Three Rivers
Hudson~Mohawk~Schoharie
History From America's Most Famous Valleys


The Pictorial Field-Book of The Revolution
by Benson J. Lossing
Volume l
Chapter TWO

43

"Led on by lust of lucre aud renown,
Burgoyne came marching with his thousands down;
High were his thoughts and furious his career,
Puff'd with self-confidence and pride severe;
Swoll'n with the idea of his fnture deeds,
Onward to ruin each advantage leads."
PHILIP FRENEAU, 1778.

WE left Waterford at two o'clock P.M. for Bemis Heights, the famous battle-ground where Burgoyne was checked and defeated in the autumn of 1777, a few weeks after General Gates suceeeded to the command of the northern army. Our conveyance was a neat little canal packet, its cabin crowded with passengers and a well-supplied dinner-table, and its deck piled with as much luggage and as many loungers as low bridges and a hot sun would allow. For a loiterer who takes no note of passing hours but to mark and mourn their excessive length, and who loves to glide along listlessly among green fields and shady woods without the disturbance of even a carriage ride, of a day voyage upon a canal is really delightful, especially if the face of nature is attractive, and a pleasant companion or, agreeable book assists in smoothing the passage of time. Such seemed to be the character of nearly all our fellow-passengers, pleasure from personal enjoyment being their chief object. When dinner was over, some slept some read, and every body talked to every body as freely as old acquaintances would chat.

The country through which we passed is very fertile, and beautifully diversified in aspect. The plain over which the Hudson here flows is a narrow alluvial bottom, of garden richness, along the western edge of which passes the canal. Green woods and cultivated fields skirted the river on either side, and those conical hills and knolls, like western tumuli, which are prominent features from Stillwater to Sandy Hill, here begin to appear. Some of them were still covered with the primeval forest, and others were cultivated from base to summit, giving a pleasing variety to the ever-changing landscape. The dark green corn, just flowering; the wheat ears, fading from emerald to russet; the blackberries, thick in the hedges; the flowers innumerable, dotting the pasture fields, and the fragrance of the new-mown hay, scattered in wind-rows along the canal, were pleasant sights to one just escaped from the dust and din of the city, and imparted a gratification which only those can feel and appreciate who seldom enjoy it. There was one thing wanting, which leafy June would have supplied-the melody of birds.

" Silence girt the woods; no warbling tongue
Talks now unto the echo of the groves;
Only the curled stream soft chidings kept;
And little gales that from the green leaves swept
Dry summer's dust, in fearful whisperings stirr'd,
As loth to waken any singing bird,"

for it was just the season when the warblers of the forest are still, except at early morning, when they carol a brief matin hymn, and then are quiet. Yet

"The poetry of earth is never dead.
When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,
And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run


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From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead;
That is the grasshopper's."
KEATS.

At the Borough, or Mechanicsvil1e, nine miles above Waterford, the rail-road from Saratoga Springs reaches the canal. Here our boat was filled to repletion with a bevy of young people, who, tired of medicinals and midnight merriment at that Mecca of fashion in summer, had determined to take a "slow coach" to Whitehall, and meet the stronger tide of gay tourists flowing to Ticonderoga from Lake George. They were full of life, and not one of them had ever passed a night upon a canal-boat. Poor souls! how we pitied them, while we rejoiced at our own better fortune, intending, as we did, to debark toward cooling sunset. If affliction is necessary to temper the over-joyous," our young travelers were doubtless well annealed before morning in the vapor bath of a packet cabin.

One of the passengers was a roving journeyman printer, full of the general intelligence of the craft, an inveterate tobacco chewer, and evidently a boon companion of John Barley. corn and his cousins. His hat was a-slouch and his coat seedy. His wit kept the deck vocal with laughter; yet, when at times he talked gravely, the dignity of intelligence made us all respectful listeners. He was perfectly familiar with the history of the classic grounds through which we were then passing. His father was one of the special adjutants appointed by General Gates on the morning of the action of the 19th of September, and from him he had often received minute details of the events of that contest. He mentioned a circumstance connected with the commander on that occasion, which, in some degree, explains the singular fact that he was not upon the field of action---a fact which some have adduced as evidence of cowardice. It is admitted that General Gates did not leave his camp during the contest; and the special adjutant referred to asserted boldly that intoxication was the chief cause. That, in the opinion of the world at that time, was a weakness far more excusable, and a crime less heinous, than cowardice; for a night's debauch and a morning of dullness and stupidity were things too common among gentlemen to affect reputation seriously, unless bad consequences ensued. He was not alone in devotion to the wine-cup at that very time, for it is said that Burgoyne and Earl Balcarras did not leave their flagon and their cards until dawn that morning. Burgoyne and the earl, however, had either stouter heads or stouter hearts than Gates, for they were on duty in the field when the contest was raging. It may be that neither wine nor cowardice controlled the American commander. Let us charitably hope that it did not, and charge the fault upon a weak judgment; for we should be ever ready to act toward erring brother-man according to the glorious injunction of Prior:

"Be to his faults a little blind;
Be to his virtues very kind."

