Refighting the Battles

Joe Craig, Park Volunteer

In the wake of the September 11, 2001 atrocities, there was an understandable outpouring of appreciation for America’s military. Many tributes and “salutes” were planned and presented.

One organization planned to hold its tribute on the grounds of Saratoga Battlefield. A crusty (but loveable) interpretive ranger was detailed to attend the initial meeting verbally instructed to be helpful, but with the understanding that the National Park Service mission of preservation had to be upheld.

The organizers, while lovely people, had some ambitious plans for the event. Several obstacles quickly presented themselves: insufficient parking, lack of restrooms and water led the list. Worse, the organizers’ desired to have the Army bring in tanks. As tanks have been known to have an adverse impact on things like archeological sites, and newly paved tour roads; Saratoga National Historical Park’s management stayed true to its preservation mission and backed out of the event.

That the SARA Management held firm on this occasion does not mean that the site has always been protected from (ab)use by outside groups. Indeed, in the earliest days of the park, management allowed the military to utilize the Battlefield for maneuvers.

When under the aegis of New York State, the first superintendent of the Battlefield preserve, George Slingerland, envisioned the contemporary military refighting the battles on site to understand what happened in 1777, and draw positive lessons from the experience.

Admittedly, Slingerland’s vision did not include 18th century weaponry or transport but then, neither did the military. They did not intend to use Saratoga Battlefield as a laboratory to learn from the actions (and inactions) of the contending generals of 1777. The army wanted the site as a kind of military playground.

The first such event happened in the summer of 1936 when part of the 26 th United States Infantry­ some 350 men and officers­ came to camp on the Battlefield. The Saratogian reported on Friday 12 June:

“A Battalion of United States Regulars of the 26th Infantry at Plattsburg, will pitch its tents on the Saratoga Battlefield, and camp there…until the following Tuesday.”

They were to camp “…on a part of the same ground occupied by American forces at Bemis Heights during the Revolution. The center of the modern camp will be located on the famous Neilson Farm near the woods east of the Block House and Powder Magazine….”

A few days later, more information was forthcoming. The headline for the article in the Saratogian noted: “Regular Troops At Battlefield For Field Training Work Over Historic Revolutionary Grounds” . The troops were brought in by truck and set up a camp “in the woods east of the blockhouse”.

According to their commander, a Major Stroh, “the camp will give the men four or five days of field experience under conditions simulating war time. Problems in camp and field work will be given the units for solution, and some military problems will be presented for action for the entire battalion. The situation will be laid principally in the battlefield preservation. During the field movements the communications unit of the battalion will string telephone lines and communications will be established by short wave radio.”

Once camp was set up, there would be a lecture and instructions from officers “ who have been at the battlefield studying the situation”. The following morning individual units would “work out [field] problems” and in the afternoon the whole battalion would be at south end of the battlefield “where a problem will be solved”.

Friday night was to have a night maneuver, a “cross country movement from the south to the north end of the battlefield and wind up with a two-mile hike to Quaker Springs, returning by trucks to the camp”. After a rest period on Saturday morning, the afternoon would be spent in unspecified “work in the area near Freeman farm”. Sunday was a free day “ with the possibility of a baseball game between an army team and one from the vicinity ”.

Interestingly the article noted that “Monday will be occupied with a ‘defense’ of the west shore of the Hudson River, along a two mile front from Bemis Heights to Wilbur Basin” . This was, of course, a ninety-degree difference from the historical axes of advance and defense in 1777. Obviously, Slingerland’s idea of a recreation of the battles really was not on the army’s agenda.

The edition of the Saratogian for 15 June 1936 noted that the 350 men “rumbled into the Saratoga Battlefield in about 40 trucks”. The article also noted that the “communications unit will string telephone lines and communications will be established by short wave radio”. Not quite like the events in 1777, ne c’est pas?

On Tuesday, the troops broke camp and returned to Plattsburg none the worse for the experience, and arguably none the wiser about what had transpired on those grounds some 150+ years earlier.

