Politics and Military

Giving Thanks for the Battle of Saratoga

The Continental Army’s victory at Saratoga prompted the young country to celebrate its first national Thanksgiving on Dec. 18, 1777.

Gen. Burgoyne's surrender.

Gen. Burgoyne’s surrender.

The Continental Congress, meeting in York, Pa., issued a proclamation written by Sam Adams. According to an obscure historical marker on York’s East Market Street, Adams advocated for the first time ‘one day of public Thanksgiving’ for all of the states after the Battle of Saratoga, ‘that with one heart and with one voice the good people may express the grateful feelings of their hearts.’

There had actually been two battles of Saratoga – one on Sept. 19 and one on Oct. 7, 1777.  British General John Burgoyne had marched his troops from Quebec in an effort to cut off New England from the rest of the colonies. His army had gotten bogged down, and in August he lost 1,000 men at the Battle of Bennington to militia from New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

As Burgoyne’s army lost strength on the march south, the American military was gaining. More men joined the militia because of the victory at Bennington. The alleged murder of a woman named Jane McCrea by Indians loyal to Burgoyne also sparked outrage.

Gen. George Washington had sent reinforcements from New York and from his own army.  On September 7, Gen. Horatio Gates ordered his troops to march north toward Saratoga.

Battle of Saratoga

The first encounter on September 19 was a victory of sorts for Burgoyne, as he gained the field of battle. But the victory had been costly. Nearly 600 British soldiers had been killed or injured, double the number of American casualties.

Meanwhile, Gen. Benjamin Lincoln and Col. John Brown had successfully attacked the British at Fort Ticonderoga. They freed prisoners of war and marched with them to the American position at Saratoga.

Gen. John Burgoyne

Gen. John Burgoyne

Burgoyne hoped for help from British troops in New York City, but they never arrived. Though some of his officers urged retreat, he insisted on attacking the Americans on October 7. It didn’t go well for the British. Outnumbered 3-to-1, they lost a thousand men in the two battles.

Burgoyne then retreated to fortified positions north of the battlefield. Within a week, Americans surrounded his forces. Then on October 17 he surrendered his army. Burgoyne returned to England and never again given command in the British Army. He did, however, write successful plays for the British stage.

The victory was a turning point in the war, as it persuaded France to enter the conflict as America’s ally.

Typically, colonies celebrated Thanksgiving on different days to celebrate a military victory or a bountiful harvest. If December 18 seems awfully close to Christmas to celebrate Thanksgiving, remember, they wouldn’t have celebrated Christmas, at least in New England.

This story last updated in 2022.

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