The Battle of Freeman's Farm
War: American Revolutionary War
Date: 19th September 1777.
A British Officer dressed as an Indian Chief
Place: New York State on the west bank of the Hudson, north of
Combatants: British, Germans, Canadians, Indians and loyalist
Americans against American Colonists.
Generals: Major General John Burgoyne commanded the British
forces. Major General Horatio Gates commanded the American forces.
His principle subordinate was Brigadier Benedict Arnold.
Size of the armies:
The British forces numbered around 6,000 effectives, while the
American army comprised around 14,000 men.
Uniforms, arms and equipment:
The British wore red coats and headgear of bearskin caps,
leather caps or tricorne hats depending on whether the troops were
grenadiers, light company or battalion company men. The German
infantry wore blue coats and retained the Prussian style grenadier
mitre with brass front plate. The Americans dressed as best they
could. Increasingly as the war progressed regular infantry regiments
of the Continental Army wore blue uniform coats but the militia
continued in rough clothing. Both sides were armed with muskets and
guns. Virginia and Pennsylvania regiments carried long, small
calibre, rifled weapons. Rifles were more accurate than muskets but
took longer to load.
The British Army:
Brigadier Simon Fraser’s Right Wing:
Major Lord Balcarres commanding the light companies of 9th, 20th,
21st, 24th, 29th, 31st, 47th, 53rd and 62nd Foot.
Major Acland commanding the grenadier companies of the same
Indians and Canadians.
Artillery Brigade of 8 cannon (6 and 3 pounders).
9th, 20th, 21st and 62nd Foot.
6 cannon (6 and 3 pounders) commanded by Captain Jones.
Commanded by Major General Phillips and Baron Riedesel:
Captain Pausch’s Hesse Hanau Company of artillery
Major General John "Gentleman Johnnie" Burgoyne
Hesse Hanau Infantry
The American Army:
Under the personal command of General Gates:
Brigadier Glover’s Continental Brigade
Colonel Nixon’s Continental Regiment
Brigadier Paterson’s Continental Brigade
Brigadier Learned’s Continental Brigade
Bailey’s Massachusetts Regiment
Jackson’s Massachusetts Regiment
Wesson’s Massachusetts Regiment
Livingston’s New York Regiment
Commanded by Major General Benedict Arnold
Cilley’s New Hampshire Regiment
Hale’s New Hampshire Regiment
Scammell’s New Hampshire Regiment
Van Cortlandt’s New York Regiment
Livingston’s New York Regiment
Dearborn’s Light Infantry
Battle of Freeman's Farm
9th Foot: later the Norfolk Regiment and now the Royal Anglian
20th Foot: later the Lancashire Fusiliers and now the Royal Regiment
21st, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, and now the Royal Highland
24th Foot: later the South Wales Borderers and now the Royal
Regiment of Wales.
29th Foot: later the Worcestershire Regiment and now the
Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment.
31st Foot: later the East Surrey Regiment, then the Queen’s Regiment
and now the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment.
47th Foot: later the North Lancashire Regiment, the Loyals, and now
the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment.
53rd Foot: later the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry
and now the Royal Green Jackets.
62nd Foot: later the Wiltshire Regiment, then the Duke of
Edinburgh’s Royal Regiment and now the Royal Gloucestershire,
Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment.
The heat of battle
The British were left on the field but suffered significantly
higher casualties than the Americans, which they could ill afford.
This was a battle Burgoyne had to win. He did not, due to the
inspired generalship of the Arnold.
By August 1777 Major General John Burgoyne’s army had forced its way
down the Lake Champlain route from Canada to Fort Edward on the
Hudson River. General Schuyler lay with the American Army to the
south, covering the New York State capital, Albany. Burgoyne’s
campaign to invade the American Colonies, which had seemed so
promising when the army set out, was rapidly souring.
The Brunswicker Colonel Baum’s expedition to Bennington in search of
supplies and horses had been a disaster. The Americans were greatly
encouraged by the success of Brigadier Stark’s New Hampshire Militia
in that battle. Now the main American Northern Army lay north of the
junction of the Mohawk on the Hudson Rivers, receiving a constant
flow of reinforcements.
8th Continental Regiment
Illustration courtesy of Tim Reese
By contrast British re-inforcements were meagre and supplies for the
army had to be brought down the Lake Champlain route and dragged
along the primitive road from Fort Anne to the Hudson for transport
to the front.
General Schuyler, the American commander until his removal in August
1777, had established his army in a fortified position on Bemis
Heights, overlooking the west bank of the Hudson. Blamed for the
loss of Fort Ticonderoga, Schuyler was removed from his post and
ordered to Philadelphia to answer for his conduct. He was replaced
by Major General Horatio Gates and Major General Benedict Arnold,
two mutually antipathetical personalities. Gates was a cautious
ex-British officer. Arnold, one of the two leaders of the American
attack on Quebec in 1776, was a mercurial man of action, able to
inspire his troops to great feats in battle, constantly aggressive
and on the lookout for the tactical advantage.