As it turned out, other battalions of the 26th Infantry came to visit several weeks later as part of the “national encampment of the United Spanish American War Veterans” held that year in Saratoga Springs. At these maneuvers, some effort was made to explain the events of 1777. A “Lt. Lester Wheeler” was to “give the lectures to the troops to acquaint them with the history of the immediate area” .

The Saratogian (13 August 1936) noted “Many of the same tactical problems used by the 2nd Battalion [in June] will be worked and in addition several new maneuvers will be tried. One major new problem, a dawn attack, is tentatively scheduled for Thursday”. The 2nd Battalion would be on site 17- 22 August and replaced by the 3rd Battalion on the 26th. In the interim there was to be an “officers [sic] training camp”. The 3 rd Battalion arrived “accompanied by the complete regimental band which will participate in the program of the Spanish-American War Veteran’s [sic] convention visit to the Battlefield on Sept.1.”

The article then notes: “The wooded region directly east of the Blockhouse will be the camp site used by all encampments this summer. The whole encampment will be located within the American lines of 1777 on the famous Bemis Heights. Each of the succeeding encampments will consist of a larger number of men. About 400 will come with the 1st Battalion and nearly 500 men will be present Sept. 1.”

All told over 1200 men would have encamped on the grounds, they did not treat the area as “sacred ground”. Saratoga NHP alumnus Mike Twist (currently Yellowstone NP) related a conversation with a veteran of those maneuvers. According to vet the army dug entrenchments and tank traps on the Battlefield. Artifacts such as buttons and projectiles were unearthed and kept as souvenirs.

Private Aubrey B. Ackley of L Company found a 1745 British penny while participating on the maneuvers. His battalion commander, Major Albert L. Tuttle “obtained permission for Ackley to retain the coin as a souvenir of his duty at Saratoga” (3 September 1936 Auburn [NY] Citizen Advertiser).

The 26th Infantry left for their barracks in Plattsburgh after marching in a parade in Saratoga Springs honoring Spanish-American War veterans. Later, the National Guard would come a-calling.

On Friday, 17 November 1939, the Saratogian noted “The Saratoga Armory is to be one of the main concentration points for the 105th Infantry which will conduct field training at the Saratoga Battlefield Sunday” A “large fleet of trucks” was to haul out “kitchen, headquarters and communication equipment”. “All this equipment will be placed under a special Company L guard over night and moved to the battlefield Sunday morning in trucks, which will also transport the men.”

The sharp-eyed Gentle Reader will note that the date of the maneuvers was more than a year after the Battlefield had been added to the National Park system. It was also a bit more than two months that the Second Word War kicked off in Europe. Not surprisingly, the Battlefield’s use for maneuvers and drills would increase.

The Troy Record reported on Monday, 12 October 1942: “Gunfire Echoes Over Historic Saratoga Battlefield Once More”. Six companies of the 2nd Regiment, New York Guard engaged in a “sham battle’ “ If the battle had been real the fighting would have been severe because the two contending ’armies’ found themselves quickly engaged though the attacking ‘Blue’ army commenced maneuvers without knowing the position of the defending ‘Red’ army. The firing of blank ammunition from rifles, shotguns and machine guns lent realism to the field exercise”.

About the only facet of the maneuvers at all similar to the events of 1777 is the advance of the attacking “Blue Army” reminiscent to Burgoyne’s blind approach on 19 September. Besides different weaponry and the lack of lethal action, another difference was the direction of the attack: “ The ‘Blue’ army was instructed at the outset to locate and attack the ‘Red’ Army which had been directed to defend the territory north of the historic Block House to the Freeman farm.”

The sham battle apparently lasted about five hours and was viewed by a “large number of spectators gathered on the battlefield to witness the maneuvers”. Combat­ at least the make-believe sort­ can stir up some appetite “Sergt. Edgar L. LaForce of Company A was in charge of mess served on the picnic ground following maneuvers”

In 1943, more maneuvers and sham combat were planned, but the press reported there was to be a “tip of the helmet” to the events of 1777.

