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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
Burgoyne’s contribution to the earlier stages of the struggle fought out at Boston and New York was negligible. Lacking an active command, he employed an ever-ready pen in a somewhat indiscreet exchange of letters with Charles Lee, and in the composition of grandiloquent proclamations more calculated to arouse the colonists to laughter than to persuade them to lay down their arms. Presently he was transferred to Canada as second-in-command to Carleton, and his soaring sense of strategy hit upon a plan he was confident would speedily lead to peace negotiations.
The aim of Burgoyne’s design, which won official sanction, was to cut out the strongly resistant New England states from the rest of the country by simultaneous drives from the Canadian border and up the Hudson from New York, the point of junction to be at Albany. It was a plan that looked good enough on paper, although it completely ignored overriding considerations of time and space, as well as the difficulty of maintaining touch between three widely separated forces with the elementary means of communication then available. The only mistake of which Gentleman Johnny was guilty was that of dwarfing a grandiose conception bv trying to carry it out.
As the originator of the design, Burgoyne was given command of the force assembling at Cumberland Head, at the north end of Lake Champlain; another subsidiary force under General Barry St. Leger was to drive down the Mohawk Valley to join Burgoyne at Albany; Howe was nominated by Lord George Germain, the secretary for colonies and war, to lead the expedition from New York.
An old tale has it that a dispatch stating Howe’s definite responsibility to co-operate never left Whitehall. As the outgoing mail was being got together—so William Knox, the undersecretary for the Colonial Department, subsequently told it—“Lord Sackville*, came down to the office on his way to Stoneland, when I observed to him that there was no letter to Howe to acquaint him with the plan or what was expected of him in consequence of it. His Lordship stared and D’Oyly started, but said he would in a moment write a few lines. ‘So,’ says Lord Sackville, ‘my poor horses must stand in the street all the time, and I shan’t be to my time anywhere.’ D’Oyly then said he had better go, and he would write from himself to Howe and include copies of Burgoyne’s instructions which would tell him all that he would want to know, and with this his Lordship was satisfied, as it enabled him to keep his time, for he would never bear delay or disappointment.”
Apparently the matter entirely slipped D’Oyly’s mind. Since Howe marched off to capture—and be captured by—the strategically unimportant city of Philadelphia, it has been argued that my lord Germain, in his haste to get down to his weekend in Sussex, effectively wrecked any chance of Burgoyne’s plan proving successful. Actually, Germain later received and approved Howe’s plan for taking Philadelphia; George III concurred. It was the impractical dream of all parties that Sir William could seize Philadelphia and get back up the Hudson in time to give Burgoyne what aid he needed. Although he left a relatively small force behind him, Howe advised Sir Henry Clinton, commanding the New York garrison in his absence, to assist Burgoyne when asked. All the British generals were sanguine, Burgoyne perhaps most of all; all were in slow-moving communication with each other. But every plan moved forward, as plans will, more slowly than expected—Howe toward the Delaware Capes, Burgoyne down from Champlain, St. Leger toward Fort Stanwix, Clinton toward the Highlands and the dream of reaching Albany. In their apologias, long after the defeat, the gentlemen’s optimism turns to bitter explanation. The impossible, it then seemed, was expected of all of them.
Profoundly confident, Burgoyne set about his plans. He had the lake navy used the year before by Sir Guy Carleton in the inconclusive Champlain fighting of 1776, plus certain ships captured from General Benedict Arnold after Valcour. He had a field train of 42 guns. In his command were British infantry to the number of 3,724, Germans numbering 3,016, a small force of British and Hesse Hanau artillerymen, a few Canadians and Tories, and 400 Indians. In all the force was over 7,000, experienced and well disciplined, saving in this latter regard only the aborigines.
It is possible to reproach Burgoyne for employing savages in a white man’s war. But the precedent had been established by the French as early as 1761; and in any case he was determined that where his own redskinned scouts were concerned there should be none of the atrocities usually associated with their activities. In a speech to the assembled cohort he warned them, “I positively forbid bloodshed, when you are not opposed in arms. Aged men, women, children and prisoners must be held sacred from the knife or hatchet, even in actual conflict; and while you shall receive compensation for the prisoners you take, you shall be called to account for scalps.”
Gentleman Johnny’s intentions, as always, were of the best, even if Horace Walpole derided them and Edmund Burke waxed prodigiously satirical about them in the House of Commons. It was a tragic irony that they should have been so speedily betrayed by the wanton, cold-blooded slaughter of inoffensive Jane McCrea, betrothed to an officer in Burgoyne’s own army. It was an outrage that aroused the country against him.