“The Fate of John Burgoyne”


"When Jack, the King's commander bold, Was going to his duty, He smiled and bowed... At every blooming beauty." He led his forces from Canada toward Ticonderoga and western New York, but was cut off and forced to surrender


In the British parliament in the early 1770s, there was much debate over how to handle the recalcitrant American colonies. Liberals generally favored concessions, conservatives the lash. (Somehow, the idea of electing Americans to parliament didn't seem to appeal to anyone.)

There wasn't much doubt about how John Burgoyne (1722-1792) felt. "Gentleman Johnny," as MP for Preston (Lancashire) in 1774, declared that America was "our spoilt child, which we have already spoiled by too much indulgence"; he declared all conciliation "a waste of time" (see Weintraub, p. 6. For references, see the Bibliography at the end of this note).

After the American colonies rose in rebellion, Burgoyne would have his chance to see how his ideas worked. On the whole, the first two years of the war went the British way -- at least in the sense that they won such set piece batters as were fought -- but they couldn't seem to finish off George Washington's army. And Washington's victory at Trenton, though trivial in the grand scheme of things, encouraged rebel spirits; it seemed unlikely they would given in.

Burgoyne had had a frustrating two years as a subordinate, but returned to England in late 1776 to deal with affairs following his wife's death (see Ketchum, pp. 65-66). While there, he argued for an independent command -- and came up with a plan that would justify it. The complex campaign he dreamed up for 1777 involved three converging columns. Howe, the British Commander in Chief, would lead an army north from New York. Barry St. Leger would strike from Lake Ontario into western New York with a force of about 2000 regulars supported by Indians (Marrin, p. 134; Ferguson, p. 183, claims St. Leger would lead 9000 men, according to Ferguson, p. 183, but that is a ridiculously large force for a colonel and there is no way the British could have supplied them). And Burgoyne would head south from Montreal through the Champlain and Ticonderoga. The three would rendezvous near Albany. Had it worked, it would have divided the colonies into two parts, unable to reach and reinforce each other, which could be defeated in detail (cf. Weintraub, p. 75).

Burgoyne felt great confidence in his own ability; he registered a fifty guinea bet with opposition M.P. Charles Fox that he would win an overwhelming victory by the end of 1777 (Weintraub, p. 86). The mere fact that he made such a bet probably proves that he should not have been given his command, but the British upper class didn't think that way.

The planning for the Grand Operation was not of the best. Burgoyne's preparations consisted mostly of gathering commissions to sell (Weintraub, p. 51). When the forces assembled for the push, too much space was probably devoted to cavalry and too little to supplies (and supply officers -- the British, since they still used commission by purchase, had little use for this vital but unglamorous job).

That lack, plus the inevitable defects in coordination, led to complete failure. Howe -- who had a history of passive behavior, e.g. he had refused to pursue Washington's army after routing it in New York (Weintraub, pp. 73-73) -- eventually headed off to Philadelphia (the closest thing the colonies had to a capital city -- but, as events proved, inessential to their fighting ability); Weintraub attributes this in part to lack of detailed instructions from England (p. 104). In any case, he did nothing to support the other two columns. Howe was hoping for a decisive battle against Washington (Weintraub, p. 108). Washington refused to be lured; after suffering a tactical defeat at Brandywine (Ferguson, p. 184), he let Howe have his way.

Howe's move involved two-thirds of the garrison of New York (i.e. about 14,000 men) -- and he took them by sea (Weintraub, p. 107), removing them entirely from the game for six weeks (Weintraub, pp. 113-114) and leaving them in a poor position when they finally did get back on land. That left only about 7000 troops in New York under General Henry Clinton, who judged the force too small to undertake major operations (in this he was probably right). Clinton eventually set off to help Burgoyne -- but started too late and in too small a force, and in the end turned back (Marrin, p. 140). The fiasco was sufficient that Howe would resign his command soon afterward (Weintraub, p. 124), though he claimed it was due to "lack of support."

St. Leger fought a stinging battle at Oriskany (Ferguson, p. 184. Marrin, p. 136, notes that, in tactical terms, the British had the victory; they killed more Americans and mortally wounded the American commander Nicolas Herkimer). The Indians, though, were reportedly spooked by omens, and then Benedict Arnold managed to further trick them into thinking a major American force was coming (Marrin, p. 137). They refused to go on, and St. Leger could not continue the campaign without his allies.

But it was the isolated Burgoyne who suffered the worst defeat by far. (It didn't help that he had managed to provoke a quarrel with Sir Guy Carleton, the English governor of Canada, who had brilliantly saved Quebec from the Americans but who now found himself bypassed by Burgoyne and criticized by London (Ketchum, p. 86; Lan aster, p. 200, says that Carleton had been "shamelessly passed over").

