A bit of time in the summer of 1777 nearly turned the conception of a United States into a stillborn notion. It is commonly accepted that the alliances with other European powers gave the American colonies the impetus to see their struggle through and those alliances resulted, in large part, from the surrender of General John Burgoyne in October of 1777. In turn, the battle near Bennington, Vermont, two months earlier ultimately had a major influence on the surrender. While manpower and supplies played a role in the decision, the most significant influence came from time—time lost by the British, time gained by the Americans.
Burgoyne’s army of nearly 9,000 men left Canada in mid-June and soon forced a much smaller American force to abandon Mount Independence and Fort Ticonderoga without a fight. Two rearguard actions at Hubbardton, Vermont, and Fort Ann, New York, resulted in victories for the Crown forces and, by early July, Burgoyne’s army had moved 130 miles with little difficulty. The relative ease of the advance reinforced British confidence but Burgoyne had concerns with his supply situation. While in England the previous winter, he had arranged for a shipment of a large quantity of supplies but they had not yet arrived. Burgoyne began the expedition with hopes of being able to at least get to the south end of Champlain on what materials he had gathered in Canada. Once the supplies from England arrived, they could be moved southward.
Burgoyne also had a challenge with moving the materials. Transport required three things—carts, draft animals, and bateaux (twenty- to forty-foot-long cargo boats)—but, at the outset of the campaign, the army did not have sufficient numbers of any of the three. Leaving Canada with insufficient supplies and inadequate transport, the army planned to capture, requisition, and forage some of what they needed. In the army’s mind, the supply situation had been adequately covered.
By late July, however, having reached Fort Edward on the Hudson River and extended the supply line to 150 miles through a wilderness, Burgoyne’s army began to encounter problems. Although successful in foraging a few items, the American practice of taking with them or destroying anything useful made that source unreliable. Burgoyne now had to rely on getting his stores from Canada which meant transferring them back and forth between boats and carts several times. Already a time-consuming, labor-intensive process, any further impediment left the army without adequate food and ammunition.
Several other conditions existed that added obstacles and delays. The Americans tore up bridges, blocked streams, and felled trees across already bad roads; the weather had become extremely rainy making roads even worse and swelling waterways; equipment had begun to break down; and only about one-third of the horses promised from Canada had arrived while those that had arrived and some confiscated oxen had begun to tire. Burgoyne’s deputy quartermaster general, Captain John Money, estimated that at any given time and under the best of conditions, only four days’ provisions could be brought forward from the primary magazine at Fort George on the south end of Lake George to Fort Edward and, at worst, only a single day’s. To move everything the thirteen miles from Fort Edward to the village of Saratoga would take an estimated fifteen days which included time to move the bateaux from Lake George to the Hudson and resealing the hulls, a process necessitated by the jarring ride over the bad road. The lack of adequate supplies and transportation at the very outset in June now had come to plague the expedition.
A potential solution to these problems emerged in the form of a proposed incursion across Vermont to the Connecticut River and back. Burgoyne felt that, “The possession of the [captured] cattle and carriages would certainly have enabled the army to leave their distant magazines, and to have acted with energy and dispatch.” The proposal brought something positive to an expedition fraught with problems. On August 13th, German Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick Baum’s detachment of 600 men with two cannon began their movement towards their first of many planned stops—the American storehouse in Bennington.
On the same day Baum’s force moved east, the advance corps of the main army arrived where a river called the Batten Kill joins the Hudson opposite Saratoga village and crossed the Hudson in spite of flooding brought on by heavy rains. The next day, the main body of the army reached Duer’s House (also called Fort Miller) three miles north of the Batten Kill. At this point in time, with a force moving east towards Vermont in search of supplies, the advance corps now on the west side of the Hudson, and the main body just three miles north of the advance, Burgoyne and his army felt secure and confident in their ability to complete the final push of their mission.
Difficulties soon arose, however. A messenger arrived saying that Baum’s detachment had been attacked and needed reinforcements. Burgoyne dispatched Lieutenant Colonel Heinrich Breymann with 650 men and two more cannon but reports came in the next day telling how a force of unknown size under New Hampshire’s General John Stark and Vermont’s Colonel Seth Warner had overrun Baum’s and Breymann’s detachments with a loss totaling nearly 900 men and all four cannon.
Burgoyne now had a very serious situation confronting him. He had lost a considerable number of men, the army’s left flank now lay completely exposed to an enemy of undetermined size and movement, he had little knowledge of the strength and location of the enemy’s main army in front of him, re-supply from Lake George moved extremely slowly, and, worst of all, the promise of a large quantity of food and transport—items he had counted on securing—had disappeared.
