Book review: 1777: Tipping Point at Saratoga by Dean Snow (Oxford University Press, October, 2016)
I can hear it now—“Another book about the Saratoga campaign … yawn.” That’s pretty much what I thought when I first heard of this volume. Every few years someone comes out with a new publication on the subject wherein the only real difference is provided by details from some new source or two but the presentation remains essentially the same. However, as I read a bit about the author of this most recent work I thought that this one might be different.
Dean Snow is professor emeritus of anthropology at Penn State University, has served as president of the Society for American Anthropology, and worked as an archaeologist during excavations at the Saratoga battlefield. These qualifications led me to believe Mr. Snow’s approach to the Saratoga campaign might have some unique characteristics. I felt his background as an anthropologist might lead to a more down-to-earth humanistic look at the campaign as opposed to the usual detached observer describing grand undertakings. I also suspected his archaeological work at the site might result in the use of those findings to support locations and movements such as has recently been done with the Parker’s Revenge site on Lexington and Concord’s Battle Road. I found myself to be both right and wrong.
At a glance, 1777: Turning Point at Saratoga is what one might expect: it consists of 450 pages divided into prefatory material, five chapters, an epilogue, extensive endnotes, bibliography, and a reasonably detailed index. A couple dozen black and white illustrations, maps, and charts are spread throughout.
The maps, though plentiful, are a problem. They are small and the names of units showing their locations actually clutters the maps. There is no way to distinguish American from Crown forces without reading the names so the lines of battle and movements are not clear. Of greater significance is the fact that the maps are rather barren. Very few geographical or topographical features, period or modern, are shown and I would strongly recommend a reader have access to more complete maps of the battles when reading the book (period ones are available on the Library of Congress website). The lay of the land played a critical role in the Saratoga battles and the text makes frequent reference to fields, woods, roads, streams, ravines, bluffs, etc. Being able to understand the relationships among these features and their impact on the story adds considerably to the book’s enjoyment and educational value. [See update below.]
The text has a couple unique characteristics. For one, the first thirty pages are quite basic introductory material. Four pages give the most cursory summary of the previous two-and-a-half years of the war and the following two dozen pages cover the planning of the campaign and its proceedings up to mid-September. All of this opening material—far less than usually found in a book on the campaign—is very traditional and could be by-passed by a reader knowledgeable on the campaign. For a reader new to the subject, it provides the absolute bare minimum of background.
The book makes a dramatic change once finished with the brief prefatory pages. The next chapter begins on September 15, 1777, and the following three-hundred-fifty pages detail the happenings of the thirty-three days leading to Burgoyne’s surrender on October 17. The most unique feature of the book is that each of those days is covered through the use of subsections describing the events that took place at a given time of day. For example, the section on September 15 begins, “6:05 AM, an American Scout, South of Saratoga,” and spends half-a-dozen paragraphs talking about the man and his activities. The next subsection is headed, “8:00 AM, John Burgoyne, the British Camp at Saratoga,” and uses several paragraphs to describe Burgoyne’s actions that early morning. In each of these subsections, Mr. Snow includes relevant material that covers broader topics than merely the subject of the heading—in this case, the scout or Burgoyne. Through this process, the reader is given a more complete picture of the situation at that point.
This unusual format is chronological in the extreme and has its plusses and minuses. Most of the subsections include vignettes that do not normally appear in traditional works on the campaign and they add a distinct human touch to the story, something Mr. Snow defines in the introduction as one of his primary objectives. Also, these short subsections are self-contained elements and allow the reader to put the book down at any time. However, rather than following a person or happening for a longer period in order to gain a broader understanding, the format jumps from person to person and location to location which results in something of a disjointed feel. This might be a challenge for those who prefer things neatly wrapped up before moving on or to view the overall picture through a topical rather than chronological presentation. More importantly—and, in some sense, regrettably—readers new to the Saratoga campaign might miss out on gaining a higher level of comprehension of the campaign as a whole. However, in spite of the implications of the title, Tipping Point does not seem to be concerned with that broader objective but, rather, with detailing the moment-by-moment proceedings of the campaign’s final days. In that regard, the book is quite successful.
