Gentleman Johnny: Major General John Burgoyne

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John Burgoyne, by Joshua Reynolds (1766)

 

It is a rare distinction indeed when a commander can claim to have lost one of the most decisive battles in history. “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne was one such commander.

In early 1777 John Burgoyne was a rising star in the constellation of the British military. He was an unlikely prospect: rumored to be the product of an illicit affair, he had a penchant for stylish (and expensive) uniforms, gambling, and the writing of plays. He twice sold his commission, once to clear gambling debts, and once to support the wife with whom he had eloped in 1751. Eventually reconciled with his father-in-law, who used his influence to advance Burgoyne’s career, Gentleman Johnny managed to buy another commission after the outbreak of the Seven Years War. He served with distinction in France and Portugal, and pioneered the concept of light cavalry in the British Army. He was also elected to Parliament, where he gained attention as a critic of the government.

Interestingly, Burgoyne was given the nickname “Gentleman Johnny” by his troops, who appreciated his fairness and concern for their welfare. He was unique in valuing individual thought and self-reliance among his enlisted troops. Whatever the officer corps thought of Burgoyne, he was a general for whom his troops would definitely fight.

When the American War for Independence erupted, Burgoyne was one of three major generals (the others being Howe and Clinton) sent to Boston to “reinforce” General Gage. Frustrated by inactivity, Burgoyne returned to England. In 1776 he commanded the expedition that relieved Quebec from American siege, but was again frustrated when his superior, Carelton, prevented him from pressing an offensive against Fort Ticonderoga in the fall of 1776. Again frustrated, and grieving the death of his wife, Burgoyne returned once again to England.

This time Burgoyne proposed a two-pronged attacked on the Hudson River Valley, with one force attacking north from New York while the other, commanded by him, attacked south out of Canada. It was a decent plan that failed to account for a few things: the vast distances involved, the climate, the rugged countryside, lack of Tory and Indian enthusiasm for his cause, American resilience, and appalling strategic mismanagement. Burgoyne’s plan might just have worked had Lord George Germain articulated an overall British strategy that included the details of Burgoyne’s plan, but he did not. Instead, General William Howe proceeded with his plan to capture Philadelphia. He set sail and spent several critical weeks at sea, this not only deprived Burgoyne of much-needed support, but also allowed Washington to transfer significant forces to the American Northern Department to oppose Burgoyne.

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Burgoyne’s Plan

Compounding these errors was Burgoyne’s flair for drama. His attempts to overawe the Americans, and inspire Tories and allied Native American tribes, were absolute disasters. By unleashing several hundred Native American warriors he not only forced potential Loyalist recruits to stay home to protect their families, but he also enraged American sentiment. As he advanced farther south his supply system began to fail and his battlefield fortunes waned. As a result he Native Americans abandoned him, even as American forces converged on the Hudson Valley.

 

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A tree at Freeman’s Farm. Near this spot Morgan’s Rifle Corps fired the first shot of the Battles at Saratoga.

Finally, just north of Stillwater, New York, Burgoyne switched from playwright back to gambler: he rolled the dice two more times, and in battles that would become known as Freeman’s Farm and Bemis Heights, he lost. Defeated, he attempted to retreat, but the Americans were having none of it. Near a place then called Saratoga he soon found himself surrounded, massively outnumbered, and out of provisions. Finally, on October 17th, 1777, Burgoyne surrendered his army of over five thousand men.

The shockwaves of Burgoyne’s surrender were immediately felt across the Atlantic. Saratoga directly precipitated France’s decision to join the American cause, turning the American War for Independence into a global war that threatened the entire British Empire. It also marked the end of Burgoyne’s military career.

John Burgoyne probably deserved a better fate. He was ambitious to a fault, but he also had a keen military mind and took the kind of calculated risks that fortune usually favors. His treatment of his troops was centuries ahead of its time. His superiors failed him, but he reaped the blame for the miscarriage of his campaign. He continued to write plays and be active in politics, but he will forever be best known as the pompous playwright who lost at Saratoga and thus made Britain’s war unwinnable.

Gentleman Johnny will appear in the forthcoming Gideon Hawke #4: A Constant Thunder.

Robert Krenzel Author Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/RobertKrenzelAuthor

Gideon Hawke Novels Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/GideonHawkeNovels/

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