It is axiomatic that the American victory at Saratoga was, aside from events at Yorktown, the pivotal military event of the American Revolution. The victory set in motion several actions by various parties with self-serving agendas, but it was the manner in which word of the victory was communicated, something today might well be called “spin,” that makes an engaging and little-told story.
History has credited Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates as the author of the victory, with less famed actions by Gen. Benedict Arnold, and Col. Daniel Morgan and his riflemen, among others. This gave Gates the “bragging rights” over Saratoga and its communication to the world, and he would seek to leverage this to his greatest advantage. Gates struck his convention with Burgoyne on October 17, 1777. Although it is commonly referred to as a surrender, Burgoyne did not technically surrender, he reached a convention by which his troops might return home on condition of not serving again in America. The distinction is important because of the relative leniency of a convention. It prohibited the troops from re-entering the war in the American theater, but they could go back to Europe and replace troops who could then be sent to America.
The main reason for these lenient terms (too lenient for Congress, which eventually repudiated them), was that Gates felt under pressure to settle things with Burgoyne due to the threat of a bailout of Burgoyne by British Gen. Henry Clinton. Clinton had worked his way up from New York City to an area known as the Hudson Highlands, an area astride the Hudson River in today’s Westchester and Duchess Counties. He was having some success clearing the rebels from the area, having taken over or destroyed forts Clinton and Montgomery, and giving Gen. Israel Putnam an exceedingly difficult time. In the end, Clinton heard of Burgoyne’s loss and gave up, turning back to New York on October 25. But Gates did not anticipate this and was taking no chances on having his victory overturned, so he may have played up the threat to make it less likely to appear that he struck a bad bargain.
Before peace negotiations were completed by Gates at Saratoga, the deal was communicated as a fait accompli through a strange series of events, all the result of Gates’s premature announcement of the surrender to Putnam on October 15. On that date, Abraham Yates, the chairman of the Albany Committee of Correspondence, sent a letter to the president of the New York Council of Safety, Pierre Van Cortlandt, indicating that the peace was a done deal. This information was conveyed to New York governor George Clinton, who in turn forwarded it to Putnam and likely to others in a note written late in the day of October 15. In the note, Clinton stated that “Last Night at 8 OClock the capitulation whereby Genl Burgoyne and whole Army surrenderd themselves Prisoners of war was sign’d, and this morning they are to march out.” Putnam, keeping the chain going, forwarded Clinton’s missive to George Washington on October 16, at which point Burgoyne still hadn’t signed on the dotted line.
Washington had been anticipating a Burgoyne fold for a while and was hungry for any news. In Putnam’s letter he got what he was looking for, and he issued a general announcement on October 18. Washington wrote:
The General has his happiness completed relative to the successes of our northern Army. On the 14th instant, General Burgoyne, and his whole Army, surrendered themselves prisoners of war — Let every face brighten, and every heart expand with grateful Joy and praise to the supreme disposer of all events, who has granted us this signal success.
Washington was celebrating the victory based on a premature notification, he could not have yet known that Gates did not sign the agreement with Burgoyne until October 17. And just to pass the premature, though now technically accurate, news two steps further, Washington wrote to John Hancock, the President of Congress, on October 18 informing him of the “most interesting and agreeable intelligence which I have this moment recd from Genl Putnam.” Congress then dispatched a letter to the American commissioners in France, informing them of the Saratoga success. Congress, though apparently not Washington, was subsequently informed that their news of the victory at Saratoga had jumped the gun.
How was Congress officially informed of the finality of events at Saratoga? It turns out that Gates dispatched Col. James Wilkinson with the information, sending him the day after the deal with Burgoyne was signed and sealed, which was October 18. Wilkinson’s destination was York, Pennsylvania, where Congress convened following the fall of Philadelphia. This was a distance of roughly 350 miles from Saratoga. Wilkinson, whose days of being a troublemaker were still largely ahead of him, managed to take the slow route. Taking “his sweet time,” it took Wilkinson two weeks to reach Congress.
