The Battle of Saratoga in September and October of 1777 was a decisive turning point in the American War for Independence. The American victory over the British in northern New York put a stopper to London’s dreams of a swift end to the war, and convinced the French to openly declare their support for the colonial rebels. It was, in the words of one American participant, a "Compleat Victory."
Yet, if we focus on the battles alone, we lose site of the entire campaign, the colorful personalities on both sides who developed the strategy, and the key role that geography played in shaping the choices that field commanders and civilian authorities made as their armies traversed forests, lakes, and rivers.
On today’s show, Dr. Kevin Weddle joins Jim Ambuske to discuss his new book, The Compleat Victory: Saratoga and the American Revolution, published by Oxford University Press in 2021. Weddle is Professor of Military Theory and Strategy at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and he’s a West Point graduate who retired as a colonel after 28 years of active services in the United States Army. And as you’ll learn, the Battle of Saratoga was but one single turning point in a series of contingent moments that reshaped the course of the war.
Interview published: March 25, 2022
Transcript created: July 6, 2022
Host: Jim Ambuske, Center for Digital History, Washington Library at Mount Vernon
Guest: Dr. Kevin Weddle, United States Army War College
Jim Ambuske: Hey everyone. I'm Jim Ambuske and this is Conversations at the Washington Library. The Battle of Saratoga in September and October of 1777 was a decisive turning point in the American War for Independence. The American victory over the British in northern New York put a stopper to London's dreams of a swift end to the war and convinced the French to openly declare their support for the American.
It was in the words of one American participant, "a compleat victory." Yet, if we focus on the battles alone, we lose sight of the entire campaign, the colorful personalities on both sides who developed strategy and the key role that geography played in shaping the choices that field commanders and civilian authorities made as their armies traversed forest lakes and rivers.
On today's show, Dr. Kevin Weddell joins me to discuss his new book, The Compleat Victory: Saratoga and the American Revolution, published by Oxford University Press in 2021. Weddle is a professor of military theory and strategy at the U S Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. And he's a West Point graduate who retired as a Colonel after 28 years of active service in the United States Army.
And as you'll learn, the Battle of Saratoga was but one single turning point in a series of contingent moments that reshaped the course of the war. So fall in formation and let's win a complete victory at Saratoga with Dr. Kevin Weddell.
Saratoga is one of those pivotal battles in the American revolution. It's kind of one of those events that's fixed in our minds is a major turning point, which it is for ways we'll talk about I'm sure. And your book, The Compleat Victory, happens to be in one of my favorite series from Oxford University Press “Pivotal Moments in American History.”
This series that looks at contingent moments in which there is a turning point, a decisive turning point in the way that history plays out. But Saratoga often sort of gets that mentioned in the survey lecture at universities or in conversations as the Americans win this battle against the British, where they successfully prosecute this campaign against the British.
It convinces the French to enter the war in 1778 with the Treaty of Alliance. But, I would imagine that we don't often take the time to look at the Saratoga campaign in its kind of totality, that it's an expansive campaign that lasts really, as I think, as you point out in your book has its origins in 1776, when both sides are trying to figure out what they're going to do about the northern border lands, how Canada fits into this equation, the centrality of Indian allies to both their respective positions.
Geography as it does with any military campaign plays such a huge role. Kevin, I was wondering if you might sketch for our audience, a kind of mental map of the northern borderlands of the American revolution in this fordable moment, as a way into the campaign and Gates versus Burgoyne and all the major players we'll be talking about today.
Kevin Weddle: That's a great way to start Jim, because the terrain and the geography is probably some of the most beautiful and forbidding terrain in the Eastern part of North America. You know, you've got these beautiful lakes and rivers and creeks and mountains and hills and deep ravines and dense forest cut by roads that really at the time were a little more than glorified, you know, cart paths.
So you've got, of course, the St. Lawrence river up in Canada, and then, south of that, you've got lake Champlain leading down almost like a dagger into New York. Uh, and then further south, of course, that will transition into the Hudson River Valley. And then in the Western part of New York, you've got, of course, the Mohawk River valley that flows down to the Hudson River near Albany.
So that's the area that we're talking about, hundreds and hundreds of square miles, with vary wilderness terrain, that's very unlike that kind of terrain that you would find in Europe. And so Burgoyne’s army, which consisted mainly of British regulars and many different types of soldiers, but primarily British regulars and German mercenary, regular soldiers.
Um, it's a, it's a bit of a shock because it's not something that they're, uh, they're used to. The distances are all also breaks when you think about this campaign, uh, the distances play in many different ways. If you're just looking at it from a very large perspective, of course, the distance between London and North America, New York, particularly, and back, 3000 miles.
