Sunday, April 5, 2020

Episode 143 Burgoyne’s Northern Army

Back in Episode 132, General Johnny Burgoyne got London’s approval to lead an Army south from Quebec to capture the Hudson Valley, Albany, and link up with the larger army in New York City. General Burgoyne arrived in Quebec May 6, 1777.  From there, he traveled upriver to Montreal where he met with the Commanding General in Canada, Sir Guy Carleton.

Burgoyne had quite a few general officers serving under him for this mission.  Today I want to introduce a few of those who became key members of what would become known as the Saratoga Campaign.

Simon Fraser

The first is Simon Fraser.  General Fraser came from a Scottish clan with a long military history.  Most of the clan was either executed or had its land seized for participation in the Jacobite Uprising and fighting the English at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.  It is not clear if Fraser fought at Culloden.  If he did, it is not something he would want people to know about.

Simon Fraser
(from Outlander Fandom)
He obtained a commission in the Dutch Army a short time later as part of the Scots Brigade.  This is just my speculation, but he may have been able to escape the battle and, along with many of his fellow Scots, and joined a foreign army as a means of starting a new life. That same year, he was wounded in battle at Bergen-op-Zoom against the French during the War of Austrian Succession.

Like many other Scots on the losing side of the Jacobite Uprising, Fraser returned to Britain after some time abroad and joined the British Army, probably in part to help rebuild the Fraser name.  He received a lieutenant’s commission in 1755 and soon left from America.  There, he served under his uncle Colonel Simon Fraser.  He distinguished himself at the Siege of Louisbourg in 1757 and was promoted to captain.  He fought with General Wolfe at the Siege of Quebec (see Episode 13).

After the British secured Canada, Fraser continued his service in the Seven Years War by serving under Ferdinand of Brunswick, in what is today Germany.  His service allowed him to advance to major and then lieutenant colonel by the end of the war.  After that, he served at Gibraltar for a time, then moved to Ireland.  In 1770 he served as Quartermaster General of Ireland, and there developed a friendship with General Johnny Burgoyne.

When Burgoyne prepared his 1776 invasion of New York, he requested that Irish regiments under Colonel Fraser be a part of his army.  As you may recall from back in Episode 95, Fraser played an active role in expelling the Continentals from Canada at the Battle of Three Rivers.  Carleton granted Fraser a field promotion to brigadier general so that he could command the multiple regiments involved in the fighting.  Following Three Rivers, Fraser continued his service as a brigadier general in America.

Fraser also led his forces down Lake Champlain later that year.  Following the battle of Valcour Island, his army moved within sight of Fort Ticonderoga, only for General Carleton to declare it was too late in the season and that the army would pull back to Canada. Fraser shared the frustration of many officers that they did not take Ticonderoga then.

As the 1777 campaign began, Burgoyne returned from London to Canada with clear authority to assume command of the New York invasion and to leave Carleton in Canada.  Burgoyne tapped Fraser to be one of his top field commanders.

Baron von Riedesel

Burgoyne’s other key general was Friedrich Adolf von Riedesel.  He commanded the regiments of Brunswickers who the British had hired to supplement the regulars in Canada.  Again, although they are from Brunswick, I’m going to refer to them as use the generic term German for the sake of simplicity.  I may also slip up and occasionally call them Hessians.  But most of the German-speaking soldiers in the northern army were from Brunswick.

Riedesel was the second son of a Baron.  In the German tradition, he would use the title of Baron like his father, but would not inherit any estates.  His father wanted him to study law.  He began legal studies, but grew bored and instead took a commission in the army at age 17.  His father was outraged at this decision and cut him off from all financial assistance.  Over time though, father and son would reconcile.  Riedesel soon began to receive his allowance again, which allowed him to live in proper the proper style of a gentleman.