The text does include some debatable and just plain incorrect comments. For example, it includes the old assertion dividing the American population into one-third Rebel, one-third Loyalist, one-third neutral but that has been shown to be highly debatable if not downright wrong. The author also comments about the British army being well supplied but fails to mention the fact that Burgoyne had left Canada with shortages of horses, carts, boats, and other necessities that he hoped to gather along the way. Once south of Lake George and Skenesborough, the army had problems moving more than a single day’s supplies forward and even the slightest disruption of the lengthening supply line resulted in reduced rations for the troops. These supply problems provided the rationale for the ill-fated Bennington movement. On the subject of Bennington, being a Vermonter I took exception to the comments about John Stark being a Vermont general—he came from New Hampshire.
The author also could have done a bit more research on the armies of the period. For example, in the description of one action he writes that the “dull glint of brass match cases on their chests revealed them to be German jägers” but grenadiers, not jägers, wore match cases. He also improperly equates the term “hatmen” with the grenadier and light infantry companies when it actually referred to the men in the regular companies. In another paragraph he mentions the use of madder and cochineal dyes but fails to distinguish between the brick-red of the enlisted British soldier’s coats produced by madder and the brighter red resulting from cochineal dye used for the officer’s coats. There are other examples interspersed throughout the book but they are all minor or have no impact on the point of the discussion.
While the great majority of the debatable or incorrect statements are insignificant, there is one attitude presented that is clearly improper and more meaningful for an understanding of the period. More than once the author refers to British soldiers as the dregs of society and classifies many of them as “paroled convicts” avoiding punishment. He presents a somewhat similar view of American Continental soldiers (the army’s regulars)— “they were largely men who lacked other prospects, something that made these recruits only slightly better that the soldiers who made up Burgoyne’s regular units.” Research over the past few years has clearly shown that this view of the soldiers is rather dated and downright false.
A look at the endnotes provides a clue as to the reason for most misstatements: the author utilized numerous secondary sources of a general nature and some of them are decades old. Many of the questionable and incorrect comments come from the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries when writers knew no better. Considerable research conducted over the last three or four decades has provided a much more detailed view of the armies of the Revolution and most of that information is readily available. Why the author utilized such dated sources escapes me.
That being said, Mr. Snow does make extensive use of primary sources for his vignettes—some not commonly seen in other works. In particular, the author includes numerous first-hand accounts by ordinary people in the pages leading up to the battles. Disappointingly, the number drops considerably in the subsequent pages for some reason. There are lots of period quotes but they are drawn almost exclusively from the writings of those in the upper ranks of the armies rather than enlisted men.
Another disappointment—for me, at least—is the lack of use of the author’s experiences and findings as an archaeologist at Saratoga. On only two occasions does he reference that work and both of them are in reference to the legend of Timothy Murphy shooting General Fraser. To his credit, Mr. Snow does not refer to the story within the text but, rather, includes a couple of lengthy paragraphs in the endnotes explaining why the story is not true. He tells of the archaeologists’ efforts to locate Fraser’s grave with the objective of recovering the ball that killed him in hopes of being able to determine whether it came from a rifle or a smoothbore. Unfortunately, they did not find the body but the author discusses other documentary evidence that strongly indicates Murphy did not shoot Fraser.
Mr. Snow ends the book by taking the reader back to the title when he writes, “But Saratoga had changed everything.” This may be the greatest fault of the book for the author does not spend any pages explaining what changed. Like this paragraph, the book just ends.
While Tipping Point may have some misstatements or fail to impart a full understanding of the overall campaign, readers will come away with considerable knowledge of the thirty-three days that brought an end to Burgoyne’s efforts and a much better feel for the common person’s experiences during that time. The author has a pleasing and fluid writing style and does a first-rate job of maintaining the flow of the story by connecting the seemingly disparate subsections resulting in an easy and enjoyable read. As an added bonus, Mr. Snow’s accounts of the battles are downright exciting. I have spent decades studying la petite guerre (literally “the little war”—the one-on-one and small-unit combat that takes place between the big battles in all wars) and Mr. Snow’s descriptions of such actions are as fine as I have ever encountered. That form of warfare filled the time between the two battles and the author uses one hundred pages on the happenings in those days. Most authors just gloss over that period. While the entire book is a meaningful read, the coverage of those days alone makes it worth the effort.