Initially things went well; he had an easy time moving through the Champlain, and easily forced the rebels out of Ticonderoga by placing artillerty on a crest the Americans had neglected to defend (Lancaster, p. 204); somehow, it seemed as if no one could build a decent fortification at that strategic point.

Then things got complicated. As long has he had been in the Champlain, Burgoyne had been supplied by water. But now Burgoyne's supply train, which was immense (Ketchum, p. 138), had to travel overland, giving the British a very tenuous supply line. American Tories, who had been expected to turn out to support the campaign, mostly sat on their hands (Lancaster, p. 201, says only about a hundred colonials joined the colors, and the handful of Indians were too few to be effective scouts). The Americans occupied themselves building obstacles to slow the British advance, and they were very effective (Lancaster, p. 207).

Burgoyne's troubles mounted quickly. A raid on Bennington, which was intended to bring in supplies, instead resulted in the loss of many of his best German troops (see "Rifleman's Song at Bennington"; also Weintraub, p. 119). He ended up at Saratoga, with limited supplies and his men getting sick. He probably should have retreated at once, but Weintraub, p. 120, considers him "too proud." Americans were arriving on all sides, leaving him effectively surrounded. He finally tried to fight his way through the American army of Horatio Gates. It didn't work. He fought two battles at Freeman's Farm (September 19 and October 7); the British came close to victory at the latter, but Benedict Arnold rallied the Americans and saved the day (Marrin, pp. 138-141). Burgoyne was stuck at Saratoga, and on October 18, 1777, he was forced to surrender. (For background, see e.g. Cook, pp. 275-280). To the end, Burgoyne seemed unwilling to take responsibility. As he handed over his sword, he declared that his defeat was "my fortune, sire, and not my fault" (Weintraub, p. 122).

The British still held Ticonderoga and points north, but the loss of Burgoyne's army left Guy Carleton with too few troops to defend his positions in the north and occupy the Champlain, so Carleton was forced to evacuate the entire area, leaving Britain with no gains at all for its efforts (Ketchum, pp. 438-439).

This was the first great Colonial victory of the war. Some five thousand British troops were taken. As a result, France increased its part in the war. Howe's refusal to support Burgoyne had led to a disaster.

Burgoyne would come out of the matter surprisingly well (Cook, pp. 300-301). The Americans would not parole the soldiers captured at Saratoga (Ketchum, pp. 435-436, notes that they finally were marched all the way to Charlottsville, Virginia; Weintraub, p. 127 says that they surrendered on conditions but the British government in effect refused to recognize an agreement with rebels), but they did parole Burgoyne and send him home. The crown refused to recieve him (Weintraub, p. 149), and the government refused to give him the court-martial he desired -- but Burgoyne was still a Member of Parliament (Weintraub, p. 6, attributes his election to the influence of his late father-in-law, the Earl of Derby), and took his case there, arguing that his orders had been too rigid (debateable) and that the cabinet had not forced Howe to properly support him (undeniable).

A large segment of the press took his part (Weintraub, pp. 152-153). In popular opinion, he was considered to be vindicated, though an honest assessment would surely show that he brought many of his troubles on himself.

The government responded to his parliamentary tactics by ordering him to rejoin his troops in their American prison camps (Weintraub, p. 163). He ignored the order, claiming illness (Weintraub, p. 164), and was rehabilitated when the Whigs gained power; he served for a time in Ireland, and wrote plays nearly to the end of his comfortable life. Still, he had changed history, and not for British advantage: Saratoga changed the whole course of the American revolution, and caused France to come to the aid of the colonies (Ferguson, p. 180). It would be years before this aid would be effective -- but, when it came, it would be decisive.

It will tell you something about the British government of the time that when the news of Saratoga arrived, the Prime Minister, Lord North, tried to resign (not for the last time), but George III would not allow it (Weintraub, p. 129). - RBW


Cook: Don Cook, _The Long Fuse: How England Lost the American colonies 1760-1785_, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995

Ferguson: E. James Ferguson, _The American Revolution: A General History 1763-1790_, revised edition, Dorsey Press, 1979

Ketchum: Richard M. Ketchum, _Saratoga: Turning Point of America's Revolutionary War_, Henry Holt, 1997

Lancaster: Bruce Lancaster (with a chapter by J. H. Plumb), _The American Revolution_ (originally published as _The American Heritage Book of the Revolution_, 1971), Houghton Mifflin, 1987

Marrin: Albert Marrin, _The War for Independence: The Story of the American Revolution_, Athenaeum, 1988

Weintraub: Stanley Weintraub, _Iron Tears: America's Battle for Freedom, Britain's Quagmire: 1775-1783_, Free Press, 2005 - RBW

Historical references

  • Oct 17, 1777 - Surrender of John Burgoyne at Saratoga


  1. Scott-BoA, pp. 75-76, "The Fate of John Burgoyne" (1 text, 1 tune)
  2. BI, SBoA075


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1966
Found in: US