And so that can take a long, long time to get messages back and forth. In fact, up to three months to get a message from London to New York and then get a reply back. So it can take up to three months. That's a big deal when you're trying to coordinate a campaign from, where many of your decision makers are sitting there in London, and other decision-making makers are sitting there in New York and Quebec.
And then the distances, as you mentioned correctly, the distances within the campaign itself are very, very large. So if you're looking at, for instance, from the St Lawrence river to the Saratoga battlefields, it's almost 200 miles. It's 300 miles from the battlefields near Philadelphia, uh, to the battlefields of Saratoga.
Uh, it's 280 miles from Canada, Fort Stanwix. And when you're in a, an era where you can only exchange messages as fast as a man could on a horse, could travel. I mean, that's, that's going to play into this campaign as well. So all this unforgiving terrain is going to add many degrees of difficulty to what was already very complex plans.
So things like movements, logistics, weather, obstacles, all those things are going to play in. And that particular summer that the campaign played out in, primarily, those five months of the campaign from June through October 1777 was a particularly wet summer. And so that's going to have an impact on how this campaign is fought and how the soldiers will deal with all these other different things.
So that the terrain, the weather, uh, the flora and fauna, I mean, you read, you read accounts, especially by the, uh, the European soldiers of these swarms of biting insects and rattlesnakes and things like that. It was, it was quite an experience for them. And of course, it's affecting the American soldiers as well, but, but it's all those things are going to play into how this campaign will proceed.
IJim Ambuske: It sounds like a hellish nightmare in both in our conversation here and in the book. Definitely the mosquitoes, one of the things that I was paying close attention to just, you know, account after account of having to deal with this. I think because Burgoyne, or one of his, uh, lieutenants at some point mentioned that every person in the army, his face was just almost pockmarked with mosquito bites.
And of course there are rattlesnakes they've got to deal with, on top of the human elements, but both sides are very interested in this space. And you know, if we're thinking about it, right, Philadelphia seems like a more obvious target, which it is. General Howe, William Howe was very interested in taking Philadelphia, New York City, Charleston are obvious targets, uh, in places that both sides do they want to take or hold.
But, uh, almost immediately when the war begins, there is an invasion of Canada from the American side, that General Sir Guy Carleton, who is in command up there has to defend against, why is it that the both sides are willing to risk running through as difficult terrain, these difficult environmental conditions in the months leading up to what becomes the Saratoga campaign?
Kevin Weddle: Right. When the Americans attempt to seize Quebec and seize that part of British Canada for the cause, they want to get the French Canadians to join the Americans against the British, uh, in rebellion. So they think that those would be natural allies for them. And so they want to seize Canada from the British side.
They're remembering back to the French and Indian War. They want to use that traditional invasion route to and from Canada that runs from the St. Lawrence River down Lake Champlain, actually up Lake Champlain, this is Lake Champlain up north. Um, but, but basically south on Lake Champlain into the Hudson River Valley and the British, the British have this notion in their heads that they think that if they conduct that kind of an operation and seize control of the Hudson River Valley, that they will split off the more rebellious New England colonies, ex-colonies away from what they assume are the less rebellious, Middle and Southern colonies. And by doing that, they can divide and conquer the American rebels and they get that in their mind early on.
They try it in 1776, Uh, Carleton is turned back after the battle of Valcour Island on Lake Champlain. Uh, he's turned back with the winter coming on and he's forced to return back to Canada in early November of 1776. But they have it in their mind that they want to do this again, that this is the way to go. When Burgoyne presents his plan to, uh, the King and Lord George Germain in London in late 1776, early 1777, where he's basically calling for a repeat of that attempt.
Uh, the 1776 attempt, only with, uh, some more moving parts, a larger army. When he presents that plan, they fall in love with it and they really like it. And they're going to go forward with that plan, but as I'm sure we'll get to later, it's going to lead to some other problems.
Jim Ambuske: It doesn't go as well as they, they might hope.
Kevin Weddle: No, no.
Jim Ambuske: You had raised the issue of the communication difficulties. It's a little easier, for obvious reasons, in North America, in part because the distances are smaller, but formulating a strategy over three thousand miles of ocean. And then having to contend with the terrain we've talked about is of particular difficulty for the British.
Who's actually formulating this strategy? How are politicians in London, like Lord George Germain, formulating strategy in concert with the commanders on the ground and how well does that go?
Kevin Weddle: Yeah, that's one of the things I think that sets my book apart a little bit from other books on Saratoga. I really do a deep dive into the strategy, especially the British strategy for 1777.
And there are really four key players when it comes to the formulating the strategy for 1777, the King, King George the Third, was intimately involved in working up the strategy, approving it, approving some personnel decisions. So he, he was a big player. Uh, then you also had Lord George Germain, which we've mentioned briefly.
