“…and damn’d lying”

By Joe Craig, Park Ranger

Each year the stalwart Interpreters of Saratoga National Historical Park are called upon to make a report of their annual activities.  The Servicewide Interpretive Report takes in numbers of visitor contacts, what, how much and where money is spent.  A two-page delight of numbers only relieved by a brief narrative of the park’s interpretive doings!  Having a root canal is worse, but it’s arguable that the NPS­ or at last this Ranger­ is better at caring for its various sites and holdings than in doing math.

A case in point was back in 1995 when the National Park Service found itself in some hot water over the question of many people participated in the Million Man March held on the National Mall.  The NPS estimate was about 400,000, which was far below the organizers’ estimates of 1,500,000 to 2,000,000 people.  Other estimates put the numbers at about 670,000 to 1,000,000.  The upshot was that the organizers were not happy with the NPS numbers and even threatened legal action.

Perhaps it is no surprise that in the wake of the Million Man March the agency threw up its hands and decided no longer to be the counter for similar events.   It may be some consolation to know that the NPS is not alone in such a situation: the historical record is often at odds with itself over numbers.

Take for instance the numbers of troops available for the Army of the United States in October 1777 when they had General Burgoyne’s army surrounded at Saratoga.  A “return” of the army, presented to General Burgoyne, claimed as many as 20,000 troops were on the rolls of General Gate’s army, and some historians have accepted that number whole heartedly.  General Burgoyne seems to have embraced that number as well, perhaps as a means of excusing his role in the disastrous capitulation.

As it turns out, that particular listing also included troops on furlough, on command and sick.  So, the numbers were rather diminished, and making the event a game of liar’s poker.  Burgoyne, Ltd was still trapped and markedly outnumbered but not by quite as much as the “Grand Total” of the return indicated.

Numbers seem to have been a bit of a problem for all concerned in the War for American Independence and for subsequent historians (the phrase “estimated at” is one of the safest they can employ).  Throughout the “American War”, the British couldn’t seem to make up their minds as to how many people were opposing them.

The prevailing British notion was that it was a few “bad apples” causing the crisis.  In testimony before the British House of Commons in 1779 American Loyalist Joseph Galloway, onetime Speaker of the House for the colonial Pennsylvania Assembly certainly emphasized this idea:

“…I am convinced, that not one fifth part of the people had independence in view!”

Galloway soon cut that estimate in half:

“…I think I may safely say, not one-tenth part had independence in view….”

This, unsurprisingly, elicited the question:

“Q: If so large a portion of the people of America were so averse to independence, why have they suffered their present rulers to obtain so much power over them as to present any effectual exertion in support of their principles?”

Galloway’s response was quick and to the point.  The forces of Congress used severe coercion against would-be Loyalists:

“A. The Congress having prevailed upon a very small part of the people to take up arms, under the pretence of obtaining a redress of grievances; and having an army composed of those people under their command, and subject to military discipline, they disarmed, or caused to be disarmed, all persons whom they thought disaffected to their measures, or wished to be united to this country, contrary to their scheme of Independence….”

If strong-arm tactics were the only reason for continued rebellion, they appeared to work.  But by the logic of Mr. Galloway and the British ministry, the rebellion caught between Britannic power and a reluctant majority should have been crushed and but a painful memory.  Here it was 1779; the conflict was showing no signs of ending.

So, Galloway was then asked:

Q from your knowledge of the people of America, what proportion of the inhabitants do you think at this time [1779] would prefer a reconciliation with Great Britain, rather than assist in supporting American Independence?”

Based upon perceived war-weariness, Galloway’s answer was:

“…I think I may venture to say, that many more than four-fifths of the people would prefer an union with Great Britain, upon constitutional principles, to that of Independence….”

Facing the might of the British, naturally, the rebels must have lost a few of their number.  Galloway assured the parliament that “… [the rebelling Americans] had lost in the Canada expedition, at Boston, where they were extremely sickly, killed in battle in the several engagements with the British troops, taken prisoners, and by deaths in the military hospitals…I think I may safely say, upon good enquiry, nearly 40,000 men….”

A footnote in the published version of Galloway’s testimony stated:

“The Rebel States, since the commencement of the rebellion, have lost in their military hospitals, and in battle, in their naval and land service, not much short of 100,000 men which amount to a fifth-part of the white men in America capable of bearing arms.”

