“Gentleman Johnny”: The Life and Times of General John Burgoyne

The Right Honorable General John Burgoyne, General in the British Army and MP for Preston, is probably most famous for commanding the losing Army at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, during the American War of Independence, but he also known in his day for being an author and playwright, as well as a politician who spent most of his career representing Preston. His affability and the ease with which he made friends gave rise to the nickname by which he was known by his contemporaries as ‘Gentleman Johnny’. 

A painting of General John Burgoyne by Joshua Reynolds

A painting of General John Burgoyne by Joshua Reynolds

     John Burgoyne was born in Sutton, Bedfordshire on the 24th of February 1722 O.S.* the son of Captain John Burgoyne and Anna Marie Burgoyne, the daughter of a wealthy Merchant. He attended the Westminster School at the same time as Thomas Gage (under whom he was later to serve), where he met and befriended Lord James Strange of the Stanley family, and heir to Earl of Derby. This friendship was to have an important influence on the course of Burgoyne’s life.

     Burgoyne’s favourite subject whilst at school was history, (commendably enough!), with an especial interest in military history. Consequently, when he left school, he wished to pursue a military career, and so, in 1737, at the age of 15, he purchased a commission as a junior officer in the Horse Guards, Britain’s most prestigious cavalry regiment. Unfortunately, Burgoyne’s profligate lifestyle and bad luck at gambling forced him to sell his commission a few years later in 1741, later becoming a junior officer in the somewhat less prestigious 1st Dragoons.

     In 1751, John Burgoyne became amorously involved with Lady Charlotte Stanley, the Earl of Derby’s sixth daughter, and asked the Earl for his permission to marry his daughter. When this was refused, they eloped anyway, much to the fury of the Earl, who cut both of them off as a result. This caused a severe strain between Burgoyne and the Stanley family that lasted for years, although Lord Strange did not himself personally object to the marriage, and apparently remained on friendly terms throughout. The marriage was by all accounts a very happy one, despite Burgoyne’s occasional wandering eye, but the Earl was not soon appeased. He did however, grant a small dowry to the couple, with which he purchased a Captaincy. 

     However, Burgoyne’s tendency to live beyond his means, and his estrangement from his erstwhile patrons forced him to sell the captaincy, and the Burgoyne’s moved to France, where he brushed up on his French and took the opportunity to tour the continent with his wife, observing the latest military developments in the structure and methods of continental armies, which convinced him of the value of highly mobile light horsemen in a modern army, which would inspire him to establish a similar unit later. During his time living in France, near Chantiloup, he struck up another friendship with the Duc de Choiseul, who would later become the French foreign minister under Louis XV during the 7 Year War.

     In 1755, Burgoyne’s wife gave birth to a daughter, also named Charlotte, and they returned to England, hoping to use the birth of a granddaughter would allow them to get back into Derby’s good books. The plan worked perfectly (thanks also in part due to to Lord Strange’s intercession) and the venerable Earl decided to welcome them back into the family so that he might have the opportunity to continue to fuss all over his beloved new granddaughter. The following year, in 1756, war between Britain and France broke out. Burgoyne rejoined the Army, and thanks to his father in law’s patronage, purchased another captaincy with the 11th Dragoons. He participated in diversionary raid on St Malo, and earned distinction by demonstrating courage under fire in staving off French counter-attacks.

     Burgoyne’s previous advocation of light horse did not go unnoticed either, and after years of languishing at the rank of Captain, he was finally fast-tracked from Major to Lt-Colonel and given command of a new regiment of light horse, the 16th Dragoons. Finally in command of his own regiment, Burgoyne demonstrated a more enlightened view of treating his men than was typical of the time. He preferred to earn the respect of his men, rather than flogging them into submission, stating, with s certain hint of national prejudice, that “An Englishman will not bear beating so well as the foreigner”. He also required that his officers should have a working knowledge of shoeing and caring for his horse, even if these tasks should be more typically performed by the lower ranks.

