Sunday, August 9, 2020

ARP161 Freeman’s Farm (1st Saratoga)

Last week, we ended a series of episodes as General Howe made his long slow sailing voyage from New York to Maryland, then marched his army up to capture Philadelphia. 

Burgoyne Trudges South

While all that was happening, General Burgoyne was marching his northern army from Canada down through upstate New York, with the hope of taking Albany, and eventually linking up with British forces in New York City.  We last left General Burgoyne in Episode 155 as his army suffered a loss at Bennington, in an attempt to capture food and supplies.

Despite that loss, Burgoyne’s main army had reached the Hudson River and planned to march downstream to Albany.  His hope to recruit an army of Tories in upstate New York had proven to be a joke.  Almost all of his loyalist soldiers were men who had already fled New York to Canada and had joined at the outset of the expedition.  Promises of locals in New York who would flock to the King’s banner, had proven empty.

Freeman's Farm (from British Battles)
Burgoyne found his supply lines from Canada too long and attenuated to do much good.  He was frustrated that no British relief force seemed to be on its way from New York City.  After receiving word that General St. Leger’s force had given up on capturing Fort Stanwix and was returning to Canada, Burgoyne lost his only other prospect of reinforcements.  Burgoyne’s situation was becoming more threatened each day.  His army was shrinking, while his opponents were growing.  His men were isolated and largely cut off from additional food and supplies.  At the outset of this campaign, Burgoyne had hoped for more soldiers, better support from Canada, and most importantly a British army marching northward from New York City.

In letters back to London, Burgoyne discussed the option of pulling back to Fort Edward, reestablishing supply lines with Canada and awaiting more reinforcements.  But getting bogged down and refusing to advance was exactly what he had accused his predecessors of doing in order to get this command.  Burgoyne believed his orders were to push forward and take Albany.  He planned to do just that.

Burgoyne ordered the bulk of his small reserves, still at Fort Ticonderoga, to march south and join up with his main army.  He would not rely on maintaining lines back to Canada, but would live off the land. He determined that his army would cross the Hudson River and march down the west bank to Albany.  Crossing the Hudson so far upstream would prevent any problems trying to cross closer to Albany where they might have to do it in the face of the enemy.  But crossing where they did also made it nearly impossible to retreat back to Ticonderoga if they ran into problems.  Burgoyne was committing himself to complete victory or defeat, no option for backing down.

Schuyler Relieved

The Americans, having succeeded in killing or capturing over 1000 of the enemy at Bennington, continued to harass them whenever possible.  They drove off cattle and burned fields of grain and orchards.  They tore up bridges and felled hundreds of trees across roads, all to slow the British advance and deny them the supplies needed to maintain the army.

British March (from Wikimedia)

If time was on the side of the Contientals, it was not on the side of their commander.  Before word of the victory at Bennington or Fort Stanwix reached Congress, the delegates in Philadelphia concluded that the loss of Fort Ticonderoga in July was simply unacceptable.  Congress voted for the removal of General Philip Schuyler from command.  New England delegates especially had never really liked or trusted the New York general.  The loss of Ticonderoga under his command, was the final straw.  New Englanders had captured this fort a few years earlier, only to see it turned over to a New York commander.  That commander’s loss of the fort was unacceptable.  Congress ordered both General Schuyler and General St. Clair to report to Philadelphia for an inquiry into their activities.  The order came, despite the fact that both generals were actively engaged in the ongoing campaign to halt General Burgoyne’s army.

At first, Congress wrote to General Washington and asked him to pick a successor to the northern army.  Congress’ obvious choice was General Horatio Gates, who Washington, by this time, had great reason to distrust.  Washington knew that recommending Gates would be putting someone in charge who he really did not respect.  Picking someone else who did not have the experience in New York and at a time when Washington needed those generals to stop General Howe from capturing Philadelphia, would also be a problem.  Washington would have preferred to keep Schuyler in command.  He could not say that without appearing to thumb his nose at Congress.  So, Washington punted.  He simply informed Congress that if they were going to replace General Schuyler, that they should name the replacement.

Congress then selected General Gates to assume command.  Gates found out about the orders almost immediately.  At the time when almost all the officers in the Continental Army were in the field, either opposing Burgoyne’s advance on Albany or Howe’s advance on Philadelphia, Gates was in Philadelphia complaining about their leadership and lobbying for a new job.  After learning of his commission and knowing that the situation was desperate, Gates took a leisurely two weeks to travel up to New York and take command on August 19, 1777. 

