27: Driving to Saratoga National Historical Park: Costly Battles

The Rebels were able to entrench their position on the Hudson River in Stillwater, giving them a tactical advantage.

Listen to the Turning Point Trail Site 27 Audio Narration:

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On September 19, 1777, Burgoyne split up his 7,500-man army into three columns to attack the Rebel’s entrenched position. One column of British troops would move west about two miles and begin to move south. A second column of British troops moved about a mile west before moving south. The third column, made of German troops, traveled along the river road and defended British supplies, which were being sent by water.

About noon on September 19, scouts from the center column encountered Colonel Daniel Morgan’s American light infantry and riflemen at the farm of John Freeman, a Loyalist who had gone north to Fort Edward to meet up with Burgoyne’s army. Thus began the fighting, which grew very fierce, as the battle swayed back and forth, each side taking and retaking the field. As evening drew closer, Burgoyne ordered about 500 German soldiers to move from the river and reinforce the British center column. When the Americans heard and saw them coming, they left the field and returned to their own lines. The British held the field but were unable to proceed. On September 22, Burgoyne got word from British General Henry Clinton, who was in charge of British-held New York City. Burgoyne expected assistance from the south, but Clinton had been left with only 3,000 men. British General William Howe was in Philadelphia, leading an assault against Rebel General George Washington. In a letter, Clinton informed Burgoyne that he would try to divert the enemy’s attention by attacking the forts on the lower Hudson River. Burgoyne ordered his troops to dig in and wait for Clinton’s help. By the first days of October, Clinton’s men had moved northward, capturing a few American forts, including Kingston. A small number got about 30 miles south of Albany. By October, however, George Washington was retreating from Philadelphia. Howe was worried that Washington might head to New York City, so he ordered Clinton back to protect New York City. Burgoyne was alone again. It was getting colder, Burgoyne’s supplies were dwindling—as was manpower. Some, feeling the end was near, were deserting. The now 6,800-man army had been on half-rations for the last two weeks, and winter wasn’t far away. On October 7, Burgoyne sent out a 1,500-man “reconnaissance-in-force” with several cannons to probe and bombard the Americans left. The group was delayed in the Barber wheat field, as some of the soldiers were tasked with harvesting the much-needed ripened wheat. Around mid-afternoon, the Americans, aware of the British movement, attacked. Their now 13,000-man Rebel army was able to push the British back. As the British withdrew, one of their beloved generals, Simon Fraser, was mortally wounded. British forces hastily fell back to one of their defensive positions, the Balcarres Redoubt. It was strong, well-defended, and able to deter the Americans. Several hundred yards north, the Breymann Redoubt was not as well suited to the defense. It was also defended by less than 200 German soldiers and officers—no match for the nearly 1,300 American soldiers attacking it. As some of the American troops began to circle around the left side of the Breymann Redoubt, American General Benedict Arnold arrived on the scene. Caught up in the flow of American soldiers, he rallied the men and was seriously wounded in the left leg. By nightfall, the Americans held the Breymann Redoubt. As it was at the far right of the British lines, they could then get behind the British. Yet they did not press the advantage, and the British fell back to their own river fortifications, the Great Redoubt. For the British, a dismal reality was sinking in.

Travel ToolsThere were two Battles of Saratoga: The Battle of Freeman’s Farm took place on September 19 and the Battle of Bemis Heights on October 7. Turn right off Route 4 and visit Saratoga National Historical Park Visitor’s Center and explore the tour road, where you will learn about both battles. Start Track 27 immediately after leaving the Saratoga Falls Pocket Park.

First-Hand Accounts

Lieutenant Digby describes the first battle.
We moved in 3 columns, ours to the right on the heights and farthest from the river in thick woods. A little after 12 our advanced piquets came up with Colonel Morgan and engaged, but from the great superiority of fire received from him 00 his numbers being much greater– they were obliged to fall back, every officer being either killed or wounded except one, when the line came up to their support and obliged Morgan in his turn to retreat with loss. About half past one, the fire seemed to slacked a little; but it was only to come on with double force, as between 2 and 3, the action became general on their side. From the situation of the ground, and their being perfectly acquainted with it, the whole of our troops could not be brought to engage together, which was a very material disadvantage, though everything possible was tried to remedy that inconvenience, but to no effect, such an explosion of fire I never had any idea of before, and the heavy artillery joining in concert like great peals of thunder, assisted by the echoes of the woods, almost deafened us with the noise.  To an unconcerned spectator, it must have had the most awful and glorious appearance, the different Battalions moving to relieve each other, some being pressed and almost broke by their superior numbers. This crash of cannon and musketry never ceased till darkness parted us, when they retired to their camp, leaving us masters of the field; but it was a dear bought victory if I can give it that name, as we lost many brave men. The 62nd had scarce 10 men a company left, and other regiments suffered much, and no very great advantage, honor excepted, was gained by the day. On its turning dusk we were near firing on a body of our Germans, mistaking their dark clothing for that of the enemy. General Burgoyne was every where and did everything that could be expected from a brave officer, and Brig Gen. Frazier gained great honor by exposing himself to every danger. During the night we remained in our ranks, and tho we heard the groans of our wounded and dying at a small distance, yet could not assist them till morning, not knowing the position of the enemy, and expecting the action would be renewed at day break. Sleep was a stranger to us, but we were all in good spirits and ready to obey with cheerfulness any orders the general might issue before morning dawn.

– Lieutenant William Digby, September 19, 1777

General Henry Clinton writes to Burgoyne from New York City:
You know my good will and are not ignorant of my poverty of troops. If you think 2000 men can assist you effectively, I will make a push at Fort Montgomery (just south of West Point) in about ten days. But ever jealous of my flanks if they make a move in force on either of them I must return to save this important post. I expect reinforcements every day. Let me know what you wish.

– General Henry Clinton to Burgoyne, received September 21, 1777

Lieutenant Digby describes the second battle:
A detachment of 1500 regular troops with two 12 pounders, two howitzers and six 6 pounders were ordered to move on a secret expedition and to be paraded at 10 o’clock, though I am told Major William (Artillery) objected much to the removal of the heavy guns; saying, once a 12 pounder is removed from the Park of artillery in America (meaning in the woods) it was gone. From some delay, the detachment did not move till near one o’clock, and moved from the right of our camp; soon after which, we grained an eminence within half a mile of their camp, where the troops took post; but they were sufficiently prepared for us, as a deserter from our Artillery went over to them that morning and informed them of our design. This I have since heard, and it has often surprised me how the fellow could be so very exact in his intelligence, as were I taken prisoner, I could not (had I ever so great a desire) have informed them so circumstantially.About 3 o’clock, our heavy guns began to play, but the wood around being thick, and their exact knowledge of our small force, caused them to advance in great numbers, pouring in a superiority of fire from Detachments ordered to hang upon our flanks, which they tried if possible to turn. We could not receive a reinforcement as our works, General Hospital Stores, provisions &c would be left defenseless, on which an order was given for us to retreat, but not before we lost many brave men.

– Lieutenant William Digby, October 8, 1777