Lord George Germain was the, uh, secretary of state for the colonies, cabinet member, key cabinet member, and one of his major responsibilities was managing the war in North America. Those were the two key politicians and call the king a politician. And then the military leaders, of course you had Burgoyne, a Lieutenant General, John Burgoyne, who was Carleton's second in command during the, the aborted 1776 invasion south on Lake Champlain.
So he had returned home to London and he presents his plan, or this very ambitious strategy, which I'll get into in a second. Those three decision makers, those three senior leaders are sitting there in London in late 1776, early 1777, and then the Commander in Chief in North America General Sir William Howe is sitting in his headquarters in New York.
So they are 3000 miles away. So you have the Commander in Chief sitting there in New York and these other senior leaders sitting there in London trying to come up with this strategy. So it's hard to coordinate a strategy when, again, a message and its response could take three months to get back and forth, but that's what they're going to try to do here in early 1777.
So, Burgoyne presents his plan. His plan is very ambitious. It's very complex. It's going to call for the main army in Canada to go south on Lake Champlain, seize Fort Ticonderoga, continue south gaining strength and support from loyalists as they go and moving all the way down to, uh, Albany.
Another column, a smaller column, this is a supporting column, would go down the St. Lawrence River to, uh, Lake Ontario, down to Oswego, New York and then across country to the Mohawk River, and then following the Mohawk River Valley all the way down to Albany. Their mission was to basically divert attention away from the main body, uh, to make sure that it could get to Albany, but that column would also meet with the main body at Albany. And then, uh, Howe’s main army in New York would come up the Hudson River.
And all of the, this three columns, would ultimately come together in Albany and then they would conduct some sort of future offensive operations ill-defined at the time. So the King loved it, Germain loved it, they really thought it was a war winner. At the same time, Howe, who remember, I mean, he has chased Washington across New Jersey and across the Delaware river. He's had to deal with, uh, Washington striking back at Trenton and Princeton in late 1776, early 1777. So he proposes his own plan. His plan calls for seizing, it goes through several iterations, but his final plan calls for seizing Philadelphia, the quasi-American capital.
That's at least where the Congress is sitting, of course, seize Philadelphia. He assumes that Washington and his main army is going to have to defend Philadelphia. That's what he would do, probably. So he, assumes that Washington would do the same thing, and then in that way, he can get Washington where he wants him, destroy Washington's main army and therefore, end the rebellion. Because by this time, Howe has, Howe has pretty much figured out that the center of gravity of the American Revolution is Washington and his army.
In that respect, I think Howe is correct. I think he is, he has made the correct strategic assessment of, of where this revolution was going. So that's his plan. So it's up to Germain to take those two plans and either pick one and go with it, or somehow coordinate these two plans. Unfortunately, for the British, that doesn't happen.
What ends up happening is a, a muddled, uncoordinated sort of dual strategy where Germain says, okay, Burgoyne your plan is approved. Uh, Howe your plan is approved, too. But, as soon as you finish that Philadelphia operation, I want you to go help Burgoyne, which, because those messages going back and forth, I have this detailed appendix in the book where I try to follow all these orders and letters going back, back and forth across the ocean, where you can sort of follow the breadcrumbs as to, you can sort of watch the strategy falling apart.
So Howe, for example, it gets a message saying, oh, your plan is approved you can go to Philadelphia. So, okay, so he's on his way to Philadelphia, on his way there, he gets the word that, okay, once you've finished Philadelphia, you need to go help Burgoyne. And you know, he's right in the middle of the Philadelphia campaign.
In fact, he hasn't even arrived yet cause he's going by sea. Clearly the folks in London really don't understand those distances we talked about. They don't understand the reality of campaigning in America and who knows how long the Philadelphia campaigns gonna take. Howe understands that and he gets this message to say, you know, once you're done, go help Burgoyne.
And he's like, I'm not gonna be able to Burgoyne. You gotta be kidding me. It ends up being this very uncoordinated sort of dual strategy. And as it turns out, neither one of them are going to work. When you look at what happens in the Saratoga campaign, which as we all know, the Saratoga campaign is going to culminate in those final two battles of Saratoga in September and early October of 1777.
The seeds for that British disaster are sowed in London, in early 1777, everything that comes out of this campaign is going to happen mainly because of this muddle uncoordinated strategy.
Jim Ambuske: One of the things I really liked about your book, is you really show how, in many real respects, either these gentlemen Germain, Burgoyne, Howe, whatnot, Carleton, either are not listening to each other or are not paying attention, or they're making assumptions that when for instance Burgoyne knows that a letter has been sent to Howe there's the implication that Howe should then link up with Burgoyne along the Hudson River, but not really an explicit order to do so. And as you say, a lot of the seeds for that failure are sowed in London. I want us to talk a little bit about Lord George Germain, because he's always been a fascinating figure to me.
