Saturday, October 25, 2008

Decisive Battles: Saratoga 1777

Author's Note: One thing I couldn't help but wonder at as I was researching this article was a historical parallel between the North American campaigns of the late 18th Century and the southwest Asian campaigns of the early 21st.

The colonial Americans (beyond the cities) were a rude people, prone to violent action, turbulent and throughly armed. In the cities was a contentious, proud and stiff-necked bourgeousie that disliked and distrusted external rule (and much internal rule as well...). Great power fighting on the continent since the early years of the century - and for the outlying villagers constant tribal warfare with their aboriginal neighbors - had created an armed society that had martial tradition hammered deeply into the grain of American colonial life.

So between April 1775 and October 1777 - a span of roughly 30 months; two and a half years - the English-speaking residents of the North American continent hammered themselves an Army (with covert assistance from their enemy's Great Power foe) whose mix of regular infantry, local defense volunteers and frontier rregulars was capable of meeting - and defeating - what was then among the best infantry forces in the European world.Today we find ourselves in something of the position of the Bourbon government in 1781; we are sponsoring proxies - two proxies, in the case of the Iraqi Government and the Afghan Government - in war. Our enemies are not a world power, however, but a band of ragged irregular fanatics and Islamic neoconservatives. Poorly funded, badly trained, haphazardly armed, this enemy force hasn't the slightest hope of defeating us in open warfare anywhere in the world, including their own homelands.

Despite this, we find ourselves not, as the Count de Rochambau found himself in 1781, assisting and advising a vigorous and soon-to-be-victorious native polity whose forces were at least respected by their compatriots and their enemies alike and trusted by our own...but still struggling to field a reliable native proxy force whose failings are manifest and whose competence and discipline is questionable despite being formed from - at least in the case of Afghanistan - from some of the fightingest peoples on Earth.

How our colonial forebears were able to accomplish this phenomenal military success while our own efforts today in Asia bear such bitter fruit is a question that Saratoga raised in my mind that I am unable to put to rest; the contrast between the fighting in the Hudson Valley in 1777 and the Korengal Valley in 2008 is too powerful to give me much solace.

Why the descendants of the patriots and revolutionaries of 1777 have gone from being perhaps the most successful and gifted rebels in history to being the enablers of foreign petty tyrants, corrupt oligarchs and brutal "he's-an-SOB-but-he's-our-SOB" warlords is a question that bloody sacrifice of the heroic patriots should raise in our minds as well.


Saratoga September 19 – October 17, 1777

Forces Engaged:
American: September 17 - 23 battalions of the Continental Line (regulars), 2 battalions of New York militia, 3 enormous (250 man!) companies of Connecticut militia, a small battalion of cavalry, 22 guns. Roughly 7,000 troops in 6 brigades under MG Horatio Gates.

By October 7 add 20 battalions of New York and Massachussetts militia, 5,000 effectives; between 11,000 and 15,000 in all under Gates and MG Benedict Arnold.

British: 8 battalions (“regiments” in British usage) of British regulars, 4 battalions of Brunswick mercenary regulars, 1 battalion of Hesse-Hanau mercenary regulars. About 600 various auxiliaries including Loyalist Americans, Canadian irregulars, British-allied Mohawks, voyageurs and sailors. No cavalry, 29 guns. Beginning at roughly 6-7,000 in September rising to nearly 8,000 by October under GEN John Burgoyne.

The Situation: The American rebellion against Hanoverian Britain can’t be considered to have been in terrific shape in the spring of 1777. The initial patriot euphoria of the Massachussetts victories of Concord and Bunker Hill had been dispelled by the failure of the Canadian invasion scheme, the bitter defeats of on Long Island and at White Plains and the loss of New York City. Victories like Trenton and the good showing against the British rearguard at Princeton just proved that throwing out the British would be a long and difficult process. The professional army and navy, deeper purse and stronger logistical tail that belonged to the British Crown was intimidating, and independence must have seemed very far away.One key to Saratoga is to remember that, regardless of what anybody else thought, John Burgoyne thought of himself as a military genius.

