The Turning Point of the Revolutionary War


by Brian Mumford, Past President.

During the fall of 1777, while leading the Canadian Campaign south to capture Albany, British General John Burgoyne was defeated at Bemis Heights in Stillwater and forced to begin a retreat back north. He was pursued by American troops commanded by General Horatio Gates who surrounded Burgoyne’s troops at old Saratoga (Schuylerville) and put them under siege.

Low on provisions and under constant artillery fire for a week, Burgoyne agreed to surrender, marking the first time in history that a British army surrendered on the battlefield. The surrender by the British convinced France, a longtime enemy of Britain, to enter the war in alliance with America. Ultimately, in 1783 this alliance defeated the British and confirmed the independence of the United States.


Historian Hoffman Nickerson first used the term “turning point” in reference to the surrender at Saratoga in his 1926 book The Turning Point of the Revolution. Nickerson stressed that the Saratoga surrender, and not the Saratoga battles, constituted the turning point of the Revolutionary War. Similarly, Park Ranger/Historian Eric Schnitzer makes the point, “It was the surrender at Saratoga, and not its several battles which marked the true ‘turning point’ of the American Revolutionary War” (Luzader 10).
Familiarity with the background and historic consequences of the Saratoga Surrender provides an understanding and appreciation of the Saratoga Surrender Site Memorial Park, which was developed by the Friends of the Saratoga Battlefield and donated to the Saratoga National Historical Park.   


Saratoga Surrender

Oct 8-10th On Oct 8, 1777, after his campaign to reach Albany was halted at Bemis Heights, British Gen. John Burgoyne began a retreat with 5,000 troops back to Canada. Pausing eight miles north at old Saratoga (now Schuylerville) Burgoyne ordered his troops to establish defense positions on the high ground which runs along the north shore of Fish Creek, as it flows in an easterly direction to empty into the Hudson River.  


Gen. Horatio Gates, leading 17,000 troops of the American Northern Army in pursuit of Burgoyne, arrived at Saratoga on Oct 10 where he encamped on the south shore of Fish Creek and ordered his troops to envelop the British troops north of the Creek.


Colonel Daniel Morgan with 800 sharpshooters and General Enoch Poor with 1,400 troops moved to the west and crossed Fish Creek in what today is the Village of Victory. From there they moved north to establish positions to fire on the encamped troops and block any attempt by Burgoyne to move to the west. General John Fellows leading 1,300 New England militias moved to the east side of the Hudson River where he established his artillery to bombard the British across the river and to block any attempt to cross the river. General John Stark arrived at Fort Edward from New Hampshire with a newly recruited militia of 2,000. He crossed the Hudson to erect an artillery battery to block the road north of the British troops at present day Stark’s Knob.


The British camps were prime targets for the relentless American artillery fired day and night. The cannons on the east side of the Hudson destroyed the British bateaus carrying provisions on the west shore. Notwithstanding an advantage of superior numbers, positioning, and fire power, Gates showed no sign of ordering an attack. He remained content with plans to force a surrender by means of the siege which was now in place.  

Southern Hudson Status

During the siege, both Burgoyne and Gates were anxiously focused on the status of British forces in the lower Hudson River region south of Albany. They both realized that if the British came up the Hudson from New York City to attack Albany, Gates would be called upon to dispatch a significant portion of his army to defend Albany. This would lessen Gates’s military strength and weaken his ability to force Burgoyne’s surrender.


Just months before, Major General Sir Henry Clinton had assumed command of the reduced British army that remained in New York City after General William Howe had taken 15,000 troops from New York and sailed south to attack Philadelphia. Howe left Clinton with orders to “make any diversion in favor of General Burgoyne’s approaching Albany” (Weddle 295). While still at Stillwater before the retreat, Burgoyne had sent Clinton a letter urging him to attack Fort Montgomery located just south of West Point and to develop plans to meet Burgoyne at Albany.


Early in October to create such a diversion, Clinton led 3,000 troops from New York City north and captured Fort Montgomery. At that point Clinton, who had no orders to proceed to Albany, returned to New York City. He sent a message to Burgoyne saying, “I sincerely hope this little success may facilitate Your Operation” (Cubbison 317). This message never reached Burgoyne. Burgoyne and Gates, who by then were entrenched at Saratoga, had no confirmed report of the status of the engagements on the southern Hudson River.


Oct 12th

After two days of constant sniper and artillery fire, Burgoyne called a council of war to review the current situation with his generals. They discussed the strength and position of Gates’s troops and that additional militia arrived each day. Based upon reports from scouts, it was agreed that there was no means to escape through the surrounding troops. Burgoyne again mentioned his expectation of hearing from Clinton.


