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What is the most pivotal day in American history? July 4, 1776? July 3, 1863? December 7, 1941? September 11, 2001? All are good choices to be sure. But my money is on October 17, 1777. That’s the day that an American army forced the surrender of a British army led by “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne at the Battle of Saratoga, some thirty-five miles north of Albany, New York.
In early 1777 Burgoyne formulated a simple plan to end the colonists’ rebellion. He would lead his army southward from Canada into New York through the Lake Champlain valley. Meanwhile, General William Howe would send his forces northward from New York City along the Hudson River. The two British armies would join up to take Albany. This would split the colonies and isolate New England, the hot-bed for the American Revolution. The British army would then move to take Philadelphia. Such a string of decisive British victories would break the back of the rebellion.
But things did not go as planned. Howe decided to take Philadelphia first, which he did. Even though there would be no second British army to meet up with, Burgoyne and his men still left Canada in June 1777 and drove southward. They immediately ran into obstacles. The hills, forests, and mud of northern New York greatly slowed their progress. The colonists routed a thousand of Burgoyne’s men who had been dispatched to secure supplies in Vermont. The Indian tribes that had been recruited to support the British forces quit the expedition. By mid-September 1777, Burgoyne’s progress had been stopped north of Albany by an American army led by Horatio Gates. British efforts to break through the American lines failed.
In mid-October, with the weather growing colder and the prospects of reaching Albany growing dimmer, Burgoyne decided to retreat northward to safety. He didn’t get far. Two days of marching in a driving rainstorm got his army eight miles to the town of Saratoga. Gates’s men, who knew the terrain and were accustomed to the weather, followed and quickly surrounded the town. Trapped and with no prospect of being saved by Howe’s army, Burgoyne surrendered on October 17, 1777.
The significance of the American victory at Saratoga was profound. It stopped the British from delivering what might have been a death blow to the American Revolution. It boosted the morale of the colonists who had witnessed what seemed like a growing list of defeats at the hands of British forces ever since the shots were fired at Lexington and Concord. But most important, the victory at Saratoga persuaded the French to sign a treaty of alliance with the colonies. As another battle four years after Saratoga would make clear, French support would be critical to the success of the American Revolution. If Gentleman Johnny had been a wiser general or the Americans less courageous at Saratoga, the course of U.S. and world history might have been very different.