The Battle of Freeman's Farm
War: American Revolutionary War
Date: 19th September 1777.
Place: New York State on the west bank of the Hudson, north of Albany.
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 regiments.
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
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 Regiment.
20th Foot: later the Lancashire Fusiliers and now the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.
21st, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, and now the Royal Highland Fusiliers.
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 gun.
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 overwhelmed.
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 Bemis Heights.
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 casualties.
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, quickly passed.
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