Saratoga National Historical Park

Saratoga Monument

(Photo credit: Saratoga Monument, courtesy Skunkworks Photographic, Flickr Creative Commons)

Yesterday, October 7, was the anniversary of the second Battle of Saratoga in 1777. Ten days after this battle British General “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne, with no provisions and no means of escape, was forced to surrender his entire remaining force of 5,000 men. The battle is famously memorialized in John Trumbull’s 1822 painting, “Surrender of General Burgoyne”, which now hangs in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, DC. The painting shows Burgoyne offering his sword to General Horatio Gates. Gates, showing respect for Burgoyne, refuses to take the sword and instead offers his defeated adversary hospitality. It’s a well-known scene, as it should be. Aside from Yorktown, this was one of the most important campaigns for the American cause during the Revolutionary War. The victory finally persuaded France to openly back the Continental Congress and enter the war in alliance with the Americans. Saratoga NHP commemorates this crucial battle—actually, two battles.

Back in late 2010, on a cool, blustery, late October day, my wife and I visited Saratoga National Historical Park in New York’s Hudson Valley. In spite of the less-than-perfect weather, we had a great time. (At least the rain held off.) At the visitor center we got the park service orientation by Ranger Megan. She gave us an overview of the battle with the help of a diorama and large wall map in the background. Dioramas can be very effective interpretive tools for helping visitors grasp the big picture, and this one was no exception. It brought to life the broader strategy of the 1777 campaign. The strategic picture rested on two directional axes: a north-south element and an east-west element. North to south, I could see the strategic importance of the Lake Champlain-Hudson corridor (with the crucial 23-mile gap between the lake and the Hudson River). On the east-west axis, the Mohawk River connected the Hudson to the west, with a portage at Fort Stanwix allowing access to Wood Creek, which in turn takes a traveller to Lake Ontario (hence the importance of Stanwix, which protected that portage). If the British could split the New England colonies/states away from their Middle Atlantic and Southern counterparts via both of these axes, they believed they could snuff out this rebellion once and for all. That was the strategy. It was doomed to failure. In fact, weeks before before Burgoyne moved on Saratoga, the western British force under Gen. Barry St. Leger had been defeated and turned back at Oriskany, near Fort Stanwix. But Saratoga was to be the main event.

The battle of Saratoga is more accurately described as the battles of Saratoga because there were two of them. The first engagement was on September 19, and this was the battle where most of the action took place around the then-unfortified Freeman’s Farm area. After an interlude, the second major clash, known as the Battle of Bemis Heights, took place on October 7. Tactically, both battles of Saratoga emerged directly from British probes inland to try—unsuccessfully—to flank the American position. At Freeman’s Farm the British held the field but only at a heavy loss of life. At Bemis Heights the Americans won the day—decisively so. British losses were heavier in both cases, and since there were fewer Brits than there were Americans, and they were cut off from effective resupply, Burgoyne was left with little option but to surrender his men.

We gleaned all this from the visitor center’s interpretive film, which was quite effective in setting the scene for the battles and for our own tours around the battlefield. We spent the rest of the morning walking round the park’s main battlefield trail, about 4.5 miles in length. This trail took us mainly round British positions, especially the Balcarres Redoubt and the smaller Breycourt Redoubt, which saw some of the heaviest fighting of the second battle. We also walked up to the main American position overlooking the Hudson, and this is where, looking around, I really gained a deeper insight into how geography helped to determine the outcome of the battle. Here, the bluff at Bemis Heights was the key defensive position, fortified by no less an engineer than Thaddeus Kosciusko. It was the choke point the British had to break, but couldn’t.

Like many park service battlefields, Saratoga includes, alongside a shorter walking tour, a complementary longer driving tour, so you can cover more ground in a manageable time frame. So that’s what we did next, following a CD guide produced by Eastern National, the park service’s official vendor. That was OK, but in trying to follow the British and American positions and lines of advance we did at times get a bit mixed up between the two battles. This is a common problem when guides (human or technological) try to separate and distinguish between two battles that took place in the same location but at different times. (The same is true, for example, of the Civil War site for First and Second Manassas).

Later, driving back toward Schuylerville, we stopped at the Schuyler House and the 1877 Saratoga Monument, at the point where Burgoyne’s surrender took place, some 8 miles north of the battlefield. Both were closed, but we got a good look at the outside of the monument, a 155-foot granite obelisk (see photo above). We also looked for a pub in Schuylerville, but nothing cropped up on our FourSquare app. So we drove into Saratoga itself to look for a decent place for a beer and food, and this time we were luckier. We stopped at the Olde Bryan Inn, an original 18th century tavern, established 14 years before the nearby battles named after the town.

Back at our hotel (the Fox ‘n’ Hound), we decided to watch, on Netflix, an episode from the old PBS series Liberty! that covered the New York campaign of 1777 and the battles of Saratoga. I found that the TV show, while informative in many ways, suffered from the same problem that affected the driving tour CD: it tended to conflate the two battles. I suppose this is inevitable when you’re trying to pack a complex campaign into less than half and hour of TV time. Oh well.

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