The world turned upside down

When General John Burgoyne surrendered his army at Saratoga, he had the military band play a popular English tune titled “The World Turned Upside Down.” The significance was obvious — to him, to his army, to the colonials who were receiving the surrender. And yet none them, not the most astute, could know the half of it.

What they could see was upside-down-cake enough. An army of British regulars, competently commanded, had been defeated on the field of battle, not once, not twice but (counting Bennington) three times. Two and a half years earlier, at Lexington and Concord, these colonials had been unable to stand up to British regulars in a dress-order fight. And all along the long retreat back to Boston, they had fought in the manner learned from Indians, sniping from cover. Cowardly, the British had thought them.

No more. After the battle, one British office was quoted as follows: “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.”

Saratoga was actually two battles. We won’t go into military detail. They’re easily available to those interested. But here’s how the surrender happened.

Burgoyne was coming down from Montreal, intending to link up with Howe coming up from New York and St. Leger coming east along the Mohawk River. He easily re-captured Fort Ticonderoga in early July. But things went downhill from there.

In mid-August in the Battle of Bennington, Vermont, Burgoyne lost nearly 1,000 men from a detachment that was trying to capture badly needed supplies. A couple of weeks later, he learned that St. Leger’s army would not be joining his from the west, and that neither would William Howe’s army from the South. (The Tories, in despair at Howe’s dilatory tactics, called him “William Howe, Lord When?)

Nonetheless, he got his army across to the west side of the Hudson just a few miles from Saratoga, on his way to Albany. If he could capture Albany, he would have safe winter quarters for his army. Otherwise, he had no safety south of Montreal, and winter was on its way.

He thought retreat would be shameful; he tried for Albany, instead, and the result was two battles, fought eighteen days apart on the same ground, near Saratoga.

On September 19, 1777,  the first battle, called the Battle of Freeman’s Farm, saw 9,000 American troops fight 7,200 British. It was a murderous fight, with Morgan’s sharpshooters — Kentucky riflemen – picking off British officers and artillerymen all day long. At the end of the day, the British were the victors, in that they held the field, but the battle was ruinous to the British.

Burgoyne thought help was coming. As usual, he got no help from anyone. With supplies short, and the Americans being reinforced continually, the situation could only get worse. He attacked again on October 7, in the battle called Bemis Heights. By this time, losses to casualties and desertions had reduced the British army to 6,600 men, while reinforcements had swelled American numbers to more than 12,000. Valor and professionalism could do only so much, and the last straw, the charge  that broke their position, came under the inspired, reckless, and utterly insubordinate leadership of Benedict Arnold. (Arnold had been relieved of command by General Gates, but couldn’t keep out of the fight.)

This time Burgoyne was forced to retreat. Ten days later, surrounded and outnumbered, short of food and ammunition, with no help coming from any of those who should have been providing it, and surrounded by American forces that had grown to more than 15,000 men, he surrendered.

Casualties of the two battles were small by the standards of our calloused age, but they were high enough — 90 dead and 240 wounded for the Americans, 440 dead and 695 wounded for the British. Besides their heavy casualties, the British of course also lost 6,200 men captured.

More than the fate of a British army had been turned upside down. Saratoga showed the French court that Americans could fight pitched battles and win. The resultant French alliance distracted the British, overtaxed their resources, landed French soldiers on American soil, and overturned British command of the Chesapeake for just long enough to insure the surrender of a second British army and end the war.

Ironically, it may have been alliance with the long-hated French that turned Arnold’s mind to treason. The injury he suffered at Bemis Heights incapacitated him for several months, during which he became heavily involved with the Tory community of Philadelphia, and one thing led to another.

In Bernard Shaw’s play “The Devil’s Disciple,” Burgoyne announces that he will have to surrender, and Shaw has someone ask him what history will say. Shaw’s Burgoyne says, “history will lie about it as usual.” A character delivering lines in a play is not biography, but one can imagine Gentleman Johnny saying them. (He himself, by the way, was a playwright as well as a general.) Burgoyne deserved better treatment than he received – from his fellow generals, his government, his contemporaries, and from history. Nonetheless, it was his hard fate to be the man in command when his military band noted that everything had been upended.

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