Revolutionary Strategy: The Hudson River

The Saratoga Campaign was a disaster for the British. It was such a resounding success for their American adversaries that it overshadowed the British occupation of Philadelphia in persuading France to enter the war on the American side. With the benefit of hindsight, one might wonder what brought a British Army to a remote stretch of woods north of Albany, where it would be forced to march into captivity. Well, simply put, the Saratoga Campaign may have been the closest the British came to a winning military strategy.

albanyIn the 1700s there was no highway system in the United States, and all-season roads were a rarity. The fastest and most efficient way to move people and goods was often by water. Commerce flowed up and down rivers, and ferries traversed the larger rivers to connect what road networks existed on either side. The British rightly considered the New England states to be the birthplace of the Revolution, and the theory was that if they could isolate New England from the rest of the rebellious former colonies, they might be able to concentrate their forces and stamp out the rebellion piecemeal. At the very least, establishing a cordon around New England might have forced George Washington into attacking to break the cordon. Given superior British discipline, firepower, and potentially numbers, such a battle might well have led to the destruction of Washington’s main force; in that event American capitulation would likely have been merely a matter of time.

Given those considerations, when viewing a map from across the Atlantic, the Lake Champlain-Lake George-Hudson River Corridor looked like an inviting invasion route. It had in fact historically been the quickest route for travel between Canada and New York. It seemed reasonable that an army of several thousand people should be able to attack southward down the corridor and link up at Albany with a force coming northward from New York. This would put in British hands the key ferries across the Hudson and open up communications between New York and Canada. New England would be isolated from the rest of the states, and George Washington would be between the proverbial rock and hard place.

Fortunately for the Americans, what looked easy from London was much harder in practice. The British could move supplies and troops by water, but they could not simply sail all the way to Albany. They had to fight their way overland to clear American troops from the river’s banks. The American’s however, pursued a Fabian strategy of falling back in the face of superior numbers, destroying bridges, felling trees across roads, and even inundating roadways as they went. They also proved adept at slipping around the main British force and attacking British lines of communication. Plagued by poor roads, too few wagons and draft animals, and rebel interdiction, Burgoyne found that every time he advanced a few miles, he had to pause for weeks to amass supplies. All the while, more and more American forces were massing between him and his objective of Albany.

Hudson emplacement

The Great Redoubt at the Saratoga Battlefield, overlooking the Hudson River.

In spite of all that, the British Hudson Campaign might still have succeeded, but the nail in the coffin for the British strategy was poor strategic management. Lord Germain, the British Secretary of State for America, was a notorious micromanager, attempting to dictate military strategy from across the Atlantic via letters that took weeks if not months to reach their recipients. In the case of overall strategy for 1777 however, Germain committed the cardinal strategic sin of not setting a unified strategy for the North American theater. He directed Burgoyne to reach Albany and then operate under command of General Howe, the British land force commander for North America, but Germain failed to direct Howe to attack up the Hudson to link up with Burgoyne. Howe pursued his own strategy of capturing Philadelphia, leaving only a defensive force, with restrictive guidance, in New York. This force, under Clinton, did attack up the Hudson, but was not powerful enough to get through to Albany and then fight through the forces opposing Burgoyne. So, ultimately, Burgoyne’s hopes of breaking through were dashed at Bemis Heights.

The British would never again come so close to restoring Crown rule in their erstwhile colonies.

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