I just finished reading George Billias’ George Washington’s Generals and Opponents: Their Exploits and Leadership, a collection of chapter-length biographies of the principal American and British commanders from our Revolutionary War. I found it a compelling read as the experiences of the individual British commanders blended into a portrait of the conflict as the British viewed it. General Burgoyne’s experiences were especially striking, perhaps reflecting the fact that this account was written against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and was now being read with Iraq in the background. Immortalized in popular lore as “Gentleman” Johnny, Burgoyne cut an interesting figure even for an 18th Century British general as the reputed illegitimate son of a Chancellor of the Exchequer and a recognized playwright by the time of his service in America.
Burgoyne began his service in America with optimism, convinced that “trained troops were inevitably bound to win out over untrained forces.” He did not consider the Americans capable of “any long and drawn-out resistance,” expecting the majority to be quieted by a British show of strength. The remainder would not stand to fight in a pitched battle or general combat unless they had entrenchments like those around Boston. He noted that the Americans were “accustomed to working with shovel and axes” and could quickly through up entrenchments. He was also skeptical of the American rebels in general, considering them to be “dominated by a few despotic figures…subject to bribery.” Burgoyne anticipated that this latter weakness would allow the Crown to persuade them to end all resistance to lawful British rule.
In the wake of Bunker Hill, Burgoyne amended his expectation of quick victory, though he still expected a British victory. In 1776, he described the American militia as “respectable” foes and assessed the conflict as follows:
“Composed as the American army is, together with the strength of the country, full of woods, swamps, stone walls, and other enclosures and hiding places, it may be said of it that every private man will in action be his own general, who will turn every tree and bush into a temporary fortress, from whence, when he hath fired his shot with all deliberation, coolness, and certainty which hidden safety inspires, he will skip as it were to the next, and so on for a long time…”
Burgoyne began to call for more men and material in order to apply more direct military pressure on the recalcitrant rebels. He reconsidered his thinking about the fragility of the American rebels’ morale, noting that in battle “The panic of the rebel troops is confined, and of short duration…the enthusiasm is extensive and permanent.” As the conflict continued, Burgoyne came to recognize that it could not be ended in any conventional manner on British terms, his own discussion of the conflict came to include references to the American “nation” and no longer spoke of “rebellious subjects.”
On the battlefield, Burgoyne emphasized in response the use of light infantry, reflecting his experience with light troops during the Seven Years War. He believed that once the British army’s superior artillery blasted the Americans out of their entrenchments and “temporary fortresses, his light infantry and light cavalry could deal with them.
Burgoyne won an independent command in this conflict in 1777 as head of the army invading from Canada. What he expected to happen is not completely clear, but his objective appears to have been the city of Albany, with which the British would control the Hudson River, dividing New York from the New England colonies. The explanation that London failed to tell General Howe to march north from New York to meet Burgoyne and thus caused the latter’s surrender has been discredited. It appears likely that Burgoyne actually believed, at least at first, that he could reach Albany without assistance. The British were confident that the perceived weakness of the Americans and the supposed strength of the Loyalists in upper New York and in Pennsylvania assured success. They expected Burgoyne to be marching through an area with a friendly population. .
Burgoyne did not rest in attempting to gain every advantage for his army. He urged his officers to follow the American example and use entrenchments and guerrilla tactics whenever possible. He brought along his technological edge over the Americans (especially the militia) in the form of more than 138 cannon. Just before the Battle of Saratoga he organized a unit of sharpshooters reputedly inspired by the example of Daniel Morgan’s riflemen.
Burgoyne also had his propaganda campaign in the form of proclamations declaring that the British army had been summoned to restore constitutional government and to protect the “general privileges of Mankind” against “the compleatest form of Tyranny [the Continental Congress] that ever God in his displeasure suffered….to be exercises over a….stubborn generation.” American leaders were accused of “arbitrary imprisonment, confiscation of property, [and] persecution and torture.”
However, Burgoyne received only a third of the promised horses and was far short of his stated requirement for carts. He also had only 1,000 Canadian and loyalist militia and Native Americans instead of the planned 3,000. However, when the crisis came, his real weakness would come from decisions made in London and New York that left to small a force in New York to break through to him.
The advance towards Saratoga apparently led Burgoyne to change a number of his ideas about the conflict. Two months before his surrender, Burgoyne wrote that “the great bulk of the country is undoubtedly with the Congress, in principle and zeal; and their measures are executed with secrecy and dispatch that area not equalled. Wherever the King’s forces point, militia, to the amount of three or four thousand, assemble in twenty-four hours.” After his surrender on October 17, 1777, Burgoyne would again record his impression of his American opponents in a letter to Lord Germain in London:
“The standing corps which I have seen are disciplined: I do not hazard the term, but apply it to the great fundamental points of military institution, sobriety, subordination, regularity, and courage. The militia are inferior in method and movement, but not a jot less servicable in woods. My conjectures were very different after the affair of Ticonderoga; they were delusive, and it is a duty to the state to confess it.”
Burgoyne’s return to England after his surrender (and his parole upon the promise not to fight in America again) found England more politically divided than ever over the American conflict. When the government learned that Burgoyne intended to place the responsibility on his superior, General Howe, it warned him that he could not then expect the support of the government (already under attack in parliament by an opposition hoping to embarrass the government with General Howe’s performance as commander-in-chief in America). Burgoyne would ask for, be refused, but eventually be the subject of a parliamentary inquiry in May 1779. Despite his testimony that the orders given him by Lord Germain, the American Secretary in the Government, offered him no flexibility and compelled him to attempt to reach Albany regardless of circumstances or consequences. He also complained that General Howe had failed to support him or his army. The inquiry’s result was both political and militarily inconclusive, but Burgoyne’s military career was now totally dependent on the Opposition coming to power. However, because of its political and military implications for American Independence, Burgoyne’s campaign and the final Battle of Saratoga would retain their fascination for historians right up to the present day.
Some possible items of interest for further reading:
Burgoyne’s Orderly Book
Hadden's Journal and Orderly Books: A Journal Kept in Canada and Upon Burgoyne's Campaign
The Dramatic and Poetical Works of the Late Lieut. Gen. J. Burgoyne
“The Devil’s Disciple," by playwright George Bernard Shaw
“Take it quietly, Major Swindon: your friend the British soldier can stand up to anything except the British War Office.” Lieutenant General John Burgoyne, Act III, The Devil’s Disciple, George Bernard Shaw.
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