It is coming up on the 4th of July and that always makes me think about the founding of the United States of America. I grew up in Upstate New York near where the Battles of Saratoga took place. My hometown still has a parade every year for surrender day, though they have moved it in more recent years to maximize the tourism. We played Little League Baseball on the grounds where the British surrendered to the Americans in late 1777. So you can imagine that the whole story of the battles and what happened was a big part of the history that we were taught when I was a kid.
As you may know, the Battles of Saratoga was one of the more important events of the American Revolution. It was these battles that allowed Benjamin Franklin to convince the French to join the cause on the American side. This was also the first time that the Americans defeated a large British force in the field. This led the French to believe that the Americans could win and thus hurt their enemy the British.
These battles were the result of a British Plan in 1777 to crush the revolution by splitting the colonies along the line of the Hudson River. New York had fallen to the British in 1776 and the thought was to separate the most rebellious colonies in New England from the rest. That way the British could divide and conquer. This was similar to the Union Strategy in the Civil War around the Mississippi. The plan however was very complicated requiring 3 lines of advance: North From New York under General Howe, South from Montreal under General Burgoyne, and East from Niagara Falls under General St. Leger.
The complexity of the plan created a significant number of issues for the British. The area that was going to be attacked was primarily Wilderness. This meant communications between the various British forces was going to be next to impossible. This complexity led to the defeat and is where I will focus my attention since we are going to talk about leadership.
The army that surrendered at Saratoga was the force from Montreal under Burgoyne. They had come South and had made reasonably good progress as the Militia tried to impede their advance. However what happened to the other forces doomed them. General St Leger was defeated at Ft. Stanwix. This ended off the Western Part of the Attack but was not fatal.
However, the problem was that General Howe did not support General Burgoyne. Instead, he decided to take Philadelphia. This meant there would be no Southern Army coming North to meet Burgoyne. This decision coupled with the decision by Burgoyne to continue south was fatal. All the Americans had to do to win was not to lose. If they could delay the British and keep them in the Wilderness until Winter, they would have defeated the British. So, there was a campaign to slow Burgoyne. This was somewhat effective and it took him most of the summer to get from Fort Ticonderoga to Saratoga. There he tried to break the American lines and failed.
The problem was at this point that Burgoyne knew he was on his own. He rejected retreat and that pride led him cause the defeat of his men. He knew he could not stay out in the open. Given that he could not go back he went forward. The next attack led to a vicious counterattack and the eventual surrender of his army.
As a leader Burgoyne did not adapt and do the thing that was best for his army. He could not win, but he could have not lost. Instead he risked his men, gambled and failed. The Americans did a much better job strategically. They knew they did not have to win to prevent the British plan from working. But they did have a huge tactical problem in command at the site.
General Gates led the American forces and Washington dispatched Benedict Arnold to help him. Unfortunately, the two could not get along. This meant that they worked contrary to one another on a regular basis. It was Arnold that led the counterattack. Arnold was gravely wounded in the battle and that eventually led to his betrayal of the patriot cause.
The lessons that one should take here that complexity and ego are big problems in leadership. The British Plan was complex and that led to many of the issues that were exacerbated by ego. And ego was the big problem. Howe not wanting Burgoyne to get credit. Burgoyne not wanting to retreat. Arnold and Gates fighting over who was in charge of what. All of that caused more problems than almost anything else in the campaign.
So when you are making decisions don’t let your ego stand in the way. Passion is important but you can not allow it to overcome your good judgement.
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