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This Day in History: The British win a battle, but lose the war

On this day in 1777, American forces lose the Battle of Fort Montgomery and Fort Clinton. It was the latest in a long string of defeats for the Patriots. But it was also another defeat that would end up playing to Americans’ advantage.

Actually, but for this defeat, one has to wonder if the final American victory at Yorktown would have been possible.

During the fall of 1777, Americans were fighting off a British attempt to split the colonies in half. British General John Burgoyne was moving from Canada to Albany in the hopes that he could gain control of the Hudson River and separate the New England colonies from the southern ones. Meanwhile, to the south, George Washington’s army was attempting to fight off General William Howe’s army. Unfortunately, Howe had just taken Philadelphia on September 26. Washington’s army was headed toward a long winter in Valley Forge.

Howe was not supposed to get sidetracked at Philadelphia. He was supposed to come to Albany to meet Burgoyne. For his part, Burgoyne was stalled just outside Albany, at Saratoga. At this point, he was hoping for assistance from General Sir Henry Clinton, then in New York City.

Tangent: There are an awful lot of Clintons in this story! Some are people—one is a fort. Be prepared to keep them all straight.

General Clinton planned to attack Americans at Forts Montgomery and Clinton on his way to Burgoyne. He thought such an attack would be helpful in drawing Americans away from the British forces near Saratoga.

The forts sat on opposite sides of Popolopen Creek, right where it empties into the Hudson River. General Clinton deployed his men so he could attack the two forts simultaneously. The land attacks were aided by a naval attack.

Wouldn’t you know that the two forts were guarded by another set of Clintons?! Two brothers, American Generals George Clinton and James Clinton, led the American effort at the forts. They were badly outnumbered. Americans had about 600-700 men in comparison to the total British force of 2,100 men. General Clinton had earlier dispatched another 1,000 British soldiers in a feint designed to keep American General Israel Putnam, who was nearby, from coming to the aid of the forts. The ruse worked.

Americans fought hard, but the overwhelming force of the land and naval attacks was too much. Both forts eventually fell. It was a British victory, but only for a moment. No one then knew the ultimate consequence of this battle: Burgoyne never received the help that he needed at Saratoga. He would soon lose that battle and surrender his army to the Americans. That victory, in turn, would prompt the French to join the American Revolution as our allies.

It was an alliance that would ultimately lead to George Washington’s final victory over the British at Yorktown.

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