The First Battle of Saratoga was fought on September 19, 1777, during the American Revolutionary War. It was part of the Saratoga Campaign and ended in a British victory, however, the British advance stalled, and they were not able to advance on the American line at Bemis Heights.
First Battle of Saratoga, Summary of the Battle of Freeman’s Farm
The First Battle of Saratoga — also known as the Battle of Freeman’s Farm — was fought between the United States of America and Great Britain on September 19, 1777, during the Saratoga Campaign of the American Revolutionary War. After the American Invasion of Canada failed, the Continental Army was forced to retreat to New York and took shelter at Fort Ticonderoga. In October 1776, the Battle of Valcour Island took place, where a small fleet of American ships, under the command of Benedict Arnold, slowed the British advance and forced them to put off the invasion of the Hudson River Valley until the spring of 1777. The British plan, which is known as Burgoyne’s Campaign of 1777, was led by Lieutenant General John Burgoyne. The plan was to capture Albany, New York, which would allow the British to cut New England off from the Southern Colonies. Burgoyne started the campaign on June 14 and quickly captured Fort Ticonderoga. However, the American forces escaped by different routes, and Burgoyne pursued them to Skenesborough, Fort Anne, and Hubbardton. Although the British won the battles that took place at each location, they suffered significant casualties and used up supplies faster than anticipated. As Burgoyne pressed on toward Albany, his plan started to collapse. General William Howe decided to take his army from New York and attack Philadelphia. Then, on August 16, American forces dealt the British a crushing defeat at the Battle of Bennington. A few days later, General Barry St. Leger, who had invaded the Mohawk River Valley, was forced to retreat at the Siege of Fort Stanwix and temporarily abandon the campaign. Meanwhile, American forces under the command of General Horatio Gates gathered near Saratoga and built defensive works at Bemis Heights. Despite his troubles, Burgoyne decided to push forward, and he marched to Saratoga. On September 19, Burgoyne sent three columns out to engage the American forces. The battle started when Daniel Morgan and his men attacked the British and inflicted heavy casualties on the farm of John Freeman. Intense fighting carried on throughout the day, and both sides sent in reinforcements, but neither was able to take control of the battlefield. General Benedict Arnold asked for more reinforcements, but Gates did not send enough men to turn the tide. Meanwhile, Burgoyne sent Hessian forces into the battle, which finally pushed the Americans back. The British built defensive fortifications at Freeman’s Farm after the battle, which lasted for roughly eight hours, ended.
General Horatio Gates was in command of the American forces at the First Battle of Saratoga. Image Source: Wikipedia.
Quick Facts About the First Battle of Saratoga
- Date Started: The First Battle of Saratoga started on Friday, September 19, 1777.
- Date Ended: The battle ended on September 19, 1777.
- Location: The battle took place on the farm of John Freeman, which was west of the Hudson River and north of Bemis Heights.
- Miliary Campaign: The battle was part of the Saratoga Campaign of 1777.
- Who Won: Britain won the First Battle of Saratoga at Freeman’s Farm.
Key Events in the First Battle of Saratoga
- By the time Burgoyne reached Saragota, his was the only British army left that was in a position to engage the Americans. William Howe had gone south to Philadelphia, and Barry St. Leger retreated to the west.
- Congress was upset that Fort Ticonderoga had been lost to the British without a fight. As a result, General Philip Schuyler was replaced by General Horatio Gates. Gates traveled to New York and arrived at Albany on August 19 and took command of the Northern Army.
- On September 8, Gates moved the army to Stillwater and intended to make his stand there. However, Brigadier General Tadeusz Kościuszko, who was in charge of designing the defensive works, did not like the area. A new location was identified — Bemis Heights.
- Burgoyne’s army arrived at the Hudson River on September 15, and it took three days to finish the crossing. By September 18, he was on the march to Saratoga and about four miles north of the American line.
- On the morning of September 18, Burgoyne sent three columns south toward Bemis Heights, and they moved in the direction of John Freeman’s farm.
- Benedict Arnold asked Gates for permission to move his men forward and engage the British. At first, Gates declined but eventually allowed Arnold to move ahead with some of his men, including Daniel Morgan and his riflemen. The Americans also moved toward Freeman’s Farm.
- Morgan’s men fired on the British and then charged at them. The British fell back, but were reinforced by men under the command of General James Inglis Hamilton, and then able to push Morgan back.
- Hamilton marched his men toward the south end of the farm and Gates responded by sending men from General Enoch Poor’s brigade to reinforce Morgan.
