By Joe Craig, Park Ranger
A past superintendent of Saratoga National Historical Park noted that prior to his arrival he was informed he would be more confused after a ride through the Battlefield Tour road than before. Compared to what can be learned at the Visitor center, he may have been right.
It’s rather evident that when the location for Visitor Center at Saratoga National Historical Park was chosen, the hill upon which it stands was selected for something more than a “nice view”. When the site was selected in 1940, the advantage was to be able to stand in one spot and view all the different sites pertinent to the battles, and the surrounding countryside. Through the 1950’s and beyond, reforestation altered all that by obscuring salient points of the actions of 1777. Nonetheless, the dramatic impact of the overlook still says “something really big and important happened here”.
We surely know that something dramatic occurred here. The Battles of Saratoga have been consistently regarded as among the most decisive battles in world history since the 1850’s. In 1999 the New York Times convened an international panel of writers and historians to review the past thousand years, and Saratoga was rated the most important battle of that period. The American Victory at Saratoga brought the ideals of America’s War for Independence to the world’s attention, and subsequent generations of people around the globe have called upon those ideals in their own struggles for liberties. Standing upon the Visitor Center hill, a sense of pride and accomplishment is something easily perhaps too easily grasped.
By contrast, entering the Battlefield through the tour road, the trees close in reducing our point of view to that of a few yards. The tour road meanders about through small fields and wooded areas, with only occasional glimpses of greater visibility. On cloudy days, sense of direction is easily lost; the relationship between the wayside areas becomes confused. From the comfortable almost omniscient perch atop the visitor center hill, we arrive at the level of the people who fought the battles: we are in a labyrinth of trees, fields and filled with the echoes of critical choices of life and death.
Those critical choices made by the various leaders of the Army of the United States and the opposing British army have been admired and damned by historians since the shooting stopped. Phrases like “General Gates should have….” or “General Burgoyne ought to have ….” are heard continually here at the Battlefield, always with the benefit of hindsight, detailed maps and time to consider leisurely what might be done (in a safe environment, no less). They simply do not consider the limitations under which any of the leaders in 1777 labored.
A particular example is the first of the two battles, Freeman’s Farm, fought on the 19th of September, 1777. General Burgoyne is feeling his way south toward the Rebel American positions, not knowing exactly where they may be or if troops have been sent out to block him. For his part, General Gates knows the enemy is approaching, but is unsure where their main effort will be.
The fight that developed, beginning right at John Freeman’s abandoned farm, devolved into many little battles channeled by the terrain and vegetation. Burgoyne advanced south in three columns with the middle and right (western) columns doing the bulk of the fighting. Yet in the confused bloody afternoon, there was little communication or coordination between them, even though they were separated by only a few hundred yards. On the Americans end of things, they could not be absolutely sure if the columns with which they were engaged were the main threat, or if other actions by the British might develop. For them, the war could be easily lost in an afternoon due to a miscalculation of what the British might do next.
That the battle was a clumsy brawl with no real flashes of military genius as the two armies tried to outgun the other, was due in part to the lack of room to maneuver in the small fields. Unable to see what was on the other side of a wooded area, or a hill, a commander risked bumping into superior enemy forces, or completely missing the enemy. The armies lacked our ability to see over and around obstacles.
When we are disoriented on the present-day tour road, it is not necessarily a bad thing. We are brought to the same level of the participants, generals, soldiers, camp followers, we find the Battles of Saratoga where they are no longer products of mythology. We can begin to understand that their decisions, large and small scale, were done without the better vision of hindsight that we enjoy. These messy, erroneous, half-hearted, perceptive actions created the events of 1777.