Before his name became synonymous with traitor, Benedict Arnold disobeyed orders and launched an attack on General John Burgoyne in a tiny New York hamlet called Bemis Heights Oct. 7, 1777, forcing the British from the high ground and into a retreat that culminated in the surrender of 6,000 men ten days later at Saratoga. The victory ultimately led the French to join the war on the American side. It was the turning point of the war.
Local military historian Collin Carr will discuss this pivotal campaign at the Saugerties Public Library Monday, Aug. 12 at 6 p.m.
“It’s amazing how key the Hudson Valley was to winning the Revolution,” said Carr. “Most communication and transportation traveled by river at that time, so whoever controlled the river held a major advantage.”
Carr, like most historians, believes the Continental Army would have faced a nearly impossible challenge if it had lost at Saratoga and the French had not entered the war.
Carr will break down the causes of the British defeat, including Burgoyne’s decision to take a long route to Saratoga and forage for supplies in Vermont, where he was beaten in August. That summer, Arnold neutralized part of Burgoyne’s force at Fort Stanwix near Utica by sending false messages convincing the commander there, Colonel Barry St. Ledger, that Arnold had a much larger force. After Stanwix, the Iroquois Confederacy was torn apart as some members allied with the patriots and others sided with the British. To make matters worse, Burgoyne was not getting along with General William Howe, which may have delayed relief from the south during the campaign.
Carr will discuss the Burning of Kingston, which happened just a couple of weeks after Saratoga—some say as retribution for the defeat, others say there was no connection. After the Burning of Kingston, the British Fleet sailed north, stopping near Malden.
“Imagine looking out, and seeing a fleet of British ships out in the Hudson River,” Carr said.
Carr likes to discuss events like the Burning of Kingston that show the effect of war on civilians. “These families were burned out of their homes shortly before the winter,” he said.
Speaking of those civilians, only about one in three colonists was a strong supporter of the war.
“It was a war of thirds; only about 30 percent of the people were fervent patriots, others remained loyal to the British Crown, and the rest just wanted to get on with their lives,” Carr said.
The talk is Carr’s second of the summer, following a well-attended June lecture on the local regiments’ experience at another pivotal battle, four-score and six years later at Gettysburg. Carr wants his library events to be forums where diehard history buffs and those with an interest but not much background can come together to discuss local history.
“There is so much out there about the Revolutionary War that it can be overwhelming for someone looking to start learning about it,” he said.
Carr is not offended if people disagree with him. He remembers how impassioned debates became when his professors discussed topics like the Battle of Saratoga during conferences.
“History is not entirely set in stone,” he said. “History is not the past, it’s an interpretation of the past.”