- Arnold’s men hid in the woods, fired on Hamilton’s men, and inflicted heavy casualties.
- British Lieutenant Colonel John Anstruther ordered his men to carry out a bayonet attack on the Americans hiding in the woods. Anstruther’s men rushed in, but the Americans simply fell back deeper into the woods. Once the British moved back out of the woods, the Americans moved back in and started firing again. That back and forth happened four times.
- The fighting continued for hours, and both sides sent reinforcements to the farm and the battle grew, However, neither side was able to gain an advantage.
- Later in the afternoon, by around 3:00, British forces, under the command of General Simon Fraser, were engaged with the left flank of the American line. Meanwhile, Baron von Riedesel and his column of Hessians started to march toward the American position on Bemis Heights. However, Riedesel stopped when he saw the fighting intensify at Freeman’s Farm, and waited to see if his orders changed. As the sun set, he was told to engage the right flank of the Americans, and he sent 700 men toward the battle.
- Arnold rode back to Bemis Heights and asked Gage to send more reinforcements. However, Gates only agreed to send in a few men, because he was worried it would weaken his position and make him vulnerable to attack.
- Riedesel’s men entered the battle. With very few reinforcements on the way, attacks on both flanks, and night falling, Arnold pulled his men back toward Bemis Heights.
- The battle ended with the British in control of Freeman’s Farm, but, once again, they suffered heavy casualties and were unable to reach Gates and his men on Bemis Heights.
- Despite the loss on the field, Arnold was able to keep Burgoyne in check and prevent him from advancing. The British were forced to fortify their positions at the farm, just a mile and a half from Bemis Heights. Burgoyne remained there for three weeks.
The First Battle of Saratoga Overview and History
In the fall of 1776, British forces pushed the American Northern Army out of Canada, from Quebec City all the way to Lake Champlain in New York. The British forces, under the command of Guy Carleton, chased after the Americans but were delayed by the Battle of Valcour Island. At that battle, a small American navy, led by Benedict Arnold, gave the army enough time to take refuge at Fort Ticonderoga and other fortifications. By the time the British broke through it was too late in the year to continue the chase. The British withdrew and in November and December 1776 they started to plan their next campaign against the United States.
Planning the Saratoga Campaign
Over the course of the winter of 1776–1777, General John Burgoyne developed the play for the British military campaign, which would be carried out in the spring of 1777. The plan, known as Burgoyne’s Campaign, called for a large force, under his command, to move south out of Canada and into western New York. A second force, led by Barry St. Leger, would move into the Mohawk River Vally. Finally, a third army, under the command of General William Howe, would move north out of New York City. Burgoyne believed if the plan was successful, the British would be able to take control of the Hudson River Valley and then isolate New England from the rest of the colonies, effectively cutting the United States in two. It would allow the British would be able to restore order to New England and the other colonies would fall in line.
Burgoyne’s Campaign of 1777 Begins — June 14
Burgoyne assembled his army at St. John and left on June 14. The advance force was led by Brigadier General Simon Fraser, which included two divisions under the command of Major General William Phillips and Major General Friedrich Riedesel.
Siege of Fort Ticonderoga — July 2–July 6
Burgoyne traveled south, crossed Lake Champlain, and toward Fort Ticonderoga. He arrived at the fort on July 1 and was able to take control of the heights on Mount Defiance that overlooked the fort. He had artillery placed there, and when the American garrison, under the command of General Arthur St. Clair, found out, he ordered his men to evacuate the fort. American forces escaped by two different routes, although both went south. St. Clair marched toward Hubbardton, while the American artillery and supplies were loaded onto boats and sailed toward Skenesborough.
General Arthur St. Clair ordered his men to evacuate Fort Ticonderoga. Image Source: Wikipedia.
Burgoyne Loses Men and Uses Supplies Chasing the Americans — July 6–8
For three days, Burgoyne and his men pursued the retreating Americans and engaged them at the Battle of Skenesborough, the Battle of Hubbardton, and the Battle of Fort Anne. Although the British won all three battles, they used up supplies and suffered casualties.
Burgoyne Learns Howe is Going to Philadelphia — August 3
On August 3, messengers from Howe finally reached Burgoyne at Fort Edward and delivered a letter that Howe had written on July 17. The letter said Howe was going to sail with his army to capture Philadelphia, and that General Henry Clinton would be responsible for British forces in New York City. This caused significant issues for Burgoyne’s supply lines, so he decided to act on a suggestion from Riedesel and sent his men out to find supplies that could be taken by force.
