The British lost control of the lands that were to become the United States of America for many reasons, including some of a political, demographic, geographic, and economic nature, though the subtly pervasive forces of profound ignorance and almost unfathomable incompetence should probably not be dismissed out of hand from a short list of the most important. Nor should simple venality be ruled out.
The decisive American victory at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777 CE constituted a turning point. Although the war dragged on for six more long years, and the British were never driven from New York City by force of arms, after Saratoga the tide turned against the English, who were forced to shift their major operations to the Southern colonies. The American success at Saratoga also provided the final impetus needed to bring the French fully into the war against their ancient enemy across the channel.
The Saratoga campaign was unusually lengthy and complex, ranging at least from the time Benedict Arnold fought a critical delaying action at Valcour Island on October 11, 1776 to at least his suicidally brave charge riding between the fire of both armies to take the Breymann Redoubt on October 7th, 1777, fatally compromising the English position. After this John Stark deftly blocked the retreat of the British army led by Burgoyne, precipitating its surrender. Stark’s move was just one of four times he crucially affected the outcome of the Revolution. He deserves to be known better outside of New Hampshire.
The failure of Howe to move north from New York City to support Burgoyne, the strange fizzling out of St. Leger’s invasion of the Mohawk Valley, the death of Jane McCrae, and the muskets provided to the American rebels as a result of the efforts of Beaumarchais, who was in the middle of writing his trilogy of plays about Figaro, the barber of Seville, all influenced the outcome of the campaign, but even more important was the issue that has perplexed scholars for more than 200 years: Why was Burgoyne’s advance so slow? Why was he dragging heavy cannons through the wilderness? Why did he bring along such cumbersome dinnerware?
His lack of speed allowed the Americans time to collect an army to oppose and eventually defeat him. This rebel force included a detachment of Daniel Morgan’s Virginia regiment, some of whom had the congenial duty of sitting in trees out of range of the English muskets, picking off English officers with rifles, which were accurate at great distance: a dream assignment for an enlisted man.
The cannons are easy to explain. The route Burgoyne chose is not.
Burgoyne had observed the Battle of Bunker [Breed’s] Hill in Charlestown [June 17, 1775] from a safe vantage across the water in the vicinity of Copp’s Hill in Boston. Bunker Hill was by far the bloodiest day of the American Revolution in terms of British killed and wounded. Burgoyne watched the New England troops shred repeated attacks by professional imperial soldiers only to retreat under cannon fire, much of it provided by ships of the British fleet.
Burgoyne was apparently unaware of the fact that many of the Americans at Bunker Hill fell back because they had run out of shot and powder. John Stark held the left flank of the American line that day behind defenses he had hastily improvised, commanding his men so well that they repulsed Welch and English waves of attacks, inflicting crippling losses that forced the British to withdraw to another part of the field.
Whatever the reasons behind the American abandonment of the field, the Battle of Bunker Hill convinced Burgoyne that artillery was crucial to defeating the revolutionaries. And events demonstrated artillery’s decisive strategic role in the Saratoga campaign on both sides. It was key to the British success at Ticonderoga, and on the American side to Kościuszko’s forcing of Burgoyne’s army off its riverside line of march into the welter of hills and ravines where the battles of Saratoga took place.
His cannons did not in fact impede Burgoyne’ progress for much of the Saratoga campaign. Heading south from Quebec into New York State in 1777, Burgoyne was not so delayed by his field artillery or even his sumptuous and often criticized table settings that he had any great problem taking the key fortress of Ticonderoga, a victory so significant that in London the betting odds on the recognition of American independence fell from even money to five to one against.
After his success at Ticonderoga, Burgoyne had two possible routes to the Hudson River Valley open to him. The first was the well-known, proven, and relatively easy voyage on Lake Champlain, with a brief portage to Lake George, navigation of which would take his army quickly into farmlands near the northern reaches of the Hudson.
The other route, which he selected, forced his army to hack paths through a wilderness of forests and swamps. The reasons for his eccentric choice have baffled historians who underestimate how profoundly influential petty intrigue and graft can be.
Colonel Philip Skene held title directly from London to 30,000 acres (12,0000 hectares) of land around the head of Lake Champlain. He founded Skenesborough (now Whitehall) with a sawmill, iron forge, barracks, and docking facilities for trade with Canada, as well as a fine two-and-a-half story stone house. These he temporarily abandoned around the time when revolutionary activity picked up in his neighborhood, exemplified by the capture of Ticonderoga by his pre-war acquaintance Ethan Allen [May 10, 1775].
Allen demanded the fort surrender “”In the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress” though it is far from clear he held a commission from either of these entities.
Skene accompanied Burgoyne’s invading army in 1777, making certain the English general was comfortably ensconced in Skene’s fieldstone manor house after the British success at Ticonderoga.
Burgoyne could have travelled by boat back to Ticonderoga and portaged to Lake George for a relatively quick and comfortable descent to the headwaters of the Hudson. Instead, he sent his army to hack through 26 miles [42 km] of forested swamplands along the banks of Wood Creek. The roads they built and improvements they made to connecting roads to Fort Ann could be expected to significantly increase the worth of Skene’s holdings.
Historians generally agree Skene greatly influenced Burgoyne’s decision on this matter, for considerations we will probably never know. Logistical reality forced Burgoyne to send his artillery and most of his supplies via Lake George, but his infantry was literally bogged down building and upgrading roads. It wasn’t the often cited cannons or baggage train that fatally delayed the British invasion: it was a transportation infrastructure project that enhanced real estate values.
The magnitude of the British Army’s engineering challenges can be seen in part by the 40 bridges they built, one of them across a swamp two miles long. The retreating Americans carried out a scorched earth policy and harassed English construction efforts.
The delays caused by this road building proved critical to defeating Burgoyne. He returned to England after his surrender. Most of his enlisted men were taken as prisoners of war. The Americans, deeply angered by British mistreatment of captive revolutionary soldiers, were eager to make examples of them.
Burgoyne eventually received remarkably favorable treatment by Shaw in The Devil’s Disciple, in which he is given the line “… your friend the British soldier can stand up to anything except the British War Office.” Or, in the case of Saratoga, the British officer. Though Shaw was generous to his fellow playwright, England was less so: Burgoyne never held another active field command.
New York State seized most of Philip Skene’s American lands, but the British government compensated him with a pension of £180 per year and a lump sum of £20,000 which he used to purchase property in Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire.
• Richard Ketchum’s Saratoga provides a useful narrative overview of the campaign.
• Hoffman Nickerson discusses Burgoyne’s choice of route in detail in his book The Turning Point of the American Revolution, though he does not draw out all the conclusions the evidence he presents supports.