American Revolution: Lieutenant General John Burgoyne

John Burgoyne
General John Burgoyne.

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General John Burgoyne was a noted 18th century British Army officer who is best remembered for his defeat at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. First seeing service during the War of the Austrian Succession, he later earned fame as a cavalry officer and leader during the Seven Years' War. In this period, he formed his own cavalry unit and commanded troops in Portugal. With the beginning of the American Revolution in 1775, Burgoyne was one of several officers dispatched to Boston.

Seeing little opportunity in the post, Burgoyne departed and returned to North America the following year with reinforcements for Canada. While there, he conceived of the idea for what would become the Saratoga Campaign. Given permission to move forward in 1777, his army was ultimately blocked, defeated, and captured by American forces. Paroled, Burgoyne returned to Britain in disgrace.

General John Burgoyne

  • Rank: General
  • Service: British Army
  • Nickname(s): Gentleman Johnny
  • Born: February 24, 1722 in Sutton, England
  • Died: August 4, 1792 in London, England
  • Parents: Captain John Burgoyne and Anna Maria Burgoyne
  • Spouse: Charlotte Stanley
  • Children: Charlotte Elizabeth Burgoyne
  • Conflicts: Seven Years' War, American Revolution
  • Known For: Battle of Saratoga (1777)

Early Life

Born February 24, 1722 at Sutton, England, John Burgoyne was the son of Captain John Burgoyne and his wife Anna. There is some thought that the young Burgoyne may have been the illegitimate son of Lord Bingley. Burgoyne's godfather, Bingley specified in his will that the young man should receive his estate if his daughters failed to produce any male heirs. Beginning in 1733, Burgoyne began attending the Westminster School in London. While there, he befriended Thomas Gage and James Smith-Stanley, Lord Strange. In August 1737, Burgoyne entered the British Army by purchasing a commission in the Horse Guards.

Early Career

Based in London, Burgoyne became known for his fashionable uniforms and earned the nickname "Gentleman Johnny." A known gambler, Burgoyne sold his commission in 1741. Four years later, with Britain involved in the War of the Austrian Succession, Burgoyne returned to the army by obtaining cornet's commission in the 1st Royal Dragoons. As the commission was newly created, he was not required to pay for it. Promoted to lieutenant later that year, he took part in the Battle of Fontenoy that May and made repeated charges with his regiment. In 1747, Burgoyne pulled together sufficient funds to purchase a captaincy.


With the war's end in 1748, Burgoyne began courting Strange's sister, Charlotte Stanley. After his proposal of marriage was blocked by Charlotte's father, Lord Derby, the couple elected to elope in April 1751. This action infuriated Derby who was a prominent politician and he cut off his daughter's financial support. Lacking active service, Burgoyne sold his commission for £2,600 and the couple began traveling around Europe. Spending extensive time in France and Italy, he became friends with the Duc de Choiseul who would later oversee French policy during the Seven Years' War. Additionally, while in Rome, Burgoyne has his portrait painted by famed Scottish artist Allan Ramsay. 

Following the birth of their only child, Charlotte Elizabeth, the couple elected to return to Britain. Arriving in 1755, Strange interceded on their behalf and the couple reconciled with Lord Derby. Using his influence, Derby aided Burgoyne in obtaining a captaincy in the 11th Dragoons in June 1756. Two years later he moved to the Coldstream Guards and ultimately achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel. With the Seven Years' War raging, Burgoyne took part in the June 1758 raid on St. Malo. Landing in France, his men remained for several days while British forces burned French shipping.

16th Dragoons

Later that year, Burgoyne went ashore during Captain Richard Howe's raid on Cherbourg. This saw British forces land and successfully storm the town. A proponent of light cavalry, Burgoyne was appointed to command the 16th Dragoons, one of two new light regiments, in 1759. Rather than delegate recruiting duties, he directly oversaw the construction of his unit and personally courted the landed gentry in Northamptonshire to become officers or encourage others to enlist. To entice potential recruits, Burgoyne advertised that his men would have the finest horses, uniforms, and equipment.

A popular commander, Burgoyne encouraged his officers to mix with their troops and desired his enlisted men to be free thinking in battle. This approach was enshrined in a revolutionary code of conduct he wrote for the regiment. Additionally, Burgoyne encouraged his officers to take time each day to read and encouraged them to learn French as the best military texts were in that language.


