Battle of Saratoga — Turning Point of the Revolutionary War

During the summer of 1776, a powerful army under British General Sir William Howe (1729-1815) invaded and took control of the New York City area. As 1776 drew to a close, America’s chances of a successful revolution seemed remote. Washington’s successes at the battles of Trenton and Princeton kept hopes alive, but the British held the greater New York area, Newport, Rhode Island and Canada. Plus the Royal Navy patrolled the eastern seaboard, which meant the British could launch an invasion anywhere on the coast.

In 1777, in hopes of crushing the rebellion before any of the European nations could be drawn in to the conflict, the British concocted a plan to isolate New England from the Southern colonies. Major General John Burgoyne (1722-1792), known as “Gentleman Johnny” because of his dress and manners, planned an advance of three columns to meet in Albany, New York. He led the main army, 3,300 red-coated British regulars, 3,900 blue-coated Hessians (German mercenaries) from Brunswick, and 650 Canadians, Tories, and Indians, which moved southward along the Hudson River through the Lake Champlain valley. A second column under General Barry St. Leger (1733-1789) was to serve as a diversion, moving eastward from Canada along the Mohawk River. The third element was commanded by General Howe, and it was to move northward along the Hudson River and link up with Burgoyne in Albany. The idea was that with the British controlling both ends of the Hudson River, they could cut off north-south shipping.

However, Howe decided instead to strike at American morale by launching a strategically irrelevant assault on Philadelphia, which was then America’s capital. Because he chose to approach the city by sailing the army to Chesapeake Bay rather than marching overland across New Jersey, he made his army totally unable to come to Burgoyne’s aid. On July 23, 1777, Howe and his army set sail and did not return to the mainland until August 25. Howe succeeded in taking Philadelphia, and winning victories at Brandywine on Sept. 11, and Germantown on October 4, but the Continental Congress simply retreated to York, Pennsylvania, and evaded capture. Because of the slow and difficult communications of the period, Burgoyne did not hear of this change in Howe’s plans for several weeks; by then it was too late.

Although Burgoyne’s army had some initial success with the capture of Fort Ticonderoga (near the south end of Lake Champlain,) the rugged terrain soon slowed the British advance into an agonizing crawl. Worse for the British, a major column en route to seek supplies in Vermont was defeated at the Battle of Bennington, costing Burgoyne almost 1000 men. Compounding Burgoyne’s misfortune was his contingent of Mohawks decided to quit, after the second British column was stalled by the Americans at Fort Stanwix (now Rome, NY.) Although his plans were unraveling, Burgoyne refused to change his mission and collected enough supplies for a dash to Albany.

British delays and defeats had bought the “rebels” enough time to re-organize and reinforce their army. Under new commander, General Horatio Gates (1727-1806,) the American army established itself at a defensive position along the Hudson River called the Bemis Heights (about 20mi NE of Schenectady.) With fortifications on the flood plain and cannon on the heights, the position dominated all movement through the river valley. Burgoyne’s army was entirely dependent upon the river to haul their supplies, and the American defenses had now made it a dangerous obstacle.

saratogaBurgoyne attempted to move part of his army inland to avoid the danger posed by the American fortifications. On September 19th 1777, his columns collided with part of General Gates’ army near the Bemis Heights. During the long afternoon, the British were raked with American gunfire, but managed to hold until the arrival of Hessian reinforcements turned the tide for Burgoyne’s forces. Gates’ army was driven from the battlefield, however, the British had suffered heavy casualties, and the Americans still blocked his move south to Albany.

Burgoyne elected to hold what ground he had and fortify his encampment, hoping for assistance from the City of New York. On October 7th, with supplies running dangerously low and options running out, he attempted another flanking move, which was quickly spotted by the Rebels. Through the fierce fighting the British and their allies were routed and driven back to their fortifications. At dusk, the Americans overran a position being held by Hessian troops, and Burgoyne had to withdraw to his inner works near the river . The following day, he tried to withdraw northward toward safety. Hampered by bad roads made worse by frigid downpours, the British retreat made only eight miles in two days to a small hamlet called Saratoga. Gates’ army followed and surrounded Burgoyne and his army. With no other option Burgoyne surrendered on 17 October 1777.

At the time, Burgoyne was widely blamed for the defeat, however, historians have since shifted responsibility for the disaster at Saratoga to Lord Germain, the Secretary of State for the Colonies. Germain had overseen the overall strategy for the campaign and had significantly neglected to order General Howe to support Burgoyne’s invasion, instead leaving him to believe that he was free to launch his own attack on Philadelphia.

It was The Battle of Saratoga which ultimately brought France into the war on the side of the Americans. Britain’s success in the Seven Years War (1756-1763) had allowed them to eclipse France as the leading colonial power, and after the American win at Saratoga France saw a good opportunity for revenge, They signed an alliance with the Americans in 1778, and sent an army and navy that turned the American Revolution into a world war. Spain, and the Dutch Republic also joined the war on the French side.

The war was to go on for five more years, however, British plans to isolate the north from the south never materialized, and, ultimately, the war ended in 1782 with the surrender of Gen. Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown.

The Iroquois

Although its tempting for some to regard The Iroquois as a separate homogenous tribe, it was actually a confederation of five Indian nations which united under The Great Binding Law. Recent archaeological studies seem to confirm the accuracy of oral tradition, which suggests that the confederation was formed around August 31, 1142 based on a coinciding solar eclipse (The Tuscaroras joined in 1720.) The five tribes covered most of New York State. They were the Seneca, the Mohawk, the Oneida, the Onandaga, and the Cayuga.

Iroquois_6_Nations_map_c1720 Around 1677, the Iroquois formed an alliance with the English to unite in battle against the French, who were allied with the Huron, a historic enemy of the Iroquois. And. during the French and Indian War, the Iroquois again fought with the British against the French and their Algonquin allies, both traditional enemies of the Iroquois.

The American Revolution split the confederation apart, with the Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca fighting with the British, and the Oneida and Tuscarora on the side of the Americans. At a number of battles, the tribes ended up fighting each other. This eventually tore apart the confederation, and after the war ended, most of the Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, and Tuscarora stayed in New York, while the Mohawk and Cayuga settled in Ontario.

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