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Burgoyne, Johnlocked

(24 February 1723–04 August 1792)
  • Paul David Nelson

John Burgoyne.

Courtesy of the National Archives (NWDNS-148-GW-616).

Burgoyne, John (24 February 1723–04 August 1792), British soldier and dramatist, was born in London, England, the son of Captain John Burgoyne, a soldier, and Anna Maria Burneston. The popular belief that he was the natural son of Robert Benson, Lord Bingley, may have been true, but legally he was the son of Burgoyne. Educated at Westminster School, he entered the army at the age of fifteen, joining the Third Regiment of Horse Guards. Three years later he became a cornet in the Thirteenth Regiment of Light Dragoons and was promoted to lieutenant in 1741. In 1743 Burgoyne eloped with fifteen-year-old Lady Charlotte Stanley, daughter of Edward Stanley, earl of Derby; they had one child, who died at the age of ten. Lord Derby disapproved of the marriage; he gave his daughter only a small dowry and refused to see her or her husband. With Lady Charlotte’s money, Burgoyne purchased a captaincy in the Thirteenth Dragoons, and for three years the couple lived in London. After that time gambling debts forced Burgoyne to sell his commission. He and his wife retired to a quiet life in the French countryside near Chanteloup, where they lived for seven years on Lady Charlotte’s money and the proceeds from the sale of Burgoyne’s captaincy.

With Anglo-French political rivalries rapidly building toward war by 1755, the Burgoynes decided to return to England, family difficulties or no. To their delight, Lady Charlotte’s father welcomed them home, providing his daughter with an annuity of £400 and a promise of £25,000 upon his death. Additionally, he secured for his son-in-law a captaincy in the Eleventh Regiment of Dragoons, which Burgoyne two years later exchanged for a lieutenant colonelcy in the Coldstream Regiment of Foot, commonly known as the Coldstream Guards. Actively engaging in the Seven Years’ War, Burgoyne participated in expeditions to Cherbourg and St. Malo in 1758 and 1759, then raised the Sixteenth Regiment of Light Dragoons, subsequently called “Burgoyne’s Light-Horse.” In 1762 Burgoyne was elected to Parliament, but before he began service he participated in a British harassing raid against Belle Ile on the coast of Brittany. The following year he was sent to Portugal as a brigadier general under Count la Lippe. In July he attacked Valencia d’Alcantara, capturing a general, and in October he stormed the fortified camp of Villa Velha to end the campaign. Thus ending the war with a brilliant record for military daring, Burgoyne was promoted in late 1762 to a colonelcy. In the following decade he served as a parliamentary spokesman for the ministry, violently criticizing and coming close to impeaching Robert, Lord Clive, who was suspected of plundering India while pretending to act for the India Company. Meanwhile, Burgoyne frequented fashionable clubs, acted on an amateur level, and gambled heavily. In 1774 he wrote a play, Maid of the Oaks, which David Garrick, an outstanding theater manager, staged at Drury Lane. Reportedly it ran for several nights, but critics considered it dull and tedious.

In May 1775 Major General Burgoyne (he had been promoted two years before) joined the British in attempts to suppress rebelling American colonists. After spending the summer at Boston bitterly complaining about his enforced inactivity, Burgoyne went home in disgust. The following year he reluctantly left his wife, who died a month later, and returned to the United States with the local rank of lieutenant general, second in command to Canadian governor Guy Carleton. After suffering another summer of frustration as Carleton managed to drive only a short way south into New York, Burgoyne returned once more to England. That winter, at the request of the ministry of Frederick, Lord North, Burgoyne drew up a plan of campaign for 1777, which was accepted. According to the plan, a large army under his command would advance to Albany by way of Lake Champlain. Simultaneously, a division from General William Howe’s forces in New York would move northward and effect a junction, isolating New England from the other American colonies. A third body of men, under Barry St. Leger, would act as a diversion at Oswego on the Mohawk River. Following his program, Burgoyne in May advanced up Lake Champlain and quickly seized Fort Ticonderoga. Then, however, he inexplicably wasted much time plodding overland to Fort Edward, instead of going by water up Lake George. Burgoyne also impeded the mission by bringing along his mistress, a splendid wardrobe, and many cartloads of champagne. Thus, the Americans were given time to collect their forces at Bennington and Bemis Heights. After suffering a serious check at Bennington, Burgoyne arrived at Bemis Heights in September. In two major battles on 19 September and 7 October, he was first halted in his advance and then forced to retreat to Saratoga. Cut off from succor to the northward by John Stark’s militia, Burgoyne surrendered to General Horatio Gates on 17 October. The decisive defeat hastened French recognition of the United States.

Given leave by the Americans to return to England in 1778, Burgoyne arrived home to face cold anger from the king, ministry, and people. Vainly demanding a court-martial, he managed to have his case heard in Parliament and also published a vindication of his actions. Nevertheless, in 1779 he was stripped of all military offices except his rank. Thereupon he joined the parliamentary opposition, and when Lord Rockingham came to power in 1782 Burgoyne was appointed commander in chief in Ireland and colonel of the Fourth Regiment of Foot, and was made an Irish privy councillor. After only a year the ministry fell and he was removed from power. He then distanced himself from politics—except to help manage the impeachment of Warren Hastings in 1787 for malpractice as governor of India—and instead cultivated a literary career. He wrote a number of comedies that were staged in the 1780s. One, The Heiress, was a great success; it went through ten editions in a year and was translated into French, German, Italian, and Spanish. All of Burgoyne’s plays were published in 1808. Burgoyne formed a liaison with actress Susan Caulfield, and they had four children, the eldest of whom was Sir John Burgoyne, of Crimean War fame. Burgoyne died in London and was buried in Westminster Abbey.


Burgoyne’s personal papers have disappeared, but large numbers of his official letters are in the British Library, the William L. Clements Library in Ann Arbor, Mich., and the Public Record Office. Burgoyne’s vindication is A State of the Expedition from Canada, as Laid before the House of Commons … (1780), and his literary efforts are in The Dramatic and Poetical Works of the Late Lieutenant-general John Burgoyne (2 vols., 1808). The finest biography is Richard J. Hargrove, General John Burgoyne (1983). Other recent monographs are James Lunt, John Burgoyne of Saratoga (1976), and Michael Glover, General Burgoyne in Canada and America: Scapegoat for a System (1976). An older work, important primarily because the author had access to Burgoyne’s private correspondence, is Edward B. DeFonblanque, Political and Military Episodes … from the Life and Correspondence of the Rt. Hon. John Burgoyne, General, Statesman, Dramatist (1876). A short sketch is George A. Billias, “John Burgoyne: Ambitious General,” in George Washington’s Opponents, ed. Billias (1969). Useful treatments of Burgoyne’s role in the Saratoga campaign are Charles Neilson, An Original, Compiled, and Corrected Account of Burgoyne’s Campaign, and the Memorable Battles of Bemis Heights (1844); Max M. Mintz, The Generals of Saratoga: John Burgoyne & Horatio Gates (1990); Harrison Bird, March to Saratoga: General Burgoyne and the American Campaign, 1777 (1963); and John S. Pancake, 1777: The Year of the Hangman (1977).