Debating Arnold’s Role at Freeman’s Farm

Surrender of Burgoyne by John Trumbull (1822). Source: U.S. Architect of the Capitol
Surrender of Burgoyne by John Trumbull (1822). Source: U.S. Architect of the Capitol

In September of 1777 the Patriots won big by stopping Major General “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne dead in his tracks at the battle of Freeman’s Farm (1st Saratoga) which climaxed the Saratoga Campaign and ultimately led to the surrender of his entire army.  Brigadier General Benedict Arnold deeply resented being denied credit for the victory and, very famously, argued with Major General Horatio Gates to the point of resigning his command.  Arnold’s aides and supporters acted quickly in his favor but they fell short of actually assigning a specific role to Arnold in the action itself.  General Gates’s aide, Colonel James Wilkinson, acted just as quickly in letting the word out that General Arnold was not actually a part of the fighting on the 19th but spent the day at headquarters arguing with his superior[1].

William Gordon moved the controversy to the realm of history only five years after the revolution with his flat judgment that “Arnold’s division was out in the action, but he himself did not head them;  he remained in the camp the whole time.”[2]  From that point forward, historians covering Benedict Arnold or the Saratoga Campaign have weighed in on the question of Arnold’s participation in the battle of September 19, 1777.

Charles Stedman answered Gordon with his Loyalist perspective on the revolution a few years later.  He took the opposite position claiming that “the enemy were led to the battle by general Arnold, who distinguished himself in an extraordinary manner.”[3]  Stedman’s book is normally very well thought of and, in many situations other than Saratoga, is considered more reliable than Dr. Gordon’s text.  However, Stedman wasn’t present at Freeman’s Farm and he doesn’t attribute any specific actions to Benedict Arnold.  In fact, the main British eyewitness accounts of Freeman’s Farm make no mention of actions by Arnold nor demonstrate any awareness that he might be present on the field.  Lt. William Digby of the 53rd Regiment’s grenadier company credits Colonel Daniel Morgan with leading the Patriot forces on the battlefield that day with his observation that Morgan had “a great superiority of fire” and the British advance units retreated with “every officer being either killed or wounded, except one.”[4]

For the next several decades, the controversy lived in the memoirs and eyewitness accounts of the actual participants.  Captain Wakefield of Dearborn’s Light Infantry who fought so well with Daniel Morgan at the battle spoke up against what he saw as a “persistent effort” to “rob Arnold of the glory” for his part at Freeman’s Farm .  He said that Arnold was present at the opening of the battle with Arnold giving Morgan instructions to meet the British “emerging from the woods” and “let your riflemen cure them of their borrowed plumes.”[5]

In 1816 James Wilkinson released his memoirs which provided a very detailed account of the events during the Saratoga Campaign.  He said, “it is worthy of remark, that not a single general officer was on the field of battle the 19th September.”  Consistent with his after-battle letters, Wilkinson placed Arnold at headquarters discussing his proposed battle plan with Gates while the action occurred.[6]  Almost every historian or author since that time has relied heavily on Wilkinson for details of the battle even if that particular historian then goes on to consider him unreliable on the question of Arnold’s participation.

A Colonel at the time of Freeman’s Farm , Philip Van Cortlandt commanded one of the regiments directly involved with Morgan at the front line.  Van Cortlandt said “the action commenced first with Colo. Morgans Riflemen” and was “conducted by the colonels until about two oclock” when General Learned arrived with his brigade to end the battle for the day.[7]  The memoirs of Major William Hull were published just before the middle of the 19th century and also support Gordon and Wilkinson by providing a detailed account of the battle where no officers above the rank of colonel were on the battlefield and Arnold acted only in organizing Hull’s detachment of volunteers to enter the fray.[8]

After the Civil War, George Bancroft wrote his multi-volume history of the United States and determined that “Arnold was not on the field.”[9]  This conclusion had a very negative impact on Isaac Arnold who then wrote his famous biography of Benedict Arnold which included a wealth of letters related to the battle and Arnold’s dispute with Gates.  He concluded that Arnold personally  led the Patriot troops on the 19th and that accounts to the contrary are due solely to Wilkinson who “was then a young man of twenty, an enemy of Arnold, pert, officious and vain.”  Isaac Arnold fails to address those accounts that support Wilkinson and places his reliance on the rather vague statements of Arnold’s aides, Varick and Livingston, who were indignant over Gates’s failure to credit Arnold in the official reports.[10]

