At Bemis Heights, a site overlooking the Hudson River in New York, and commanding the narrow road that followed the river, General Horatio Gates set up his fortifications with the help and suggestions of engineering officer Tadeusz Kosciuszko as well as General Benedict Arnold. The American artillery was aimed at the road affording the approaching British Army, under General John "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne, the option of making their way up the confining bluffs and working their way through the dense forest, or retreating to Canada.
Gates' forces outnumbered those of Burgoyne and were being reinforced steadily from the surrounding areas. Burgoyne would receive no reinforcements. Gates was close to his supply base in Albany, while Burgoyne's supply line to Canada was cut off. And Winter was approaching - the harsh winter of the American wilderness. Burgoyne, confident in the virtues of his Army and himself, continued on his march south, intent on joining up with another British Army at Albany, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Barry St. Leger. But Leger had been defeated by General Arnold at the Seige of Fort Stanwix.
Now Benedict Arnold commanded the left, northern, flank of the American force that waited behind the fortifications on Bemis Heights.
The early morning of September 19th was cold and foggy. As the morning mist lifted, scouts brought word to Gates that Burgoyne was moving forward toward the American works in three columns. General Fraser's column of elite British and Brunswick soldiers was moving to the west to outflank the American works. General Hamilton's column of four British regiments supported Fraser but marched toward the center of the American works. General Riedesel's Brunswick column was to advance along the river road and pin down Gate's right flank. Burgoyne appeared to have been hoping to either outflank the American works (as Gates' scouts and local guides had warned him) or draw the Americans into battle in the open where he felt his regulars could beat them.
"On the 19th, just when advice was received that the enemy were approaching," wrote Arnold to Gates on September 22, "I took the liberty to give you as my opinion that we ought to march out and attack them, you desired me to send Colonel Morgan and the Light Infantry, and support them, I obeyed your orders, and before the action was over I found it necessary to send out the whole of my division to support the attack no other troops were engaged that day except Colonel Marshall's regiment of General Patterson's brigade ."
Morgan's brigade advanced along a wide front searching for the enemy. Strung out in a extended skirmish line, Dearborn's Light Infantry held the left while the rifles, slightly ahead held of them held the right. First blood went to the rifles, about noon, when they ran into Hamilton's advanced piquette led by Major Forbes near Freeman's farm. Although they routed Forbes' command, the rifles then ran into Hamilton's deployed brigade. At the same time, Fraser detached two companies of the 24th regiment that hit them in the flank which scattered the riflemen. Also, Dearborn's Light Infantry had engaged the Canadian volunteers and Captain Fraser's British Marksmen company.
To support the light troops the Americans then committed the remainder of Poor's brigade. But they were sent out in a piecemeal fashion. The 1st New Hampshire regiment blundered forward into the gap between the rifles and the light infantry. Lt. Blake of that regiment wrote about the initial fighting,
"about 12 o'clock the First New Hampshire regiment marched out to meet the enemy. We met them about one mile from our encampment, where the engagement began very closely and continued about 20 minutes, in which time we lost so many men, and received no reinforcements, that we were obliged to retreat, but before we got to the encampment we met two regiments (2nd and 3rd New Hampshire regiments) coming out as a reinforcement, when we returned and renewed the attack which continued very warm until dark..."
By three o'clock, both the 2nd and 3rd New York regiments had also arrived on the field. Further reinforcements were sent out later in the afternoon as the fighting grew. While the majority of the American forces engaged the British center column under Hamilton and Burgoyne, Dearborn and Lattermore's militia regiment skirmished against Fraser's troops.
For the remainder of the afternoon, the American right pounded Hamilton's brigade in a back and forth battle around the farm. Isolated by ravines, hills and woods, Fraser guarded Hamilton's right flank and skirmished against the remaining Americans closer to him. Fraser did send reinforcements to Hamilton during the day (i.e. Brunswick Jagers, Chasseurs and possibly some companies of Light Infantry) (24). No orders appear to have come from Burgoyne, who stayed with Hamilton and occupied himself rallying stray fugitives from the fight. In addition to the Brigades of Poor and Learned, an additional reinforcement also reached the battle line. Major William Hull, of the 8th Massachusetts regiment was doing duty with the piquetts in front of the American encampment. Hull is usually remembered today as the elderly commander who surrendered Detroit to the British in 1812. Completely forgotten is the first class service he gave as a young combat officer during the Revolution.
According to Hull's memoirs:
"...General Arnold rode to the ground which was occupied by the guard of Major Hull. He called the officers around him, and inquired what number of men was at that post. He was informed that it consisted of the guard of two hundred and fifty men, and two regiments. General Arnold then said, that three hundred volunteers, to be commanded by a field officer, must immediately reinforce the troops which were engaged....As none of the field officers offered their services, Major Hull observed to him, that he commanded the guard on that day... but if he could be excused from duty, he would be happy to command the detachment. General Arnold replied, that he would excuse him, and directed the colonels of the two regiments to call for three hundred volunteers and a suitable number of captains and subalterns to command them. In a few moments, the number required was paraded and formed into four companies, with officers assigned to them. We at once commenced our march to the center of the engagement. Major Hull was directed to receive his orders from General Poor of the New Hampshire, who commanded the troops then closely engaged with the enemy."
