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This Day in History 10/17: Burgoyne Surrenders at Saratoga

"The surrender at Saratoga" shows Ge...

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Everything about the Battle of Saratoga–including its name–has been scrubbed clean by scores of textbooks.

On October 17, 1777, after a punishing four-month campaign, British general John Burgoyne surrendered almost 6,000 British, Hessian and Canadian troops to the Northern Department of the Continental Army, led by General Horatio Gates and (they should get all the credit for victory) Generals Benedict Arnold and Daniel Morgan.

It was a stunning victory, one that would have widespread effects on the Revolutionary War.  Yet many of the details have been lost to the chest-thumping.

Burgoyne left Canada in June of 1777 with a force that was designed to connect with two other British forces: Barry St. Leger‘s mixed army of British, Hessian and Native troops from the west, and Sir William Howe‘s main British force from New York City.  They were supposed to meet near Albany, dividing the colonies in two and effectively ending the war and the American Revolution.

It didn’t exactly go as planned.

First to punk out was Howe.  It was, on the surface, an easy choice: George Washington’s army was being driven from Pennsylvania, and the rebel capital, Philadelphia was poised for the taking.  To him, it made more sense.  Never mind that the plan to effectively end the war was fucked up from the very beginning–Washington was the bigger prize.  It would be a prize Howe would never get, and would soon be relieved by Sir Henry Clinton.

St. Leger had an even worse time.  He never had any intention of backing out: his mixed force of 2000 Loyalists, British and natives crossed Lake Ontario and landed at Oswego on July 25. The brutal campaigns of Oriskany and Fort Stanwix–where American militiamen and native allies slugged it out with St. Leger’s forces to a stalemate–changed the story.  It drained the morale of St. Leger’s native allies, who took their supplies and took off.  It didn’t help that Benedict Arnold tricked St. Leger into thinking a larger colonial force was coming to relieve Fort Stanwix.  By the time St. Leger shows up at Fort Ticonderoga on September 27, his feeble force was no help to Burgoyne.

Of the three prongs on the British plan, it was Burgoyne, funny enough, who was most successful.  By July he had retaken Fort Ticonderoga, an important strategic and symbolic fortification on the foot of Lake Champlain.  Yet from then on, his campaign slowed to a crawl, as the wagons crating the supplies–including Burgoyne’s luggage, china and furniture–got bogged down in the Hudson highlands.

In the meantime, a quick American victory over Burgoyne’s advance cavalry at Bennington boosted morale to the point that American forces would swell to close to 15,000.  It included Daniel Morgan’s Virginia sharpshooters, Benedict Arnold’s force sent to relieve Fort Stanwix, as well as the main force under Benjamin Lincoln and a new commander, British trained Horatio Gates.

Gates thought he could do a better job than Washington.  Arnold thought he could do a better job than Gates.  Both hated each other.

So how was Saratoga won?

Saratoga was not one battle, but rather a series of maneuvers and two battles over on month.  The first, the Battle of Freeman’s Farm, the British technically won, but at the cost of 600 casualties.  On October 7, the British attacked American fortified positions at Bemis Heights.  In the two actions–the second punctuated by a daring attack by Arnold who was probably drunk–the British suffered a total of 1000 casualties.

Outnumber three to one, with the Americans controlling the high ground and surrounding him at the town of Saratoga itself, Burgoyne was forced to surrender his forces.   When he discussed the terms with General Gates, Burgoyne insisted on calling the surrender a “convention” rather than a “capitulation.”

He fooled no one.

On the final ceremony, after Burgoyne offered his sword to Gates (who refused–a move that further infuriated Arnold), 6000 soldiers laid down their arms as the band played “Yankee Doodle.”

It was very clear to everyone this was no “convention.”

Saratoga would invoke the first day of Thanksgiving, decreed by the Continental Congress on December 18, 1777.  It convinced France and Spain that the Americans could actually win the war–given the right support.  Soon, both countries would sign treaties of alliance with the United States, transforming a colonial rebellion into a world war.

Below is a two-part short documentary about Saratoga narrated by Dan Roberts.