At least one stop worth note was made in Reading, about sixty miles short of his destination. There, he dined with two members of Congress, Maj. Gen. Thomas Mifflin and Brig. Gen. Thomas Conway, briefing them on the Saratoga outcome. Also present was an aide to Maj. Gen. William Alexander, Lord Stirling. The discussion turned to the comparison of Gates’ triumph to the situation of Washington, who was on the outside looking in at a surrendered capital of Philadelphia. Wilkinson boasted of Gates’ accomplishment and the group generally started deriding Washington in comparison. As Wilkinson took his time deriding Washington, an anxious Congress awaited confirmation of Putnam’s earlier rumor. Meanwhile, the aide to Stirling passed the contents of the discussion on to his boss, who in turn passed them to his good friend, George Washington, who would file it away in his mind for later use when the Conway Cabal, a plot to potentially unseat Washington as Commander in Chief, reared its ugly head.
Finally, on October 31, Wilkinson arrived in York to pass the good news and a copy of the convention agreement to Congress. He testified before Congress on November 3. Congress in turn dashed off a letter to the American commissioners in Paris sending them the good news. This letter would somehow miscarry: Col. Thomas Ewing was assigned to carry it, but no copies are among the papers of the American commissioners, and no reference to it is made in their correspondence. Whether he even sailed for France is not known. After his missive to Congress dated October 18, Gates took the time to write a letter to his wife to inform her of the great victory. But wasn’t there someone else who needed to be informed? Oh yes, the commander-in-chief and Gates’ boss, Washington. This letter would never come.
Meanwhile, though thrilled with the Saratoga outcome, Washington was still not satisfied for a couple of reasons. First, he was perplexed as to why he was hearing news from seemingly everyone except Gates. Second, he was very anxious to pull troops from Gates’ force to assist in his effort around Philadelphia. Perhaps Gates refrained from writing Washington to avoid the issue of shifting forces. Perhaps he was looking to make Washington appear ignorant or uncaring before Congress. Either way, Washington had not heard from Gates since October 5. He had been anticipating Gates’ victory for some time. Even before the victory at Saratoga, Washington had been anxious to peel off some of Gates’ troops to use in his efforts to defend Philadelphia. As Gates’ boss, he could have simply ordered this, but Washington was not anxious to interfere in what was shaping up as a masterstroke in Saratoga. In late September, he wrote to Gates saying that “this Army has not been able to oppose General Howe’s . . . [if] circumstances will admit, that you will Order Colo. Morgan to Join me again with his Corps.” He also made reference to this need in subsequent letters to Patrick Henry, Putnam, and Clinton, before receiving (premature) word on October 18 from Putnam that Gates had bagged Burgoyne.
Although Washington had received a follow-up letter from Putnam confirming what had earlier been communicated prematurely, he never received a letter from Gates. Finally, the exasperated General wrote a letter of his own to Gates, expressing his regret “that a matter of such magnitude and so interesting to our General Operations, should have reached me by report only, or through the channel of Letters not bearing that authenticity, which the importance of it required, and which it would have received by a line under your signature, stating the simple fact.” Ouch! To add injury to insult, Washington sent his aide and attack dog, Alexander Hamilton, in person to deliver the letter, which also contained a desperate appeal for troops to be released by Gates to apply to his situation in Philadelphia. The young, brash, and self-confident Hamilton would drive home the point rather undiplomatically, which is no doubt why Washington sent him.
