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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
It is always better to fall back on mobile reinforcements than on a fixed fortress, and very skillfully Schuyler had done just that. His reward was to be superseded by Horatio Gates, who took command of a force totaling little short of 7,000. Confronted by this growing obstacle to his progress, even the sanguine Burgoyne could not entirely ignore the hazardous nature of the situation in which he found himself. The only thing to do was to try and inflict a reverse on Gates that would gain time for Clinton to come up and join forces with him. So with high hopes and unfaltering courage, Burgoyne set out to assail the strongly entrenched position upon which the alien patriot, Thaddeus Kosciusko, had lavished all his skill in military engineering. The ensuing battle of Freeman’s Farm, on September 19, was indecisive, but costly to the British. Had not Gates mismanaged and refused aid to Arnold, the Americans would have won it decisively.
The trick was turned by the timely intervention and tremendous fighting quality of Benedict Arnold, ably seconded by Daniel Morgan and his ubiquitous riflemen. The weak spot in the British line was the center where the fight raged at its fiercest. Burgoyne was everywhere where danger threatened, and as Sergeant Lamb of the 23rd Royal Welsh Fusiliers bore witness, “behaved with great personal bravery. He shunned no danger; his presence and conduct animated the troops, for they greatly loved the General. He delivered his orders with precision and coolness, and in the heat, danger and fury of the fight maintained the true characteristics of a soldier.”
But if at the end of the day the British force bivouacked on the ground it had won, Burgoyne was under no delusion as to the consequences of his failure to win a clean-cut victory. The Americans were still in considerable strength, with every chance of making good their casualties, whereas the day had cost him some 600 irreplaceable officers and men. Moreover, it had become clear past any peradventure that no help could be expected from Howe, and very little from Clinton and his flimsy force battling its way up the Hudson. St. Leger’s operation of detachment, after a propitious start, had foundered irretrievably. With strong American forces threatening his lines of communications, and fast dwindling supplies, there could be no question of Burgoyne’s fighting his way back whence he had come. Yet the repercussion on Howe of events in the north had to be taken very seriously into the reckoning. As Burgoyne himself put it, “This consideration operated forcibly to determine me to abide events as long as possible, and I reasoned thus: The expedition I commanded was evidently meant at first to be hazarded. Circumstances might require that it should be devoted.∗ I.e., sacrificed. A critical junction of Mr. Gates’s force with Mr. Washington might possibly decide the fate of the war; the failure of my junction with Sir Henry Clinton, or the loss of my retreat to Canada, could only be a partial misfortune.”
“The point of honour” having refused to compromise with the issue, Gentleman Johnny set to work to give as good an account of himself as his attenuated resources permitted. The battle of October seventh at Bemis Heights, however, was lost almost before it was joined; the battle was Arnold’s personal triumph, and by nightfall Burgoyne had been forced back to his old camping ground at Saratoga. He had suffered 600 further casualties, lost all his guns, and been forced to abandon 300 of his sick and wounded. There was now no alternative to surrender.
It was the afternoon of October sixteenth when Burgoyne, impeccably garbed in gleaming scarlet, gold and white, strode out to keep his appointment with destiny as personified in the humdrum figure of plain bluecoated “Granny” Gates. Raising his hat in salute, the fallen Hector greeted his erstwhile comrade-in-arms, “The fortune of war, General Gates, has made me your prisoner.” Returning Burgoyne’s salute, Gates civilly replied, “I shall always be ready to bear testimony that it has not been through any fault of your Excellency.”
The course of war is determined as much by defeat as by victory. And it was the defeat of the British, rather than the victory of the Americans, at Saratoga, which turned French sympathy for the colonists’ cause from a secretive gesture into an active policy. With that, Graves’ overthrow in the Chesapeake and Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown were only just over the horizon.
Burgoyne returned to England on parole in the May of 1778, intent on seeking some alleviation of the hard fate that Congress had visited on the men who had followed him to Saratoga. He was coldly received by the King, Germain, and certain others with uneasy consciences. For Carleton’s letter to Gentleman Johnny had gone the rounds, in which the writer bluntly affirmed that “This unfortunate event [Saratoga], it is to be hoped, will in future prevent ministers from pretending to direct operations of war in a country at three thousand miles distance. …” But Burgoyne’s demand for a court-martial was refused. Since he had been guilty of nothing but an attempt to achieve the impossible, it is difficult to imagine upon what charge even the most ingenious politician could have had him arraigned. In any case, Germain possessed sufficient sense of self-preservation to let sleeping dogs lie. It was clear, however, that the defeated General’s chance of further military employment under the existent Administration was remote in the extreme.
John Burgoyne died in honorable retirement early in August of 1792. And although there had been many occasions in his life when he had confronted danger and the agony of decision with cool and debonair courage, it is probable that he never showed a braver face than in that bitter moment of surrender in the dripping woods of Saratoga.