Thursday, March 25, 2010

Burgoyne’s plan before October 7's engagement

General Burgoyne’s men won a tactical victory on 19 September, but the Americans retained the strategic advantage. They continued to interdict the route to Albany by remaining on Bemis Heights. Cold nights and frosty mornings foretold the coming of winter and an end to the campaigning season.

Burgoyne had to devise a tactical solution. All Gates had to do was retain his position. Burgoyne’s men went on reduced rations on 3 October. Burgoyne called a council on the fourth and proposed leaving 800 men to guard supplies and committed the rest to attack Gates’ left and rear. His shocked subordinates objected that such a flanking move would take so much time that the Americans could overwhelm the 800-man guard and repulse the flanking action. The council adjourned without a decision.

During the next day, von Riedesel proposed withdrawing to the mouth of the Battenkill, await word from Sir Henry Clinton, and be in position to retreat northward. Burgoyne rejected that proposal as surrendering the initiative to the Americans and quaranteeing turning retrograde move into a death march. He revived his 4 October proposal in a radically different form. He would organize a reconnaissance in force to probe the American left. If the probe found conditions favorable, he would launch an all-out attack during next day. If conditions were unfavorable, he would withdraw to the Battenkill during 11 October. This was the genesis of the battle of 7 October—the campaign’s final and definitive engagement. Tune in next week for a study of that decisive event.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Breymann Redoubt

Northwest of the Light Infantry (Balcarres) Redoubt and intervisual with it, the men of Lieutenant Colonel Heinrich Christoph Breymann’s grenadier regiment erected a wood fortification with a 250 foot front and about 7 feet high with musket port, armed with two 3-pound cannon. Behind it was the regiment’s camp, protected by a log breastwork. Freiherr von Riedesel described its purpose: “to defend the right flank of the Corps of Brigadier en potence and at the same time cover the road that ran over the hill into the rear of the army.”

Strategically, it was the right anchor of Burgoyne’s fortified camp. Breymann’s men remained at their post when Burgoyne launched his probing column on 7 October. While Arnold threw Poor’s Brigade and their supporters into a series of futile attacks on the Light Infantry Redoubt, Morgan and Lerned, supported by units from Nixon’s Brigade, attacked Breymann and the approximately 200 men defending their post. The Germans put up a strong fight against overwhelming odds; and Arnold left the troops facing the Balcarres Redoubt, rode between the fire of both armies, and joined soldiers entering the rear of the German post. During the action’s final moments, he received a leg wound commemorated by the battlefield’s famous “boot monument.” American possession of the redoubt made the British right and rear untenable; and during the night, Burgoyne’s men withdrew to the protection of the Great Redoubt, leaving the field to the Americans.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Light Infantry (Balcarres) Redoubt

Between 20 September and 6 October, General Burgoyne’s troops erected a strong line of field fortifications that included, on the site of much of the fighting of 19 September, the Light Infantry (Balcarres) Redoubt, named for Alexander Lindsay, earl of Balcarres and Crawford, commander of the British Light Infantry, and Fraser’s successor as commander of the Advanced Corps.

By the eve of the second engagement, that redoubt’s western face was about 500 yards long, most of it along a low north-south ridge and incorporating the Freeman Farm buildings. At its southern terminus, the wall turned eastward for 184 yards, then northeastwards for 231 yards. Built of felled trees and earth, with an abbatis of cut trees in front, it averaged about 5 feet high, and along the low ridge 10 to 12 feet.

It mounted 8 cannon and sheltered, after the retreat of Burgoyne’s probing column, at least 1400 men. It was Burgoyne’s strongest post. It was also against that post that Benedict Arnold directed a series of futile attacks after seizing command of Enoch Poor’s Brigade on 7 October. The British continued to occupy it after the fighting ended, withdrawing that night after losing Breymann’s Redoubt during the battle’s final - the subject of next week’s entry. Most of the Americans killed 7 October died in front of the Balcarres Redoubt.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Gates and Bemis Heights

When Horatio Gates assumed command of the American Army’s Northern Department during 19 August 1777, its main force had retreated to the junction of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers, a position that could not be a fortified base for opposing John Burgoyne’s advance on Albany. Burgoyne’s army lay about 25 miles north at colonial Fort Miller, where its commander turned William Duer’s handsome home into his headquarters.

Gates knew that he had to move his troops to a position athwart Burgoyne’s invasion route. The Hudson River and the road paralleling its western shore defined that route. The first place north of Albany that met that requirement was Bemis Heights, which properly fortified would force Burgoyne to act on American terms. The Americans occupied that height during 13 September, erected batteries at its base, interdicting the river and the road, constructed a line of field fortifications on the military crest of the bluffs overlooking the valley, and extended those fortifications westward to beyond the first road paralleling the Albany Road.

Burgoyne had to lure or drive the Americans off Bemis Heights. His only alternative was to abort his advance or try to retreat northward to Ticonderoga, which with Gates’ larger force south of him and Americans under Benjamin Lincoln’s direction east of the river and between Saratoga and Ft Edward, would convert a retreat into a death march. Even if his men survived to reach Ticonderoga, a northern winter there would be worse than trying American courage and arms at Bemis Heights. Gates had dictated the strategic terms.

Friday, January 29, 2010

My First Blog Post - Bio of von Senden

Among the German soldiers who served in John Burgoyne’s invasion force was a young ensign who abandoned the study of law at the University of Goettingen to join the Freiherr von Riedesel’s Corps. In 1815, he was a Prussian Infantry General, Ritters des rotten Adlers. Ordens erste Klasse, and the Order Pour le Merite, and former commandant of the city of Breslau. His name was Ernst Johann Friedrich Schueler von Senden, and he kept a Tagebuch, or diary, which I hope by sometime during 2014 to have translated and edited.

He began with an account of the march to take ship for North America and the voyage to the continent in which, incidentally, he hoped to settle after Britain defeated its colonial rebels. Because he was fluent in French, he was assigned the mission of dealing with Canadian Habitants during General Sir Guy Carleton’s 1776 invasion of the northern frontier. He then participated in Burgoyne’s expedition, was captured at Saratoga, went to Boston as a prisoner of war, and with the rest of the Convention Army, marched 700 miles to its internment camp near modern-day Charlottesville, Va. Von Senden was an articulate, intelligent, observant, and humane man who wrote about the people, terrain, towns, and events of his seven-year American experience.