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Burgoyne, at Batten-Kill, had only a choice of evils to make. Either he could save his army by retreating to Fort Edward, and thus give up all hope of seeing the ends of the campaign fulfilled, or he might still make a bold push for Albany, and so put everything at the hazard of battle. 

But to fall back when he had promised to go forward when doing so meant ruin to his reputation, and possibly to the cause of his king, was not only a bitter alternative but a responsibility heavier than he was prepared to take.

On the other hand, should he now cross the Hudson, with intent to bring on a decisive battle,--and his crossing meant just this,--Burgoyne knew that he must drop his communications with Canada because he could not afford the guards necessary to keep them open. Already he had been weakened by the loss of more than fifteen hundred men, without counting the Indians who had so basely deserted him; St. Leger had failed him in his utmost need. On his left, the Americans were watching their chance to strike a blow in his rear. Burgoyne, therefore, felt that, from the moment he should put the Hudson between his army and its only way of retreat, all must be staked on the doubtful issue of battle. He decided to make the gambler's last throw.

Burgoyne himself has said that his orders left him no choice but to go on. It is evident he construed them to his own wishes. He still believed his six thousand excellent soldiers, with their superb artillery, would prove themselves more than a match for twice their own number of undisciplined yeomanry. He would not admit even the possibility of defeat. He felt confident of beating Gates with ease.

In choosing to fight, rather than retreat, Burgoyne, perhaps, acted from the impulse of a brave nature, rather than the promptings of his sober judgment, as he was bound to do; since he had known for some time that Sir William Howe had gone to Pennsylvania, without making any definite preparations to come to his assistance. Notwithstanding this assurance, that a most important part of the plan of campaign had failed, through no fault of his, Burgoyne seems to have put his trust in the chapter of accidents, rather than remain inactive until it was certain he would be supported from New York. Not one solitary circumstance, except faith in the valor of his troops, favored a further advance at this time. But his gallant little army was ready to follow him, the enemy was within striking distance, and so Burgoyne marched on, bemoaning his ill luck, but with the pluck characteristic of the man.

On the thirteenth, the British army crossed the Hudson, by a bridge of boats, to Saratoga. Burgoyne took with him provisions for five weeks, which were loaded in bateaux and floated down the river as he advanced. As yet he knew comparatively nothing of what preparations the Americans were making to receive him, and but little about the country he was in. But he did know that the patriot army had at last faced about, and that was enough to rouse the spirit of his soldiers to the highest pitch.

Illustration: BURGOYNE'S ORDER OF BATTLE. 19th September. Pen and ink sketch by a British officer. A The Line Formed. B, The Columns in March.
Illustration: BURGOYNE'S ORDER OF BATTLE. 19th September.
Pen and ink sketch by a British officer. A The Line Formed. B, The Columns in March.

 

On the fifteenth, the British Army began its march southward in three divisions. The only road had to be given up to the baggage and artillery. To protect it, the left, or German division, marched along the meadows, next to the river. The center, or British division, kept the heights above; while Frazer's corps moved at some distance, on the right of it, with Breyman's following just behind in support. Two divisions were therefore marching on the heights, and one underneath them.

What with the delays caused by broken bridges on the road, bridging the ravines on the heights, or forcing a way through thick woods, which it was necessary always to reconnoiter with care,--the royal army could get over but six miles in two days. Being then near the enemy, a halt was made to prepare for battle.

On this day, Burgoyne continued his march in the same order as before, with skirmishers thrown out well in advance of each column. The center, which he directed in person, would, in following the direction it was taking, very shortly find itself at Freeman's Farm.

On his part, Gates had sent out Morgan's rifle corps to feel the enemy, in order to learn what they were doing or intending to do. Morgan had advanced as far as our outpost at Freeman's house when the British skirmishers came out of the woods into the clearing. They were instantly fired upon and returned the fire. It was therefore here that the action of September 19 began.

Morgan's hot fire soon drove the enemy back to cover again, with loss. Our riflemen dashed into the woods after them, got into disorder, and, before they were aware, fell upon the supporting battalions, by whom they were defeated and scattered, in their turn. This division then advanced into the clearing, from which by this time the Americans had decamped. Burgoyne thus gained the ground about Freeman's house, whence his pickets were first attacked and driven in.

At this place, Burgoyne formed his line, facing towards the woods into which Morgan's men had retreated. He rightly judged the enemy to be there, though threats failed to extort any information from the prisoners he had taken. When Frazer told one of Morgan's captains he would hang him up to the nearest tree, unless he would point out the place where his comrades were posted, the man undauntedly replied, "You may, if you please."

Knowing that Gates could not be attacked on his right, Burgoyne meant to make the trial on the left. If that wing could be turned, Gates would have to retreat from his works or be driven into the river. This was all the simple plan of attack, but as yet, Burgoyne did not know where the American left was posted. The woods effectually masked the American position, and all was now quiet.