The twentieth century brought Edward Channing’s famous history of the United States.  He concluded that Arnold’s role at Freeman’s Farm has been greatly overstated by some American historians in an attempt to denigrate Gates and deepen the drama of Arnold’s later treason at West Point.  Of the letters Isaac Arnold relied upon so heavily to suggest a strong role in the battle for Benedict Arnold, Channing calls  them so biased, “they are valueless as historical material, except as showing Gates’s trying position.”[11]

Color mezzotint of Benedict Arnold by Thomas Hart (1776). Source: Anne S. K. Brown Collection at Brown University
Color mezzotint of Benedict Arnold by Thomas Hart (1776). Source: Anne S. K. Brown Collection at Brown University

Benedict Arnold’s reputation took a decided upturn in 1928 when Hoffman Nickerson wrote his conveniently titled book, The Turning Point of the Revolution or Burgoyne in America.  In it, Nickerson wrote a detailed and lengthy description of the battle in which Arnold is barely mentioned as having any particular part in the action beyond conferring with Gates at headquarters.  However, in addition to the main text, Nickerson provided an appendix dedicated solely to an analysis and examination of Arnold’s participation (or not) in the battle.  He summarized the conclusions and analysis provided by various authors up to that date before declaring the eyewitness accounts to be hopelessly contradictory and, even though admitting Isaac Arnold’s work relying on Varick and Livingston was flawed, dismissed Wilkinson as biased without taking notice that Arnold’s aides hated Gates and should be viewed as at least equally biased if not to a much greater degree.  After a long essay taking into account the most noteworthy prior historians and eyewitness statements, Nickerson decided that “when the evidence, although abundant, is at all balanced, it is proper to use the argument from probability.”  He used that statement to justify a conclusion based on speculation that Arnold must have “exercised command” because it was “improbable that he should have remained idle in camp” during the battle.  Given Arnold’s character and anxiousness to join the action, he simply must have been “present on the field September 19.”[12]

Through the middle and latter part of the twentieth century, Nickerson’s analysis seemed to take hold as two very noteworthy Saratoga historians, Christopher Ward and John Elting, both followed along in similar fashion.  Ward wrote an extended version of the battle but was able to include Arnold in the fighting only to the extent that he “seemed to have assumed command on the American left”.  Other than that, Ward places Arnold with Gates at headquarters begging for troops to make an assault on the British.   However, Ward also wrote an appendix in which he summarized past historians in a sort of headcount analysis and then reached into Varick and Livingston for evidence to support his conclusion that Arnold should be given “the honor of active participation in the battle as the directing head of the American troops.”[13]

When the Philip Freneau Press Bicentennial Series came out, John Elting followed the same pattern set by Nickerson and Ward by writing a detailed description of the event providing no details of action from Arnold but adding a footnote explaining that, in his opinion, the only evidence against Arnold’s participation comes from the liar Wilkinson and that, logically, the way the action progressed, Arnold must have controlled the battle.[14]  By the time Nickerson, Ward, and Elting were finished it seemed as if Saratoga historians no longer even needed to acknowledge the controversy[15] and Arnold biographers started expanding Isaac Arnold’s unsupported claims by having Benedict Arnold personally lead charges while “constantly exposed to enemy fire”.[16]

In the 21st century, John Luzader entered the fray with his book on the Saratoga Campaign.  Unlike John Elting’s argument that Arnold must have controlled the battle due to the orderly fashion in which it progressed, Luzader contends “there is no credible evidence that Generals Gates, Arnold, Poor, or Learned imposed any type of tactical direction beyond ordering regiments onto the battle line.”  Luzader included a very detailed appendix where he analyzes each piece of original evidence and considers its origins along with works by prior historians.  He clearly joins Gordon, Bancroft, and Channing in coming down against any significant participation by Benedict Arnold at the Battle of Freeman’s Farm .  One very convincing point made by Luzader comes from his analysis of Arnold’s own accounts and noting that Arnold made no claim of personal action at the battle and actually wrote an account consistent with Wilkinson and the others who describe his actions as having taken place behind the battlefront.[17]

And so Luzader joins Gordon, Bancroft, and Channing in concluding that Benedict Arnold played no role in the actual fighting at Freeman’s Farm while Stedman, I. Arnold, Nickerson, Elting, and Ward all looked at the same material and concluded that Arnold actually played a very significant role in the action.[18]  For my part, I tried to look past the conclusions of prior historians and focus solely on the eyewitness statements and memoirs from participants actually in the battle.  I did not actually find statements that I felt unable to reconcile in order to form a consistent picture.  And, just to go on record but not to make an attempt to end the debate, I believe Arnold appeared at the front line at the beginning of the battle and conferred with Morgan but then went to the rear where he stayed the remainder of the day arguing with Gates to release enough men to go on the offensive against Burgoyne.

