Burgoyne’s Failure at Saratoga

The following essay is by Justin Mugits of Hunter College, winner of third place in the 2006 Eighteenth-Century Reading Room Essay Contest. Congratulations to Justin!

Burgoyne’s Failure at Saratoga

The war for American Independence began with the Battle of Lexington and Concord in 1775. Initially the rebel forces encountered failure and defeat. The Battle of Saratoga was the turning point of the American Revolution. When General John Burgoyne surrendered to General Gates on October 17th, 1777, it became clear that the rebels could win their independence and the war would not end quickly, as the English high command had hoped. Burgoyne’s overconfidence and several key tactical errors, led a promising campaign to almost certain failure.

Several Factors led to Burgoyne’s Failure and subsequent surrender. First, inadequate supplies and troops put the British at a sever disadvantage. On top of that, Burgoyne critically underestimated both the American fighting capacity and their means of warfare. In addition Burgoyne had a poor understanding of the environment in which he was campaigning. Finally, a lack of communication between Burgoyne, General William Howe and Lord Germain would prove fatal to the campaign

Burgoyne’s strategy was to descend from Canada, move south along Lake Champlain and Lake George to the Hudson River then continue to Albany, where he intended to unite his forces with General Howe’s troops coming from the south and a smaller army led by Colonel St. Leger from the west. Hypothetically, this united British force would control the area from Montréal to the mouth of the Hudson and separate New England from the rest of the colonies, effectively crushing the rebellion.1 This plan seemed fairly simple and something similar had been suggested by Lord Carleton, the governor of Canada, as early as 1767.2 Burgoyne and Lord Germain, Secretary of State for the colonies, were confident that such a campaign would bring a quick end to the insurrection in the colonies.

Among the many problems that beset Burgoyne’s campaign, the most critical was a lack of support from Howe’s army. Howe moved south from the city of New York in an attempt to take Philadelphia. Had Howe moved his army north, along the Hudson, he would have been able to aid Burgoyne. It is doubtful the rebels would have stood in Burgoyne’s way if Howe had pressured them from the rear.

Why Howe moved south and failed to meet Burgoyne is shrouded in controversy. The correspondence between General Howe, General Burgoyne, Lord Carleton and Lord Germain suggests a general lack of communication. The inherent communication problems that arose due to physical distance were magnified by certain interpersonal quarrels and jealousies. The letters between Lord Germain and General Howe were often ambiguous at best. For example, Lord Germain failed to send a critical letter to Howe ordering him to co-operate with Burgoyne.3 Because of this lack of contact, Burgoyne was operating under the impression that Howe was acting in accordance with the orders from Germain.4 Furthermore Burgoyne blamed his inability to retreat on the fact that his orders were to support and meet Howe. He did not want to retreat for fear of abandoning Howe. As late as September 19th he was worried about “exposing” Clinton and Howe by not pressing forward.5 Burgoyne also argued that his orders had been overly inflexible. In his book, State of the Expedition From Canada as Laid Before the House of Commons, Burgoyne defended his actions before parliament. He cited the fact that he did not receive communications from Howe and “without latitude to change course nothing could be done.”6 In truth, Burgoyne seems to have misinterpreted his orders. Carleton was instructed to tell both Burgoyne and St. Leger that “Until they have received orders from Sir William Howe, it is His Majesty’s Pleasure that they Act as Exigencies may require.”7 This order was intended for Burgoyne after he reached Albany. It is difficult to discern how much of Burgoyne’s accusations are valid and to what degree he is attempting to deflect blame. Lord Germain was attempting to direct military operations in a war thousands of miles away. He could not comprehend the nature of the battles there.8 It cannot be ignored that Lord Germain failed to unite his generals into a concerted effort.9

Part of the reason Burgoyne insisted upon maintaining his course to Albany can probably be attributed to his own overconfidence. Burgoyne seems to have underestimated the rebels until his position was untenable. His confidence caused him to make several brash decisions. He separated his troops by sending almost one thousand of his soldiers to Bennington to gain supplies. This contingent was not supported well by the rest of Burgoyne’s army.10 Even after he lost almost one seventh of his force at the Battle of Bennington11 he maintained that he must advance.12 When Burgoyne easily took possession of Fort Ticonderoga his army was contemptible of the enemy whom they thought “incapable of standing a regular engagement”.13 Ticonderoga had been seen as the only significant barrier between Quebec and Albany. Burgoyne was convinced that the area he was advancing into was teaming with Tories waiting to join his army.14 In reality he faced the hostile scorch and burn retreat of General Schuyler. It has been speculated that Burgoyne wanted to continue south without Howe’s assistance because he was intent upon the glory of the campaign. At the same time it is possible that Howe neglected to aid Burgoyne because he desired the glory of crushing the revolution himself by moving to Philadelphia.15

