Sunday, September 6, 2020

ARP165 Bemis Heights (2nd Saratoga)

A few weeks ago, we left General Horatio Gates at the head of an army comprised of Continentals and militia poised to block the advance of General Johnny Burgoyne and his army of British and German Bruswickers.  The two armies had fought at what became known as the battle of Freeman’s Farm, without any real change to the two army’s positions.

Since then, both armies remained in position, neither ready to advance on the other.  Gates sat behind his entrenchments at Bemis Heights, waiting for the British to get desperate enough to attack his strong defensive position.

British Desperation

With each day that passed, the Continental Army grew stronger, while the British grew weaker.  By early October, Gates had over 10,000 and Continentals and militia under his direct command.  Burgoyne’s army had dwindled to about 5000.  He was cut off from food and supplies from the north, and could not venture out to forage in the area, not that there was much left to forage even if they could go out.

The British army had been on reduced rations, meaning the men were not getting enough to eat.  By day, Continental riflemen picked off British pickets from a distance.  At night, the patriots snuck up on the pickets and killed them with knives or tomahawks.  Among the ranks, suicides and desertions grew.  Conditions were that miserable and prospects that bleak.

Benedict Arnold wounded on Bemis Heights
(from British Battles)
For many officers and men, more than their own lives were at stake.  Many of them had their families with them.  These dependents were on the same starvation-level rations as the army and faced an unknown fate if they fell into the hands of the enemy.  German commander Friedrich von Riedesel had his wife and daughters with him.  He had attempted to send his family back, but his wife refused to abandon him.

For reasons beyond the safety of his family, General Riedesel had been pushing Burgoyne to pull back the army to Fort Edward.  From there, they would be able to reestablish supply lines to Ticonderoga and would have a better line of retreat.  Burgoyne dismissed such recommendations.  He was still focused on getting to Albany.  He had sent messages to General Henry Clinton in New York, encouraging him to send an army up the Hudson to meet up with Burgoyne in Albany.  Retreating was out of the question.  Even so, Burgoyne knew his position was becoming more desperate each day.

In addition to Burgoyne facing an army twice his size, New York militia general Jacob Bailey now led 2000 soldiers north of Fort Edward, making that route of retreat much less of a possibility.  

As I mentioned last week. Burgoyne wrote a series of letters to General Clinton.  Most had a rather optimistic tone, explained later as not wanting to put in writing how really desperate his situation had become.  Burgoyne had learned only recently that General Howe had abandoned him by taking his entire army south to capture Philadelphia and with no intention of moving north again that year.  Burgoyne learned of that long enough before that he could have retreated back to Ticonderoga and ended the season there.  That was what many of his generals recommended.

Burgoyne, though, had gone to London the year before and gotten this command by telling the political leadership that the generals in America were too timid and not aggressive enough in pushing forward.  He had promised to open up a corridor from Canada to New York City that year.  Anything less would be seen as a failure.  Perhaps withdrawal would have been a sensible act of caution, but that is exactly how he had criticized his superiors in order to get this command ahead of more senior generals.  Burgoyne was a gambler.  He knew that he had to take some real risks, not only to win the war, but also to justify his rise in the ranks past other leaders.

General Burgoyne
(from Wikimedia)
Although he didn’t use the term, Burgoyne was showing the same “victory or death” attitude that had served the Americans well in many prior battles.  Turning back was not a serious consideration.

Although General Howe had abandoned him, Burgoyne still hoped that Clinton could salvage the campaign.  Although Clinton complained that he did not have enough men even to defend his command around New York City, Burgoyne hitched all of his hopes on Clinton sending a force up the Hudson River to Albany.  If he could just reach that town, his army would be saved.  Clinton had sent a message which Burgoyne received on September 21.  Clinton had sent the message ten days earlier, saying that ten days later he would begin a diversionary attack up the Hudson River with 2000 men to attack Fort Montgomery and that he hoped it might divert some of the American forces away from Burgoyne.  

