Why did President Zelenskyy talk about the Battle of Saratoga?

Surrender of Burgoyne at second battle of Saratoga


That this was not an everyone-on-their-feet moment in Zelenskyy’s speech was probably hard for anyone back in Kyiv to fathom. After all, from the 1918 Battle of Kiev to a long series of World War II battles fought against both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, that’s all regarded as recent military history in Ukraine. Everyone knows that stuff. Military history is definitely A Thing. Ask someone in Ukraine about the Battle of Khotyn, and they’re likely to ask you, “Which one?”

That recalling the Battle of Saratoga wouldn’t stir the hearts of Americans is probably hard for Ukrainians to conceive. Because in a lot of ways, that battle was everything. It didn’t involve George Washington. It didn’t happen at Bunker Hill. But without the victory at Saratoga, there might not even be a United States today.

So, for the sake of generating an appropriate response the next time the leader of a war-torn country invokes what might be the most critical battle of the American War of Independence, here’s Saratoga in a nutshell.

The first thing to know about the Battle of Saratoga is that it wasn’t a battle. It was a whole series of battles, skirmishes, and nearly a month of face-offs that ended an extensive British campaign. Going into that campaign, the fledgling United States had been on the losing end of practically every meeting of force bigger than a skirmish, and seemed on its way to being an anecdote in the big book of “amusing things colonists get up to.” Coming out of the last of those battles, the U.S. found itself in possession of a surrendered British army, and well on its way to a critical alliance with France.

Here’s how that happened.

Back in 1775, things got off to a roaring start for the American revolutionaries. At both Lexington and Concord, British forces that had marched out to destroy supplies of the Massachusetts militia ended up finding themselves outmaneuvered by the American irregulars. They were forced to flee after taking casualties and marched all the way back to Boston. 

In the next couple of weeks, the Americans would force the British out of Boston, capture the fort at Ticonderoga, win a whole string of smallish victories, and even capture a British frigate. In fact, just about the only thing they would lose before November 1775 was the Battle of Bunker Hill—which turns out to be the only Revolutionary War fight most Americans can now name. Go figure.

All those wins surely kept the Patriots warm through some tough winters ahead, because significant victories were about to become more difficult. Of course, all those early wins are also what inspired them to engage in the tomfoolery of attacking Canada, which was a big part of why things went sour in the following year. There are always tradeoffs.

The following year, the one everyone seems to think the war actually began, wouldn’t be without its victories; there was that crossing the Delaware thing the day after Christmas, but that was at the very end of a long year.

What came right after chasing the British out of Boston was Washington trying to repeat the trick on Long Island, only to end up losing more than 2,000 men and running back to Manhattan. It takes a lot of “victories” involving the capture of a couple of dozen British troops to make up for getting utterly crushed in the first large battle. The U.S. followed this up by losing its first big naval battle on Lake Champlain, and about half its navy in the process. Then the British captured Fort Washington, taking 3,000 American troops as prisoners. What would eventually be the Continental Army was never all that large. Losing 5,000+ men in a matter of a few months was definitely not in their plans.

Fortunately, Washington’s much-painted holiday trickery seemed to set a hot pace going into 1777. Washington won at Trenton, then did it again, costing the British not just most of their hired mercenaries but about 400 redcoats. Following this with a series of small running fights, the Americans pushed the Brits clean out of New Jersey. 

Meanwhile, the British were having a lot of success outside New England, so they decided that it would be a good tactical step to slice American forces in half. If they could keep the New England troops from reinforcing the South, and the Southern troops from reinforcing New England, the British could engage the Americans using the classic idea of “defeat in detail”—if the whole army is giving you fits, break them up. Then beat the pieces one at a time.

To this end, British General John Burgoyne assembled a force of 8,000 men and sailed south out of Quebec in June 1777. He landed his force near Fort Ticonderoga in New York and set out to move southeast, slicing through any American force he met along the way.

