James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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TWE Remembers: The Battle of Saratoga

by James M. Lindsay
October 17, 2011

Print shows British General Burgoyne surrendering his sword to General George Washington after the Battle of Saratoga.

British General John Burgoyne surrendering his sword to George Washington after the Battle of Saratoga. (John Trumbull/courtesy Library of Congress)

What is the most pivotal day in American history? July 4, 1776? July 3, 1863? December 7, 1941? September 11, 2001? All are good choices to be sure. But my money is on October 17, 1777. That’s the day that an American army forced the surrender of a British army led by “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne at the Battle of Saratoga, some thirty-five miles north of Albany, New York.

In early 1777 Burgoyne formulated a simple plan to end the colonists’ rebellion. He would lead his army southward from Canada into New York through the Lake Champlain valley. Meanwhile, General William Howe would send his forces northward from New York City along the Hudson River. The two British armies would join up to take Albany. This would split the colonies and isolate New England, the hot-bed for the American Revolution. The British army would then move to take Philadelphia. Such a string of decisive British victories would break the back of the rebellion.

But things did not go as planned. Howe decided to take Philadelphia first, which he did. Even though there would be no second British army to meet up with, Burgoyne and his men still left Canada in June 1777 and drove southward. They immediately ran into obstacles. The hills, forests, and mud of northern New York greatly slowed their progress. The colonists routed a thousand of Burgoyne’s men who had been dispatched to secure supplies in Vermont. The Indian tribes that had been recruited to support the British forces quit the expedition. By mid-September 1777, Burgoyne’s progress had been stopped north of Albany by an American army led by Horatio Gates. British efforts to break through the American lines failed.

In mid-October, with the weather growing colder and the prospects of reaching Albany growing dimmer, Burgoyne decided to retreat northward to safety. He didn’t get far. Two days of marching in a driving rainstorm got his army eight miles to the town of Saratoga. Gates’s men, who knew the terrain and were accustomed to the weather, followed and quickly surrounded the town. Trapped and with no prospect of being saved by Howe’s army, Burgoyne surrendered on October 17, 1777.

The significance of the American victory at Saratoga was profound. It stopped the British from delivering what might have been a death blow to the American Revolution. It boosted the morale of the colonists who had witnessed what seemed like a growing list of defeats at the hands of British forces ever since the shots were fired at Lexington and Concord. But most important, the victory at Saratoga persuaded the French to sign a treaty of alliance with the colonies. As another battle four years after Saratoga would make clear, French support would be critical to the success of the American Revolution. If Gentleman Johnny had been a wiser general or the Americans less courageous at Saratoga, the course of U.S. and world history might have been very different.

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  • Posted by Andrew

    Although a traitor, Benedict Arnold deserves credit for the victory at Saratoga. He made Burgoyne pay a heavy price at Freeman’s Farm, and he rallied the American troops on more than one occasion.

    Historians argue he became a turncoat in part because he received so little recognition for his role in the battle.

  • Posted by Charles Duelfer

    Congrats on picking a great point…Saratoga has many fascinating aspects that could not fit in your summary. As a turning point in history I could not agree more. It is too tempting to note that the French were waiting to see which way the wind was blowing before opting in…but clearly that was fundamental. It is also a great place to visit (and not really in Saratoga, but on the Hudson to the east in Schuylerville).

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