Being an experienced officer, Burgoyne decisively addressed the situation. Instead of waiting for relief or retreating, he decided to continue south on the west side of the Hudson but, first, “the Troops must necessarily halt some days.” The soaked, muddy, exhausted, and depleted army would reorganize on the east side and all the supplies and artillery would be brought forward from Lake George and Fort Edward to Duer’s House. Unwilling to leave anything behind when the army crossed the river and with a limited and diminishing number of carts, horses, and oxen, it would be quite some time before all the supplies could be moved.
The “some days” Burgoyne had mentioned turned into weeks and, finally, on September 13, the British army broke camp and crossed the Hudson. Once positions in and around the village of Saratoga had been secured, “the bridge from Batten Kill was broken up, … and all communication with Canada voluntarily cut off.” The flooding Hudson now blocked the retreat route but at least it also ran between the British army and the Americans to the east. Burgoyne had his back to the wall with no idea where the enemy forces might be or any indication of their size. After a significant battle loss, being put on shortened rations, and repeated delays—the latest one lasting a month—the secure confidence of June had disappeared.
Burgoyne need not have worried much—at least initially. In August, the Americans to the east and General Philip Schuyler’s main army to the south did not have sufficient numbers to conduct anything but harassing actions. Militia had been ordered to march to Schuyler’s aid but few actually turned out and they usually failed to remain for long. Those to the west of Albany had to worry about a second element of the British plan—2,000 men under Lieutenant-Colonel Barry St. Leger laying siege to Fort Schuyler at the head of the Mohawk River. Schuyler, in fact, had been forced to deplete his main body by sending several hundred men under Benedict Arnold to try to stop the British advance. Nor could the American army expect any support from the militia in southern New York and New England. Sir William Howe commanded a large army in New York City and the Americans had to be concerned with a force moving up the Hudson or into New England. Because of these factors, Schuyler maintained a distance of some miles from Burgoyne and, as the British began their reorganization at Duer’s House, the Americans took up defensive positions thirty miles to the south where the Mohawk flows into the Hudson. This is as far south as the Americans would go.
Crossing the Mohawk gave Schuyler additional time—something else Burgoyne had in short supply. The British had hoped to force a major battle as soon as possible but, with the Americans across a river thirty miles away, it would be several days before contact could be made under normal conditions. The weather had made things far from normal, however, and incessant rain magnified Burgoyne’s problems. The ground had become saturated and the mud and flooded waterways made movement very difficult. Once the British overcame those challenges and reached the Mohawk, crossing several hundred yards of a swollen river against an entrenched enemy would be nearly impossible.
With time and weather already on their side, the American army gained what became another advantage in the form of a new American commander. Early in August, Congress directed Schuyler and General Arthur St. Clair to come to Philadelphia to account for the loss of Ticonderoga. The new commanding general of the northern army would be Horatio Gates whom the New England states and their soldiers liked far more than the Yorker Schuyler.
Initially, Gates did not have any better luck with regard to reinforcements but he had taken over command at the right time. On the 23rd, he received a message stating that St. Leger had abandoned his siege and turned back. A significant British front closed and Arnold ordered two Continental regiments and much of the militia to join Gates. The southern front became less threatening when Howe left New York and moved towards Philadelphia leaving only a limited number of troops to attempt any support for Burgoyne. A third piece of good news came when Washington, now facing a much smaller army in New York, ordered a corps of 500 riflemen under Colonel Daniel Morgan to join the northern army.
The American army remained in their positions for another two weeks while their numbers grew to around 7,000. Finally, on September 6, Gates issued orders for the army to move again—not south this time but back across the Mohawk and north to confront Burgoyne’s army. For the Americans, the orders must have been quite welcome. They had been giving ground to the British for two months and had become frustrated with the constant retreating. Rested, with a new general and reinforcements, confidence began to increase.
During the retreat about three miles north of Stillwater, the American army had noted a choke point called Bemis Heights overlooking the Hudson and the road to Albany. By the 11th, Gates’ growing army had begun building works there. To the north of Burgoyne, American forces had taken up positions severing the British retreat route and several hundred men had embarked on a plan to attack British posts along the supply line. The Americans had transformed from a retreating defensive crowd in disarray to an offensive army with a single goal in mind–the destruction of Burgoyne’s army.