It’s one thing when other people tell you you’re a military genius. When you’re the one telling yourself? Usually not a good sign.

So the initiative was with the British in the spring and summer of 1777. With the only navy in being they controlled the borders of their rebellious colonies (as well as controlling the only quick and efficient way of moving large bodies of formed troops). From their central position between Philadelphia and New York the British Army was in position to drive a wedge between the central and New England colonies, or between the central and southern colonies. The only question was: where to go, and how.

One somewhat less-than-unique difficulty facing the British was their chain-of-command. It was dysfunctional, to put it mildly. Lord George Germain,

the “Secretary of State for the American Department” was not an active government officer, and his three major generals in America were decidedly cool towards each other. Germain, who as their superior must bear the responsibility for their failures, did little to enforce their cooperation; he did not lead and from 3,000 miles distance could not drive. The American campaigns suffered for Germain’s lack of insistence.

At Saratoga Germain’s incapacity to enforce unity on his commanders set the disaster in train. For the British 1777 campaign was based on a fatal misconception, one that Germain could and should have rectified.

MG William Howe had delivered a plan of campaign to his superior in November 1776 detailing a strike up the Hudson to Albany followed by a coup de main on the rebel capital of Philadelphia; Howe revised this plan in February 1777 to omit the Albany maneuver – Howe felt that the rebel retreat into east central Pennsylvania made Philadelphia too tempting a target.

But MG Burgoyne also had a cunning plan, this one to strike south from Quebec down the Hudson, take Fort Ticonderoga (the key to the lock on the upper river) and then sweep down to Albany to meet Howe surging north from New York as a third force under COL St. Leger demonstrated in the Mohawk River valley to draw colonial attentions away from the main effort.

Germain could have approved one or the other. He could have devised a third plan incorporating elements of both. He could have asked for or devised an entirely different plan.

He did none of the above; instead, he did the worst thing he could have done: he approved Burgoyne’s plan without telling him that he had ALSO approved Howe’s plan. Howe would be nowhere near Albany when Burgoyne needed him. Neither British force could support the other – both risked defeat in detail if the Americans could take advantage of a central position and move their forces to achieve local superiority.

By the time Howe set off from England in May…long before his troops marched out of St. Johns in June…his plan was in ruins.

Burgoyne took three months to move from St. Johns to Saratoga. His initial moves were quite successful: Ticonderoga fell without the expected battle on July 6, and then pursued the retreating American forces under St Claire, defeating them at battles near Hubbardton, Fort Anne, and Skenesboro. Burgoyne, arriving in Saratoga about August 10th, should have and probably did feel fairly satisfied with his troops. What he didn’t know was that things were already going wrong.

First, the reinforcing column led by St. Leger had achieved nothing like the diversion it was supposed to have effected. While a column of New York militia was decimated at Bloody Creek in early August St. Leger had not managed to detour any substantial rebel forces. Benedict Arnold and 800 Continental line bluffed St. Leger, which withdrew in late August.

Meanwhile, a thousand man foraging detachment (a disorganized mess of dismounted Bruswick dragoons, loyalist Americans and Canadians and assorted native American tribesmen) had been destroyed at Bennington on August 16th. Literally not a man returned to Saratoga; over 700 captured, 200 KIAs, and the critical supplies the raid ws intended to secure not obtained.

And when Burgoyne finally moved south, across the Hudson, he found, not Howe, but MG Gates and Arnold strongly entrenched at Bemis Heights. Burgoyne’s campaign of maneuver was over: the battles of Saratoga had begun.

The Sources: Both Continental and British Army records, returns and dispatches contain a wealth of detail about the Saratoga campaign and the battles of Freeman’s Farm and Bemis Heights. Both the U.S. Army and the Royal Army have official histories that provide excellent discussions of Saratoga, the campaign and the geopolitical consequences. In addition, Saratoga has been recognized as a “decisive battle” nearly since its occurrence; it was discussed in Edward Creasy’s Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World from Marathon to Waterloo published in 1851, les than a century after the battle. I personally recommend Fortescue’s monumental History of the British Army. His Volume 3 contains a very comprehensive account and analysis of the entire Saratoga Campaign.

