Forebears

There is no problem about changing the course of history­ the course of history does not change because it all fits together like a jigsaw [puzzle]. All the important changes have happened before the things they were supposed to change and it all sorts itself out in the end.”

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Regularly, visitors arrive at Saratoga NHP hoping to learn “more about my ancestor, John Doe, who fought here”. Quite often the visitor knows more about their ancestor than we do, but they entertain hopes that the ranger will know about some heroic exploit of their ancestor.

Finding an heroic exploit at Saratoga can be a problem as much of the Army of the United States never came under fire in either of the two battles fought here. Private John Doe’s service here was most likely building fortifications, digging and filling in “vaults” (latrines) and manning the works while other guys slugged it out with Burgoyne’s forces.

This is not to disparage Private John Doe’s hard work, the fortifications certainly were decisive factors in the battles, and the cleanliness of the camps saved lives. Undeniably, discovering that Private John Doe single-handed captured a regiment of Hessians or a dozen cannons does makes for better bragging rights at the next DAR meeting than explaining how well he dug a latrine.

A few visitors discover that their family stories have inflated their ancestor’s rank in the army to the point that a standing joke among rangers holds that the entire Continental Army was made up entirely of “captains”. Indeed, one visitor (vigorously) insisted that his ancestor held a general’s rank and disabusing him of that notion took about a half hour on the telephone.

Nonetheless, it is rewarding when we can tell to a visitor that their ancestor was here even if he was using a spade or axe far more frequently than a musket.   Even better are the times when a visitor brings in documents about their ancestor’s experiences which they kindly share.

To date none of these documents have changed the main story of Saratoga and the War for Independence: our side still won. But some have provided details that refocus what has been known and related over the years. Some of the details cause us to rethink some received wisdom.

Historians have often ranted about baneful influence and venial motives to Burgoyne’s campaign. As the record shows, the American abandonment of Fort Ticonderoga caused the British to shift their axis of advance from Lake George to the rough countryside east of Lake Champlain. Burgoyne’s options following the battles at Hubbardton and Fort Ann were to retrace his steps back to Ticonderoga, or continue south toward Fort Edward.

Received knowledge holds that it was the promptings of the Iago-like Philip Skene that made Burgoyne’s mind up to head due south. We are told that the military road necessary to make this move would benefit Skene mightily when British arms had triumphed and he could resume his position as top dog. Skene would be in the catbird seat thanks to a government-built road that linked the Hudson and Lake Champlain right by his home turf.

It’s a story accepted by many Americans as it depicts the time-honored stereotype of Loyalism based upon an elitist’s desire for private gain. After all, the same traditions hold that the Founding Fathers were entirely altruistic in their reasons for seeking Independence [ahem].

Skene’s reputation is further sullied whereby by his advice, Burgoyne dragged his troops into a mess, losing irreplaceable time and eventually the campaign. Lt. Thomas Anburey, serving with the 24th Regiment of Foot noted:

“Camp at Fort Edward, August 6, 1777… The country between our late encampment at Skensboro and this place, was a continuation of woods and creeks, interspersed with deep morasses; and to add to these natural impediments, the enemy had very industriously augmented them, by felling immense trees, and various other modes that it was with the utmost pains and fatigue we could work our way through them. Exclusive of these the watery grounds and marshes were so numerous, that we were under the necessity of constructing no less than forty bridges to pass them and over one morass there was a bridge of near two miles in length.”

In some ways it’s a microcosm of a very American view of the British in the Revolutionary War. The redcoats founder about, clueless about the land they are trying to control or traverse. But for the lack of enemy gunfire, it’s the same mindless British obedience seen at Breed’s Hill. By inference Americans would have done the smart thing and gone around it, being ever so much cleverer than their British foes.

Which brings us to the experiences of Richard Flansburgh as related in his pension claim provided to us by a descendant. Flansburgh served in the Northern Department beginning in March 1777 as a bateau man and axmen and spelled out his duties quite simply:

“…to serve as Batteaux men to procure timber for bridges, to cut and clear roads, and to engage in any and every kind of service to advance the interests of the main army….”

After being employed to saw logs into boards for building barracks for about a month, Flansburgh found himself at Fort Ann building roads. He and his company were there for “…5 or 6 weeks engaged in making roads….” What is of interest was his note that

“[Flansburgh’s company] together with two other companies, one under Captain William Peterson, and the other under and the other under Captain Cole constructed a causeway through a swamp three miles of thereabouts between Fort Ann and Fort Edward….[emphasis added]

A quick referral to a map will make it very evident that Flansburgh and his comrades were building their road in the same area and direction that the British would take later that same summer.

Whatever personal motives Skene might have harboured for building a roadway, it seems plausible that the British had some inkling of the American’s construction activities. It makes for a more rational explanation for Burgoyne’s move straight south was to link into that work and speed south to Fort Edward and military glory.

To be honest, Flansburgh’s account doesn’t change facts. The British were ultimately defeated, in part due to the delays they encountered during that rather unpleasant experience: hard labour replete with heat and humidity and the attention of the Upstate New York Air force of biting and stinging insects. Flansburgh’s account and those of other common soldiers help us to recognize that Big Events are made up of many minute ones.

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