     With these policies and attitudes, he earned the respect of his men, a particularly valuable commodity during battle, not only because it inspired the men who fought under them to greater feats, but also because it was not uncommon at this for unpopular officers to be shot in the back by their own men when the opportunity arose…

     In 1761, Burgoyne entered Parliament for the first time when he was elected as Whig MP for the notorious rotten borough of Midhurst, which he held until 1765. In the meantime, John Burgoyne was dispatched with his regiment in 1762 to Portugal to shore up its defenses against the French-backed Spanish attempt to invade it. Given the provisional rank of Brigadier, Burgoyne played a successful role in helping to lead Anglo-Portuguese forces to victory over the Spanish.

     In one particular action, in which the Portuguese town of Vila Velha was recaptured, Burgoyne’s immediate subordinate was a certain Lt-Colonel Charles Lee. Charles Lee was, like Burgoyne, an officer with Whiggish inclinations, but unlike John Burgoyne, he was also a cantankerous, sarcastic man who made enemies more easily than he did friends. Consequently, many where more willing to give the bulk of the credit of that victory to Brigadier Burgoyne, despite the fact that Lee had been the one who had actually led the successful and difficult attack that had taken the Spanish completely by surprise.

     Charles Lee, who apparently despised George III, eventually emigrated to the American colonies, resigned his British commission and took up arms against his erstwhile compatriots when the colonies rebelled in 1775, eventually becoming second in command to George Washington himself.

     1768 was a general election year, and the Stanleys who were one of Preston’s leading families, sponsored John Burgoyne’s candidacy on the Whig ticket, alongside his co-candidate Sir Henry Hoghton**, The election did not run as smoothly as expected however, and although Hoghton and Burgoyne won the seat, the losing Tory candidates alleged fraud, and petitioned Parliament to investigate the election.

     Parliament found in favour of Burgoyne and Hoghton, but this was rejected by the Tories, who continued to dispute the election result. The dispute descended into violence, Thomas Grimshaw, the town’s Tory mayor, allegedly armed local Tory supporters with weapons taken from the local militia arsenal, and armed bands of Whig and Tory supporters roamed through Preston and the surrounding districts inflicting violence upon their opponents, rioting and generally making a nuisance of themselves.

     Burgoyne was amongst those arrested and indicted the following year for inciting the violence following the election, and having admitted under questioning to carrying two loaded pistols with him to the polling station (which, not unreasonably, he claimed he had used for his own protection) he was found guilty and fined £1,000, narrowly avoiding being sent to prison, as was the fate of many of his co-defendents. Despite this controversial start to his career as MP for Preston, he remained as its Parliamentary representative for the rest of his life, and lived at Cooper Hill House, in nearby Walton-le-Dale when he was in residence at Preston.

     In 1771 and 1775, Preston was visited by none other than Benjamin Franklin, the famous American scientist, philosopher and future American founding father, whose in-laws, the Bache family lived on Friargate. Franklin visited John Burgoyne at Cooper Hill House, and helped him install a lightening rod to protect the house from damage by lightening. This was yet another friendship which was to come in handy for John Burgoyne later on. In 1773, Burgoyne was notable for pursuing corruption charges in Parliament against Clive of India for corruption, for which Clive was cleared, but committed suicide the following year.

     Trouble was brewing in Franklin’s homeland however. As the prospect of full scale war in the colonies loomed, many Whig officers, including Jeffrey Amherst (a hero of the Seven Years War in the North American Theatre) Lord Pitt (the Younger, future Prime Minister) and the Earl of Effingham, amongst others, resigned their commissions rather than fight against what they saw as fellow Englishmen fighting for their rights against Royal authority. The Whigs, including the former Prime Minister, William Pitt (the Elder), Charles Fox and Edmund Burke, also took the side of the American colonists (Fox even went as far as to dress in buff and blue in Parliament in solidarity with the colonists, and openly called for the defeat of the King’s forces in America).

