Sunday, March 26, 2023

AR-SP19 John Burgoyne, with Norman Poser

Michael Troy (MJT): Hello, and thank you for joining this special edition of the American Revolution.  This week, I’m joined by Norman Poser, who is the author of a new book called From the Battlefield to the Stage: The Many Lives of General John Burgoyne.  Mr. Posner is professor emeritus at Brooklyn Law School.  I had the opportunity to speak with him via Zoom about his new book on General Burgoyne.

Mr. Poser, welcome to the American Revolution podcast. 

Norman Posner (NP) : Thank you for inviting me. 

MJT: So, John Burgoyne, the British general from the American Revolution, what drew your interest to him in the first place? 

NP: I was working on a book, researching a book, at the Morgan Library in New York on theater in London in the 18th century. I came across a letter which really surprised me. I'll just read you the first sentence - two sentences of it. This is what Burgoyne wrote to the theater manager and actor David Garrick. Burgoyne had written a play what he was writing about was the production of the play and the terms that they would have together, and he wrote this:  

He says “for some days past. I frequently smiled in thinking upon your situation and mine.” This is Burgoyne writing to Garrick. “It is something like that of two lovers who flutter at the thoughts of an interview where a proposal is to be made. They feel awkward and hesitate and procrastinate and always resolve to explain the next time they are alone.”  

Well, that letter. First of all, I thought maybe it was somebody called Burgoyne, not the general, who surrendered his army at Saratoga, but it was the same person. I thought the letter was so interesting. First of all, that this man was a playwright as well as a general. And secondly the style, which I try to give you an idea of, that's how that letter begins. And also his generosity because he said in the letter he wanted any proceeds that were due to him to go to a fund that Garrick, the actor-manager, had set up for the help of indigent actors and their families. So I was interested. I found out that no biography has been written in over 40 years and so I decided to do it. 

MJT: I know most men who rise to the level of general in the British military at this time were of a noble a background, but Burgoyne was not. 

NP:  Burgoyne came from a family of soldiers. I think his grandfather was a baronet, which is not exactly a nobleman, but something close to it because he would have the title of Sir John Burgoyne. Burgoyne came from that family.  He was not a nobleman, but he was something above the normal commoners. He was educated for five years, from the time he was ten until he was fifteen, at Westminster School, which was really the training ground of the elite in England at the time. It was more important than, say, Eaton was at the at that time. 

MJT: He was certainly not lower class, but he was not of, you know, the upper strata of wealth or family in Britain, either. For many people like that, it was important for them to have somebody who of wealth and power, who took an interest in his life. And I guess Baron Bingley was that for Burgoyne? 

NP: Baron Bingley comes into the story because he knew Burgoyne's mother very well. And when he died, which was when Burgoyne was about 9 years old, his will showed that he left a great deal, an estate to Burgoyne's mother. And he also had another provision in the will. This Baron only had one legitimate child. There was a girl. He wrote that if she didn't marry. Then he made Burgoyne his heir.  

And there was a rumor going around. The Baron was Burgoyne's father, not the husband of his mother. The benefits that he gave to Burgoyne’s mother and treated Burgoyne almost like a son would indicate that that was a strong, it was a strong possibility that he was Burgoyne’s father, but I don't know that Burgoyne ever met him. 

MJT: I guess he had the financial benefit from the fact that his mother inherited some money through the family, but that that may have been about it, I guess. 

NP: That's right. 

MJT: Burgoyne is raised in a way that gives them advantages over a lot of other people at the time, and he joins the army, at what age? 

NP: About 15, as an officer. 

MJT: And as an officer, because obviously he had the money to buy a commission, which was the norm at the time. I guess the first real military challenge for Burgoyne was the Seven Years War. 

NP: By that time, he was a lieutenant colonel in the army. This was around 1761, I believe. He was sent to Portugal. Portugal was an ally of Britain, and Spain was an enemy of Britain. They were an ally of France. The principal parties to the countries in the war were Britain and France and their allies.  

Norman Poser

He was not the commander there. The commander was a German count who happened to be an illegitimate grandson of the King of England, of King George I. He was an excellent commander, experienced engineer and artillery engineer, had a great influence on Burgoyne. Burgoyne respected him very highly. 

The count sent Burgoyne to take a town, which was they thought there would be supplies there. And also to create a diversion because they didn't want the Spanish to take a different. Burgoyne conducted a lightning raid on that town right across the border from Portugal and Spain. It was a daring raid. He abandoned most of his infantry, which, to go faster, told some of the infantrymen to get on the back of the horses behind the cavalryman. And gallop into that town at dawn. They surprised everybody. It was a dashing thing, and it made Burgoyne a national hero. The actual capture of the town didn't have much effect on the war generally. The war ended very shortly after that. But Burgoyne came home as a hero and he built a reputation for bravery and leadership. 

MJT: He seems to have been not averse to risk taking throughout his whole life, and that was a real advantage for him and his progression. I wanted to talk a little bit more about Burgoyne's early years in the military and how he rose to lieutenant colonel. Were there any important things in his military career that led to that, or did it have more to do with his marriage and that raising his social status? Or what do you attribute his rise to the rank of lieutenant colonel before the war? 

NP: Burgoyne, when he was 28 years old, he had a friend who was the son of the Earl of Derby, very rich, powerful, influential nobleman. He visited their home up in Knowsley Hall, near Liverpool in northern England, and met the youngest daughter of the Earl. Her name was Charlotte. The family name was Stanley. She was Lady Charlotte Stanley. Burgoyne, after knowing her for two or three years, asked the Earl for his daughter's hand in marriage and apparently the Earl refused. While he was a fine gentleman, a young man, but he wasn't a nobleman. And he didn't have a huge amount of money. He refused and the couple had fallen in love and they eloped and they went to live in France and later in Italy for five years.  

When they got back, the war had started. This was the Seven Years War. This started around 1756. Burgoyne, who had resigned his commission when he went, got another commission, probably through the help of the Earl, who finally was reconciled to the marriage and accepted Burgoyne into his family. From then on, he was a lieutenant colonel. He was able to get a regiment, usually a full colonel, was the one rank higher would have a regiment. Burgoyne as a lieutenant colonel when he went to Portugal,  was the colonel of a regiment. That was a very important rank and it's clear that the Earl and his son, whose name was Lord Strange, were instrumental in getting him that regiment. That was a major promotion that he probably would never have been able to get without the Earl of Derby. 

