Following the initial encounter at Freeman’s Farm on September 19, the American forces of Horatio Gates largely remained in their fortification on Bemis Heights, 9 miles south of Saratoga, New York. This crucial position stood above the road that John Burgoyne and his army needed to follow to reach Albany. Skirmishes between units of the two armies occurred daily.
Despite their secure position and swelling ranks, all was not well within the American camp. Gates and one of his chief lieutenants, Benedict Arnold, quarreled bitterly over strategy. Gates was content to remain behind the fortifications, hoping to inflict heavy losses on British assault troops, such as had occurred at Breed’s Hill earlier in the war. Arnold, on the other hand, feared being outflanked and repeatedly pressed his commander to take the fight to the British in the wooded areas below the heights. Friction between the two was so intense that Arnold was relieved of his command and shut out of the war councils.
On October 7, Burgoyne led a 1,500-man reconnaissance-in-force venture to locate American forces. He felt compelled to attempt a breakthrough because his supplies and troop morale were diminishing daily. Gates, for his part, uncharacteristically chose to confront the enemy and dispatched Daniel Morgan and his riflemen, along with troops under major generals Enoch Poor and Ebenezer Learned. Badly outnumbered, the British ranks broke on several occasions, but were rallied by the highly competent Simon Fraser. Arnold, who had been instructed not to participate in the battle, entered the fray in violation of his orders. He recognized the valuable role being played by Fraser and brought him to the attention of Morgan; in short order one of Morgan’s marksmen mortally wounded the British commander, draining much of the spirit from the remaining soldiers.
Arnold was a study in frenzied activity that afternoon, dashing from one unit to another and managing to evade aides who carried orders from Gates to leave the battlefield. Arnold played a central role in storming the Berrymann Redoubt, a vitally import fortified high ground position held by German mercenaries. In that encounter, Arnold suffered a serious leg injury — the same leg broken in the Quebec campaign — and was later carried from the field.
At the end of the day, Burgoyne’s position was critical. His small army had suffered more than 400 casualties, while the Americans reported only 150. During the night with campfires still burning, the British pulled back to the rear of the battle area. On the evening of the 8th, Burgoyne began to retreat northward. The British had no choice but to leave their sick and injured behind, and their dead unburied. The exhausted soldiers pressed on rain and cold to the temporary safety of the hills outside of the town of Saratoga, present-day Schuylerville, New York.
As the British pulled back and saw their meager ranks further depleted by desertions, the American ranks swelled. By mid-October, Gates’ army, numbering somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 men, surrounded Burgoyne’s slowly starving troops.
On October 13, Burgoyne faced the unpleasant prospect that Henry Clinton’s army from New York City was not likely to effect a rescue and asked for a parley with Gates.