Hamilton arrived at Gates’ headquarters on November 5, and almost immediately the two took a disliking to each other as they wrangled about how many troops Gates could release. Gates was afraid of a rumored move of British Gen. Henry Clinton’s troops arriving in Saratoga to bail out Burgoyne, fresh off their successes in the Hudson Highlands. According to Gates, writing to Washington (finally!) on November 7, “every good Effect of the ruin of Genl Burgoyne’s Army, totally lost, should the Enemy Succeed in an Attempt to possess this Town.” Gates here may have been disingenuous. In an October 30 letter written to Gates, Governor Clinton stated “that the enemy have demolished Fort Montgomery and all the other posts in the Highlands and moved down with their whole force towards New York.” This was true; General Clinton had turned back on October 25. Governor Clinton even went on in his letter to counsel Gates against making any attempt on New York. Whether Gates had seen this letter by November 7 is unknown, but likely he had.
In the end, Gates only released part of his army, even after Washington had Hamilton march to his headquarters to demand more than that. Gates still feared an attack by troops led by General Clinton, who were currently in the Hudson Highlands. While Morgan’s riflemen had already been released and Gates agreed to release more, it would be too little, too late to make a difference to Washington’s hopes for Philadelphia. Whether even a complete reassignment of the Northern Army to Washington would have made any difference in Philadelphia is debatable, but Washington eventually called it a year and retreated to Valley Forge on December 17.
Meanwhile, the commissioners in Paris, Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane and Arthur Lee, awaited information that, when received, would totally change their bargaining position for the better. Unknown to them, a race of sorts across the Atlantic quickly materialized. As mentioned, Congress had sent one letter, to be delivered by Colonel Ewing. A second letter was in the possession of John Paul Jones, who raced across the Atlantic in his ship Ranger. Last, but not least, was a chap from Boston named Joshua Loring Austin, secretary of the Massachusetts Board of War, also carrying the happy news to France.
Austin was traveling on the French brigantine Perch, which started out for France about four hours after he received the documents on October 30. It made a rapid crossing, landing in Nantes on November 30 and reaching the commissioners in Passy on December 4. In achieving that, Austin outraced Jones who, having left Portsmouth November 2, arrived at the commissioner’s headquarters on the morning of December 5. In addition to delivering copies of dispatches similar to those Austin delivered, Jones handed over much more detailed information including full accounts of the military operations immediately leading to the surrender of Burgoyne. Incidentally, reports regarding Saratoga began to trickle into London by December 2.
Austin carried at least four documents that can be identified: An October 24 letter from the Massachusetts Council to the commissioners and two letters written by Boston pastor Samuel Cooper to Franklin written on October 25. The fourth was a letter of introduction for Austin to Franklin, from his father Benjamin Austin. Jones gracefully admitted that Austin had arrived first but said that “there were some deductions as to both the strategical and the domestic political effects of the surrender which our subsequent conversations proved to be more clearly drawn in my mind than in Mr. Austins.” Jones’s dispatches included many military details which he had gleaned during the ten days that elapsed between the arrival of the news at Portsmouth and his sailing date from that port.
Austin’s arrival prompted this famous exchange, which may not be real but is nonetheless a good legend:
Franklin to Austin: “Sir, is Philadelphia taken?”,
Austin: “Yes sir” (at which point Franklin sagged, clasped his hands, and turned to leave)
Austin: “But sir, I have greater news than that. General Burgoyne and his whole army are prisoners of war!”
Regardless of whether these were the words actually uttered, the effect was electric. Franklin worked quickly to get the news out, drafting Austin to transcribe the dispatches.The news received in Europe had an impact like no other news received so far during the war. Partly because it was so completely unexpected, it was a huge American propaganda success. Franklin saw to it that the story of Burgoyne and Saratoga was spread throughout the Continent.Well aware of the propaganda value of the information, he immediately published the word in the French press. His release read as follows:
Mail arrived today from Philadelphia to Passy by Doctor Franklin in 34 Days.
October 14, Burgoyne obliged to lay down his arms, 9,200 men killed or prisoners.
The articles of the Capitulation with Gates were brought.
Among the prisoners besides the General, 4 members of the Parliament of England.
Howe was left in Philadelphia where he is locked up.
All communication with his fleet is cut off.
