- Historic Sites
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
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.
With his troops in excellent spirits and full of confidence in their commander, Burgoyne now issued a general order which ended with the uncompromising intimation, “This Army must not Retreat.” At the same time he penned a proclamation, addressed more in sorrow than in anger to “the temperate part of the public,” whose inordinate length was only outmatched by the Ciceronian pomposity of its style. This astounding piece of fustian immediately provoked a caustic counterblast from the lively pen of Francis Hopkinson. The mocking laughter with which the American pamphleteer’s sparkling effusion was greeted was as loud among Gentleman Johnny’s detractors in London as among his enemies in North America. Dubbed by Walpole the “Hurlothrumbo [a half-mad dancing master, after the title part in the Haymarket theater burlesque by Samuel Johnson] of the Wilderness,” and the “Chronon-hoton-thologos of War,” [from Henry Carey's popular burlesque pomposo, The King of Queerumania], Burgoyne was in some haste to discard the quill in favor of the sword.
Ticonderoga was soon evacuated by General St. Clair and his undernourished garrison when Burgoyne managed to plant guns on a neglected 750-foot height that enfiladed the whole position. Eager to press on, the British advance guard encountered increasing resistance as the whole force plowed its way to Skenesboro, an isolated plantation founded at the end of the Seven Years’ War by the half-pay major, Philip Skene. Since he was believed to keep the body of his dead mother in the house unburied, so as to draw the annuity payable as long as she was “above ground,” Skene may reasonably be regarded as having a remarkably keen eye for the main chance. A road to link his undeveloped property with Fort Edward had long been one of his most cherished ambitions. With the heaven-sent military on hand to construct it, he was, therefore, loud in his recommendation to continue the advance by the overland route, rather than return to Ticonderoga and approach Fort Edward by way of Lake George. In no mood to reculer pour mieux sauter [withdraw in order to improve one's chances of subsequent success], Burgoyne accepted Skene’s prejudiced advice in all good faith and agreed to forge straight ahead, with Fort Edward as his immediate objective. Apart from all other considerations, it would never do to be late for his rendezvous with Howe at Albany!
The distance from Skenesboro to Fort Edward was 23 miles. But the way lay through a belt of thickly timbered country liberally interspersed with streams and patches of boggy marshland. It was a difficult enough tract even for an experienced backwoodsman to traverse. For troops brought up to operate in the well-groomed battle zones of Europe, it was little more than a howling wilderness. To make bad matters worse, every tangled avenue of advance was further blocked by the thousands of trees felled by the woodsmen whose activities were so skillfully directed by General Philip Schuyler. Furthermore, the winding waterways called for the construction of no less than forty bridges, and a causeway two miles in length. With its stifling heat and ghostly green gloom, it was scarcely the terrain for grenadiers in towering fur caps, or dismounted Brunswicker dragoons in stiff leather breeches and jackboots, trailing 12-pound broadswords and equally heavy carbines. The guns and ammunition tumbrels were in trouble all the time—if anything, Burgoyne was overgunned—as were the teamsters in charge of the lumbering baggage wagons. Even the light caleche procured by Frau Generalin Baroness Frederica von Riedesel, wife of the commander of the German mercenaries, to transport herself and her three infant daughters, was in constant need of attention.
With twenty days consumed in making that number of miles, Burgoyne was in urgent need of supplies and horses to mount his dragoons. Once again it was the ineffable Skene who thrust himself forward to assure the General that Bennington, thirty miles southeast from Fort Edward, would furnish all he required—including a warm welcome from the hosts of loyalists only awaiting the appearance of Crown troops to declare their fealty. A “secret” force of Germans (with musicians in the van) set out for Vermont.
In the event, the welcome accorded to Colonel Baum and the contingent he led to Bennington was as warm as the weapons wielded by John Stark and his New Hampshire militia could make it. Baum’s force was annihilated, as was a reinforcement sent out under Lieutenant Colonel Breymann. Nine hundred men were lost. As Horace Walpole openly gloated, Burgoyne had indeed “had bad sport in the woods.”