And I didn't know as much about him as I would've liked to, even though I've read other things about him before, but have always known him as in the context of the secretary of the colonies and as at the head of the war, but he actually has extensive military background itself. Which I think has not often been explored in great detail when we're thinking about these things, but in your book, you suggest that his, uh, shall we say, lack of, uh, honorable reputation in that head, in his service, on the European continent during the Seven Years War creates a lot of mistrust between Germain and his military subordinates in ways that caused them to question his soundness, but also creates frustration on his part because he wants to be the guy in charge, but he's always got the Battle of Minden hanging over his head.
Kevin Weddle: Right. Right, he's a fascinating character. I agree. I think a new biography of him would be really useful.
But yes, he has extensive military experience. He's a former General Officer. Uh, he served with great distinction up to Minden in the Seven Years War after Minden, when he's accused of disobeying orders and almost cowardice, he, of course his reputation goes down the tubes and he's later rehabilitated because he is a very capable guy.
I mean, he's very, very smart. He's got incredible energy. One of these guys you probably wouldn't want to work for, because he's constantly in the office. He's constantly working, this dynamo kind of thing, but his problems with his relationship with a lot of these senior officers who will serve in the Saratoga campaign is not only his bad reputation that he got from the Seven Years War, but also he's very, very abrupt. He's very brusque. He does not, you know, does not dole out praise. Uh, he's um, very, very, very, very demanding. And so he really rubs a lot of these senior officers the wrong way. A perfect example of that is his relationship with General Sir Guy Carleton. Carleton does really a brilliant job defending Canada from the American invasion in late 1776, and then into 1777, he does a great job with very, very few resources. And you know, when word gets back to Germain describing what Carleton did, all he can do is complain. Well, you didn't do enough. And so Carleton sitting there in Quebec getting these messages from Germain saying, why don't you do this, that, and the other thing Carleton's going, Jesus, come on.
I just, I saved Canada for you. And all you can do is nitpick. I talk a little bit about it in the book, but they start exchanging these, these, I was about to say emails, they start exchanging these, these letters back and forth that are just, you know, you read them today and you go, oh my God, I can't believe this.
This is a senior officer sending that kind of a note to his, you know, civilian superior, but really nasty, you know, letters flying back and forth. So their relationship just collapses and he has a similar relationship with Howe. Their relationship will deteriorate after a while. He gets along pretty well with Burgoyne until toward the end of the campaign, when Burgoyne starts blaming a lot of what happens to him on Germain.
And he has a really hard time whenever he has to testify or speak in Parliament, because he is pretty much despised, uh, in Parliament, especially of course by the Whig opposition. So, so, Germain has sort of a tough, tough, time. The king really likes him because Germain is loyal. One of the things about King George, very, very loyal guy because Germaine is very loyal back to the King.
He's probably going to keep Germain on longer than he, than the King probably should have. That's going to be a problem despite his, his obvious talents, his relationship with the senior officers is going to be very toxic after a while.
Jim Ambuske: How have other historians looked at this question of Saratoga campaign and its significance beyond simply of course, that for the American side, it leads to the French entry into the war.
What are other historians said about this conflict?
Kevin Weddle: You know, there's been some really great books on Saratoga, but they tended to focus on the final two bouts. In some ways, that makes sense, I mean, there, that's the sort of the sexy part of the campaign, those two big battles at the end. I talk about those two big battles too, but, but, when you look at the campaign and it's entirety, again, about five months, many, many moving parts.
There's 12 battles and engagements that take place. During this campaign, there are sieges, there are river crossings, there are all sorts of very complex military operations taking place, not to mention even the things that are happening in the rest of North America that will have a huge impact on what happens in Saratoga, for instance, the Philadelphia campaign.
And so I try to look at the campaign in its entirety, and so I spent a lot of time talking about Fort Stanwix and the Battle of Oriskany. And as an example, frankly, most historians talk about Saratoga; they'll cover that in a couple of pages and move on.
Uh, I think they were all very, very important, so all of these are all of these are, all of these moving parts, I think you have to try to make sense of the entire campaign to get a real feel for why it was so important. And then of course the impact at the end, there's multiple impacts. It wasn't just the treaty and the formal Alliance with France.
Jim Ambuske: I want to ask then about your own service as an officer in the United States Army. And you've done a couple of military deployments and you teach now at the Army War College. Can you tell us a little bit about how your own service helped you have a more holistic sense of the Saratoga campaign from, you know, that big 30,000 foot picture to, as you described in the book, trying to find at least from the British, trying to find enough carts so that they can carry everything down, Lake Champagne and carry up lake Champlain. Excuse. I had to get used to that. I had forgotten that, which would..
Kevin Weddle: Took me a long time to get used to it.
Jim Ambuske: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. But how has, how has your own service informed your thinking about this as you evaluated what both side are doing?
