Three Rivers
History From America's Most Famous Valleys

Philip Schuyler and the Growth of New York, 1733-1804

Chapter Five, Burgoyne's Invasions, 1777

The Plan of Invasion

The British carefully devised a campaign to end the Revolutionary War in 1777 by splitting New England from the rest of the colonies. General John Burgoyne (with about 8,000 regulars, Tories, Canadians, and Indians) was to march from Canada through Lake Champlain country to Albany while Sir William Howe moved from New York City up the Hudson. A third force, under Colonel Barry St. Leger, was to march from Canada up the St. Lawrence and along the Mohawk Valley to Albany. The primary part of this plan, Burgoyne's invasion, confronted Schuyler when the Yorker returned to the Northern Department in June 1777 and found his army contained only about 2,000 effective soldiers.

Americans were wrong to think their main base at Fort Ticonderoga was impregnable, for despite its appearance of strength, its defenses were insufficient. Moreover, south of the fort was Mount Defiance, a hill from which an enemy with heavy artillery could dominate the fort. The situation was worsened because General Horatio Gates had not used his period of temporary command, March-June 1777, to improve the works. Schuyler ordered General Arthur St. Clair to remedy the deficiencies, but Burgoyne's army was already on its way south, and the American garrison was too small, too sick, and too poorly equipped to throw up effective defenses. When the enemy arrived at Fort Ticonderoga they soon placed cannon on Mount Defiance and forced St. Clair to surrender or retreat. The American officers had foreseen this possibility during a council of war with Schuyler late in June. At that meeting they had agreed to hold the fort as long as the safety of the troops permitted. With British artillery on Mount Defiance, St. Clair withdrew his troops on the night of July 5-6 and retreated to the east shore of Lake Champlain. Naturally, Schuyler bore the blame for this, though the move was a wise one. The public and Congress evinced great disappointment and alarm at the loss of the post, and feeling against Schuyler began to mount. This was aggravated by baseless rumors that he and St. Clair had sold out to the British, who paid them by shooting silver cannon balls into the American camp. In the Continental Congress, Samuel Adams and his New England followers made sport of Schuyler's report.

Meanwhile, Schuyler moved to Fort Edward, where St. Clair's troops joined him and he set hundreds of axemen to work felling trees across streams and roads, thereby slowing by 20 days Burgoyne's southward march. The country through which the British moved was denuded of supplies; crops were burned and the cattle driven off. Even Mrs. Schuyler did her part by having the torch set to her husband's grain fields before Burgoyne reached Saratoga to reap them.


While Burgoyne laboriously pushed through the obstructions and wastelands south of Lake Champlain, the Americans had time to assemble about 4,500 men, including 2,700 Continentals from Washington's army. As the British lost troops, Schuyler's ranks began to swell. The murder of Jane McCrea by Burgoyne's Indians in July also galvanized Yorkers and Yankees to action. Fearing for their daughters and wives, they began to join Schuyler's army. When Burgoyne finally reached Fort Edward on July 30, Schuyler pulled back to Stillwater, hoping reinforcements would soon enable the army to assail the enemy. Meantime, Burgoyne tarried to collect supplies, to open a route to Lake George, and to bring up his heavy artillery. His six-week pause gave the Americans time to rally their forces. By the present time it is clear that Schuyler's work had helped decisively to turn the tide against Burgoyne. This was obvious despite the American retreat to Saratoga and Stillwater. Burgoyne had left men to garrison Ticonderoga, and he lost another 900 in a fruitless sally against Bennington to obtain horses and supplies. There John Stark's New Hampshire militia, augmented by men from Massachusetts and the Hampshire Grants, thrashed a contingent of Burgoyne's army on August 16. Furthermore, the British line of communications with Canada was growing longer and weaker. New England militia rose to confront the enemy, largely negating earlier fears that they would not serve under Schuyler. Protection of their own territory was obviously more pressing than their desire to vent displeasure on a Yorker by refusing to serve in his command. After British regulars, Loyalists, and Indians struck Oriskany early in August, Schuyler boldly sent Benedict Arnold along with 950 Massachusetts Continentals to relieve Fort Schuyler, where Colonel Peter Gansevoort's forces were besieged by Colonel Barry St. Leger. Yet Schuyler was criticized for thus weakening his own army in the face of Burgoyne's threat; Arnold's victory came too late to save Schuyler from dismissal.

Meantime, Congress had so lost confidence in Schuyler that it replaced him with Horatio Gates. After Gates took command, the campaign moved to its climax; Schuyler remained at Albany to urge the local militia to join the army and to offer Gates aid and counsel, services that Gates coldly ignored.

When Burgoyne decided to push towards Albany in September, he encountered Gates's entrenchments at Bemis's Heights. From September 19, when Daniel Morgan checked and then counterattacked the British advance at Freeman's farm, until October 17 when the enemy finally laid down their arms, the two sides pushed and parried for the advantage. The last British hope for victory came on September 21, when Burgoyne received news that Sir Henry Clinton intended a thrust from the south. He refrained from attacking Gates in hopes Clinton's movement would divert some Americans southward. Clinton's slowness and Burgoyne's supply problems forced Burgoyne to attack, however, in an attempt to break through to Albany. Morgan and General Ebenezer Learned repulsed Burgoyne's advance at Bemis's Heights on October 7, and the British retreated five miles to Saratoga where they entered a state of siege. When Burgoyne learned that Clinton had returned to New York City, and with his forces surrounded by an army now thrice their own size, Burgoyne surrendered on October 17. The British grand strategy of 1777 had failed.

Schuyler arrived for the surrender ceremonies to find his house, mills, and other buildings burned or in ruins. Yet he bore all with grace and magnanimity. Burgoyne was personally embarrassed but Schuyler put him at ease by saying that, in war, circumstances could not be otherwise. He also impressed Burgoyne with a lavish and open-handed reception at Albany, and the would-be British conqueror was put up at "The Pastures."

Saratoga was a turning point in the war and in the life of Philip Schuyler. It was the first significant British defeat, and Schuyler had laid its groundwork as certainly as Gates got the glory. Experienced combat troops were made available for Washington's service, and the Americans now controlled most of the strategically important Hudson and Mohawk Valleys. Equally important was the boost given American morale. And Saratoga paved the way for the French alliance of 1778, a connection vital to the ultimate American victory and independence. As for Schuyler, the campaign coincided with his defeat in the first state elections for governor and led to the end of his active military command. Henceforth he aided the war effort in military counsel to Congress and as Washington's confident. Although he resolved to be content in private pursuits, the General was not able to rest until his military and public honor was restored.

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