Truthfully, even before getting to what’s now remembered as the Battle of Saratoga, the whole Saratoga campaign was something of a mess for the British. From the day Burgoyne’s men landed, they were harassed by Patriot forces and had trouble bringing the Americans to a decisive conflict. Then the Americans brought them to a serious fight at the Battle of Bennington—which, despite the name, took place several miles north of its namesake on a farm in New York. Kind of like Woodstock.

At the Battle of not-quite Bennington, about 1,500 men from Burgoyne’s army were on the way to actual Bennington for the purposes of stealing horses. They were absolutely surprised along the way by a force of around 3,000 members of the U.S. army (along with the, ahem, Republic of Vermont), who couldn’t believe the gift they had been handed. Pretty much that entire chunk of Burgoyne’s army was lost in a few hours. Strangely enough, a lot of these guys were also Hessians. You have to wonder just how much this hired crew was really interested in getting themselves killed for the British Empire.

However, Burgoyne was still picking up some late-arriving Canadians and a few local loyalists, so by the time he made it to the area of Saratoga, about ten miles north of Albany, his army was still packing about 7,200 soldiers. And hey, even if everything wasn’t all roses all the time, Burgoyne was closing in on his destination with enough victories to make a pretty good report to his superiors. He had secured Ticonderoga, chased down and destroyed an American force at Hubbardton (actually in Vermont this time), and occupied a fort on the Hudson River. True, he had offended his Native American scout force enough that they packed it in, leaving Burgoyne’s army more or less blind to what was ahead, but … things were almost done. Gates had been in communication with Gen. Henry Clinton, who was holding things down in New York City. He expected Clinton’s force to march toward Saratoga from that direction, providing both fresh supplies and a near doubling of forces. 

Instead of Clinton, as the British (and Canadian, and German, etc.) force rolled up to Saratoga, they ran into the outliers of an American force under General Horatio Gates. Gates had about 9,000 men in total, including a force under his assistant, Gen. Benedict Arnold. Yes, that guy.

Burgoyne split his army into thirds, looking to probe around the edges of the American force. He doesn’t seem to have been looking for a fight, and may have still been hoping to hook up with Clinton, but he does seem to have understood that a clash with the nearby American force might be inevitable. 

Meanwhile, Benedict Arnold was eying the left side of Burgoyne’s approaching force, which was moving to control an area of high ground. Burgoyne was dragging most of the artillery with him in that left column, and Arnold could see that those guns on those hills would give the British a powerful position. 

With that in mind, Arnold went back to Gen. Gates and asked him for permission to get in Burgoyne’s way with some American frontier-style fighting in the woods. It wasn’t a bad idea, but Gates did not like Arnold. The two men had once been close, but in recent weeks each seemed to make moves designed to undercut the other. Besides, Burgoyne was still headed more or less in the direction Gates wanted him to go, so sitting back and waiting for the British force to be in the right spot seemed like a decent idea to Gates.

However, he finally agreed to send out a few hundred men for a “reconnaissance in force.” Then, as now, this turns out to be a good way to get people killed. At Arnold’s suggestion, the Americans moved toward a farm belonging to loyalist John Freeman. The British force was split up, marching in smaller groups, with some of those groups delayed by trees the Americans had deliberately dropped across local roads. As the British tried to get their scattered forces together, and the Americans tried to get into position, one of the British groups spotted the Americans across the bare fields of Freeman’s farm. Fighting was close at hand.

Truthfully, it wasn’t the best location for the Americans. They had been preparing a series of fortified bluffs and trenches at a point where they hoped to funnel Burgoyne into a trap. Which is part of why Gates was all in favor of just letting the British keep walking. This was not that spot.

On Sept. 19, the two armies opened fire. Col. Dan Morgan, in command of one light infantry force, started off by having sharpshooters pick off every officer they could identify, then charged his men directly into the force ahead. Only as more and more British arrived, that force turned out to be the whole central third of Burgoyne’s army. Still, if Morgan’s men were startled, they apparently were not as startled as the British, who were so rattled by this sudden attack that the second group of the British center force mowed down not Morgan’s infantry, but … the first group of the British force.

