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Langdon, Stark, Bennington, and the Triumph of a Private Army, Part 1

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Had we a standing army, when the British invaded our peaceful shores? Was it a standing army that gained the battles of Lexington, and Bunker’s Hill, and took the ill fated Burgoyne? Is not a well-regulated militia sufficient for every purpose of internal defence? And which of you, my fellow citizens, is afraid of any invasion from foreign powers, that our brave militia would not be able immediately to repel?

— “A Democratic Federalist,” Pennsylvania Herald, [October 17, 1787]

By the spring of 1777, only a handful of important — but mostly symbolic — victories kept the American fight for independence alive. Overall success in the revolutionary endeavor was not certain.

The early months of the military phase of the American Revolution saw American fighting men chase the British back to Boston after battles at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. The battle at Breed’s Hill (later popularized as the “Battle of Bunker Hill”), while technically a defeat for the Americans, was so costly to the British that General Clinton of that army wrote in his diary, “A few more such victories will shortly put an end to British dominion in America.” And, after almost a year under siege, the British evacuated Boston in March 1776. In the South, Charles Town, South Carolina, was successfully defended against a British invasion force in June.

Then things quickly took a turn for the worse. The British soundly defeated Washington in the Battle of Long Island and occupied New York City in late summer. They forced the evacuation of Brooklyn and chased Washington’s army north and west across New Jersey through the final weeks of 1776, capturing forts, large numbers of American troops, and even important generals along the way. The ragtag remainder of the Continental Army survived complete defeat only by commandeering every boat for miles around and fleeing across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. To the north, an ineffective siege of Quebec, which had followed an even less effective attack on the city, had been broken by British reinforcements in May 1776.

The spirit of resistance was renewed on Christmas Day, 1776, when Washington surprised a sleeping garrison of Hessian mercenaries at Trenton, capturing 900 enemy soldiers and much-needed supplies, and defeated a large force of Cornwallis’s British troops at Princeton just days later.

At the outset of hostilities, the Continental Congress had sent ambassadors to wealthy European countries in the hope of gaining financial, political, and military support for the American cause. France, in particular, was a highly coveted ally, but she hesitated to recognize — let alone provide assistance to — the fledgling United States. By the end of 1777, American fighting forces, aided largely by militia reinforcements and a virtual private army of New England militiamen, would force the surrender of a massive British invasion force and turn the tide of the war.

“Gentleman Johnny” makes a wager.

Born in Sutton, England, in 1722, John Burgoyne purchased a commission in the 13th Light Dragoons at the age of 18. Known for his fancy uniforms and expensive lifestyle, he ran up debts and acquired the nickname “Gentleman Johnny.”

Burgoyne served honorably in the French and Indian War, taking part in a highly successful raid on the French coastal town of Cherbourg in 1758, and is said to have been instrumental in the introduction of light cavalry into the British army (a fighting force that would plague American troops throughout the Revolutionary War, especially when led by the fierce and pitiless Banastre Tarleton) during that period. Elected to Parliament in 1761, he achieved national acclaim by demanding an investigation of the powerful East India Company. He was promoted to the rank of major general, and wrote a number of plays, the first of which, The Maid of the Oaks, was produced by the influential David Garrick in 1775.

General Burgoyne served in Boston during the siege, but returned to England when no opportunity to command was offered. Later, he brought British reinforcements up the St. Lawrence River and relieved Quebec, then under siege by Continental troops commanded by Benedict Arnold, in the spring of 1776, and led ground forces that chased the Continental Army out of Canada.

Burgoyne then formed a plan. Given control of British forces in the region, he would take Lake Champlain — which formed part of the border between New York and a territory disputed with New Hampshire called Vermont — and dominate the Hudson River Valley. With sufficient forces, argued Burgoyne, he could drive south, taking key American forts along the way. With General Howe’s navy coming up from New York, and a smaller British force driving eastward, they could easily capture Albany and, more important, completely divide New England from the rest of the country.

Were it to be successful, the psychological impact this plan would have on the revolutionaries could not be overemphasized. The historian Page Smith referred to control of the Hudson River as “the rebel’s jugular”; New England was quite literally the birthplace of the American Revolution. Except for a brief occupation of Newport, Rhode Island, the British did not venture into that region.

It was a lesson they would have to learn again.

Before leaving London, Burgoyne wrote the following in a betting book: “John Burgoyne wagers … one pony [50 guineas] that he will be home victorious from America by Christmas Day, 1777.” It is often said at such times that “pride comes before the fall.” In the fall of 1777 — two months before his own Christmas deadline — “Gentleman Johnny” would lose his bet.

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This article originally appeared in the September 2009 edition of Freedom Daily.

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    Scott McPherson is policy adviser at The Future of Freedom Foundation. An advocate of the Free State Project, he lives in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.