Seventeen of his ships which wanted to approach are lost or taken.
Washington with his army, other Generals with detached corps and militias surround the city. General Gates arrives with his victorious army to join them.
There appear to be some problems with this announcement, mostly in that it put a quite favorable spin on the actual situation in Philadelphia. For one, Howe was hardly “locked up” in the city after defeating Washington’s attempts to defend it. There was also a lot more uncertainty about whether Gates’ army would join with Washington’s. The temptation may be to attribute this to Franklin attempting to push the propaganda value of the announcement to its maximum effect. A closer look at the documents Austin carried, though, identifies the source of the information in question.
One of the letters from Samuel Cooper to Franklin flatly states that “Howe seems preparing for a Retreat.” Cooper went further, saying:
While I was writing the last Sentence a Gentleman calls in, and acquaints me of a Letter just receiv’d from the Southward, informing that the Enemy have lost 17 Vessels in attempting to force their Way to Philadelphia; and among the Rest, a floating Battery of 8 Cannon, and more than an hundred Men has fallen into our Hands. If Howe cannot get the River open, He must retire . . . the total Ruin of the Army from Canada must in the End be fatal to him.
Unfortunately Cooper did not name his sources, but it appears that they were the ones putting on an optimistic spin. The other letter Austin carried is somewhat more circumspect about the prospects around Philadelphia, stating only that “Our People it seems remain in high Spirit notwithstanding their late Disappointment at German Town, and we hope soon to hear that How’s Army will be Cutt off from any retreat and be in the same Situation that Burgoyne’s is at present in.” Franklin is pretty much absolved of having exaggerated, though he may be guilty of some cherry-picking. Assuming he didn’t have any sources reporting differently, he was pretty much simply relaying what he’s been told.
Cooper also ventured the opinion that “Britain would now sooner acknowledge our Independence than venture a War with them [France] in Alliance with us,” which would understate the value of the Saratoga disclosures in securing an alliance. This turned out to be incorrect. He also noted that “our Liberties once secur’d, many would deem an Alliance with Britain the most natural,” which did end up being the case eventually owing to the Jay Treaty of 1794.
Franklin, Deane, and Lee exulted in the news and publicly announced the victory in thousands of printed handbills that were passed around the city. At the same time, they continued to pressure the French foreign minister, Charles Gravier, count de Vergennes, by informing him of Britain’s renewed reconciliation attempts. French playwright and American collaborator Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais informed Vergennes about Saratoga on December 5. The next day King Louis XIV, under what he called “circumstances now appearing more favourable to the establishment of a close understanding,” proposed treaty talks with the commissioners.
At this time the French nation itself was divided into three parties: first, the all-out American sympathizers. Second, those who from longtime enmity to England wished the revolting colonies well, but hesitated to give open aid and comfort. Third, the conservative party, which could see no good whatever in any revolt of a dependency against a monarchy, and which abhorred the doctrines of republicanism no matter where or by whom maintained. In the end, the parties in the first two camps (and it was hard to tell whether they were more in the first or the second) carried the day.
On December 18, Franklin, Lee, and Deane informed Congress that both public and court opinion were moving in their favor. They also noted “the great news” of Saratoga, “news that apparently occasioned as much general joy in France as if it had been a victory of their own troops over their own enemies.”
As they say, the rest is history. After some negotiations, the result was the 1778 Treaty of Alliance with France which changed the course of the war.
George Washington to Christopher Greene, October 18, 1777, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-11-02-0551. As Washington was sending the letter out to others on the 18th, we know he had received it by then if not sooner.
The Committee for Foreign Affairs to the American Commissioners, November 1, 1777, founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-25-02-0085.
Charles Oscar Paullin, The Navy of The American Revolution (Cleveland: The Burrows Brothers Company, 1906), 331; Augustus C. Buell, Paul Jones – Founder of the American Navy, a History,Volume I (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900), 88.