…a bloody fellow he was. He didn’t care for nothing; he’d ride right in.
–anonymous American soldier, of Benedict Arnold
The fighting at Bennington would give General Burgoyne ample reason to complain of the gathering storm on his left, and yet this was not the whole of his troubles, for another storm had already broken on his right. Though word of the disaster would not reach Burgoyne for another two weeks, Barry St. Leger was not advancing down the Mohawk to Albany but was in full retreat back to his base on Lake Ontario. St. Leger was a tough, seasoned soldier and his force was considerable: 500 Regulars, half British and half Hessian, 500 Tories, and 1,000 Iroquois Indians under the famous and fearsome Mohawk chief known to the English as Joseph Brant. But when St. Leger’s column reached Fort Stanwix on the upper reaches of the Mohawk in the first week of August, they found the place in fit repair and well garrisoned by 750 Americans under two determined officers, Colonel Peter Gansevoort and Lieutenant Colonel Marinus Willett, both of the 3rd New York. St. Leger laid siege to the place and there was some sharp sparring before the walls, but it did not look as if the Americans were likely to capitulate anytime soon. Worse yet for St. Leger’s hopes, an American relief column was already on the march up the Mohawk from the east: some 800 men from Tryon County under Brigadier General Nicholas Herkimer, a veteran of the French wars. When St. Leger’s scouts brought news of Herkimer’s advance, he was quick to dispatch a force of his own to counter it. A large body of Tories and Indians found good ground in a narrow ravine on the south bank of the river near Oriskany, and on 6 August Herkimer’s strung-out column hiked into a well-laid ambush. The battle that blew up here was no proper battle. It was a ferocious, running, confused wilderness melee, neighbor against neighbor and white man against red. The first volley killed most of Herkimer’s officers and sent his rearguard running. Herkimer himself went down with a shattered leg that would soon kill him, but the bulk of the Tryon County men hung on and fought grimly for six hours. Late in the day, both parties had about as much blood-letting as they could bear, and the Tories and Indians fell back west to Stanwix while the Tryon County militiamen limped eastward toward their farms. One in three of Herkimer’s men had fallen in this savage fight on the banks of the Mohawk.
When the Tories and Indians returned to Stanwix, however, they discovered that a good deal of mischief had transpired in their absence. Hearing the rattle of musketry from Oriskany, Willett had sallied out of his fort with a small force, drove in the light screen of guards, and plundered the enemy camps. They hauled away more than twenty wagons full of arms and supplies and destroyed what they could not carry. For the Indians the loss was devastating: they had left a hundred warriors on the battlefield and now reckoned the loss of all that might sustain them through the coming winter. Understandably, many had seen enough of the White Father’s war and began to slip away into the forest. Still, St. Leger’s cause had been advanced: the relief column had been beaten back and his hold on Stanwix strengthened. Colonel Willett was a hard man to shake, but he was well aware of his predicament. St. Leger was inching his guns closer to his walls, and he would be blasted out or starved out sooner or later. Willett himself and a single comrade slipped through St. Leger’s lines in the teeth of a dark summer storm and rode hard for Schuyler’s camp to ask for a relief column. Schuyler was properly unwilling to part with a single Continental with Burgoyne on the Hudson, but he called for a volunteer to raise whatever militia could be raised and march to the relief of Fort Stanwix. Benedict Arnold, now a major general, stepped forward, and in short order was in motion up the Mohawk with a thousand men.