This begs the question of whether Arnold deserves to be called the Real Hero of Saratoga, but that is a question for another article.


[1] Hoffman Nickerson, The Turning Point of the Revolution or Burgoyne in America, (Cambridge, MA., Riverside Press, 1928), 473.

[2] William Gordon, The History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment of the Independence of the United States of America, (New York, Samuel Campbell, 1788), 250.

[3] Charles Stedman, History of the Origin, Progress, and Termination of the American War, Volume 1, (London, 1794), 337.

[4] William Digby, The Journal of Lt. William Digby, reprinted in part by Commager and Morris, The Spirit of Seventy-Six,(Indianapolis,  Bobbs Merrill, 1958), 580.

[5] Ezekiel Wakefield, Recollections of Captain E. Wakefield of the American Army, reprinted in Commager and Morris, The Spirit of Seventy-Six, (Indianapolis, Bobbs Merrill, 1958), 581.

[6] James Wilkinson, Memoirs of my Own Times, Volume 1 of 4, (Philadelphia, Abraham Small, 1816), 245.

[7] Philip Van Cortlandt, The Memoir, Judd, Jacob, The Revolutionary War Memoir and Selected Correspondence of Philip Van Cortlandt, (Tarrytown, NY, Sleepy Hollow Restorations, 1976) 47.

[8] William Hull, Revolutionary Services and Civil Life of General William Hull, (Augusta, GA, Maria Campbell, 1845).

[9] George Bancroft, History of the United States of America, from the Discovery of the American Continent, volume XIV, (Boston, Little Brown & Company, 1874 – 1878), 410.

[10] Isaac Arnold, The Life of Benedict Arnold, (Chicago, Jansen, McClurg, 1880), 176-190.

[11] Edward Channing, A History of the United States, Volume III, (New York, Macmillan Company, 1912), 276.

[12] Hoffman Nickerson, The Turning Point of the Revolution or Burgoyne in America, (Cambridge, MA, Riverside Press, 1928), 473-477.

[13] Christopher Ward, The War of the Revolution, Volume II, (New York, Macmillan Company, 1952), 941-942.

[14] John R. Elting, The Battles of Saratoga, (Monmouth Beach, NJ, Philip Freneau Press, 1977), 81.

[15] Richard Ketchum, Saratoga, (New York, Henry Hold and Company, 1997), 362-363.

[16] Willard Sterne Randall, Benedict Arnold, Patriot and Traitor, (USA, Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1997), 357.

[17] John F. Luzader, Saratoga, (New York, Savas Beatie LLC, 2008) 382-393.

[18] In truth, neither Stedman nor Gordon could have reviewed any of the later memoirs or eyewitness statements.

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  • Interesting reexamination of this debate, which appears much more unsettled than I thought. It’s notable how many of the principal figures can be dismissed by others’ fans as “unreliable”: Gates, an Englishman who came to America and fought against his old army (and was for a time a rival to Washington); Arnold, an American who defected to Britain and fought against his old army; and Wilkinson, an American who was eventually in the pay of the Spanish.