Clinton never indicated he would go all the way to Albany.  Even if he did, Clinton’s 2000 man force combined with Burgoyne’s army of 5000 or 6000 effectives would still be outnumbered, by the enemy, probably by two to one.  Even if Clinton delivered more than he promised in his note by taking Albany, that would not necessarily spell victory for the British.  Burgoyne still placed all of his hopes on joining up with Clinton at Albany and ultimately reaching New York City.  Even though that looked increasingly unrealistic to just about everyone else.

Burgoyne's Advance (from Wikimedia)
Some have argued that Burgoyne’s letters to Clinton at this point indicated that Burgoyne knew that failure was the probable end of his campaign and that he wanted someone else to take the blame.  On September 27 Burgoyne sent a messenger to tell Clinton he needed assurance that Clinton could take Albany before he could push through.  Otherwise, if Clinton failed, Burgoyne would be forced to retreat.  The next day, Burgoyne learned about John Brown’s raid that had captured Skenesborough and also received an inaccurate report that the Americans had taken Fort George.  This caused Burgoyne to dash off another desperate note to Clinton saying that he would not have given up  his communications with Ticonderoga if he had not expected to meet up with British forces at Albany.  Clinton sent reply messages to make clear he was not going to Albany. The Americans intercepted those messages, so they never reached Burgoyne anyway.

On October 4 and 5, 1777 Burgoyne held a council of war with General Riedesel, Philips, and Fraser.  They agreed that they needed to do something soon.  The army would launch an attack against the American defenses. Their hope was to punch a hole in the lines, and march through to Albany. 

Burgoyne originally proposed that he would deploy virtually his entire army against the American Left, leaving only a few hundred men to guard the baggage near the river.  The other generals thought this was insanity, since the Americans could then easily capture their baggage with a quick raid, leaving the army in the field with nothing.  Generals Riedesel and Fraser still recommended the army retreat back to Fort Edward.  Burgoyne, however, refused to consider that option.  

Instead, the generals agreed on a plan to attack the American left flank. If they could roll up the Americans there, they could take the heights and threaten to push the rest of the Continental Army back against the Hudson River.  The British could then push more soldiers into the battle as needed over the course of the day, while still protecting their baggage.  It was a desperate gamble, but really the best option aside from retreat or surrender.

Arnold-Gates Fight

The American leadership though, seemed to be doing everything it could to undermine its own very strong position.  Specifically, the fight between General Gates and General Arnold grew into an all-out squall.  Gates had left Arnold pretty much on his own on the left flank during the battle of Freeman’s Farm a few weeks earlier.  By failing to send sufficient reinforcements that day, Gates seemed to be trying to set up Arnold for failure.  When the Americans under Arnold held their own under the British assault, it appeared that Arnold would be credited with a great victory.  Arnold had to return to headquarters to beg Gates personally to send in more reinforcements.  After that, Gates refused to let Arnold return to the battlefield and lead the final victory.  By all appearances, Gates seemed more willing to lose the battle than to give Arnold credit for the victory.

When Gates reported the victory to Congress and to the Governor of New York, he did not even mention Arnold.  Gates merely stated that a division of the army had stopped the British advance.  He named several field officers but failed to mention Arnold’s leadership at all.

Gen. Horatio Gates
(from Nat. Port. Gal.)

Several days after the battle at Freeman’s farm. Colonel James Wilkinson removed Morgan’s riflemen from Arnold’s command and moved them to his own command, without giving Arnold any notice.  It was hard for anyone to see any military value to this change.  In fact, removing the riflemen from the flanks, where they had been so critical at Freeman’s Farm seemed the height of military stupidity.  The lack of any notice was also a deliberate act of disrespect designed to provoke Arnold.  Arnold had issued daily orders to Morgan’s men, only to find them countermanded by Wilkinson's orders.  It made Arnold look like a fool who did not know what was happening in the chain of command.

