The Hessians and the other German auxiliaries of Great Britain in the revolutionary war/13 Stillwater, September 19th and October 7th, 1777
STILLWATER, SEPTEMBER 19TH AND OCTOBER 7TH.
For nearly a month after his defeat at Bennington Burgoyne remained in the neighborhood of Fort Edward and behind the line of the Battenkill. The time was employed in bringing up stores and in transporting boats from Lake Champlain and Lake George. On the 13th of September, 1777, the army crossed the Hudson at Schuylerville, and abandoned its line of communications to make a bold stroke for Albany and a junction with Sir William Howe. One hundred and eighty boats, which had been hauled across the carries, attended the march of the army, whose left flank rested on the Hudson. These boats carried one month's provisions. “Now we went to work again at our dear salt pork and flour,” writes a German officer. “Dear friends, do not despise these royal dishes, which really cost a royal price then and there, for the transportation from England must have been not a little expensive. Pork at noon, pork at night, pork cold, pork warm. Friends! although with your green peas and crabs' tails you would have looked with loathing at our pork, yet pork was to us a lordly dish, without which we should have starved; and had we afterwards had pork enough, our ill-luck might not have brought us to Boston.” Meanwhile, the Americans, encouraged by their victory at Bennington, and by their successes in the Mohawk Valley, were pouring into Gates's camp at Stillwater. They were without uniforms, but were for the most part well armed with the rifles and fowling-pieces they had constantly used since boyhood. It was reported to Burgoyne on the 7th of September that there were fourteen or fifteen thousand of them. There was no alternative, however, but to attack them or to abandon the campaign.
The army set out on its southward march in three columns. The right was under Brigadier-general Fraser, the dashing commander of the light troops. The centre was commanded by Burgoyne himself, and the left, near the Hudson, by Riedesel. The British army advanced slowly, repairing roads and bridges. The rate of march barely averaged two miles a day. On the afternoon of the 19th of September Burgoyne's central division was sharply attacked on Freeman's Farm, north of Stillwater. The English, with a few guns, occupied a clearing. The Americans had no artillery. The fight lasted all the afternoon, and was conducted on both sides with great valor. Towards nightfall, Riedesel, with seven companies of German infanfry and two cannon, advanced to Burgoyne's assistance, and attacked the right flank of the Americans, pouring in grape-shot. The English rallied and charged, and the Americans fell back, carrying off their wounded, and about one hundred prisoners. They had lost about three hundred and twenty men in the battle, and the British not far from twice that number. The latter retained possession of the ground, and may, therefore, fairly claim a victory; but it was a barren victory, which they were never able to follow up. On the 20th, Burgoyne began to intrench his position. His chance of success henceforth lay in co-operation from the southward—a help which never came.
The Germans rendered most important services to Burgoyne in the course of this day. Breymann, with the grenadiers and light infantry, distinguished himself early in the afternoon, by coming to the relief of an English regiment which was falling back. Captain Pausch of the Hanau artillery, with his two six-pounders, and Riedesel with his seven companies, finally turned the tide of battle. Both Breymann and Pausch were publicly thanked by Burgoyne.
Meanwhile the rear of the army had been seriously threatened. Colonel Brown, acting under the orders of General Lincoln, had taken some of the outer works of Ticonderoga, with nearly three hundred prisoners, but had been repulsed from the main fortress.
Baroness Riedesel had accompanied the army on its march. She had been encouraged, she says, when they crossed the Hudson, at hearing General Burgoyne say that Englishmen never retreat. Her distrust had been excited, however, by finding that the officers' wives with the army knew of all expeditions which were planned, and she remembered that in Prince Ferdinand's army, in the Seven Years' War, everything was kept very secret. But now the Americans knew all plans beforehand, and expected the English wherever they went.
Frau von Riedesel was an eye-witness of the battle of the 19th of September, trembling at every shot for the safety of her husband. Three wounded officers were brought into the house where she lodged, and one of them, the nephew of people who had been kind to her in England, died, a few days later, in the next room to hers, while undergoing an operation. The baroness could hear his last sighs through the thin partition.
The condition of the army was fast becoming serious. Provisions were scarce, wine and coffee terribly dear. Uniforms and clothing were torn on the bushes, and soaked with camping on the damp ground, and new ones were not to be had at any price. The American camp, supposed to contain twelve thousand men, was so near that the drums and the shouts of the soldiers could be distinctly heard. The woods were so thick, however, that it could not be seen. The English had constructed a bridge of boats across the Hudson, and scouts were sent out to try to see the American camp from the other side of the river, but in this they were not successful.