Oct 13th

The British remained surrounded and under constant cannonade with no sign of Gates preparing to attack. They were on half rations with just a one-week supply remaining. No word had been received regarding Clinton’s effort to create a diversion. During the morning, Burgoyne called a council of war of the three generals on his staff who, after discussion, were unable to agree on a plan. 
That afternoon Burgoyne called another council of war and this time gathered all the officers. The council unanimously agreed, “the present Situation justified a Capitulation upon honorable terms” (Weddle 337).
That evening under a white flag Lieutenant Colonel Kingston, Burgoyne’s adjutant general, crossed Fish Creek to deliver a message to Gates that Burgoyne desired to send an officer with an important message.  Gates sent a response that he would receive the officer at 10:00 the next morning. Gates assigned his chief of staff Colonel James Wilkinson to assist with negotiations.  
Burgoyne’s background as an inveterate gambler, successful playwright, and sixteen-year member of parliament served him well as a negotiator. His goal was not only to achieve favorable terms of surrender but also to prolong the negotiations in hopes that Clinton would attack Albany which would compel Gates to end the negotiations. At the same time, Gates’s goal was to negotiate a treaty as rapidly as possible before Clinton moved against Albany.


Oct 14th

At the assigned time, Kingston crossed Fish Creek where he met Wilkinson who blindfolded him and led him a mile south to Gates’s headquarters. Burgoyne’s message, which demonstrated his skill as a negotiator, took the high ground by accusing Gates’s troops of having “rendered [his] retreat a scene of carnage on both sides,” causing Burgoyne to feel “impelled by humanity to spare the lives of brave men upon honorable terms” (Wilkinson 301). With this lofty language he offered to enter into cessation of arms to allow time to discuss terms.


Pursuant to military custom it was for Burgoyne, who was surrendering, to first propose terms of capitulation. Nevertheless, anxious to begin the negotiations, Gates presented Kingston a list of terms, which Kingston carried back to British headquarters. 


Burgoyne convened a council of war which unanimously rejected Gates list of seven proposals which amounted to a near unconditional surrender. The two most militarily offensive proposals required the troops to ground their arms while still in their camp and also to surrender as prisoners of war. That evening, sensing that Gates was bluffing with these severe terms, Burgoyne sent a message telling Gates that if he did not intend to drop the two proposals then the cease fire would immediately end. Burgoyne then began to draft a list of counter-proposals which he intended to be so liberal as to result in time consuming negotiations.


Oct 15th

In the morning, Kingston crossed Fish Creek to deliver Burgoyne’s rejection of Gates’s proposals together with a list of Burgoyne’s counter-proposals. The counter-proposals called for Burgoyne’s troops to be afforded full honors of war to march out of their camp while flying their flags and carrying their weapons, which were to be laid down at a designated location. The troops were not to remain prisoners, but rather were to be marched to Cambridge where they would receive free passage back to Britain upon the condition that they would not serve again in America during the war.


The same morning, to Burgoyne’s surprise, Wilkinson delivered Gates’s signed acceptance of each of Burgoyne’s proposals, with the condition that the treaty be finalized by two o’clock that day. Gates’s accepting without any negotiation and his seeking an immediate response caused Burgoyne to suspect that Gates may have received information that Clinton was moving against Albany. Seeking delay, Burgoyne wrote to Gates asking for time to revise the proposed treaty since “several subordinate articles …require explanation and precision” (Wilkinson 309). Gates agreed to a review being conducted the next day.    


Oct 16th

Burgoyne and Gates each appointed two representative who met at a tent near Schuyler’s property. By evening they had delivered to their respective commanders an agreed upon final draft of the treaty ready for signatures. 


However, rather than sign the treaty, Burgoyne sought yet another delay by claiming that through oversight they had allowed the document to bear the title of “treaty of capitulation” rather than a “treaty of convention.” Burgoyne gave Gates his word that if this edit were made, he would deliver a signed Treaty of Convention. Although the document was not technically a convention, in hopes of finalizing the treaty, Gates conveyed his agreement to the amendment.  


Later that night, before Burgoyne signed the treaty, a British spy arrived at Burgoyne’s camp and reported a false rumor that Clinton, having captured Fort Montgomery, was now approaching Albany. Burgoyne concluded that this rumor was sufficient reason to terminate negotiations, however his council of war voted that, notwithstanding the recent rumor, as a matter of public trust Burgoyne could not renege on his promise to sign the amended treaty.   


