Monday, July 4, 2011

Independence Day

Having fought you twice, Lieutenant-General Burgoyne has waited some days in his present position, determined to try a third conflict against any force you could bring to attack him...He is apprised of the superiority of your numbers, and the disposition of your troops to impede his supplies, and render his retreat a scene of carnage on both sides. In this situation he is impelled by humanity, and thinks himself justifiable by established principles and precedents of state, and of war, to spare the lives of brave men upon honorable terms.  Should Major-General Gates be inclined to treat upon the idea, General Burgoyne would propose a cessation of arms during the time necessary to communicate the preliminary terms by which, in any extremity, he and his arm mean to abide.
 ...and with this note, the British invasion of America, via Quebec, Lakes Champlain and George, and the upper Hudson River, effectively came to an end near Saratoga, New York on October 13, 1777.  John Burgoyne had launched his invasion in the summer of 1777, confident that he could sweep aside rebel resistance and meet up with General Howe's troops marching north from New York City, isolating New England - which the British saw as the seat of the rebellion - from the rest of the colonies and "cutting the head of the serpent" as Burgoyne put it.  Burgoyne's campaign met with initial success.  He traversed Lake Champlain without serious resistance and, through maneuvering, captured Fort Ticonderoga without firing a shot.  The way to Albany and the lower Hudson seemed open at that point and success assured, but this was just when the wheels started to come off the campaign.  A detachment of the British army (with German mercenaries) sent into southern Vermont to procure horses and food was repulsed at Bennington by Vermont militia led by John Stark - an unsung hero of the Revolution - leaving the British short of both food and transport (not to mention hundreds of troops killed or captured).  Word of atrocities by the Indians enlisted by the British to "help" them in their invasion aroused the general populace and Nathaniel Gates, the commander of the Northern Army, found his previously inadequate army swelled by the arrival of militia looking for some payback.

There has been a lot written about the battle of Saratoga..."battles" actually, as there were two on widely separated days followed by a British retreat and eventual investment that resulted in a surrender when their supplies ran out and the army's situation became untenable.  The narrative over the years has described General Gates as indecisive and weak and pointed to the irony of Benedict Arnold's intervention to snatch defeat from victory.  Recent scholarship has brought some of this into question and, of course, knowledge of history is important.  However, Saratoga was a victory for the new nation because men who had been tending their farms only days/weeks before stood up and went toe-to-toe - in the 18th century this was literally true - with arguably the best army in the world.

We, correctly, celebrate July 4th as Independence Day to commemorate the day when we declared ourselves a free and independent nation.  However, as any teenager will attest, saying that you're independent and actually being independent are two different things.  America gained its independence through force of arms.  The Continental Congress declared independence on July 4th 1776, but as John Keegan has pointed out, history is determined by ordinary soldiers facing their enemy on the battlefield and having the will to defeat them.  In October of 1777, farmers, not soldiers, defeated the best the British could send against them and convinced the world that America was, indeed, independent.

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