By the time Burgoyne himself was near enough to hear the shooting, the whole thing was a mess, with small squads on each side running forward to engage, then retreating behind trees. Over the course of the day, the farm changed hands multiple times. More and more of each force came forward, increasing the tempo and heat of the fighting. 

In the end, the British were able to bring more of their force to the fight and carried the field. About 300 Americans were lost in the fighting, and Burgoyne’s force notched up a victory. Huzzah! However, the British victory left Burgoyne in a bad position. He didn’t control the surrounding heights, his supplies were running low, and he had a large number of wounded to tend.

The British general was contemplating attacking the Americans again the next day, but a letter arrive from good old Gen. Clinton suggesting he could be in the area by the end of the month. So Burgoyne decided to dig in and wait for relief.

Burgoyne was still waiting on Oct. 6, when he finally decided he had to get out of this death trap and move his men up onto that high ground, which was known as Bemis Heights. 

Remember that part about how the Americans had fortified a position against a British attack? Bemis Heights was that position. Also, while the British were waiting for relief to arrive, American forces actually had been arriving. News of an enemy force encamped in a tight spot, with dwindling supplies, was pretty good bait for every American force in a hundred miles.

Roughly 5,000 British troops formed up and marched for the heights on Oct. 7, expecting something like the level of force that they had met in the battle at Freeman’s Farm. Over 8,000 Americans formed up to meet them—and there were another 5,000 American forces nearby.

Burgoyne lost 400 men in the first hour of fighting. Then Gen. Arnold showed up on the field—against orders, and apparently drunk. However, if he was drunk, he apparently functioned better that way. Officers sent to drag Arnold back to his tent couldn’t keep up with him as he charged all over the battlefield, taking command of one small group after another.

Late in the afternoon, Arnold led a charge through a gap in the British lines, penetrated deep into the rear of Burgoyne’s forces, and captured a critical position. In the last moments of this fight, Arnold’s horse was shot. It fell on his leg, splintering it badly, and a bleeding Benedict Arnold was finally carried off the field after being described as a “genius of battle.” That’s right. He’s the hero of this piece.

By this point, Burgoyne had lost over 1,000 men. The two armies broke apart and went back to low-level fighting, but it was easy to see what was ahead. The British force was greatly reduced, while the American force was well-supplied and growing by the day. Burgoyne did what he could to try to maneuver his force away from the Americans, and stared hopefully at the hills in hopes that Clinton might finally appear. Neither worked.

On Oct. 17,  Burgoyne surrendered his army to Gates.

This was no small victory. An entire British Army had surrendered to an American force. The British strategy of dividing the colonies was in tatters, and back in Quebec, there were serious worries that the Americans would take a second swing at traveling north. Most importantly, the French decided to finally take the chance of recognizing the American colonies and began negotiations leading to the vital American-French alliance that would persist through the end of the war.

The end of the Saratoga campaign is somewhat lacking in the romance of many battles. There was no single critical strategic move, no brilliant bit of maneuver, no story of troops advancing amazing distances in a day or holding a hilltop against an overwhelming force. What cost the British these fights, in the end, was our old friend logistics. They couldn’t coordinate their supplies or their men well enough to sustain an army in the field at the size and efficiency necessary to secure victory.

When the best bit of color your story can manage is a reportedly drunken Benedict Arnold leading a charge before getting his horse shot, your fight is seriously lacking in romance. But that moment when Burgoyne surrendered to Gates? That may be the single most important moment of the whole war. Everything that came after was colored by that moment.

It was the point when an army that had been considered well below second-rate upset what was supposed to be the greatest military on earth. It was when the underdog showed that defeat was not inevitable.

Which is why it ended up in Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s speech to congress. 

Surrender of Burgoyne at second battle of Saratoga
Surrender of Burgoyne at the second battle of Saratoga

Footnote: Benedict Arnold, having been passed over for promotion in the previous year, was lauded as a hero following Saratoga. His seniority was restored, and it was expected he would soon gain another command. However, his wounded leg kept him stuck in bed for five long months. It was during that frustrating period, while others gained the glory he thought he deserved, that Arnold began to exchange correspondence with British agents.

Zelenskyy probably didn’t know about that part.



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