45. Burgoyne’s Folly

John Burgoyne (1722-1792) is portrayed above in the circa 1766 rendition by British artist Joshua Reynolds (oil on canvas, purchased by The Frick Collection in 1943). He is best known for his enormously consequential defeat in the Saratoga campaign of 1777. Burgoyne’s endeavor ended in failure after General William Howe decided to capture the American capital of Philadelphia instead of joining up with Burgoyne’s army in Albany, New York—a decision that spelled doom for Burgoyne’s offensive. The northern American Army under General Horatio Gates surrounded Burgoyne and his outnumbered troops and compelled their surrender at Saratoga on October 17, 1777. The rebel victory proved to be of monumental significance, propelling France into the war as America’s crucial ally and turning the conflict into a global struggle.


A veteran of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763, termed the French and Indian War in America), Burgoyne earned the nickname “Gentleman Johnny” for the manner in which he led his men. He distinguished himself as a cavalry officer in Portugal while fighting the Spanish in the 1760s. Although viewed by some as vain and boastful, Burgoyne demonstrated his courage in battle. He served in Parliament and overcame a reputation as a gambler and actor to become an exemplary politician as well as a playwright. In 1775, he was promoted to the rank of major general and shortly afterwards was sent to Boston with Generals William Howe and Henry Clinton to assist General Thomas Gage, commander of the British forces in North America and the military governor of Massachusetts, in responding to the American rebellion. Burgoyne witnessed the Battle of Bunker Hill before returning to England in November 1775, where he devised a plan for an invasion of New York from Canada that required Generals William Howe and Barry St. Leger to meet him in Albany. George III assisted in selecting Burgoyne to command the operation and in formulating his instructions.

The Pitfalls

In his recent and deservedly acclaimed book, Liberty is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution (Simon & Schuster, 2021), Woody Holton outlines the various flaws that attached to Burgoyne’s campaign:

— Burgoyne and Howe had instructions from London to cooperate with each other, but these were not orders. They were merely recommendations that reflected the British government’s desire to preserve the balance of authority between its civilian leadership and its generals overseas, allowing for the extended time lags involved with transatlantic communications, shielding the egos of its commanders in the field, and enabling the majority party in Parliament to maintain a safe distance from any military disaster. In any case, General Howe made his strategic priority clear: his objective of taking Philadelphia superseded the need for any action on his part to link up with Burgoyne’s force in Albany. That, and the failure of St. Leger’s expedition, left “Gentleman Johnny” to fend for himself.

— Burgoyne’s invasion plan had a significant tactical deficiency. Once his troops captured Fort Ticonderoga, near the southern end of Lake Champlain, in July 1777, they would have had to march about a hundred miles overland to Albany without the Royal Navy being able to transport or otherwise assist them. This left the Anglo-German army vulnerable to the rebel forces who would impede its advance through the heavily wooded terrain and inflict substantial casualties upon the invaders.

— Moreover, a serious strategic defect underlay the premise of Burgoyne’s scheme. This was the idea that a successful invasion of the kind he contemplated could accomplish its objective of isolating New England, the cradle of the Revolution, from the rest of the United States. Burgoyne lacked the troops needed to establish and garrison a chain of forts along the Lake Champlain-Hudson River corridor; and even fully staffed forts would, in all probability, have been unable to interdict American soldiers and supplies transiting this corridor, given that it extended some 360 miles from the mouth of the Richelieu River down to New York City. As a case in point, Paul Revere’s co-conspirators were able to row him across the Charles River from Boston on the night of April 18-19, 1775, to begin his celebrated ride, without being detected by British warships that lay within a pistol shot of Revere’s tiny craft.

In short, as Holton contends, the entire enterprise seemed impossible. You might say Burgoyne and Britain went, well, seriously off track at Saratoga. (That’s the mane point, and you’ll just have to saddle for that.)