MJT: After he goes to Portugal in the Seven Years War and returns a conquering hero - for soldiers, peacetime tends to be a bit of a downer for a lot of them and certainly reduces your chances of advancement. What did he do after the war ended? 

NP: Well, he was living in England in peacetime for a few years. He was a member of at least two of the clubs on Saint James St. in London. He was a gambler. We have some of the bets we had described in the book where they would, people would bet on anything, but they also played a lot of cards.  

Sometime toward the late 60s, he was asked by the government to go to Europe and do a study of the armies of three countries: that is France, Prussia and Austria. And he did that and he wrote a report about it. It was a very interesting report because it had such a broad range. He talked about such minor, you might say minor things as the headgear of the soldiers to major things like was there going to be another European war, in his report back to William Pitt, who was the Earl of Chatham, who was the Prime Minister of England at the time. At that time Burgoyne was a colonel. He had been promoted, having written that report, and observed the armies of those three countries. He had respectability as a soldier with a mind, an intellectual soldier which he was, he was he was very broad, based.  

I would mention one thing about that tour he made: when he went to Austria. Austria had been an enemy of Britain in the Seven Years War. He learned that there were to be maneuvers of the Austrian army and the Emperor of Austria was going to be there. This was a very secret matter. The Emperor of Austria didn't want any, even his own generals, unless they were directly involved in what he was doing, he didn't want them there. Burgoyne somehow or other, snuck in. That was a very reckless act. If he had been discovered, it might have even caused an international crisis of some kind. But he got away with it. It's not clear how he did it, but in his report back, even in a letter, he wrote it right afterwards. He mentions that he got into these secret maneuvers. 

MJT: One of the other things that a lot of military officers at least particularly high-ranking ones, did at the time, which is unusual for us in modern day America, was that they also served in Parliament. Burgoyne joined Parliament after the war as well. 

NP: Burgoyne had been a member of Parliament from the very early 60s, even while the war was still going on. He had a friend who was either a baronet or a nobleman who owned a borough. That was the way things worked in England in those days. People could buy a borough and if you bought a borough, you bought it with all the tenants in it. They, more or less, had to vote the way the owner wanted them to.  So that's how he got his first membership in Parliament. Seven years later, in 1768 I believe, his friend died. He'd been killed in a British raid on an island off the coast of France called Belle Isle. Burgoyne was there. His friend was no longer around, so he couldn't keep that borough.  

However, the Earl of Derby, his father-in-law, put him up to run, in England they say stand, in the town of Preston - now, after the Industrial Revolution, a major commercial manufacturing town. But then it was a, how shall I put it, a rural center, market center. Probably a very nice place. This was a very different kind of election, which involved a real contest between the Tories and the Whigs. Burgoyne won the election. However, there was a lot of violence. Burgoyne himself was accused of inciting violence and he was actually convicted by a court and had to pay a very large sum of 1000 pounds, which today would be some millions of dollars or pounds. Having won, he was reelected I think twice, and he remained a Member of Parliament until he died. 

MJT: Burgoyne's different experiences and getting elected to Parliament kind of represent the transition period that Britain was in at this time. There was no such thing as a secret ballot, so for a lot of seats, as you say, somebody essentially owned the seat and could give it to whoever they wanted because they controlled the economic destiny of everybody in their town, which might be a very small number of people, maybe only a few dozen, who elected this person  

NP: Exactly  

MJT: And they would vote the way the lord wanted, or life could become very difficult for them. 

NP: Exactly, yeah. 

MJT: Although they nominally were electing somebody, there really was no free election. 

NP: The election in Preston was unusual even then, and I don't think the system began to change until the Reform Act in 1832. So that's many years later. 

MJT: I've found that during the American Revolution, we start to see the very beginnings of some calls for reform. But you're right, until the 1830s, when they really passed electoral reform is when the real change came.  

So Burgoyne gets elected to Parliament and one of the things I found interesting about what you discussed in his role in Parliament was how much influence the king tried to have in convincing him to vote certain ways. A lot of people think well, the king by this time really had no role in politics. But the king was playing a role, at least somewhat secretive in the way he tried to manipulate politicians. 

NP: Oh yeah, you mentioned the gradual move to some kind of democracy with the power of the king diminishing over the years. George III was in the middle of that change, I think. There were many army generals and admirals who were members of parliament. I think there were about seventy. To be both a member of Parliament and a general in the army created a real conflict of interest because the king expected them to follow his demands and the demands of the government that he had appointed. On the other hand, Burgoyne had a duty to his constituents and to his own conscience. He actually spoke to the Prime Minister about this very thing, that was Lord North, and he told the Prime Minister that on most things he'd go along with the government line of what they wanted. But on things that he regarded of real importance, he would vote his own conscience, and the king was very upset when he did. 

MJT: Even beyond just wanting officers to fall in line, the king had the advantage of being able to offer lucrative financial positions for people that were in his favor and take them away when people were not in his favor. 

NP: And he did just that. He gave Burgoyne - made him commander of Fort William in Scotland. By that time, the commander of Fort William didn't do anything. It was a sinecure. In one case, Burgoyne voted with the king. The king wrote to Lord North and said if he had voted any other way, I would have taken away his sinecure - his commandership of Fort William. After Saratoga, he did. He took away the commandership of Fort William. 

MJT: I mean, that really shows that the king had a lot of political influence over Parliament because he could basically make or break the lives of many individuals unless they came from independently wealthy families. 

NP: Absolutely, first of all, the House of Lords consisted of noblemen, but he had a lot of influence over the House of Commons too. 

MJT: So about the same time, I believe, Burgoyne begins his career as a playwright. 