Perhaps the most personal, and certainly the most engaging, documentation of Saratoga is contained in the "Letters and Journals" of Frederika Charlotte Louise,

Baroness von Riedesel, who went into the bag with her husband in 1777 and was an involuntary guest of the revolutionaries until 1780.

Here’s the little Baroness on a bad day at Saratoga:
“The rain fell in torrents. . . . On the 9th, it rained terribly the whole day; nevertheless we kept ourselves ready to march. The savages had lost their courage, and they walked off in all directions. The least untoward event made them dispirited, especially when there was no opportunity for plunder.

My chamber-maid exclaimed the whole day against her fate, and seemed mad with despair. I begged her to be quiet, unless she wished to be taken for a savage. Upon this she became still more extravagant, and asked me, "If I should be sorry for it?" -- "Surely," replied I. -- She then tore her cap from her head, and let her hair fall upon her face. "You take it quite easily," said she, "for you have your husband; but we have nothing but the prospect of being killed, or of losing the little we possess. . . .”

The Engagement: What we think of as “The Battle of Saratoga” was, in fact, two engagements, one fought in mid September, the second in early October, with periods of waiting or maneuvering between.

The Battle of Freeman’s Farm (First Saratoga) was a meeting engagement fought September 19th. A British force of three brigades (Fraser’s and Hamilton’s British, Riedesel’s Bruswickers) attempted to flank the American position on Bemis Heights. MG Arnold, correctly anticipating the British maneuver, was prevented from moving to the left in force by his superior, MG Gates. He did manage to swing Morgan’s riflemen and two Continental brigades (Poor’s and Learned’s) over to meet the British. The engagement consisted of a series of advances and retreats until the British pushed the American troops back about a mile, holding the field. But the important outcome was Burgoyne’s inability to turn the Bemis Heights position, and the loss of 500-600 British troops. Burgoyne’s men dug in around Freeman’s Farm to wait for a better day.After almost three weeks, during which time Burgoyne held his position in hopes of relief (in the form of MG Clinton’s force at New York which did not sortie beyond the Palisades), the British attacked again over almost the same ground and again with Fraser’s and Riedesel’s brigades. MG Arnold, again, led and rallied Learned’s and Poor’s Continental brigades, Ten Broeck’s New York militia brigade, Morgan’s rifles and Dearborn’s lights.This Battle of Bemis Heights was indecisive but the British were falling back, the Breymann Regiment routed and their redoubt stormed, as both evening fell and Gates’ staff officer arrived to relive Arnold, who had been officially relieved with cause earlier in the month but rode to the guns when the British troops attacked. Any hope Burgoyne had of breaking though died with the light on October 7th.

And that was pretty much that. Burgoyne tried for several weeks to escape but the Americans had him bottled up on the lower Hudson, running our of food, powder and healthy bodies. Finally he agreed to a “convention” by which he surrendered without actually, you know, surrendering. Aside from Burgoyne and a handful of officers about 6,000 troops went into the bag at Saratoga. The Continental Congress, suspicious of the willingness of the North Administration to honor the Convention, refused to exchange them and instead consigned them to a set of fairly wretched camps and barracks where many died of disease and neglect.

GEN Burgoyne suffered in public and private society for his failure, only returning to public life after the fall of the wartime cabinet in the late 1780s. His plays, which include “The Maid of the Oaks” and “The Heiress” are considered well-crafted; it may be that as a general he was a competent playwright.

MG Gates went on to an undistinguished career that culminated in losing the Battle of Camden to the eventual loser at Yorktown.

MG Arnold’s story is well known.

His critical role and his heroism at Saratoga are undebatable, as is his later treason. For that reason his monument depicts not the man or the general but his leg, through which he was shot at Bemis Heights. In later days during his exile among the British a regimental wit claimed that were Arnold to be captured by the rebellion they would first cut off the leg that had shed blood in their cause and bury it with full military honors before hanging the rest of the man from the highest tree.

The Outcome: Strategic American Revolutionary forces victory with geopolitical implications.

