The Battle of Bemis Heights

By early October, 1777, the feud between Horatio Gates, the commander of the Continental Army in the Hudson Valley, and his best general, Benedict Arnold came to a head. Arnold was furious that Gates had not mentioned him in the dispatches to Washington about the victory at Freeman’s Farm, a victory that was solely due to the aggressive Arnold. Gates confined him to his tent, and Arnold offered to return to Washington in Pennsylvania, but he didn’t.

The Battle at Freeman’s Farm prevented Gen Burgoyne from attacking Bemis Heights, where Gates had entrenched his Army, blocking the passage south to Albany. Burgoyne was short on all types of supplies, particularly food. The Battle of Bennington had stripped him of his Indian allies, who lost faith in Burgoyne after the Hessian defeat there. Moreover, Daniel Morgan’s Riflemen were expert woodsman and harassed the British formations day and night, and even worse, prevented Burgoyne’s foraging parties from scouring the countryside for supplies. Burgoyne decided to wait for relief by Henry Clinton’s columns that were supposed to attack up the Hudson Valley from New York City. But Clinton wouldn’t arrive for another two weeks. Burgoyne’s Army would starve before then.Uncharacteristically, Burgoyne called for a council of war with his officers, and they almost all advocated to retreat back to Canada. The proud Burgoyne refused. He decided to attack. The entire army would punch through Gate’s left flank on the Bemis Heights and continue on to Albany, while the Continental Army was reeling from the assault.

On the morning of 7 October, 1777, Burgoyne launched a 1500 man reconnaissance in force to identify weak points in Gate’s left flank. The Americans, swollen with militia from the surrounding area after the recent victories, outnumbered the British nearly 2-1 and Gates saw an opportunity to make the odds even better.

Gates attacked the British force. Morgan’s Riflemen, with no British light infantry or Indians to oppose their movement through the woods, snuck around to their rear and took a frightful toll on the British and Hessian officers and NCOs. Morgan’s men even almost killed Burgoyne, who while observing the battle from afar still had a hole in his coat, hat, and saddle from the riflemen. Gates nearly destroyed the force, and was prepared to return to the entrenchments: A day’s work well done. But then Arnold showed up.

Arnold took the force forward against Gates’ orders and attacked the British camp. Gates had no choice but to reinforce the aggressive Arnold and Morgan as they stormed the British redoubts. The fighting was fierce, but reinforcements in the form of Benjamin Lincoln’s men from the right half of the Bemis Heights’ entrenchments carried the day. In the final moments Arnold’s horse was hit, and when he fell, crushed Arnold’s leg. Gates’ messenger finally caught up to Arnold, and he returned to his tent, carried by his men in a litter.

As darkness fell, Burgoyne realized he couldn’t hold the camp against a determined American attack the next day. He retreated to Saratoga, harassed by Morgan the entire time. Gates’ initially couldn’t follow, his two best line commanders, Arnold and Lincoln, were both wounded, and the army disorganized. But it didn’t matter, Burgoyne couldn’t go anywhere – he was surrounded, and out of supplies.

On 17 October, 1777, Burgoyne surrendered his command at Saratoga to Gates. 5900 British, German and Canadian troops marched into American captivity. Gates and Arnold moved south to deal with Clinton’s excursion up the Hudson Valley, and the British and Canadian troops around Lake Champlain and Fort Ticonderoga retreated back to Canada.

The American victory at Saratoga sent shockwaves throughout the world. News of the victory reached Paris in December, and by February, Benjamin Franklin convinced France’s King Louis XVI to support the nascent American republic against the British monarchy.

In 1778, the American Revolution became a world war.

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