NP: He made three trips to America, the last one being the one which ended in his surrender at Saratoga.  A year before the first one in 1774, he wrote a play, the one that I when I mentioned the letter he wrote to David Garrick at the beginning of our discussion. That was the play. It was called the Maid of the Oaks, and it was written for a wedding party. A huge wedding party that he actually, Burgoyne managed and he was sort of like the producer of it, huge, major thing, but the play was later on shown. It was his first play that was shown at the Drury Lane Theatre, which was the one of the two biggest theaters in London. 

MJT: Seems like Burgoyne really enjoyed that, as we'll see later in his life. But things as they happen, do interfere like a war in America. By this time, I believe Burgoyne was major general or was he promoted to major general just before he left for Boston in 1775? 

NP: He became a major general a few years earlier - 1772, I believe. 

MJT: Many of the generals who went to America were and who were also members of Parliament, had expressed concern or sympathy, I guess is the word, for many of the colonists’ protests and were against many of the harsher measures that were taken against the colonies by Parliament. My impression is Burgoyne was not among those, that he was more of a hawk. 

NP: That's right. When the Stamp Act, which had been passed, I believe in 1765, which caused the first real unrest in America leading to the Revolution, then they repealed it. But Burgoyne was against the repeal of the Stamp Act. He was solidly behind the King and Lord North as far as the Revolution was concerned. 

MJT: So he was one of three major generals who were sent to Boston shortly after the outbreak of violence. The three who went over were General Howe, General Clinton and General Burgoyne, and of course, was it General... 

NP: Gage. Maybe you're thinking of? 

MJT: Gage was in command of Boston, thank you. 

NP: Was the commander in Boston. 

MJT: Yeah, being about fourth in line in Boston left him without a whole lot to do. 

NP: Well, Gage was still in charge, but then shortly after that, Howe was appointed the commander in chief. 

MJT: Gage knew his days were numbered when the other three arrived, though. 

NP: I think that's right. And actually Burgoyne, who didn't pull his punches, wrote back to England that Gage wasn't doing much there and probably ought to be replaced. Not that he thought that he, Burgoyne, would replace Gage at that point. 

MJT: And I don't think he was wrong. And that Gage was kind of a little more passive than a lot of British leaders would have liked. But it does also, to me, seems to be a common theme that British officers improve their own advancements by bad mouthing their superiors in the nicest possible way, so that “I think he's a wonderful guy. But I wouldn't have done it as horribly as he did.” 

NP: Well, certainly Burgoyne was very good at working the system. But so far as I know, I mean what I've seen, he was accurate. Gage was not the guy to win. And of course, Burgoyne wanted that command. The command, in 1777, which led to Saratoga. 

MJT: Right. So after being in Boston, without much to do, he ends up heading back to Britain. 

NP: Before he went back was the Battle of Bunker Hill. Howe was the leading commander in that. Burgoyne did not play a big part, but he saw what was going on. He was in charge of the artillery. He didn't have much to do with it, but both he and Howe saw how effective and trained the American soldiers were. Burgoyne, at some point, called them a “rabble in arms.” But there were no rabble. He gained some respect for the Americans at that by being at Bunker Hill. 

MJT: I think that's right. A lot of British officers really thought that the Americans, to use a later general's term, would flee at the whiff of grapeshot, that they wouldn't stand and fight. Bunker Hill was a real eye opener for a lot of them. Burgoyne was frustrated that he did not really have a command role, had no likelihood of receiving one anytime soon, because even if Howe somehow got knocked off, Clinton would be next in line for command. So he ends up going back to London to lobby for a command where he would actually have something to do in America. 

NP: Well, yes. And he was asked to write a plan. This was still, we're back in late 1775, early 1776.  But, first of all, the war was in the Revolutionary War was in full bloom at that time. And secondly. The Americans under Benedict Arnold tried to take Quebec. They were unsuccessful. Carlton did a good job of stopping them, and they were also stopped by a blizzard. It was right in the middle of the winter that they did it.  

Burgoyne was sent back to America, but this time to Canada. Carlton was pursuing the fleeing Americans. Burgoyne was the commander of part of that army that was following the Americans. The big thing there was that in order to get into the northern part of the colonies, Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain was key. Carlton decided since the year was getting on, it was getting toward winter. In 1776, he decided to go back into winter quarters. Burgoyne and other generals were extremely angry at his failure to attack Ticonderoga. He was frank in his assessment of Carlton. I think there again he himself, the following year, did take Fort Ticonderoga. But at that time. His criticism of Carlton was quite understandable. 

MJT: When Burgoyne went back to London to give his plan, the war was primarily in New England, specifically right around Boston. His plan was not an original one, but I guess he put in a lot of more specifics, which was to cut off New England from the rest of the colonies, essentially surround them and isolate them. So he thought that bringing an army down through the Hudson Valley and basically creating a line between Quebec and New York would be the key to winning this thing.  

Carlton had tried to do that, you're right, the year before. And he was really held up for most of the year because Benedict Arnold had built a navy on Lake Champlain and Carlton did not want to go into that fight until he had an overwhelming force. So he spent almost an entire year building his own fleet to defeat Arnold's fleet, which meant they lost an entire year. When they finally defeated the fleet at the very end of the fighting season in 1776, they got right down to Fort Ticonderoga and Carlton, almost inexplicably, just turned around and went home. And that frustrated not only Burgoyne but a lot of other officers that - we'd spent the whole year trying to take Ticonderoga. We’d gotten right down to its walls, and then we didn't.  

And there were some good reasons for this. Carlton was afraid that the lake was going to ice over, that his fleet could be frozen in place. And then the Americans could take them. It was a conservative play. What a lot of generals will tell you, if you're in a fair fight. You haven't done your job properly. You want to go in where you have an overwhelming chance of victory. Carlton did not feel his chances were overwhelming, but they would be in the spring, so he decided to wait.  Burgoyne went back to London to say - hey, we need somebody with a little more risk taking here. 

NP: Well, yeah, Burgoyne, he was asked by Lord Germain, the Minister for the Colonies, to write a plan under which Britain would win the war in 1777. And that's what he tried to do. That's what led to Saratoga. 