     Burgoyne however, despite being a Whig member of Parliament was ambitious for his army career, and took the view that the colonists were Britain’s errant children, and stated “I look upon America as our child, which we have already spoilt with too much indulgence” and lobbied for an appointment with British forces in America. In 1775, Burgoyne was dispatched to the colonies and placed under the command of Thomas Gage. At the Battle of Bunker Hill on 17th of June 1775, Burgoyne, by this time a Major General, did not play a leading role, but did have an excellent vantage point to observe the battle as he commanded an artillery battery on the other side of the bay from Bunker Hill.

At that battle, the British managed to take the hill, but at the cost of nearly half of the attacking force, a disproportionate number of the casualties of whom were officers. Burgoyne noted in a letter to Lord Rochefort (the Secretary of State for the Colonies) that “all of the wounds of the officers were not received from the enemy”. A reflection perhaps, on the hatred many ordinary soldiers had towards their officers, as well as the confusion of battle itself…

     Thomas Gage was blamed for the scale of the losses in this Pyrrhic British victory, and was recalled in August, replaced with Major-General William Howe. However, the British force there found itself hemmed in at Boston. While in Boston, Burgoyne and his old brother officer Charles Lee exchanged letters, as despite all, the two had apparently remained on good terms with each other. Lee had requested that the two should meet, and although Howe agreed to the meeting (hoping perhaps that Burgoyne might persuade him to defect back to the British side) the American Continental Congress ‘advised’ Lee that such a meeting might rouse suspicions in the eyes of the colonial soldiers, and so the meeting never materialized.

     Burgoyne departed from Boston back to England in December of 1775, with an idea to put before the King himself for a new plan to win the war in the colonies. In his treatise ‘Reflections on the War in America’ he advocated the increased use of light infantry to combat American skirmisher tactics, and suggested an invasion via Canada from the North whilst British column moved in from the South, cutting the rebellious colonies into two halves. This was well received, and Burgoyne was dispatched again in March 1776 to become Sir Guy Carleton’s 2nd in Command in Canada.

     It was eventually decided however, that Sir Guy Carleton didn’t have what it took to command the British invasion force however, as although he had successfully defended Canada from an American attempt to take it in the previous year, he had apparently not pursued the defeated Americans with the vigour London would have liked, even going as far as to release 110 Americans with allegedly nothing more than stern, paternalistic lecture, telling them off like naughty schoolboys for being so cheeky as to rebel against the mother country.

     This was somewhat unfair, as Sir Guy’s lack of supplies meant that the other alternatives were to put an intolerable strain on his own highly inadequate supplies by maintaining a large number of prisoners, or else commit an unspeakable atrocity. Nevertheless, he was considered unfit to carry on the fight into rebel-held territory and so Burgoyne was given command of the invading column instead.***

     And so in June 1777, Burgoyne set off with just under 9,000 troops, including British regulars, “Tory” (loyalist) militia, German mercenaries and most controversially, native auxiliaries. The aim was to get to Albany, and to link up with Howe moving west from New York. The logistical difficulties of the enterprise were considerable, especially the column contained a large artillery component. The columns were perpetually harassed by American milita using the trees as cover, who melted away when confronted with strongly organized resistance. By July, Burgoyne had successfully recaptured Fort Ticonderoga, and carried on marching south. That same month however, the murder of a young colonial girl, Jane McCrea was to prove a rallying point that turned many formerly indifferent locals decisively against the British and against Burgoyne’s Army.

     The 18 year old Jane McCrea was a local girl whose fiancé was an officer in the local Tory militia, who had, ironically, dispatched his beloved in the direction of Burgoyne’s column for her own safety. However, she was intercepted by a group of native auxiliaries led by a chieftain known as ‘le Loup’ who following an argument over her with a fellow native, brutally murdered her and took her scalp as a trophy, as was their custom.

     When news of this reached Burgoyne’s camp, the furious general wanted to hang the murderer for his despicable crime, but was advised that if he was to do that, his Indian auxiliaries would all desert him. With the greatest of reluctance, and to the outrage of the British, Loyalist and Rebel alike, Burgoyne let le Loup go unpunished, instead attempting to impress upon the Natives not to attack non-combatants.

