Can any of you point to that moment when you finally decided, “I want to be a historian”? For some it might’ve been a gradual process after loving history for years rather than a particular moment. But although I did love history from a young age, I didn’t always think of it as a profession. That’s why the 1777 Battle of Saratoga will always have a special place in my history-nerd heart. It was what got me hooked on going to grad school and pursuing history professionally after writing a paper on it when I was a junior in college. And fortunately enough, it’s a historic site that’s about 3 hours from my home that I can visit from time to time. I’ve been there a few times, but it’s been several years since my last visit. So on a recent trip upstate, I decided to make a stop in Saratoga once again for a nostalgic trip down memory lane.
It’s one of those memories that sticks with you. It was the Spring 2012 semester at Hofstra University in my American Revolution course with Professor Mike D’Innocenzo. Professor D’Innocenzo is a New-Lefty from the 1960s who almost every one of his students could tell a story about. For me, that story is the incredible encouragement he gave me on my final paper for his class. I don’t remember how I landed on the topic, but in the paper I compared the tactics of Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold at the Battle of Saratoga. Admittedly it was the most “college history buff” topic ever, but I really dove into it. It was the first time I really used primary sources and critically engaged with past scholarship. Prof. D’Innocenzo gave me an A+ and left an extremely kind note at the bottom of the paper saying it was one of the best papers he’s read in years. Upon talking with him afterward, he mentioned that I’d be a great fit for studying history in graduate school. Before this, although I was a history major, I’d never considered grad school. Honestly, I didn’t think I was smart enough to do that. But his encouragement made me think for the first time that maybe I did have something to offer.
So Saratoga was a lot of firsts for me: first time I considered grad school; first paper I presented at a conference, at one of the Phi Alpha Theta undergraduate meetings; first brutal peer review rejection letter, when I took D’Innocenzo’s compliments a bit too literally and impulsively submitted the paper to a journal – naive mistake I now laugh about. Point is, studying Saratoga was my “moment” when I really started diving into being a historian as a profession. So naturally I had to drag my girlfriend there on our trip upstate! (She knew what she was getting into when she started dating me during comps)
The Saratoga National Historic Park is one of my favorite historical sites, even without the attached nostalgia. It’s the perfect environment for me. I’ve never been a beach person for vacations – I’m bored after a few hours. Hiking, kayaking, and sightseeing are more my thing. Throw in a few breweries at nearby Saratoga Springs and I’m set. So the mountains of upstate New York are perfect. Situated between the Catskills and Adirondacks, Saratoga is a great spot to stop off on an upstate trip.
The park itself fits perfectly with my outdoorsy interests because it’s essentially one big trail. My first time there – 2013, maybe? – my dad and I biked the 9-mile road (which you can also drive) and hit all the stops on the way. The northern part of the park is crisscrossed by a 4.2-mile hiking path through the areas where most of the fighting took place. You’d never know it from how peaceful it is now, but nearly 20,000 British, American, German, and Native American soldiers clashed in this small pocket off the banks of the Hudson River in September-October 1777. About 600 lost their lives. Aside from some reconstructed redoubts and restored artillery pieces, there isn’t much indication that you’re standing on a battlefield. As you walk the area you’ll also see lines of red or blue poles in the ground denoting the extent of the British and American lines, respectively. These reconstructions are the only hints you’ll see that this was once a warzone.
I especially like the Benedict Arnold memorial at Saratoga. If you’re not aware, Benedict Arnold was a hero before his treasonous defection to the British in 1780. He was one of the United States’ best tactical commanders, and his daring (or reckless – probably reckless) charge on Oct. 7, 1777 decisively won the Battle of Saratoga. But of course, Arnold did betray the revolutionary cause, so people afterward were stuck between honoring his accomplishments and condemning his treason. What was the answer at Saratoga? Well, a statue of his boot, of course! During his charge, Arnold was shot in the leg, breaking the bone. So the only monument that stands commemorating his actions is a stone block with a leg molded onto it. The back of the monument dedicates it to “the most brilliant soldier of the Continental Army,” rather than naming Arnold. In fact, his name appears nowhere. It’s perhaps the ultimate punishment for Benedict Arnold – a man who was obsessed with prestige is denied credit for his greatest battlefield triumph.
It was nice revisiting this place. I think it’s only natural that many history professionals grow a little jaded over time after years of studying a topic. But trips like this remind me of the wonder I felt years ago, when every new fact felt like a discovery to me. We should preserve that fire, and find ways to revive it if it fades. Since I plan on leaving academia, you might think I’d look on this memory with some bitterness. Maybe I would if I wasn’t building a post-academic career and didn’t feel like I had a direction for my next steps. But as it stands, I’ve never felt I wasted my time. I look at it as that for a few years, my job was learning more about a topic I love. So my memories of catching the historian bug through studying the Battle of Saratoga remain positive. And going back to the places that remind me of the excitement and wonder that made me a historian to begin with always feels good, and I hope it always does.
How about the rest of you? Is there a moment, place, or memory that brings you back to when you first decided to study history? Or, if you’re just casually into history, what got you into it?