A letter written in cipher arrived from Sir Henry Clinton on the 21st of September, dated on the 10th of that month. Clinton announced his intention of attacking Fort Montgomery, on the Hudson, in ten days. Burgoyne immediately sent back the messenger with a letter enclosed in a silver bullet, which was to be delivered into Sir Henry's own hands. The letter urged Clinton to hasten his advance and create a diversion in Burgoyne's favor. The messenger made his way through the hostile country to Fort Montgomery, but here his presence of mind would seem to have deserted him. He is said to have mistaken American troops for English, to have inquired for General Clinton, and not to have discovered his blunder until he was brought into the presence, not of Sir Henry, but of the American General Clinton. The man then swallowed the bullet, but an emetic was administered, the despatch was found, and the messenger hanged as a spy.
On the 6th of October, Forts Clinton and Montgomery were stormed by Sir Henry Clinton. One Anspach regiment, one Hessian regiment, and two companies of Hessian chasseurs, which last had lately arrived from Europe, took part in this feat. The Hudson was thrown open to the British. This would have been the time to push on to Burgoyne's relief, but Sir William Howe had led the larger part of his army to Philadelphia, and only a small expedition, under General Vaughan, came burning and plundering up the Hudson.
Burgoyne's situation was becoming daily more critical. On the 4th of October one third was cut off from the soldiers' rations. Desertions had become frequent, in spite of severe punishments; even the death penalty did not prevent them. Skirmishes were of frequent occurrence. The weather was frightfully hot, and the army was wasting away in inaction.
On the day on which the men were put on short rations, General Burgoyne called a council of war. Generals Phillips, Riedesel, and Fraser were present. Burgoyne proposed to them to leave the neighborhood of the river and try to turn the American left flank. Eight hundred men were to be left to guard the boats and stores; the rest of the army was to take part in the expedition. It was objected that the roads and the position of the Americans were both unknown, that three or four days would be necessary to turn the American flank, and that during all this time the stores must be left under a feeble guard. No conclusion was reached on the 4th, and a second council was called for the evening of the 5th. At this council Riedesel declared his opinion, that the army was in such a condition that unless the enemy could be reached and forced to fight a decisive action in one day, it would be better to fall back across the Hudson and wait behind the Battenkill for General Clinton's approach. Here the army could not be cut off from Fort George. Fraser agreed with Riedesel. Phillips would give no decided opinion, and Burgoyne, loath to retreat, declared he would make a reconnoissance on the 7th, and that if this should show that the enemy was not to be successfully attacked, he would fall back.
On the 6th of October, 1777, four days' rations were served out, and on the 7th, about ten in the morning, fifteen hundred men, of whom about five hundred were Germans, marched out for the reconnoissance, with eight brass cannon and two howitzers. The four generals were with the party, which was made up from all the regiments in the army. They advanced into a clearing about three quarters of a mile from the American left flank—a wretched position, according to Riedesel, where they could see nothing of the enemy. Brigadier-general Fraser commanded on the right of the line, the German detachments were in the centre, Major Ackland, with the English grenadiers, on the left. It was determined to await an attack, and Brigadier-general Fraser undertook to carry off the forage from two barns in the neighborhood. Small detachments of the enemy appeared from time to time, and the party “amused themselves” by firing cannon at them, until suddenly a heavy fire of musketry was heard on the left, and presently Ackland's grenadiers came running in, leaving their commander wounded behind them.
The German left flank was thus uncovered and thrown back in confusion, and the Hessian cannon exposed. These continued for some time in action, but were finally taken. The British right seems to have held out longer than the rest of the line, but after a while General Fraser was mortally wounded and his men were driven back, though in better order than the left flank had preserved. The Germans also retreated, in some confusion, and all the cannon with the reconnoissance were left behind.
The retreating party threw themselves into a redoubt and maintained their position for the rest of the afternoon, in spite of the repeated and desperate attacks of the Americans.
Lieutenant-colonel Breymann held a small redoubt on the extreme right of the position of the army. His corps had been reduced by the losses sustained at Bennington and on the 19th of September to about five hundred men, and three hundred of these had made part of the reconnoissance, and were now driven back with the rest of the soldiers of that party into the large redoubt of the right wing. The part of the British line which connected Breymann's redoubt with the main position was also cleared of men. The Americans made their way through this gap in the line, Breymann and his two hundred men were attacked in flank and rear, the lieutenant-colonel was shot dead, and the men were put to flight or taken prisoners.
