Saratoga’s faint echoes
Revisiting the battle that secured independence
By Rick Holmes
June 30, 2017
Stillwater, NY - We celebrate the American Revolution every year at this time with speeches, ceremonies, barbecues and fireworks – well, with barbecues and fireworks at least. It’s good that we do. The story of the nation’s founding has always brought Americans together, something sorely needed in this age of division.
One of the things that makes America special is that we date our nation’s birth not from a military victory, but from a declaration of ideals. Our war for independence began more than a year before July 4, 1776, and didn’t officially end until seven years later. But the moment that mattered was when 13 colonies declared themselves to be a single, new nation. The document they ratified, with its radical pronouncement of individual freedom and equality, became a model for democratic aspirations around the world.
Still, if the Americans hadn’t won Revolutionary War, the Declaration of Independence would have been a dead letter. But we don’t tell much of the story of that war, outside of high school U.S. history courses.
The battles of April 1775, when the shooting first began, are retold, especially in New England. The battle of Yorktown, which ended the war, is remembered, especially in Virginia. There, Washington’s Continental Army cornered the British, and Gen. Cornwallis surrendered.
In between, the details of how we won the Revolutionary War are, for most people, a bit of a blur, crowded out of popular memory by the many wars that followed. That’s especially true of the events that unfolded here in the Hudson River Valley in 1777. Here, for the first time, a lightly-trained army of Americans forced a general of the most powerful military on earth to surrender.
Even Hamilton, the best U.S. history lesson ever produced on Broadway, shortchanges the battles of Saratoga. In 1777, Alexander Hamilton was with Washington, retreating across New Jersey amid a series of defeats, giving up Philadelphia and hunkering down for a bitter winter in Valley Forge. Broadway musicals and popular history follow their star players.
Philip Schuyler plays a bit part in the musical, as the father of Alexander Hamilton’s wife and a U.S. senator defeated by Hamilton’s rival, Aaron Burr. But he played a larger role in 1777, when the British attempted to end the American rebellion by cutting the colonies in two.
British Gen. John Burgoyne led a seasoned army of British and German troops south from Montreal down Lake Champlain and the Hudson River, intent on reaching British-occupied New York, which would cut New England off from the other colonies. He had success at first, taking Fort Ticonderoga back from the Americans. That was a defeat for Schuyler, who was relieved of his command by Congress. But even in retreat, Schuyler’s men harassed the British, slowing them down, and giving the Americans more time to strengthen their forces.
The British made some mistakes. Burgoyne expected reinforcements from the west and from Gen. Howe’s troops in New York, but they never arrived. He sent a detachment to Bennington – now part of Vermont – to secure supplies, raid an ammunition depot he thought poorly-guarded, and to recruit American loyalists to join his troops.
Burgoyne misjudged the determination of the colonists to make the Declaration of Independence stick. In six days after the defeat at Ticonderoga, Gen. John Stark recruited 1,500 men into the New Hampshire militia – 10 percent of New Hampshire’s male population over 16 – for the defense of Bennington.
This was an age of close combat, when personal courage and inspirational leadership could be the critical factors on the field of battle. “There they are, boys!” Stark shouted. “We beat them today, or Molly Stark sleeps a widow tonight.”
The British defeat at Bennington – more than 200 killed and 700 captured - was followed by a greater one at Saratoga, where the Americans, now led by Gen. Horatio Gates, out-flanked and out-fought Burgoyne’s troops. There was friction at the top, with Gates demoting one of his top commanders, Gen. Benedict Arnold. But at a critical moment in the fighting, with the American line faltering, Arnold rallied the troops and led the charge, sustaining a leg injury, but turning the tide. Three years later, Arnold betrayed his country, but that day he was a hero.
Burgoyne retreated and soon surrendered, presenting his sword to Gen. Gates. The victory at Saratoga cheered the Americans at a dark moment. More significantly, it convinced the French government, and later the Spanish, to side with the Americans. It was Lafayette’s troops, and the French navy, that made Washington’s victory at Yorktown possible.
So long ago, so little remembered. In an age when cruise missiles and armed drones handle the close combat, the idea of officers putting their own lives on the line seems almost quaint.
But one lesson from Saratoga echoes on modern battlefields from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Iraq: People defending their own land and a set of cherished ideals bring a commitment to the fight that professional soldiers from the other side of the world lack.
As we celebrate our nation’s independence, we must always remember those who have been willing to die for it, wherever they were called to battle.