Long before it was known for its horse racing or spring waters, Saratoga gained international fame because of the extraordinary surrender of a British Army—an occurrence which had never happened before in the history of the world.
There are many stories associated with this Revolutionary surrender, and a romanticized version of the event is visually preserved in John Trumbull’s monumental painting, Surrender of General Burgoyne, which hangs in the Rotunda of the United States Capital. Of the tens of thousands of eyewitnesses who saw the surrender take place, many recorded the day’s events in journals and letters, and by piecing these sources together, we are left with a narrative of the day’s events.
Late in the morning of October 17, 1777, British General John Burgoyne and his staff left their camp, located in the present-day villages of Schuylerville and Victory, and rode south to meet their American conquerors. Because the bridge crossing Fish Creek was destroyed, they had to ford the stream near its outlet at the Hudson River. As they travelled past the charred remains of Philip Schuyler’s country plantation, General Horatio Gates and his military family left their headquarters, located about 1¼ miles south of here, and rode fast in order to intercept the British General. Both parties met on the road about ½ mile north of here, near the Dutch Reformed Church. According to a Continental soldier, Burgoyne then “came up to General Gates with his hat off to shake hands & then took the Left hand of General Gates.” While many stories tell us what supposedly passed between the two commanders upon meeting each other, only one observer, a Continental Army chaplain, wrote it down on the day it happened. Burgoyne went first, saying “The fate of war has put me into your hands,” to which Gates replied, “If enterprise, courage, and perseverance could have given you success, the victory would have been yours.” The entire party then retired here, to this very hill, for dinner, under the cover of awnings set up for the occasion.
If you ever wondered what it was that the victors and vanquished ate that afternoon, one anonymous British officer wrote that the feast consisted of “a ham, a goose, some beef, and a boiled mutton. The liquor was New England rum, mixed with rum, without sugar.” Whilst dining, Gates “filled a bumper, and, in the most polite and liberal manner, drank to his Britannic Majesty’s health. General Burgoyne would not be outdone in politeness: he filled a bumper, and drank General Washington’s health.”
In total, the American Northern Army was an impressive 17,000-man force, including United States Continental Army officers and soldiers from Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and even Canada. However, a majority of American military men present were from state militias drawn from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and New York. Even Vermont—a newly-declared independent republic, and not part of the United States—provided militia troops in order help bring Burgoyne to heel. These troops lined up on both sides of the road upon which the beaten enemy was to march.
Burgoyne’s trounced troops marched out of their entrenchments and surrendered their weapons at a place now known as the Field of Grounded Arms. At about 3:00pm, the entire force of nearly 7,000 officers, soldiers, and women and children marched off. The British were in the lead, followed by the Germans from the Duchy of Braunschweig and the County of Hessen-Hanau, as well as the dwindled numbers of remaining American Royalists and French Canadiens—American Indian and First Nations people had all departed before the surrender. In the rear were hundreds of followers, mostly bare-footed women and children, some of the youngest having been “ty’d on horses & some in knapsacks & others in baskets on the women’s backs.” The long, snaking column forded Fish Creek and from there, advanced upon the road flanked by their conquerors.
According to one surprised German officer, Gates’s troops “stood straight and in orderly lines…there was absolute silence in those regiments as can only be demanded from the best disciplined troops. Not a single man gave any evidence or the slightest impression of feeling hatered, mockery, malicious pleasure or pride for our miserable fate. Their modesty rather filled us with amazement.” Thankfully, we do not have to wonder what music the Americans played during this monumental occasion; many mentioned that the fifes and drums struck up the tune Yankee Doodle, and one American soldier quipped that it was “very Sutable for the times”
As the British forces marched past this very hill, Gates and Burgoyne rose to observe the unprecedented procession. It was then, and not upon their initial meeting as is usually believed, that “General Burgoin delivered up his sword to General Gates who gave it back to him as a present.”
For those Americans who were here in 1777, many stated that the surrender was the greatest sight they ever beheld. One opined that it was “the greatest Conquest Ever known." One shocked lieutenant colonel wrote that "It may be reckoned among the extraordinary events history furnishes us with. [It] is an event I do not recollect to have met with in history, much less did I ever expect to see it in this war, I confess I could hardly believe it…when I saw it.”
The consequences of the first surrender of a British Army in world history were electrifying. Our envoys in France – most notably Ben Franklin – rejoiced, reporting that “the great news of Burgoyne’s defeat and surrender…occasioned as much general joy in France as if it had been a victory of their own troops over their own enemies.” King Louis XVI authorized his government to negotiate terms and on February 6, 1778, the Treaties of Alliance and Amity and Commerce were signed. Britain declared war on France shortly thereafter, and the nature of the war changed dramatically. French-allied military support resulted in the second British Army in world history to surrender in 1781 at Yorktown, Virginia, almost four years to the day after Burgoyne surrendered here. Further, the French alliance spurred international warfare against Britain, with Spain, The Netherlands, and the Mysorian Sultanate in India joining the fight. Finally, Britain recognized that winning the burgeoning worldwide war was an impossibility and sought to end the conflict, resulting in its recognition of the United States in 1783. International warfare and French military assistance in America helped make our revolutionary experiment a reality. Saratoga made it possible.