When news of this reached the main body, some of the Englishmen grumbled at the conduct of their German allies. Angry at this, Lieutenant-colonel von Speth got together four officers and about fifty men, and started off through the dark woods to retake Breymann's redoubt. He lost his way and was led by a treacherous guide into the hands of the Americans.
The Americans fought on this day with great valor, and had the advantage of superior numbers, but were without a competent general. Neither Gates nor Lincoln appeared on the field. Benedict Arnold, who had no proper command, fought with his usual reckless courage, but had not the talent of a strategist. He was severely wounded in the capture of Breymann's redoubt. It would have been fortunate for him had the wound proved mortal.
Nothing was left for Burgoyne's army but to retreat. Promptitude might, perhaps, still have secured its escape, but on every side were disorder and delay. Early in the morning of the 8th of October, 1777, the British and Germans were drawn together on the heights that overlook the Hudson. Here, on the evening of that day, General Fraser was buried, in a spot which he had himself chosen as his last resting-place. He had been brought, mortally wounded, into the house occupied by Baroness Riedesel, with whose husband he had served in the Seven Years' War. The Baroness had expected to give a little dinner-party on the 7th. “General Fraser,” she says, “and, I believe, also Generals Burgoyne and Phillips, were to have dined with me on that day. I saw a great deal of movement among the troops. My husband told me that a reconnoissance was to be made, which did not astonish me, as this had often occurred. On my way home I met a great many Indians, in their war dress and carrying guns. I asked where they were going, and they shouted ‘War! War!’ which meant that they were going to battle; and this quite overcame me. I had hardly recovered when I heard skirmishing, and then the firing became heavier and heavier, until at last the noise was frightful. It was a terrible cannonade, and I was more dead than alive. About three in the afternoon, instead of my guests coming to dinner, they brought me one of them, poor General Fraser, on a stretcher, mortally wounded. Our dinner-table, which had already been set, was taken away, and a bed for the general put in its place. I sat in a corner of the room, trembling. The noise kept growing louder. The thought that they might bring me my husband in the same condition was horrible to me, and tormented me incessantly. The general said to the surgeon, ‘Conceal nothing from me! Must I die?’ . . . I often heard him exclaim, with a sigh. ‘Oh, bad ambition! poor General Burgoyne! poor Mistress Fraser!’ ”
The general lingered through the night and died on the following morning. So crowded was the house that the baroness had to remove her children into the passageway that they might not cry out and disturb the dying man. His corpse lay all day in her room. As his staff and the general officers of the army gathered about his grave, the Americans, ignorant of their purpose, directed artillery against them. Thus, with the hostile cannon firing his last salute, the gallant leader of the light troops was laid to rest.
At ten o'clock on the night of the 8th the army set out northward. Riedesel commanded the head of the column. The hospital, with its eight hundred inmates, was left behind. The boats, with what remained of stores, made their way slowly up stream. The watch-fires were left burning to deceive the vigilance of the Americans.
General Burgoyne's army made but a short march that night, and then halted until the following afternoon. On the evening of the 9th the British occupied the village of Saratoga. During the night they forded the Fishkill and encamped on rising ground in the angle between that stream and the Hudson. Thus, from the evening of the 7th to the morning of the 10th, Burgoyne, to whom time was of capital importance, had retreated but a little over eight miles.
- Schlözer's “Briefwechsel,” vol. iv. p. 346.
- Baroness Riedesel, pp. 164-166.
- Schlözer's “Briefwechsel,” vol. iv. p. 350.
- Pausch's narrative.
- Burgoyne's Report, given in Eelking's “Riedesel,” vol. ii. p. 197.
- There were two American generals named Clinton—George, governor of New York, and James, his brother. The former was at this time stationed at Fort Clinton, the latter at Fort Montgomery. These forts were taken on the 6th of October by Sir Henry Clinton.
- Riedesel's comments of Burgoyne's report; Eelking's “Riedesel,” vol. ii. p. 206.
- Under Lieutenant-colonel von Speth or Colonel Specht. There is curious confusion in the authorities about this name.
- Riedesel's comments on Burgoyne's report; Eelking's “Riedesel,” vol. ii. p. 208. Burgoyne says that he gave orders to retake Breymann's redoubt, but mentions no further particulars.
- (Sic.) The Baroness gives these last words in English; Baroness Riedesel, p. 169.