This Day in History: Americans win the first Battle of Saratoga
On this day in 1777, the first battle of Saratoga is fought at Freeman’s Farm. Technically, it was a British victory, but one British officer expressed his fear that the “real advantages resulting from this hard-fought battle will rest on that of the Americans, our army being so much weakened by this engagement….”
At this point in the war, British Lt. General John Burgoyne was working his way down from Canada toward Albany. Except now American Major General Horatio Gates was in his way.
Gates had stationed his forces on Bemis Heights, an area overlooking the Hudson River. The position was a strong one, allowing Gates to aim his cannons at either the river or the road next to it. He further strengthened the position by adding a network of fortifications. He had 22 cannon and about 9,000 men. He was doing well, and the cautious general was content to wait for Burgoyne to come to him.
Unfortunately, the feeling was not shared by Benedict Arnold, who was Gates’s second-in-command. Arnold feared that the American position on the Heights could be outflanked. He also thought that Americans would do better down in the woods, where Americans fought well and the redcoats would be at a disadvantage. When a scout brought word that the British had broken camp on the morning of September 19, the two men argued about what to do. The British had been divided into three columns and were headed toward a nearby farm owned by Loyalist John Freeman. Finally, Gates relented a little bit, but he sent only a portion of his forces: Daniel Morgan’s riflemen and Henry Dearborn’s light infantry.
The two sides engaged a little after noon. At first, Morgan’s sharpshooters earned Americans an advantage. But as they pursued the then-fleeing British, they ran straight into another British line. That single mistake almost did in the American effort, but Morgan called his men back to the woods by mimicking a turkey call. The damage was minimized.
One American captain was captured and interrogated by a British officer. That officer threatened to hang the American if he did not divulge more information about Gates’s force. “You may, if you please,” was the captain’s calm response. The British officer was stunned. Can you believe that American’s bold response earned him a reprieve from the threatened hanging?
In the meantime, the battle went back and forth. Neither side could gain a decisive advantage. Neither side had all of its troops committed. Neither side could quite decide how many reinforcements to send. But the Americans with Morgan were fighting gallantly! One eyewitness later wrote that “Morgan was in his glory, catching the inspiration of [Benedict] Arnold, as he thrilled his men; when he hurled them against the enemy, he astonished the English and Germans with the deadly fire of his rifles.”
In the end, some British reinforcements arrived just in time to put Americans at a slight disadvantage. Darkness was setting in and Americans withdrew. It was technically an American loss because the British held the battlefield, but the British had lost twice as many men as the Americans had. British officers later spoke of the “courage and obstinacy with which the Americans fought” and the “dear bought victory” that they had won. On the American side, Dearborn noted that Americans had “Something more at Stake than fighting for six Pence Pr Day.”
Of course we did! Our ancestors were fighting for FREEDOM. That motivation would enable them to win an important victory at Saratoga just a few weeks after Freeman’s Farm.
Naturally, that is a story for another day.
John F. Luzader, Saratoga: A Military History of the Decisive Campaign of the American Revolution (2008)
Nathaniel Philbrick, Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution (2016)
Richard M. Ketchum, Saratoga: Turning Point of America’s Revolutionary War (1997)
William Leete Stone, Visits to the Saratoga Battle-grounds, 1780-1880 (1895).