As darkness descended on the battlefield, Hamilton's brigade of four British regiments appeared to be almost overwhelmed by the superior American numbers. General Reidesel, commanding the Brunswick troops on the left flank detached part of his force that now arrived to take the Americans in the flank. In addition, Fraser's grenadiers had stopped Learned's brigade (who were committed very late in the day) before they could deploy into action (26). Both sides had had enough by now and disengaged. Although Burgoyne claimed a victory, his forces had suffered twice the losses the Americans had. And Gates' army still barred the way towards Albany.
We have grown used to reading and hearing about just how weak-willed the rebellious Americans were in battle, despite such stern defenses as Bunker Hill and Cowpens. So when would the Americans turn a possible victory into another defeat? Would Gates pull away and let the British under Burgoyne go their merry, albeit bloodied, way? No. There was steel in those men, there at the Hudson River. Read on.
At the end of the day Burgoyne held the field while the Americans returned to their lines. As to who was the victor the casualty count tells it all. Burgoyne's losses, killed and wounded at six hundred and twenty, were double the three hundred inflicted on the Americans.
Burgoyne was "victorious" but trapped. On September 18th, one day before Freeman's Farm, John Brown, a Continental Colonel, and five hundred soldiers successfully attacked and captured a British outpost at the foot of Lake George. This forcedestroyed two hundred boats, captured three hundred British soldiers, and freed one hundred American prisoners. The limb Burgoyne had climbed out on was now totally severed.
On October 6th, Burgoyne made a decision. The lateness of the season, the lack of food for his army already on half rations with only three weeks of supply remaining left him little choice. Either he would reach Albany or if that were not possible he would begin an attempt to return to Canada on October 11th. Led by his most able commanders fifteen hundred men selected from his army began a reconnaissance in an effort to find a way around the American force.
Morgan's' riflemen and three thousand New York Regulars immediately challenged the British. The British advance was stopped their line broken and most of their artillery lost. They attempted to form a second line when Arnold, an observer without a command, ignored Gates orders, and atop a large black horse charged into the fray to lead three regiments of his old command in an assault. One of many he would lead that day.
Arnold and Morgan were the fire and sword of the American effort at the second battle of Saratoga. On the British side there was only one. Their catalyst was General Simon Fraser, a truly outstanding officer and man. It was General Fraser who rallied the British forces and who was bringing order out of chaos when Arnold spotted his actions. Arnold told Morgan that Fraser had to be eliminated. Morgan called his men together and gave orders to a file of his best marksmen: "That gallant officer is General Fraser. I admire and honor him, but it is necessary that he should die; victory for the enemy depends on him. Take your stations in that clump of bushes, and do your duty."
Timothy Murphy one of Morgan's sharpshooters mortally wounded Fraser a few minutes later. If the loss of General Fraser was not enough three thousand fresh New York Militia appeared on the field at which the ensuing British retreat became a general rout. Arnold followed up the British retreat by first leading an assault on the British Balcarres redoubt. In this he was unsuccessful, it being too heavily defended. Then he spied another opportunity and led a successful coordinated attack on the nearby Breymann's redoubt. According to contemporaneous accounts Arnold in the lead, still mounted on the black charger, leapt the wall followed by his men who breached the gate. Here he was shot in the leg below the knee, the bullet passed into his horse which collapsed and broke his leg. Arnold's last official battlefield command was that his men should spare the German who fired the shot.
It was all over for Burgoyne and his army. He had no choice but to surrender on October 16th. Arnold's capture of the Breymann's redoubt had left all remaining strong points indefensible. Burgoyne attempted a retreat and failed.
On November 1st, a fast sailing ship left Boston Harbor for France with the news of Burgoyne's surrender. By December 4th, Benjamin Franklin had received the dispatch and by December 6th, the King of France Louis XVI approved an alliance with America. Within sixty six days America as a result of that one victory at Saratoga gained by Arnold had won the sponsorship of the French Government -- the only country capable of challenging Britain.
In February 1778 France actively entered the war. As a result it was the French Navy, which finally helped end the war when it foiled the British Navy's attempt to support Cornwallis who was under siege by American and French troops. Cornwallis was forced to surrender in the last action of the American Revolution and it was all brought about by Arnold's victory at Saratoga.
This tremendous victory of the American forces over the British spelled doom for the British cause in America. The bravery of the fighting men involved was tremendous, and Benedict Arnold is credited with a large share of the laurels. But Arnold was not satisfied with the applause that came his way - it was not enough, as it had never been. A year and a half later he would sell his services to the British and become a byword for traitor.
An American officer captured by Arnold in Connecticut was asked by Arnold, "What would be my fate if I should be taken prisoner by the Americans?"
The officer replied, "They will cut off that leg of yours wounded at Quebec and Saratoga and bury it with all the honors of war. Then they will hang the rest of you on a gallows!"
As William Shakespeare said, "The evil that men do lives after them, The good is oft' interned with their bones."
So it is with Benedict Arnold. But the Battles of Saratoga, begun on the 19th of September in 1777, were among his finest moments and helped the fledgling Nation in its birth.
Information for this post gleaned from Mark Nichipor at "Benedict Arnold and The Battle of Saratoga", as well as J. Michael Flynn at "Cry Havoc! Magazine: Benedict Arnold: The Traitor Who Saved America". Please visit "Archiving Early America" for so much more information on this Nation's birth and early days.