Aside from miscommunication with Howe and Germain, the biggest problem that Burgoyne’s army faced came from the environment they campaigned in. Many of the soldiers in Burgoyne’s army, especially the German mercenaries were not used to the thick woods and swamps with which they had to pass through. Animals such as rattlesnakes were unheard of in Europe. Many of the men wore uniforms which were inappropriate for movement through thick woods. English and German standards of warfare were not suitable for the war which was taking place in the colonies. The German dragoons who did not have mounts due to a lack of horses, were among the most ill prepared. They were hampered throughout the campaign by their riding boots which had spurs. They wore long heavy coats, and their swords dragged at their feet.16 The Troops were not accustomed to combat in the wilderness of the colonies and the guerilla warfare at which the Americans were adept.

As Burgoyne made his way from Ticonderoga to the Hudson his movement was hindered by the alien terrain he encountered. General Schuyler had cut down trees across the few roads which traversed the area. The trees were cut down in a manner so that every few meters the branches coming from each side of the road were intertwined to block the path. General Schuyler also ordered the destruction of the bridges which Burgoyne’s troops had to rebuild. The heavy rains of that spring had turned many of the roads to mud. Often pack animals in Burgoyne’s train had to be unpacked so they could maneuver through the mud.17

Because of the slow progress of the army due to conditions and inexperience Burgoyne had great difficulty supplying his army. The army had a long baggage train which slowed progress to a near standstill at times. The supply train for the army reached far to the northern end of Champlain and required portage into Lake George and then the Hudson. Supplies could only be accumulated to last the army for a few days. The sluggish movement of Burgoyne’s supplies had direct effects upon his army. The old adage; an army moves on its stomach, was more than appropriate in the case of Burgoyne’s Northern Army. The inability to supply his army is what prompted Burgoyne to send a portion of his army on the fatal expedition to Bennington.18 Bennington was being used as a supply depot by the Americans and was supposed to be weakly defended. If Burgoyne had not been so desperate for supplies he might not have committed this fatal error which was the first in a series.

Burgoyne could have moved back to Ticonderoga and built a larger supply base there. Instead he maintained that he did not want to move backwards in due to concerns about the morale of his army and that of the enemy.19 This is a somewhat justifiable excuse. However he continued that progressing through the destroyed and blocked roads was good for the “wood service” of his troops.20 This excuse makes little sense because his army was already deficient in Canadians and Tories who were responsible for such hatchet work.

Moving supplies along the waterways did not go as quickly as planned either. Burgoyne had over two hundred bateaux which were quickly divided between Lake Champlain, Lake George and the Hudson River. Between these places the Bateaux had to be unloaded and carried across the land. The planned route to Albany on the Hudson had three waterfalls which required another small portage.21 Each of these portage points had to be protected in order to maintain the chain of supply.22 This long network of bateaux supplying the army proved to be insufficient for such a long distance. The distance between Fort George on Lake George and Fort Edward on the Hudson River was sixteen miles and the roads covering that span were in disrepair.23 The lack of supplies required the army to forage for its self. In one instance 30 men were killed by rebels while picking potatoes.

Several times throughout that campaign Burgoyne made orders to his officers that they must carry less baggage. Burgoyne appears to have ignored his own order. His personal belongings might have filled as many as ten wagons. A small number of women, mostly wives of officers, were also traveling with the army.24 Lieutenant Anburey, a diarist noted in his Travels through the interior parts of America that many of the officers had servants as well.25 None of these factors could have helped to propel the army forward.

