October 17, 1777—The surrender of British general John Burgoyne at Saratoga, N.Y., did more than just take out of commission one-fifth of British troops fighting in America. With the results persuading King Louis XVI that the American colonists had a fighting chance against their mother country, the patriot victory brought into the American Revolution a force that eventually tipped the scales in their favor—and led to such a strain on the French treasury that it arguably produced a revolution in that country a dozen years later, too.
It might be said that the fate of American history depended on two battles that affected a foreign power’s decision to take sides in a war on American soil. The first battle was Saratoga; the second, the Battle of Antietam, 125 years later, when it was Britain’s turn to make a crucial choice about a revolutionary struggle. In the latter case, however, a Union victory, coupled with Abraham Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, convinced Foreign Minister Lord John Russell not to recognize the Confederacy. (See my prior post on this.)
The ironies of history don’t end there. Burgoyne’s surrender can be seen as the culmination of a year-long campaign to foil the British plan to cut off New England and New York from each other and the rest of the colonies. The soldier most responsible for defeating that strategy—a general who, three times over the prior 12 months, had delayed, disrupted, derailed and depleted British forces in upstate New York—was the patriot who, in three years, became synonymous with betraying the American Revolution: Benedict Arnold.
The entrance of France into the revolution underscored the geopolitical aspects of this worldwide struggle. The fates of Burgoyne, Arnold, and the three American commanders caught in the fallout of the Saratoga campaign—Philip Schuyler, Horatio Gates and George Washington—illustrated how politics inevitably affected who led the battles, and how:
* John Burgoyne: “Gentleman Johnny,” born under ambiguous circumstances (some suggested he was the illegitimate son of Lord Bingley, Chancellor of the Exchequer under Queen Anne), took to soldiering, a common career path for sons of the nobility. Though skilled at working enough levers to rise in the British Army, he found himself with few friends when he lost the Saratoga campaign. After he was paroled with his troops (with a promise not to fight again) and returned home, a Parliamentary inquiry into his conduct proved inconclusive. He never again commanded armies in America.
· * Philip Schuyler: The New York aristocrat-general, friendly with George Washington, became involved in a dispute with Gates over command of the Continental Army’s Northern Department—a quarrel that the Continental Congress fanned into being by not immediately establishing a clear line of command in this area. While Schuyler was the favorite of soldiers in his home state, Gates won the loyalty of New Englanders. Schuyler’s campaign of harassment against British forces would later prove essential to victory, but his loss of Fort Ticonderoga gave his enemies ammunition. By the time a court of inquiry absolved him of fault in the campaign, he had lost his command.
· * Horatio Gates: Before long, this English-born patriot was not only clashing with Schuyler but with Arnold, a favorite of the New Yorker as well as of Washington. When Gates failed to credit Arnold with any share of the victory for the first phase of the Saratoga campaign, Arnold quarreled bitterly with him. Gates' victory at Saratoga was more the result of the leadership of Arnold and General Dan Morgan than his own strategy.
· * George Washington: A faction in the Continental Congress was looking to replace the army commander in chief with “Granny Gates,” particularly since, following the Battle of Brandywine, the Virginian had lost control of Philadelphia to the British. Gates would not be discredited--and Washington's position made comparatively secure--until three years later at the Battle of Camden, the worst military defeat suffered by American forces in the entire war.
· * Benedict Arnold: The hypersensitive New Englander had earned the hard-won respect of Washington for slowing the British advance into the New York interior at the Battle of Valcour Island, for tricking Britain’s sizable Indian allied force into abandoning Burgoyne, and for turning the tide of the second major engagement of the Saratoga campaign—the Battle of Bemis Heights---by jumping on his horse and leading a vigorous charge against the enemy—after he had resigned in a huff after an argument with Gates and had decided to go home. But Arnold had been badly wounded in the latter engagement. Washington’s well-meaning attempt to recognize his gallant but sidelined soldier with a stint as military governor of Philadelphia (now back in American hands following the British evacuation) turned out to be disastrous for Arnold, as he was accused of war profiteering. The charges (though true this time) so enraged him that in 1780, he attempted—unsuccessfully—to hand West Point over to the British.
Nearly 150 years after the battle, Americans finally conceived of a way to commemorate the valor of the man most responsible for victory at Saratoga. The "Boot Memorial" (see the image accompanying this post) honors Arnold, who is unnamed. The thinking was that the leg--key to his triumph at Saratoga--was the only part of the patriot-turned-traitor that could not be connected to his subsequent treachery.