Tuesday, February 26, 2013

British Diary Part 3: War in America

Grenadier of the 52nd Regiment of Foot, Don Troiani

Dear Reader,

In the previous two posts, we have explored William Digby's journey to North America,  and his life experiences on campaign. Digby, a Grenadier in the 53rd Regiment of Foot, accompanied John Burgoyne's Canadian army south in an invasion of New York. In this post, we will explore his combat experience in North American during the 1777 Saratoga campaign.

For ease of reference, here is a map of the 1777 Saratoga campaign.


The British army which Digby was a part of, under the command of general John Burgoyne, hoped to reach Albany, which would split the rebellious American colonies in two. Attacking from Canada, the British army reached the first major obstacle, Fort Ticonderoga. Digby records the experience in his journal from July 4th 1777:

"About noon we took possession of Sugar loaf hill  on which a battery was immediately ordered to be raised. It was a post of great consequence, as it commanded a great part of the works of Ticonderoga, all their vessels, and likewise afforded us the means of cutting off their communication with Fort Independent, a place also of great strength and the works very extensive. But here the commanding officer was reckoned guilty of a great oversight in lighting fires on that post, tho I am in formed, it was done by the Indians, the smoak of which was soon perceived by the enemy in the Fort ; as he should have remained undiscovered till night, when he was to have got two 12 pounders up tho their getting there was almost a perpendicular ascent, and drawn up by most of the cattle belonging to the Army. They no sooner perceived us in possession of a post, which they thought quite impossible to bring cannon up to, than all their pretended boastings of holding out to the last, and choosing rather to die in their works than give them up, failed them, and on the night of the 5th they set fire to several parts of the garrison, kept a constant fire of great guns the whole night, and under the protection of that fire, and clouds of smoke they evacuated the garrison, leaving all their cannon, ammunition and a great quantity of stores."


Fort Ticonderoga
With Ticonderoga in British hands, Digby and the rest of the army move south, hoping to reach Albany by the winter. On August 16th, a contingent of Germans allied soldiers in the British army were defeated at the battle of Bennington. The British army regrouped, and attempted to break through the American forces to reach Albany. The resulting battle, called the battle of Freeman's Farm, ended in victory for the British, but they failed to break through to Albany.

Wargame of the Battle of Freeman's Farm
Battle of Freeman's Farm:
William Digby described his experienced at Freeman's Farm:

"At day break intelligence was received, that Colonel Morgan,195 with the advance party of the enemy, consisting of a corps of rifle men, were strong about 3 miles from us ; their main body amounting to great numbers encamped on a very strong post about half a mile in their rear ; and about 9 o'clock we began our march, every man prepared with 60 rounds of cartridges and ready for instant action. We moved in 3 columns, ours to the right on the heights and farthest from the river in thick woods. A little after, 12 our advanced picquets came up with Colonel Morgan and engaged, but from the great superiority of fire received from him — his numbers being much greater — they were obliged to fall back, every officer being either killed or wounded except one, when the line came up to their support and obliged Morgan in his turn to retreat with loss. About half past one, the fire seemed to slacken a little ; but it was only to come on with double force, as between 2 & 3 the action became general on their side. From the situation of the ground, and their being perfectly acquainted with it, the whole of our troops could not be brought to engage together, which was a very material disadvantage, though everything possible was tried to remedy that inconvenience, but to no effect, such an explosion of fire I never had any idea of before, and the heavy artillery joining in con cert like great peals of thunder, assisted by the echoes of the woods, almost deafened us with the noise. To an unconcerned spectator, it must have had the most awful and glorious appearance, the different Battalions moving to relieve each other, some being pressed and almost broke by their superior numbers. This crash of cannon and musketry never ceased till darkness parted us, when they retired to their camp, leaving us masters of the field ; but it was a dear bought victory if I can give it that name, as we lost many brave men, The 62nd had scarce 10 men a company left, and other regiments suffered much, and no very great advantage, honor excepted, was gained by the day."

Battle of Bemis Heights:
So, while the British won the Battle of Freeman's Farm on September 19th, 1777, but did not gain any major strategic advantage. Thus, the British fought a second battle, the Battle of Bemis Heights, on October 7th. 

Breymann's Redoubt, Don Troiani
Digby describes the battle:

"About 3 o'clock, our heavy guns began to play, but the wood around being thick, and their exact knowledge of our small force, caused them to advance in great numbers, pouring in a superiority of fire from Detachments ordered to hang upon our flanks, which they tried if possible to turn. We could not receive a reinforcement as our works, General Hospital Stores, provisions &° would be left defenceless, on which an order was given for us to retreat, but not before we lost many brave men. Brigadier General Frazier was mortally wounded which helped to turn the fate of the day. When General Burgoyne saw him fall, he seemed then to feel in the highest degree our disagreeable situation. He was the only person we could carry off with us. Our cannon were surrounded and taken — the men and horses being all killed — which gave them additional spirits, and they rushed on with loud shouts, when we drove them back a little way with so great loss to ourselves, that it evidently appeared a retreat was the only thing left for us. They still advanced upon our works under a severe fire of grape shot, which in some measure stopped them, by the great execution we saw made among their columns; during which, another body of the enemy stormed the German lines after meeting with a most shameful resistance, and took possession of all their camp and equipage, baggage. Col. Bremen fell nobly at the head of the Foreigners, and by his death blotted out part of the stain his countrymen so justly merited from that days behaviour."

While Digby's criticism of the Germans has no basis in reality, the rest of his account gives an idea of the confused nature of fighting in 18th century North America. The German forces were outnumbered and outflanked, and any 18th century army would have collapsed under these conditions.  While the British were often able to get the better of the Americans on the field of battle, they were often unable to turn it into battlefield success.

Thanks for reading,


Alexander Burns

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