Kevin Weddle: At first, I would say, you don't have to have military experience to be a military historian.
And I mean, all we have to do is look at people like, you know, Rick Atkinson and Bruce Catton and Jim McPherson and David Hackett Fisher and Victor Davis Hanson and Craig Simons. I mean, I could go on and on and on, brilliant military historians who have had no military experience. You know, I served almost 29 years on active duty, you know, Battalion Command.
I was Brigade Command Select. I served at the Pentagon, you know, high positions, low position. You know, one of the things I think is helpful though, to have some military experiences. I certainly know what it's like to be tired, wet, hungry, you know, with a big pack on your back and tromping through the forest.
I certainly know how that goes. I lived, Clausewitz's famous statement about war that everything in war is simple, but even the simplest thing is very, very difficult in war. I certainly live that and when you're talking about logistics, when a lot of people think logistics, they think supplies and stuff, but as you mentioned properly, you know, logistics is a lot more than just supplies and stuff.
It's transporting it. It's getting it to where it needs to be. It's maintenance, it's, uh, fuel in this case, you know, fuel for an 18th century army is fodder for your animals. You have to make sure you have that, not just feeding your soldiers, but your animals as well. Uh, and all those different things play into that.
And I think the other thing that's helped me is leading staff rides and battlefield tours. I've led probably hundreds and hundreds of staff rides and battlefield tours to places like Gettysburg and Antietam and Normandy, Gallipoli, Sicily, Waterloo, all sorts of places in Europe and the United States.
So that in itself, I think is, uh, has been helpful. You know, I was a combat engineer for my career and combat engineers have to understand terrain we're the guys that a commander will turn to and say, you got to pick the right place for us to set up our defensive positions or whatever. Uh, you have to understand terrain.
And so I think that's helped me in the book trying to describe terrain and describe defensive positions or fortifications or whatever. So I think that sort of thing has helped inform my, uh, my research.
Jim Ambuske: Well, let's turn to the terrain and the fortifications. I do want to get to the American side of the equation here in just a moment, but places like Crown Point, places like Fort Ticonderoga, and the surrounding hills are critical to this campaign and the objectives that it particularly Burgoyne wants to take and the Americans have to defend.
And we started our conversation with the more 30,000 foot view of the geography, but let's zoom in now for a second and look at these key places. What is at stake? What the Americans have to defend, what the British have to take what's going on in those two key places.
Kevin Weddle: Well, a lot of these key fortifications, key defensive positions were developed during the French and Indian war.
And in some cases, actually, even before that, because, even dating back to Champlain's time, they had recognized the importance of that Lake Champlain, Hudson River corridor, and then also the Mohawk River corridor as well as being really key. So in the French and Indian war, the French and the British had constructed fortifications at key points
By the time of the American revolution, those became important again. The key fortifications really were, were Fort Ticonderoga because that guarded the Lake Champlain, Lake George connection there right down into the Hudson River Valley, that was critical, so Fort Ticonderoga protected that gateway to the rest of North America.
And Fort Stanwix guarded the approaches to the Mohawk River Valley. So those were the two big ones. And then of course, south of Ticonderoga, there's a series of other fortifications. Most of them in very poor repair, uh, Fort Edward, Fort Miller, uh, Fort George, little more than some rotten palisades. Fort Stanwix was a little bit more substantial and the Americans had spent a lot of time and effort in the months before this campaign in repairing it and getting it back up to speed. So by the time the British arrived, Fort Stanwix is in fairly decent shape. So both of, you know, the Americans will work very hard to try to, uh, prepare these fortifications for invasion that they pretty much expect is going to happen sometime in 1777, after what had happened in 1776.
So the Americans are working hard, they do a really good job at Stanwix. Uh, they do a less good job at Ticonderoga, uh, mainly because of the leadership there, there's major problems with the American command and control of the Northern army, uh, really there's two major American armies.
There there's some smaller ones scattered about, but the two major American armies are the one under Washington in New Jersey, Pennsylvania area. And then up in the north of Albany, there's the Northern department, the other major American army is up there.
In the, in the spring and early summer of 1777, the Americans have a, a, major command and control issue, uh, with the Northern department. Uh, General Schuyler was in command up there. He basically leaves his command, goes to Philadelphia, he's trying to restore his reputation that had been tarnished during the 1776 campaign. He basically leaves his command without permission and without anybody to take over General Gates, Horacio Gates, has been sent up there to take command of Ticonderoga, Fort Ticonderoga, but instead he shows up at Albany, Schuyler's gone and he goes, well, I'm going to take command.
You know, who is really in command of the Northern department. And with all of that, those political issues kind of floating about Ticonderoga is not given the sort of tender, loving care that a senior commanders should be giving it during that time. So Ticonderoga is not ready to go when Burgoyne gets there.
