Kevin John Weddle. The Compleat Victory: Saratoga and the American Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. xvii + 519 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-533140-0.
Reviewed by Matthew Vajda (Kent State University)
Published on H-Early-America (September, 2021)
Commissioned by Troy Bickham (Texas A&M University)
British general John Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga in October 1777 to American general Horatio Gates was a significant event in the War for Independence because it was the first time the fledgling American army had defeated one of Europe’s most powerful militaries. While the Battles of Saratoga have received significant attention from previous military and diplomatic scholars, Kevin Weddle broadens the view of the Saratoga engagements beyond the military campaign itself and looks at the personalities involved in each side’s successes and failures. Weddle, a retired army colonel and professor of military theory and strategist at the Carlisle Barracks’ Army War College, argues that the Continental Army’s victory at Saratoga was the result of broader and superior strategic decisions made by their field commanders to overcome their early defeats and challenges to their leadership (p. 5). As the author states, the Saratoga campaign was based on historical contingency: the “planning and execution of the campaign are replete with critical decisions by its leaders on both sides, and chance played a major role, as it always does in war,” making for a complex “dramatic and consequential American story” (p. 2).
Past scholars have typically examined the Saratoga campaign largely in isolation from the broader 1777 campaigns, not extending their investigations beyond the Northern Department based in New York. Earlier studies on Saratoga like Richard Ketcham's have centered on the importance of the battles and surrender as a watershed moment, using traditional sources from the commanders and campaigns. More recent studies, including those from Dean Snow and Andrew O’Shaughnessy, have used additional methodologies like archaeology to provide a more comprehensive overview of the campaign or looked at the British personalities who lost the war, respectively. In another recent study, Theodore Corbitt rejects the traditional narrative that Saratoga was as important as previous scholars have argued because they failed to analyze the continued conflicts on the ground in upstate New York. Although Weddle is engaged with the traditional narrative of the campaign, providing both the importance of Saratoga as a decisive military and diplomatic victory, he pays particular attention to the strategic implications of the campaign, focusing on the decisions each side’s commanders and government leaders made that affected the outcome of the war.
The book contains over twenty chapters of various lengths. Weddle begins his narrative with Generals William Howe and John Burgoyne’s arrival in Boston in May 1775 and takes the reader from the 1776 campaigns concentrated in New York City and New Jersey. However, his main thrust in the early chapters is on the Patriot invasion of Canada and subsequent retreat of the Continental Army and Sir Guy Carleton’s counteroffensive along Lake Champlain against Benedict Arnold. Weddle’s goal is to introduce the readers to the major figures of the Saratoga campaign and provide early insight into the strategic initiatives, their superiors and subordinates, and early experiences in the conflict. While the American side of the conflict has been covered in detail, including the problems between the Continental Army and the Continental Congress, the British side of the war has not been covered. One of the book’s greatest strengths is its correction of that forgotten narrative.
Weddle’s background as a military strategist plays an important part in his critique of the campaign. He praises British successes in seizing the initiative but criticizes their failure to capitalize on their early victories. He argues that the British campaign failed because of several factors: Burgoyne’s plan being too ambitious to coordinate and manage, his underestimation of the Patriot forces, and his lack of familiarity with upstate New York’s geography. Burgoyne’s plan of coordinating a three-pronged attack on Albany was too ambitious, especially with General Howe's desire to end the war by taking Philadelphia and the relief expedition of Sir Henry Clinton failing to move far enough north to provide assistance to Burgoyne. Additionally, Burgoyne underestimated American resilience following his victory at Fort Ticonderoga—he expected resistance to subside whereas the Patriot army actually grew—and the British government’s desire to micromanage the war from three thousand miles away in London complicated the campaign, as correspondence took six to eight weeks to arrive. Moreover, Burgoyne failed in his understanding of New York’s terrain. Weddle explains in his introduction that “geography is everything” in war as the campaign took place over a vast terrain including southern Ontario and Quebec, Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks, and the Mohawk Valley of central New York (p. 5). Add in the hot New York summer in the woods and the logistical problems supplying Burgoyne’s slow-moving army as it moved south, and Weddle demonstrates that Burgoyne’s strategy had several problems that would be difficult to overcome even with his successes. Ultimately, Weddle concludes that despite months of planning a winning strategy for 1777, “all the main actors—King George III, Germain, Carleton, Howe, and Burgoyne—were talking past each other” and created confusion in their strategy and coordination (pp. 71-72).
