What Was the First Major Victory of the Colonial Army?

Benedict Arnold was a Continental Army leader at Saratoga.
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In the late summer of 1777, the British army was ascendant. New York City was in British hands. Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain had been reclaimed from the rebelling colonists. British Gen. John Burgoyne was leading a large army south from Canada, intending to vanquish the American forces. Those plans were thwarted, however, on an eastern New York battlefield not far from Saratoga Springs. The Battle of Saratoga was the colonial army’s first major victory.

1 The Best-Laid Plans

It had been more than two years since the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired at Lexington and Concord. The colonists had made little headway in trying to oust the British Army. Burgoyne planned a two-sided invasion, moving south from Canada and north from New Jersey and New York into New England. Burgoyne anticipated that this would separate New England from the other colonies, splinter the Continental Army and give the British control of the Hudson River.

2 American Reaction

The colonial army didn’t wait to be attacked. General Washington sent a force of 6,500 soldiers and militia to meet Burgoyne’s army. Led by Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold, the Americans faced the British. In addition to a desire for independence, the colonists were spurred on by Burgoyne's boast that he could unleash thousands of Native American warriors on the rebels, especially as reports began circulating of Native American slaughter of civilians. Some holdout loyalists were appalled at this development withdrew support from the British troops. Ultimately Native Americans left the Redcoats to fight their own battles.

3 Battle and Surrender

With plans to winter in Albany, Burgoyne’s army continued to march south. The Continental Army prepared for their arrival. Col. Thaddeus Kosciusko, an engineer, directed the building of extensive strategic field fortifications. The colonists set up cannons on the hills aimed at both the road and the river. On Sept. 19, the 7,500 British troops divided into three groups for multiple attacks. By the end of the day’s fighting, the British still held the field, but many of their soldiers had been injured or killed. Burgoyne waited for reinforcements to arrive, but supplies were getting low. On Oct. 7, Burgoyne ordered 1,500 soldiers to go on a reconnaissance mission. The colonial army, now 13,000 strong took advantage of this opportunity, forcing the British to retreat the next day. Upon reaching the village of Saratoga, the Redcoats discovered they were surrounded. After several days of negotiations, Burgoyne surrendered to Horatio Gates.

4 The French Factor

The battle provided much-needed inspiration to the colonies. George Washington’s troops had just been defeated at the Battle of the Brandywine in Pennsylvania, which allowed the British to enter and take Philadelphia. The French were also inspired by the American success. Diplomats led by Benjamin Franklin visited France and gained critical military and financial support. France had been reluctant to publicly ally with the Americans until there was a certainty the colonists would win.

Living in upstate New York, Susan Sherwood is a researcher who has been writing within educational settings for more than 10 years. She has co-authored papers for Horizons Research, Inc. and the Capital Region Science Education Partnership. Sherwood has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from the University at Albany.