Friedrich Riedesel (1796)
(from Wikimedia)
Ensign Riedesel’s first appointment in 1755 was to London, where he began to learn English and French . The following year though, the Seven Years War required his return to the continent.  Riedesel served as an aide to Ferdinand of Brunswick.  For his conspicuous service at the Battle of Minden, Riedesel received a promotion to captain of cavalry.  Riedesel continued to serve under Ferdinand of Brunswick when Simon Fraser joined the staff in 1760 or 61.  The two young men were certainly aware of each other, although it is not clear if they got to know each other very well at that time.

In 1762, Riedesel suffered a battle injury which required temporary leave so that he could recover.  While he was not well enough to fight, he was well enough to woo and marry Frederica Von Massow, the daughter of the Brunswick Commissary General.  Riedesel returned to duty.  But by the time he did, the war had ended.

In 1767, his regiment disbanded.  Riedesel became Adjutant General of the Brunswick Army.  In 1772, he was promoted to colonel.  When Britain came looking to rent an army in 1776, the Duke of Brunswick made a deal to send about 4300 men to America.  He promoted Riedesel to major general and gave him command of the army.

Riedesel’s  Brunswickers arrived in Quebec in June 1776, only a few days before the Battle at Three Rivers.  The arrival of these German reinforcements is what convinced the Continentals to abandon Sorel and retreat back into New York.  Riedesel’s men later worked with the British in the advance that resulted in the Battle of Valcour Island.

As General Burgoyne prepared his New York campaign, he would rely on General Riedesel to command the Germans that made up nearly half of Burgoyne’s army.

William Phillips

Major General William Phillips had a rather unusual background for a general.  He was not of noble birth.  In fact, we don’t even know the month or day he was born.  Records just show that he was born probably in 1731.  His grandfather, Thomas Phillips was an army captain.  His father, known only at T.C. Phillips was thought to be an officer as well, but we really don’t know.  His mother, Catherine Brudenell was the daughter and sister of two British generals both named Thomas Brudenell.  It is likely from them that young William got his start in life.  As a commoner with no real money behind him, his chances of going far as an army officer were slim.

Instead, at around age 15, he enrolled in the new Woolwich Military Academy, which had only been in existence for a few years.  The Board of Ordnance had created it in 1741 to help train artillery officers.  Training in artillery and engineering were probably the best bet for an aspiring officer who did not have money or family name behind him.

William Phillips
(from Wikimedia)
During the Seven Years War, Phillips served with distinction, noted for his ingenuity and bravery at several battles, including Minden and Warburg.  He rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel of Artillery.  After the war, he became Inspector General of the Artillery, then as Commander of Artillery at the artillery school at Woolwich.  In 1772, received promotion to Colonel and became Lieutenant Governor of Windsor Castle.

In 1774, he was elected as a Member of Parliament.  Phillips had made some important friends via the army, including General Henry Clinton, who helped Phillips to win a seat in the House of Commons. In the spring of 1776, Colonel Phillips sailed with General Burgoyne for America.  These were the first British reinforcements that pushed the Americans out of Canada.

During this time period, and until 1855, artillery was not actually run by the British War Office.  Artillery officers did not buy their ranks like those in the infantry and cavalry.  They received promotion, ostensibly on merit and seniority, but connections didn’t hurt.  The Board of Ordnance ran the artillery and was responsible for promotions.  So, artillery officers almost never had any noble pedigree and were looked down upon by the infantry and cavalry as essentially support staff.

The Board of Ordnance worked closely with the army, being responsible for things like the production of arms and powder and the maintenance of forts and military barracks.  But as I said, the Board and the War Department were separate political entities within the British government. So, here is where I start to get confused.  Several sources I’ve read that artillery officers had no authority to give commands to infantry or cavalry officers in the field, or at least that they were not to be given general commands over armies in the field.

General Guy Carleton, with the agreement of General Burgoyne, issued several commands to various officers in preparations for the New York campaign.  The term we usually find is “general in America.”  These were temporary ranks to make a colonel a temporary general for purposes of commanding several regiments, or for other junior officers to step up in rank temporarily for some limited period to meet the needs of the army.