The Impact: Militarily substantive; the British never seriously threatened New England or the north-central colonies again, instead shifting operations to the southern states where Loyal sentiment was reputed to be stronger. While the British Army was not seriously damaged – of the total losses in the Saratoga Campaign less than half were British troops – the impact on British strategic thinking was marked. The British never again tried any sophisticated maneuvering above the tactical scale. They had learned a hard lesson about the difficulty of campaigning in a wilderness at the end of a 3,000-mile-long supply line.

Geopolitically decisive; France, which had been sitting on the sidelines hoping to cock a snook at their old enemy, decided to intervene directly. French money, French troops, but most decisively, French warships, now threatened British strength not just in North America but globally. To gain back their American colonies only to lose, say, India, to the demmed Frogs just wasn’t worth the trade. The fight against the American rebels went from being an existential struggle to being an economy-of-force operation. While I find it unlikely that the British could have won outright in America they could have made the struggle much more difficult. French military power combined with American political determination resulted in a new nation.

Touchline Tattles: Hard to say which is the “best” human interest story from Saratoga. There’s the gruesomely appropriate for Halloween like the tragic death of Jane McRae.Hero stories like the stand of General Herkimer at Oriskany. The frontier tall-tale aspect of the death of Simon Fraser, shot down by a rifleman named Murphy from over 300 yards away.

The generals of Saratoga are almost all good stories. Arnold’s decline from the height of glory at the Breymann Redoubt began here to descend later into treason and shabby gentility in exile. Gates appears to my latter-day gaze as an almost Cheneyesque figure, scheming and plotting and running away to hide after the sky falls at Camden, an oleaginous little manikin of a politician of a general.

Burgoyne himself is almost too operatic and histrionic to seem real; he is the general with the snowy cravat and the superfine weskit; the pluperfect Georgian gentleman. Here is Bernard Shaw taking him on in “The Devil’s Disciple”:

BURGOYNE [coolly] I believe I am Gentlemanly Johnny, sir, at your service. My more intimate friends call me General Burgoyne. [Richard bows with perfect politeness]. You will understand, sir, I hope, since you seem to be a gentleman and a man of some spirit in
spite of your calling, that if we should have the misfortune to hang you, we shall do so as a mere matter of political necessity and military duty, without any personal ill-feeling.

RICHARD. Oh, quite so. That makes all the difference in the world, of course.

They all smile in spite of themselves; some of the younger officers burst out laughing.

JUDITH [her dread and horror deepening at every one of these jests and compliments] How can you ?

RICHARD. You promised to be silent.

BURGOYNE [to Judith with studied courtesy] Believe me. Madam, your husband is placing us under the greatest obligation by taking this very disagreeable business so thoroughly in the spirit of a gentleman. Sergeant : give Mr. Anderson a chair. [The sergeant does so. Richard sits down]. Now, Major Swindon: we are waiting for you.

SWINDON. You are aware, I presume, Mr. Anderson, of your obligations as a subject of His Majesty King George the Third.

RICHARD. I am aware, sir, that His Majesty King George the Third is about to hang me because I object to Lord North's robbing me.

SWINDON. That is a treasonable speech, sir.

RICHARD {briefly] Yes. I meant it to be.

BURGOYNE [strongly deprecating this line of defence but still polite] Dont you think, Mr Anderson, that this is rather — if you will excuse the word — a vulgar line to take? Why should you cry out robbery because of a stamp duty and a tea duty and so forth? After all, it is the essence of your position as a gentleman that you pay with a good grace.

RICHARD. It is not the money, General. But to be swindled by a pig-headed lunatic like King George —

SWINDON [scandalized] Chut, sir — silence!

SERGEANT [in stentoriau tones, greatly shocked] Silence !

BURGOYNE [unruffled] Ah, that is another point of view. My position does not allow of my going into that, except in private.
One rather gets the feeling that Burgoyne himself would have had something languid and witty to say about his portrayal by a latter-day playwright; more than a gentleman, if rather less than a Great Captain.

As always, it was left to his soldiers’ to suffer from the great misfortune that he did not see this then as clearly as Shaw did 150 years later, or we do today.