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Movies for the Classroom: Culloden (1964)

Recently, as I was packing for the Save Our Schools March this weekend, I ran into some clips of a film I haven’t seen in many years.

Looking at it now, the film still shocks and absorbs me, especially since it was decades ahead of its time.

In 1964, the BBC released a film on British television stations by director Peter Watkins. Culloden was a film about the 1746 Battle of Culloden Moor between the British Army and the rebel forces of the Young Pretender Bonnie Prince Charlie. It was the culmination of the Second Jacobite Rebellion, an attempt by Scots and other Britons to depose the German-born king of Great Britain and re-install the Stuart royal family of Scotland.

Yet what makes Culloden so prescient is not the subject material—it is the film itself.

Watkins shot Culloden as a drama-documentary, interviewing the characters (officers, soldiers, and local people) as if they were on a 20th century TV special. His narration, unlike many earlier depictions of the battle, is remarkably newslike and spares no detail no matter how gory or disturbing.

Finally, the grim, horrific nature of war, and of war atrocities, is brought into terrible focus—even through the grainy black-and-white lens of 1960s television. It was created as a window on the then-emerging Vietnam conflict (take a guess which side is which) and the acting seems hokey at times.

But look closely: even among today’s viewers, Culloden can still shock and create furious debate about war, violence, class division, patriotism, and a whole host of social conflicts, just as it did in 1964.

Attached are three excerpts from the film. The entire film is not available streaming, but Amazon has a double-feature DVD of both Culloden and Watkins’ 1965 masterpiece The War Game, a film about nuclear war so intense the BBC wouldn’t show it in full for 20 years.

 

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This Day in History 7/6: Richard III is crowned King of England

Do all of history’s bad guys deserve their reputations?  In the case of Richard III, probably yes and no.

Today in 1483, Richard, Duke of Gloucester was crowned Richard III of England.  It wasn’t supposed to be that way.

When his brother Edward IV died in April, Richard was made Lord Protector of the heir apparent, the future Edward V.  Little Edward was supposed to be crowned on June 22, but all of a sudden, his mother’s marriage to Edward IV was declared invalid, making the young prince a young bastard.

Who, then, became the king in his stead?  Why his lord protector of course, the king’s brother, Richard.  The young Edward and his brother were never heard from again, as they became the infamous “princes in the tower.”  Richard ruled for two years until he himself was killed in a battle against the forces of Henry Tudor, Duke of Richmond, in Bosworth Field in 1485.  The last English king to die in battle, Richard was also only the second king to die in battle on English soil since Harold Godwinson in the 1066 Battle of Hastings.

In terms of facts, this is really it.  Yet Richard III is remembered as a hunchbacked, monstrous villain thanks to one William Shakespeare.

Today, Richard is a very controversial figure.  Many still view his deeds, especially those portrayed in Shakespeare’s eponymous play, as being genuine.  To an extent, they have a point.  Richard did scheme and connive his way onto the throne.  However, his machinations were certainly not much more than his predecessors’, especially his brother–and certainly on par with his successors, especially his usurper Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII.  There is even doubt to his culpability in the death of the princes in the Tower.

Richard’s treachery, thus, is pretty par for the course in the wide lens of British history.

In fact, there are many who view Richard as a stablizing force in England at the time.  With the death of Edward IV, many believe Richard enjoyed a popular reputation as a staunch defender of the realm and a force for continuity.  Richard fended off rebellions from within and without when Edward was king, and his succession was viewed as a necessary progression rather than a coup.

Yet the Richard of Shakespeare still creeps into history.  It’s too bad, because the fictional Richard is so much fun to watch–his schemes, his backstabbing, and his eventual comeuppance.

Attached is the famous Act I soliloquy of Richard from the 1995 film Richard III starring Sir Ian McKellan in the title role.  It ranks up there with Olivier’s Richard as among the best performances of the character on film.  It takes a while to get to the actual speech, but it’s worth it.

I highly recommend viewing the whole film.  There’s so much bad Shakespeare out there that its so refreshing when it’s done right…and few do it better nowadays than Sir Ian.  Enjoy.

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