Battle of Bemis's Heights (Stillwater)


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Battle of Bemis's Heights

Bemis's Heights Battle Map

Bemis's Heights, BATTLES OF (Near Stillwater). General Schuyler, with his feeble army, had so successfully opposed the march of Burgoyne down the valley of the Hudson that he had not passed Saratoga the first week in August, 1777. When the expedition of St. Leger from the Mohawk and the defeat of the Germans at Hoosick, near Bennington, had crippled and discouraged the invaders, and Schuyler was about to turn upon them, and strike for the victory for which he had so well prepared, he was superseded by General Gates in the command of the Northern army. Yet his patriotism was not cooled by the ungenerous act, the result of intrigue, and he offered Gates every assistance in his power. Had the latter acted promptly, he might have gained a victory at once; but he did not. At the end of twenty days he moved the army to a strong position on Bemis's Heights, where his camp was fortified by Kosciusko, the Polish patriot and engineer. Burgoyne called in his outposts, and with his shattered forces and splendid train of artillery he crossed the Hudson on a bridge of boats (September 13, 1777), and encamped on the Heights of Saratoga, afterwards Schuylerville. New courage had been infused into the hearts of the Americans by the events near Bennington and on the upper Mohawk, and Gates's army was rapidly increasing in numbers. Burgoyne felt compelled to move forward speedily. Some American troops, under Colonel John Brown, had got in his rear, and surprised a British post at the foot of Lake George (September 18). They also attempted to capture Ticonderoga. Burgoyne had moved slowly southward, and on the morning of September 19 he offered battle to Gates.

First Battle.—His left wing, with the immense artillery train, commanded by Generals Phillips and Riedesel, kept upon the plain near the river. The center, composed largely of German troops, led by Burgoyne in person, extended to a range of hills that were touched by the American left, and upon these hills General Fraser and Lieutenant-Colonel Breyman, with grenadiers and infantry, were posted. The front and flank of Burgoyne's army were covered by the Canadians, Tories, and Indians who yet remained in camp. General Gates, who lacked personal courage and the skill of a good commander, resolved to act on the defensive General Benedict Arnold and others, who observed the movements of the British, urged Gates to attack them, but he refused to fight. Even at 11 A.M., when the booming of a cannon gave the signal for the general advance of Burgoyne's army, he remained in his tent, apparently indifferent. Arnold, as well as others, became extremely impatient as peril drew near. He was finally permitted to order Colonel Daniel Morgan with his riflemen, and Dearborn with infantry, to attack the Canadians and Indians, who were swarming on the hills in advance of Burgoyne's right. These were driven back and pursued. Morgan's troops, becoming scattered, were recalled, and with New England troops, under Dearborn, Scammel, and Cilley, another furious charge was made. After a sharp engagement, in which Morgan's horse was shot under him, the combatants withdrew to their respective lines. Meanwhile Burgoyne had moved rapidly upon the American center and left. At the same time the vigilant Arnold attempted to turn the British right. Gates denied him reinforcements, and restrained him in every way in his power, and he failed. Masked by thick woods, neither party was now certain of the movements of the other, and they suddenly and unexpectedly met in a ravine at Freeman's farm, at which Burgoyne had halted. There they fought desperately for a while. Arnold was pressed back, when Fraser, by a quick movement, called up some German troops from the British centre to his aid. Arnold rallied his men, and with New England troops, led by Colonels Brooks, Dearborn, Scammel, Cilley, and Major Hull, he struck the enemy such heavy blows that his line began to waver and fall into confusion. General Phillips, below the heights, heard through the woods the din of battle, and hurried over the hills with fresh English troops and some artillery, followed by a portion of the Germans under Riedesel, and appeared on the battle-field just as victory seemed about to be yielded to the Americans. The battle continued. The British ranks were becoming fearfully thinned, when Riedesel fell heavily upon the American flank with infantry and artillery, and they gave way. The Germans saved the British army from ruin. A lull in the battle succeeded, but at the middle of the afternoon the contest was renewed with greater fury. At length the British, fearfully assailed by bullet and bayonet, recoiled and fell back. At that moment Arnold was at headquarters, seated upon a powerful black horse, and in vain urging Gates to give him reinforcements. Hearing the roar of the renewed battle, he could no longer brook delay, and turning his horse's head towards the field of strife, and exclaiming, "I'll soon put an end to it! "went off on a full gallop, followed by one of Gates's staff, with directions to order him back. The subaltern could not overtake the general, who, by words and acts, animated the Americans. For three hours the battle raged. Like an ocean tide the warriors surged backward and forward, winning and losing victory alternately. When it was too late, Gates sent out the New York regiments of Livingston and Van Cortlandt and the whole brigade of General Learned. Had Gates complied with Arnold's wishes, the capture of Burgoyne's army might have been easily accomplished. Night closed the contest, and both parties slept on their arms until morning. But for Arnold and Morgan, no doubt Burgoyne would have been marching triumphantly on Albany before noon that day. So jealous was Gates because the army praised those gallant leaders that he omitted their names in his official report. The number of Americans killed and wounded in this action was about 300; of the British about 600.