General Carleton named Phillips to be a “major general in America” second in command of the expedition, below only General Burgoyne in rank.  Apparently this commission caused great concern back in London.  Lord Germain wrote to Carleton in late 1776 that the use of an artillery officer was not customary and that, although he was willing to let Phillips continue in this role for the time, that it should not be considered precedential.

I guess it says something about the respect that top generals had for Phillips that they were willing to break with custom and precedent to give him a top command in the expedition.  Burgoyne, however, had to make clear in his standing orders that infantry and cavalry officers were to obey the orders of General Phillips as a superior officer, something that was apparently at least in question without such orders.

Barry St. Leger

Barry St. Leger
(from Wikimedia)
Another commander that was a part of this campaign was Barrimore Matthew St. Leger, known as Barry at lieutenant colonel who received a temporary bump to “brigadier general in America” for the campaign.  St. Leger was born in Ireland to a noble Protestant family.  As a younger son, he would not inherit land or title and took up a career in the army.  He attended Eton and Cambridge, before joining the army as an ensign at the beginning of the Seven Years War.

St. Leger served well during the war, participating in most of the important battles in Canada, the Siege of Louisburg, the Capture of Quebec, and the campaign to capture Montreal.  He rose to the rank of major by the end of the war.  His experience fighting in the area and his expertise in fighting what the British called “Indian style” warfare made him an ideal candidate for a command position.  St. Leger had become a lieutenant colonel by the beginning of the Revolution and Carleton granted him a temporary command of brigadier general in America.

On top of that, Burgoyne granted St. Leger and independent command as part of the campaign.  While Burgoyne would lead the main army straight down Lake Champlain headed directly south toward Albany, St. Leger would take another force of about 2000 men up the St. Lawrence river to Lake Ontario.  He would then proceed east following the Mohawk River toward Albany.  This would force the American defenders to divide their forces and defend against two armies coming at them from different directions.

Burgoyne’s Army

British regulars and the Hessians made up the bulk of Burgoyne’s invasion force.  Burgoyne also had two regiments of British militia, the King’s Royal Regiment and the Queen’s Rangers.  These were primarily English speaking Canadians or Loyalists from New York.  Although London expected Burgoyne to supplement his army with local loyalists, it appears only about 250 joined his expedition.

In addition, about 400 native american warriors joined Burgoyne's expedition.  The local Iroquois tribes had determined that they would remain neutral in this conflict.  The British recruited tribes that lived further north and west in Canada. British records do not make clear exactly which tribes participated.  British Indian agents spread the word that the army was looking for support, and that warriors from various tribes turned out to fight.  Supporting the British army meant a chance for plunder.  It also meant improved relations with the king, which could lead to better protection of their lands or more gifts from the government in the future.  Among the warriors were some Iroquois who ignored the confederation’s official neutrality.  The majority came from the Algonquin, Abanaki, and Ottawa tribes.  Some warriors had come from hundreds of miles away to join the expedition.

The native auxiliaries were considered an important part of the mission, despite relatively small numbers. They served as scouts and typically controlled the woods around the main column.  This prevented spies or skirmishers from the enemy getting too close to the main column of soldiers.  Native warriors with a reputation for savagery often struck fear into the enemy.

Burgoyne felt it necessary to hold a meeting with the warriors to make clear that they would have to follow rules about not scalping living prisoners or wounded enemy on the field, and not looting the homes of loyalists in the region.  His speech later became the butt of jokes in London as a member of Parliament suggested that maybe they should release lions from the London zoo and ask them not to attack any people while they roamed the streets.

In total, Burgoyne’s command was a substantial one.  I’ve seen contradictory evidence of the exact size, but it appears to have included over 4000 regulars, over 3000 German mercenaries, about 250 local loyalist militia, 400-500 Indians, a few hundred French speaking draftees who primarily assisted with moving equipment and other basic labor functions.  There were also nearly 1000 camp followers, that is women and children related to the officers and men.  Typically these women performed nursing and laundress duties for the army.  Burgoyne also took a pretty substantial artillery complement of at least 32 cannon, morters, and howitzers.  Two of them were 24 pounders, which are much larger than guns that are usually taken into the field.