MJT: Burgoyne goes back to London. He gets approval to essentially take command of an army that's going to leave Quebec and March through the Hudson Valley and create this line of defense between Quebec and New York and achieve what they're trying to achieve here. Carlton really gets undercut. I guess. Carlton and Germain had a lot of bad blood between them for a lot of reasons. And Germain was looking for an excuse to undercut him anyway. And when he saw Carlton's hesitation at taking Ticonderoga, he saw this as an opportunity to put somebody else in his place.  

And so Burgoyne becomes that person. Carleton is still in command in Quebec, but he's given specific orders that the invasion of New York is not for you. You're going to stay in Quebec and Burgoyne's going to head this whole thing.  

NP: Yes. 

MJT: So Burgoyne has this huge army that he's going to invade New York with. He sees this as his opportunity to become a national hero, to be the person who wins the American Revolution by not being afraid or intimidated or cautious, but by moving forward and really getting this done. 

NP: This was a, you might say, even a final opportunity for Burgoyne to lead an army. He never led an army. And that's another aspect of it. He was not really experienced. He'd been a colonel and maybe he always thought of himself as a fighting colonel and that I think that was a problem in two ways. One way was that he went in the battles that were fought. There were three large battles - two of them at Saratoga, Burgoyne was always in the middle of the battle. He was a very brave man. He was lucky he didn't get killed, whereas at Saratoga, for example, Horatio Gates, the American commander, he was a couple of miles behind the lines directing the battle. It's difficult to see how once the battle started, and there are always going to be surprises, that Burgoyne could direct the battle because he was right in the middle of it. 

The other thing that I want to mention is logistics. It wasn't entirely his fault. It was very, very difficult to get supplies, wagons, particularly horses, to take them through the wilderness of upstate New York. Within two weeks after they left Canada, they started on their way down into New York State. They didn't have oats for the horses. The men were hungry. It hadn't been properly provided for.   

Now partly this was because Burgoyne was told that there were many loyalists in upstate New York, and they would help them. That turned out to be untrue. There were loyalists, but the Americans intimidated them so much that they actually were unable or unwilling to provide real help.   

So you have an army. It wasn't all that big an army. It was seven and a half thousand men left Canada. By the time of Saratoga, there were only about 3000 – 3500 left less than. Half they've been killed, some deserters, some were just wounded, and they also had to leave men behind as garrisons for Ticonderoga and other forts. By the time they got to Saratoga, they were exhausted, hungry and tremendously outnumbered by the Americans. 

MJT: Right. And this may be part of Burgoyne's inexperience or just his character as a risk-taker, but a lot of generals, when they saw the situation coming to their disadvantage, would have pulled back because their chances were getting slimmer and slimmer of victory. Burgoyne lost a fair number of people at Bennington. He lost another whole army that he expected to join up with him from Fort Stanwix. He continually lost men along the way. He could not keep his supply lines open because the Americans were constantly attacking his rear, his supply lines. And yet he did not want to pull back to Quebec because that was something that someone like Carleton would do. 

NP: It's a matter of opinion. I agree with everything you said. I think, though, that it wasn't necessary for him to say the Carlton. I don't want to be another Carlton. He was from the very beginning. He was very aggressive and when he started when he met the army at the very beginning of the campaign. He said the one thing: we're never going to retreat.  He said that. That was his state of mind: that he didn't want to retreat and he wouldn't. 

MJT: Right, because he was willing to risk it all for victory and other generals would not take that risk. The other thing that Burgoyne, I think, was counting on was for General Howe in New York to come up and support him. But he learned ,when he was well into his journey, that General Howe had sailed off for Philadelphia and wasn't going to be any help at all. And yet he pushed.  

I've always cynically looked at how's action as one of - he didn't want to play a supporting role to Burgoyne's heroism. I don't think he necessarily wanted Burgoyne to fail, but he wanted to go off and find his own victory and get his own credit by taking Philadelphia, rather than playing any sort of supporting role in Burgoyne's triumphant march through the Hudson Valley. 

NP: Well, yeah. First of all, the plan which Burgoyne had prepared and which the king, among other people, definitely approved was that they would meet in Albany. That is, the two armies would join in in Albany. And Burgoyne would place himself under Howe’s command.  As things happened. Howe was in touch with Germain in London and of course it's very difficult cause it took several weeks each way to pass messages and give approval of changes in plans. But Howe got permission from Germain to go south instead of to go north.  

It may be that Howe, after Ticonderoga had been taken, which Burgoyne did without too much difficulty because the [Americans] decided not to defend it. He thought: well, Burgoyne can get along pretty well by himself. But Howe acted as if Burgoyne wasn't there. He didn't make any attempt to contact him after he started on his journey. He just acted on his own and went down to Philadelphia, which although he was the capital of the rebel colonies, it had no strategic value, and he decided to go by ship. His brother was the Admiral in charge of the navy there.  

So the result of that was that he was completely out of touch with Burgoyne. And he left Burgoyne at nothing between Burgoyne and the American armies under Gates. Burgoyne was in a, partly his own fault, maybe. But also, if Howe had gone up to meet him, this could never have happened with the two armies together, but they were separated. And yes, Howe spent the winter in Philadelphia, but it didn't really do much good for the British cause. 

MJT Right. I mean, General Howe, first of all, not only went to Philadelphia, but as you say, went by sea all the way down to Maryland and attacked from the South, which meant Washington wasn't distracted in northern Jersey while Burgoyne was moving through New York. Howe had had orders to take Philadelphia quickly and then get back to help Burgoyne, which she apparently had no intention of doing 

NP: And it wasn't very practical as far as the timing was concerned. 

MJT: General Clinton, who was left in command of New York City, attempted to run some of his forces up the  Hudson River to at least relieve pressure on Burgoyne, but he was woefully undermanned because Howe had taken most of the army with him to Philadelphia. 

NP: And he had to leave some of the troops back in New York. He couldn't leave New York altogether. 

MJT: Right, but he essentially left a skeleton army in New York. And when Clinton scraped together enough force to make a move upriver, up the Hudson, Howe actually sent orders to Clinton to send more troops to Philadelphia. 

NP: For what purpose? Yeah. 

MJT: Yeah, it was. It seemed like deliberately undermining the whole plan. 

NP: You have to assign some blame to Lord Germain who allowed this to happen. He gave Howe permission to go south. 