UPDATE FEBRUARY 18, 2017:
There is a companion website to the book that includes maps, images, videos, documents, and links for each chapter. The maps are Google Earth images with locations of units and some features drawn in. In a rather unusual approach to showing the movement of units, some of the maps show the locations at different times during a given day. For example, there are ten maps showing unit positions at intervals from 6:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. during the Battle of Freeman’s Farm.
There is one advantage to using Google Earth images: they can be printed out and used for reference when visiting the Saratoga National Historical Park. Locating things when referring to a period map can be challenging but, since the website maps allow reference to modern features, finding locations is made much easier. Of course, it is assumed that the person who identified a location in the first place is correct. Personally, I found one map titled “Relevant structures present in 1777” to be most interesting. Since it locates the structures mentioned in the book on a Google Earth image, I can now visit the area and find where these structures stood.
There are, however, a couple problems with these maps. Foremost, there are no instructions on utilizing the images and people might not realize the viewer can zoom in or enlarge the images to a full page. In fact, one has to zoom in to see the locations of most features and to spread out the unit markers that otherwise are a mass of overlapping multi-colored rectangles. In like manner, there are no instructions on how to print the maps. There are also no period maps for comparison to the modern ones; as mentioned in the book review, very few period maps and depictions of the topography of the area are included in the book. This website would have been an ideal place to add those items.
On the web site, there are image sections for each chapter of the book which include color versions of the illustrations in the book as well as additional images, including three photos taken during the author’s archaeological work and one of a section of the site as it is today. More photos of both topics would have been nice. As with the maps, the viewer’s technological abilities come into play. There are several computer programs that will open the images and some allow the viewer to expand and explore the images in detail. It is left up to the viewer to figure that out.
The videos included are of fifes and drums playing three commands and a couple tunes. The command calls offered, however, are from the Civil War, not the Revolution. Further, what the website calls the “Grenadier March” is actually “The British Grenadiers” (there is a difference); on the plus side, it is a good version of the latter (I think it comes from the nicely-done bayonet charge scene in the movie Barry Lyndon). The version of “Yankee Doodle” is a modern one which does vary from the period tune.
There are some interesting documents included. For the chronology-dependent reader, the author created a detailed timeline of events over the thirty-three days and a table of times of incidents and their sources for the battles on September 19 and October 7. In addition, annotated transcriptions of American and British orderly books give the reader a close-up impression of day-to-day military activities.
A single link is provided and takes the viewer to a website including detailed tables of organization and rosters for both armies as compiled by Eric Schnitzer, a ranger and historian at Saratoga National Historical Park.
All things considered, the 1777 website is a disappointment. Some of the material is useful but the site seems to have been thrown together with inadequate effort. Also, much of it is of limited or even no use to readers who do not have easy or informed access to the internet. Lastly, there is a question as to how long the website will be available.
As an aside, C-SPAN interviewed the book’s author, Dean Snow, and it can be seen in its entirety at https://www.c-span.org/video/?416213-1/technology-1777-battle-saratoga.
I’m reading this book right now and have found that Michael Barbieri’s review is right on the money. The book is very interesting in its timeline book style and makes for great reading.
But I thought of great interest was the fact that in the “References” section, Dean Snow references an article from the Journal of the American Revolution, “The Myth of Rifleman Timothy Murphy”. The article was by editor emeritus Hugh T. Harrington and to me, just illustrates how contemporary this book is in its collection of facts. Bravo to all involved!
Glad you agree with my assessment, John. Don Hagist and I exchanged a couple electron-mails over the rating of the book but it seemed to us that, in spite of the book’s challenges, it still held considerable value.
And, thanks for mentioning the reference to the JAR article. I forgot to include that in my review.
For those interested in such things, a review of the companion website to the book has been appended to the review.