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Washington and His Comrades: Chapter VI

In war, as in politics, nice balancing of merit or defect in an enemy would destroy the main purpose which is to defeat him. Each side exaggerates any weak point in the other in order to stimulate the fighting passions. Judgment is distorted. The Baroness Riedesel, the wife of one of Burgoyne’s generals, who was in Boston in 1777, says that the people were all dressed alike in a peasant costume with a leather strap round the waist, that they were of very low and insignificant stature, and that only one in ten of them could read or write. She pictures New Englanders as tarring and feathering cultivated English ladies. When educated people believed every evil of the enemy the ignorant had no restraint to their credulity. New England had long regarded the native savages as a pest. In 1776 New Hampshire offered seventy pounds for each scalp of a hostile male Indian and thirty-seven pounds and ten shillings for each scalp of a woman or of a child under twelve years of age. Now it was reported that the British were offering bounties for American scalps. Benjamin Franklin satirized British ignorance when he described whales leaping Niagara Falls and he did not expect to be taken seriously when, at a later date, he pictured George III as gloating over the scalps of his subjects in America. The Seneca Indians alone, wrote Franklin, sent to the King many bales of scalps. Some bales were captured by the Americans and they found the scalps of 43 soldiers, 297 farmers, some of them burned alive, and 67 old people, 88 women, 193 boys, 211 girls, 29 infants, and others unclassified. Exact figures bring conviction. Franklin was not wanting in exactness nor did he fail, albeit it was unwittingly, to intensify burning resentment of which we have echoes still. Burgoyne had to bear the odium of the outrages by Indians. It is amusing to us, though it was hardly so to this kindly man, to find these words put into his mouth by a colonial poet:

I will let loose the dogs of Hell,
Ten thousand Indians who shall yell,
And foam, and tear, and grin, and roar
And drench their moccasins in gore:. . .
I swear, by St. George and St. Paul,
I will exterminate you all.

Such seed, falling on soil prepared by the hate of war, brought forth its deadly fruit. The Americans believed that there was no brutality from which British officers would shrink. Burgoyne had told his Indian allies that they must not kill except in actual fighting and that there must be no slaughter of non-combatants and no scalping of any but the dead. The warning delivered him into the hands of his enemies for it showed that he half expected outrage. Members of the British House of Commons were no whit behind the Americans in attacking him. Burke amused the House by his satire on Burgoyne’s words: “My gentle lions, my humane bears, my tenderhearted hyenas, go forth! But I exhort you, as you are Christians and members of civilized society, to take care not to hurt any man, woman, or child.” Burke’s great speech lasted for three and a half hours and Sir George Savile called it “the greatest triumph of eloquence within memory.” British officers disliked their dirty, greasy, noisy allies and Burgoyne found his use of savages, with the futile order to be merciful, a potent factor in his defeat.

A horrifying incident had occurred while he was fighting his way to the Hudson. As the Americans were preparing to leave Fort Edward some marauding Indians saw a chance of plunder and outrage. They burst into a house and carried off two ladies, both of them British in sympathy–Mrs. McNeil, a cousin of one of Burgoyne’s chief officers, General Fraser, and Miss Jeannie McCrae, whose betrothed, a Mr. Jones, and whose brother were serving with Burgoyne. In a short time Mrs. McNeil was handed over unhurt to Burgoyne’s advancing army. Miss McCrae was never again seen alive by her friends. Her body was found and a Wyandot chief, known as the Panther, showed her scalp as a trophy. Burgoyne would have been a poor creature had he not shown anger at such a crime, even if committed against the enemy. This crime, however, was committed against his own friends. He pressed the charge against the chief and was prepared to hang him and only relaxed when it was urged that the execution would cause all his Indians to leave him and to commit further outrages. The incident was appealing in its tragedy and stirred the deep anger of the population of the surrounding country among whose descendants to this day the tradition of the abandoned brutality of the British keeps alive the old hatred.

At Fort Edward Burgoyne now found that he could hardly move. He was encumbered by an enormous baggage train. His own effects filled, it is said, thirty wagons and this we can believe when we find that champagne was served at his table up almost to the day of final disaster. The population was thoroughly aroused against him. His own instinct was to remain near the water route to Canada and make sure of his communications. On the other hand, honor called him to go forward and not fail Howe, supposed to be advancing to meet him. For a long time he waited and hesitated. Meanwhile he was having increasing difficulty in feeding his army and through sickness and desertion his numbers were declining. By the 13th of September he had taken a decisive step. He made a bridge of boats and moved his whole force across the river to Saratoga, now Schuylerville. This crossing of the river would result inevitably in cutting off his communications with Lake George and Ticonderoga. After such a step he could not go back and he was moving forward into a dark unknown. The American camp was at Stillwater, twelve miles farther down the river. Burgoyne sent messenger after messenger to get past the American lines and bring back news of Howe. Not one of these unfortunate spies returned. Most of them were caught and ignominiously hanged. One thing, however, Burgoyne could do. He could hazard a fight and on this he decided as the autumn was closing in.