We reached Bemis's Heights between five and six o'clock in the evening. The hotel is situated a few rods south of the site of the old residence of Bemis. The obliging landlord anticipated our impatience to view the battle-ground, and when supper was over we found a horse and light wagon in readiness to carry us to the residence of Charles Neilson, Esq., on the summit of the heights, whence a fine view of the whole scene of conflict and of the surrounding country might be obtained.(1) It was too late for much observation, for twilight soon spread its veil over every object. After spending an hour pleasantly and profitably with Mr. Neilson and his family, I made an engagement to meet him early next morning, to ride and ramble over the historic grounds in the neighborhood.


1 Mr. Neilson occupies the mansion owned by his father, an active Whig, at the time of the battles there. He bas written and published a volume entitled "An original, compiled, and corrected Account of Burgoyne's Campaign and the memorable Battles of Bemis's Heights." It contains many details not found in other books, which he gathered from those who were present, and saw and heard what they related it is valuable on that account.


45

The morning broke with an unclouded sky, and before the dew was off the grass I was upon Bemis's Heights, eager to see what yet remained of the military works of a former, time. Alas! hardly a vestige is to be seen; but a more beautiful view than the one from Mr. Neilson's mansion I have seldom beheld. The ground there is higher than any in the vicinity, except the range of hills on the east side of the Hudson, and the eye takes in a varied landscape of a score of miles in almost every direction. Bounding the horizon on the north and west are the heights of Saratoga and the high mountains on the eastern shore of Lake George. On the south stretch away into the blue distance toward Albany the gentle hills and the pleasant valley of the Hudson. On the east, not far distant, rises Willard's Mountain, and over and beyond its southern neighbors of less altitude may be seen the heights of Bennington on the Walloomscoik,(1) the Green Mountains, and the lofty summit of far-famed Mount Tom.

Bemis's Heights are situated on the right bank of the Hudson, about four miles north of the pleasant village of Stillwater (which is on the same side of the river), and about twenty five miles from Albany. The ground here rises abruptly from an extensive alluvial flat about half a mile in width a little above, but here tapering until it forms quite a narrow defile of not more than thirty or forty rods on each side of the river. At the time of the Revolution, the whole country in this vicinity was covered wIth a dense forest, having only an occasional clearing of a few acres; and deep ravines furrowed the land in various directions. Fronting the river, a high bluff of rocks and soil, covered with stately oaks and maples, presented an excellent place on which to plant a fortification to command the passage of the river and the narrow valley below. The bluff is still there, but the forest is gone, and many of the smaller ravines have been filled up by the busy hand of cultivation.

The only road then much traveled passed along the margin of the river. Upon the road, at the southern extremity of the bluff, was a tavern kept by a man named Bemis, the only one of note between Albany and Fort Edward. Good wines and long pipes, a spacious ball-room and a capital larder, made Bemis's house a famous place of resort for sleighing parties in winter, throughout the whole of the Saratoga valley of the Hudson. He owned a portion of the heavy-timbered heights near him, and from that circumstance the hill derived its name.

On the summit of the height, three fourths of a mile northwest of Bemis's, the father of Mr. Neilson owned a clearing of a few acres when the war broke out, and he had erected a small dwelling and a log barn thereon. The dwelling, with large additions, is still there, but the log barn, which was picketed and used for a fort, has long since given place to another. Around that old mansion cluster many interesting historic associations, and if its walls could articulate, they might tell of heroism in action and patient endurance which the pen of history has never yet recorded.

Upon the next page are given a group of localities about Bemis's Heights and a miniature map of the engagements there. The picture at the top of the page represents the mansion of Mr. Neilson, as seen from the opposite side of the road, looking eastward. It stands upon the east side of the highway leading to Quaker Springs, about one hundred rods north of the road from Bemis's Heights to the watering places of Ballston and Saratoga. It is a frame house, and the part next to the road is modern compared with the other and smaller portion, which is the original dwelling. The room in the old part (a sketch of which is given in the third picture from the top) is quite large, and was occupied by Brigadier-general Poor and Colonel Morgan as quarters at the time of the encampments there. It was ill this room that Major Ackland, the brave commander of the British Grenadiers, who was severely wounded in the battle of the 7th of October, was kindly received by the American officers, and visited and nursed by his heroic wife, Lady Harriet Ackland, of whom, and the event in question, I shall hereafter speak. The bed of the wounded officer was beneath


1 It is said that the smoke of the battle of Bennington, thirty miles distant, was distinctly seen from Bemis's Heights.



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the window on the left. The door in the center opens into a small bed-room; and this as well as every thing else about the room, is carefully preserved in its original condition. Where the smaller poplar tree stands was a building which General Arnold occupied; and further to the left the small buildings are upon the spot where the fortified log barn stood, which was at the northwest angle of the American works. In compliment to the owner, the rude fortification was called Fort Neilson.

Chapter Two Continued

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