  • Wayne Lynch does a good job summarizing the available sources regarding Arnold’s role in the Battle of Freeman’s Farm on September 19, 1777. Various historians have argued for or against the likelihood that Arnold was present on the front line or spent the entire afternoon arguing with Gates in the rear. The problem is that Gates and Arnold were in the midst of vocal conflict about the wisdom of sending more units forward (Arnold’s preference) or wait for Burgoyne to attack the American entrenched positions (Gates’s preference). Most of the eyewitness accounts that discuss the battle were written by either Arnold supporters or Gates supporters, and their assertions have to be evaluated in that light.
    There is evidence that Arnold rode forward as the action was just beginning in the late morning, finding that Morgan’s men had taken cover in the trees, around the Freeman house, and behind the farm’s fences. They could see the first of the advanced British pickets emerging from the woods. Several of them looked like Indians. Arnold rode up even with Morgan, who was watching from the edge of the woods on the south side of the farm clearing. Arnold pointed with his sword. “Colonel Morgan, you and I have seen too many redskins to be deceived by that garb of paint and feathers. They are asses in lions’ skins, Canadians and Tories. Let your riflemen cure them of their borrowed plumes” (Stone 1895:152; Commager and Morris 1967:581). With that he turned back towards headquarters where he could start lobbying Gates anew. There is no clear evidence that Arnold returned to the fighting until after 4:00 PM.
    Two additional sources help us. One, ironically, is Wilkinson, a staunch supporter of Gates who claimed that no general officer was on the field that day. He reports Colonel Lewis came back from the fighting to report that the fighting was indecisive. Arnold exploded, saying “By God I will soon put an end to it.” Then he galloped off towards the fighting. Colonel Lewis said to Gates “You had better order him back. The action is going well. He may by some rash act do mischief,” Gates then sent Wilkinson after Arnold with orders for Arnold to return to camp (Wilkinson 1816:(1)245-246). Wilkinson says that he did so, but without elaboration. It is likely that Arnold stayed ahead of Wilkinson and made it to the fighting before Wilkinson was able to catch up with him.
    Evidence that this is indeed what happened can be found in Moore’s 1858 Diary of the American Revolution. In it Moore reproduces a contemporary account that says “Arnold rushed into the thickest of the fight with his usual recklessness, and at times acted like a madman. I did not seem him once, but S. told me this morning that he did not seem inclined to lead alone, but as a prominent object among the enemy showed itself, he would seize the nearest rifle-gun and take deliberate aim” (Moore 1858:497-498). Moore cites the “Churchill Papers” as his source, without further explanation. Unless this happened in the morning when Morgan was not yet engaged, it appears to be evidence that Arnold did make it briefly into action after storming off in the late afternoon.

    Commager, H. S. and R. B. Morris (1967). The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants. New York, Harper & Row.

    Moore, F., Ed. (1858). Diary of the American Revolution. New York.

    Stone, W. L. (1895). Visits to the Saratoga Battle-Grounds 1780-1880. Albany, Joel Munsell’s Sons.

    Wilkinson, J. (1816). Memoirs of My Own Times. Philadelpia, Abraham Small.

  • One reason for the belief by many, including some more recent histories, is that given Arnold’s battlefield actions to that time, at Fort Ti, expedition to Quebec, assault on Quebec, retreat from Canada, battle of Valcour Island, battle of Ridgefield, CT and the relief of Fort Stanwix, it is hard to come up with a reason why he would not have been on or near the filed of battle when his division was involved on the 19th. I do not see the argument by Luzader or any other on his side that explains why Arnold would not have been on the field. What was he doing if not on the field?

    As is shown in Lynch’s article and Dean Stone’s response, Wilkinson was not entirely consistent in his memoirs for the action on the 19th. THe big question left unanswered by his account is whether he reached Arnold before Arnold reached the field. Wilkinson doesn’t say.The Stone account cited by Dean Stone seems to support Arnold on the field with Morgan and the account he cites in Moore seems pretty persuasive to me. I don’t have any additional sources to offer but I can support Lynch’s conclusion as the minimum activity of Arnold on the 19th.

    My own view is that Arnold would have been on the field with his division as he was in every other previous engagement. At Ridgefield he entered the battle field although it was basically a state militia response to the British raid on Danbury. In that endeavor, Arnold left his home in New Haven to ride to Bethel, CT. In Aug of 1777, he volunteered to haed up the relief party for Fort Stanwix when no other continental officer would do it. Did that Arnold change so much between Aug and Sept? Unlikely. I think the lack of contemporary sources claiming that Arnold was specifically not on the field provides a presumption that he was there!!!!

  • I have just today discovered a journal written by Corp Robert Treat of Orange, CT which covers the activities around the 19th of Sept.It is in his pension application. He says that on the 18th he and some of the men in his company of Light Horse were called to Arnold’s HQ where they were ordered to take an “officer and ten men to go out into the bush with Generel Arnnel.” He reports that they sighted some British and killed 3 and took 4 prisoners. His entry for the 19th talks about a “smart ingagment” but has no reference to Arnold. The involvement of Arnold on the 18th seems more like his usual involvement.

  • Stephen, thanks for stopping by with the update and thoughts on Arnold. I am currently finishing up a follow-up article on Arnold’s role at 2nd Freeman’s Farm on Oct 7. On starting the research, I thought little question existed as to Arnold’s actions but, as usual when dealing with 18th century accounts, some very interesting questions developed.

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