Burgoyne had no time to lose, once his force was on the west bank of the Hudson. General Lincoln cut off his communications with Canada and was soon laying siege to Ticonderoga. The American army facing Burgoyne was now commanded by General Gates. This Englishman, the godson of Horace Walpole, had gained by successful intrigue powerful support in Congress. That body was always paying too much heed to local claims and jealousies and on the 2d of August it removed Schuyler of New York because he was disliked by the soldiers from New England and gave the command to Gates. Washington was far away maneuvering to meet Howe and he was never able to watch closely the campaign in the north. Gates, indeed, considered himself independent of Washington and reported not to the Commander-in-Chief but direct to Congress. On the 19th of September Burgoyne attacked Gates in a strong entrenched position on Bemis Heights, at Stillwater. There was a long and bitter fight, but by evening Burgoyne had not carried the main position and had lost more than five hundred men whom he could ill spare from his scanty numbers.

Burgoyne’s condition was now growing desperate. American forces barred retreat to Canada. He must go back and meet both frontal and flank attacks, or go forward, or surrender. To go forward now had most promise, for at last Howe had instructed Clinton, left in command at New York, to move, and Clinton was making rapid progress up the Hudson. On the 7th of October Burgoyne attacked again at Stillwater. This time he was decisively defeated, a result due to the amazing energy in attack of Benedict Arnold, who had been stripped of his command by an intrigue. Gates would not even speak to him and his lingering in the American camp was unwelcome. Yet as a volunteer Arnold charged the British line madly and broke it. Burgoyne’s best general, Fraser, was killed in the fight. Burgoyne retired to Saratoga and there at last faced the prospects of getting back to Fort Edward and to Canada. It may be that he could have cut his way through, but this is doubtful. Without risk of destruction he could not move in any direction. His enemies now outnumbered him nearly four to one. His camp was swept by the American guns and his men were under arms night and day. American sharpshooters stationed themselves at daybreak in trees about the British camp and any one who appeared in the open risked his life. If a cap was held up in view instantly two or three balls would pass through it. His horses were killed by rifle shots. Burgoyne had little food for his men and none for his horses. His Indians had long since gone off in dudgeon. Many of his Canadian French slipped off homeward and so did the Loyalists. The German troops were naturally dispirited. A British officer tells of the deadly homesickness of these poor men. They would gather in groups of two dozen or so and mourn that they would never again see their native land. They died, a score at a time, of no other disease than sickness for their homes. They could have no pride in trying to save a lost cause. Burgoyne was surrounded and, on the 17th of October, he was obliged to surrender.

Gates proposed to Burgoyne hard terms–surrender with no honors of war. The British were to lay down their arms in their encampments and to march out without weapons of any kind. Burgoyne declared that, rather than accept such terms, he would fight still and take no quarter. A shadow was falling on the path of Gates. The term of service of some of his men had expired. The New Englanders were determined to stay and see the end of Burgoyne but a good many of the New York troops went off. Sickness, too, was increasing. Above all General Clinton was advancing up the Hudson. British ships could come up freely as far as Albany and in a few days Clinton might make a formidable advance. Gates, a timid man, was in a hurry. He therefore agreed that the British should march from their camp with the honors of war, that the troops should be taken to New England, and from there to England. They must not serve again in North America during the war but there was nothing in the terms to prevent their serving in Europe and relieving British regiments for service in America. Gates had the courtesy to keep his army where it could not see the laying down of arms by Burgoyne’s force. About five thousand men, of whom sixteen hundred were Germans and only three thousand five hundred fit for duty, surrendered to sixteen thousand Americans. Burgoyne gave offense to German officers by saying in his report that he might have held out longer had all his troops been British. This is probably true but the British met with only a just Nemesis for using soldiers who had no call of duty to serve.

The army set out on its long march of two hundred miles to Boston. The late autumn weather was cold, the army was badly clothed and fed, and the discomfort of the weary route was increased by the bitter antagonism of the inhabitants. They respected the regular British soldier but at the Germans they shouted insults and the Loyalists they despised as traitors. The camp at the journey’s end was on the ground at Cambridge where two years earlier Washington had trained his first army. Every day Burgoyne expected to embark. There was delay and, at last, he knew the reason. Congress repudiated the terms granted by Gates. A tangled dispute followed. Washington probably had no sympathy with the quibbling of Congress. But he had no desire to see this army return to Europe and release there an army to serve in America. Burgoyne’s force was never sent to England. For nearly a year it lay at Boston. Then it was marched to Virginia. The men suffered great hardships and the numbers fell by desertion and escape. When peace came in 1783 there was no army to take back to England; Burgoyne’s soldiers had been merged into the American people. It may well be, indeed, that descendants of his beaten men have played an important part in building up the United States. The irony of history is unconquerable.


The Conquest of New France
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The Father of British Canada: a Chronicle of Carleton
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Canada and the American Revolution:
The Disruption of the First British Rule
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