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October 7: Battle of Bemis Heights (Second Battle of Saratoga)

Posted on: March 1st, 2019 by hauleymusic No Comments

Second of two battles that led to the British surrender at Saratoga (American War of Independence). After failing to even reach the American lines in his previous attack (Battle of Freeman’s Farm, 19 September), Burgoyne had waited in the hope that a supporting attack from New York would force General Gates to split his army. When it was clear that this was not happening, Burgoyne made the unusual (for him) move of calling a council of war. Those of his senior officers who were willing to give advice were in favor of a retreat back towards Canada, but this was not the advice Burgoyne wanted, and instead he decided to attack again.
Since Freeman’s Farm, the American position had increased in strength. Gates now had 11,000 men and outnumbered Burgoyne by two to one. Burgoyne’s plan was to punch through the American left wing, and by a rapid march reach Albany before Gates could react. Burgoyne was still hoping to find British troops at Albany, but General Clinton’s attack from New York never reached Albany, stalling once it captured the Highland forts upriver from New York. A second weakness in the plan was that Burgoyne’s army had shown no ability to move quickly, and was in very poor condition. Burgoyne’s plan was a desperate attempt to avoid disaster.
Unsure of the American positions, Burgoyne decided to start the day by sending out a reconnaissance in force. Fifteen hundred men with ten artillery pieces advanced slowly towards the American lines. After an advance of three-quarters of a mile, they had discovered nothing. The advance was halted and the troops formed into a line, then stopped to wait.
It was now the Americans turn to act. Their scouting was far superior to the British, and news of the unsupported advance soon reached Gates, who ordered Poor’s brigade (New Hampshire regulars) to attack the British left. This attack was supported by Daniel Morgan’s regiment, which was able to reach the British rear. Also prominent in the American attack was Benedict Arnold. Although he had been relieved of his command by Gates, Arnold had remained with the army, and when battle developed Arnold dashed into the fray, and soon appears to have taken command of the American attack. As a battlefield commander he may have been the best on either side during the war. He led from the front, and the American troops were willing to follow him into battle in a way that few other commanders could imitate.
Under the stress of the repeated American attacks, the British line crumbled. General Simon Fraser was killed by sniper fire, ordered by Arnold, as was one of Burgoyne’s aids sent to order a retreat. Burgoyne was initially able to get the main body of the army back into their entrenchments at Freeman’s Farm in remarkably good condition, but once again Arnold came to the fore, leading a wild attack on the British right, which succeeded in capturing part of the British defenses. However, after Arnold was forced off the field by a serious wound the American attacks began to tire, and the British managed to avoid total disaster.
Even so, the days fighting left the British position at Freeman’s Farm untenable. What had started as an attempt to punch a hole in the American lines had ended with the British being forced to retreat from their own camp. Burgoyne was now faced with the inevitability of surrender.
Further reading:
Furneaux, Rupert (1971). The Battle of Saratoga. New York: Stein and Day.
Mintz, Max M (1990). The Generals of Saratoga: John Burgoyne and Horatio Gates. Yale University Press.
Patterson, Samuel White (1941). Horatio Gates: Defender of American Liberties. Columbia University Press.