MJT: Right, Germain should have taken command of the whole thing and put some coordination in there, which he did not do. 

NP: Yeah, I mean, the king himself wrote that meeting in Albany, that's the main thing and that was all ignored. 

MJT: But Burgoyne, to his blame, I guess, is that, even though people were undercutting him the whole way, never said, well, maybe we do need to step back. Maybe we should retreat to Fort Ticonderoga and regroup. And he was never going to do that: forward or die. 

NP: Right, I just would add one other thing he wrote to Germain. And he said, well, if he had his choice, he would turn left instead of turning right as he was going south and attacked New England. But he wasn't the kind of commander who would take things into his own hands and take that kind of risk. He wouldn't do that. It was much too imbued with the idea that it's the civilian ministers who decide things. If you think about a Napoleon wouldn't have waited a minute. He'd go and take his army and worry about the politics later. So yes, he was, in that way. He may have been a little bit too timid, although timidity isn't something you would describe Burgoyne as. 

MJT: Yeah, I always attribute that more to after-the-fact blame shifting - that Burgoyne thought he was going to take Albany hell or high water. And when he failed and his army was captured, he said, well, I really wanted to do something else. But I couldn't. 

NP: Well, he did at the time, though.  He did say that in a letter. But yeah, you're right, you're right. 

MJT: Burgoyne surrenders his army at Saratoga, which is really an unprecedented event for the British Army, that an entire army was captured by any foreign power, let alone a bunch of colonist rabble. Burgoyne's army - his men become prisoners of war. Burgoyne gets parole and returns to Britain to, I guess, justify what happened. 

NP: Yeah, a court martial too. That way he could. He could defend himself and tell his story. That was denied him. 

MJT: Right. He was never really given a chance to defend himself, but he was given all the blame for losing an army. And that's essentially the end of his military career. 

NP: Well, yes and no. I mean, later on when the Whigs under Charles James Fox took over the government. He was reinstated and was sent as commander in chief to Ireland. He was the commander in chief there for a year. It could have been a very important position because there was a possibility that the Irish would rise in rebellion and maybe get some help from the French, but nothing much happened during that time and he wanted to get back to London. 

MJT: After he had returned to London, following his defeat at Saratoga, after some time, the king ordered him to return to America to be with his troops, and he refused.  

NP: Yes 

MJT: Just seemed like a very odd decision, to fall out of that much favor with the king. 

NP: Well, he wasn't in favor anyway, and he saw what was going on as a, just an attempt by the government to put all the blame on him and to make sure that Germain didn't get any of the blame for his mishandling of the war. He also had health problems. He had gout. He felt that another winter in North America would kill him, and he was probably extremely angry at the king. So he just refused to go. They wanted to get him out of the country. They didn't want him talking. 

MJT: Right. He had become a real critic of the government and the war effort, and they were to silence him essentially. 

NP: But he was able, in Parliament, he was able to have a hearing and bring in some of his officers who supported him. Nobody under him attacked him afterwards, in other words, criticized him. None of his soldiers, his officers, criticized what he had done. They were extremely loyal to him. And he was loyal to them. It went both ways.  

While he was still in Cambridge, MA, with his captive army, there was some real abuse of some of the soldiers, and he asked the general in charge, the American general in charge of the captive army, to court martial this officer. The American general agreed, and Burgoyne then said he would personally be the prosecutor. And he did a very good job. He lost, perhaps because the panel of officers were just three American officers. And they said there wasn't enough evidence to convict this colonel, although a lot of people saw what happened. 

MJT: Yeah, that's very [difficult] when it's the enemy. 

NP:  And it's very interesting because it's another side of Burgoyne. He acted as a lawyer. He had no legal training. But I've read the transcript of the court martial. He's very impressive. He actually called witnesses, cross examined the defense witnesses, made an opening speech and a closing speech. He knew exactly what to do. 

MJT: Burgoyne then is back in Britain. His military career is over, at least as far as the American Revolution is concerned, even if he will get a second act later, when the government changes. At this point, I believe he returns to his love of theater and turns his attention to being a playwright again. 

NP: Yes, he wrote three more plays, all of which were produced at the Drury Lane Theatre. Two of them are social commentaries. Sometimes like the plays of Sheridan & Goldsmith. In parts, they're very funny. One of them, called The Heiress, was a great success and has been translated and shown in theaters in several European cities. I was surprised how easy to read, those plays. I figure, well, in 18th century plays it's going to be a lot of verbiage and so on. Not at all. They're very good. I mean, they're not great players, but I can understand why they were that successful and that audiences enjoyed them. 

MJT: Being a playwright in this era was not particularly remunerative, and you've actually mentioned that he had given away some of his money from playwriting to charities. How is he supporting himself at this time? 

NP: Lord Strange, who I mentioned earlier, the son of the Earl of Derby - He died before his father died, and when the father died in his 80s, his grandson became the 12th Earl of Derby. He's chiefly known because he was the one who founded the Derby and the and also well he didn't found the Kentucky Derby, but that was his chief interest was horse racing, but he was very close to Burgoyne. He was Burgoyne's nephew, by marriage.  

Burgoyne, during this period, his wife had died in 1776. And they only had one child, a girl, and she had died years earlier at the age of 10. Burgoyne formed a relationship with a woman named Susan Caulfield, who was probably an actress and a singer. They had four children. This was all in the 1780s, after Saratoga.  

When Burgoyne died in 1792 at the age of 69, he didn't have very much money. The young Earl of Derby took over the support of the children and one of them, they were a boy and three girls. The boy, whose name was John Fox Burgoyne.  Fox was named after the English political leader Charles James Fox, who's a friend of Burgoyne. He became a general himself, Burgoyne’s son. But the relationship between the Stanley family, which was the family of the Earls of Derby, was very close. He was very close to the 12th Earl of Derby. I can't tell you where he got the money from, but I strongly believe that he was, to some extent, supported by his nephew, the Earl of Derby. They were very, very wealthy - owned estates and so on in England. 

MJT: That makes a lot of sense. I think it was very common in that era for the very wealthy lords to help out friends and family. So he does die, as you say, not too long after the war. In the early 1790s. What do you think Burgoyne's legacy is? 

