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Gen. John Burgoyne: Revolutionary War, Biography & Quotes

Instructor: Matthew Hill
John Burgoyne was a British playwright and general. He fought with distinction in the Seven Years War but was defeated soundly at the Battle of Saratoga in the American Revolution.

The Makings of a General

John Burgoyne suffered the fate of many British officers in the American Revolution. He had a distinguished military career beforehand, but his reputation was ruined in North America. Burgoyne was born in February 1723 in Bedfordshire, England. He attended the Westminster School in London where he met Thomas Gage, whom he later served with while in North America. At age fifteen he joined the Horse Guard cavalry unit. He was known for his stylish dress and nicknamed 'Gentleman Johnny.' He also gambled a lot. In 1751, he married Charlotte Stanley, the daughter of the powerful Lord Derby. Lord Derby did not consent to the marriage, and in defiance, the two eloped. In retaliation, Lord Derby cut his daughter off financially. In frustration, he and his wife toured continental Europe where he also studied light cavalry units in European military circles that he later became renowned for. The couple later reconciled with Lord Derby.

Lord Derby, Father--in-Law of John Burgoyne
Lord Derby, Father in Law of John Burgoyne

Burgoyne in the Seven Years War

During the Seven Years War, Burgoyne was appointed to command the 16th Dragoons, a light horse regiment. He proved an innovative commander and was well liked. He pioneered the use of light cavalry which provided speed, mobility, raiding, and reconnaissance over the raw power of heavy cavalry. He also took a real interest in the welfare of his men, and he encouraged innovation and input from his troops, something highly uncommon in aristocratic armies of his era.

In August 1758, he took part in the Raid on Cherbourg on the French coast, and he served from time-to-time in the House of Commons. His military talents were on full display in the Anglo-Portuguese campaigns in Portugal. In the Battle of Valencia de Alcantara and the Battle of Villa Velha de Rodao in 1762, he used his cavalry to defeat Spanish forces. This greatly enhanced his reputation as a cavalry commander.

John Burgoyne
John Burgoyne

Burgoyne in the American Revolution

Burgoyne was sympathetic to the Americans, but he did not sanction rebellion. He told Parliament for example, that 'While we remember that we are contending against brothers and fellow subjects, we must also remember that we are contending in this crisis against the fate of the British Empire.' Nevertheless, Burgoyne arrived in Boston in May 1775. He fought at the Siege of Boston, but unhappy in his limited role, he returned home to England. He returned to America in the spring of 1776 and was appointed second-in-command in Canada under Guy Carleton. The pair won a sound victory at Quebec in May 1776, followed with another victory in the Battle of Valcour Island in October. Burgoyne was livid though when the beaten American army managed to slip past British forces under the cover of darkness and escape. Burgoyne faulted Carleton for this and returned to England for a second time to complain and to petition for a senior command.

Battle of Valcour Island
Battle of Valcour Island

Burgoyne at Saratoga

Back in England, Burgoyne managed to convince Lord George Germain, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, that Carleton was at fault for the American escape, and he laid out a new plan of attack. His selling point was a master plan to drive a wedge between New England and the other colonies. This called for a three-pronged strategy. First, it called for an attack, led by himself, from Lake Champlain heading south to capture Albany. Second, it called for Barry St. Leger to attack from the west from the Mohawk Valley. Third, it called for William Howe to strike north from New York to the Hudson River. The Saratoga campaign is a case of sound planning but poor execution. Burgoyne successfully took Fort Ticonderoga in July 1777, but then everything fell apart. Burgoyne had poor supply lines, and his expected help from Howe and St. Leger never materialized. Howe was in Philadelphia and St. Leger was bogged down in a skirmish with Benedict Arnold.

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