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Burgoyne and America's Destiny

May 2024
13min read

Stickler for a point of honor, the General marched to defeat and helped to lose a war

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 an indeed notable cargo. Aboard this lucky craft, the Cerberus, were three of His Majesty’s generals, all members (in absentia) of the House of Gommons, 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:

Behold the Cerberus the Atlantic plough, 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 in the exclusive list 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.


Pence in the Iberian Peninsula was concluded early in 1763, and Burgoyne returned to England to take his seat in the House of Commons, having been returned in absentia as the member for Midhurst. Thereafter, in a Parliament peculiarly prone to outbursts of remorselessly orotund speechifying, no one was more prolix, or seemed to enjoy it more, than Burgoyne.

Throughout the growing estrangement between Lord North’s Administration and the American colonies, Burgoyne’s was invariably the voice, however verbose, of moderation. Consistently in favor of accommodation and compromise, he received with mixed feelings the order to accompany the reinforcements for North America. It was an unwelcome posting, but “the point of honour” sternly counseled him to go without demur.

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.

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 of the Wilderness,”** and the “Chronon-hoton-thologos of War,”***. 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 heavensent 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, 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 wellgroomed 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.”

Meanwhile the second northern prong of the invasion which had been detached under Colonel St. Leger to arouse the loyalists of the Mohawk Valley and march on Albany from the northwest had come to a stop at Oriskany. Burgoyne’s Indians thinned down to eighty under the impact of bad news and the commander’s disapproval. He lacked needed scouts.

On September eighteenth—having passed through Saratoga on the thirteenth—Burgoyne and the 6,000 men left to him took up a position facing the Americans on the plateau of Bemis Heights.

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.

*This is a slip of the pen, for by this tie the erstwhile Lord Sackville was known as Lord George Germain, deputy secretary.

**A half-mad dancing master, after the title part in the Haymarket theater burlesque by Samuel Johnson.

*** From Henry Carey’s popular burlesque pomposo, The King of Queerummania

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