On October 17, 1777, with his troops surrounded and vastly outmanned, British General John Burgoyne surrendered. The final battle of Saratoga was a major defeat for the British and word of British surrender further rallied troops in the Continental Army and the Militias. Although the end of the war and full British surrender was years off, the Battle of Saratoga was a major turning point in the Revolutionary War.

Most students of U.S. history know about the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” that heralded the beginning of the American Revolution on April 19, 1775. The battles of Lexington and Concord, spurred on when British soldiers tried to confiscate the arms of the American colonists, were the first shots in the Revolutionary War. These battles which caused the British soldiers to retreat to Boston with heavy losses were the result of unrest by the colonialists from the harsh treatment from the British Crown. The battles showed the growing resistance to British rule and tyranny.

These battles followed the attempts of the First Continental Congress in 1774 to avoid war with Great Britain by addressing grievances of the colonists. Following the battles of Lexington and Concord, the Second Continental Congress was convened in Philadelphia (1775-1776). Again, the goal was to avoid war, but it also established the Continental Army with George Washington as General of the Army. This Congress also drafted and ratified the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Militias were organized to provide local protection and became citizen soldiers supporting the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War. The Militias were the colonial fighters at the battles of Lexington and Concord as there was no Continental Army yet.

By the early summer of 1777 the war for American independence was in full sway and the British believed they could break the resolve of the colonies following recent colonial losses at the Battle of Quebec. The British intended to cut off the New England colonies from the other colonies. Britain’s plan included sending three military columns to converge on Albany, New York, and hand the Continental Army a resounding defeat. British General John Burgoyne’s column of soldiers had been augmented by German troops and Native American fighters. After the Battle of Quebec, the British suffered a defeat at the Battle of Bennington that saw the loss of 1,000 men, and the Native American fighters all but abandoned the British. Burgoyne’s position was difficult. He needed to either retreat to Fort Ticonderoga or advance toward Albany. He decided to move down the Hudson River toward Albany.

With 6,500 fighters, Burgoyne positioned his men near Saratoga, at Freeman Farm, owned by a Loyalist. The Continental Army was led by General Horatio Gates along with Militia, over 12,000 men. The first engagement of the Battle of Saratoga was on September 19, 1777 and lasted for several hours with Burgoyne gaining a small tactical advantage against the much larger forces of General Gates and the Militia. However, Burgoyne suffered significant casualties. For two weeks the British regrouped.

With the tactical advantage, Burgoyne attacked the American forces on October 7 in what is called the Battle of Bemis Heights; this was the second Battle of Saratoga. The Americans captured a portion of the British defenses and Burgoyne was forced to retreat. On October 17, with his troops surrounded and vastly outmanned, Burgoyne surrendered. General Gates accepted his surrender in a respectful manner, allowing most of the British soldiers to return to Great Britain. One American that factored into the success of this battle was Benedict Arnold. He would later become disenchanted with the American military, ending in his conviction for treason.

The final battle of Saratoga was a major defeat for the British and word of British surrender further rallied troops in the Continental Army and the Militias. Although the end of the war and full British surrender was years off, the Battle of Saratoga was a major turning point in the Revolutionary War. It brought the French to fully support the fledging nation with desperately needed military aid along with aid from Spain and other countries. Without such support the new nation might have failed to materialize. This battle and others emphasized the important roll the Militia would continue to play in America’s war for independence.

Almost ten years passed after the Battle of Saratoga ended and the American experiment was in its infancy. After an attempt to bring the colonies (now called States) together via the Articles of Confederation, it was determined a more formal federal government was necessary. This brought about the Constitution of the United States. Strong memory of the excesses and tyranny of the British government pushed the framers of the new government to place limits on this new government in the Constitution and some of its first ten amendments. The first ten amendments also guaranteed certain rights to the people and are referred to as the Bill of Rights. These rights include the freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, rights to petition the government for grievances, the right to bear arms, rights of privacy and to own private property.

The founders of the United States recognized the need for a formal federal government, but also realized a federal government without limits could again grow to abuse and suppress its citizens. One of the means Great Britain used to control the colonies and prevent rebellion was the seizure of the people’s arms. This was the purpose of the British advance on Concord: to remove the weapons and power stored there. The Second Amendment is an acknowledgement of the role played by the Militias in gaining American independence and ensuring citizens could protect themselves from government overreach the colonies experienced from Great Britain.

Republished with gracious permission from Constituting America.

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The featured image is “The Surrender of General Burgoyne” (1821) by John Trumbull (1756–1843) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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