A Trap Is Closed
Burgoyne lost a tenth of his army at Bennington. His situation now was critical. American forces were gathering strength. There was a real danger that they would cut off his line of retreat. Most of his Indians deserted, leaving him blind in the wilderness. A more prudent commander would have retreated back to his logistical lifeline on the lakes. Burgoyne combined a gambler's instincts with courage and ignorance. He wrote Germain that his orders precluded any other course of action than pressing forward to Albany. On September 13 he crossed his army over to the western side of the Hudson. This was the equivalent of burning his boats. He was leaving his road back to security behind.
Why didn't Burgoyne retreat?
Burgoyne was caught in a difficult position and faced disaster. Despite the risks of going forward, retreat might have seemed worse. As a politically attuned general, he realized that failure would bring the penalty that befell Carleton. An advance offered the chance of salvaging his career and reputation.
General Schuyler had done an excellent job delaying Burgoyne, but the aristocratic New Yorker was unpopular with his New England troops and had complained too much to Congress. He was replaced by Major General Horatio Gates, a highly regarded officer who had served in the British army. Schuyler continued to support the cause by forwarding supplies to the army from Albany.
Gates commanded an army of 7,000 men. He had been reinforced by a force commanded by Benedict Arnold and Daniel Morgan's unit of riflemen, sent north by Washington. General Benjamin Lincoln was raising troops in New England and John Stark was still in the field. On September 12, Gates moved his army from its base at Stillwater to a more defensible position along Bemis Heights athwart Burgoyne's line of advance. The Polish engineer Thaddeus Kosciuszko began laying out fortifications, and the army began digging in.
Horatio Gates did not project the dashing image like that of Benedict Arnold. He was a portly man who wore reading glasses. He was affectionately called “Granny Gates” by his soldiers, who appreciated his lowkey style and aversion to wasting their lives.
Burgoyne advanced very slowly, averaging little more than a mile a day. His men had to repair destroyed bridges and clear obstructions along the way. Pickets and forage parties were attacked or cut off. Burgoyne knew that an American army was gathering before him, but he did not know where.
On September 18, Burgoyne camped three miles from Bemis Heights. He realized that the Americans were close. He decided to attack, sending three columns forward and hoping to engage the American army. The weakness in his plan was the rugged terrain that kept the columns from communicating with each other. Gates wanted to let the British batter themselves against his fortified line. Arnold urged an attack. Gates agreed to send Morgan's men against the central British column near Freeman's Farm. Morgan's riflemen opened up a hot fire, then were driven back. Arnold came up to their support. The British would have been crushed had not Baron von Riedesel marched his column to the sound of the guns and provided a timely rescue. Gates refused to reinforce Arnold. At the end of the day, Burgoyne held the field but at a terrible cost. The British lost 600 men, killed, wounded, or captured. The American losses were half that.