Burgoyne now prepared to go forward again. From what had just taken place, he supposed the troops now with him would strike the American line first. It was therefore arranged that when he became fully engaged, Frazer was to charge the American flank and crush it, making the center division his pivot. With his right, Burgoyne meant to turn the American left.

Burgoyne had with him four battalions of the line and four guns. He would have brought more guns if more could have been used with effect in the woods, as he greatly relied upon this arm. Frazer had twenty companies of grenadiers and light infantry, the 24th British regiment, Breyman's Germans, and all the Canadians, loyalists, and Indians now left with the army; he also had four pieces of artillery. About four thousand men were thus in readiness to engage. The left-wing was now in motion along the river road, under the heights, but was too far off to be of much use in reinforcing the right. It was, however, of service in preventing Gates from sending troops away from his right, to fight Burgoyne on the left.

Though Burgoyne did not know the American position, which thick woods everywhere masked from his view, he had disclosed his own very clearly to Morgan, who sent an urgent request for reinforcements.

Gates wished to receive the attack in his works, not make one himself. He, therefore, ordered only one or two battalions from his left to go to Morgan's assistance and withstood the entreaties of his officers to be allowed to meet the enemy in the open field.

At between two and three o'clock, as Burgoyne had just finished his dispositions for attacking, a heavy fire broke from the woods in Frazer's front. This came from Morgan and the troops sent to his support. Making no impression on Frazer, whose cannon held them in check, the assailants suddenly shifted their attack over to the left, where Burgoyne commanded in person. And thus it was that, instead of attacking, Burgoyne found himself assaulted; instead of turning Gates's left, his own was being assailed, with the purpose of separating the two wings of his army.

On finding a battle actually in progress, Gates reinforced the troops who were fighting against odds, with driblets of a regiment at a time. Instead of going on the field himself, or letting Arnold go,[46], he pretended to believe that his own right was the real object of attack, and kept in his quarters. This day's battle was therefore fought wholly by his subordinates, against the British general-in-chief, seconded by his ablest lieutenants.

Having found the enemy's left, the Americans chiefly turned their attention to that flank, as has just been said. The 62d British regiment was posted here with two guns. This flank was crushed, and its artillery silenced by a superior fire. Its defeat caused the whole British line to give way, leaving part of their artillery in our hands.

 

Illustration: FIRST BATTLE OF BEMIS' HEIGHTS. Pen and ink sketch by a British officer. A,  Americans Attacking. B, British Positions.
Illustration: FIRST BATTLE OF BEMIS' HEIGHTS.
Pen and ink sketch by a British officer. A,  Americans Attacking. B, British Positions.

 

So far the battle had gone in our favor. Any demonstration from our right, upon the enemy's left, would, unquestionably, have rendered the victory complete. As nothing of the kind was attempted, the British were able to bring up reinforcements from that wing, without opposition, and the golden opportunity was lost.

From the river road, Riedesel, by making a roundabout march, brought two of his regiments into action. Phillips hurried with four guns taken from the reserve artillery to the front. Frazer turned part of his force upon the American flank, thus relieving Burgoyne from the pressure laid upon him, and enabling him to form a second line. When this was done, the whole British force advanced again as far as their first position, while the Americans, for want of fresh troops to meet them, were compelled to fall back under cover of the woods again. The combat had now lasted four hours. Darkness put an end to it, nearly on the spot where it had begun. The British were indeed masters of the field; but instead of attacking, they had always been attacked, and instead of advancing, they had been everywhere stopped; their artillery alone had saved them from defeat. Our army lost three hundred and nineteen killed and wounded; the British, more than five hundred,--the difference being due to superior marksmanship. Our losses could easily be made good; the British could not. All the real advantages, therefore, were clearly on the side of the Americans.

FOOTNOTES:

[45] BATTLE OF BEMIS' HEIGHTS. Bemis' Heights formed part of the American position, but not of the battleground. Freeman's Farm would have been a more accurate designation. Stillwater locates it anywhere within a township of many miles in extent.

[46] ARNOLD'S PART in this battle has been long a matter of dispute. Gates was jealous of him because he was the idol of his soldiers. Arnold had no high opinion of Gates. After Arnold turned traitor, everyone seems to have thought it a duty to give him a kick. This feeling is unfortunately conspicuous in the only detailed account from the American side we have of this battle, which was written by Wilkinson, Gates's adjutant-general, and given to the world nearly forty years (1816) afterward. Wilkinson seems to have fully shared his commander's likes and dislikes and has treated Arnold shabbily. The battle was almost wholly fought by Arnold's division, and it is equally incompatible with his duty and temper to suppose he would have remained in camp when his troops were engaged, though he was probably held back until a late hour in the day.