An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson (7 page)

BOOK: An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson
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As an advocate of defensive warfare, Gates could not have hoped for more appropriate tactics from his opponent than Burgoyne’s ponderous advance into unknown territory. Gates used the time well. Concentrating his demoralized force—Wilkinson reckoned desertion had reduced its numbers to about thirteen hundred militia and twenty-eight hundred regulars—at Stillwater near where the Mohawk River flowed into the Hudson, Gates set about rebuilding its confidence.

Whatever his weakness in battle, Gates’s organizational skills were superb, and in six weeks of apparent inactivity he transformed the morale of his beaten army. Plentiful supplies of food and ammunition were sent from Albany, and in camp his men had time to recoup their strength. He managed his militia forces with skill, rarely insisting on strict discipline, and dispensing with the flogging that professional soldiers thought essential to discipline— “these Mortals,” he once declared, “must be led and not drove.” Shrewdly, he issued proclamations to remind any militia in New York and New England who still hung back that a British victory would allow the Indians accompanying Burgoyne’s army to seize their land and scalp their families.

Gates’s brand of generalship produced immediate results. From “a miserable state of despondency and terror, Gates’ arrival raised us as if by magic,” Captain Udney Hay of Vermont testified a month after the general took command. “We began to hope and then to act.” Under Schuyler, the citizen-soldiers had been ineffective; under Gates, the Vermont militia delayed a diversionary attack through the Mohawk Valley until Arnold arrived with reinforcements to drive the attackers back, and in late August the New Hampshire militia destroyed a powerful foraging party sent out to find provisions for Burgoyne’s army. From then on Burgoyne would be short of food.

Meanwhile, Gates’s army was reinforced by five Continental regiments sent north by Washington, including Daniel Morgan’s Pennsylvania sharpshooters and Henry Dearborn’s light infantry— two units ideal for harassing the enemy in the forested Hudson Valley. Eventually about twenty-one thousand troops, more than twelve thousand of them militia, would be acting either directly under Gates’s command or supporting him by their harassment of British supply lines. Crucially, too, in the south General William Howe abandoned the strategy of advancing up the Hudson to meet with Burgoyne at Albany and, instead of threatening Gates from the rear, chose to direct his forces toward Philadelphia.

During this period of recuperation at Stillwater, Wilkinson’s role as chief of staff grew increasingly important. In early September, the volcanic Benedict Arnold arrived at headquarters, fresh from his victory in the Mohawk Valley, and anxious to act equally aggressively against Burgoyne’s main army. Gates remained reluctant to move and, confronted by a fractious subordinate and increasingly impatient commanders, found excuses either to leave to inspect militia detachments or to retreat to an inner room in the log cabin that served as his headquarters, where he was rumored to drink heavily. His effervescent young chief of staff, universally known as Wilky, had to act as go-between, smoothing relations among the generals and colonels.

“He has great merit,” commented General St. Clair, one of Wilkinson’s admirers, “and what is in my opinion more valuable, he has a warm, honest heart.” His role was something between jester—“jocose, volatile, convivial,” by his own description—and counselor. He advised Gates on what orders were necessary, then shaped, marketed, and occasionally overrode them, and where necessary filled in the gaps in his general’s laid-back leadership. His charm made his behavior both forgivable and lovable.

“His conduct during that memorable campaign endeared him to me,” Matthew Lyon, then a young colonel in the Vermont militia, remembered. “He seemed to be the life and soul of the head quarters of the army: he, in the capacity of Adjutant-general, governed at head quarters. He was a standing correction of the follies and irregularities, occasioned by the weakness and intemperance of the commanding general.”

According to Wilkinson, he personally took out the reconnaissance party that discovered Burgoyne’s slow advance down the west bank of the Hudson River. In response to his chief of staff’s urging, Gates at last moved north to seize the commanding hills known as Bemis Heights that lay in Burgoyne’s path. Under the direction of the Polish engineer Tadeusz Kosciuszko, trenches were dug and artillery placed so that the southern summit became a strong-point. In mid- September the two armies finally met a few miles below Saratoga, where a great bend in the Hudson changes the river’s direction from east to south. Burgoyne established his camp two miles north of the heights. On September 19, the British general led three columns of troops around the flank of the hills to attack the American position.