Arnold had courage, neither friend nor foe ever doubted that, but he had cunning too. Although in the end he would be too cunning for his own good, just now he had an exceedingly shrewd idea. A half-crazy Dutchman had recently been taken captive, one Hon Yost Schuyler (no relation to the general). To Americans he was simply a crazy man; to the Indians, though, he was “touched,” a kind of holy man. Arnold put Hon Yost into a coat riddled with bullet holes and sent him into Stanwix to bear this tale: Arnold and the Americans were on the march more than three-thousand strong. When St. Leger’s Indians asked how many soldiers were approaching, Hon Yost with a simple gesture toward the forest suggested that they were as many as the leaves of the trees. The Indians were willing to take that reckoning as holy writ and disappeared. The Tories were skeptical of mysterious spirits, but they had a healthy respect for 3,000 armed men, and they likewise fled westward leaving guns and gear behind. Thus abandoned by half his force, St. Leger too fell back in haste toward Fort Oswego on 23 August. The next day Arnold marched into Stanwix and the siege was lifted for good. Indeed, St. Leger’s campaign was over. He had fallen a hundred air-miles short of the intended juncture with Burgoyne at Albany. More than that, his expedition into the Mohawk Valley had thoroughly roused the American militias. Americans were incensed by the free rein the British seemed to have given their Indian allies, and this anger was intensified when word of Jane McRea’s infamous murder rang up and down the valley. On her way to meet her fiance, a Loyalist officer with Burgoyne, the young woman had been captured, shot, and scalped by Indians in late July. It is hard to measure the influence this particular incident had on the militias’ willingness to turn out, but Burgoyne had already begun to see the big picture. Even before news of St. Leger’s defeat reached him at Fort Edward, he wrote, “Wherever the King’s forces point, militia… assemble in twenty-four hours.”
And so, disheartening news was on its way from St. Leger to Burgoyne. Even darker news had already reached him on 3 August in the form of a dispatch from Sir William Howe. It began politely enough with congratulations for his conquest of Ticonderoga but closed with a shock to Burgoyne’s system: “My intention is for Pennsylvania, where I expect to meet Washington, but if he goes to the northward… and you can keep him at bay, be assured I shall soon be after him to relieve you. After your arrival in Albany, the movements of the enemy will guide yours. Success be ever with you.” This was dicey news indeed. When and whether St. Leger would reach him was still an open question, but one thing was certain, Billy Howe was not coming anytime soon. Howe was a redoubtable fighter, but speed was not his greatest gift. Washington, on the other hand, had shown both a gambler’s steely nerve and the ability to cover ground in a hurry in his flying raids at Trenton and Princeton. Then too, regardless of what Washington did, twenty miles down the west bank of the Hudson at Stillwater was a gathering American force of which Burgoyne knew very little. Keeping Howe’s dispatch to himself, he seems for a time to have contemplated a withdrawal to Fort Ticonderoga, perhaps even to Canada. Or at least this is what he wrote to Lord George Germain. Indeed, such a move would not have been unwise, but both his original design and Germain’s orders were “to force his way to Albany.” For Gentleman Johnny, a “retrograde motion” was a frank admission of defeat, and so on to Albany he would march.
It was nearly the middle of September, though, before he was ready to move. By then the twin battles at Bennington had reduced his effectives by a thousand men and he knew that no help from St. Leger would be forthcoming. For the moment a pleasant Indian summer had settled over the upper Hudson, but he had just thirty days’ rations and hard weather was not far off. Burgoyne might have pushed his column down the east bank of the river to Albany unopposed, but crossing the wide river there, presumably under fire, would have been supremely difficult. Accordingly, he threw a bridge of bateaux across the river just above the Batten Kill on 13 September, and two days later his entire force was on the west bank at Saratoga. As the last details broke up the bridge behind them, Burgoyne’s army started south, groping its way toward the enemy.