The artillery train which Burgoyne brought into the wilderness was particularly strong for an army his size. It has been speculated that this large artillery train hampered the progress of the army to a large extent and was rarely used. Burgoyne testified before parliament that his artillery train was not overly large, but he has come under considerable criticism for the burden it became.26 The artillery was initially planned to be used for the siege of Fort Ticonderoga. Because the fort was evacuated before such a siege could take place it was not used there. General Burgoyne had been present at the battle of Bunker Hill, which persuaded him that strong artillery was needed in order to force the rebels from the defensive positions they frequently took.27 General Carleton, as well as several of Burgoyne’s officers, testified that they did not think the artillery train was larger then necessary.28 It does not appear that Burgoyne’s artillery proved of particular use during the campaign. The artillery did impede the movement of the army though the muddy and inaccessible terrain. Regardless of the pace of the artillery it subtracted horses from the supply train. Supplies were inadequate and more horses could have helped solve this problem. General Burgoyne claimed that his artillery train did not detract from the rest of the army’s movement because it had its own horses.29 This arguments major law was that there were not enough horses for the army regardless of what they were transporting. If there were fewer cannon, then there would have been more horses available to portage boats and carry supplies across land. The fact that the artillery had a dedicated number of horses is of no consequence.

Since the army assembled in Canada at Boquest River, Burgoyne had complained that his means were insufficient.30 He was lacking not only horses and oxen but drivers for them. Fourteen Hundred horses had been deemed necessary before the campaign began but far less were available.31 Few Canadians were willing to accompany the English army and drive the horses or bear muskets. The number of Tories who joined Burgoyne was much smaller then projected. Burgoyne had fewer regular troops, Tories, Canadians, Native American allies and Horses then he and Lord Germain had initially planned. Even with these deficiencies, Burgoyne was confident that his army could succeed. He made his complaints before Parliament after his surrender. If he was worried that his forces were insufficient he still had the ability to retreat after the loss at Bennington.

The army was particularly hurt by the small number of Canadians and Tories who enlisted to help Burgoyne. These irregulars along with the Native Americans were used as scouts, pickets and other unconventional uses. They were the only men available to Burgoyne experienced in combat in the wilderness. The Iroquois allies began deserting Burgoyne after he reprobated them for mistreatment of a captive at the beginning of the campaign. The Iroquois had proven difficult to control and were often of little use to Burgoyne.32 Because Burgoyne lacked a sufficient amount of irregular troops he was at a particular disadvantage. Burgoyne “was not practicable to gain knowledge on the enemy’s position” at the battle of Freeman’s Farm because he did not have sufficient Native Americans to scout rebels position and his irregular troops were far outnumbered by the enemy riflemen scattered in the thick woods between the opposing camps.33 General Burgoyne had camped his army on the west bank of the Hudson in open fields. These fields allowed for little cover from enemy fire except for the redoubts which were built. By that point in the campaign almost all of the Tories and Canadians had deserted Burgoyne.34 The American General Gates was able to gain considerable knowledge of the English camp by posting men in the woods surrounding their position. Without Native American, Canadians or Tories to form a screen in the woods, the English were susceptible to marksmen posted in the trees.

Captain Anburey drew a picture in his diaries of a portion of the English camp at the time of General Fraser’s burial. The picture allows a view of the English who were situated in the open fields on the banks of the Hudson. This allowed the Americans to cannonade the English camp even during the procession of General Fraser’s Burial. Burgoyne was not only in plain sight of the Americans but he had lost his ability to retreat when he crossed the Hudson. General Gates deployed artillery on the east side of the Hudson which might have been firing into the English encampment. Charles Botta, an Italian historian wrote, History of the War of the Independence of the United States of America. In this book he was critical of Burgoyne’s decision to cross the Hudson because it would have been safer to continue on the eastern side. This course of action would have avoided Gates main army but it would have been more difficult to cross the Hudson farther south. In 1776 Claude Joseph Sauther completed a map of the Hudson River which shows the roads on the western side of the Hudson to be less then a mile from the river all the way to Albany. On the eastern side which Botta thought more useful the road skirted a large swamp extending between six and ten miles from the river. Because Burgoyne had to be close to the river to receive supplies and protect his bateaux, the eastern side of the river would have been much more difficult in the long run.35 Botta’s criticism is not completely unfounded. Moving south on either side of the Hudson was a mistake.