On 19th August 1777 Burgoyne began a movement to encircle the American
fortifications on Bemis Heights. Burgoyne’s intention was to take
possession of the heights to the West of the American fortifications
and use the advantage of greater elevation to bombard the Americans
from their flank.
Brigadier Fraser with the British Right Wing pushed into the woods
along the northern side of a deep ravine. Hamilton followed him with
the British Centre, accompanied by Burgoyne. Riedesel and his German
troops remained on the riverside with the bateaux and supplies. Once
in a line the three contingents would advance on the Americans.
Gates had no aggressive plan with which to counter the British move.
He intended to await attack in his fortified position on Bemis
Heights. His subordinate, Arnold, had no such intention. He was
determined to take the fight to the advancing British and use the
advantage his men had in forest fighting.
Arnold pressed Gates to attack with the whole army. Gates finally
agreed that Arnold could take his own division forward against the
By the early afternoon Burgoyne’s army had cleared the ravine and
was in position to begin the advance, signaled by the discharge of a
Morgan’s riflemen were the first American troops to attack, launching
an assault on a small force of Canadians and Indians of Fraser’s
Right Wing. Morgan’s men were followed by Arnold’s division of New
Hampshire Continentals. Morgan’s riflemen rushed on in pursuit and
were dispersed by a counterattack. The Continentals were repelled by
Fraser’s Grenadiers and Light Companies.
Burgoyne’s and Hamilton’s Centre approached Freeman’s Farm, leaving
a substantial gap between themselves and Fraser’s more distant
force. Arnold rallied his men and resumed the attack into the gap
between the British Centre and Right Wing.
More American regiments from Arnold’s Division came up and joined the
assault. Burgoyne’s flank regiment, the 21st Foot, was forced to
fall back to avoid being overwhelmed. This left the 62nd Regiment at
the angle of the line and under heavy fire.
A desperate battle developed between the attacking Americans and the
regiments of the British Centre. During the course of the fighting,
which was described by veteran British soldiers as very heavy,
General Phillips (the artillery officer who had distinguished
himself at Minden) led a bayonet charge of the 20th Regiment to
enable the 62nd to withdraw and reform.
Gates, still in the American camp, refused to commit further
formations of the American army to the battle. If he had done so it
is generally accepted that the British Centre would have been
In contrast to Gates’ refusal of requests for assistance from Arnold,
Riedesel on the British Left responded with alacrity to the crisis.
Leaving the British 47th to guard the baggage, Riedesel marched his
regiments up the hill. He arrived to find the British Foot in great
difficulty and without delay launched a flank attack on the American
troops. The fire of his artillery and foot was sufficient to relieve
the pressure on the British regiments and force the Americans to
withdraw. By this time night was falling.
The Americans fell back in some confusion to their fortified camp on
Burgoyne’s army suffered heavy casualties among the regiments of
the Centre: 600 killed, wounded and captured. Of these 350 were from
the 20th, 21st and 62nd. The 62nd suffered 285 casualties from a
strength of around 340 in its line companies. The Americans took 350
Burgoyne’s senior subordinates urged that the attack on the
American position on Bemis Heights be pressed the next day. The
Americans were in disorder after the failure of Arnold’s attack at
Freeman’s Farm and it may be that an immediate attack would have
succeeded. However, Burgoyne preferred to wait and see if Clinton
was coming up the Hudson from New York to meet him before launching
a further offensive operations. The opportunity, if there was one,
Freeman’s Farm is one of the decisive battles of the Revolutionary
War, leading directly to Burgoyne’s surrender.
Traditions and anecdotes:
In 1776 Colonel Morgan had been captured in the attack on
Quebec, leading his corps of Virginia Riflemen. Exchanged by the
British, Morgan re-raised his corps. This time the recruits were
mainly Pennsylvanians; Scotch Irish Presbyterians and German
settlers. The Corps was renowned for its hardihood, able, it is
said, to march 40 miles in a day, and for its marksmanship.
Tradition had it that the men practised marksmanship by shooting
apples off each other’s heads. This seems an unlikely waste of
apples, if not of the heads. The great drawback in the rifle was its
slow rate of reloading. General Washington did all he could to
discontinue the use of rifles in favour of muskets.
Morgan and Arnold were close companions from the Quebec campaign. They
spent the hours before Freeman’s Farm carousing. Together they
urged, perhaps bullied, Gates to attack the British in the woods
rather than skulk in the fortifications on Bemis Heights. At times
Gates feared they would assault him. Finally Gates agreed to
Arnold’s aggressive move, but refused him any regiments other than
those of his division.
- History of the British Army by Sir John Fortescue
- The War of the Revolution by Christopher Ward