Arnold took the orders as a direct insult against him and one putting the whole army at risk in an attempt to win some petty political game.  He charged into Gates’ headquarters for a direct confrontation.  The two generals got into a screaming match.  Gates said he was not even sure Arnold was still a general since he had submitted his resignation to Congress weeks earlier, shortly before traveling to Saratoga.  He informed Arnold that he was relieved of command and that General Lincoln would take his place.  He further suggested that if Arnold did not like it, he should go back to Philadelphia and take up the issue with Congress.

Arnold stalked out, but then sent a written note asking Gates to explain the reasons for his treatment.  Instead, Gates simply sent a note to Arnold giving him leave to return to Philadelphia, and saying he would no longer speak with Arnold either in person or in writing.  

According to legend, although the document has never been found, every officer of the line in the army, except General Lincoln, signed a written request to Arnold not to abandon the army at this time.  Even officers who knew how prickly Arnold could be did not want to lose their best combat commander on the eve of battle.  

American Charge at Saratoga
(from History on the Net)
As I mentioned in an earlier episode, Gates’ disfavor of Arnold seemed to stem from Arnold’s decision to take two young officers, Richard Varick and Henry Livingston onto his staff.  The two officers had been on General Schuyler’s staff before he lost his command.  Gates saw Arnold’s decision to give staff positions to these two young allies of his arch-rival as a direct attack against him.

After hearing from all the officers who wanted Arnold to remain, Gates sent out a feeler via an aide to see if Arnold would be willing to dismiss the two men, as an olive branch to repair relations between them.  Arnold absolutely refused to dismiss two officers.  They had done nothing wrong and he would not dismiss them in order to assuage the commander’s feelings.  Although Varick and Livingston soon left on their own, the two generals seemed unwilling to repair their relationship for the good of the war effort.

Arnold remained in camp, but Gates refused to include him in any staff meetings of top officers.  Arnold continued to write letters to Gates, recommending various actions, but Gates simply ignored them.  On October 1, Gates formally stripped Arnold of command, personally took over the left wing, and gave General Lincoln command of the right wing.

Despite having stronger numbers and a good position, the Continental Army’s leadership seemed hopelessly divided.  Gates seemed determined to destroy Arnold, even if it meant losing the battle.

The Battle

On the morning of October 7, General Burgoyne personally led a division of over 2000 soldiers, along with General Fraser, against the American left flank.  His goal was to see if they could find weakness in the American lines.  The light infantry, grenadiers, and select German troops, backed by ten field cannon left camp shortly after 10:00 AM, advancing to Barber’s Wheatfield.  From there, they could observe the American positions.  

Bemis Heights troop positions (from Wikimedia)
Facing the British in the woods on the other side of the field were Morgan’s rifles along with Enoch Poor and Ebenezer Learned’s brigades, more than 2000 continentals, with perhaps another 1500 militia.  For most of the morning, the two armies eyed each other and vied for position.  

Around 2:00 PM, the British opened fire against Poor’s brigade. The distance was too far for the firing to be effective and the Americans held their ground.  Finally, the British charged across the field with their bayonets, but were cut down by the Americans at close range.  Major John Acland, who led the British charge was shot in both legs and taken prisoner.  General Poor’s Continentals counter-charged and captured the British cannons on the other side of the field.

Morgan’s riflemen engaged with Fraser’s regulars, keeping the British pinned down with deadly accurate rifle fire.  Burgoyne sent orders for the men to withdraw, but Morgan’s riflemen shot the messenger before he could get to Fraser.  Not aware of the orders, Fraser remained on the field, taking heavy casualties.

Arnold Attacks 

As the battle raged, General Gates was nowhere close to the battle.  Although Gates had made himself the division commander there, he remained at his headquarters two miles away from his soldiers in the field.  Arnold, confined to his tent, fumed as he heard the distant sound of gunfire.  For several hours, the Americans, primarily General Enoch Poor’s brigade and Morgan’s riflemen, held the enemy at bay. Gates dispatched written orders based on reports received from the battlefield.

Finally, after he could take it no longer, Arnold mounted his horse and rode toward the sound of gunfire.  He found Colonel Morgan, but simply rode past him toward the enemy.  On the front lines, Arnold rallied the retreating men and reorganized them for another charge.  Morgan’s riflemen soon caught up with Arnold and provided him with support as the British line reeled from the unexpected American charge.

