Don't talk to Joe Craig about Gettysburg or Manassas. Not unless you want to hear the voluble, gray-ponytailed ranger at Saratoga National Historical Park denounce the Civil War as "the Budweiser of American history."
It's a sunny, off-season Saturday afternoon, and Craig holds forth in the nearly empty Saratoga visitor center, where there's not a double-decker tour bus in sight, let alone a strip of cheesy tourist traps. Yes, the ranger confesses, he's used that Budweiser line a few times before. But what can you do when you're a custodian of one of the most significant and lovingly preserved American battlefields and you're always playing second fiddle to . . . that other war?
Saratoga, often called the turning point of the American Revolution, was fought in this rolling landscape of fields and forests on the west bank of the Hudson River, about 30 miles north of Albany and 10 miles southeast of Saratoga Springs, N.Y. My wife and I have stolen a weekend to check out the battlefield where, in the fall of 1777, an overconfident British general known as "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne got his comeuppance at the hands of a rebel army led by, among others, the most famous traitor in American history.
Deborah is a willing and cheerful ally, but I'm the one who's been fascinated by Saratoga since I was 9. Don't ask me why, but the Budweiser War never did much for me back then. I didn't know squat about George Pickett's suicidal charge at Gettysburg or Stonewall Jackson's warp-speed marches up and down the Shenandoah Valley.
Saratoga, though -- Saratoga was big. More than four decades later, it feels great to finally be here, looking down on the clearing -- owned in 1777 by an unlucky Loyalist named John Freeman -- where the battle began. As I imagine the British troops advancing cautiously across the clearing toward the trees, I'm remembering a description from "The American Heritage Book of the Revolution," which I'd devoured as a child:
"Suddenly there was movement under those trees, made by half-seen men with fur caps and long rifles. Somewhere an unearthly turkey-gobbling broke out. With the crack of rifles, every British officer in the advance was shot down."
To begin our time-traveling, we jetted 90 minutes from Dulles to Albany on a $200 flight and drove half an hour to Saratoga Springs, a 19th-century destination for wealthy folk who sought the healing powers of its mineral waters and the pleasures of its casinos. The town "still retains a village character," according to one local history, which is true enough if you overlook its pricey, horsy boutiques and its humongous new conference center. It's got old brick storefronts, ducks that waddle complacently through traffic and, as its best-known attraction, the historic Saratoga Race Course. A glimpse of the gorgeous old wooden grandstand makes me long to come back during the summer racing season.
What I'd really like to do is take a week and do the Saratoga campaign from its beginning.
That would mean starting at Montreal, near which Burgoyne assembled his invading army. His plan, which seemed like a fine idea when conceived in London, was to move his army down to Albany by way of Lake Champlain and the Hudson River (joined en route by a smaller force from the west). There they were to be met by the New York City-based command of Sir William Howe, and presto! New England, that hotbed of rebellion, would be cut off from the rest of the colonies.
Reading Richard M. Ketchum's excellent popular history "Saratoga," I've been struck by parallels with the current American enterprise in Iraq. You've got a superior invading force with an expectation that the locals will rally to their cause (somehow, they don't). You've got a deceptively easy initial victory -- in this case, Burgoyne's bloodless capture of Fort Ticonderoga. After that, you've got an unanticipated stiffening of enemy resistance.
It would be a mistake to push these parallels too far, however. For one thing, Burgoyne had supply and communications problems that modern generals don't face. Most important, he had no way of knowing his supposed partner, Howe, seemed to think his instructions to assist the invading force were optional. No help would materialize. Weakened by months of campaigning, Burgoyne found himself, on Sept. 19, 1777, confronting a rebel force of unknown strength at Freeman's Farm.
These days, the splendid National Park Service battlefield road serves some 150,000 visitors a year, mostly in the summer; in winter, it's a nirvana for cross-country skiers. Making our way slowly around it, we see as many walkers as drivers (we do a little of each). At most stops, we press the button for the audio presentation in which actors mimic historical figures as they describe their roles in the fight.
"I was a private in the second New Hamp-shah," says one, in an exaggerated New England accent, describing an attack on some British grenadiers. "I saw a tall fair lad with blue eyes. We fired a last volley, then charged forward a-whoopin' and hollerin', stumblin' over the fallen enemy. The lad with the blue eyes was stretched on his back -- dead."
The action he's describing occurred, confusingly enough, at the second battle fought at this location. After being checked on Sept. 19, Burgoyne tried to break through the American lines on Oct. 7 and was repulsed again. Among the climactic moments in the second battle, one stands out: an assault on a British strong point, led by an almost berserk American officer in such bad odor with his commander that he wasn't supposed to be on the battlefield at all.
The officer's heroics helped win the day -- and got him severely wounded. "Had he died there," as the Park Service brochure points out, "posterity would have known few names brighter than that of Benedict Arnold." Instead, he went on to betray the rebel cause and turn his name into a synonym for treason.
Along the way, we check out the impressive gun emplacements that ensured the British couldn't take the river route to Albany. We hike down a mile-long loop trail hoping to find the grave site of Simon Fraser, a British general who fought and died here, but miss it somehow. Never mind: Descending steeply, we've had splendid views of the Hudson and, across it to the east, the Green Mountains of Vermont.
We see more deer than we do people. Imagine Gettysburg this empty, I think. But I can't.
Eventually we head north to Schuylerville, where a monument commemorates Burgoyne's Oct. 17 surrender. We'd been thinking we might check out some other local sights -- the National Bottle Museum in Ballston Spa seemed especially intriguing -- but I couldn't tear myself away from the battlefield tour.
Next time. Maybe we can play the horses then, too.