 Gen. Horatio Gates
(from Wikimedia)
General Schuyler, who had received his orders to stand down and return to Philadelphia, felt obliged to remain in command until his successor arrived.  Schuyler then spent the next few days trying to brief Gates on the status of both his and the enemy forces and the strategies in place, but Gates seemed entirely uninterested in anything Schuyler had to say.  Instead, Gates held a large council of war for all Continental offices, as well as Albany militia commanders, but did not invite Schuyler.  Taking the hint, Schuyler finally packed up and left for Philadelphia.

Gates also received reinforcements of about 8000 men.  These included new recruits from New England, New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.  Washington sent some of his own forces, including his highly valued riflemen commanded by Colonel Daniel Morgan.  General Benedict Arnold was marching his 1200 Continentals back from their victory at Fort Stanwix.  By early September, Gates commanded an army of over 10,000 soldiers, finally outnumbering Burgoyne's army.

Gates determined that he should pick out the best defensive ground in the region between Burgoyne and Albany and await the British there.  At first, he gathered his army at a place called Stillwater.  Then, after consulting with the locals, moved his army about three miles further north to Bemis Heights.  There, he relied on Polish Colonel Tadeusz Kościuszko to build the defenses.

Tadeusz Kościuszko

Kościuszko is an interesting figure himself.  He had grown up as a member of minor nobility in Poland.  During the 1760’s he worked as a military instructor for the Corps of Cadets in Poland. When the country descended into civil war, his family sided with the rebels against the King.   Rather than pick a side, Kościuszko fled the country.  He settled in Paris.  As a foreigner, he could not attend the military academy there.  Instead, he enrolled in Paris’ Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture.  At the same time, he audited lectures at the Military Academy and made use of the military libraries in Paris.  If you think about it, this was absurd.  It was a security risk for a foreigner to receive grades and a degree from the military academy, but officials had no problems with him sitting in on the classes and learning everything the instructor had to say.  But, that’s government bureaucracy I guess.

Tadeusz Kościuszko
(from Wikimedia)
After the partition of Poland in 1772, Kościuszko returned home to find his family broke from the war. He attempted to elope with the daughter of the local governor, but the Governor’s soldiers caught the young couple and beat him severely.  He returned to Paris, alone and out of money.

Kościuszko’s education in the French enlightenment, and his experience with petty aristocrats, left him with a fairly hostile view toward tyrannical leaders and a fan of liberation movements.  When Kościuszko heard about the war in America, he volunteered and traveled to Philadelphia. 

At first, he worked as a civilian consultant for some of the defenses along the Delaware River, then received a commission as colonel of engineers and a transfer to Fort Ticonderoga. There, he had worked with General Gates for a time before Gates left for Philadelphia.  Kościuszko had been a part of the retreat from Ticonderoga and remained with the northern army.  On Gates’ return as commander of the northern army, he relied on Kościuszko to oversee the construction of defensive works to oppose Burgoyne.

Benedict Arnold

Also joining Gates at Bemis Heights was General Benedict Arnold, fresh from his victory at Fort Stanwix.  Arnold’s role in capturing Fort Ticonderoga back in 1775 and his success in preventing the British from capturing the fort in 1776 with his improvised navy, among other accomplishments, gave Arnold a fair amount of command credibility.  He was now a major general, but still frustrated that he was more junior to Major General Lincoln who had been commissioned before him.

Arnold and Gates had gotten along well in earlier years when both men were in upstate New York together.  Gates knew of Arnold’s record and his abilities and gave him command of the left wing of the army.

Richard Varick
(from Wikimedia)
However, when General Schuyler left for Philadelphia, Arnold took two of Schuyler’s staff officers onto his own command, Richard Varick and Henry Brockholst Livingston.  Gates’ aide, Colonel James Wilkinson, who you may recall from Episode 118 was mixed up the conspiracy between General Gates and Lee to bring down General Washington, was by this time an old hand at internal petty politics within the army.  Wilkinson pointed out to Gates that Arnold’s decision to take two of Schuyler’s aides onto his staff meant that Arnold might not be particularly loyal to Gates.  He showed Gates letters from both men where they badmouthed Gates’ actions in the past.

Gates hinted to Arnold that he wanted the two men removed from Arnold’s staff.  Arnold, however, refused to take the hint and kept the officers where they were.  A few days later, in what Arnold took to be a petty reprisal, Wilkinson issued orders to move several regiments from Arnold’s command on the left wing to Glover’s command on the right wing.  Arnold lost his temper and wrote an angry letter to Gates. In response, Gates said it was just an oversight that would be countermanded, but it never was. 

The disagreement over staffing grew into a full-blown dispute between the two generals that would never heal.  Gates saw Arnold as part of Team Schuyler and potentially disloyal to him. Arnold saw Gates as a petty officer putting internal politics above the war effort. I don’t think either man was wrong in their assessment of the other.  The relationship between Gates and Arnold would never again be a good one.