Committed to continue toward Albany, Burgoyne now had to face an emboldened American force. Rather than endeavor to dislodge an entrenched opponent, Burgoyne made two failed attempts to get around him. In early October, Sir Henry Clinton succeeded in driving off the Americans north of the city but his move proved to be literally “too little, too late.” Finally, on October 17, surrounded by superior numbers, experiencing cold autumn weather, with no hope of relief, and, most importantly, with men and supplies exhausted, Burgoyne’s army laid down their arms in Saratoga’s fields. Within a few months of this American victory, France and other European nations openly joined the fight thereby turning a localized rebellion into a world war for England and virtually ensuring independence for America.
The surrender of Burgoyne and his army can be attributed to several factors including men lost through battle or disease, the rainy weather, poor or non-existent cooperation with St. Leger and Howe, and supply problems. It is the last that ultimately doomed the expedition, however. The thorough defeat at Bennington of a major attempt at supplementing the stores and transport forced the British to take several weeks to bring forward what supplies they had. Early in the campaign, constant pressure kept the retreating Americans at least off-balance if not outright terrified. The cessation of that pressure gave them much-needed time to re-group, rest, and gain reinforcements and confidence. Without that time and with continued pressure by the British, it is doubtful the Americans would have been able to defeat Burgoyne even in his depleted condition.
The circumstances of Burgoyne’s army would have been considerably altered had Baum’s expedition succeeded. They would have had a reasonably steady supply of commodities and draft animals sent to them from Vermont and they would not have had to waste weeks struggling to bring stores forward. Burgoyne’s army would have been able to continue pushing south immediately after crossing the Hudson in mid-August thereby maintaining pressure on the demoralized and out-numbered American army.
A continued advance by Burgoyne’s army in August would have limited the number of reinforcements they would ultimately face. Schuyler did not receive any significant numbers of fresh troops and actually had to send some up the Mohawk. The majority of troops arriving after Gates took over did not begin to appear until St. Leger had abandoned his siege of Fort Schuyler and Howe had left New York, both events happening over a week after Burgoyne’s advance had stalled. With a constant advance, Burgoyne’s army would likely have reached the Mohawk before significant reinforcements arrived to bolster the American defenses. Of course, the British would still have had to cross the flooded Mohawk but, considering how the Americans had abandoned all the other positions along the way, it is not unreasonable to speculate that they might have done the same there.
Forward progress by Burgoyne might very well have changed the outcomes on the other two fronts, as well. The need to bolster defenses around Albany might well have forced the Americans to abandon the effort to rescue Fort Schuyler and recall the troops sent there from Albany. The collapse of that effort would have opened the way for St. Leger to continue his advance down the Mohawk. Success by Burgoyne also might have prompted Howe in New York to reconsider his attempt against Philadelphia and, instead, move north.
In addition to the two supporting moves, another front would have opened up with the arrival of Baum’s force from Vermont. Although on the east side of the Hudson, his ability to move north or south would have required Gates to spend an inordinate amount of time and troops attempting to front those moves and guard against a crossing. Baum’s presence alone could have prompted the Americans to abandon Albany but, if St. Leger had also been able to move down the Mohawk, Albany’s defensive positions would have been untenable. Under those conditions, Burgoyne’s army would probably have had to deal with only the high water when crossing the Mohawk and would have easily gained the south bank.
With multiple fronts under pressure, the American army in the north would have been in an unpromising predicament—essentially a reversal of roles. Instead of Burgoyne surrendering a major British army to the upstart rebelling Americans, the American northern army might well have been forced to surrender. Instead of the British losing face, men, and materiel and other European powers being induced to openly support the American cause, it might well have been the quest for independence that suffered defeat.
 Julius F. Wasmus, An Eyewitness Account of the American Revolution and New England Life: The Journal of J.F. Wasmus, German Company Surgeon, 1776-1783, trans. Helga Doblin, Contributions in Military Studies, Number 106 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1990), 67-69.
 Lieutenant-General John Burgoyne, Orderly Book of Lieut. Gen. John Burgoyne, from His Entry Into the State of New York Until His Surrender at Saratoga, 16th Oct., 1777, ed. E.B. O’Callaghan, Munsell’s Historical Series. No. VII (Albany, NY: J. Munsell, 1860), 72.
 Lieutenant-General John Burgoyne, Orderly Book of Lieut. Gen. John Burgoyne, from His Entry Into the State of New York Until His Surrender at Saratoga, 16th Oct., 1777, ed. E.B. O’Callaghan, Munsell’s Historical Series. No. VII (Albany, NY: J. Munsell, 1860), 76.
 George F. G. Stanley, ed., For Want of a Horse: being A Journal of the Campaigns against the Americans in 1776 and 1777 conducted from Canada, by an officer who served with Lt. Gen. Burgoyne (Sackville, New Brunswick: The Tribune Press Limited, 1961), 142-143.