NP: There's so much interest in Burgoyne, even though the only big battle he ever fought, he lost or his campaign, he lost. But he's better known to many people than the English generals who won battle after battle like the Duke of Wellington. He was a flawed officer. He was brave, very brave. But he was a humane person – the way he treated his own troops was in a very humane way. He wouldn't have them flogged. He hated flogging. That was the chief kind of punishment that they had in European armies, including the British Army.  

I would say that his legacy was sort of summed up by George Bernard Shaw. A hundred years after Burgoyne's death, who wrote a play the Devil's Disciple, in which he introduced a character called Burgoyne and gave him the nickname of Gentleman Johnny. And that's that has stuck, and in fact it's stuck so much. It's the title of some books about Burgoyne and. His biographers have said that Burgoyne’s soldiers nicknamed him Gentleman Johnny. That's untrue. George Bernard Shaw invented the nickname. But it stuck. It's a very apt nickname. That's so he has a legacy of humanity, decency, and he's very interesting, delightful character. It would have been pleasant to have met him. Apparently he was a very good conversationalist. Lots and lots of friends. I think he was a good man. 

MJT: All right, well, Norman Posner, it's been a pleasure to have you. Your book again is From the Battlefield to the Stage: The Many Lives of General John Burgoyne. It's out and available now, and I recommend everybody take a look. 

NP: Well, thank you and thank you for inviting me. 

MJT I’d like to thank Professor Posner for speaking with me about General Burgoyne.  His new book,  From the Battlefield to the Stage: The Many Lives of General John Burgoyne was released last month, February 2023, in time for the General’s 300th birthday.  I’ve included a link to purchase his book on my blog.  I’m sure you will enjoy it.

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Further Reading

Sunday, March 19, 2023

ARP268 King’s Mountain

In our last episode, the Overmountain men had assembled a force of about 1400 patriot militia who were moving in early October 1780 to confront the loyalist militia under British Major Patrick Ferguson near Gilbert Town, North Carolina.

King's Mountain - Death of Ferguson
Despite having gathered a large number of militia, there were many reasons to think that the fight would go badly for the patriots.  These were largely untested militia.  Most of these men were not from the immediate region and were not familiar with the locality.  Some were from Virginia, some from South Carolina, and many from the frontier area that is now Tennessee. They also had no food or supplies, except what they carried on themselves.  Any campaign that lasted more than a few days was going to make the lack of supplies a real problem.

The obvious apparent commander of this army should have been General Thomas Sumter.  But Sumter had left his army to go find South Carolina Governor, who had fled into North Carolina and had granted someone else overall command of the militia.  Sumter could not command this army until he got Sumter’s permission, and had ridden off to get that resolved.  Instead, there was no single commander.  Various militia colonels including Benjamin Cleveland, James Johnson, William Campbell, John Sevier, Joseph McDowell, John Williams and Isaac Shelby operated more as a committee, trying to decide by consensus how to attack the enemy.

Meanwhile, the British commander Ferguson heard about the enemy’s approach.  Fearing that the patriots might have large numbers, he opted to move east where he could link up with General Cornwallis’s army occupying Charlotte.  When the enemy got too close, however, Ferguson moved to some high ground at a place called King's Mountain.  From there, he expected he could defend against any attack.  Even if outnumbered, the loyalists could hold out until General Cornwallis sent reinforcements from Charlotte, which was about a day’s march away.

Approaching King's Mountain

On October 4, the patriot militia reached Gilbert Town, where Ferguson and the loyalists had their headquarters a few days earlier.  The column continued marching to Cowpens two days later.  They learned that Ferguson was only a few miles to the east, and that his men were trying to link up with Cornwallis before they could catch him.  The patriots began a night march trying to catch up with their foe before the enemy could link up with the main British army.

Gathering at Sycamore Shoals
The night march did not go well.  Local guides did not seem to know where they were going. The men got lost all through the woods. Many wandered off the small winding paths and found themselves in the middle of a dark woods.  On top of all that they endured a pouring rain.  The men struggled to keep their rifles and powder dry for the expected battle.  The column had planned to ford a river, but found it too swollen, and had to march miles out of their way to find another route.  Shortly before dawn on October 7, the army stopped its march to reassess, and to send out scouts to figure out where the enemy was.

Enoch Gilmer volunteered to scout out the enemy while the army caught a few hours of rest out in the open in the miserable rain.  After some time, he returned to inform the leaders that they were still about 15 miles from the enemy at King's Mountain.  The army began moving again, stopping only for breakfast which consisted of raiding a local cornfield and eating raw ears of corn.  Most of the locals in this area seemed to lean Tory, so they were little help.  The commanders seized two local Tories and ordered them to guide the army to King's Mountain or be hanged.

As they got within a few miles, Colonel Williams of the Virginia militia spotted the scout, Enoch Gilmer’s horse, in front of a Tory home.  Gilmer had been pretending to be a loyalist looking to join up with Ferguson, so Williams played into that lie.  He entered the home with several of his soldiers, holding a noose and threatening to hang Gilmer as a loyalist.  Gilmer was enjoying a breakfast with the two women of the home. He played along and begged for mercy.

Isaac Shelby

The men removed Gilmer from the home and took him far enough away to give his report without blowing his cover.  The loyalist women had sold some chickens to Ferguson personally the day before at his camp on King's Mountain, so their information was pretty accurate and up to date.  

As they approached, they captured a few more loyalist scouts who were forced to give the locations of their pickets.  They also captured a 14 year old courier who Ferguson had sent with a message for Cornwallis to send reinforcements immediately.  The boy informed his interrogators that Ferguson was wearing a checkered shirt over his red officer’s coat.  

The officers decided on a simple plan.  They were going to surround Kings Mountain, which was really more of a wooded hill, and move toward the enemy from all sides at once.

The Battle

By the afternoon of October 7, the patriot militia had surrounded King’s Mountain. The attackers numbered about 900.  They were facing about 1100 loyalists who maintained the high ground.  Again, there was no single American commander coordinating the attack.  The attackers divided into eight separate units of a little over 100 men each.  They took different positions around the mountain and agreed they would all advance at the same time.