Bemis Heights Defenses

On the morning of September 19th, American pickets noted the advance of the British Army toward Bemis Heights.  General Gates was happy to sit behind his defenses and to let the British try to force him out. 

Troop Deployments (from Wikimedia)

General Arnold disagreed.  Arnold feared that the British would send a force against the American right wing to distract the army.  Then, it would send a flanking force through the woods to move on the left flank. Once in the fields, the British could bring up their cannons and roll the American left, pushing everyone to retreat toward the Hudson river.  Sentries detecting movement in the woods confirmed that this was likely what would happen.  Gates seemed to think, bring it on. The British can try to charge up hills against a dug in enemy.  They will take an obscene number of casualties if they do.  He did not seem concerned that British artillery might devastate those defenses or that similar flanking maneuvers on Long Island or most recently at Brandywine had led to embarrassing losses for the Continentals.  His brilliant leadership would lead to a different result.

Arnold, supported by Colonel Morgan, had a different idea.  They wanted to advance the left wing of the army and hit the British in the woods before they could form up in the fields near the heights.  A fight in the forest was not a strength for either British regulars or Hessians.  Most of the Indian scouts had abandoned the British after the loss at Bennington, putting the British at a real disadvantage in that type of warfare.

After considerable badgering and argument, Gates split the difference.  He retained the Continental right wing, under the command of General Benjamin Lincoln, and supported by Generals Glover, Nixon and Patterson.  These armies would hold Bemis Heights against a potential attack.  General Arnold supported by Generals Poor and Learned, and Colonel Morgan could advance into the woods on the American left and engage the enemy there.  If they failed, they could retreat back to the heights and participate in the final defense.

Battle of Freeman’s Farm

The British attack came pretty much as the Americans expected.  General Burgoyne deployed his Germans under the command of General Riedesel down the trail along the Hudson River to attack the American right.  This group also took the bulk of the army’s artillery.  In the center, General Burgoyne rode with division commander General James Hamilton and four regiments supported by artillery.  Against the American left, Burgoyne deployed General Simon Fraser and his regulars, along with a couple of German regiments and the small remainder of Indians and loyalists that remained with the army.

American Assault Freeman's Farm
(from British Battles)
The Germans on the American right found it tough going as the column marched down the river road.  The Americans had burned several bridges across streams and felled numerous trees across the road.  The soldiers struggled to remove the impediments to make it into position by 2:00 PM.  Similarly General Fraser on the American left had to march nearly two miles further west to move around a deep ravine.

On the American left, General Arnold advanced with his division, with Colonel Morgan’s riflemen in the front.  The advancing British ran into Morgan’s riflemen at a small cabin on Freeman’s farm.  Freeman had been a local farmer who had long since fled to Canada due to his Tory sentiments.

There, Morgan’s riflemen startled the British advance skirmishers and forced them to retreat. Morgan’s men charged after the retreating skirmishers, only to run into the entire British center.  The Americans fell under cannon fire and quickly retreated back into the woods.  Both sides took devastating losses.  Morgan’s riflemen picked off the officers from the skirmishing companies before taking heavy casualties themselves from the British cannons.  Many of the British skirmishers took friendly fire as they retreated back to the main British lines. General Arnold rode through the front lines, encouraging his men to advance.  The fighting lasted about 45 minutes until both sides pulled back to assess the damages.

The lull lasted about two hours until shortly before 4:00 PM, both sides reengaged with the fiercest fighting of the day.  The American riflemen picked off artillery officers and crews, allowing the Continentals to capture several cannon.  Hamilton sent in British regular reinforcements to retake the cannons and turn them against the Continentals once again.  General Burgoyne also appeared near the front to encourage the men.  He got within range of Morgan’s riflemen, but they mistakenly picked off a captain that Burgoyne was conferring with.  The captain had a fancier saddle that caused the sniper to mistake him for the general.

Freeman's Farm (from British Battles)
Despite the fierce fighting, General Gates held back the American right at the Heights, not wanting to commit all of his forces to the fighting in case another attack came on the right.  Similarly, Burgoyne held back most of Fraser’s force on the American left in case the Americans tried a flanking attack from that side.  As a result, the Continental forces under Arnold and the British under Hamilton bore the bulk of the intense fighting.

At one point, the Americans almost forced the British center to buckle, but Major General Phillips personally rode in with four cannons to hold the Americans at bay while the British line could regroup.

By late afternoon Burgoyne ordered General Riedesel to secure the baggage and lead his soldiers against the right of Arnold’s advancing Continentals.  This was a risky move since it left the British baggage, and a portion of its artillery, relatively unguarded.  General Gates could have swooped down and captured all of it.  Gates, however, remained secure in his entrenchments, unwilling to venture out.