For those readers of mathematical bent, you’ve probably twigged to a slight flaw in this testimony.  Galloway claimed a minority one fifth (or less) hold sway over four-fifths (or more).  If the estimate of the footnote was correct then the one-fifth evil minority should have been wiped out. And yet the rebellion, the drive toward Independence was still lurching along.

Essentially, the idea of a majority of Americans yearning to be back in the British fold is as much a myth as the later American nationalist fairy-tale that everyone (except a few malcontented creeps) wanted Independence.

If the politicians were off in their reckonings about the levels of (dis)Loyalty, the military seems to have been very wrong in their assessments of their ability to kill off rebel troops, perhaps nowhere more evident than at the Saratoga campaign.

In his journal, Lord Francis Napier with the British 31st regiment of Foot’s Light Company makes the numbers of American Rebels to be quite large.  At the battle of Freeman’s Farm 19 September 1777 he reports:

“The Rebels made the strongest efforts to turn [the Crown Forces] Flanks… superior in Numbers, in the proportion of Ten to One….”

Seeing as the British had in their centre column about 1100 troops around Freeman’s Farm, that would mean the attacking rebels numbered over 10,000 men.  At the time of that battle, General Gates’ Army of the United States actually numbered 8100 troops.

His Boss, John Burgoyne seems to have inflated some figures as well.  In his letter to general Sir William Howe dated 20 October 1777, Burgoyne explains the defeat 13 days earlier:

[Burgoyne’s reconnaissance in force] brought on an action which proved fatal to our Army.  The King’s Troops (unable to resist the impetuosity of 15,000 men) gave way….”

Again these numbers seem a tad high, as the returns for Gates’ army is something like 10-12000 men available.  Gates also did not commit his entire force on 19 September nor 7 October.

When forced to retreat to Saratoga, Napier claimed in his journal on 10 October that the American strength was “supposed to be above 20,000 men”.  As noted above, even at the time of the surrender that would have been a very inflated number.

It would stand to reason that, if the enemy army is large then so should be his casualties.  Napier’s Journal claimed the losses sustained by the American Rebels at the Battle of Hubbardton:

“The Enemy fled on all sides.  Their loss amounted to about 200 killed, among other officers the commanding officer Colonel Francis left dead on the field.  Above 600 men were wounded, many of whom perished in the woods. 7 Captains & 10 Subalterns & 210 privates were made prisoner….”

Modern estimates of the American losses at Hubbardton are far less: 30 Killed, 96 wounded and 210 captured; Colonel Francis was wounded and captured.  When Burgoyne surrendered on 17 October Napier admitted in his journal:

“The affair at Hubardton greatly diminished the strength of the Advanced Corps, without doing any material damage to the Rebels….”

Nothing like a military disaster to make for some re-assessment, I guess.

The September 19th engagement at Freeman’s Farm was, not surprisingly even more costly.  Napier again:

“…Their loss is computed to be at above 1000.  Ours but 560 killed, wounded and missing….”

Napier was not too far off in his estimates for Crown Forces casualties, but his estimate for American casualties is overblown.  Modern estimates say that Burgoyne lost 550 killed and wounded with 41 captured; Gates’ army lost 300 killed and wounded and 23 captured.

Burgoyne’s report of the October 7th battle to General Howe claimed

“Our loss in this unfortunate affair amounted to [blank] Men.  That of the enemy was very considerable.  Their General Arnold was wounded and Six Colonels with above 1,000 men killed or wounded.”

Well, we can give Burgoyne points for getting the news of General Arnold’s wounding correct.  However, it is estimated that the American lost about 150 casualties of all sorts, about 90% less than Burgoyne’s claim.

It’s pretty evident that the British war effort against the 13 States was hampered by many things, not the least a strong touch of unreality.  On one hand, the British and their allies were convinced that the Rebels as a political force were a small but vicious minority.  Simultaneously and in direct contradiction, they were a military horde of staggering numbers.

Mark Twain popularized the phrase: “There are three types of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”  Statistics were certainly be misused by Mr. Galloway and British commanders for their own reasons amid the loss of the War for Independence.

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