Two-hundred and thirty-three years ago, on September 19, 1777, British General John Burgoyne launched a three-column attack on General Horatio Gates and his American forces in the First Battle of Saratoga, also known as the Battle of Freeman’s Farm.
The battle began when Burgoyne moved some troops to flank the entrenched patriot position on Bemis Heights. Under intense cannon fire from the British, Gates ordered his army to wait patiently before launching a counterattack.
American Brigadier General Benedict Arnold, second in command, vehemently disagreed with Gates. Anticipating British maneuvers, he wanted to place a significant number of troops in their way.
After arguing for a few hours, Arnold convinced Gates to order the troops onto the battlefield to meet the British center column, and to dispatch a regiment of riflemen to intercept their right flank.
Although the Americans inflicted severe casualties on the British, the delay in ordering a counterattack forced the Americans to retreat. Some 550 British soldiers and 280 American troops were killed in the five-hour battle.
Burgoyne gained control of Freeman’s Farm, but skirmishes continued in the following days. The British waited in the hope that reinforcements would arrive from New York City, which they occupied.
British General Sir Henry Clinton, attempting to divert attention from Burgoyne’s army, seized American forts in the Hudson River highlands on October 6, but his efforts were too late to aid Burgoyne.
Meanwhile, as American militia forces continued to arrive, swelling the size of the Continental Army, Gates removed Arnold as his second in command. Arnold felt slighted by such a rebuke to his honor.
On October 7, 1777, eighteen days after the First Battle of Saratoga, Burgoyne’s gains were wiped out when, after it was clear he would not receive help in time, he again assaulted the Americans on the same ground outside Saratoga, N.Y., in the Battle of Bemis Heights.
In fierce fighting — marked by Arnold’s high-spirited rallying of patriot troops, in defiance of orders that he stay off the battlefield — British forces were driven back to positions they held before the first battle.
The Americans captured a portion of the entrenched British defenses when Burgoyne retreated. And when his army was surrounded by a much larger one, he was forced to surrender on October 17, ending the Second Battle of Saratoga in a major victory for the patriots.
Arnold went on to betray the patriot cause by offering to hand over the fort at West Point, N.Y., to the British in 1780, giving them control over the strategic Hudson River Valley and separating New England from the rest of the colonies.
However, the plot was foiled, and Arnold, a hero of the battles of Ticonderoga and Saratoga, became the most infamous traitor in American history. He continued to fight on the side of Britain, where he died in poverty in 1801.
News of the British surrender in New York brought France into the War of Independence as an American ally, transforming the conflict into a global one and making the Battle of Saratoga a significant turning point in the American Revolution.