MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History

TIPPING POINT

Among the innumerable pamphlets littering London coffee houses in late 1776 was the provocative Letter to Lord George Germain. Credited only to “an Englishman,” it argued against a costly war with the disaffected American colonies and cautioned British generals who might “penetrate into the country; without oxen, without horses, [and] drag your cannon, your ammunition, your bread wagons, and your baggage through the woods, a cloud of rifle men in your front, in your rear, and upon your flanks.” Dismissing the ability of commissaries to supply troops in the thick American wilderness, the author added: “I would advise your Lordship to ask General [Thomas] Gage what it is to conduct an army through a wood in America, and what is the consequence of a defeat in a des[e]rt.”

Germain, Britain’s secretary of state for the colonies, had little use for the public’s advice. He had surely learned all he was going to from Gage, the former commander of British forces in America. He therefore anticipated only victories from an equally confident Lieutenant General John Burgoyne as the latter prepared to slash south from Quebec to Albany in the spring of 1777. But Burgoyne would stumble into a logistical nightmare on New York’s untamed frontier. There, his promising campaign would take a fateful turn, not far from the quiet hamlet of Bennington, Vermont.

Burgoyne’s offensive was part of a muddled British plan to end the Revolutionary War in 1777. The idea was to isolate irksome New England, with General William Howe moving north and Lieutenant Colonel Barry St. Leger advancing east to join Burgoyne at Albany. This, it was believed would force General George Washington’s main army into a conclusive showdown. The problem with the scheme was that none of the principals involved—Germain, Burgoyne, Howe, or Major General Henry Clinton— were on the same page. But that fact remained for Burgoyne to discover.

At first, all went well. In June Burgoyne left Canada with some 7,800 men—roughly 4,000 British regulars and 3,100 Germans plus some Canadians, loyalists, and Indians. By July 1 he was knocking on the back door of Fort Ticonderoga,

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