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This Day in History: An astounding American victory at Saratoga

On this day in 1777, British General John Burgoyne surrenders his army at Saratoga. It was an astounding American victory, and it changed the course of the Revolution!


Months earlier, Burgoyne had come to America with a bold mission: His army was supposed to break the back of the American Revolution by cutting off the New England colonies from the southern ones. Unfortunately for the British, Americans chipped away at the size and strength of Burgoyne’s force during the summer of 1777. Delays caused the British to run low on supplies. Burgoyne won some victories, but he was losing too many men.

By October 7, Burgoyne was in a bad position. He had been waiting for reinforcements from General Sir Henry Clinton, but to no avail. He probably should have retreated, but he decided to attack instead. It was a disaster! By the end of the day, the British were badly beaten and retreating toward one of their redoubts. (See October 7 history post.)


The next day, the British buried one of their fallen leaders at the Great Redoubt. Then they immediately began to retreat north, to an area near Saratoga which had been previously fortified. The retreat was painfully slow, with many stops. Once the British reached their destination, apparently some soldiers were so exhausted that they lay down on the ground and fell asleep in their wet clothes, even as rain fell on top of them.


Burgoyne has been criticized for not forcing the retreat further—and faster! Would he have been able to get away if he had? Americans were slow to begin their pursuit of the British, but they moved quickly once they got started. Before too long, Burgoyne was completely surrounded.


On October 13, Burgoyne conceded that he would need to work out terms for a surrender. A few days later, an agreement was finally reached; Burgoyne formally surrendered to Gates on October 17. One British officer later wrote of his experience as he lay down arms. Americans had stayed within their lines, so as not to add to the British humiliation. “I did not observe the least disrespect, or even a taunting look,” the British officer wrote, “but all was mute astonishment and pity.”


As General Burgoyne handed his sword to American General Horatio Gates, he made a comment that was later reported in various ways. Burgoyne said something to this effect: “The fortune of war, General Gates, has made me your prisoner.” Gates responded, simply: “I shall always be ready to bear testimony that it has not been through any fault of your excellency.”


Many historians consider the Battle of Saratoga to be one of the most important battles ever fought. Americans had proven to the world that they could hold their own against the powerful British army! When France learned of the victory, it prodded that country into signing a treaty with us. The Spanish and Dutch would soon also join the effort. The entry of these countries into the conflict made the war more global; thus, British resources had to be stretched even further. Obviously, that could only help us in our own fight for independence.


We would finally win that fight almost 4 years to the day after Burgoyne’s surrender. Stay tuned for the Surrender at Yorktown in two days.


Primary Sources:

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