Saratoga: The Vain Victory

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September 19, 1777 marks the opening battle at Freeman’s Farm that ultimately led to the decisive American victory a few weeks later, known as the Battle of Saratoga. The British lost at Saratoga primarily due to the vanity, pride, and self-absorption of British Generals Howe and Burgoyne. American Generals Benedict Arnold and Horatio Gates were not far behind their British counterparts when it comes to putting self-interest over the good of the cause. In short, all involved forgot that there is no “I” in “TEAM”.

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John Burgoyne – portrait by Joshua Reynolds 1766

John Burgoyne was a British general known for his vanity, earning the name Gentleman Johnny. In 1737, at the age of fifteen John entered the army by buying an officer’s commission as a sub-brigadier in the Third Troop of Horse Guards. A notorious gambler, Burgoyne had to sell his officer’s commission in 1741 presumably to pay gambling debts. A few years later, Burgoyne reenlisted as a cornet in the First Royal Dragoons (British cavalry) and saw action in the War of Austria Succession. He was promoted to lieutenant and then in 1747 somehow came up with 2,000 pounds (probably more gambling) to buy a commission as a captain with the Royal Dragoons. Notably charming and handsome, John won the affection of his best friend’s sister Charlotte Strange, daughter of Lord Derby. Lord Derby would not approve the marriage given Burgoyne’s lower class status, but the two eloped spending time in France. Lord Derby eventually warmed to Burgoyne as his son-in-law and helped in John’s quick rise in the British army. After winning military glory in Portugal, Burgoyne returned to England and was seated in the British Parliament in 1762. Not only a Parliamentarian, Burgoyne also became a playwright. Indicative of his character, Burgoyne was known for his boastful statements. Upon arriving in Boston in 1775, now a major general, Burgoyne reportedly stated: “Ten thousand peasants keep five thousand king’s troops shut up! Well, let us get in and we’ll soon find elbow-room.”

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General Sir William Howe

British General William Howe started his military service as a cornet with the Duke of Cumberland’s Dragoons in 1746. Howe was of noble birth as son of Viscount Emanuel and had close ties to royalty which helped advance his military career. During the French and Indian War, Howe was recognized for his ability to lead men in battle and was promoted to General. Howe then became leader of British troops in the American Revolution. Howe successfully captured New York in 1776, but was unable to land a decisive victory against the American army and end the war.

It is well-known that Howe did not like Burgoyne, considering him to be a grandstander of low birth. When plans were made for Burgoyne to march south from Canada down the Hudson Valley, with Howe moving north from New York, Howe wanted no part in seeing Burgoyne obtain military acclaim through a successful campaign. Howe wanted his own success and so instead of marching to meet Burgoyne’s army, Howe headed south to Philadelphia where he intended to capture the rebel capital. Burgoyne, confident that Howe would join him from the south, continued his march into the wild interior of New York. Howe of course never came. Burgoyne’s army was no match for the wily wilderness fighters that made up the Northern American army. Daniel Morgan and his expert riflemen relentlessly picked off British officers throughout the fighting at Freeman’s Ford with British losses totaling 600 hundred men. Instead of retreating back to Fort Ticonderoga, Burgoyne, always the gambler, continued to attempt to break through the American lines. Burgoyne eventually surrendered his entire army on October 17, 1777.

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American General Horatio Gates

The northern division of the American army was also plagued with leaders bent on self-advancement. With Washington trying to keep Howe from taking Philadelphia in the south, General Horatio Gates was in command of the northern army. A disgruntled Benedict Arnold served alongside Gates. Congress had recently passed over Arnold for promotion despite his efforts in Quebec and Ridgefield, Connecticut. As Burgoyne advanced into New York, Arnold wanted to fight and Gates did not. Over the course of the Saratoga battles, Gates and Arnold fought incessantly among themselves. Eventually Gates removed Arnold from field command. Throughout Saratoga, Gates never left the safety of his headquarters. Arnold could no longer stand Gates’ inaction and on October 7, 1777 rode out of camp onto the battlefield in what has been described as a drunken rage. Arnold was later wounded in an attack on a British redoubt. While Arnold recovered from a shattered femur, Gates took the credit for the victory at Saratoga and would use it as a tool to attempt to unseat Washington as Commander-in-Chief. Snubbed once again, Arnold began down his path of treason.

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Trumbull’s painting of Burgoyne surrendering to Gates. Benedict Arnold is notably missing from the painting.

Saratoga has been touted as the turning point in the war. The Americans captured an entire division of British soldiers. The victory also helped secure French naval support. While Saratoga was an important American victory it is also a reminder of what can happen when self-promotion becomes the ultimate goal. Had Howe marched north instead of selfishly heading to Philadelphia, the course of history may have been forever changed. Had Gates allowed Arnold to fight, and shared credit for the victory, Arnold may not have committed treason. While it’s not uncommon for military leaders to seek glory and promotion through actions on the battlefield, Saratoga is an example of egos on steroids. It displays some of humanity’s worst character qualities and serves as a lesson for us all.

For more on the stories of Saratoga check out: The Generals of Saratoga: John Burgoyne and Horatio Gates by Max M. Mintz and William Howe and the American Revolution, by David Smith.

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