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.
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.” 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.” 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.”
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.”
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. 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. 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.
After the Civil War, George Bancroft wrote his multi-volume history of the United States and determined that “Arnold was not on the field.” 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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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. By the time Nickerson, Ward, and Elting were finished it seemed as if Saratoga historians no longer even needed to acknowledge the controversy and Arnold biographers started expanding Isaac Arnold’s unsupported claims by having Benedict Arnold personally lead charges while “constantly exposed to enemy fire”.
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.
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. 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.