Plan of Battle at Bemis's HeightsSecond Battle.—Burgoyne found his broken army utterly dispirited on the morning after the first battle, and he withdrew to a point 2 miles from the American lines. Arnold urged Gates to attack him at dawn, but that officer would not consent. Burgoyne was hoping to receive good news from Sir Henry Clinton, who was preparing to ascend the Hudson with a strong force. So he entrenched his camp, put his troops in better spirits by a cheerful harangue, and resolved to wait for Clinton. The next morning he was himself cheered by a message from Clinton, who promised to make a diversion in his favor immediately; also by a dispatch from Howe, announcing a victory over George Washington on the Brandywine (see BRANDYWINE, BATTLE OF). Burgoyne gave the glad tidings to his army, and wrote to Clinton that he could sustain his position until October 12. But his condition rapidly grew worse. The American army hourly increased in numbers, and, the militia were swarming on his flanks and rear. His foraging parties could get very little food for the starving horses, the militia so annoyed them. In his hospitals were 800 sick and wounded men, and his effective soldiers were fed on diminished rations. His Indian allies deserted him, while, through the exertions of Schuyler, Oneida warriors joined the forces of Gates. Lincoln, with 2,000 men, also joined him on the 22d; still Gates remained inactive. His officers were impatient, and Arnold plainly told him that the army was clamorous for action, and the militia were threatening to go home. He told him that he had reason to think that if they had improved the 20th of September it might have ruined the enemy. "That is past," he said; "let me entreat you to improve the present time." Gates was offended, and, treating the brave Arnold with silent contempt, sat still. A long time Burgoyne waited for further tidings from Clinton. On October 4, he called a council of officers. It was decided to fight their way through the American lines, and, on the morning of October 7, 1777, the whole army moved. Towards the American left wing Burgoyne pressed with 1,500 picked men, eight brass cannon, and two howitzers, leaving the main army on the heights in command of Brigadiers Specht and Hamilton, and the redoubts near the river with Brigadier-General Gall. Phillips, Fraser, and Riedesel were with Burgoyne. Canadian rangers, loyalists, and Indians were sent to hang on the American rear, while Burgoyne should attack their front. This movement was discerned before the British were ready for battle. The drums of the American advanced guard beat to arms. The alarm ran all along the lines. Gates had 10,000 troops—enough to have crushed the weakened foe if properly handled. He inquired the cause of the disturbance, and then permitted Colonel Morgan to "begin the game." Morgan soon gained a good position on the British right, while General Poor, with his New Hampshire brigade, followed by General Ten Broeck, with New-Yorkers advanced against their left. Meanwhile, the Canadian rangers and their companions had gained the American rear, and attacked their pickets. They were soon joined by grenadiers. The Americans were driven back to their lines, when a sharp fight ensued. By this time the whole British line was in battle order, the grenadiers under Major Acland, with artillery under Major Williams, forming the left; the centre composed of British and grenadiers under Philips and Riedesel, and the right of infantry under Earl Balcarras. General Fraser, with 500 picked men, was in advance of the British right, ready to fall upon the left flank of the Americans when the action should begin on the front. It was now between three and four o'clock in the afternoon. As Burgoyne was about to advance, he was astonished by the thunder of cannon on his left, and the crack of rifles on his right. Poor had pressed up the thick-wooded slope on which Majors Acland and Williams were posted, unobserved, until he was near the batteries, which were captured after a desperate struggle, in which the leader of the British grenadiers was severely wounded, and Major Williams, of the artillery, was made