The crux of the battle was the part played by the light infantry and the sharpshooters on the left wing of the American army under Arnold’s direct command, who were operating in the woodland that covered the ground at the foot of the hills. Threatened with being outflanked by the British right wing, they responded at about noon with an aggressive attack directed by Arnold. “Such an explosion of fire I had never any idea of before,” William Digby, a British lieutenant, wrote in his journal, “and the heavy artillery joining in like great peals of thunder, assisted by the echoes of the woods, almost deafened us with the noise.” Through the afternoon, Arnold continued to push more of the lightly armed men into the battle, in which they drove back the British right and center columns, but as they reached the open ground known as Freeman’s Farm, they were “in turn obliged to retire,” according to Gates’s official dispatch, by a fierce counterattack.

To discover what was happening, Wilkinson left headquarters and at the base of the hill found apparent confusion. Scattered among the trees, commanders such as Daniel Morgan of the rifle corps and Henry Dearborn had to shout and call—Morgan used a hunter’s turkey call—to keep in touch with their troops. But the forest was bushwhacker terrain, ideal for an individual soldier’s sharpshooting skills. As the British attack overstretched, Morgan became aware of a gap in their line and urgently demanded fresh troops to give him the concentrated numbers to break through— concerted musket fire at close quarters was always the endgame of eighteenth- century warfare.

Promising to bring reinforcements, Wilkinson hurried back to headquarters, but could not persuade the nervous Gates to release more troops. At last Arnold, who was listening in growing exasperation, shouted, “By God I will soon put an end to it,” and stormed off to lead the reserves himself. At Gates’s order the chief of staff ran after him and told him to return to the log cabin. It says much for Wilkinson’s personal touch that he persuaded the explosive Arnold to come back with him. As a compromise, five regiments were committed to the battle, but led by a sickly Ebenezer Learned, they blundered into the British center and suffered numerous casualties without being able to help the riflemen.

When darkness ended the battle, both sides claimed victory. The British had suffered heavier losses— more than five hundred dead and wounded from a force barely seven thousand strong— but they occupied the battleground and the brunt of American casualties had fallen on the elite rifle corps. Had Burgoyne’s men been able to mount an attack the next day, Wilkinson decided somberly, they might have secured victory. As it was, he noted with relief, “The enemy have quietly licked their sores this day.”

quiet about the scenes that took place in Gates’s cabin. Convinced that outright success had been thrown away, Arnold mutinously confronted his commander over the next few days, and his anger took on a sharper edge after he discovered that the official report omitted any mention of his part in the battle. Their quarrel illustrated why Gates valued Wilkinson so highly. Conscious no doubt of his inferiority to Arnold as a battle commander, Gates appeared unable to defend himself until rescued by his chief of staff. “I would have given my life for him,” Wilkinson once said of Gates, and he proved his devotion by the way he now neatly disposed of his former patron.

Arnold’s argument, he pointed out, centered on how best to exploit the deadly effects of the rifle corps and light infantry. Because they were specialist troops, Wilkinson suggested, they would be better placed under the direct control of the overall commander, General Horatio Gates. His general gratefully seized on this solution and, at their next meeting, informed Arnold that he had effectively been relieved of his command. Rubbing salt in the wound, Gates refused him permission to appeal to Congress.

This treatment produced such an explosion of anger from Arnold that Wilkinson declared he “behaved like a madman” and must have been drunk. “I was huffed,” Arnold protested, “in such a manner as must mortify a person with less pride than I.” But his former patron’s distress left Wilkinson unmoved. The real issue, he maintained, was about insubordination rather than the conduct of the battle; the conflict was between “official superiority on one side and an arrogant spirit and impatience of command on the other.”