Undaunted, Burgoyne tried to avoid signing the treaty by sending a message to Gates falsely accusing him of violating the cessation of arms agreement by sending a significant portion of his force to Albany. Burgoyne proposed sending officers to inspect Gates’s army to determine its strength. 
Gates, refusing to negotiate this patently false allegation, sent a message to Burgoyne demanding that he “sign or dissolve” the treaty immediately. That evening, after discussion with his officers, Burgoyne signed the Treaty of Convention which was delivered to Gates who also signed that evening. 


Saratoga Surrender


The Saratoga Surrender included three separate events.


Oct 16th Surrender

The first event of the surrender occurred during the evening of the 16th when “J. Burgoyne, Lieutenant-general” and “Horatio Gates, Major-general” while at their respective headquarters at Saratoga, each signed the Treaty of Convention. The Treaty contains a standard contract phrase which identifies the location and date of the signing. It reads, “Saratoga, Oct. 16th, 1777.”       


Oct 17th Surrender

The second event of the surrender occurred on the morning of Oct 17 when the British army marched out of their camp carrying their arms. They proceeded to the ruins of Fort Hardy on the shore of the Hudson where they laid down their arms in surrender. Then, as Convention prisoners, they were marched south across Fish Creek, and, passing the location where Burgoyne would be surrendering to Gates, they continued on to Cambridge. Nickerson wrote,

The turning point of the American Revolution was the sunny Friday in October ’77, when Burgoyne’s men piled arms beside the Hudson (422).

Also on Oct 17th

The third event of the surrender occurred when Burgoyne, together with his officers, crossed Fish Creek and rode to the vicinity of the recently built Dutch Reform Church where he met Gates who was riding north from his headquarters accompanied by his officers. After they dismounted and exchanged greetings, Burgoyne handed Gates his sword in surrender which Gates returned to him. As the Convention prisoners passed by them on their march to Cambridge, Gates invited Burgoyne and his officers to join him for a meal in a tent set up on a nearby hill, currently the Saratoga Surrender Site Memorial Park


Significance of Surrender


For years France and Britain were enemies and fought over colonial possessions. During the French and Indian War, France lost possession of Canada and territory east of the Mississippi to Britain. When the Revolutionary War broke out in Boston in the spring of 1775, France began to secretly support the colonists in the battle against the British by providing artillery, gunpowder, and other supplies, as well as vast sums of money. The clandestine support was critical in supporting Gen. Washington’s army through 1777.


The surrender of Britain at Saratoga in October 1777 convinced France to openly recognize the independence of the United States and, by entering into the Treaty of Alliance, to agree to support the United States until the war was won. What had been a covert operation to aid the colonists became an open military alliance with France officially joining the war and bringing its full military and naval might against Britain. The formal alliance with France, which was formed as a result of the turning point of the Revolutionary War, assured the ultimate victory and independence of the United States.


Works Consulted

The Turning Point of the Revolutionary War
Burgoyne, John.  A State of the Expedition From Canada:  As Laid Before the House of Commons. Printed for J Almon, London, MDCCLXXX.  Reprinted by Sagwan Press as a work in the public domain.
Cobertt, Theodore. No Turning Point: The Saratoga Campaign in Perspective. University of Oklahoma Press 2012


Cubbison, Douglas R. Burgoyne and the Saratoga Campaign | His Papers. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma, 2012.


Luzader, John F.  Saratoga:  A Military History of the Decisive Campaign of the American Revolution.  Savas Beatie, New York and California, 2010.


Nickerson, Hoffman. The Turning Point of the Revolution or Burgoyne in America.  Houghton Mifflin, Cambridge Riverside Press.  Boston and New York, 1928.  Digitized by Hathi Trust Digital Library, hathitrust.org.


Schnitzer, Eric & Don Troiani.  Campaign to Saratoga—1777.  The Turning Point of the Revolutionary War in Paintings, Artifacts, and Historical Narrative.  Stackpole Press, Guilford, CT, 2019.


Weddle, Kevin J.  The Compleat Victory: Saratoga and the American Revolution. Oxford University Press, 2021.


Wilkinson, James.  Memoirs of my own Times 1757-1825. Vol. I. Abraham Small, Philadelphia, 1816. Digitized by the Internet Archive, 2009. archive.org.


Zeller, Bob. Revolutionary War.  The Tipping Point. From French arms to French fleets, how France changed the tides of the American Revolution. American Battlefield Trust, Battlefieds.org, June 25, 2018  • Updated January 13, 2022.

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