The Saratoga Campaign and the Wilderness War of 1777
The Saratoga Campaign was supposed to be the finishing stroke to crush the Rebellion of the American Colonies. After the retirement from Boston, the reinforced British returned and took New York City, nearly destroying Washington’s army multiple times in the process. Now, this success was to lead to a grand campaign to cut off the New England colonies and isolate them by a three pronged invasion of inland New York from Canada and New York City. It looked nice on paper, anyway.
And usually, studies remain at this elevated, paper level. This book, and the second volume of a three part series, go beyond that to put you in the realities of 18th century life and warfare in the colonies better than any other I have read.
The first reality is that the area to be traversed was a true wilderness that few Europeans had any idea about. Inland travel was virtually impossible away from the few tracks and rivers. Scouts could move well, but wagons and bulk traffic was virtually impossible. So the idea that you needed to occupy this hinterland to ‘cut off’ New England was absurd. This traffic, if any, probably went by sea or by roads much closer to New York City than Albany and points north. And putting a few thousand men in Albany wasn’t going to cut off the tracks for more limited communication such as messages and couriers.
The next issue was that of moving armies through the land. Europe was trying to limit the impact of wars on civilians since the horrors of the 30 Years War, but even so imagine yourself on a tiny farm in the wilderness when a military unit of a few hundred men show up looking for a meal, or even more supplies. Even if they don’t lose control and shoot you and your family and burn the farm, the loss of what little food reserves were needed for selling for supplies or keeping you alive in the winter would often be ruinous. The other factor was that both of the armies moving from Canada were going to make heavy use of Indians as scouts and even as a large part of the invading forces. Indians on the warpath were going to generate a large number of atrocities. It was how they made war.
Not that the British weren’t counting on this terror factor in hopes of cowing the colonists. However, with the Indians not discriminating between loyal settlers and rebels, there wasn’t a lot of profit in staying loyal. so the effect ran to increase the bitterness towards England overall. And during the year a woman, Jane McCrea, who was engaged to an officer fighting with Burgoyne, was killed by Indians and was made a symbol for the rebels and a reason for dissidents in the home country to oppose the war.
The first step in the plan going wrong was that Gen. Howe in New York wasn’t very interested in moving inland. He wanted to use his naval forces and army to descend on the Rebel capital in Philadelphia. And so he did, leaving the third prong moving north up the Hudson very weak. It was really now a support force, likely unable to act alone if something happened to the other two forces.
The northern forces had issues too – having fewer men than planned and being short of transportation.
Burgoyne Moves South
Volume I follows the northern invasion directly south from Canada. The route was over Lake Champlain and the road beside it. This let most of the heavy supplies travel in boats. At the south end of the lake as Fort Ticonderoga, a rebel stronghold. Burgoyne reached this fort and after a poorly conducted defense it fell, and the Patriots retired south, harassed by Indian scouts. It was now early July.
Now, in the middle of the wilderness the real world began to take hold. The original plan was to move up a river to Lake George, which ended up very close to the Hudson River. Now that he was on the scene, this river was little more than a rocky creek, and the other lake was 200 feet higher than Lake Champlain and the trail was small and nearly vertical. The river was vertical…there as a waterfall between Lake George and the river.
There were roads heading south, but no road heading for the Hudson. Burgoyne decided to stay in this district and build a road to the Hudson, calling back for horses and wagons to Canada. This took about a month, while Loyalist forces collected ahead of him.
While collecting himself for a final advance toward Albany, Burgoyne heard that there was a supply depot in Bennington, Vermont. A force of about 800 men including some 150 British loyal colonists went off to try and collect them. However, this was also where John Stark was collecting Patriot forces and he outnumbered this column. The ensuing battle was a disaster, with most of the column being killed or captured. Any loyalist men caught was killed by the army, or by angry Patriot civilians. This was in no way a clean war. In this blow about 10 percent of Burgoyne’s force was lost.
Raid of Fort Ticonderoga
As Burgoyne moved off down the Hudson, Patriot forces attacked Ticonderoga in his rear and destroyed the supplies and boats there. Burgoyne’s supply line north was now almost cut off.
With this news, Burgoyne had to break through the superior Patriot army fortified at Saratoga on the Hudson. Beyond that was Albany, and a possible linkup with New York City. There were several engagements there, which you could argue might be tactical victories but the strategic position was the same after each. The Patriot army blocked the road south, it was being reinforced, and each battle cost the English men, officers, and supplies that could not be replenished. Eventually Burgoyne had no choice but to surrender his force.
New York Starves
New York City, cut off from its agricultural supplies and stuffed with a garrison and numerous loyalist refugees, would be very short of supplies for the forseeable future. The inland areas, ravaged by war, would not be a lot better off themselves this year.
A final incident
The author relates a story where a group of retreating British soldiers were spotted by Captain Allen and some scouts. However, there was a black woman and baby along with the group. It was common knowledge that blacks found by British soldiers, slave or free were taken and sold in Canada as slaves.
Allen intercepted the group, and found that the woman was Dinah Mattis, a domestic slave. She was removed from her captors and sent to Vermont, where she and her baby were given papers as free citizens.
This book moves easily between the small personal details and the big picture views that somehow get left out of most descriptions of the campaigns. Even the views of the impact on blacks, slaves, and women does not descend into political correctness but actually shows the complexity of the life in the wilderness. From a “witch woman” executing prisoners to Jane McCrea and Dinah Mattis, its a nasty and complex world that we don’t often hear about.