History’s perspective shows clearly that Arnold and Gates needed each other’s talents, and a less partisan staff officer might have found a way for them to work together. Even at the time it hung in the air that Wilkinson had acted like a turncoat, abandoning an old friend instead of attempting to mediate. Richard Varick, formerly Arnold’s drinking companion but now his staff officer, blamed the chief of staff for being “at the bottom of the dispute.” Wilkinson’s hostility to Arnold had sharpened the quarrel instead of soothing it, and he had acted like someone who was “fundamentally a Sycophant.”

While the argument still raged, the outcome of the fighting at Freeman’s Farm was being decided by the steady flow of militia into the American camp, and the trickle of deserters from Burgoyne’s. Even with his enemy trapped, Gates still feared some unexpected move. “Perhaps [Burgoyne’s] Despair may Dictate to him, to risque all upon one Throw,” he confessed to a friend; “he is an old gamester & in his time has seen all chances.”

On October 7, the old gamester made his last throw. A force of fifteen hundred men attempted to circle round the American position once more. They aimed at surprise, but were detected at once. On almost the same ground, almost the same battle was fought, but this time the result was different. Gates immediately sent out Morgan and the rifle corps, who had time to get beyond the British, outflanking them and picking off their officers with murderous accuracy.

At the critical moment, however, Arnold simply ignored Gates, Wilkinson, and the entire chain of command and seized control of Learned’s brigade, leading it on horseback to capitalize on the confusion the riflemen had caused. “Our cannon were surrounded and taken,” Lieutenant Digby wrote in his journal that night, “the men and horses were all killed—which gave [the Americans] additional spirits, and they rushed on with loud shouts . . . we drove them back a little way, [but] with so great loss to ourselves that it evidently appeared a retreat was the only thing left for us.”

Among the casualties of the last British resistance was Benedict Arnold, wounded while still at the head of Learned’s men. The bullet struck him on the right leg, where he had been hit at Quebec, but this time it took him high above the knee, shattering the bone and leaving him with a limp from which he never recovered. The battle of Bemis Heights was the last occasion that he led American troops in combat, and his record as a tactical commander was not surpassed until General Nathanael Greene’s southern campaign in 1781.

The defeat at Bemis Heights cost Burgoyne’s army the loss of another seven hundred men and sealed its fate. Two days later, he led it squelching through heavy rain toward Saratoga and found a defensive position on high ground beside the Hudson River. But it could retreat no further. New England militia to the east of the river prevented any crossing in that direction, and in the north more citizen soldiers under General Benjamin Lincoln had taken up position and were about to recapture Ticonderoga. Sharpshooters surrounded the British army. An exposed sentry was shot where he stood, and cannonballs raked through the medical officers’ operating theater. Burgoyne was bottled up. The last scenes of the great victory of Saratoga concerned the terms of his surrender.

Matthew Lyon told Thomas Jefferson that, having observed Wilkinson’s conduct during the campaign, he had thought him “the likeliest young man I ever saw.” General Horatio Gates certainly shared that opinion. Not only had his youthful chief of staff deftly stabbed Arnold in the back at a critical moment, he had proved a reliable link to the demanding and difficult subordinates, and, at least by Wilkinson’s account, in the second battle at Bemis Heights he had saved the general by countermanding an order that would have sent General Poor into direct view of British artillery.

That Gates trusted his twenty-year- old protégé unreservedly was made clear on October 14 when Burgoyne sent his emissary, Major Kingston— “a well-formed, ruddy, handsome man,” as Wilkinson remembered— to the American camp to request a cease-fire and ask for terms of surrender. Wilkinson met him and acted as his general’s representative throughout the subsequent negotiations.

For three days, helped by an officer with legal training, William Whipple, Wilkinson hammered out the details of the surrender with two British officers, Captain James Craig and Colonel Nicholas Sutherland, in a tent pitched midway between the two armies. With news coming in that British troops from New York under General Henry Clinton were approaching Albany, Gates wanted a speedy settlement. He offered major concessions, including free passage to Britain on condition that the soldiers did not again take up arms against the United States, and authorized Wilkinson to accept minor points such as the British insistence that they be allowed to pile their weapons “on the word of command of their own officers” rather than to ground them on the orders of the Americans. What Gates required in return was agreement within twenty-four hours, meaning by two
on October 15.

BOOK: An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson
13.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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