David Gergen, editor-at-large of "US News & World Report," engages Richard Ketchum, author of "Saratoga, Turning Point of America's Revolutionary War."
DAVID GERGEN: Dick, you've written about Saratoga being the turning point in the Revolutionary War, but before we talk about it, set the scene for us.
RICHARD KETCHAM, "Saratoga:" Sure. The war in the-it began in 1775 with Lexington and Concord. And at the end of it the British were kicked out of Boston. They went to Nova Scotia. The following year in '76, they came back to New York, landed there, and pushed Washington and his army out of New York. And he retreated down through New Jersey and the Battles of Trenton and Princeton were fought, which Washington happily won. And that was pretty much the end of '76. In '77, the British had a plan, which they thought might very well end the war.
And the idea was that the British with a lot of Germans that they had hired for the occasion were to come down from Canada, along South on Lake Champlain, which is only a hop and a jump from Lake George and then on to the Hudson River into Albany, and the scheme being that this army would then link up with General Howe's army from New York and the New England colonies would be isolated and the rebellion would be over. And, of course, the British fleet had bottled up the coast line, and so that meant that New England really would be cut off.
DAVID GERGEN: You have George Washington and his troops then off to the South.
RICHARD KETCHUM: That's right. They'd be down in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, or wherever, and I think that it might very well work for the British.
DAVID GERGEN: Right. So General Burgoyne leads his group out of Canada.
RICHARD KETCHUM: General John Burgoyne, and what happened was he was heading south with-he had about 7,000 British and German troops plus some 500 American Indians, American loyalists, and Canadians with him. And for that time it was a big army, and defending against him, waiting for him to arrive, so to speak, were about 3,000 Americans under General Arthur Sinclair at Ft. Ticonderoga and Mount Independence right across the way.
Burgoyne was so successful in screening his army's movements that the Americans had no idea how many troops he had and so by the time he arrived at Ticonderoga, they were outnumbered two to one, and they were quickly surrounded.
DAVID GERGEN: The Americans were surrounded but lost Ticonderoga, a big defeat?
RICHARD KETCHUM: That's right.
DAVID GERGEN: So then he moved in for the crushing victory?
RICHARD KETCHUM: Then he chased the Americans south toward the Hudson, and he was-the Americans were simply undone by this, because Ticonderoga was the great frontier fort, you know. Anyway, the Americans were chased on toward the Hudson, and the only thing they had that they were able to do because they were both outnumbered and also under terrible harassment by Burgoyne's unions, the only thing they could do was to try to delay them, but they managed to do this so successfully that he was fatally delayed, and it just-that was what really turned the tide.
DAVID GERGEN: It's a series of small battles, in effect?
RICHARD KETCHUM: A series of small battles. There was one at Hubbardtown in Vermont, and subsequently there was a battle in Bennington, which was crucial to Burgoyne's failure, because he lost a fifth of his army to the American troops in Bennington.
DAVID GERGEN: Now we have a memory of Benedict Arnold as being the great traitor, but at this point in the war he emerged as a hero.
RICHARD KETCHUM: Oh, he did, indeed, because he was a very charismatic and extraordinary leader, I think, of men. He-I think Arnold's feats are really something to conjure with in this period of the revolution. And the men loved him. They were-he was a natural battlefield commander, and at Saratoga-there were two battles at Saratoga. In the first one Arnold was really responsible for positioning the American troops so that that battle was fought to a draw.
But the British were where they were when it started, and they had to break through the Americans. The second battle General Gates was then in charge of the American army, and he and Arnold didn't get along at all, and he told Arnold that he-you know, he didn't want him out there with the troops this time and Arnold was a guy who couldn't stand to sit still when the guns were going off, and so he disobeyed orders, and he ran right out under the front lines on a horse and said, come on, follow me, and boy, they really followed him. It was an extraordinary performance.
DAVID GERGEN: He was gravely injured in the process.
RICHARD KETCHUM: He was very, very seriously wounded, as he had been in the fight at Quebec in New Year's, but despite that, the Americans did win, and that was really the end. Burgoyne's luck had run out.
DAVID GERGEN: When Burgoyne surrendered at Saratoga, why was that the turning point in the American Revolution?
RICHARD KETCHUM: Well, what it meant was that the Americans had been trying very hard for months to get the French to come in on their side. Benjamin Franklin and Silas Dean and Arthur Lee were in Paris and had accomplished really nothing.
The French, I think, were probably inclined to do something, but until the Americans showed that they could win a good sized battle, they weren't about to do it, and they got the report. It was a marvelous thing when this courier from Boston rode in Benjamin Franklin's courtyard outside of Paris and said General Burgoyne and his entire army have surrendered. Well, as the courier said later, the effect was electrical.
DAVID GERGEN: And that's what brought the French in?
RICHARD KETCHUM: That brought the French in, and the French supplied money and guns and uniforms and food and everything else, plus the crucial thing was the French navy at the end of the war.
DAVID GERGEN: Just as we came to their rescue a couple of centuries later.
RICHARD KETCHUM: That's right. Yes.
DAVID GERGEN: Did this, in effect, because it then became a war of attrition with the French helping the Americans and the Americans ground them down through Washington's leadership, and the British gave up-was this, in effect, Britain's Vietnam?
RICHARD KETCHUM: Oh, indeed, it was. There's so many parallels it's almost frightening. The communications problem-the distance problem-the efforts of the British in both cases-not in both cases-the British in the Revolution and the Americans in the Vietnam War-to make all these decisions at home that were supposed to be executed in the field. And it was just too far away, too hazardous to do.
DAVID GERGEN: So even though the Americans lost more battles than they won, they were able to win a war of attrition.
RICHARD KETCHUM: Yes. And I think that was part of Washington's genius. It was-I think without Washington the Americans simply couldn't have won.
DAVID GERGEN: James McPherson was on this program earlier talking about why men fought in the Civil War.
RICHARD KETCHUM: Yes.
DAVID GERGEN: And reading the letters of that time he concluded they fought because they wanted to protect their comrades and they wanted to protect their honor; they didn't want to chicken out. You've read the letters from this period. Why did people fight in the American Revolution?
RICHARD KETCHUM: I feel very strongly that they were fighting for four things. One was freedom or liberty. One was for their family. One was for their country. And one was for their God. And they believed in all four of those things so sincerely that it comes across in every one of their letters and journals and diaries. I've never seen anything to equal it-an extraordinary thing.
And I think-it's my feeling that so many of us these days are reaching out, looking for the values that used to govern this country, you know, and worrying about them, and it is so wonderful to read these statements of faith on the part of these men. Extraordinary.
DAVID GERGEN: Family?
RICHARD KETCHUM: Family, God, country, and liberty.
DAVID GERGEN: It was a very meaningful concept.
RICHARD KETCHUM: Indeed it was. They took them all very seriously.
DAVID GERGEN: Richard Ketchum, thank you very much.
RICHARD KETCHUM: Thanks for having me.