Gates Replaces Schuyler — August 10
On August 10, Congress sent Gates to take command of the Northern Department. It also ordered states from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts to call out their militias.
Battle of Bennington — August 16
Burgoyne sent Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Baum with support from Lieutenant Colonel Heinrich von Breymann into Vermont on a mission to capture supplies that were at Bennington. When Baum reached Bennington, he found that New Hampshire Militia forces, under the command of General John Stark, were waiting for him. On August 16, a fierce battle broke out. Stark and his men were in control of the battle when Breymann arrived to help Baum and nearly turned the tide. However, Seth Warner and the Green Mountain Boys arrived, routed Breymann, and secured the victory for the Americans. The British lost nearly 1,000 men at Bennington, which significantly reduced Burgoyne’s forces as he prepared to move on toward Albany.
John Stark led American forces to a key victory at the Battle of Bennington. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.
American Defenses at Bemis Heights
On September 8, Gates ordered the army to move to Stillwater with the idea of setting up defenses there. However, the Polish engineer, Brigadier General Tadeusz Kościuszko, who was in charge of designing the defensive works, did not like the area. A new location was found — Bemis Heights — which was about 9-10 miles south of Saratoga. Kosciusko laid out defensive lines stretching from the river to the bluffs, which rose about 300 feet high over the Hudson River. Gates moved the army into position, facing north. The right of the American line, under the command of Gates, was on the heights. The center of the line was placed west of the heights, near a farmhouse, and was under the command of Brigadier General Ebenezer Learned. The left was further west and under the command of Benedict Arnold.
Burgoyne Arrives Near Saratoga — September 13–15
At the beginning of September, Burgoyne’s army was on the east bank of the Hudson River. He was faced with a critical decision about where to camp for the winter. He had two choices — he could return to Ticonderoga or he could move ahead and capture Albany. Burgoyne decided to push on to Albany. However, in order to do that, he needed to reduce his need for supplies and add more troops to his main army. To do those things, he decided to eliminate his line of communication to the north, up to Fort Ticonderoga, so he would not have to maintain the chain of forts between there and Albany. He ordered his forces to abandon the forts between his position and Skenesborogh and join him at Saratoga.
Afterward, he moved his army across the Hudson River, to the west side, just north of Saratoga. It took from September 13th to September 15th to complete the mission. Once the army was across, he marched south toward Saratoga. By September 18, his advance force was about four miles away from the American lines. Small skirmishes started to happen as small parties encountered each other.
The First Battle of Saratoga Beings — September 19
Around 10:00 in the morning, Burgoyne ordered his army to advance in three columns.
General Riedesel led the left column on the river road, transported the main artillery, and guarded the supplies and the boats on the river. General James Inglis Hamilton commanded the center column, which would attack Bemis Heights. General Simon Fraser led the right wing and had orders to turn the American left flank by moving through the wooded high ground north and west of Bemis Heights, which was near the farm owned by Loyalist John Freeman.
Benedict Arnold anticipated the flanking maneuver, which was directed at his men, and asked Gates for permission to move his men out from the heights and engage the British right, which was led by Fraser. Arnold believed the skill of his riflemen in the woods would give him an advantage.
Gates preferred to wait for the British to attack first. Eventually, he conceded to let Arnold move out with some of his men, including Daniel Morgan and his infantry and Henry Dearborn and his light infantry.
Morgan’s men moved ahead and as they moved through an open field on Freeman’s Farm, they saw a British advance force from Hamilton’s column. Morgan placed his men in the woods and had them open fire on the British, with instructions to target the officers. However, Morgan was not aware there were two more columns of the British army headed his way. He ordered a charge and they were able to push the British back — right as Fraser’s men moved into the area. Fraser’s men engaged the Americans and scattered Morgan and his men back into the woods. James Wilkinson was scouting the activity and rode back to inform Gates and ask for reinforcements.
Benedict Arnold wanted Gates to be more aggressive during the First Battle of Saratoga. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Reinforcements Pour Into Freeman’s Farm
Around 1:00 in the afternoon the fighting died down. Hamilton’s men began to form up on the north side of the field, and American reinforcements came in from the south. Gates was informed that Morgan was in trouble, so he sent reinforcements, including men from the brigade of Brigadier General Enoch Poor. Burgoyne sent his own reinforcements to support Hamilton.