In addition to the force led by Burgoyne, St. Leger’s independent command consisted of about 2000 men.  About half of these were Indians, who it was thought would be more effective in the lengthy wilderness march.  There were only about 200 regulars and another 100 Hessian jaegers.  The remaining six or seven hundred were local Tories and Canadian militia.  St. Leger also took about forty artilleryman with four small field cannon and a couple of mortars.

The Mission

General Burgoyne moved his force to St. Jean, also called St. John’s, at the northern tip of Lake Champlain, where General Carleton had launched his fleet the year before.  The force would move down Lake Champlain to Fort Crown and Fort Ticonderoga where they would defeat the American defenders.  Unlike the previous year, there would be no American fleet on Lake Champlain to slow up the advance. From there, the army would move down the Hudson River toward Albany.

Planned invations routes (From Revolutionary War)
There, the main army would link up with General St. Leger’s secondary force which would have taken Fort Stanwix and then traveled across the Mohawk Valley to reach Albany from the west.  At the same time, these two armies would meet up with General Howe’s Army which would move from New York City, up the Hudson Valley to Albany from the south.  Once that was complete, Burgoyne would come under the command of General Howe and would take orders from him.

Years later, a famous Prussian Field Marshal would note that no battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy.  And as we will see in coming episodes, that is certainly true with these plans.  However, as I mentioned a few weeks ago when the British were coordinating plans for the 1777 campaign, it did not appear that all the military leaders even agreed on plans ahead of time.

General Carleton had been ticked off to learn that he would not be permitted to command the campaign himself.  He seems, though, to have done everything in his power to provide Burgoyne with everything he needed for the offensive.

General Howe in New York had absolutely zero interest in marching up the Hudson Valley to meet Burgoyne’s army in Albany.  Instead, he planned to leave New York City and head south to capture Philadelphia.

General Henry Clinton, who was left to babysit New York City with a few Hessians and local Tories was upset that he was not given the command that Burgoyne held, even though he was more senior.  He showed no interest in moving up the Hudson River either.  He was complaining that he barely had enough men to defend New York City if attacked.

The man who should have been coordinating all of this was Secretary of State Lord George Germain.  Historians criticize Germain for leaving his orders vague and for failing to order General Howe to support Burgoyne’s offensive from the south.  Germain signed off on Howe’s plans to attack Philadelphia, but simply noted that Howe should be sure to have that done early in the fighting season so that he could support Burgoyne near Albany later in the year.

Germain seemed to have no appreciation of the difficulties of marching armies through the wilderness of upstate New York, and the fact that these armies would not have large numbers of farms or towns to provide food and other necessities.  An army pushed hard in good weather might be able to march fifty miles on an open road in one day.  Marching through a forest, an army might be lucky if it could march five miles, and that was without even encountering the enemy.

Instead, Germain seemed inclined to believe the complaints of lower officers like Burgoyne that the lack of success up until this point had simply been the incompetence or caution of more senior officers like Carleton, Howe, and Clinton, and that more daring leadership would succeed where others had failed.  Of course Burgoyne put it in terms that were a little more respectful to his superiors, but that was the general impression that he gave Germain and others in London.  It was a common ploy for more junior officers who wanted to be given command opportunities over more senior ones.

Burgoyne started his campaign with fewer men than he had planned.  He also had fewer supplies and great difficulties trying to maintain supply lines between Canada and his army as it advanced south into New York.  This required large baggage trains for which the army had inadequate horses, wagons, and drivers to carry them.  It did not help that Burgoyne was bringing a large artillery train that included two twelve pounders and two twenty-four pounders.  These large guns were far heavier than most field guns which rarely rated higher than six pounders.

If Burgoyne had concerns about these limitations, he did not let it show to others.  He had a can do attitude and was going forward aggressively as he had promised officials in London.  By June 20, 1777 his army was ready to begin its move from St. Jean toward their first target: Fort Ticonderoga.

