Three hours from the upstate New York village of Sleepy Hollow, in the woods of Schuylerville, there stands the statue of a leg. A boot, actually, a man’s riding boot, along with an epaulet and a cannon barrel pointing downward, denoting the death of a General. It seems the loneliest place on earth out there in the woods, with nothing but a footpath worn into the forest floor to lead you there.
The back of the stone bears these words. “In memory of the most brilliant soldier of the Continental Army“. A most brilliant soldier who, according to his own memorial, has no name.
In 1632, Reverend John Lothropp was an ordained minister of the Church of England. That was the year he renounced his orders, and joined the cause of religious independence. Lothropp was arrested and jailed for his apostasy, pardoned only on condition that he leave and never come back. He accepted the terms of his exile, arriving in Plymouth Massachusetts a short fourteen years after the original pilgrims.
John Lothropp is mostly forgotten today but his old house on Cape Cod, now houses the oldest public library in America. That, and a host of famous relatives, direct descendants including George Bush the elder and the younger, Franklin Roosevelt, Ulysses Grant, James Garfield and Millard Fillmore. Oh, and the guy who once wore that riding boot, up in Schuylerville. Benedict Arnold, born this day in 1741.
The year was 1777, October 7, the last day of the Battle of Saratoga. General Horatio Gates was in overall command of American forces, a position greatly exceeding his capabilities. Gates was cautious to the point of timidity, generally believing his men better off behind prepared fortifications, than taking the offensive.
Gates’ subordinate, General Benedict Arnold, could not have been more different. Arnold was imaginative and daring, a risk taker possessed of physical courage bordering on thereckless. The pair had been personal friends once but that was time, long past. By this time the two men were constantly at odds.
British General John “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne led a joint land and water invasion of 7,000 British and Hessian troops south along the New York side of Lake Champlain, down the Hudson River valley.
The invasion started out well for Burgoyne with the bloodless capture of Fort Ticonderoga, but Gentleman Johnny ran into a buzz saw outside of Bennington, Vermont, losing almost 1,000 men to General John Stark’s New Hampshire rebels and a militia unit headed by Ethan Allen, calling itself the “Green Mountain Boys”.
Burgoyne intended to continue south to Albany, linking up with forces under Sir William Howe and cutting the colonies in half. The 10,000 or so Colonial troops situated on the high ground near Saratoga, were all that stood in his way.
Patriot forces selected a site called Bemis Heights about 10 miles south of Saratoga, spending a week constructing defensive works with the help of Polish engineer Thaddeus Kosciusko. Theirs was a formidable position with mutually supporting cannon on overlapping ridges, with interlocking fields of fire.
Burgoyne had no choice but to stop and give battle at the American position, or be chopped to pieces trying to pass it by.
The Battle of Freeman’s Farm, the first of two battles for Saratoga, occurred on September 19. Technically a Patriot defeat in that the British held the ground at the end of the day, it was a costly victory. English casualties were almost two to one. Worse, the British column was out at the end of a long and tenuous supply line, while fresh men and supplies all but poured into the American position.
Freeman’s Farm could have been worse for the Patriot cause, but for Benedict Arnold’s anticipating British moves, and taking steps to block them in advance.
The personal animosity between Gates and Arnold boiled over in the days that followed. Gates’ report to Congress made no mention of Arnold’s contributions at Freeman’s Farm, though field commanders and the men involved with the day’s fighting, unanimously credited Arnold for the day’s successes. A shouting match between Gates and Arnold resulted in the latter being relieved of command, and replaced by General Benjamin Lincoln.
The second and decisive battle for Saratoga, the Battle of Bemis Heights, occurred on October 7, 1777.
Lieutenant Colonel Heinrich Christoph Breymann’s Hessian grenadier regiment formed the right anchor of Burgoyne’s line, manning a wooden fortification near the length of a football field and some 7-feet high. It was a strategically important position, with nothing between itself and the regiment’s main camp to the rear.
Though relieved of command Arnold was on the field, directing the battle on the American right. As the Hessian position began to collapse, General Arnold left his troops facing Balcarre’s Redoubt on the right, riding between the fire of both armies and joining the final attack on the rear of the German post. Arnold was shot through the left leg during the final moments of the action, shattering the same leg which had barely healed after the same injury at the Battle of Quebec City, only two years earlier. The same leg wounded in the defense of Ridgefield, only six months earlier.
It would have been better in the chest, he said, than to have received such a wound in that leg.
Burgoyne had no choice but to capitulate, surrendering his entire force on October 17. It was a devastating defeat for the British cause, and finally brought France in on the American side. A colonial Army had gone toe to toe with the most powerful military on the planet, and still stood.
One British officer described the battle: “The courage and obstinacy with which the Americans fought were the astonishment of everyone, and we now became fully convinced that they are not that contemptible enemy we had hitherto imagined them, incapable of standing a regular engagement, and that they would only fight behind strong and powerful works.”
One year earlier almost to the day, Benedict Arnold led a stick-built “Navy” literally constructed on the shores of lake Champlain, in a suicidal action by the shores of Valcour Island. Three years later, a man who would otherwise be remembered among the top tier of our founding fathers, betrayed the American fortifications at West Point to the British spy, John André.
The name of one of our top Revolution-era warriors, a General whom one of his own soldiers later described as “the very genius of war,” became that of Traitor. As a British officer, Arnold himself once asked an American prisoner “What will the Americans do with me if they catch me?” The reply though mostly forgotten, is one for the ages. “They will cut off the leg which was wounded when you were fighting so gloriously for the cause of liberty, and bury it with the honors of war, and hang the rest of your body on a gibbet.”
So it is that there is the statue of a leg in the forest south of Saratoga, dedicated to a nameless Hero of the Revolution. On the back of the monument are inscribed these words:
“In memory of
the most brilliant soldier of the
who was desperately wounded
on this spot the sally port of
BURGOYNES GREAT WESTERN REDOUBT
7th October, 1777
winning for his countrymen
the decisive battle of the
and for himself the rank of
Today, the Saratoga battlefield and the site of Burgoyne’s surrender are preserved as the Saratoga National Historical Park. On the grounds of the park stands an obelisk, containing four niches.
Three of them hold statues of American heroes of the Battle. General Horatio Gates. General Philip John Schuyler. Colonel Daniel Morgan.
The fourth niche, where Benedict Arnold’s statue was intended to go, remains empty.