For the past few weeks, I’ve been writing the scenes during the Battle of Freeman’s Farm. The perspective is from inside the 3rd New Hampshire Regiment; imagining what it was like to be in the ranks, commanding platoons and companies, and orchestrating the positioning of a regiment on that battlefield.
Most histories are written from a birdseye view with the occasional tidbit coming from the diary or memoir of one of the men on the field. No complaints as those are great reads for getting introduced to the events and people involved. That said, between such histories and paintings of these battles, both new and old, something has been troubling me. How is it, given that each side had roughly 3,000 men, each man roughly twenty cartridges, and fired most of them over the 4-6 hours they were on the battlefield, that there were only a little over 1,000 total casualties?
Do that math: The Americans fired upwards of 60,000 bullets and maybe 1,000 found an enemy soldier. The British fired about the same number and only hit half as many Americans.
For having fired a musket and demonstrated, hundreds of times, how a firelock works, while explaining the range and just how far off target they could be at a distance of 75 yards, I was still surprised by these numbers.
As I considered the possible reasons for this, some notions of what must have been going on, strategy and tactics-wise began to develop. First is the 18th-century battlefield was more like a chess match than a shooting gallery. Colonels and captains had to preserve their troops by maneuvering on the field with the dual intent of catching their enemy within range of their muskets.
Sidebar: Is the right word musket or firelock? If Google’s NGram Viewer is reliable, it looks like it was similar to “flip phones” versus “cell phones”. It seems that firelocks were a specific new form of the musket class of weapon.
Smoke from firing volleys providing the fog of battle to hide movements was only the beginning. Advancing or retreating while firing volleys by platoon allowed for relatively high rates of sustained fire to push groups of enemy troops out of the way, or respectively slow their advance. Getting close enough, perhaps by flanking (coming around to the side of an enemy’s formation), to warrant a bayonet charge while your enemy reloads was a tempting and dangerous goal. Execute poorly and the tables could be turned rather quickly.
Given that, my respect has risen considerably for the American Colonels (Cilley, Scammell, Cook, Adams, and Hull) who directed their men in the field around Freeman’s farm against Burgoyne and Hamilton on this day 241 years ago. These men did not just rush onto the field ala Mel Gibson (as Benjamin Martin or William Wallace) and clash with their enemy. One of the consistent recollections by the men who were there was of the tremendous amount of musketry. That meant firing volley’s, advancing, wheeling, and retreating if no advantage was gained.
Another thing to take into account was the likelihood that Morgan’s riflemen, and the Jaegers who carried rifles, accounted for a double-digit percentage of the casualties. There were points during the battle where the fighting came to hand-to-hand combat. Both of these facts imply those muskets accounted for even fewer casualties than the 1 in 60 easy math I began with.
Consider that not all men on either side were killers. Aiming a firearm with the intent of taking a life is no small thing. Given all the smoke, there were certainly times when finding a target was impossible–just point into the smoke and pull the trigger when commanded to fire.
It seems only one man in five or even six fired a shot that struck an enemy that day. The credit for keeping the American casualties so low goes to the officers who guided their troops on the field and in the woods while they fought for something more than a six pence.*
* From a Henry Dearborn quote: “But we who had Something more at Stake than fighting for Six Pence Pr Day kept our ground til Night, Closed the scene, & then Both Parties Retire’d”