Jim Ambuske: I almost had to laugh, or I guess not laugh would be the right emotion. But as uh, I was reading up to the eventual fall Ticonderoga and the American officers at the Fort are repeatedly riding back to Albany for some senior commander to, you know, Gates or whatnot to please come up and take up position here because we've, uh, we need some senior leadership.
If we're going to be able to effectively coordinate our defenses. I mean, to us, our eyes, it looks very petty as sort of infighting amongst American commanders who are going back to Philadelphia and Gates in particular. I wonder if you would talk about Gate's and his personality and his, both his dissatisfaction with what's going on and what is called the Northern department to this Northern army and his relationship with Washington, how he feels that he's not being adequately supplied and, and he's, uh, in a sense being set up for failure.
And he, he goes to Philadelphia to state his case.
Kevin Weddle: It's interesting because all of these three key American commanders, so George Washington the commander in chief, Schuyler the commander of the Northern department, and then Horatio Gates the want to be commander of the Northern department, all got along really well early on in the war, Washington and Schuyler of course, are Americans. American, born and raised, Gates is a former British officer who serves in, in America during the French and Indian War and then marries an American girl, becomes an American. And when the Revolution takes place, he jumps right in and volunteers his skills. He serves very well early in the war, but he and Washington start having some conflicts.
And after a while, Gates begins to think that he is a lot more talented than Washington is and he's, uh, he starts lobbying for independent command. Now in the 1776 campaign, he commands at Fort Ticonderoga does a good job up there. Benedict Arnold serves under him in that, in that campaign, they get along great. And he does a nice job. So he thinks that, you know, then he deserves a senior command.
When Congress sends him up to take command of Ticonderoga in the spring of 1777, and Schuyler is not there at Albany. He takes it upon himself to take command of the entire department because he thinks just commanding at Ticonderoga is beneath him by this point. When he's in sort of nominal command of the Northern department, he's sending messages back and forth to Washington and doesn't think, he doesn't think, that Washington is supporting him properly.
Washington, I think correctly, is doing everything he possibly can to help Gates. Uh, it's important to remember, of course, that Washington is commander in chief of the entire American military establishment, not just his army. I spent a lot of time in the book talking about Washington's central role in the Saratoga campaign.
I think that's one of the things that also differentiates my book and I compare and contrast his role as commander in chief, without Howe as commander in chief, in this very, very different, how they approach those two positions. By the time we get to the spring of 1777, the relationship between Gates and Schuyler is fraying.
And the relationship between Gates and Washington is fraying, and that's just going to get worse and worse and worse. Now, with this muddled American command and control in the Northern army, Washington, this is one area that I do criticize Washington for, he doesn't really step in and resolve the problem, you know, who is really in command in the Northern department.
And neither does Congress. Congress finally, will they finally resolve it and say, note, Schuyler you're in command in the Northern part. Gates, you can either command a Ticonderoga or we'll find something else for you to do. And that's when Gates, uh, in a hough, you know, rushes off to Philadelphia and basically yells at Congress for, uh, an interesting chapter in Gates’ is a history, I think, troubled history, but Gates of course will ultimately end up being the victor of Saratoga in the end.
Jim Ambuske: One of the concepts you introduced early on in the book that carries through all the way through is uh, I believe it comes from Field Marshal Montgomery, the British Commander in the Second World War. This idea of grip.
Could you tell us what you mean by grip and how you think it applies or does not apply to some of the personalities here? We've been talking about.
Kevin Weddle: The course I teach here at the Army War College is about military strategy. And so I, I have my students do a World War II case study looking at how Allies, how the Allies formulated strategy in the European theater.
So as part of that, I was doing some reading on, on Montgomery and, you know, I thought I was pretty well-read on the subject, but I really never encountered his idea of grip. And this was a Bernard Montgomery, Monty, uh, notion of grip. When it comes to leadership, he loved commanders with grip and what, what he meant was he wanted his subordinate commanders to understand all the aspects of their unit, where it was exactly, understanding the logistical situation, you know, how many rounds of ammunition they had on hand, how many tons of supplies, how many gallons of fuel, you know, all these sort of nitty gritty kind of things. He wanted his commanders to have a good handle on, and a commander who had a handle on that sort of thing had gripped so Monty really like that.
So it's sort of a tactical kind of, uh, administrative sort of thing. Uh, now to me, as I read that, I thought, well, really that's what every commander should have. You know, every commander should know those things about his unit. So I thought, well, you know, what if I took Monty's notion of grip and sort of expanded it to look at some more intangible things, uh, that a commander should have. Closer to what Clausewitz the great Prussian military theorist called genius.
And that would be a commander who, who is able to function without having complete information, a commander who can make decisions based on his judgment and his experience, and a commander who's able to sort of envision how a campaign will unfold. A commander who can make a battlefield decision or an operational decision or a strategic decision based on, again, limited information.
