In the fall of 1777, British grand strategy called for a coordinated three-pronged offensive by three separate armies that would converge on Albany, New York. For a variety of reasons, the only British force that got close to the target was General John Burgoyne’s army of 7,500 men, which had advanced south from Canada.
By mid-September, Burgoyne’s force reached the northern outskirts of the small village of Saratoga, New York.
Opposing Burgoyne was the Northern Department of the Continental Army, commanded by General Horatio Gates. Gates’s army numbered 8,500 men, including 500 elite Virginian riflemen under Colonel Daniel Morgan. Also among Gates’s subordinates was General Benedict Arnold, who had already distinguished himself as one of the best combat officers in the Continental Army.
To disrupt the British advance, Gates ordered his men to construct defenses on the crest of Bemis Heights, part a series of bluffs commanding both the Hudson River and the road to Albany.
On September 19, 1777, Burgoyne divided his army into three columns, each tasked with probing the American defenses. Colonel Daniel Morgan's light infantry engaged the center column near the farm of John Freeman. It was a hotly contested fight, with the field changing hands several times. By evening, the British held the field of battle, but the action had sapped their advance of momentum.
After the fighting at Freeman’s Farm, Burgoyne chose to dig in, hoping to be reinforced by General Sir Henry Clinton's forces in New York City. While the British remained stuck, the American army grew to 13,000 strong.
On October 7, receiving intelligence that Burgoyne’s men were on the move, the Americans attacked the British position, forcing the enemy back. In the ensuing fight, popular British General Simon Fraser was mortally wounded, picked off by one of Morgan’s riflemen.
The British had erected a defensive redoubt behind their forward position, the Balcarres Redoubt. It was formidable and well-defended. Several hundred yards away was the less impressive Breymann Redoubt. Defended by 200 German soldiers, the Breymann Redoubt was overwhelmed and captured in an assault led by Benedict Arnold.
The next morning, Burgoyne’s army attempted to escape north, only to be stopped by harassing American pursuers and the onset of heavy rain. Cold, hungry, and exhausted, the British dug in and prepared to defend themselves. Within two days, they were surrounded.
On October 17, 1777, after a week-long negotiation, Burgoyne surrendered his army. The American cause had achieved its most decisive victory to date.