On 9 October 1943, the Saratogian noted “Surrender Day, Oct. 17, To Be Observed at Historic Saratoga Battlefield” . According to the article “the Second Regiment New York Guard will re-enact the battle in a modern way.”

“Capt. Warren A. Hamilton, superintendent of the Park, tells me the historic battle will be worked out with airplanes, tanks and modern uses of communication. One may well imagine how use of the modern equipment would have speeded up the battle fought in 1777.”

Did this mean that George Slingerland’s vision of contemporary armed forces re-fighting the Battles of Saratoga finally come to pass? Um, no.

An article in the Troy Record on 15 October 1943 about the maneuvers, shows that this was not to be a tribute to the events of 1777: “plans were completed for the joint maneuvers…to be held Sunday [17 October] on the Saratoga Battlefield…The operation…will simulate actual combat conditions with more than 2,000 troops expected to be in action. All elements of the armed services will participate, including planes of the Civil Air Patrol which will provide air cover for both the Red and Blue forces…Tanks and jeeps will also be in action…The military problem to be worked out involves the presumed seizure of an airfield by enemy parachute troops and saboteurs for the refueling of bombers engaged in attacks on area cities and industries. It will be the task of the troops in [the] command of Colonel [Lester C.] Higbee to eject them.”

“Concluding the operations, demonstrations of precision bombing and pick up and drop of messages by a plane in flight will be given by pilots and observers of the Troy Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol. Exhibitions of tank and jeep tactics are planned to be given by the army.”

Although Colonel Higbee, commander of the Second Regiment, noted “The date, Oct. 17, is of particular significance…as making the actual surrender of General Burgoyne to the American forces” the historical events had no part during the modern-day maneuvers.

The Amsterdam Daily Democrat and Recorder on 18 October 1943 gave a brief account of what did transpire during they termed the “blazing battle”:

“The Second Regiment of the New York Guard with a supporting platoon of tank-manning Military Police launched an attack early in the morning on ‘fifth columnists’ in the person of Albany Military Police and LaSalle cadets who we reattempting to refuel ‘enemy planes’ which landed at Saratoga after bombing eastern cities.”

“Fifteen planes from Schenectady, Troy and Albany Civil Air Patrol squadrons impersonated the ‘enemy’ planes, the objective of the attack. Their destruction was complete and ‘enemy forces’ were overwhelmed.”

The following October, the Second Regiment’s First Battalion returned for a smaller exercise as noted in the Troy Record (8 October 1944):

The Saratoga Battlefield, rich with memories of the Revolution’s epic clash, echoed with the sounds of warfare­ 1944 style yesterday as the First Battalion, New York Guard staged its annual maneuvers on that historic site. Troy, Cohoes and Hoosick Falls units which make up the battalion…went through company problems on the historic site stressing the correct approach to road blocks, scouting and patrolling, the use of compass and map work road discipline and proper procedure in writing messages.”

The World War came to its conclusion, but the maneuvers went on for a bit longer. In October 1946 the Post Star (Glens Falls, NY) noted:

“Both Glens Falls units of the New York Guard­ Company K and the Third Battalion Headquarters­ will participate in a field maneuver of the entire Second Infantry, consisting of about 900 troops at the Saratoga Battlefield tomorrow…The Third Battalion area will [be] on the east side of Route 4 from the Blockhouse to Victory Mills. Radio communication will be used from the battalion command post to the assault companies, I, K and L in the field. A machine gun Company will also be attached to the battalion…Woolen uniforms will be worn, with helmet liners. Thirty rounds of blank ammunition will be issued per man….”

This appears to have been the “last huzza” for such maneuvers, eventually being replaced by “staff rides” which have far, less impact on the Battlefield grounds. More importantly, the Battles of Saratoga, 1777, are studied, discussed, and dissected. While less exciting than sham battles staff rides are more in line with George Slingerland’s vision. And better for the preservation of Saratoga Battlefield.