Benedict Arnold’s Finest Hour: The Battle of Bemis Heights and the Turning Point of the American Revolution (1777)

After two years of bloody, often indecisive warfare, the British high command in America decided on a new strategy to divide the rebellious colonies through seizure of the Hudson River in New York. Leading the main British element south from Canada was General John Burgoyne. Burgoyne faced a difficult logistical quandary. In order to seize his objective at Albany he needed to secure supply and communications lines more than three hundred miles from his base in Quebec. Fearing for his rear and understanding his limited operational reach, Burgoyne delayed his advance several times from June-August 1777. This allowed the colonists to regroup and emplace several obstacles to further delay the British advance. By September, a sizeable American force decided to block the British advance north of Albany on Bemis Heights.

The American forces, commanded by General Horatio Gates, spent weeks preparing their positions on the heights. Gates, a former career officer in the British Army wanted to hold the heights and not stray from the defensive positions. His second-in-command, Benedict Arnold argued instead for a defense in depth, meeting the expected British advance in the tree lines forward of the heights. This, he argued, would benefit their largely inexperienced men, disrupt the British linear formations, and provide a fallback position. On September 19, though given command of only one brigade, Arnold bravely tested his plan in the Battle of Freeman’s Farm. Though lacking the support to shatter the British center, Arnold did win a victory and inflict heavy casualties on the enemy.

Running short on supplies but determined to continue his advance on Albany, Burgoyne conducted a reconnaissance in force against the left flank of Bemis Heights on 7 October. In doing so, Burgoyne exposed his own flank and Benedict Arnold (although technically having been relieved by Gates after a quarrel) launched hasty, aggressive attacks on the British flanks and center. Maintaining tempo and seizing initiative on a chaotic battlefield, Arnold boldly pressed the attack further and managed to seize the far right of the British line. This aggressive maneuver rendered the British positions untenable and forced Burgoyne on a hasty northward retreat which ended a week later in his complete capitulation and surrender. Though lacking unity of command, and imperfectly coordinating their combined-arms attacks, the aggressiveness and initiative of Arnold (leading as ever from the front) gained the Americans one of the great victories of the war at Saratoga – a victory that would, perhaps most consequentially, convince the French to intervene on behalf of the rebellious colonies. Sadly, the hero of the battle, Benedict Arnold would in the future blaze a far more ignominious path to treason and infamy.

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