Impact of the British Army’s Failure at the Battle of Bennington on the Saratoga Campaign

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23/09/19 History Reference this

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To what extent did the failure of the British Army to secure a victory at the battle of Bennington contribute to the failure of the Saratoga campaign?

I. Identification and Evaluation of Sources

The question this investigation will address is “to what extent did the failure of the British Army to secure a victory at the battle of Bennington lead to the failure of the Saratoga campaign?” The investigation will be limited in scope to the Saratoga Campaign of 1777.

The first source that will be evaluated is The Saratoga Campaign, by Donald Linebaugh and William Griswold. In the book, Linebaugh and Griswold detail the events of the Saratoga campaign from an archaeological perspective, with a focus on the two Battles of Saratoga. This source is relevant to the investigation because it includes a description of the Battle of Bennington and its effects. The origin of  this source makes it valuable because both of the authors have PhDs in fields relevant to the book’s subject matter and have conducted extensive archaeological research in the Northeastern U.S, and these qualifications likely allowed them to construct an especially thorough and accurate description and investigation of their subject material. The origin may also be a limitation because the authors’ American nationality may imbue their work with pro-revolutionary one-sidedness. The content of this source may limit its value because the main focus is on discussing archaeological evidence, so it likely does not contain potentially valuable information from other sources. The purpose of the source (to convey the results of archaeological investigations in the Saratoga area to the general public) may be a limitation as works intended for mass consumption are often less detailed than those intended for use by historians, but it may also add value as the archaeological perspective on historical events is not one that is often considered.

The second source that will be evaluated in depth is With Burgoyne from Quebec, an account of service in British general John Burgoyne’s army during the Saratoga campaign written by Thomas Anburey, an officer in Burgoyne’s army. The source is relevant because in the account, Anburey describes what he believes to be the causes and effects of the failure of the British Army at Bennington. The origin of this source both augments and limits its value. As a British officer, Anburey was privy to exclusive discussions of the army’s condition, which could have enabled him to more accurately identify the effects on the British Army of the loss at Bennington. This gives the source greater value. However, the fact that he was a participant in the conflicts he describes may have caused him to attempt to depict the British army in a sympathetic light, imbuing his text with a pro-British slant. The content of the source is a likely limitation because it only includes information available within the British army at the time, and so may not be a thorough picture of events. Anburey’s purpose—to entertain, not to chronicle objectively—is a possible limitation as it may have caused him to embellish or sensationalize some details.

II. Investigation

 Most historians agree that the British Army’s loss at the Battle of Bennington was a devastating setback to the Saratoga Campaign, but they disagree on whether it was a decisive turning point or merely another blow exacerbating the woes of a campaign doomed from the start by poor planning. On one hand, Bennington was both a strategic disaster and a psychological blow, but on the other, there were other failures and severe misjudgements that may have made it impossible for the British Army to succeed regardless of the outcome at Bennington.

 Strategically, the Battle of Bennington was a disaster for the British. In addition to failing to obtain the horses and ammunition necessary to their war effort, the British suffered over 1000 losses (deaths and captures)[1], one ninth of Burgoyne’s nine-thousand regular fighting force.[2] This was an even greater loss than the one at Freeman’s Farm on September 19th.[3] The American forces were growing due to large numbers of militiamen flocking to the cause after the victories at Bennington and Freeman’s Farm,[4] so such a loss would have severely limited the military capabilities of the army, especially relative to that of their opponents. The heavy losses, and the failure to obtain the aforementioned supplies, severely weakened the British army, putting them at a disadvantage relative to the Americans and making ultimate victory highly unlikely.

 Even more problematic than the strategic failure of the Battle of Bennington were its psychological effects. The loss left the British frightened and dejected, evident in Thomas Anburey’s account of the period that followed, and forced them to set up camp in a vulnerable position on the East side of the Hudson River.[5] As the first major battle of the Saratoga Campaign, both the Americans and the British would likely have viewed it as indicative of the relative capabilities of the two forces, and, more specifically, whether the rebels would be able to defeat the British Army in decisive combat. The overwhelming American victory could not have provided a clearer answer. Compounding the psychological blow of the loss, the precarious and humiliating camping position of the British Army following their defeat would have further increased their fear and dampened their morale. This likely contributed to the eventual desertion of their allies the Mohawks,[6] which would surely have had more detrimental effects on their military capabilities.

