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American victory at Saratoga inspired a young nation

Park has changed little since historic battles of 1777

STILLWATER, N.Y. — Here on the heights overlooking the upper Hudson River, little has changed since America's citizen soldiers shocked the world's most powerful empire 223 years ago.

Deer still abound in the tranquil forests, tall dead grass sways in the wind, ravines cut through a wintry landscape.

But in September and October of 1777, at the Battles of Saratoga, the woods echoed with the crack of musket fire and farm fields were splashed with blood as American and British armies collided in what many historians consider one of the most important battles in history, if not the battle of the previous millennium.

"Had it not been for Saratoga, it's quite plausible that the Revolution would have died, and Lord knows what would have happened then," says Richard Ketchum, author of "Saratoga, Turning Point of America's Revolutionary War."

Unlike Gettysburg, Pa., there's no raging debate at Saratoga National Historical Park over expansion plans. And with Albany 30 miles to the south, urban sprawl has yet to threaten this hallowed ground the way it has in some northern Virginia communities where Civil War battlefields are besieged by developers.

Here, the Saratoga battleground is surrounded by working farms, and a new national veterans cemetery protects the park's northern flank.

"Basically, it's just the way it was in the 18th century. There's something rather haunting about all that," says Ketchum, a former editor at American Heritage magazine who lives in Dorset, Vt., a 75-minute drive from the battlefield.

"You go down the river road and you can imagine Burgoyne's army going down there."

A visitors center and a 9-mile-long paved path that snakes across the rolling hills are about the only 20th-century features that would look out of place in the era of muskets, Redcoats and Minutemen. Cannon still stand guard on the steep hills that command the river and the nearby road leading to Albany, much the way they did when the British arrived in the summer of 1777.

Earlier that year, the British devised a three-pronged plan to divide the colonies by taking Albany from the north, south and west.

Gen. John Burgoyne, known to his adoring troops as "Gentleman Johnny" for his lavish tastes and flair, was to lead an army of 9,000 south from Canada via Lake Champlain, Lake George and the upper Hudson. Sir William Howe in New York would move up the Hudson with a third British force to sweep east down the Mohawk Valley. Once in Albany, the combined forces could launch attacks into New England or move on the Southern colonies.

Burgoyne left Montreal in June. Among his seasoned British redcoats were ranks of German mercenaries, Canadians and American loyalists. Later, they would be joined by hundreds of Indians, most of them from the tribes around the upper Great Lakes. Burgoyne's inability to control these fierce forest warriors would come back to haunt him.

In July, Burgoyne captured Fort Ticonderoga at the southern end of Lake Champlain and defeated the rebels in nearby Hubbardton, Vt. He then continued to the lake's extreme southern tip, South Bay, at present-day Whitehall, N.Y. There he made a fateful change in his original plans.

Instead of returning north to Ticonderoga, making the short portage to Lake George and using boats to move the army to the lake's southern shore — 12 miles from the Hudson via an established road — Burgoyne decided to make a 16-mile overland march where no road existed.

It proved to be a grueling ordeal. It took Burgoyne's force three weeks to reach the Hudson.

"What if he had really lightened up his force and just quickly got down to Albany? Because he's so slow moving along, it allows militiamen to rally by the hundreds, perhaps by the thousands," says retired Army Col. James M. Johnson, former head of the military history department at the U.S. Military Academy.

Meanwhile, Burgoyne's Indian allies were terrorizing the region, raiding isolated farms and homesteads when they weren't picking off militiamen. The British general had warned them not to kill, torture or scalp women, children and the elderly, but the Indians often ignored his words.

In the meantime, Howe sailed out of New York — toward Philadelphia, not Albany.

Meanwhile, the British advance down the Mohawk Valley stalled at Oriskany, near present-day Utica. Although that British force ambushed an American expedition marching to relieve Fort Stanwix, inflicting heavy casualties, the third prong fell apart when the English-allied Iroquois, angry over their own considerable losses, headed back to Canada.

That left Burgoyne to go it alone.

American guns on the heights and on the flats along the Hudson blocked the British advance down the river's west bank. The Americans built earthen and wooden fortifications and waited for Burgoyne to come to them.

Burgoyne, meanwhile, suffered a setback even before the first shot was fired at Saratoga. In mid-August, he sent a detachment to southern Vermont to gather horses and supplies. New England militiamen crushed the mostly German force at the Battle of Bennington.

A month later, Burgoyne had to make a decision: retreat to Canada or press on to Albany. He chose the latter, and on Sept. 19 his troops advanced on the American lines. Col. Daniel Morgan's corps of riflemen, a rough-and-tumble outfit of backwoods Virginia sharpshooters, made the first contact, and the battle was on.

The fight in a clearing known as the Freeman Farm swayed back and forth for hours before the Americans, running low on ammunition, withdrew. Burgoyne held the field, but at a severe cost to the attackers: more than 500 killed, wounded or missing. That night, wolves came out of the forest to feed on the dead.

For the next three weeks, Burgoyne stayed put. The Americans were reinforced by the militiamen pouring into the area, while the British troops grew increasingly sick, exhausted and hungry.

Gentleman Johnny, an inveterate gambler, decided to risk another battle in the hope of punching through the American lines and reaching Albany. But on Oct. 7, a British force of 1,500 men was repulsed by counterattacking Americans spurred on by Gen. Benedict Arnold, the Americans' best combat commander before turning traitor less than two years after his exploits at Saratoga.

Burgoyne's army was finished.

Word of Burgoyne's surrender spread quickly, and the news galvanized the colonies. "It gave new hope for people," Ketchum says. "The Americans were going nowhere. People really started getting their hopes up again."

"To capture a British army was unbelievable," says Johnson, the military historian. "That's why the French were so persuaded, because the Americans could now make a go at this revolution."

For Ketchum, the drive from his southern Vermont home to the Saratoga battlefield holds a particular poignancy, especially as he crosses the Hudson and enters Schuylerville, passing the blue and yellow historical marker posted outside the village ball field.

"One of the most haunting places in the world is coming over the river, and seeing that little sign, saying this is where Burgoyne's army laid down its arms."