In 1761, Burgoyne was elected to Parliament representing Midhurst. A year later, he was dispatched to Portugal with the rank of brigadier general. Following the loss of Almeida to the Spanish, Burgoyne boosted Allied moral and earned fame for his capture of Valencia de Alcántara. That October, he again triumphed when he defeated the Spanish at the Battle of Vila Velha. In the course of the fighting, Burgoyne directed Lieutenant Colonel Charles Lee to attack a Spanish artillery position which was successfully captured. In recognition of his service, Burgoyne received a diamond ring from the King of Portugal and later had his portrait painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

With the end of the war, Burgoyne returned to Britain and in 1768 was again elected to Parliament. An effective politician, he was named the governor of Fort William, Scotland in 1769. Outspoken in Parliament, he became concerned about Indian affairs and regularly attacked Robert Clive as well as corruption in the East India Company. His efforts ultimately led to the passage of the Regulating Act of 1773 which worked to reform the company's management. Promoted to major general, Burgoyne wrote plays and verse in his spare time. In 1774, his play The Maid of the Oaks was staged at the Drury Lane Theater.

American Revolution

With the beginning of the American Revolution in April 1775, Burgoyne was dispatched to Boston along with Major Generals William Howe and Henry Clinton. Though he did not take part in the Battle of Bunker Hill, he was present at the Siege of Boston. Feeling the assignment lacked opportunity, he elected to return home in November 1775. The following spring, Burgoyne led the British reinforcements which arrived in Quebec.

Serving under Governor Sir Guy Carleton, Burgoyne aided in driving American forces from Canada. Critical of Carleton's cautiousness after the Battle of Valcour Island, Burgoyne sailed for Britain. Arriving, he began lobbying Lord George Germain, Secretary of State for the Colonies, to approve his campaign plans for 1777. These called for a large British army to advance south from Lake Champlain to capture Albany. This would be supported by a smaller force approaching from the west via the Mohawk Valley. The final element would see Howe advance north up the Hudson River from New York.

Planning for 1777

The cumulative effect of the campaign would be to sever New England from the rest of the American Colonies. This plan was approved by Germain in early 1777 despite word from Howe that he intended to march against Philadelphia that year. Confusion exists as to when Germain informed Burgoyne that participation by British forces in New York City would be limited at best. As Clinton had been defeated at Charleston, SC in June 1776, Burgoyne was able to secure command of the northern invasion force. Arriving in Canada on May 6, 1777, he assembled an army of over 7,000 men.

The Saratoga Campaign

Initially delayed by transport issues, Burgoyne's army did not begin moving up Lake Champlain until late June. As his forces advanced on the lake, Colonel Barry St. Leger's command moved west to execute the thrust through the Mohawk Valley. Believing the campaign would be simple, Burgoyne was soon dismayed when few Native Americans and Loyalists joined his forces. Arriving at Fort Ticonderoga in early July, he quickly compelled Major General Arthur St. Clair to abandon the post. Sending troops in pursuit of the Americans, they defeated part of St. Clair's forces at Hubbardton on July 7.

Regrouping, Burgoyne pushed south towards Forts Anne and Edward. His advance was slowed by American forces which felled trees and burned bridges along the route. In mid-July, Burgoyne received word from Howe that he intended to sail for Philadelphia and would not be coming north. This bad news was compounded by a rapidly worsening supply situation as the army lacked sufficient transport that could traverse the region's rough roads.

In mid-August, Burgoyne dispatched a force of Hessians on a foraging mission. Meeting American troops, they were badly defeated at Bennington on August 16. The defeat bolstered American morale and caused many of Burgoyne's Native Americans to leave. The British situation further deteriorated when St. Leger was defeated at Fort Stanwix and forced to retreat.

Surrender of Burgoyne by John Trumbull. Photograph Courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol

Defeat at Saratoga

Learning of St. Leger's defeat on August 28, Burgoyne elected to cut his supply lines and quickly drive on Albany with the goal of making winter quarters there. On September 13, his army began crossing the Hudson just north of Saratoga. Pushing south, it soon encountered American forces led by Major General Horatio Gates which had entrenched on Bemis Heights.

On September 19, American forces led by Major General Benedict Arnold and Colonel Daniel Morgan defeated Burgoyne's men at Freeman's Farm. With their supply situation critical, many of the British commanders recommended a retreat. Unwilling to fall back, Burgoyne again attacked on October 7. Defeated at Bemis Heights, the British withdrew to their camp. In the wake of the action, American forces surrounded Burgoyne's position. Unable to break out, he surrendered on October 17.

Later Career

Paroled, Burgoyne returned to Britain in disgrace. Attacked by the government for his failures, he attempted to reverse the accusations by blaming Germain for failing to order Howe to support his campaign. Unable to obtain a court martial to clear his name, Burgoyne changed political allegiances from the Tories to the Whigs. With the Whig ascent to power in 1782, he returned to favor and served as commander in chief in Ireland and a privy councillor. Leaving government a year later, he effectively retired and focused on literary pursuits. Burgoyne died suddenly at his Mayfair home on June 3, 1792. He was buried at Westminster Abbey.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Lieutenant General John Burgoyne." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). American Revolution: Lieutenant General John Burgoyne. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Lieutenant General John Burgoyne." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).