8 comments:

The Minstrel Boy said...

Why come ye hither redcoats?
Your minds what madness fills?
In our valleys there is danger
and there's danger in our hills.

Oh, hear ye not the singing
Of the bugle, wild and free?
Full soon ye'll know the ringing
Of the rifle from the tree.

For the rifle! (Yah! Hoorah!)
For the rifle! (Yah! Hoorah!)
In our hands will prove no trifle.

Had ye no graves at home
Across the briney water,
That thither ye must come
Like bullocks to the slaughter?
If we the work must do
Then sooner 'tis begun
If flint and lock will hold but true
The battle will be won.

For the rifle. . .

Ye ride a goodly steed
Ye know no other master.
Ye come forward with speed,
Ye'll be marching backward faster
When you meet our mountain boys
Their leader, Johnny Stark
Lads who make but little noise,
Lads who always hit their mark.

For the rifle. . .


The Rifleman's Song at Bennington

There was an American, who was hung in New York City because he was singing that song. Some British regulars, late of Burgoyne's command were walking along the street. They heard that song coming from a tavern. They entered, dragged the singer out into the street and hung him from a lamp post.

Look to Saratoga, and the Athenian disaster in Sicily for lessons that the U.S. has failed to heed.

mike said...

Another great post, Chief. I believe that the historical parallel also extends back to the mid 20th century in east Asia. It has been said that both Mao and Uncle Ho were avid students of the American Revolution.

To my feeble mind, the ones who turned the tide at Saratogaa were Colonel Morgan and his riflemen. Without them, Arnold's heroics would have been for nothing.

No less important was the fear and collapse of morale of many of the Brits and their Hessian and Brunswickian mercenaries which was brought on after General John Stark's victory at Bennington. The chambermaid of Baroness von Riedesel was not the only one in a panic.

Overall, I think you hit the nail on the head. The Brits defeated themselves with bickering, lack of communication, and splitting their forces. This was a classic case of a badly planned, ill-executed operation. They had bad intel and worse logistics. Burgoyne was counting on a ton of supplies and support from northern Vermont farmers who were supposed to be sympathetic to the crown. He got neither.

I like Richard Ketchum's book on Saratoga:

http://www.powells.com/biblio/17-9780805061239-0

It is a little light on maps but still a good account of the battle.

mike said...

I hit the "PUBLISH" button too soon. I should have added that we forget the lessons of our revolutionary birth aat our own peril.

FDChief said...

mike: I couldn't find Ketchum's book anywhere but you're right, it is a terrfic work.

Morgan and his riflemen remind us that for certain types of engagements - and wars - a skilled individual soldier, whether it's a long-range sniper, a close-in killer, a Farsi-speaking walker in the wild places, can be a force multiplier to several orders of magnitude. But these guys are hard to develop and sometimes even harder to control. Easier to just back off and call for fire support...

And I find the story of our revolution both inspiring and depressing. We have come far - and not always in a good way - from our rebellious youth.

pluto said...

An excellent post, Chief.

I'm particularly struck by the way that the Americans were able to take the obvious British flaw in critical thinking (starting the campaign in the first place) and turn it into such a major catastrophe using the "soft" power of diplomacy and setting an example for others to follow.

Cheney should have read this sort of stuff before he started us down the torture road.

Ael said...

Yes, many parallels between then and now.
Including the ethnic cleansing.

FDChief said...

ael: Good point - we tend to forget, in our celebrations of "America" that about a third of Americans in 1777 still thought of themselves as Britons, and the ratissage that went on both during and after the Revolution wasn't particularly pretty.

That said, I can't feel too much contrition. The most vicious wars are always civil, for the victor must ensure that there is no recourse for the vanquished; "none dare call it treason" and all that... The victorious revolutionaries didn't have much choice. It was no Terror of the Parisian variety but grievous enough for the Tories all the same.

Lisa said...

I was daunted by the piece's length, but enjoyed it, esp. your apt tie-in of the U.S. to the Bourbons.

Favorite word: "oleaginous". That word could be spread all 'round in today's administration. Excellent.