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.
This Day in History 11/21: The Mayflower Compact is signed
Image via Wikipedia
The Mayflower Compact, signed on November 21 (November 11 in the old calendar), 1620, causes a lot of confusion.
Therefore, before we go any further, let’s get some things clear:
1. The so-called Pilgrims (or Separatists or whatever the fuck they wanted to call themselves) were not interested in creating a democracy.
2. They did not believe in religious freedom for anyone but themselves.
3. No one asked the Wampanoag, the Narragansett, the Patuxet or any of the other indigenous tribes of the region to sign this thing (which they would have happily done with a tomahawk to their pasty white skulls).
The usual line fed to us is that the Pilgrims created the Compact as the first form of government in the Thirteen Colonies of North America. There goes log of bullshit # 1–sorry, Jesus freaks, but the tobacco-growing, native-wenching planters of Virginia had you beat by one year, creating the House of Burgesses in 1619.
The other old saw follows that the Pilgrims intended to form a democratic form of government among the colonists, thus being the antecedent to the United States Constitution. Again…this is wrong on so many levels.
The reasons for the Compact were complex, but mostly had to do with the sizeable amount of colonists aboard the Mayflower who were (gasp!) not Pilgrims, Separatists, Puritans or anything else. They had no illusions about John Winthrop‘s City on a Hill, or creating a New Jerusalem in the wilderness–they came to go to Virginia and join the wenching tobacco planters. When the ship veered off course and landed at Cape Cod instead, the outsiders, or “strangers” claimed independence from the Pilgrim leaders. By contract, the voyage was to land in Virginia. It didn’t, so by law (at least in their mind) the Bible-thumpers had no control over them.
The Pilgrims, rightfully, got nervous. They understood that if they didn’t stick together, the colony would not survive, be it by starvation, disease, exposure, or the aforementioned tomahawks to the noggin. So they decided to bargain with the “strangers” and form a haphazard agreement. It was basically not much of a government at all, but rather a social contract meant to bind the colonists to the rules set forth from that point on.
The following is a modern translation of the Compact:
Three things are abundantly clear in reading this modern translation:
1. The Pilgrims had a shitty sense of geography. They still insisted they were in Virginia–albeit the “northern parts of Virginia.” This was probably put in to keep the “strangers” from trying any legal funny business. By that definition, Virginia should extend all the way to fucking Nova Scotia.
2. The Compact did not lay out a single plank for a framework of government. All it did was establish a “body politic” that would be bound to the rules and regulations of the colony, rules that are supposedly “convenient for the general good of the colony.” Exactly how these rules would be enacted–and especially who would be involved in government–was left eerily vague. Looking at the list of 41 white male signers, you can guess who was running things.
3. For a group of people threatened with prison, torture and death by their own home government, the Pilgrims still show a remarkable allegiance to James I of England, Scotland and Ireland–even going so far as to use his full and correct title TWICE (how’s that for filling a page!) This could lead modern readers to think the Pilgrims either still showed obedience to the sovereign or were real sado-masochists under those doublets and breeches.
Was the Mayflower Compact important? Sure it was. It was among the earliest attempts to create a social contract bound by the consent of the governed, albeit imperfectly. It embodied the social and communal ideals of the Separatist movement, emphasizing rule of law and mutual cooperation.
Yet was the Compact the big thing our teachers made it out to be? Probably not. It didn’t establish a government at all. It didn’t stipulate the rights of colonists. It didn’t lay a foundation for governance or the creation of laws.
Worst of all, the Pilgrim fathers certainly had selective amnesia about the Compact when it came to women, dissenters and especially Native Americans. The subsequent wars over New England, particularly the Pequot War of 1637 and especially King Phillip’s War of 1675-1676, demonstrate a concerted effort by the English colonists to marginalize, exclude and ultimately erase any native influence on their culture and their precious Compact.
It would take another 167 years of foundations–and another two centuries of defining those foundations–to actually create the system that lived up to the Pilgrim ideal.
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