Next Week, the Americans at Fort Ticonderoga prepare to defend against the British offensive.

- - -

Next Episode 144 Defending Fort Ticonderoga

Previous Episode 142 Disease in the Revolution

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Further Reading


John Burgoyne:

John Burgoyne Campaign to Saratoga:

Hargreaves, Reginald “Burgoyne and America's Destiny” American Heritage Magazine, June 1956 Volume 7 Issue 4:

“Baroness On The Battlefield” American Heritage Magazine, Dec. 1964 Vol. 16 Issue 1:

Schenawolf, Harry “General Simon Fraser: England Lost an Army & Their Best Wilderness Warrior at Saratoga” Revolutionary War Journal, Oct 5, 2018:

General Friedrich Adolph Riedesel:

William Phillips:

Barry St. Leger

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Anbury, Thomas Travel through Various Parts of North America, Vol. 1, William Lane, 1789.

Bird, Harrison March To Saratoga General Burgoyne And The American Campaign 1777,
Oxford Univ. Press, 1963

Brandow, John H. The story of old Saratoga; the Burgoyne campaign, to which is added New York's share in the revolution, Brandow Printing, 1919.

Burgoyne, John Orderly book of Lieut. Gen. John Burgoyne : from his entry into the state of New York until his surrender at Saratoga, 16th Oct., 1777: from the original manuscript deposited at Washington's headquarters, Newburgh, N.Y., J. Munsell, 1860.

Burgoyne, John A Brief examination of the plan and conduct of the northern expedition in America, in 1777, T. Hookham, 1779.

Clay, Steven E. Staff Ride Handbook for the Saratoga Campaign, 13 June to 8 November 1777, Combat Studies Institute Press, 2018 (US Army Website):.

Digby, William The British Invasion from the North: The Campaigns of Generals Carleton and Burgoyne from Canada, Joel Munsell’s Sons, 1887.

Duncan, Francis History of the Royal Regiment of Artillery, Vol 1, J. Murray 1879.

Eelking, Max von, (translated by Stone, William L.) Memoirs of Major General Riedesel, Vol. 1, J. Munsell, 1868.

Hadden, James Hadden's Journal and Orderly Books, Joel Munsell’s Sons, 1884.

Hudleston, Francis J. Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne : misadventures of an English general in the Revolution, Bobbs-Merrill Co. 1927.

Luzader, John Decision on the Hudson, National Park Service, 1975.

Nickerson, Hoffman The Turning Point of the Revolution; or, Burgoyne in America, (Houghton-Mifflin Co. 1928 (

Riedesel, Friederike Charlotte Luise, Freifrau von Letters and journals relating to the war of the American Revolution, and the capture of the German troops at Saratoga, Joel Munsell, 1867.

Walworth, Ellen H. Battles of Saratoga, 1777, Joel Munsell’s Sons, 1891.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Davis, Robert P. Where a Man Can Go: Major General William Phillips, British Royal Artillery, 1731-1781, Greenwood Press, 1999.

Furneaux, Rupert The Battle of Saratoga, Stein and Day 1971.

Ketchum, Richard M. Saratoga, Turning Point of America’s Revolutionary War, Henry Holt & Co, 1997.

Logusz, Michael O. With Musket and Tomahawk, The Saratoga Campaign and the Wilderness War of 1777, Casemate Publishing, 2010

Luzader, John F. Saratoga: A Military History of the Decisive Campaign of the American Revolution, Casemate Publishers, 2008

Mintz, Max M. The Generals of Saratoga: John Burgoyne and Horatio Gates, Yale Univ. Press, 1990.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.


  1. Can you do a episode on the Major Ben Tallmadge and the Culper spy ring?

  2. Could you ask Robert Morris Circle member Trey Nance if he is a descendant of Revolutionary soldier Reuben Nance? I’m a descendent of Reuben Nance and am looking for geneological evidence of Reuben Nance’s descendants. Thanks. Contact: