The Victorious Battle That Created the United States
Much of the country may be locked down — as is much of the world — but your editor has hit the road.
It’s been a circuitous journey, north and east through New York and along the shore of Lake Ontario. Then, skimming the northern edge of New York, paralleling the St. Lawrence River and the boundary line that demarcates the still-closed (to us) border with Canada.
Eventually, the journey turned south through Vermont, along Lake Champlain and further to Rutland. Thence back into New York, north of Albany.
Along the way I made sure to visit Saratoga, New York, site of a pair of Revolutionary War battles.
I recently described how America’s fledgling government “paid” for the war with essentially worthless “Continental” currency.
But the actual fighting is another angle entirely in the story of how a new nation was constructed.
And it’s fair to say that few points of modern world history hold as much significance as what occurred at Saratoga in September and October 1777.
Indeed, if ever there were a historical and geopolitical equivalent of the Big Bang for the United States, it was Saratoga.
And much as studying the first few seconds of the universe’s existence offers insights into its current and future state, a look back at Saratoga allows us to consider where our nation is and where it’s going.
Let’s dig in…
By the summer of 1777, the American Revolution had been on for two years. Naturally, the British wanted to bring this nettlesome insurrection to an end.
The overarching idea was “divide and conquer.”
The British navy effectively controlled the waters off New England, denying the flow of goods by sea.
The next step was to have the army capture the Hudson River valley, cutting off access over land.
Capture the Hudson River valley… Until events at Saratoga.
From there, New England would eventually starve and capitulate — and the remaining American colonies would see the error of their ways and bring the issue of revolution to an end.
The land operation began in the spring of 1777, when British Gen. John Burgoyne assembled an army in Montreal.
His forces consisted of British regular troops, as well as Canadian militia, German mercenaries, armed American loyalists and Native Indians.
Their mission was to head south, move down Lake Champlain and into the Hudson River valley, ultimately occupying Albany.
At the same time, other British forces would move up the Hudson valley from New York.
It was a classic pincer movement… but things went wrong almost from the beginning.
There’s an old adage that amateurs study battles while professionals study logistics. And despite his martial pedigree, Burgoyne had problems with logistics.
He lacked all manner of supplies — food, ammunition, horses, wagons, tenting and more.
Much of the trek was overland on barely passable roads. And then as now, military gear is heavy, especially when soldiers must lug it by foot.
Inadequate food supplies slowed the army down even more as they were forced to scavenge as they went along.
Your editor with hefty cannon, overlooking Hudson River.
By September the army had reached Saratoga, north of Albany — where they encountered a sizeable America force.
The initial skirmishes occurred on Sept. 19, 1777. Both sides took casualties and withdrew.
For the next two weeks, each side tended to their wounded, constructed fortifications and prepared for what everyone believed would be a major engagement.
On Oct. 7, 1777, the two sides clashed again. As battles go, it was not a long one… just an afternoon.
But Burgoyne’s forces came out the worse for wear.
Burgoyne’s German mercenaries — well-trained, crack troops, it must be said — fell in great numbers. He had few troops in reserve and had lost crucial artillery pieces. Precious ammunition was in short supply.
So after just a few intense hours, Burgoyne’s combat power was significantly reduced. It was clear his army would never make it to Albany.
Over the next few days, Burgoyne assessed his situation, then summoned up the fortitude to ask the Americans for terms.
On Oct. 17, 1777, per agreement, British forces marched towards American lines. They were received with military courtesies.
During the formal ceremonies, Burgoyne offered his sword to his American counterpart, General Horatio Gates. The American received it with dignity and propriety, then graciously handed it back.
The rest of the British troops stacked their arms at the feet of the victors.
General Burgoyne surrenders to General Gates.1
It was the first major defeat of Great Britain’s army in 700 years.
And when news reached the mother country, its political leadership suddenly realized this wasn’t only a war against fellow, English speaking colonials.
It was a war that the British nation could actually lose.
John Sinclair, a lawyer from Scotland, was so shocked by the defeat that he wrote to no less than Adam Smith, the well-known economic thinker.
“If we go on at this rate,” said Sinclair, “the nation (Britain) must be ruined.”
Famously, Smith replied, “Be assured, my young friend, that there is a great deal of ruin in a nation.”2
Smith’s wry comment was (and remains) a timeless indictment of bad leadership within and amongst nations.
That is, a large and prosperous country can absorb many troubles. But eventually, poor leadership will bring every system to collapse.
It’s not just that American troops “won” at Saratoga, which of course they did.
It’s that the Americans failed to lose to an otherwise effective application of British combat power.
Put another way, Saratoga showed that British forces could be defeated, even by the so-called American “rabble.”
The rest of the world certainly noticed, too.
France had already been supporting America as part of its longer-term strategy to hamstring Britain.
But Saratoga established the credibility of the American war effort. From that moment on, French support instantly became a critical factor in keeping the rebellion in play.
There were still more battles to come — four long years of fierce fighting until the victory at Yorktown in 1781.
But absent Saratoga, the American War of Independence would likely have faltered and fizzled. The American colonies would have remained a series of disparate British entities along the Atlantic coastline.
After Saratoga, British perceptions rapidly changed towards both the fighting abilities and general character of U.S. troops.
According to one British officer:
“The courage and obstinacy with which the Americans fought were the astonishment of everyone, and we now became fully convinced that they are not that contemptible enemy we had hitherto imagined them, incapable of standing a regular engagement and that they would only fight behind strong and powerful works.”3
Indeed, the dignified surrender at Saratoga, and entirely proper behavior of American officers and troops, was a key element of the long-term outcome.
After surrender was agreed, Americans didn’t perpetuate the fight. There was no vengeance on a defeated enemy. Americans demonstrated military discipline and a mastery of the prevailing rules of warfare.
At the surrender ceremony, mutual respect prevailed to a point of graciousness.
A year later, in 1778, General Burgoyne was exchanged for 1,000 American prisoners held by the British. He returned to England and spent two years defending himself before a board of inquiry established by Parliament. He never received another position of any importance within the British Army.
Over time, many of Burgoyne’s British officers were also exchanged for American prisoners, and they too sailed home as circumstances allowed.
The U.S. held captive most of Burgoyne’s enlisted soldiers, but that was hardly unexpected considering the exigencies of war. Along the way, as these British soldiers moved to and fro, about 1,500 escaped and simply settled in the U.S.
The British strategy of dividing the rebellious colonies by capturing the Hudson River axis was not lost on the Americans, either.
In fact, the Saratoga victory served as a rallying point to bring the factious sections of New England and the southerly colonies into a tighter sense of unity.
In many respects, Saratoga kindled a sense of American optimism — that eventually, the U.S. could be victorious over Britain…
And this optimism was of no small import as the Continental Congress issued unbacked currency, those “Continentals,” harkening back to the relationship between money and military power.
Over the next century, of course, the U.S. built itself out as a powerful industrial nation, with vast, deep economic capabilities.
It developed immense military power as well — far beyond that of General Gates and his sturdy men with muskets at Saratoga in 1777.
This leads to a key takeaway point: that military power is a first derivative of economic and industrial power.
That is, absent primary industrial capabilities, no nation can be powerful. Not for long, in any event.
So we go from the victory at Saratoga to today… when the U.S. has deindustrialized vast segments of its economy — even its military economy — and now relies on massive levels of goods and services from abroad.
Indeed, on that point alone there’s no question that the U.S. has allowed much of Adam Smith’s “ruin” to plant its seed across the nation.
The next question is whether or not the U.S. faces its own version of Saratoga in some far-flung region where our current expeditions take place.
History shows that even armies that are always “supposed” to win can suffer catastrophic, strategic defeats.
And with that in mind, I rest my case.
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Managing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder
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3 Ref: Victor Brooks; Robert Hohwald (1999). How America Fought Its Wars: Military Strategy from the American Revolution to the Civil War. Da Capo Press. p. 78.