The enemy was in fact near to hand and in strength, 6,000 strong with more arriving every day. They had a new commander as well, Horatio Gates, who had at last persuaded Congress to displace Schuyler in the northern department. Politicians, then as now, are often short-sighted, and few seemed to realize that the fact the American cause still had a northern department was owing in large part to Schuyler’s intelligence and energy. But Gates’ appointment suited his Yankee army admirably (events had yet to reveal his defects), and there was no question that he was an able administrator. He was lucky too in his subordinates, particularly in a Polish-born engineer, Colonel Thaddeus Kosciuszko. Indeed, while Burgoyne’s men were hacking their way through the wilderness north of Fort Edward, the Americans had been digging in on Bemis Heights under Kosciuszko’s watchful eye. Just north of Stillwater the Hudson runs through a narrow defile and its banks are steep. Here the bluffs of Bemis Heights rise fully 200 feet above the water, and the broad, wooded ridge runs westward. On this high ground Kosciuszko laid out three sides of a rectangle, two miles wide and three-quarters of a mile deep. A sturdy redoubt covered the river road and breastworks and gun emplacements ran most of its length. Gates held the right with Continentals; Brigadier General Ebenezer Learned held the center with Massachusetts and New York regiments; Arnold held the left with a mixed force of Continentals and militiamen. By the time the impending battle opened, the Americans would have something like 7,000 troops on hand. If there was a weakness to the American position, it was on their left, where another wooded hill had been left unfortified.
If General Burgoyne was feeling any urgency at this point, he did not show it in the rate of his advance from Saratoga. The army poked along in three parallel columns, covering just six miles in two full marching days, feeling its way toward the enemy. On 18 September the Americans made their presence known. A patrol had fallen on a British foraging party digging potatoes in an abandoned field and shot twenty men in ten minutes. By the following morning Burgoyne’s staff had roughly sketched out the American position on Bemis Heights, and the general resolved to give battle. The wisest part of Burgoyne’s battle plan was that it clearly saw the most vulnerable point of the American lines, their far left. If it could be turned and guns rolled up the undefended hill just west of Bemis Heights, Burgoyne might drive the Americans from the river just as he had driven St. Clair from Fort Ti with the guns of Sugar Loaf. His tactical dispositions, however, were less wise. He would attack in three columns: Simon Fraser with his own light infantry and the German jagers would hike westward and reach around for the American flank; Brigadier James Hamilton would command the center with four regiments of Regulars and drive directly for Bemis Heights; Friedrich Riedesel and the Brunswickers would attack up the river road and with luck pry the Americans loose from the direct route of advance. Burgoyne himself would ride with Hamilton in the center. Except for a handful of companies to guard his camps, Burgoyne was committing virtually every man and every musket to the battle against an enemy for once superior in numbers. And this disadvantage in numbers was not even the most significant part of his peril. His columns would be advancing over broken, wooded country out of sight and close communication of one another. A signal gun was supposed to tell the three commanders when their columns were more or less abreast. An alert and aggressive antagonist might well destroy Burgoyne’s army by detachments.
Horatio Gates, however, was no very aggressive antagonist. He had an odd nickname for a soldier–Granny Gates–and it suited him. When the British guns began to bang away in the bright morning sun on 19 September, he was content to hold his lines and let the British come to him. Benedict Arnold on the threatened left, however, was by no means content to wait for Fraser’s light infantry to come crashing down on him. He wanted to strike out immediately and come crashing down on Fraser in the woods where the enemy’s advantage in artillery could be negated. A long argument, hot-tempered on both sides, now unfolded between Gates and Arnold. Around noon Gates at last relented: Arnold was given two crack outfits–Colonel Daniel Morgan’s Virginia riflemen and Major Henry Dearborn’s New Hampshire light infantry–and permission to take the battle to Burgoyne on the British right.
