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Burgoyne and America's Destiny
Stickler for a point of honor, the General marched to defeat and helped to lose a war
June 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 4
Not long alter the distressing events—from a British standpoint—at Concord and Lexington, and while heavy reinforcements were pouring into Boston to aid the beleaguered General Gage, one ship was observed to have brought a cargo notable indeed. Aboard this lucky craft, the Cerberus, were three of His Majesty’s generals, all members (in absentia) of the House of Commons, and all destined to play important roles in the years ahead: Major Generals Henry Clinton, William Howe, and John Burgoyne. A local rhymester, versed enough in the classics to remember the threeheaded canine of the nether world, lampooned this event with a jaunty couplet:
Her precious cargo Burgoyne, Clinton, Howe.
Bow, wow, wow.
The most satisfying bark, if the least painful bite, belonged to the junior, Burgoyne. There was a richness of texture, the unmistakable air of an accomplished man of the world allied to an engagingly youthful touch of bravura about the 53-year-old playwright-soldier that clearly set him apart from his more commonplace companions. Born of a family sufficiently well connected to secure him a cornetcy (the third grade of officer) in the exclusive 1st Dragoons, “Handsome Jack,” with his fine eyes and comely form, had certainly done no harm to his prospects by his elopement with the eleventh Earl of Derby’s daughter, Lady Charlotte Stanley.
It was doubtless through the Stanley family interest that, after a period of European travel, Burgoyne obtained a captaincy in Honeywood’s Dragoons; and his first overseas service came with the Seven Years’ War.
In the course of Pitt’s protracted effort “to save America by beating France in Germany,” several expeditions, largely unfruitful, were sent to harry military installations on the French Atlantic coast. It was Burgoyne’s peculiar fate to be attached to three of these egregious enterprises, that to Cherbourg in 1758, to St. Malo in the same year, and the Belle Isle fiasco of 1761. But at least St. Malo afforded him an opportunity for the assumption of responsibility. Lacking orders in the midst of an inept retreat, Burgoyne on his own initiative took the necessary steps to frustrate a French attempt at envelopment and to rescue the main body of British troops.
Burgoyne’s cool and resolute conduct at St. Malo won him in 1759 a warrant to raise a regiment of Light Horse. Burgoyne’s recruiting poster, with its encouraging references to “the chance of getting switched to a buxom widow, or of brushing with a rich heiress,” ended with a resounding quotation from Shakespeare — a literary flourish typical of the erstwhile scholar of Westminster that he was proud to declare himself. But the speed with which the ranks of the 16th Light Dragoons filled up was rather a tribute to his military qualities. For “Gentleman Johnny,” as his troopers speedily nicknamed him, set about the organization of his corps on lines that were many years ahead of his time. Not for him the bullying discipline so fashionable among disciples of Frederick the Great. In the days when recourse to flogging at the triangles, picketing, and running the gauntlet was all too prevalent, Burgoyne’s officers were strictly forbidden to swear at or strike their subordinates, who were not to be “trained like spaniels by the stick.” He also recommended “an occasional joke in talking to the men, as an encouragement to the well-disposed and at the same time a tacit reproof to others.” As he repeatedly affirmed, it was his abiding aim to “substitute the point of honour in place of severity," and indeed “the point of honour" was the lodestar of Gentleman Johnny’s whole life.
How admirably his men responded to Burgoyne’s novel system of training was speedily demonstrated in the field. For in 1762 an Anglo-German force, totaling 7,000 of all ranks, was sent to the support of Portugal in her war against Spain. Burgoyne — with the local rank of brigadier general — was given command of an Anglo-Portuguese contingent of 3,000 and quickly won a victory at Valencia de Alcantara, leading his troopers into the town personally, sword in hand.
A few weeks later Burgoyne brought off another admirable stroke, surprising a Spanish force at Villa Velha and capturing a number of prisoners and six cannon. It was a dashing little enterprise in which a distinguished part was played by the spirited but cantankerous Colonel Charles Lee — all oblivious to the fact that he was destined (at Basking Ridge, in the December of 1776) to fall captive to a patrol of the very same 16th Light Dragoons he had so-often led in action.