The top of the mountain, which was only about 1000 feet at its highest point, was clear cut, but the approaches contained a thick covering of trees and rocks.

In the loyalist camp on top of the hill Major Ferguson had not bothered to build any entrenchments or other defenses.  He planned to rely on his trained militia and their use of bayonets to take out any attackers.  Ferguson knew that the patriot militia had no bayonets and could not take a massed force of soldiers standing in line with bayonets.  In any direct confrontation, the patriots would be compelled to give way.

Ferguson saw the enemy approaching and organized his men into defensive positions around the camp.  According to one account, he told his men:

Unless you wish to be eat up by an inundation of barbarians, I say, if you wish to be pinioned, robbed, and murdered and see your wives and daughters in four days abused by the dregs of mankind, in short, if you wish or deserve to live and better the name of men, grasp your arms in a moment and run to camp.  The backwater men have crossed the mountains. If you choose to be pissed upon forever and ever by a set of mongrels, say so at once and let your women turn their backs upon you and look out for real men to protect them.

By this time in the war, there was no sympathy for those on the other side. There had been too many massacres, executions of prisoners, destroying people’s homes and crops, and attacks on families, for either side to accept trying to live together.  One side had to die.  The countersign, the patriots used that day was “Buford” a reference to Colonel Abraham Buford, the commanding Continental officer whose men had been massacred by the loyalists after trying to surrender.  It was a reminder to all that this was not about taking prisoners.  It was about killing the enemy.

The advance up the mountain began about 2:00 PM.  The attackers let out a blood curdling high-pitched war whoop similar to those used by native warriors going into battle.  It was also a forerunner of the so-called rebel yell used by southerners during the Civil War.  The yells unnerved the loyalist defenders, but they held their lines.

As William Campbell’s Virginia militia advanced toward the summit, Ferguson ordered his loyalists to charge them with bayonets.  The attackers, who only had rifles without bayonets, withdrew back to the bottom of the mountain with the loyalists chasing them.  Then the loyalists had to pull back up the mountain because of advances led by Isaac Shelby coming from the other side of the mountain.  Ferguson’s loyalists then ran a bayonet charge against Shelby’s men, forcing them to retreat back down the mountain as well.

Ferguson had hoped that once his loyalists had chased the enemy down the mountain, that the men would continue to run away, as they had a Camden.  That did not happen. As soon as the loyalists withdrew from the attack on Campbell’s patriots, they reassembled and advanced again.  When the loyalists went after another group of attackers, they could chase them away, but only temporarily.  They could not chase the men too far or the attackers would become isolated from the main force of defenders and leave themselves vulnerable.

For most of the next hour or so of fighting was loyalists pushing one group of patriots down the mountain, then returning to push another group, only to have the first group reform and start back up the mountain.

Ferguson was correct that the Americans would not fight the loyalists in a straight up hand to hand battle.  They would get close enough to use their rifles to pick off loyalists from a distance, pull back when attacked, then return, taking cover behind rocks and trees to resume their shots at the enemy.

Militia Advance on King's Mountain
The men fighting one another had been friends, neighbors, even family before the war.  They knew each other well. If anything that only seemed to increase the bitterness they felt for one another.  One patriot soldier, Thomas Robertson, reported hearing someone calling his name.  When he poked out from behind a tree, a rifle bullet nearly hit him.  He saw that his neighbor had called to him from the loyalist lines in an attempt to get him to expose himself and be killed.  Instead, Robertson returned the shot, mortally wounding his neighbor.

Isaac Shelby recalled seeing two brothers take aim at each other from opposite sides of the fighting.  Both fired at the same time and both fell, presumably killing each other.  There were numerous stories of brothers shooting at their brothers, or men targeting those they knew on the other side.  Although the patriots tried to avoid hand to hand combat, there were times when it was inevitable, and the fighting grew fierce.  Many patriot riflemen got close enough to fire on the loyalist camp, decimating their ranks.  They also killed a number of civilians in the camp.  Ferguson had a woman with him named Virginia Sal.  She was killed by a rifle bullet while in the camp.

After about an hour of fighting, the loyalists realized that they could not chase off the rebels and that they were increasingly becoming sitting ducks for the patriot riflemen surrounding their camp.  Several units tried to surrender, only to have Major Ferguson knock down their flags and order them to continue fighting.  Eventually, Ferguson realized that the battle was not going to go in his favor, and he had no interest in trying to surrender.  Instead, he and a few of his officers mounted horses and tried to rush through the enemy lines to make their escape.

Militia shoot Ferguson
Instead, numerous patriot rifles targeted him and shot him off his horse.  He was later found to have been hit at least seven times, then after falling from his horse, his body was caught in the stirrup and dragged by his horse for some distance.

After Ferguson’s death, the defenders did not last long.  A few minutes later, the second in command, Captain Abraham De Peyster agreed to surrender.  Some of the attacking patriots were not ready to accept a surrender and continued to fire on the enemy anyway. Several patriot officers reported having to ride up and knock the guns out of the hands of their own men to force them to stop firing on the surrendering enemy.

Just as things were getting under control a loyalist foraging party that had been away from camp during the battle returned and opened fire on the Americans. They killed Colonel Williams.  Many patriot soldiers thought the prisoners were trying to rise up and opened fire on their prisoners.  Once again, the officers had to stop the men from killing.


Once the killing stopped, there was still the need to deal with the surviving loyalists.  About 150 had been killed, with another 163 wounded and the majority 668 taken prisoner.  The patriots had lost only 28 killed and 60 wounded. Many loyalists, both dead and living, had their property taken from them including their clothing.  Many were handled roughly and even beaten.  Many of the dead were buried in shallow mass graves.  

Many of the wounded loyalists were simply left where they lay, dying slowly from blood loss or lack of water.  Over the coming nights, wolves and wild dogs feasted on the corpses and the badly wounded men who were left on the field.  For months afterward, many locals refused to eat hogs from the area because it was believed they had also feasted on the corpses of the men left on King’s Mountain.