On the American side, Patriot generals dealt with their own problems in supplying their armies, maintaining their strength, command issues, and defending against any British advances. However, Weddle notes the Americans were able to succeed in the Saratoga campaign because of senior-level leadership, including the ability of George Washington, Philip Schuyler, Horatio Gates, and Benedict Arnold to receive military intelligence, react to said information, and enact better strategies to counter the British armies. For instance, despite being about three hundred miles away protecting Philadelphia from Howe’s advance, General Washington still provided the Northern Department with essential advice and experienced troops necessary for American success. Weddle explains that Washington was not single-minded in his approach to the British invasions but instead concentrated on the war as a whole and directed operations from the field as opposed to from within the Continental Congress. Weddle also debunks the long-standing myth that General Gates relieved General Arnold of his command during an argument over attacking the British or defending their current position following the Battle of Freeman’s Farm. In truth, Gates retained Arnold in his chain of command and needed Arnold’s dynamic leadership as an aggressive general on the battlefield, ultimately succeeding with Arnold’s attack on the British flank at the Battle of Bemis Heights. This work also provides insight into lesser-known American commanders, such as Colonel Peter Gansevoort and General Nicholas Herkimer preventing Colonel Barry St. Leger’s advance at the Battles of Oriskany and Fort Stanwix, or General John Stark, a New Hampshire militia commander, and Colonel Seth Warner, a leader of Vermont’s Green Mountain Boys, stopping Hessian colonels Friedrich Baum and Heinrich von Breymann’s detachment from getting supplies.
Another notable contribution Weddle provides is a description of the role Native Americans, chiefly the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, Confederacy, played in the campaign and the war in general. To his credit, Weddle demonstrates the agency of Native Americans, including the leadership of Thayendanegea (Joseph Brant), as British auxiliaries preventing Patriot reinforcements from reaching their destinations while the Patriots hoped to keep the confederacy neutral. While Native Americans played a significant role in the irregular warfare and as part of the British Army’s strategy at Fort Stanwix and the Battle of Oriskany, Weddle does not cover the partisan war and raids between Native Americans and Patriots in great detail but addresses the Patriot propaganda campaign after Britain's Indian allies killed Jane McCrea, a New York loyalist, and the increase in American militia forces coming to defend Albany and Burgoyne losing his remaining Indian allies. In the end, Weddle highlights how the War for Independence would break the Iroquois Confederacy as various tribes sided with one side or the other.
As part of Oxford University Press’s Pivotal Moments in American History series, this book is a popular history more in line with traditional military histories but with a focus on military grand strategy, tactics (neither term is mentioned or defined in the introduction), and the role of American and British political and military leaders. Although African Americans and women (with the notable exceptions of Jane McCrea and Baroness Frederike Charlotte von Riesedel) are largely absent, and the partisan warfare between rebel, loyalist, and Native Americans is glossed over, Weddle succeeds in demonstrating how the Americans overcame their initial failures thanks to superior leadership and a broader strategy while the British Army failed in carrying out its complicated attacks and could not seize the initiative when it held the advantage. Despite its length of over four hundred pages, including several appendices, The Compleat Victory is a suitable book for upper-division history courses on the American Revolution as well as military history buffs looking for a page-turner on an important campaign that played a significant role in achieving the independence of the United States.
. See Richard M. Ketchum, Saratoga: Turning Point of America’s Revolutionary War (New York: Henry Holt, 1997); Dean Snow, 1777: Tipping Point at Saratoga (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016); Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of Empire, The Lewis Walpole Series in Eighteenth-Century Culture and History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014); and Theodore Corbett, No Turning Point: The Saratoga Campaign in Perspective (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012).
. This concept is known as a petite guerre, or irregular or guerrilla war. For more on this subject, see John Grenier, The First Way of War: American War Making on the Frontier, 1607-1814 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
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Matthew Vajda. Review of Weddle, Kevin John, The Compleat Victory: Saratoga and the American Revolution.
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