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The British Campaign of 1777

The failed British Campaign of 1777 was the turning point in America's war for Independance. The year 1776 was a near disaster for the Americans. In battle after battle, General Howe defeated Washington's army, chased them from Long Island, Manhattan, White Plains, Forts Washington and Lee and finally from New Jersey. Washington was able to stave off a total disaster by crossing the Delaware River on Christmas 1776 and surprising and defeating the Hessians based in Trenton. After making a hasty retreat back to Pennsylvania, Washington regrouped, again crossed the Delaware and defeated the advancing vengence minded British at Princeton. This saved the American army and its cause. It also caused quite a stir in London. The campaign of 1777 was to put an end to the rebellion once and for all.

As General John Burgoyne planned it (approved by both Lord Germaine and King George III), an army of 8,000 British/Germans plus 1,000 Indians and 2,000 Canadians would head south out of Canada. This army would take Fort Ticonderoga and use the fort for future operations (leaving 3,000 of the army there). The future operations was mainly a move by this army from the north to Albany to link up with an army from the south. This would essentially cut off New England from the rest of the colonies and put hasten the collapse of the rebel army. While these 2 armies were approaching each other a diversionary force would march from Oswego towards Albany to join the 2 armies there. General Burgoyne left London on March 27, 1777 for Plymouth (England) finally setting foot on Canadian soil on May 6, 1777. On July 1st, the army pushed south out of Crown Point, heading for Fort Ticonderoga. On July 6th the British took the fort, essentially not firing a shot -- the Americans had abandoned the fort the night before. The British, under General Simon Fraser chased the Americans catching up with the rear guard at Hubbardton under Colonel Seth Warner. The Americans attacked the British but were surprised by a supporting army under Baron von Riedesel. The Germans and British routed the Americans who suffered nearly 50% casualties.

After the battle at Hubbardton, the British plan had its first little side-step. Burgoyne, thinking that the American army was hopelessly scattered was talked into building a road to move his army from Skenesboro to the Hudson River. The army finally broke out of the woods on July 29th. The second unravelling came on August 3rd when word reached Burgoyne that the southern army he was supposed to meet at Albany had decided to move to Phildelphia, by boat rather than head north to support the northern army.

The diversionary force to the west was led by Colonel Barry St. Ledger. This force headed west along the St. Lawrence River into Lake Ontario and then south east along the Oswego River into New York state. St. Leger's army consisted of 500 British and German troops, 500 Tories and about 1,000 Indians under the Mohawk chief Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea). This force closed in on Fort Stanwix under Colonel Peter Gansevoort. The defenders had a garrison of about 750 men. In early August a column of 800 militia under General Herkimer came to support Stanwix out of the Tryon County in the Mohawk Valley. On August 6th, on the way to Fort Stanwix, the militia were ambushed at Oriskany by Joseph Brant's Mohawks. After a tremendously bloody battle on both sides, the militia retreated back to Tryon County. [The setting for the 1939 movie Drums Along the Mohawk covered some of this battle.]

While the Indians were fighting the militia at Oriskany, the American garrison at Fort Stanwix raided the indian camp, stealing almost all of their supplies. The Indians began to desert the British in great numbers, completely pulling out. Having beaten back the relief column, St. Leger turned his attention back on Stanwix. Major General Bendict Arnold was heading towards the fort to help the Americans. Arnold led 1,000 Continentals and militia -- although it was rumored that this number was closer to 3,500. Upon hearing the rumored numbers under Arnold, the Tories and remaining Indians began to panic. On August 23rd, St. Leger broke camp and retreated back towards Oswego. This was a huge blow to Burgoyne's plan, cancelling the western pincer in his plan to take Albany. Now came another blow, quite possibly the final straw in the Campaign of 1777. The Germans under Coloneel Friedrich Baum headed into Vermont to do 2 things -- get supplies to feed the horses and to cut off any Colonials coming towards Albany to help the army there.

Once the Germans got near Bennington, Baum called for reinforcements. Colonel Breymann was coming to his aid. Breymann caught up to Baum on the road to Bennington. On the afternoon of August 16th, Breymann saw groups of armed civilians, mistaking them for Tories. These civilians were actually an army from New Hampshire under General John Stark [who was actually retired at the time]. Breymann ran out of ammunition, lost all of his artillery and horses and was wounded -- he ordered a retreat. While this was going on, only a mile away in Bennington, the Germans under Colonel Baum were virutally wiped out, only 9 survivors reached their base. Word reached Burgoyne of the disaster at Bennington (nearly 800 men lost) and St. Leger's failure at Stanwix at about the same time.

During the early part of the campaign, the Americans were commanded by General Schuyler. On August 19th, General Horatio Gates arrived to take command of the Americans. Gates would be commanding the 6,000 troops plus 2,000 troops under Lincoln in Vermont, 1,200 troops under General Arnold returning from Stanwix plus the addition of 300-400 riflemen under Colonel Daniel Morgan. General Gates's strategy was to sit and wait for the British and Germans to reach him before fighting, but General Benedict Arnold insisted on taking the fight to the British in order to deny them the heights above Freeman's Farm.

Early on the morning of the 19th, the British heard the distant drums of the Americans. Burgoyne planned to have General Simon Fraser take his Corps to the west of Freeman's farm, Burgoyne to lead 4 regiments in the center and have von Riedesel's 3 Brunswick regiments advance along the river road. The 3 prongs of the attacking force were completely blind to each others movements. Early in the afternoon the battle began when American riflemen hiding in the woods shot every British officer in the group advancing in front of Fraser's men. After routing this advance corps, Morgan's men streamed out of the woods right into Fraser's full line who started to fire artillery into the riflemen. Gates essentially hid from the action well behind the lines, but ordered 900 men up to support Morgan. Arnold could not contain himself and rode up in front of the advancing Americans and rallied the Americans to several advances, each time pusing the British back. Throughout the day the 2 armies hit each other with determination, but both sides kept a considerable force well out of the action in reserve. At the end of the day, the British held the field, but lost 160 dead, 364 wounded and 42 missing. This ended the first battle of Saratoga at Freemen's Farm.

Gate's army dug into the heights around Freemen's Farm, called Bemis Heights after the first battle. From the time of the first battle, General Arnold and General Gates had a fued that eventually erupted into a heated argument. On September 22 Gates removed Morgan's corps from Arnold's command which caused Arnold to explode. This argument caused Arnold to ask permission to leave the army, but every officer (except Gates and General Lincoln) signed a petition asking Arnold to stay. Burgoyne was not sitting still, on October 8th he made a 'reconnaissance in force' with 1500 regulars and 600 other troops which would allow Burgoyne to withdraw his troops.

On the morning of October 7th, Burgoyne split his army into 3 lines about a mile from where the Americans were camped. The British and Germans took all morning to get into position about 3/4 of a mile from the Americans when Gates sent Morgan off to 'begin the game'. As soon as the muskets and rifles began to fire, Arnold asked permission to go out to see what was happening. Gates allowed him to go, but when Arnold came back and asked for a strong force to meet the British, Gates told Arnold to leave the field. Gates did not listen to Arnold and sent out Learned's brigade along with Morgan and Dearborn. Gates had about 12,000 men available to him to throw at the 1,700 men under Burgoyne heading into the battle. After his argument with Gates, Arnold was in his quarters listening to the battle growing. Arnold finally left his cabin, found a horse and headed towards the fighting. Arnold scooped up 3 regiments and attacked the German troops ahead of him. The battle continued and was nearly a stalemate. Arnold had a killer instinct that could not be held back, he picked up pieces of 2 regiments and attacked an abatis held by the British 24th regiment but was repelled. Arnold was all over the field spurring men into different lines of attack, eventually overrunning the redoubt.

The British had lost 184 killed, 264 wounded and 183 prisoners, the Germans lost 94 dead, 67 wounded and 102 captured -- a total of 894 out of a reconnaissance force of 1700 men. The British began to assemble for a retreat, but it took too long. Over the next several days, the rebel forces continued to grow, Germans and British were deserting, sometimes in full units. Finally, on October 13th the British decided to surrender and reached agreement with Gates on the 16th. The aftermath of this battle was simple -- the Americans won the war. The grand plan of the British to cut the colonies in half was foiled. The French upon hearing of the victory signed an alliance with the Americans. The American army survived another year after a year of horrible defeats in 1776 and the miracle victories by George Washington's men at Trenton and Princeton.

See Also:

Fort Ticonderoga II
Fort Stanwix
Freeman's Farm (Saratoga I)
Bemis Heights (Saratoga II)
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