prisoner. Five times one of the cannon was taken and retaken. When the British fell back, and the gun remained with the Americans, Colonel Cilley leaped upon it, waved his sword over his head, dedicated the piece to the "American cause," and, turning it upon the foe, he opened its destructive energies upon them with their own ammunition. Sir Francis Clarke, Burgoyne's chief aide, who was sent to secure the cannon, was mortally wounded, made a prisoner, and sent to Gates's tent. The whole eight cannon and the possession of the field remained with the Americans. Meanwhile Colonel Morgan had assailed Fraser's flanking corps so furiously that they were driven back to their lines. There Morgan fell upon the British right so fiercely that it was thrown into confusion. A panic prevailed. It was followed by an onslaught in front by Dearborn, with fresh troops, when the British broke and fled in terror. Balcarras soon rallied them, while the centre, composed chiefly of Germans, though convulsed, stood firm. Now Arnold came upon the scene. Gates, offended by what he called Arnold's "impertinence," had deprived him of all command, and he was an impatient spectator of the battle. When he could no longer restrain himself, he sprang upon his charger and started on full gallop for the field of action, pursued by a subaltern to call him back. He dashed into the vortex of danger, where the pursuer dared not follow. He was received with cheers by his old troops, and he led them against the British centre. With the desperation of a madman he rushed into the thickest of the fight. When, at the head of his men, he dashed into the firm German lines, they broke and fled in dismay. The battle was now general. Arnold and Morgan were the ruling spirits on the American side. Fraser was the soul that directed the most potent energies of the British. One of Morgan's riflemen singled him out by his brilliant uniform, and shot him through the body, wounding him mortally. Then a panic ran along the British line. At the sight of 3,000 fresh New York militia, under General Ten Broeck, approaching, the wavering line gave way, and the troops retreated to their entrenchments, leaving their artillery behind. Up to their entrenchments, the Americans, with Arnold at their head, eagerly pressed, in the face of a terrible storm of grape-shot and bullets. The works were assailed with small arms. Balcarras defended them bravely until he could resist no longer. The voice of Arnold was heard above the din of battle, and his form was seen, in the midst of the smoke, dashing from point to point. With the troops first of Generals Paterson and Glover, and then of Learned, he assailed the enemy's right, which was defended by Canadians and loyalists. The English gave way, leaving the Germans exposed. Then Arnold ordered up the troops of Livingston and Wesson, with Morgan's riflemen, to make a general assault, while Colonel Brooks, with his Massachusetts regiment, accompanied by Arnold, attacked the troops commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Breyman. Arnold rushed into the sally-port on his powerful black horse, and spread such terror among the Germans that they fled, giving a parting volley of bullets, one of which gave Arnold a severe wound in the same leg that was badly hurt at Quebec. At that moment he was overtaken by the subaltern, who had been sent by Gates to recall him, "lest he should do some rash thing." He had done it. He had achieved a victory for which Gates received the honor. The Germans had thrown down their weapons. Breyman was mortally wounded. The fight ended at twilight, and before the dawn, Burgoyne, who had resolved to retreat, removed his whole army a mile or two north of his entrenchments. In this remarkable battle—won by an officer who had been deprived of his command—the Americans lost, in killed and wounded, 150 men; that of the British, including prisoners, was about 700. Arnold was the only American commanding officer who received a wound. Burgoyne was defeated at Stillwater, October 7, and ten days later surrendered his army of 6,000 men at Saratoga. See BURGOYNE.



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