     This craven act of appeasement backfired in every possible way. It not only inspired local settlers to throw in their lot with the American rebels, it also earned him opprobrium from the British side as well. Worst of all, it failed to keep the Natives onside. The Native Americans could not comprehend the western notion of trying to confine the violence of warfare to combatants, which to the Native mind was naïve and counter-intuitive when non-combatants made much easier targets for plunder.

     All but 100 natives thereafter abandoned Burgoyne, leaving him even more vulnerable than ever to the American riflemen lurking in the woods. The name ‘Jane McCrea’ became a battle cry thereafter for the Americans fighting against Burgoyne’s forces, and his controversial use of Native Auxiliaries whose barbaric and savage attitude to warfare was feared by Rebel and Loyalist alike would continue to come back to haunt him.

     Following the Jane McCrea affair, Burgoyne continued to suffer setbacks in the fight against the rebels. A detachment of Germans under the command of Frederich Baum was defeated and its leader killed at the Battle of Bennington, and this was followed by the failure of a larger detachment to capture Fort Stanwix. Burgoyne nevertheless pushed on, trying to reach Albany. By this time however, Burgoyne found himself deep in enemy territory surrounded by a hostile population and harassed at every turn.

     The British won a couple of engagements, notably at Freeman’s farm, but suffered unaffordable losses in the process. By October, Burgoyne’s army, now numbering little more than 6,000, was surrounded by as many as 25,000 American militia and regulars, and without the realistic prospect of relief, was forced to surrender to American forces under Horatio Gates, another former British officer who had thrown in his lot with the American rebellion.

     Under the terms of the surrender, it was agreed that the British soldiers would be allowed to return to Britain on the understanding that they would not be used to fight in North America again. These terms were considered overly-generous by the Continental Congress, as they realised that even if the British did not use these soldiers in North America again, there was nothing to stop them freeing up soldiers elsewhere for duty in the American Theatre.

     Consequently, they refused to ratify the agreed convention unless it was first ratified by the King himself, which they knew was unlikely. Most of the troops (although over 1,000 would later escape from the poorly defended camps, often having eloped with local women) remained in captivity until the end of the war. During his period of captivity, Burgoyne wrote to various officers in the American continental army deploring the conditions his men were often forced to live in, who were as one survivor related, often packed indiscriminately together, 30-40 men, women and children**** into a small open hut, exposed to the snow in winter so that they were obliged to shake it off as it drifted through the holes.

     His letters of complaint to General Gates however, merely reinforced the American resolve not to parole the entire army, feeling that such complaints would provide an excuse to abrogate the convention and return the soldiers to active service as soon as they were released. In one instance, a certain American colonel, David Henley, was accused of stabbing (non-fatally) an insolent British prisoner. Burgoyne insisted on having Henley tried by court martial, and acted as the prosecutor in the subsequent trial. In the end, Henley was acquitted, but Burgoyne challenged Henley to a duel, which in the end never materialized.

     In April 1778, Burgoyne was given parole and leave to return to Britain, on the understanding that he would no longer participate in the conflict, and that he would return to America to resume his captivity if the Congress demanded it. News of the surrender, which long preceded Burgoyne’s return to London, was apparently greeted with ‘howls of insulting triumph’ emanating from the benches of ‘His Majesty’s “Loyal” Opposition’ in the House of Commons, led enthusiastically by Charles James Fox, dressed as was then his custom in the buff and blue of the American Continental Army.

     Not only had Fox been presented with yet another opportunity to stick the boot into his old enemy George III, he had also won a £10 wager with his old friend Burgoyne, who had bet his fellow MP that he would return from America triumphant. In the debate in Parliament that followed news of the defeat, he gave a thunderous speech that was so damning in its indictment of Lord North’s policy in North America that nobody on Government benches dared to reply to it.

     Upon his return to England, Burgoyne requested a court of inquiry to clear his name. The slippery Lord Sackville, secretary of state for America fobbed him off, as it was less embarrassing to the Government to have the responsibility for the defeat fall on Burgoyne alone than have matters fall more widely onto the shoulders of commanders still fighting in North America, as well as on the Government itself. Attempting to push the matter further, Burgoyne wrote to the King to offer his resignation, which to his surprise was accepted, with the reply coming back informing him that of course as he was no longer a commissioned officer in his Majesty’s forces, a court martial was now impossible.

