallen and and an officer with his arms thrown up after being shot.] The Death of Montgomery at Quebec.
The loss of Ticonderoga spread alarm throughout the North. General Schuyler, the head of the Northern department, appealed to Washington for re-enforcements, and fell back from Fort Edward to the junction of the Mohawk and Hudson.
Meanwhile Burgoyne was making a toilsome march toward Fort Edward. Schuyler had destroyed the bridges and obstructed the roads, so that the invading army was twenty-four days in going twenty-six miles. Up to this point Burgoyne's advance had been little less than a triumphal march; difficulties now began to surround him like a net.
Burgoyne had arranged for a branch expedition of 700 troops and 1,000 Indians under St. Leger, to sail up Lake Ontario, sweep across western New York, and join the main body at Albany. August 3d, this expedition reached Fort Schuyler, and besieged it. A party of 800 militia, led by General Herkimer, a veteran German soldier, while marching to relieve the fort, was surprised by an Indian ambush. The bloody battle of Oriskany followed. St. Leger's further advance was checked, and soon after, alarmed by exaggerated reports of a second relief expedition under Arnold, he hurried back to Canada.
At Bennington, twenty-five miles east of Burgoyne's line of march, the Americans had a depot of stores and horses. Burgoyne, who was running short of provisions, sent a body of 500 troops, under Baume, to capture these stores, and overawe the inhabitants by a raid through the Connecticut valley. About 2,000 militia hastened to the defence of Bennington. General Stark, who had fought gallantly at Bunker Hill and Trenton, took command. August 16th, Baume was attacked on three sides at once, Stark himself leading the charge against the enemy's front. Again and again his men dashed up the hill where the British lay behind breastworks. After a fight of two hours Baume surrendered, overpowered by superior numbers. Re-enforcements which came up a little later were driven back with considerable loss. The Americans took 700 prisoners and 1,000 stands of arms.
[Illustration: Herkimer seated against a tree with a leg wound, giving orders to a soldier.] General Herkimer at the Battle of Oriskany.
Burgoyne's situation was becoming dangerous. The failure of St. Leger and the heavy loss at Bennington seriously disarranged his plans. The troops detached to defend the posts in his rear had reduced his force to about 6,000. He was greatly hampered by lack of provisions. Meanwhile the American army had increased to 9,000. Schuyler had been supplanted by Gates, who on September 12th advanced to a strong position on Bemis Heights in the town of Stillwater. The right wing of the army rested on the Hudson, the left on ridges and wood. In front was a ravine. On the 19th Burgoyne advanced to the attack in three columns. That led by General Fraser, which tried to turn the American left, was the first to engage. Arnold's wing, including Morgan's riflemen, met Fraser's skirmishers a mile from the American lines. They were soon forced to fall back; Burgoyne's central column came up, and the fight became general. The battleground was covered by thick woods, with occasional clearings, and the troops fought at close range. Four hours the battle raged hotly. The British artillery was taken and retaken again and again. Thirty-six of the forty-eight British gunners were either killed or wounded. At sunset the Americans withdrew to their fortified lines, leaving Burgoyne in possession of the field. It was a drawn battle, but virtually a victory for the Americans. The British lost about 600, the Americans half as many.
[Illustration: Portrait.] General John Stark.
Burgoyne's situation was now critical in the extreme. In the heart of the enemy's country, his forces melting away while his opponents were increasing, nearly out of provisions and his connections with his base of supplies threatened by a party assailing Ticonderoga, Burgoyne's only hope was that Clinton would force a passage up the Hudson. But the latter, after capturing Forts Clinton and Montgomery early in October, fell back to the lower Hudson and left Burgoyne to his fate.
October 7th, Burgoyne advanced a picked body of 1,500 men to reconnoitre the American lines. Morgan's riflemen were sent out to "begin the game." The fighting soon became even hotter than in the previous battle. In an hour the whole British line was retreating toward the camp. At this point Arnold, whom, because of his preference for Schuyler, Gates had deprived of his command, filled with the fury of battle, dashed upon the field and assumed his old command. The soldiers greeted him with cheers, and he led them on in one impetuous charge after another. The enemy everywhere gave way in confusion, and at dusk the Germans were even driven from their entrenched camp. The British loss was fully 600.
[Illustration: Portrait.] General Horatio Gates.
The next day Burgoyne retreated to Saratoga, followed by Gates. The fine army, which had set out with such high hopes only four months before, was now almost a wreck. Eight hundred were in the hospital. On the 12th the army had but five days' rations. Burgoyne could neither advance nor retreat, and on the 17th he surrendered. The army were allowed free passage to England on condition that they would not re-engage in the war. The Americans got 35 superb cannon and 4,000 muskets. The Sunday after the surrender, Timothy Dwight, afterward President of Yale College, preached to Gates's soldiers from Joel ii. 20, "I will remove far off from you the northern army."
Gates deserved little credit for the defeat of Burgoyne. Put forward by New England influence against Schuyler, the favorite of New York, he but reaped the results of the labors of Herkimer at Oriskany, of Stark at Bennington, and of Schuyler in obstructing Burgoyne's advance and in raising a sufficient army. Even in the two battles of Stillwater Gates did next to nothing, not even appearing on the field. Arnold and Morgan were the soul of the army on both days. Arnold's gallant conduct was at once rewarded by a major-generalship. Schuyler, underrated and even maligned in his day, had to wait for the approval of posterity, which he has now fully obtained.
The surrender of Burgoyne was the most important event of the war up to that time. It was of immense service at home, raising the country out of the despondency which followed upon Brandywine and Germantown. Abroad it disheartened England, and decided France to acknowledge the independence of America and to send military aid. From the end of this year, 1777, victory over England was a practical certainty.