interstates and cell phones might shrink upstate new york to a unrecognizable shadow of its 1777 wilderness, but make no mistake, this was once the very edge of the civilized world. between montreal to the north, and new york city to the south, only albany nearby the confluence of the mohawk and hudson rivers marked anything of consequence on the western edge of 18th century new england. position the british navy off its shore, and a couple of redcoated armies along it's overland supply routes, and all that nonsense about shots being heard 'round the world would have been like proverbial trees falling in the new england forest.
thinking they were agreed to meet billy howe, hank clinton and several thousand of their bestest friends somewhere near albany, gentleman johnny burgoyne, his best #2 general simon fraser, and johnny's latest boy toy, barry st leger, figured a couple of weeks down the hudson and st lawrence rivers would be just the thing in the summer of '77. (ok, that "boy toy" thing is a bit unfair, but a brevet promotion to brigadier just to show up the loyalist militia commanders is a bit weak, don't you think?) though without verizon to keep in touch, nor I's 90 or 87 to smooth their journey east and south, it's amazing what a few hundred bad-attitude colonial farmers and a peripatetic commander in chief can do to spoil an englishman's whole summer.
first, peter gansevoort had the temerity to rebuild fort stanwix and stuff it full of 800 or so new york and massachusetts party boys. (no lie--before there were yankees and red sox, you could actually work 'em together). then toss five indian armies, ostensible civil war between local rebel and loyalist militias, (don't forget raising the stars and stripes for the first time ever in battle), and mix the whole lot for a month or two, and you get a whole lot of nothing but creeks running red with blood (oriskany is still a haunting place down in that ravine i'm back from my trip to tell you) and an english hankering for oswego tea and a boat trip back to st. catherine's street for barry's first and last shot at running an army.
so now switch channels a bit to the east, and catch up with johnny's being good down the first few hundred miles of the western portion of the northeast kingdom. against fraser's kick-ass field generalship, local boy phil schuyler wasn't appearing to do much of anything right, even finding a way to lose fort ticonderoga without any semblance of a fight, so the continental congress had sent a new man up to albany to run one last line of defense before the whole revolution thing lost its cachet. (in one of my favorite quotes ever, john adams, head of the war committee, is recorded to have said that the continentals would "never hold a post until we shoot a general"). the new yorkers, still loyal to their boy, phil, thought the reasoning a bit harsh, and didn't care much for horatio gates, but they were happy enough to keep felling trees (burgoyne and fraser were down to about a mile's progress a day) and waiting for their moment.
andrzej tadeusz bonawentura kosciuszko, either polish or lithuanian or belarussian depending on how you prefer your historical geography, directed the axes and more than a few shovels to prepare some world-class breastworks overlooking the hudson just south of saratoga, and the stage was set. (it's a beautiful piece of ground to stage a last stand, that's for sure). discovering the presence of this wing of the party boys (new york being joined by both massachusetts and new hampshire this time) from their habit of blowing reveille in the morning, johnny b. had to choose from a short list of some pretty tough choices. looking up at the fortifications, he chose first to send out hist best boy simon to try to outflank the malcontents, but benedict arnold, enoch poor, ebenezer learned and a regiment of virginia sharpshooters under the command of daniel morgan matched fraser kicked-ass for kicked-ass all day, making for another bunker-hill-like case of the english winning the field but body-for-body losing the battle. next, burgie opted for waiting on barry and billy and their many thousand friends to show up and help him out with the tough stuff, but a few weeks of that godot thing convinced him that this was now his party to win or lose alone. lucky to have his army ahead of hank clinton, (still waiting in the wings, and wasn't it a "coincidence" that no army had marched north from new york city to help out), and knowing that retreating in shame from a bunch of hick farmers with picks and shovels would lose him his job just as quick as doing something truly stupid, he tried the "reconnaissance in force" tactic a second time, and found out just how the colonials played his gentleman's game.
this second time unable to hold off fraser's wing of burgoyne's newly remobilized army, benedict arnold exasperatedly observed that "the man on the gray horse is a host unto himself and must be disposed of". general morgan, in passing the order down to his best sharpshooter, timothy murphy, wistfully observed that "the gallant officer is general fraser... i admire him, but it is necessary that he should die. do your duty." so timmy loaded up his double barrelled rifle, climbed a nearby tree, and took fraser off his horse from 300 yards out. (it wasn't a lucky shot--he took down burgoyne's chief aide, sir francis clerke, with his next shot). both armies paused the next day while fraser was buried atop the english fortifications, and gates even had the americans salute him with their cannons, which is pretty rich, seeing how they specifically had him picked off the day before.
anyway, rudderless, the main ship of burgoyne's campaign floundered, and all but sank then and there. the british forces pulled back into their own fortifications, bolstered up by the german mercenary reinforcements who had otherwise spent the day bottled up down by the river getting nowhere against thaddeus' fortifications, but it all still wasn't enough to withstand benedict arnold's final charge over the parapet at breyman's redoubt, and the last hope of autumn in albany for johnny and his incredible shrinking army. now, having lost most of his boats from some additional colonial shenanigans up on lake george, his back was up against the river, and he was penned in from all sides. (johnny stark, fresh from his big win with the green mountain boys at bennington, had arrived from the north to cut off any possible escape). nothing to do but hand over the sword, and grumble something about reinforcements, and you can see just how hopeless the whole thing was from the top of the battle monument, which is well worth the considerable climb.
but, back to the point: most notable among all the stories of burgoyne's ill-fated campaign is the omnipresence of one benedict arnold the fifth. so easily we use his name as the de facto synonym for perfidy and treason, but during the summer of 1777 he was likely all that stood between the rebellious colonies and their quick and rapid re-absorption into the commonwealth from whence they came. running low on ammo and hope at fort stanwix? it was bennie who came up with the plan to release a POW with tales of 1500 men and an ass-kicking attitude. (cue barry and the "brave, brave sir robin" tune from monty python and the holy grail). make the mistake of sending an overweight and overcautious bureaucrat to run the last defense of albany? never fear, bennie will notice the flaw in the fortifications (one last rise of high ground to the west where burgie's cannons would have had a field day) and ride out with danny morgan's sharpshooters to shred some redcoated ass. willing to let johnny be good and gone before closing the noose around his overextended neck? don't worry, bennie will run out of HQ against orders and lead the final charge over the breastworks and take the hill and the battle, and, perhaps the war.
leading a force of british soldiers to capture richmond in december of 1780, benedict arnold is reported to have asked a captured colonial captain what might have become of him should the continentals ever capture their greatest traitor. the answer was to "cut off your right leg [the one wounded upon taking breyman's redoubt during the victory at saratoga] and bury it with full military honors, and then hang the rest of you on a gibbet."
so fine a line between heaven and hell, and our best intentions of ourselves, and our meanest failures. bennie made the mistake of being his best self first. we all should hope to be so fortunate as to save our best for last.