     Burgoyne’s shabby treatment at the hands of the Tory establishment was compounded in April 1781, when Congress, frustrated by many years of fruitless attempts to ratify the Saratoga convention instructed George Washington to write to Sir Henry Clinton, by then Supreme Commander of British forces in North America, demanding Burgyone’s return to captivity. This would have suited the British Government perfectly, as Burgoyne had begun to align himself with the Whig faction in Parliament opposed to continuing the war in North America, but Edmund Burke wrote to Franklin (by this time America’s ambassador to France) on behalf of their mutual friend, asking him to intercede on his behalf. Franklin agreed, and helped to secure Burgoyne’s release in exchange for 1,047 American rank-and-file prisoners, although by the time this was ratified in February 1782, Yorktown had already fallen, and the war was effectively over.

     The following month, Lord North’s Tory administration fell, and the Whigs came to power, and as a result Burgoyne was appointed to the Privy Council and restored to the army and made Commander-In-Chief in Ireland, a position he held until 1784. He nevertheless began to retreat somewhat from public life, choosing instead to focus on his other career as a dramatist. His work often received mixed reviews. He tended towards verbosity, and his prose was often so pompous that he was nicknamed ‘Pomposo’ by his detractors. An attempt to turn the Shakespearian play ‘As You Like It’ into a musical was panned by contemporary theatre critics, who unlike today’s critics, were prone to shudder at the thought of straying from the purity of Shakespeare’s original vision. He did enjoy one enduring success however, with his comedy ‘The Heiress’, written in 1786, which was a commercial as well as critical success in London’s West End.

     In 1782, Burgoyne entered into a relationship with the Actress Susan Caulfield (Burgoyne’s wife Charlotte had died in 1776), with whom he had a son, John Fox Burgoyne and three other children. John Fox Burgoyne was destined to become a Field Marshal in the British Army, and he was himself to have a son, Hugh Talbot Burgoyne, who was destined to become a Royal Navy officer and one of the earliest recipients of the Victoria Cross for gallantry in action during the Crimean War.

     In 1785, Burgoyne sat on a committee along with Lord Cornwallis (of Yorktown fame) and 21 others looking into the nation’s defences. Burgoyne’s opinion, unlike those of many other army men, was that Britain’s defences should rest principally with the Navy, rather than the Army, a conclusion that offended the tribalist inclinations of his fellow former army officers, including Cornwallis, who declared Burgoyne to be a ‘blockhead’. Subsequent years would eventually vindicate Burgoyne on this matter however. Amongst his last acts as a politician was his role in the prosecution of Warren Hastings, who like his predecessor Clive, stood charged with corruption in India (as with Clive, he was eventually cleared).

     Burgoyne died suddenly at his home on the 4th of August 1792 at the age of 70. As per his request, he was buried in an unmarked grave in Westminster, near his ‘late and inestimable wife, Lady Charlotte Burgoyne’. ‘Gentleman Johnny’, the soldier, playwright and MP was mourned greatly by those who had served under him and with him, as well as by his constituents in Preston, and by his family and mistress. Despite the fact that his chief claim to fame is as the British general who lost the Saratoga campaign, he retained the respect of many of his contemporaries, even some of those against whom he had fought on the battlefield and in the political arena. 

*’Old Style’, i.e. prior to the Calendar Act of 1752, which replaced the Julian Calendar with the Gregorian one throughout the British Empire, which, amongst other things, changed the start of the year from 25th of March to the 1st of January.

** Nephew and namesake of his notable predecessor, who played a leading role in raising and leading the Lancashire Militia against the invading Jacobite Army, whose invasion terminated in Preston during the 1715 rising

*** It must have been however, of great consolation later on for Sir Guy to end up as Britain’s only successful and undefeated general in what had otherwise been a disastrous war for Britain.

**** Presumably camp followers

By Matthew Hill-Spur