- No Turning Point: The Saratoga Campaign in Perspective by Theodore Corbett
Revolutionary War, Saratoga, Albany, Loyalists
Anyone with a passing knowledge of the Revolutionary War remembers the Saratoga campaign of 1777 as a key turning point. The British surrender on October 17 exposed John Burgoyne and William Howe as failed military commanders; it ruined the Crown's best chance to drive a wedge between New England and the Middle Colonies and bolstered French confidence in the American rebellion. The perennial emphasis on Saratoga reflects traditional historians' preference for focusing on the machinations of statesmen and the military campaigns of senior commanders.
Theodore Corbett insists that we revisit this conventional wisdom. It's not that he thinks these conclusions are wrong—in fact, he spends almost no time on diplomacy or on the British ministry's overall direction of the war effort. Instead, he hopes to refocus our attention on "the regional war that surrounded and penetrated the Saratoga battlefields" (369), essentially the Hudson-Champlain region north of Albany, just east of the areas covered in Alan Taylor's The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution (New York, 2006). From this perspective, he argues, Burgoyne's surrender was no turning point at all, but a reverberating regional conflict that distressed inhabitants for almost a decade.
Corbett begins by tracing white settlement of the Hudson-Champlain region after 1763, and then he analyzes the region's experience of the [End Page 549] war. He stresses the importance of Guy Carleton's 1776 victory at Lake Champlain, which neutralized Fort Ticonderoga and gave Britain a staging area for five more years of invasions. While a narrative like Richard Ketchum's Saratoga: Turning Point of America's Revolutionary War (New York, 1997) ends abruptly with Burgoyne's surrender and its immediate global consequences, Corbett's discussion of the British defeat occurs two-thirds of the way through the book. The remaining pages animate the continued civil war, subsequent British raids, Loyalist migrations, political squabbles among American civil authorities, and the agrarian unrest of the 1780s. The author casts this series of incidents as an unbroken chain of civil conflict that destabilized the various localities in the region. Corbett is finely attuned to the local political geography, and he criticizes military officers who paid it too little attention.
The book spends less time on the armies' strategy and provisioning than on politics, security, and recruitment in the region surrounding Burgoyne's march. Corbett offers a wide array of narratives: We observe Burgoyne's "pacification" policy; the Albany Committee of Correspondence raising special militia units for suppressing Loyalism; General Philip Schuyler ordering settlers to evacuate, to prevent them from becoming Loyalists; and settlers in Charlotte County's Argyle Patent and elsewhere attempting to claim the status of "protectioners" for their own security, rather than out of strong Loyalist conviction. He tracks the reign of the "Arlington Junta" who took power in Vermont and dominated the process of confiscating Loyalist property.
Corbett is right to reaffirm the Revolution as civil war, a perspective that still receives too little attention outside the war's southern theater. His regional perspective gives this book a scope and scale that national and local narratives generally miss. Though the book reads like an operational history, Corbett integrates socioeconomic and political factors into the military vicissitudes of the civil war; indeed, he strives for maximal granularity in his parsing of personal allegiances, political squabbles, recruitment, raids, and skirmishes in the region. Balancing his large cast of recurring characters and scattered communities becomes an enormous task, bouncing readers from Vermont's land-hungry Allen brothers to John Younglove, a moderate town official of Cambridge, New York, with dozens of militia captains, settlers, and minor officials in between.
In addition to various characters on the rebel side, Corbett provides ample coverage of white Loyalists like John Peters, Philip Skene, and the [End Page 550] members of the French, Jessup, Johnson, and Sherwood families. Loyalists formed a minuscule fraction of...