Sunday, 4 August 2013

"A buffoon in uniform who bungled his assignments badly"

Portrait by Joshua Reynoldsc. 1766
John Burgoyne died quite unexpectedly on 4 August 1792 at his home in Mayfair, after having been seen the previous night at the theatre in apparent good health.

In his time Burgoyne was a notable playwright, writing a number of popular plays. The most notable were The Maid of the Oaks and The Heiress (1786). He assisted Richard Brinsley Sheridan in his production of The Camp, which he may have co-authored. He also wrote the libretti for William Jackson's only successful opera The Lord of the Manor (1780).  Had it not been for his role in the American War of Independence, Burgoyne would most likely be foremost remembered today as a dramatist.

Burgoyne has often been portrayed by historians and commentators as a classic example of the marginally-competent aristocratic British general who acquired his rank through political connections rather than ability. Accounts of the lavish lifestyle he maintained on the Saratoga campaign, combined with a gentlemanly bearing and his career as a playwright led less-than-friendly contemporaries to caricature him, as historian George Billias writes, "a buffoon in uniform who bungled his assignments badly". Much of the historical record, Billias notes, is based upon these characterisations. Billias opines that Burgoyne was a ruthless and risk-taking general with a keen perception of his opponents, and that he was also a perceptive social and political commentator.

The campaign was initially successful. Burgoyne gained possession of the vital outposts of Fort Ticonderoga (for which he was made a lieutenant-general) and Fort Edward, but, pushing on, decided to break his communications with Quebec, and was eventually hemmed in by a superior force led by American Major General Horatio Gates. Several attempts to break through the enemy lines were repulsed at Saratoga in September and October 1777. On 17 October 1777, Burgoyne surrendered his entire army, numbering 5,800. This was the greatest victory the colonists had yet gained, and it proved to be the turning point in the war.

Although Burgoyne at the time was widely held to blame for the defeat, historians have over the years shifted responsibility for the disaster at Saratoga to Lord Germain, the Secretary of State for the Colonies. Germain had overseen the overall strategy for the campaign and had significantly neglected to order General Howe to support Burgoyne's invasion, instead leaving him to believe that he was free to launch his own attack on Philadelphia.

Burgoyne is buried in Westminster Abbey in the North Walk of the Cloisters.

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