For the prisoners still able to travel, many did not fare much better. After having their shoes and coats taken, they were marched over forty miles without any food. The lack of food was a problem for both the prisoners and the victors, many of whom had not eaten for several days.  During the march, the patriots continued to assault, abuse, and even kill some of the prisoners. The Americans managed to capture a cache of muskets on King’s Mountain.  They forced each prisoner to carry two muskets (with the firelocks removed of course) during the march to prison.

Marker where militia hanged prisoners.

A week after the battle, during the march away from King’s Mountain, the patriots decided to hold trials for some of the prisoners, accusing them of treason, deserting from patriot militia to join the enemy, or other crimes.  The court martial found thirty-six prisoners, mostly loyalist officers, guilty and began hanging them, three at a time.  After the executions of nine of the prisoners, other patriot officers put a stop to the executions, in part because they needed to get moving again after rumors that Colone lTarleton’s cavalry was on its way to intercept them.  

The march continued up to Salem, North Carolina.  Along the way more than 100 of the prisoners escaped.  Many made their way to Charleston or Fort Ninety-six where they rejoined loyalist units.  A few unlucky prisoners attempted to escape, but were captured and then executed.  Eventually, the force reached Salem by early November where the remaining prisoners were held.

Cornwallis Retreats

Following the destruction of the Loyalist Army under Ferguson, General Cornwallis determined that his position in Charlotte, North Carolina was simply untenable.  The hostility that his occupation army continued to face when it ventured outside of town, and the inability to recruit any new loyalist militia in North Carolina after the loss at King’s Mountain, meant that the presence of the British in North Carolina only subjected them to attack.

British Wagon
The British evacuated Charlotte and began a seventy mile march to the small town of Winnsboro in South Carolina. During the march, through a cold and near-constant rain, Cornwallis himself took ill and had to be carried in a wagon full of straw.  He and six other officers had grown deathly ill and were in there with him.  Within a few days, five of them were dead.  Cornwallis, however, managed to regain his health and resume command.

Instead of continuing his advance into North Carolina, Cornwallis opted to secure his position in South Carolina for the rest of the winter.  Even though there was no longer an organized Continental Army in North Carolina, the local hostility had proven too difficult to overcome.

Concerned that even a defensive position in South Carolina would prove too tempting for an attack, to help bolster his position, Cornwallis ordered General Alexander Leslie, who was engaged in a series of raids in southern Virginia, to stop his raids and to sail down to Charleston, South Carolina to support British control of the colony.  Leslie did not want to end his successful raids in the Chesapeake, which had only begun.  But after confirming with General Clinton that he needed to follow Cornwallis’ orders, Leslie complied.   However, given delays in communications and Leslie’s initial reluctance, he did not reach Charleston until mid-December.

Alexander Leslie

Back in New York, British General Henry Clinton did not receive word of the loss at King’s Mountain until November.  Clinton later criticized Cornwallis for moving into North Carolina without proper support, and for giving the rebels a victory that would bolster their morale and damage efforts to recruit more loyalist militia.

For the Americans, the victory at King’s Mountain put an end to any immediate threat of further British offensives into North Carolina.  General Thomas Sumter returned to the militia army with orders from Governor Rutherford giving him undisputed command over the South Carolina militia.  But since his chief rival, Colonel Williams, had been killed at King’s Mountain, the pre-battle dispute had been rendered moot anyway.  

Most of the Overmountain men returned to their homes on the frontier.  Indeed, many of them had left even before the army got their prisoners to Salem.  The men had marched and fought without food and supplies.  Many were sick and on the verge of starvation.  Despite the victory, they were eager to return home for the winter.

Once again, neither side had much of an army in North Carolina.  It would be several more months before the Continentals could send a new commander to replace Horatio Gates.  General Nathanael Greene would not take command until December.

Next time: we head back to update New York, where the loyalists and Iroquois continue to fight for control of the Hudson Valley.

- - -

Next Episode 269 Ballston Raid

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Further Reading


Kings Mountain:

Battle of King’s Mountain:

King’s Mountain

Battle of King’s Mountain:

James Williams:

Lynch, Wayne Death of a Patriot at King’s Mountain” Journal of the American Revolution, Jan. 14, 2014:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Battle at King's Mountain October 7, 1780, King's Mountain Centennial Association, 1880. 

Army War College Historical Statements Concerning the Battle of Kings Mountain and the Battle of the Cowpens, GPO, 1928. 

Henderson, W. Kings Mountain and its Campaign, Greensboro, N.C., The Guilford battleground company, 1903. 

Draper, Lyman C. King's Mountain and its Heroes: History of the Battle of King's Mountain, October 7th, 1780, and the Events Which Led to It, Cincinnati: P.G.Thomson, 1881. 

Lathan, Robert Historical Sketch of the Battle of King's Mountain: Fought Between the American and British Troops, at King's Mountain, York Co., S.C. October 7, 1780, Yorkville, SC: Office of the Enquirer, 1880. 

National Park Service Rifles and Riflemen at the Battle of Kings Mountain, 1941. 

White, Katherine Keogh The King's Mountain Men, The Story of the Battle, with Sketches of the American Soldiers Who Took Part, Dayton, VA: Joseph K. Ruebush company, 1924. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Alderman, Pat The Overmountain Men, Overmountain Press, 1986 (borrow on 

Brown, Robert W. Jr. Kings Mountain and Cowpens: Our Victory Was Complete, History Press 2009. 

Dameron, Dave &  J. David Dameron Kings Mountain: The Defeat of the Loyalists October 7, 1780,  Da Capo Press, 2003.  

Dunkerly, Robert M. The Battle of Kings Mountain: Eyewitness Accounts, History Press, 2007

Dykeman, Wilma The Battle of Kings Mountain, 1780: With Fire and Sword, NPS 1978 (borrow on 

Epley, Joe A Passel of Hate, Tryon, NC: Foxwood Press, 2011 (borrow on  

Messick, Hank King's Mountain: The epic of the Blue Ridge "mountain men" in the American Revolution, Little Brown, 1976 (borrow on 

Tucker, Phillip Thomas Kings Mountain: America's Most Forgotten Battle That Changed the Course of the American Revolution, Skyhorse, 2023 (June release).

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.