Revisiting Richard M. Ketchum’s Saratoga

Yale educated New York publisher and Vermont sheep farmer, Richard M. Ketchum, who commanded a sub-chaser in World War II and wrote an engaging series of books about 18th century American history, certainly enjoyed his share of praise from all the approved sources. 

Ketchum passed away in 2012, but in 1997 Pauline Maier of the New York Times Book Review concluded Ketchum’s Saratoga was “vividly described with a vast range of sources.” David McCullough called it “more than a brilliant, gripping account of one of history’s most important battles, it is a vivid, needed reminder of how hard-fought, gritty, sweat-soaked, god-awful, heroic, and all-important was the American War.”

Park that praise there for a moment and consider some of Ketchum’s very vivid observations about the summer of 1777:

  • When the American army found it necessary to secure and strengthen Fort Ticonderoga, Colonel Anthony Wayne found the prospects depressing. He called the place “Golgotha, or place of skulls.” The old French battle lines were so full of skeletons that his men drank from those skulls and used leg bones as tent pegs.
  • American soldiers of the era were more imposing than their European counterparts. Ketchum observed that a man had to be at least five feet tall to join the Prussian military, with the average infantryman standing somewhere between that and 5’5″. “A majority of these Americans, on the other hand, were five-eight to five-ten, and a number were taller still.”
  • A wilderness campaign down the Hudson Valley pitted professional soldiers against frontier farmers who cut and cleared trees six feet in diameter, managed teams of oxen, and were masters of skills that included bridge-building, stone-cutting, blacksmithing and the clearing of roads through primeval forest. The British and Hessian assumptions about feeding their army off the land was a gross miscalculation, given their limited range of frontier skills.
  • For all of their home court advantage, the American cause itself always seemed on the verge of abject defeat. When Congress sent two of the richest men on the Continent—Ben Franklin and Charles Carroll—to Canada, in an attempt to win over the “14th colony,” their lodging was primitive and the journey punishing. Franklin feared he would die soon and wrote as much to his friends. The Canadian military campaign had been a failure and the army couldn’t pay its debts. The hope of securing Canada as a northern barrier against British invasion appeared hopeless and the fall of Fort Ticonderoga inevitable.
  • Ketchum devotes an entire chapter to documenting, very effectively, Jefferson’s lament in the Declaration of Independence concerning the “merciless Indian savages.” Quoting Ketchum: “The very word ‘Mohawk’ came from the Algonquian root meaning man-eater or cannibal, and these people specialized in exquisitely cruel tortures, in which by custom the victim was expected to demonstrate his own valor by singing his song of death while women and children burned him with torches and hacked at his flesh with knives or pieces of shell in a ghastly ordeal contrived to delay death as long as possible . . .”
  • “Gentleman” Johnny Burgoyne and even King George III effectively encouraged this barbarity, allowing it to continue, even as they appeared scandalized by it. In instructions given to Native American warriors, Burgoyne urged the painted braves to chastise the king’s “disloyal and unfaithful subjects . . . and lead these monsters back to obedience.” When a party of them killed and scalped an American woman romantically tied to a Tory officer, the scalp of Jenny McCrea, a luxuriant mass of red hair, became a kind of battle standard. The outraged American militia turned out in the tens of thousands to avenge her death.
  • It’s difficult for us to imagine, but hard cider, rum, and whiskey seemed to have fueled both the American and British army on a daily, even hourly, basis. John Stark’s American soldiers at Bennington appeared to be “fighting while buzzed,” having received rum rations prior to the engagement. One Brunswick surgeon captured after the battle was offered a drink of rum by a New Hampshire soldier, who carried the brew in a “wooden flask around his neck.” Reading these accounts, you almost get the sense that “liquid courage” was not seen as a pejorative, unless it yielded to drunken stupor. During the retreat from Ticonderoga a few American artillerymen, who were charged with covering St. Clair’s departure, found a cask of Madeira in the battery. The British found them passed out, next to their guns, the next morning.
  • Anyone who has witnessed campaign volunteers angling for promotion in a new administration would see dramatic parallels to American officers in the 18th century, savagely undercutting each other for promotion, or leaving the army outright if they didn’t receive the command they were after. Of all the enemies a cause endures, pride and pettiness may be the most dangerous. (Benedict Arnold was absolutely fearless in battle, but completely destroyed by his pride.)
  • This might be decried, these days, as “toxic masculinity,” but history really does seem to affirm the supernatural power of leadership in battle. Ketchum tells the story of Massachusetts Colonel Ebenezer Francis who calmly kept his lines together at Hubbardton, fearlessly exposing himself to enemy fire, while encouraging his men. His courage was so obviously on display that after he was shot and killed, British officers made a point of taking a look at his lifeless form. British lieutenant William Digby wrote that Francis’ appearance, even in death, “made me regard him with attention.” This theme of the “key heroic figure” is repeated over and over again. For the British, it was seen in generals like Simon Frasier, and for the Americans, Benedict Arnold and John Stark. Cowardice is infectious, but so is courage.

Twenty-six years after publication, I’m wondering how “official media” might respond to Ketchum’s narrative today. We are always prone to forget history by virtue of our own intellectual sloth, but I fear we’re facing a more pernicious danger these days. We can only learn certain heroic lessons if they are imparted to us by the proper ethno-gender-identity, and we are likely to see the sins of “dead, white males” amplified, just for the sake of decrying “white supremacy.”

Pre-Christian cultures, all over the world, were absolutely savage by our standards, but we make that observation today at our peril, and we wonder why the third world remains impoverished: we’re not allowed to make negative cultural judgments, even if that means the roads never get repaired and the bribes never stop flowing.

History tells us there really were great men and women who sacrificed everything for the cause, who demonstrated real bravery, but the intersectional malaise keeps us from imparting those stories and nurturing the very virtues we need to move forward.

If you haven’t read Ketchum, do so, and, even better, get your grandchildren in on the find. Western Civilization is at stake.

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About James Patrick Riley

James Riley is the owner and operator of Riley's Farm in Oak Glen, California and the creator of "Courage, New Hampshire," a television drama seen on PBS stations across the country. The father of six children, Riley performs "Patrick Henry" and supervises a living history program visited by hundreds of thousands of school children. He holds a degree in history from Stanford University.

Photo: General Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga (Universal History Archive via Getty Images)