Book Review: Saratoga

By David McKissack — 7th Virginia, Continental Line

Saratoga, by Richard M. Ketchum. Hardback. Henry Holt and Company, New York. 1997, 545 pp. $30.00. ISBN 0-8050-4681-X.

On June 20, 1777, a body of 7,000 of the 18th century's most disciplined and experienced troops began a campaign in northern New York which was designed to end the rebellion of England's American colonies. Three weeks later, this army had traveled 100 miles, captured the north's best-known military fortification, and scattered all opposition. Its leader established headquarters, opened champagne bottles, and offered clemency to the rebels. Yet, three months later, the same professional army had dragged itself only an additional 50 miles, was surrounded by vastly superior numbers, and compelled to surrender to an army of citizen soldiers and militia. The strength of Richard Ketchum's new book Saratoga lies in its successful explanation of this extraordinary turn of events.

It is notable that Bruce Catton is one of the people to whom Richard Ketchum dedicates his book. In many ways, Saratoga reminds one of Catton's popular works chronicling the American Civil War. The prose is smooth and uncluttered, and the story is told as a national heroic epic. Also like Catton, Ketchum skillfully enhances his narrative with first person accounts. Reenactors will find ample quotations from many familiar names — Lamb, Wasmus, Thacher, Von Riedesel, Anburey — as well as from lesser known individuals.

Similarly, Ketchum does an excellent job of weaving the story of the Saratoga campaign in with the overall story of the American revolution. Throughout his narrative, he gracefully moves the scene of action from America to England to France. At each locale, he clearly explains the relationships between the key figures in each army — Burgoyne, Howe and Clinton, — Schuyler, Gates, and Arnold — and their interaction with the civilian authorities controlling their activities.

In spite of its many virtues, however, some reenactors might find Saratoga too broad for their tastes. The first third of Ketchum's narrative, for example, is "build up." Burgoyne's forces don't arrive at Fort Ticonderoga for 160 pages (not until page 112 does Ketchum write, "The northern invasion of America had begun"). And while Ketchum does an extraordinarily good job of explaining the "big picture," his treatment of battles and units may seem "sketchy" to some with narrower interests in our hobby. Reenactors seeking information pertinent to particular regiments will find only a few, if any, such references in this book. Likewise, the book's maps depict movements of armies and battles in only a broad, schematic sense. A reader who prefers carefully following campaigns and battles along geographical lines may find himself seeking more detailed maps.

Ketchum served for almost 20 years as an editor with the American Heritage Publishing Company. His previous books on the Revolution include Decisive Day: The Battle of Bunker Hill (1962) and The Winter Soldiers: The Battles for Trenton and Princeton (1973). This new book is a commendable addition to his portfolio. It will prove especially interesting to "newbies" seeking an introduction to the northern campaign of 1777. And veteran reenactors already familiar with the campaign will nevertheless enjoy Ketchum's skillful rendition of this compelling story. Saratoga will take its place on library shelves as one of the best popular histories explaining the chain of events which led to what many historians have labeled the "turning point of America's Revolutionary War."

Copyright © 1997 David McKissack. All rights reserved.