On September 13, 1777, Major General John Burgoyne led his army across the Hudson River to the west bank, where he intended to follow a road southward to his ultimate destination — Albany, New York. He was aware that an American army was in the area, but his inability to retain the services of Indian scouts made it impossible to judge the size and exact location of the enemy.
The American Northern Command under Horatio Gates, a recent replacement for Philip Schuyler, had installed itself on nearby Bemis Heights, a 300-foot-high outcropping above the Hudson, nine miles south of Saratoga. Fortifications had been erected there under the supervision of a Polish engineer, Colonel Thaddeus Kosciuszko.
Following a chance encounter on the 18th, the armies prepared to do battle on the following day. Burgoyne followed a risky strategy of dividing his force into three columns; two were to proceed through the woods toward Bemis Heights and the other was to follow the main road that paralleled the Hudson. The willingness to split his force and imperil communications underscored Burgoyne’s continuing contempt of the Americans’ military abilities.
Gates was usually content to keep his forces behind their fortifications, but he yielded to Benedict Arnold's pleas for a bold offensive move. Daniel Morgan and his expert riflemen were dispatched to intercept the British right flank under Simon Fraser. Protracted fighting occurred in a clearing known as Freeman’s Farm — Freeman was a Loyalist who had earlier departed for Canada. It appeared that the superior American numbers were going to deliver a decisive victory, but the arrival of German forces under Riedesel on the left flank strengthened British resistance.
After more than three hours of battle, the Americans ran low on ammunition and withdrew. The British had suffered in excess of 500 casualties, while the Americans had sustained more than 280. Burgoyne pressed his subordinates to plan for another attack the following day, but the heavy toll of wounded and killed made them reluctant. At this juncture, word arrived from Sir Henry Clinton that he was at last prepared to leave New York City and venture up the Hudson to render assistance to Burgoyne. With that welcome news in hand, Burgoyne gave up his proposal for an attack on the 20th and ordered his troops to dig in and wait for the reinforcements.
In later years, some of the American participants at Freeman’s Farm speculated that they might not have been able to resist a follow-up attack, potentially changing the outcome of Burgoyne’s invasion.