About one o’clock Morgan’s Virginians collided with Fraser’s skirmishers and drove them in with a shock. Morgan was in hot pursuit when he got a shock of his own. In a ravine not far from a little clearing called Freeman’s Farm, Morgan’s regiment ran headlong into the main body of Fraser’s advance and ripping volleys of musketry front and flank tore his outfit into fragments for a time. As the riflemen were regrouping on Morgan’s signal (a wild turkey gobble), Arnold galloped up with help, sending Dearborn’s light infantry and another New Hampshire outfit hustling off into the woods to form up on Morgan’s left. Now the battle blew up in earnest. On the northern fringe of the Freeman’s Farm clearing–just 350 yards wide–Burgoyne emerged from the woods with four regiments of Regulars. If this was danger for Arnold’s wing, it was also opportunity. Drive a wedge between Fraser and Burgoyne and decisive victory might be at hand. The thin edge of the wedge would have to be driven in at Freeman’s Farm. It looked briefly as if Arnold might turn Burgoyne’s right and break his center then and there, but Fraser was quick to send several companies in support and the British 20th swung west to check the threat from that quarter. Now it was a brutal, straight-ahead slugging match. Having won Gates’ grudging permission to support his attack, Arnold would send eight regiments surging through the tall grass before the day was out. Several times the American battle lines reached the British guns on the northern fringe of the clearing, but before they could turn them on the enemy or haul them off, the redcoats would drive them off at the point of the bayonet. The British in turn would attack and close with the defenders only to be beaten back by tearing volleys of musketry. As one survivor remembered, “it was one continual blaze until dark.”
Burgoyne was in the thick of the fighting, all gallantry now, swinging his hat (with a bullet hole drilled through it) and rallying his embattled lines. On the southern edge of the fight, Arnold was everywhere, and he was a tempestuous sight to see. “There wasn’t any waste timber in him,” said one foot soldier, “a bloody fellow he was. He didn’t care for nothing; he’d ride right in.” Both commanders were now desperate for a way to tip the balance in this seesaw battle before the fighting completely used up their forces. Late in the day Arnold galloped back to Gates to beg for more men, one more regiment to strike one more hard blow, but Gates, having committed more than he intended already, refused so much as another musket. By his lights Arnold had threatened the very survival of his army, and he ordered Arnold to stay right where he was on Bemis Heights. What Gates of course could not see from Bemis Heights was that the British center was thoroughly bloodied and very nearly broken. Burgoyne well knew how close to complete disaster he stood. At five o’clock he sent a frantic message to Riedesel on the river road. As the day was drawing toward a close, the Germans–500 foot soldiers and two little six-pounders–came down hard on the American right. Their timely arrival saved their redcoat comrades as it had at Hubbardton. In Arnold’s absence the American lines began to waver and fall back, briefly pursued by the British in the gathering darkness but without much enthusiasm. The Battle of Freeman’s Farm was over. The redcoats could claim the honor of holding the field, but they had paid a grim price: the four regiments in the center counted 600 dead and wounded. The 62nd, mauled when the 20th fell back to secure the flank, had taken an especially fearful pounding. Of the 350 men who had marched into the clearing, only 60 answered the roll the next day. More than 300 casualties on the American side likewise testified to the ferocity of the fighting at Freeman’s Farm.
The fighting men of both sides had done their violent best this long day. Indeed, more than one redcoat was revising his opinion of the American Continentals and abandoning his conviction that they could not bear the weight of British bayonets in a stand-up fight. Yet neither the British nor the American commander had made purposeful use of the steadfast skill and stubborn courage of the men in the ranks. Burgoyne’s plan was flawed from the outset. When the signal gun started his three columns in motion at ten o’clock, it would be about the last coordinated move his army made that day. In fact, his widely separated columns blundering through the woods presented rich opportunities that Gates refused to see and seize. Fraser, for example, isolated on the American left, was vulnerable. (He never even found the hill he was looking for!) When Riedesel took half his command off into the woods to go to Burgoyne’s rescue, Gates might have driven straight up the river road and broken the British left while Riedesel was trying to save its battered center. Such success as the Americans enjoyed this day was the direct consequence of the energy and initiative of Benedict Arnold, but when the great opportunity was at hand he was back at Bemis Heights locked in a futile argument with his commander. Gates’ refusal to strike when the iron was hot gave him a drawn battle when he might have won a great victory. Still, for the Americans it was a sufficient day’s work. The southern fringe of the clearing at Freeman’s Farm was as close as the British army would get to Albany.