But on that commander's experience and intuition. My notion of grip can be applied at the tactical level, the operational level and the strategic level. So, I try not to make a huge deal out of it but as the campaign played out, I tried to look at how these different commanders dealt with some of these, these situations.
And the conclusion I came to was really at the colonel level on down, both sides were blessed with really good commanders I think You know, commanders who led from the front, who took care of their troops, who were personally brave, who made sure that their troops were well taken care of and ready to go when it came time to, uh, to fight.
But at the senior levels, the more senior levels, I found that really the Americans had a better grip when it came to how they conducted their military operations. And I, you know, I can name several. I, you know, certainly Howe versus Washington, I think Washington certainly had a better grip on the strategic situation than Howe did.
And certainly I think at the more operational or military strategic level, I think Gates had a better grip on the situation than did Burgoyne, certainly. So I think there's really two major threads that work themselves through the book. Uh, one is the strategy that we already talked about. The others' leadership, uh, and grip was a part of that leadership.
Jim Ambuske: Yeah, it was really fascinating and, uh, one of the things, the observations you make is a part of the problem on the British perspective is they can't see past Fort Ticonderoga. They can't see past, once they make that junction with how and they, and they bisect the colonies and what comes next.
It seems like they just expect that the war is going to end, that the loyalists and the south will come out in droves, or they'll come out of the woodwork and that they'll slowly constrain and defeat the more rebellious New England colonies. And that's the ballgame, but it doesn't turn out that way.
Kevin Weddle: No, Jim, you make a really good point because part of the problem with their strategy is they made assumptions and there's nothing wrong with making assumptions.
I mean, today, even today, when we do military planning, making assumptions is part of it, because you don't have perfect information. Nobody does, right? And when they, when they made these plans, they didn't have perfect information. But when you make a plan based on critical assumptions and the two, I think most critical assumptions Burgoyne was that loyalists would come out in droves to support him as he moved into New York.
And number two, that he would get this huge number of Native Americans that would actively support his operation. Neither one of those assumptions turned out to be correct. So when you make an assumption and your plan is based on those assumptions, you have to at least think, through, okay what if that assumption doesn't pan out?
How am I going to mitigate that problem if that assumption doesn't turn out to be true? And none of these senior commanders on the British side did that.
Jim Ambuske: Why is Saratoga as you, as the title of your book suggests, why is it a complete victory or the complete victory as it comes from the primary source you took it from?
Kevin Weddle: One thing about the title, you know, just about every Saratoga book you'll ever run into has some sort of turning point or Saratoga, the tipping point or tipping point, the Saratoga or Saratoga, or turning point, you know, some sort of turning point tipping point, whatever. I wanted to avoid that.
And so when I came across this wonderful letter written by General Nixon, who was there, at, fighting at Saratoga and he writes his wife, two days, one day after the surrender of Burgoyne’s army, you know, he says it was the complete victory. Oh my God. That's, that's a perfect title. Luckily, my, my editor agreed. When you look at the impact of Saratoga, there's really kind of a short-term impact and the long-term impact.
The short-term impact, of course, there's only two major British armies in North America. They've just lost one, lost one completely. They've just lost 6,000 men. You know today, you know, that would be considered a brigade size unit, not super big, but back then, that was a big army. That was a good size army. So you lose 6,000 men.
That's a huge deal for the British. They only had two armies. They've just lost morale, of course, morale at American side, its sores and the British side, of course, it sinks. For the British, not only is foreign intervention possible, it's now probable, uh, opposition in parliament is emboldened, the Whig opposition and anti-opposition in parliament.
Now the British have to plan for homeland defense, which they really didn't have to worry about before. Now they do. Uh, now they have to look at potentially a wider war and they have, now, this is it's still possible to achieve a political settlement, uh, with the Americans, maybe not now. Uh, so that's going to be a problem they're going to have to deal with as well.
Long-term implications are the obvious ones it's going to jumpstart the American diplomatic effort in Paris, which will ultimately lead just weeks after Saratoga, will lead to the signing on the 6th of February of 1778, the Treaty of Amity and Commerce and the Treaty of Alliance with France. Now, Francis overtly on our side.
will lead to, of course us having the benefit of French sea power and ultimately of course their land power as well. Although it's going to take some time and, you know, working with the French is going to be difficult there, they turn out to be difficult allies. Like most alliances are going to have some teething problems and issues, and that's going to be the same with us in France.
But of course, ultimately we know in 1781, the final American victory will be achieved with French sea power and a French army. It's going to lead to a complete upheaval of British military strategy. They'll ultimately embark on the so-called Southern Strategy late in 1778, all because of what happens in Saratoga.
So Saratoga has multiple far reaching impacts beyond just the French Alliance.