The Battle is Renewed
The battle went back and forth for the next two hours. It flowed between intense fighting and breaks for each side to regroup. Morgan’s men had taken positions in the woods and were picking off officers and artillerymen. They were so effective that at one point they captured some of the British artillery, but lost them in the next British charge. At one point, Burgoyne’s aid was shot by a sharpshooter, who was mistaken for Burgoyne.
The British Take Control of the Field
Around 3:00 in the afternoon, Riedesel sent a messenger to Burgoyne and asked for instructions. It took two hours for the messenger to return to Riedesel with new orders that
Instructed him to continue to guard the baggage train, but also to send as many men as he could spare toward the right flank of the American Line. Riedesel left 500 men to guard the supplies and marched off toward the battle. Two of his companies advanced and opened fire on the American right. Around the same time, Fraser’s force gained an advantage and threatened to turn the American left flank.
Arnold responded by asking for more reinforcements, so the left flank would not be turned. Gates allowed him to send a brigade led by Ebenezer Learned. By the time the reinforcements arrived, night was falling. Arnold pulled his men back and they retreated to their defensive positions.
Burgoyne and the British won the battle, but at a heavy cost, but to the casualties suffered, and the failure to advance further than Freeman’s Farm.
Military Commanders at the First Battle of Saratoga
Prominent American Military Leaders
- Horatio Gates
- Benedict Arnold
- Daniel Morgan
Prominent British Military Leaders
- John Burgoyne
- Simon Fraser
- Friedrich Riedesel
Estimated Casualties at the First Battle of Saratoga
- The total estimated casualties at the Battle of Freeman’s Farm and the Battle of Bemis Heights were around 1,400 killed, wounded, or missing.
- The Americans suffered around 330 casualties.
- The British suffered around 1,135 casualties.
Results of the First Battle of Saratoga
- The outcome of the Battle of Freeman’s Farm was a British victory.
- The Americans were able to stop the British from advancing past the farm and the British were forced to build defensive fortifications at the farm.
- Burgoyne wanted to attack on September 21, but he received a letter from Henry Clinton that informed him he might be able to arrive at Saratoga around the end of the month. Burgoyne decided to wait for Clinton to arrive and delayed the attack.
- In the American camp, tension rose between Gates and his officers, especially Arnold. Gates had sent a report to Congress about the battle and left Arnold’s name out of it. Many of the men involved in the fighting believed Arnold played a key role in checking Burgoyne’s advance and were upset that Gates took the credit.
- Arnold and Gates had a heated exchange, which led to Gages relieving Arnold of command. Benjamin Lincoln was given command of Arnold’s men.
- While Burgoyne waited for Clinton to arrive, there were skirmishes between patrols and picket lines.
- In early October, Clinton had not arrived. Burgoyne called a Council of War and decided to launch one final assault on the Amerian line.
Interesting Facts About the First Battle of Saratoga
- The First Battle of Saragota is also called the Battle of Freeman’s Farm.
- It was one of the longest land battles of the American Revolutionary War. It started around 10;00 in the morning and ended around 8:00.
- Burgoyne had around 6,000 men under his command, which included British regulars, Hessian mercenaries, Loyalists, and Native American Indian warriors.
- Legend has it that after Gates removed Arnold from command, a petition circulated through the American camp that asked Arnold to remain. So many of the men signed it that he decided to stay at Bemis Heights.
Significance of the First Battle of Saratoga
The First Battle of Saratoga is important to the outcome of the American Revolutionary War and the history of the United States because British forces, under the command of General John Burgoyne, were not able to push through the American defenses at Freeman’s Farm. Although the British forced the Americans to withdraw and won the battle, the British were forced to wait for another three weeks before they could launch another attack. During that time, American reinforcement arrived that increased the size of the army and helped contribute to the victory at Saratoga, which convinced the French to enter the war in support of the United States.
Timeline of the First Battle of Saratoga
This timeline shows how the First Battle of Saratoga at Freeman’s Farm fits into the events of the Saratoga Campaign.
- July 2–July 6, 1777 — Siege of Fort Ticonderoga
- July 6, 1777 — Battle of Skeneseborough
- July 7, 1777 — Battle of Hubbardton
- July 8, 1777 — Battle of Fort Anne
- August 2, 1777 — Siege of Fort Stanwix
- August 6, 1777 — Battle of Oriskany
- August 16, 1777 — Battle of Bennington
- September 19, 1777 — First Battle of Saratoga, Freeman’s Farm
- October 7, 1777 — Second Battle Saratoga, Bemis Heights
- October 17, 1777 — Surrender of Burgoyne’s Army