Battle of Bemis Heights

From Academic Kids

The Battle of Bemis Heights on October 7, 1777 is also known as the 2nd Battle of Saratoga since it was the second and last major engagement in the Battle of Saratoga of the American Revolutionary War. American forces under Major General Horatio Gates repelled the British Lt. General John Burgoyne's attempt to take their fortified position on the heights.

Missing image
John_Neilson_House,_Bemis_Heights,_Stillwater,_Saratoga_County,_NY.jpg
Plan of battlefield of Battle of Saratoga and views of John Neilson's House from south, east and inside that served as the headquarters for the Generals Enoch Poor an Benedict Arnold.

Background

The British plan to split the American colonies along the Hudson River to Lake Champlain line was faltering. Two of the three initiatives in the Saratoga Campaign strategy had already produced little of no advantage. Burgoyne's expedition had failed in its attempt to gather supplies, most notably in the Battle of Bennington on August 16. His previous attempt to flank the American position had stalled in the first engagement of Saratoga, the Battle of Freeman's Farm on September 19. With supplies running low and no sign of the support expected from General William Howe in New York City, he had to attack the Americans blocking his route to Albany.

The American forces had been growing during the time between battles. So his attack on the American left now faced Major General Benjamin Lincoln's division. This division had General Ebenezer Learned's and Enoch Poor's brigades, Colonel Henry Dearborn's light infantry battalion, and Colonel Daniel Morgan's riflemen. Expanded by militia units, the division now had about 3,800 men with another 1,200 militia available for immediate support.

Description of the battle

Burgoyne's plan was to use three assault elements. Brigadier Simon Fraser was to slide past the Americans on their left and secure the positions for the artillery. Since he was going through woodlands he had the light infantry, along with the Canadian militia and ranger forces and Indian allies, for a total of about 700 men. Major General Riedesel's Brunswickers would make the main attack to occupy the American left, with about 1,100 men and supporting artillery. Meanwhile Major General William Phillips would attack in a left hook to separate the Left from the main American forces positioned at Bemis Heights overlooking the Hudson River. Phillip's force was just over 400 men of Grenadier Battalion under Major John Dyke Acland and the Royal Artillery under Major Williams.

General Lincoln's men were extended northwest from Gates' fortifications on Bemis Heights. On the far left or western end were Colonels Morgan and Dearborn with a total of about 600 men. In his center was General Learned's brigade, expanded by militia to about 1,800 men. Tying his forces to the main positions was General Poor's brigade of just over 1,400. Behind Learned, Brigadier General Abraham Ten Broeck led 1,200 New York militia in reserve.

Having learned from the battle two weeks before, the attack started in the early afternoon. This would allow Burgoyne to withdraw at nightfall should it be necessary. The opening fire came from the Grenadier's advance on Lincoln's right. Poor's men held fire, and the terrain made the fire largely ineffective. When major Acland led a bayonet charge on their position, the American's finally opened up at close range. Acland fell shot in both legs, and many of the Grenadiers also went down. Their column was in total route, and Poor's men advanced to take both force leaders prisoner and capture their artillery. Those that escaped returned to the redoubts at Freeman's Farm.

On the western end things were also not going well for the British. Morgan's men swept aside the Canadians and Indians to engage Fraser's regulars. Although slightly outnumbered Morgan managed to break up several British attempts to move West. Meanwhile, at Gates' headquarters, Benedict Arnold paced nervously at the sounds of battle. He had been removed from command, and Gates refused to see him. Finally, he lept to his horse and rode towards the firing. Gates' only reaction was to send Major Armstrong out to order his return, but Armstrong couldn't catch up with him.

Arnold went first to the light battalions on the west of the line. When he saw Fraser rally his men repeatedly he told Morgan that the man was worth a regiment. Morgan reacted by ordering him shot, and a marksman named Timothy Murphy obliged. Fraser fell mortally wounded, and his advance fell apart.

Next Arnold rode to the central action. Learned's men were having a rough time handling the Hessian advance, and were yielding ground. Arnold helped to rally them, and with Learned he led their counter attack. When Morgan, Dearborn, and Poor began to close on their sides, the Hessians also withdrew to their starting positions.

After just about an hour of sharp fighting, the British were back to their starting position. Not content with stopping the British advance, Arnold led Learned and his men in a charge on the first redoubt. Arnold fell, shot in the same leg he had earlier injured during the invasion of Canada, but Learned's brigade carried the redoubt.

Even though his injury kept him from combat, Arnold went to Brigadier General John Paterson's brigade to encourage him to support the earlier attacks. But here, Gates' orders caught up with him and removed him from action. Darkness ended the battle, and saved Burgoyne from further defeat.

Aftermath

Burgoyne, already outnumbered 3 to 1, had lost 1,000 men, while American losses came to only about 500 killed and wounded. He had lost several of his most effective leaders. Not only had the maneuver failed, his forward line was now breached. That night he lit fires at his remaining forward positions, and withdrew under the cover of darkness. So on the morning of October 8, he was back in the fortified positions he had held on September 16.

But he was weaker than before, and had fewer supplies. The American forces were still growing stronger. The following day, he withdrew another 8 miles (12 km) to Saratoga, New York. The stage was set for the final act of the Battle of Saratoga and his later surrender.

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