Benedict Arnold at Saratoga
On the other side of the lines, General Simon Fraser attempted to rally the British lines, riding up and down, encouraging the men.  Arnold saw Fraser’s effective leadership.  He did not know it was Fraser, but turned to Morgan and told him that the officer needed to be taken out.  Morgan assigned the job to one of his best sharpshooters.  Minutes later, Fraser fell off his horse, fatally wounded with a shot to the stomach.

Men who saw Arnold in the field that day described him as a madman, perhaps even drunk. Although the charge of drunkenness seems to have been made by his detractors trying to disparage his role that day.  Arnold rode back and forth, shouting to them and encouraging them, regularly exposing himself to enemy fire, as if he preferred to die in battle than return to his tent as ordered.  

He rode his horse across the entire British line of battle, drawing numerous shots but never being hit.  Finally Arnold rallied a regiment to charge the British redoubt, leading the charge himself.  The defenders fired at him, finally taking down his horse,who collapsed.  Arnold jumped free from the falling animal and stood up, only to have a wounded enemy soldier shoot him at near point blank range, hitting Arnold in the leg.  When the soldiers with Arnold moved to bayonet his attacker, Arnold said “Don’t hurt him! He’s a fine fellow.  He only did his duty.”

It was the last great charge of the day and allowed the Americans to hold the field.  The Germans made one more futile attempt to retake the redoubt but were easily driven back. The British pulled back to a defensive position near the Hudson River, badly bloodied that day.  As Arnold was carried from the field, Gate’s aide finally caught up with him, with the orders that he should return to camp immediately.


Between the two battles, Freeman’s farm and Bemis Heights, fought within a few weeks of each other and generally over the same area of land, the British had taken over 1000 casualties, over 400 killed and nearly 700 wounded.  Several hundred more were taken prisoner.  With his dwindling force running out of food and supplies, General Burgoyne’s pulled back to a defensive area along the Hudson River.  Another attack was out of the question, and even the prospect of retreat seemed unlikely following the battle.

Burial of Simon Fraser 
(from National Army Museum)

The death of General Simon Fraser was an especially difficult blow to the British leadership.  Fraser died of his wounds early in the morning the day after the battle, while in the care of the Baroness von Riedesel.  He was buried along with Burgoyne’s aide de camp, Francis Clerke, who also fell victim to Morgan’s rifles, while delivering a message to field commanders.  The two officers’ graves went unmarked to prevent the enemy from finding them.

The Americans had lost far fewer casualties, less than 350 killed and wounded between both battles.  More militia reinforcements were arriving each day, swelling the American ranks.  

General Arnold was the most conspicuous injury.  One of Gates’ aides approached Arnold as stretcher bearers carried him back from the battlefield.  He asked “where are you hit?” Arnold responded “in the same leg” meaning the same one that had been shot at the Battle of Quebec a couple of years earlier.  Arnold then added “I wish it had been my heart.”  Arnold’s work that day in defiance of Gates’ orders had been critical to the victory.

Now, the British had no more real options to fight.  Burgoyne’s last hope was that a relief force under General Clinton might reach them from New York City.  His army hung on, refusing to surrender, with the hope of a relief column to save the army.

We’ll see how that goes next week when we cover the surrender at Saratoga.

- - -

Next  Episode 166 Surrender at Saratoga

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Further Reading


Horatio Gates:

Bemis Heights October 7, 1777 Battlemap:

Battle of Saratoga:

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:

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

Martin, James K. Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero: An American Warrior Reconsidered, NYU Press, 1997.

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 (book recommendation of the week).

Randall, Willard Sterne Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor, William Morrow & Co, 1990.

Schnitzer, Eric H. & Don Troiani, Don Troiani's Campaign to Saratoga - 1777: The Turning Point of the Revolutionary War in Paintings, Artifacts, and Historical Narrative, Stackpole Books, 2019

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

Ward, Christopher The War of the Revolution, Macmillan, 1952.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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