Jim Ambuske: More Conversations after the break.
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And now back to the 18th century, Kevin, what book are you reading right now?
Kevin Weddle: Uh, something a little bit different. I'm reading Operation Pedestal by Max Hastings. Uh, it's a book about the British, uh, naval attempt to relieve basically the air siege of Malta in 1942.
Jim Ambuske: Who's the author you most admire?
Kevin Weddle: Oh boy. There's so many Jim. I can't pick one, but I have several that I really, really enjoy. Uh, David Hackett Fisher is one of them. My PhD mentor at Princeton, Jim McPherson. I read anything Jim writes. Andrew Roberts, is a, is a good friend and a great author. Love his, uh, Churchill book.
Um, and just getting into the George the Third and that's outstanding. I am a huge Winston Churchill fan. Not just of the man, but of his writings as well, I’m rereading his River War right now, too. So, uh, I've got lots. There's really no why I can't pick just one.
Jim Ambuske: I always liked that question because nobody could ever just pick just one it's really hard.
Kevin Weddle: Impossible.
Jim Ambuske: What is the most exciting document you've ever found in your research?
Kevin Weddle: Um, I guess if we're looking at the Saratoga campaign because of my interest in strategy, it was the letter that General Howe wrote to General Carleton on the 5th of April 1777, uh, in which he says, um, hey, I know you guys are expecting me to come up the Hudson River to join whoever, because at that time he didn't know who was commanding the army from Canada.
I guess he probably assumed it was going to be Carleton, but he said to meet you at Albany. Well, I'm not going to be able to meet you at Albany cause I'm heading to Philadelphia, and you know, it's not as if, I mean, I didn't discover that letter. I mean, other historians have seen that letter.
I don’t think, I don't think historians have, have realized how important that letter is. I think that is a critical letter. It showed that Howe clearly was going to Philadelphia and that Burgoyne and Carleton, up in Canada, knew Howe was going into Philadelphia. And yet they embarked on that campaign anyway, uh, because they made that fatal assumption that well, yeah, but he'll get orders later on to join us at Albany.
Instead of trying to verify that that was the fact they just blindly continued on. And I think it also showed that Burgoyne, even though he had that letter and he continues on even after the battle of the disastrous Battle of Bennington, I think it showed that Burgoyne, just had this overconfidence and hubris that he was going to be able to pull it out anyway, no matter, even though things were going, going south on him.
Jim Ambuske: How do you hope people remember your work?
Kevin Weddle: Well, first and foremost, I mean, I hope they enjoy it, that's the main thing. I hope they enjoy it. I hope they don't think it's a slog. Um, I hope they think that the book makes sense out of a very complex campaign. I hope they, they enjoyed the, the personalities because I [00:47:00] think they're, you know, the, the personalities involved are as interesting as any you'll ever find, uh, in a historical event.
Yeah, obviously it'll be surpassed someday, but I, I hope down the roads, people will feel that it's, you know, really kind of the authoritative, most comprehensive account of Saratoga, at least to date.
Jim Ambuske: All good goals and I think you're well on your way to achieving those, certainly. Kevin, thank you very much.
This has been a fun book to read a fun conversation.
Kevin Weddle: Well, thanks, Jim. I really, really enjoyed it and thanks. Thanks, alot.
Jim Ambuske: Thanks for listening to Conversations, a production of the Center for Digital History at the Washington Library. I'm Jim Ambuske, your host and producer. For this episode, we received additional support from Mount Vernon's Media and Communications Department. Our music is “Witches Brew” by C.K. Martin. Now before we go, please do us a favor and rate and review Conversations on your favorite podcast app.
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Professor of Military Theory and Strategy, US Army War College
Kevin Weddle is Professor of Military Theory and Strategy and Elihu Root Chair of Military Studies at the US Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and served over 28 years on active duty. He served in a variety of command and staff positions in the United States and overseas including command of a combat engineer battalion and he is a veteran of Operations Desert Storm and Enduring Freedom. At the War College he was the director of the Advanced Strategic Art Program and served as the Deputy Dean of Academics. Dr. Weddle has led dozens of groups to battlefields in the United States and Europe including Gettysburg, Waterloo, Normandy, and many others. Colonel Weddle holds master’s degrees in history and civil engineering from the University of Minnesota and a Ph.D. in history from Princeton University. His first book, Lincoln’s Tragic Admiral: The Life of Samuel Francis Du Pont won the William E. Colby Award. His latest book The Compleat Victory: Saratoga and the American Revolution, a volume in the Oxford University Press Pivotal Moments in American History series, was published in February 2021 and has been described by reviewers as the best and most authoritative account of the campaign. In 2019 he served as the Garwood Visiting Professor and James Madison Program fellow at Princeton University and he has twice won the Army War College’s Excellence in Teaching award.