John Burgoyne

British general and statesman John Burgoyne (1723-1792) is mainly remembered for his disastrous campaign in the American Revolution, which ended in his surrender to the American forces in 1777.

The son of a British army captain, John Burgoyne received his education at Westminster and then went into the military. While still an impecunious junior officer, he eloped with the daughter of Lord Derby. After a brief period of ill will, there emerged a firm friendship between Burgoyne and his influential, noble father-in-law. During Derby's hostility, however, Burgoyne had been so poor that he had sold his commission, fled from his creditors to France, and there studied French literature and Continental military practices. After their reconciliation, Derby's influence enabled Burgoyne to return to military life.

In the Seven Years War (1756-1763), Burgoyne promoted the raising of light cavalry similar to some Continental forces. He drafted elaborate instructions advising his officers to deal with their men as "thinking beings." After action in France, he acquired favorable notice for his leadership of the Anglo-Portuguese forces in 1762. He was then promoted to a regular colonelcy—a mark as much of Derby's power as of Burgoyne's ability.

Burgoyne was long active in politics. He held a seat in the House of Commons from 1761 until his death. Although he occasionally joined the opposition, he generally enjoyed royal favor until 1777. In Commons he spoke frequently and showed considerable interest in the troubles of the East India Company. He received profitable military appointments. While differing on some issues with Lord North, he supported a repressive American policy.

After brief service in America, Burgoyne—visiting home—drew up plans for invading New York from Canada. In March 1777 he was named commander of an invasion force that was about half as strong as he had desired. There was little or no coordination of the efforts to be made between this army and the troops under Sir Henry Clinton and William Howe. Nonetheless, Burgoyne with great confidence—expressed in bombastic fashion—started his campaign with the capture of Ft. Ticonderoga in early July. He soon encountered unexpectedly heavy American resistance. Yet he persisted in moving his troops in a rather leisurely fashion, rather than marching rapidly toward Albany. Inadequate strength, overconfidence, general bumbling, the appearance of large numbers of Americans—all contributed to disaster for the British. Burgoyne belatedly realized that he was surrounded and outnumbered, unable either to advance or retreat. He surrendered at Saratoga on Oct. 17, 1777.

Burgoyne's defeat was followed by his apostasy from Lord North's ministry. Greeted with criticism at home, he replied by blaming others. He lost favor at court and went so far as to resign from military offices which had netted him £3,500 a year. Finding new friends among the supporters of Charles James Fox, he became a kind of opposition martyr, and his fate rose or fell along with the fortunes of Fox. He gained some position in 1782 but remained on the fringes of real power. Though a frequent speaker on military matters in Parliament, he made little impact on political life of the 1780s.

Instead, Burgoyne turned increasingly to literary and social pursuits. He mingled with theater friends and took as his mistress a popular singer. A series of stage successes culminated in The Heiress, a popular triumph after its first performance in 1786. More successful as an author than he had been as a soldier, Burgoyne died in London on June 4, 1792.


Further Reading on John Burgoyne

The standard, older biography of Burgoyne is E. B. de Fonblanque, Political and Military Episodes Derived from the Life and Correspondence of John Burgoyne (1876). A less substantial biography is Francis J. Hudleston, Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne (1927). Howard H. Peckham, The War for Independence: A Military History (1958), provides a general military perspective.

Additional Biography Sources

Glover, Michael, General Burgoyne in Canada and America: scapegoat for a system, London: Gordon & Cremonesi; New York: distributed by Atheneum Publishers, 1976.

Hargrove, Richard J., General John Burgoyne, Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1983.

Howson, Gerald, Burgoyne of Saratoga: a biography, New York: Times Books, 1979.

Lunt, James D., John Burgoyne of Saratoga, London: Macdonald and Jane's, 1976.

Mintz, Max M., The generals of Saratoga: John Burgoyne & Horatio Gates, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.

Paine, Lauran, Gentleman Johnny: the life of General John Burgoyne, London: Hale, 1973.