Benedict Arnold
(from Wikimedia)
Riedesel advanced with several hundred soldiers and two cannons to find the Continentals close to overrunning Hamilton’s center.  Riedesel ordered a charge and pushed back the startled Continentals.  This attack near the end of the day secured British possession of the field.  Only sunset and darkness finally put an end to the intense fighting, as the Americans drew back to their lines.

General Arnold was, in fact, fighting two battles at once.  One with the British, the other with General Gates.  Over the course of the battle, Gates had refused to comply with Arnold’s increasingly desperate calls for reinforcements.  At one point, Gates even sent orders for Arnold to send back a regiment to protect Gates’ headquarters.

In frustration, Arnold finally rode back to headquarters himself to make his demands in person.  Gates finally relented and sent off a brigade under the command of General Ebenezer Learned.  Gates, however, refused to allow Arnold to return to the battle and kept him in camp.  Learned’s reinforcements got lost in the woods and missed most of the battle.

At one point, after receiving concerning reports about the course of the battle, Arnold had enough and galloped off on his horse determined to enter the action.  Gates ordered his aide, Wilkinson, to chase after Arnold and bring him back.  Arnold reluctantly obeyed the direct order to return.  Thus Arnold missed the end of the battle.


At the end of the day, the British held the field, so Burgoyne declared victory in his letters to London.  However, the British had taken nearly 600 casualties that they could ill-afford.  The Americans had lost about half that number.  Although the British held the field of battle around Freeman’s farm, they had not even reached the main American lines still several miles away at Bemis Heights. Even most British officers conceded that the Americans had fought well and held their own against the regulars.

That night, the wolves came down from the hills to feed on the dead and dying as each side considered their next moves.  Many of Burgoyne’s officers wanted to advance again the next morning in hopes of catching the Americans still in disarray.  Burgoyne, however, decided against it.  The men were too exhausted.  He did consider another offensive on the 21st.  However, before dawn, he received a letter from General Henry Clinton in New York City.  Clinton's letter said that he would attempt an attack on some American forts in the lower Hudson valley in order to distract the Americans.  Burgoyne took this as hope that perhaps he might get some support from New York City after all.  He knew London had planned to send reinforcements to New York City and that their arrival might encourage Clinton to go on the offensive.

Burgoyne opted to halt his offensive and await more information on a possible relief column. For the next couple of weeks, both sides nursed their wounds, buried their dead, and planned their next steps.

Next week, during this pause, the Americans strike at Burgoyne’s rear, including a raid on Fort Ticonderoga.

- - -

Next Episode 162 Raid on Fort Ticonderoga 

Previous  Episode 160 Paoli Massacre & Fall of Philadelphia

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Further Reading


Horatio Gates:

Tadeusz Kościuszko:

Battle of Freeman’s Farm:

The Battle of Saratoga (First)/ Freeman’s Farm:

Halsey, Francis Whiting. “GENERAL SCHUYLER'S PART IN THE BURGOYNE CAMPAIGN.” Proceedings of the New York State Historical Association, vol. 12, 1913, pp. 109–118.

Brandow, John. H. “GUIDE TO THE SARATOGA BATTLEFIELD.” Proceedings of the New York State Historical Association, vol. 12, 1913, pp. 315–320.

Strach, Stephen G. “A MEMOIR OF THE EXPLOITS OF CAPTAIN ALEXANDER FRASER AND HIS COMPANY OF BRITISH MARKSMEN 1776-1777 (Continued).” Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, vol. 63, no. 255, 1985, pp. 164–179,

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

Lynch, Wayne “Debating Arnold’s Role at Freeman’s Farm” Journal of the American Revolution, September 12, 2013:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

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

Baster, James (ed) The British Invasion from the North: The Campaigns of Generals Carleton and Burgoyne from Canada, Joel Munsell’s Sons, 1887.

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.

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

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.

Moore, Howard P. A Life of General John Stark of New Hampshire, New York self-published, 1949.

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.

Stone, William Leete, The Campaign of Lieut. Gen. John Burgoyne  and the expedition of Lieut. Col. Barry St. Leger, Albany, NY: Joel Munsell, 1877.

Walworth, Ellen H. Battles of Saratoga, 1777; the Saratoga Monument Association, 1856-1891, Joel Munsell’s Sons, 1891.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

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

Gabriel, Michael P. The Battle of Bennington: Soldiers & Civilians, History Press, 2012.

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.

Philbrick, Nathaniel Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution, Viking, 2016.

Snow, Dean 1777: Tipping Point at Saratoga, Oxford Univ. Press, 2016.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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