Having just suffered the loss of one seventh of his army Burgoyne should have evaluated the situation and retreated rather then continue south to Albany. Burgoyne dawdled in the days after Bennington arguing that his troops were recovering in the Hospital. Every day Burgoyne waited for his men to gain health, the ranks of the rebels swelled.36

Several factors moved the men from New England and New York to join General Gates. After the battle of Bennigton the militias in the area were catalyzed. As word of the victory spread men began to flock to the rebel lines. Before General Gates took command of the Army, the New Englanders were apprehensive about the leadership of the New York patrician, Philip Schuyler. With Congress’s Change of command to Gates the New Englanders gained confidence in the army.37

Early in Burgoyne’s campaign he had issued a statement effectively ordering the citizens of New York to declare their loyalty or he would release the Indians to pillage the country side. Although this was probably an idle threat it infuriated many people. That fury was realized when Jane McCrea was murdered by her Native American captors. McCrea was a loyalist being transported to the English camp but her death inflamed the countryside. Men throughout the area took up arms to defend their families from the “Savages” and the English army who had turned them loose.38 The patriot army was growing daily while Burgoyne languished near Saratoga.

When Burgoyne finally attacked on September 19th the Americans were ready to fight. In the previous battles of the campaign, Burgoyne’s main army had not been engaged by a major opposing force. The rebels had withdrawn when faced with Burgoyne’s entire Army. Now with their ranks swelling the Americans under Benedict Arnold actually counter attacked the British, disturbing their operations. The ensuing battle at Freeman’s farm was inconclusive. Both sides claimed victory. The British remained in position of the field but they sustained heavy losses. The Americans also suffered many casualties but their ranks could be replenished unlike the English who were surrounded. After the final battle at Bemis Heights in late October, Burgoyne’s army was crippled by the losses it has sustained throughout the campaign.

By the end of September Burgoyne’s situation was critical. The only way his command could avoid defeat would be rescue by another army. Colonel St. Leger and his small army had already retreated from Ft. Stanwix and relief from the southern army had been denied by Howe. General Guy Carleton was instructed by orders from Lord Germain not to send reinforcements.39 A last minute effort by General Clinton from New York City only prolonged Burgoyne’s resolve to move on Albany.

General Burgoyne had departed from Canada at the end of May, 1777 with 9500 men.40 On October 17th 1777 his Army surrendered to General Gates of the Continental Army. Burgoyne’s capitulation resulted from a series of brash decisions and incompetent moves combined with overconfidence. If Burgoyne had proven to be an able commander his command might still have faltered, due to the lack of unified operations by Lord Germain, General Burgoyne and General Howe.

1. William B. Willcox, “Too Many Cooks: British Planning before Saratoga.” Journal of British Studies 2 (Nov 1962): 63.

2. Rupert Furneaux, The Battle of Saratoga (New York: Stein and Day, 1971), 20.

3. H. E. Egerton, “Lord George Germain and Sir William Howe” The English Historical Review 25 (April 1910): 316.

4. John Burgoyne, State of the expedition from Canada as laid before the House of Commons by Lieutenant- General Burgoyne and verified by evidence in a collection of authentic documents (London: J. Almon, 1780), 23.

5. Burgoyne, 16.

6. Burgoyne, 139.

7. Jane Clark, “Responsibility for the Failure of the Burgoyne Campaign” The American Historical Review 3 (April 1930): 545.

8. Thomas Anburey Travels Through the Interior Parts of America; in a Series of Letters. By an Officer. (London: William Lane, 1791), vol. 2, 4.

9. Burgoyne, 139.

10. Anburey, 348.

11. George Baxter Upham, “Burgoyne’s Great Mistake” 4 (October, 1935): 658

12. Burgoyne, 16.

13. Anburey. 370.

14. Charles Botta, History of the War of the Independence of the United States of America (New Haven, Nathan Whiting, 1834), 449

15. Clark, 546.

16. Furneaux, 46.

17. Richard M. Ketchum, Saratoga: Turning Point of the American Revolutionary War (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1997), 250.

18. Burgoyne, 13.

19. Burgoyne, 12.

20. Burgoyne, 12.

21. Claude Joseph Sauther. A topographical Map of the Hudson River (London: William Faden: 1776)

22. Anburey, 401.

23. Burgoyne, 13.

24. Anburey, 378.

25. Anburey, vol. II 14.

26. Burgoyne, 9.

27. Anburey, 339.

28. Burgoyne, 27.

29. Burgoyne, 42.

30. Burgoyne, 7.

31. Furneaux, 34.

32. Anburey, 314.

33. Burgoyne, 17.

34. Anburey, 377.

35. Burgoyne, 46.

36. Burgoyne, 64.

37. Ketchum, 253.

38. Furneaux, 99.

39. Burgoyne, 17.

40. Furneaux, 40.


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Filed under 1770's, Essay Contest, Posted by Carrie Shanafelt, Revolution

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