The Battles of Saratoga

The year 1777 was a busy one for Benedict Arnold. In April he went out of his way to lead militia against a larger British force at Ridgefield, Connecticut, resulting in a promotion to major general. In August he cleverly halted a British advance at Fort Stanwix in western New York, foiling a plan to attack Albany. Upon his return, Arnold found a new commanding officer in Horatio Gates (a politically-connected, armchair general who had designs on George Washington’s job), with whom he had been on good terms but would soon have words.

Meanwhile, British General John Burgoyne was preparing an attack down the Hudson River. His ultimate objective: a smashing victory and Albany's capture. On September 19th, Burgoyne’s British and Hessian troops moved out to begin what would become known as the Battle of Freeman’s Farm.

Gates had listened to Arnold and located his force in a solid defensive position on high ground known as Bemis Heights, with his artillery overlooking the Hudson River and the narrow strip of land between the river and the bluffs. Gates assumed a frontal attack on the American left (Arnold’s command), which was somewhat secure in dug-in and fortified defensive positions. Arnold disagreed, foreseeing British artillery moving up onto nearby hills which could bombard his infantry. The two men argued, and Gates issued Arnold orders which severely limited his offensive options.

Taking command of practically the entire battle, Arnold led his troops into a series of exhilarating attacks, at one point maniacally racing between the battle lines of each side through a hail of fire. After rallying troops into a key, successful attack on two log huts linking the British defenses, he then coordinated with Morgan in a successful assault on Breymann’s Redoubt on the British right flank as the sun began to set. It was at this point, as the overwhelmed Hessians were retreating and a rout of the British neared, that Arnold’s left leg and his horse were shot. Worse, the animal fell on and crushed the leg. “Would that it had been my heart!” he cried out.

As night fell, the British were able to retreat, having suffered over 600 casualties to the Americans’ 130—a huge win for the rebels. Overall, Burgoyne’s campaign had lost over 1,000 men. On October 17th, Burgoyne had no choice but to surrender after being surrounded by American troops. General Gates again ignored Arnold’s contributions, grabbed the glory for himself and somehow became the “hero of Saratoga” to Congress and the colonies despite staying in his tent and doing little, if anything, of real consequence.

Burgoyne himself credited Arnold as the hero of the rebel victory, which finally proved to France that the colonies were strong enough to merit recognition as an independent nation and worthy of a formal alliance. This is generally considered the turning point of the war and the principal source of the revolution’s success.

Accounts of Arnold’s activities during the battle vary: he was either leading his men on the battlefield, on the periphery sending regiments into the battle as needed, or in a tent with Gates arguing for major offensive action. All three sound like Arnold, and it’s likely he spent some time in each endeavor. Unless he spent the whole day quarrelling with Gates, Arnold once again proved his military mettle—either as a brave, out-in-front leader of men, or as a judicious manager of troops and arms.

As the battle unfolded, Arnold’s left wing advanced and was fully committed, and he had to beg Gates for additional support (which was reluctantly provided). At one point in the battle, Arnold, frustrated with “Granny” Gates’ hesitancy, mounted a horse and roared, “By God, I will soon put an end to it!” and galloped into the fray, but he was ordered back to camp shortly thereafter.

As night fell, the Americans left the field—a technical but hollow victory for the British, since they had lost twice as many men. Gates, whose indecision and blunders had prevented a possible total victory, spitefully made no mention of Arnold in his report to Congress, and removed Colonel Daniel Morgan and his valuable sharpshooters from Arnold’s command. After a shouting match, Gates divested Arnold of his command completely.

On October 7th, Burgoyne attacked again, in essentially a last-ditch effort which would become known as the Battle of Bemis Heights (or, sometimes, the Second Battle of Freeman’s Farm). Despite being ordered by Gates to stay in camp, Arnold could hear the sounds of battle and would not be contained. He jumped on a horse and rode out onto the field, prodding the animal into a mad dash.