WHILE Creasy was surveying twenty-three centuries of warfare, from Marathon to Waterloo, he deemed a fight between a few thousand Americans and British on a farm in upper New York worthy of a place in his Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World. Why? Because that Battle of Saratoga in 1777 decided that an army of England could not in safety venture farther in America than her ships could shoot, brought France into the war and was the turning point of the American Revolution.
The Saratoga campaign also had drawn to the side of the United States another nation—the republic of Vermont. A hardy breed of Yankees had pushed the frontier up into the Green Mountains, where they found themselves in a No Man's Land, with New York, New Hampshire and Massachusetts claiming their territory and the Continental Congress afraid to decide against those claimants and recognize the country as a separate colony. Thereat Ethan Allen shouted from his Vermont peaks that "the gods of the valleys are not the gods of the hills." Those frontiersmen declare their independence of New York, the United States, Great Britain and all creation, and proclaimed their readiness to "retire into the caverns of the mountains and wage war on human nature itself." That was tall talk; but Vermont remained an independent sovereignty until 1791, when she was welcomed into the union as the fourteenth state.
Congress first offered that fourteenth star in the flag to Canada in 1775, when a diplomatic mission and two military expeditions went on a wild-goose chase to bring the French-Canadians into the Revolution. Richard Montgomery, going up by way of Lake Champlain, and Benedict Arnold, advancing through the wilds of Maine, joined forces at the gates of Quebec, where one was killed and the other wounded in an attempt to storm the town.
If England could only detach or neutralize Vermont—and Vermont diplomacy was flirting with her—nature's highway from Canada to the Hudson would lie open, and militant New England could be cut off from the wavering middle colonies. With twelve thousand men on two hundred flatboats, supported by thirty-one gunboats, Sir Guy Carleton sailed down Lake Champlain in 1776 to slice the Revolution in two. But that armada turned back discouraged after two delaying battles with Arnold and a saucy fleet of fifteen hastily built boats, whose green timbers were standing in the forests on the shore three and four months before.
The British came down again in the summer of 1777, under General John Burgoyne, who expected to be met by another British army advancing up from New York under General Howe. But that nice laid plan went agley, all because a clerk in London was slow in writing out the order—or he may have stopped for a dish of tea. Anyway, Lord George Germaine, secretary for war, could not wait to sign it . . . without being late for a week-end house party in Sussex. And the unsigned order was lost in a pigeonhole.
So it befell that while Burgoyne was coming down to meet Howe, that general was sailing away from New York in exactly the opposite direction to chase Washington's army. Still the ill-fated Saratoga campaign began so brilliantly with the capture of Ticonderoga that George III, in boyish glee, rushed shouting into the Queen's room at Windsor Castle: "I have beat 'em! Beat all the Americans!" But not the Vermonters, Your Majesty!
By proclaiming a threat to turn loose upon the country his red allies, Burgoyne himself awakened Vermont from any dream of neutrality she may have been entertaining. Memories of the terrible French and Indian Wars still were fresh on the borderland, and the men of upper New England rushed to the defense of their homes from another barbarous onslaught. Soon Burgoyne saw those embattled farmers hanging upon the left of his army "like a gathering storm," as he said.
The storm broke at Bennington, where a scrub army of rustics, led by John Star of New Hampshire, one time captive in the French and Indian Wars and a veteran of Quebec and Bunker Hill, destroyed a British expedition, killing and wounding two hundred and seven, taking seven hundred prisoners and heaps of sorely needed arms and munitions. If General John really said that "to-night our flag floats over yonder hill or Molly Stark sleeps a widow," those who heard him neglected to report it and were all in their graves when the now famous saying made its first public appearance.
The flag of Bennington was not the Stars and Stripes. That had been borne under fire for the first time only ten days before at the Battle of Oriskany in New York, where the newly adopted banner was patched together out of a white shirt, a blue jacket and a red petticoat. Its baptism was a bloody one, with American meeting American, and the revolutionists under General Herkimer fought Sir John Johnson's tory New Yorkers and Indians with musket butts and knives until both sides were bled white. Herkimer himself was mortally wounded, but he continued to shout his commands and smoke his long Dutch pipe as he sat propped against a tree.
After the battles of Oriskany and Bennington, Burgoyne watched with increasing anxiety for Howe's New York army to come to his aid. He waited until he dared not turn back in a retreat to Canada. When, at last, he tried to break through, he was so winded in a battle at Freeman's Farm that he took eighteen days to get his breath before making the last desperate plunge to save his army. This was now reduced to fifty-five hundred and faced by twenty thousand troops that had collected on the American side.
While the English-born General Gates, in confidence and comfort, commanded the Americans from his camp chair in that second battle at Freeman's Farm, he was disturbed at the sight of Benedict Arnold, without orders, dashing into the fight at a critical juncture. "Call back that fellow," the conservative Gates shouted, "or he will do something rash." Arnold did rashly incur another wound in the leg that was wounded at Quebec—better for him had he died then and there—but he got in two stunning blows on the British.
Surrender stared Burgoyne in the face when the battle was over. But "Gentleman Johnny" went down merrily, "singing and drinking champagne" at a Saratoga tavern the night before he asked General Gates for terms.
Three weeks to a day before that unprecedented scene, where a European regular army of professional soldiers lowered its colors to American militia, Howe entered Philadelphia, after having come around by water from New York to the head of Chesapeake Bay. His hollow triumph was disputed by Washington at Brandywine and Germantown in gallant battles that were perhaps as unnecessary as they were unsuccessful.
The Americans well could afford to let the British take a town, even though it was their capital, while they were bagging an army at Saratoga. Thus the score stood at the end of 1777 and the third year of the war.
James Morgan, The Birth of the American People, 1930