Casting a Giant Shadow

By Joe Craig, Park Ranger

It is regrettable, but probably understandable that the battles of Saratoga are always under the shadow of Gettysburg.  Besides comparisons of their historic importance, even our exhibits come up for comparison to the “Budweiser of American History”.  Many visitors comment how the fibre optic map at Saratoga’s visitor center is “just like the one at Gettysburg”.  Such visitor observations necessitate a good deal of restraint on the part of the Saratoga rangers from emphatic and perhaps pungent replies.

To many of the general public it seems to matter no one whit that Saratoga has been consistently listed among the most decisive battles in world history as early as 1856 (thank you, Sir Edmund Creasy), or that Saratoga was considered the most important battle in the past 1000 years by the New York Times in 1999.  The fact is that at Gettysburg the invading army was NOT captured eludes many observers, whereas at Saratoga Horatio Gates’ Army of the United States captured John Burgoyne, his playmates and all their toys.

Even more importantly, Saratoga had a larger effect on world history than Gettysburg.  Any international fallout of 1-3 July 1863 was negative: the Union victory at Gettysburg meant that the Confederacy would not gain any international recognition.

Not so with Saratoga in 1777!  France quickly recognized the United States (whom they’d been aided unofficially) and declared war on their old foe, Britain.  In 1779, Spain entered the war as a “co-belligerent” against Britannia, but didn’t formally recognize American independence until February 1783.  The United Provinces [the Netherlands] were drawn into the conflict in 1780.

Most of the other European powers aligned themselves in the League of Armed Neutrality founded by Ekaterina II of Russia.  Ostensibly, this was to ensure that neither Britain nor her foes would trample on the rights of League members, but was markedly more hostile toward the British.  So the battles at Saratoga stirred up an international crisis among pretty much all of Europe.  (Mind you, they didn’t need much prodding to go after each other; one pretext was as good as another.)

The crisis was by no means confined to Europe as the belligerent countries were all involved with international trade.  Each had colonies and trading “factories” scattered around the globe, some very profitable to whichever power held them.  It was actually more economical to go after an enemy’s colonies and trade routes than to slam into their home country, and so the American War for Independence spilled over like a pot left too long on a stove.  It was, for the record, the kind of situation that the British hoped to avert by turning Burgoyne loose on the rebels…if only he had won like he was supposed to.

Having France involved in the conflict made for some immediate changes for the British: their mortal enemy was 21 miles distant.  This, of course, meant that the British had to worry a lot more about defending their home country and waters which meant adjusting their allocations of army and naval forces.  However, Britain’s distant colonies in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia were in need of defense as they were often near French holdings.

When Spain entered the war, it increased the possibility of invasion of Britain (that the combined Franco-Spanish invasion failed was more due to disease than British valour).  More importantly, Spain had entered the war with forethought and had definite war aims.  Spain wanted to regain East and West Florida, Jamaica (lost in the 1650’s), the Bahamas (tor protect the Florida Channel,), evict the British from the Miskito Coast of Central America, Gibraltar and the island of Minorca in the western Mediterranean.  That meant even more real estate for the British to defend.

The United Provinces had studiously tried to avoid entering the conflict, but various actions were regarded as unfriendly by the British.  When Britain declared war in 1780, the United Provinces were not ready for war, and soon lost islands in the Caribbean, Ceylon and Padang in Asia.  Britain’s offensive actions were no less inexpensive or demanding than defense, and once captured, territories required a great deal of time, effort and resources.

In the Indian subcontinent, Britain had emerged as the dominant European power after the Seven Years’ War.  The Martaha Confederacy, an alliance of small kingdoms in northern and western India challenged British presence and power.  Their efforts were aided and abetted by France who committed troops and a fleet to discomfit the British.

All told, Britain was faced with a daunting task of defending its interests on a world-wide scale.  The war would see fighting and encounters in North America as far north as Hudson’s Bay west to St. Louis and along the Gulf Coast at Pensacola and Moblie.  In the Caribbean there were many land and naval actions throughout the West Indies, including British invasions of Nicaragua, Honduras and Dutch Guyana (Surinam).  The African Coast saw clashes at Cape Verde Islands, Senegambia and Cape Town.  European slave trading stations along the coast saw raid back and forth.  (However, the slave-trading companies apparently put their national loyalties aside in favor of their despicable trade, and warned each other of impending raids.)

Europe was not excepted from the conflict as the French and Spanish lay siege to Gibraltar and, more successfully Minorca.  Naval actions, large and small, were rife in European waters.  John Paul Jones struck at Belfast Lough and the English coast at Whitehaven.

Causing a world-wide conflict is not something to really brag about, but did any of this help the cause of American Independence?  The direct assistance from France, Spain and the United Provinces were invaluable.  But there were some indirect effects as well.

The British seizure of the Dutch colony of St. Eustache in the Caribbean was seen as a great triumph.  Taken by one the abler Royal Navy commanders, George Rodney, he took the opportunity of looting the place to feather his own nest.  He, his officers and crews realized a tidy sum, which were standard operating procedures for the era.  Unfortunately for Britain, when the Battle of the Chesapeake was fought, a “second string” commander, Admiral Samuel Graves, was in charge.  A less aggressive commander than Rodney (fully occupied by wallowing in swag), Graves was repulsed by the French fleet, thereby dooming the British army at Yorktown.

In the wake of Yorktown, Britain was quite capable of causing the United States a great deal of grief.  That they did not was due in part to a change in ministries and, perhaps more importantly, trying to suppress the rebellion in the former colonies was just no long worth the effort.  More important (and profitable) were the sugar-producing islands in the Caribbean.  Britain made sure that Barbados and Jamaica would not fall into the clutches of her rivals.

American Independence owed a great debt to the efforts of France, Spain and the United Provinces, but again, there was something more to the story.  The international conflict helped spread the ideals of the American Revolution.  It was not entirely unexpected.

From the very start, members of the opposition in Parliament had warned the North ministry’s conduct of the war was all but inviting the French and Spanish to intervene.  George, Lord Germaine, the Colonial Secretary pooh-poohed the notion, but his rebuttal was eerily prescient as to what actually happened after the war:

“I can give no credit to this idea, and my reason is, because it would be manifestly against their interest.  How well do you suppose would those countries like to have the spirit of independence cross the Atlantic?  Would you not fear that their own colonists would catch fire at the unlimited rights of mankind; would they not like the language better than digging gold?  And would not there arise great danger from powerful and independent states being near them, freed from control [sic] from Europe.  I cannot believe, Sir, that they would be blind to their own interests.”

Officers and soldiers from the French army that served in North America started sprouting the ideals of Liberty (or at least gave them lip service).  The debts also incurred by France in the War for American Independence helped cause a fiscal crisis and led in part to their own revolution.   France, in turn, would lose the very profitable sugar island of San Domque, which became the Republic of Haiti.

Spain’s colonies in 1783 covered almost all of the present-day US Southwest, all of Central America and most of South America.  Thanks to the infection of libertad, traceable directly to the American Revolutionary War, libertadores like Miranda, Bolivar and San Martin  evicted the Spanish from the Americas (save Cuba and Puerto Rico).

The defeat and surrender of John Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga on 17 October 1777 took place far from the centers of power.  The armies were far, far smaller than those of the American Civil war.  Yet the shock waves generated were felt world-wide, and arguably are still felt today.

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