Equally, if not more, important were the psychological effects on the Americans of their victory. The first time a militia unit had fought skillfully and effectively in the whole war, the battle was a source of “great exultation” to the Americans and removed their fear of the Hessian troops.[7] By improving morale, which had been low, due to the easy British victories at forts Ticonderoga and Edward, the American victory at Bennington inspired a notable increase in militia numbers.[8] This surge in numbers likely helped the Americans defeat Burgoyne’s army first at the subsequent Battle of Freeman’s Farm, and then in the Saratoga Campaign as a whole. Thus, it is highly probable that the psychological effects of Bennington on the American forces contributed to the ultimate British failure.

By proving to the Americans that victory over the British was possible, and to the British that their army was far from infallible, the Battle of Bennington gave the Americans a strategic advantage over the British that allowed them to win the Battle of Freeman’s Farm, psychological advantage over the British that was increased by their later victory at Freeman’s Farm and contributed to their ultimate victory over Burgoyne’s campaign.

 While their loss at the Battle of Bennington was probably a major factor in their ultimate defeat, the question of whether the British Army’s Saratoga Campaign would have failed regardless of the outcome at Bennington still remains. The British Army suffered other devastating failures, and was plagued from the start by severe planning errors and misjudgements. These other factors may have precluded them from success regardless of the result at Bennington.

 Although Bennington was a major defeat, others, such as the subsequent failure of Barry St. Leger’s force to conquer the Mohawk Valley, may have had even greater repercussions. Because his invasion was successfully repulsed by the Americans, St. Leger could not meet Burgoyne’s army and continue to Albany.[9] This deprived the British invasion force of much-needed troops, likely making the future stages of the campaign considerably more difficult. When viewed in this light, as one of multiple disastrous failures, the significance of Bennington is diminished, because even without it, the British would have suffered several defeats that may have precluded them from succeeding. However, being the first major battle, Bennington would likely have had a more significant and damaging psychological impact than any loss after it until the battle of Freeman’s Farm, so in this regard its contribution may still have been greater.

In addition to the effects of other failed battles, the campaign’s poor planning may have made success implausible from the start, despite a few early victories such as the recapture of Fort Ticonderoga. Because the British war planners did not realize how vast the colonies were relative to the British homeland, they drastically underestimated many of the distances involved in the Saratoga Campaign, so Burgoyne’s supply chain from Canada was much longer than had been expected.[10] Stretching for many miles, the chain was impossible to defend, and when the Americans eventually cut it off, Burgoyne surrendered less than ten days later.[11] The rapidity with which the removal of the supply chain led to Burgoyne’s surrender suggests that it may have been the most important factor leading to the British defeat, possibly even to the point that it would have guaranteed failure regardless of other factors.

In another blunder, Burgoyne had brought too few troops, having anticipated that large numbers of Loyalists and Mohawks would join his army.[12] Few volunteered, and the Mohawks eventually deserted.[13] This left Burgoyne with a fighting force that was not large enough to achieve all of its goals. It must be noted, however, that the battle of Bennington exacerbated these issues by contributing to the low numbers of Loyalists: although there were not many Loyalists to begin with, the American victory at Bennington further decreased their numbers by reducing their certainty that the British would win the war—they were not inclined to fight for a country that they believed would lose.[14] While this severe miscalculation may have been sufficient to guarantee failure on its own, the loss at Bennington likely worsened its effects, and in doing so may have made another major contribution to the outcome of the campaign.

In conclusion, the extent of the impact of the failure of the British at Bennington is most probably that it contributed to the rapidity of the overall failure of the Saratoga Campaign by forcing the British into a vulnerable position, giving the Americans a psychological advantage, and exacerbating the British Army’s pre-existing problems, but was not essential to the Campaign’s failures, as it would most likely have failed eventually regardless of the battle’s outcome due to severe British planning errors.

