This was the first of two battles leading to the British surrender at Saratoga. General Burgoyne having reached the Hudson River from Canada, was now facing an American army at Bemis Heights, New York. A site selected for its defensive potential, just north of Stillwater and about 10 miles (16 km) south of Saratoga; the army spent about a week constructing defensive works designed by Polish engineer Tadeusz Kościuszko.
The heights had a clear view of the area and commanded the only road to Albany, where it passed through a valley between the heights and the Hudson River. To the west of the heights lay more heavily forested bluffs that would present a significant challenge to any heavily equipped army. The British spent the next two days marching down the river in three columns. General Simon Fraser had the right hand column in the woods. The center column followed the rough road south, commanded by Brig. General James Hamilton. Baron von Riedesel commanded the left column following the Hudson. The army managed to travel only six miles in two days. Burgoyne learned of the Patriots’ position on 18 September as an American patrol attacked British foragers.
Britain chose a three pronged attack. General Fraser commanding the largest force of 2000 men was to try to outflank the American left. The British center, 1100 men, and the British left, a similar sized force, were to pin the American forces in place on Bemis Heights until Fraser could hit them from the flank. A cannon was fired to signal the start of the British advance at 10 am on 19 September.
The Americans were in place behind their fortifications as the British began their advance. Most of the American army was formed from regular Continental Troops. General Horatio Gates was in personal command nearest the river, with General Ebenezer Learned commanding the center, and General Benedict Arnold on the left commanding a mixed force of Continentals and militia (many from Albany County).
If allowed to develop, the British plan may have had success, however, Arnold recognized how vulnerable the British were while advancing, and tried to convince Gates to allow him to advance. Gates gave in at about noon, and allowed most of Arnold’s men to advance including Colonel Daniel Morgan and the newly formed Provisional Rifle Corps, which comprised about 500 specially selected riflemen from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, chosen for their sharpshooting ability. This unit came to be known as Morgan’s Riflemen.
At Freeman’s Farm, Arnold’s force met with the British center one mile north of the American positions at Bemis Heights. The battle started at the farm. The American assault was resolute, and for awhile the British line was forced back, although an undaunted British counter attack took back the line. Benedict Arnold was at the lead of the fighting. His spirit helped inspire his men. The British were not expecting the Americans to put up such a good fight, and later in the afternoon, the British started weakening.
Burgoyne had deliberately split his force, and was now suffering for it. Riedesel’s command was struggling to climb up from the Hudson to the battlefield, while Fraser was unable to reach the battlefield. Arnold believed he could destroy the British army with a little help. However, Gates refused to reinforce his number of troops. Arnold was against only at most 25 % of the British army. Gates did not want to risk weakening his main position while Fraser was somewhere in the woods and could be a force to contend with at any moment.
By evening, the arrival of Riedesel forced Arnold to withdraw, allowing the British to hold the battlefield. They suffered heavy casualties however, losing 556 regulars killed and wounded. The Americans had also suffered heavily, nearly 300 killed and seriously wounded, but they were able to replace their losses, and over the next few weeks the American army was to grow dramatically (many from the Albany County Militia).
Burgoyne was of the opinion that a British attack on the next day would have defeated the Americans, but his own army was in far too poor a condition to consider such an attack. Burgoyne then further delayed on news that General Clinton might be joining him from New York. The moment was lost by the time Burgoyne was ready to strike again.
John Luzader, a former park historian at the Saratoga National Historical Park, believed that Arnold remained at Gates’ headquarters, receiving news and dispatching orders through messengers. Arnold biographer James Kirby Martin argued that Arnold played a more active role at Freeman’s Farm by directing patriot troops into position and possibly leading some charges before being ordered back to headquarters by Gates.
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Furneaux, Rupert (1971). The Battle of Saratoga. New York: Stein and Day.
Luzader, John F. (2008). Saratoga: A Military History of the Decisive Campaign of the American Revolution. New York: Savas Beatie.
Martin, James Kirby (1997). Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero: An American Warrior Reconsidered. New York University Press. pp. 378–81, 514.
Murphy, Jim (2007). The Real Benedict Arnold. Houghton Mifflin.
Patterson, Samuel White (1941). Horatio Gates: Defender of American Liberties. Columbia University Press.
Randall, Willard Sterne (1990). Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor. William Morrow and Inc.