Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes guest historian Kevin Pawlak. A short bio follows the post below.
On May 25, 1775, the 62nd Regiment of Foot stood for review. The line of men, clad in their redcoats with buff facings, did not impress the reviewing officer. He called the regiment “very much drafted” and “very indifferent.” Despite the disparaging grade, in just over two years, the 62nd Foot commendably fought in one of the fiercest actions of the War for Independence.
Scottish military man Lt. Col. John Anstruther led the 62nd Foot in the campaign of 1777. Anstruther faced no easy task; the 62nd was the junior British regiment in John Burgoyne’s army and most of its men were inexperienced in campaigning and battle. To make the situation even worse, roughly one-quarter of the 62nd Foot’s soldiers were German. Language barriers likely prevented complete cohesion within the unit. However, with a war on, nothing could be done to rectify the regiment’s defects as it marched south into New York.
Anstruther’s regiment was present for the operations around Fort Ticonderoga in early July 1777. After American forces abandoned the fort, the conglomerate and inexperienced 62nd remained behind to man Mount Independence overlooking Lake Champlain. As the rest of Burgoyne’s army continued campaigning, the men of the 62nd Foot spent time guarding themselves against rattlesnakes rather than the enemy. Their time came to rejoin the main army before the Battle of Saratoga commenced.
In mid-September 1777, Burgoyne and his redcoats came face to face with Horatio Gates’ Northern Army along the Hudson River. Gates positioned his force on a strong eminence north of Albany called Bemis Heights. Burgoyne needed to bulldoze through Gates’ speed bump in order to accomplish his campaign objectives. For September 19, Burgoyne settled on a three-pronged approach to do just that.
James Hamilton’s brigade, of which the 62nd Foot was a part of, marched in Burgoyne’s center column under the commanding general’s personal supervision. The columns southward advance debouched the British soldiers into the open 170 acre clearing belonging to John and Effelina Freeman. Skirmishing erupted between the column’s advanced soldiers and an American force under Daniel Morgan’s command. This brought a back and forth action across the fenced fields of the Freeman farm. Following an hour of this kind of action, the leading British elements were able to clear the open meadow of American soldiers.
At 2:00 p.m., Hamilton’s brigade shook out into open file battle lines and took possession of the northern end of Freeman’s clearing. In this formation, the 62nd Foot held Hamilton’s center, flanked on either side by the 20th and 21st Regiments of Foot. Four six-pounder artillery pieces accompanied the infantry out of the woods and into the open field. As they advanced, the British soldiers discerned enemy formations south of the Freeman farm. In order to avoid coming under fire, Hamilton’s line stopped 300 yards short of the Continental line.
Following several minutes of relative silence, Hamilton ordered the 21st and 62nd Regiments to fix bayonets. Along the line, officers shouted the order. Clanking metal soon replaced the voices as soldiers fixed their bayonets at the end of their muzzles. Hamilton’s two regiments marched forward to the beat of the drum. Unable and unwilling to stand up to the test, the Americans in front of these two advancing regiments withdrew to the woods bordering the south end of the Freeman farm.
Cheers went up from the British line upon seeing the backs of their enemy. But as the British neared the wood line, the American line reemerged out into the open field, bringing the contestants within 50 yards of one another. While errant American lead plucked at Anstruther and his men, the 62nd’s lieutenant colonel shouted for his men to fire in unison.
The firefight commenced in earnest, both sides engaged in an open field with little cover. British artillery arrived to support the infantry. American reinforcements began to arrive, tipping the weight of the action in their favor in the seesaw action. Additionally, the 62nd’s firing line was in “a more open field” while portions of the American soldiers fired from protection behind trees. Perhaps panicked in their first major action and current situation, the fire from Anstruther’s men took little effect. As casualties mounted for the British, the tactics needed to change.
Aware of the ineffectiveness of his volley fire, Anstruther resorted to the “national weapon,” the bayonet, to settle the contest. Anstruther led his men into the woods four times. The Americans drove the 62nd back as many times. Caught in the open, the situation for the 62nd Foot further dimmed as more American troops poured into the fight. Soon, American forces overlapped Anstruther’s left flank and fired at the rear of his men.
Second Lieutenant James Hadden’s two guns supported Anstruther’s left by firing on any American targets that presented themselves. However, the pressure on the 62nd Foot’s left flank forced them to withdraw several times, temporarily placing Hadden’s pieces in American hands before a British counter surge returned to the guns to their rightful owners. Each time they returned to the guns, Hadden counted fewer men available to service them. The 20th Regiment of Foot came to Hadden’s and Anstruther’s assistance and fed more men into the back and forth fight.
The growing forces on both sides only intensified the battle and added more names to their respective casualty lists. Lieutenant Stephen Harvey of the 62nd Regiment was hit by multiple balls. He ignored the wounds and fought on until one more American shot shattered one of his legs. As some of his comrades supported him to the rear, one more bullet tore through Harvey’s gut. He did not last much longer.
More officers of the 62nd fell killed or wounded, eleven total by the end of battle. Confusion reigned within the regiment’s ranks. Fortunately, for this regiment on the brink of destruction, Burgoyne received reinforcements in the form of Friedrich von Riedesel’s column that finally turned the tide and forced the obstinate Americans back to their defenses atop Bemis Heights.
Freeman’s Farm was one of the hottest fights of the American War for Independence. It was a fight in which the 62nd Regiment of Foot seemed to have done it all—advance, retreat, charge, fire from positions in an open field, and be flanked. The men of the regiment stood up well under the circumstances but suffered for their own stubbornness on the afternoon of September 19, 1777. Over 210 officers and men, well over half the regiment, fell in the farm fields of the Freeman family.
Kevin Pawlak is a Historic Site Manager for the Prince William County Historic Preservation Division and works as a Licensed Battlefield Guide at Antietam National Battlefield. Kevin also sits on the Board of Directors of the Shepherdstown Battlefield Preservation Association and the Save Historic Antietam Foundation. He is also a full-time contributor to Emerging Civil War.