III. Reflection

 This investigation introduced me to the methods used by historians to conduct research, in addition to many of the challenges they face in conducting investigations. I have learned how to find and analyze sources and weighing different points of view to reach a conclusion that is firmer and more balanced for having taken multiple perspectives into consideration. I learned how to evaluate the credibility of authors and sources, and how to combine the information from a variety of sources to reconstruct the correct sequence and relative importance of events, rather than blindly placing my trust in one. I have also gained a deeper appreciation of the difficulties of evaluating a source’s quality and trying to account for any biases or prejudices its authors may have had.

 Upon beginning my research, I immediately realized that two sources that appear to have similar goals and focuses often exist to serve entirely different purposes, a fact which can cause their content to vary dramatically. For example, one source may have been constructed to examine the chains of causality in a sequence of events, whereas another may purely seek to describe the events in as much detail as possible, or even to examine the methods by which we reconstruct historical events in such great detail. The first text, resultantly, will contain a discussion not only of the events themselves, but of their direct effects on and implications for the various groups or individuals involved, whereas the second will be solely descriptive in nature, leaving cause and effect to the reader’s inference, and the third will contain descriptions of archaeological processes and analytical techniques rather than of the events themselves. I was surprised to discover that Linebaugh and Griswold’s book on the campaign was a text of the third kind. This can be an annoyance for researchers who seek one kind of information and accidentally use a text containing another, and a source of confusion for novice researchers who were previously unaware of the distinctions. Being able to determine a source’s purpose and approach its contents accordingly is a necessary skill for historians.

 I was also introduced to the challenges of evaluating biases present in a source and how they affect its content. When reading Anburey’s account of the Campaign, I had to constantly bear his strong prejudices in mind and analyze their possible effects. The views of the author can have a significant impact on how information is presented and on what is emphasized. For this reason, it is necessary to examine a wide variety of sources in order to determine their biases relative to each other, and construct a more objective picture.

 Overall, this investigation increased my understanding and appreciation of the methods used by historians and the challenges they face.

Bibliography

  • Anburey, Thomas. “With Burgoyne from Quebec.” Ebsco Host, Ebsco, web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail/detail?vid=2&sid=78acc1b1-b0ec-4887-b412-7580b45a6d75%40sessionmgr101&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#AN=21212548&db=khh.
  • Dick, Jim. “Saratoga: The Turning Point of the American Revolution.” Digitalcommons.apus, digitalcommons.apus.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1015&context=saberandscroll.
  • Comtois, Pierre. “Battle of Bennington.” Ebsco Host, Ebsco, web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail/detail?vid=8&sid=6e40971b-dc90-4808-98d3-2eda171e56f5%40pdc-v-sessmgr01&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#AN=17627688&db=f5h.
  • Griswold, William A., and Linebaugh, Donald W. The Saratoga Campaign: Uncovering an Embattled Landscape. University Press of New England, 2016.
  • Gabriel, Michael P. “We Are at the Bennington Battle.” Bennington Museum, Bennington Museum, benningtonmuseum.org/library/walloomsack/volume-04/bennington-battle-we-were-at-the-bennington-battle.pdf.

[1] Jim Dick, “Saratoga: The Turning Point of the American Revolution”, (American Public University System, 2015),  4

[2] Donald W. Linebaugh and William A. Griswold, The Saratoga Campaign: Uncovering an

Embattled Landscape, (University Press of New England, 2016), 11

[3] Dick, “Turning Point”, 4

[4] Ibid. 5

[5] Thomas Anburey, “With Burgoyne from Quebec”, Ebsco Host, Ebsco,

web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail/detail?vid=2&sid=78acc1b1-b0ec-4887-b412-7580b45a6d75%40sessionmgr101&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#AN=21212548&db=khh, 163

[6] Dick, “Turning Point”, 5

[7] Anburey, “With Burgoyne”, 163

[8] Dick, “Turning Point”, 5

[9] Linebaugh & Griswold, The Saratoga Campaign, 16

[10] Dick, “Turning Point”, 2

[11] Ibid. 5

[12] Ibid. 2

[13] Ibid. 5

[14] Linebaugh & Griswold, The Saratoga Campaign, 14

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