British General John Burgoyne on Strategy

By | January 28, 2020

[January 28, 2020]  When things go wrong, they can really go wrong.  John Burgoyne was a British General during the American Revolutionary War.  Burgoyne devised an intriguing strategy to split away New England from the rest of the colonies by moving his army south from Canada.  However, the link-up with a larger British force in New York City failed to occur and Burgoyne surrendered his entire army of 6,200 men to the Americans.

Sometimes tactical concerns overcome even a good strategy.  Burgoyne planned to move through the state of New York by way of Lake Champlain and the Mohawk River, taking the Americans by surprise.  He believed that he and his troops could then take control of the Hudson River and isolate New England from the other colonies, freeing British General William Howe to attack Philadelphia.1  This plan was very innovative for the time and a worthy goal.

Initially, the plan was successful, and the British captured Fort Ticonderoga.  Early success, however, led to overconfidence and his slow-moving force overextended his supply chain.  American Patriot militia circled north and cut the British supply line.  To make matters worse, General Howe moved south to Philadelphia instead of coming to the aid of Burgoyne.  With no relief in sight and inevitable defeat at the hands of the Americans, Burgoyne surrendered.

Upon hearing of the Patriot victory against Burgoyne’s army, France agreed to recognize the independence of the United States.  Historians generally agree that this was a “great turning point of the war” because it won for the colonists the foreign assistance which was the last element needed for victory.2  Burgoyne returned to England where he faced severe criticism and soon retired from active service.

But that is not the end of the story for retired British General Burgoyne.  Not only was he successful in the British government, but he also was a notable playwright on his own accord.  His most famous works were The Maid of the Oaks (1774) and The Heiress (1786).  Had it not been for his role in the American War of Independence, Burgoyne would most likely be remembered today as a dramatist.

The life of John Burgoyne is fascinating.  I recommend a summary written at Wikipedia.org (see the “later life” and “dramatist” sections).  A link to it is here.  On another note, today, is the anniversary of the date, January 28, 1777, that General Burgoyne submitted this plan to the British government.

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  1. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/british-plan-to-isolate-new-england
  2. The Birth of the Republic 1763-1789 by Edmund S. Morgan (1956). https://books.google.com/books?id=KkzuMAhElTgC&pg=PP1
Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

17 thoughts on “British General John Burgoyne on Strategy

  1. Eva Easterbrook

    Interesting article on an important even in both British and American history. Loved the story. Thanks for giving it to us today.

  2. Bryan Lee

    Thanks Gen. Satterfield for a well written piece on the American Revolutionary War.

  3. Pete the Meat

    Great article on how things can go wrong even with a good strategy. Don’t forget the details, my boss used to tell me. “The devil is in the details.” Burgoyne simply didn’t do all he could do to ensure the British forces joined up at the right time and place. You would think this would be his main tactical effort. But, no. His failure was historic, leading to the eventual defeat of the British.

    1. Nick Lighthouse

      Yes, a good analysis and one where we should all look at for its valuable lessons. Don’t be overconfident, be bold in action, don’t overlook details, don’t underestimate the enemy, beware of the fog of war. Gheee, I’ve heard this before.

  4. JT Patterson

    After serving with distinction in the Seven Years’ War (1756–63), Burgoyne was elected to the House of Commons in 1761 and again in 1768.

    1. Willie Shrumburger

      Thanks for more info on this British General. What I don’t understand is why were there not better communications between Gen Howe and Gen Burgoyne. I know the lines of communication were difficult but it was crucial to the success. How could Burgoyne cut his own communications, it was not to increase the speed of his troops (a common reason).

      1. Georgie B.

        Good question that probably cannot be answered. Maybe he was simply too overconfident.

        1. KenFBrown

          Gen. Burgoyne did a brilliant job at this battle. In fact, General John Burgoyne’s 8,000-man army occupied high ground above the fort, and nearly surrounded the defenses. These movements precipitated the occupying Continental Army, an under-strength force of 3,000 under the command of General Arthur St. Clair, to withdraw from Ticonderoga and the surrounding defenses. The uncontested surrender of Ticonderoga caused an uproar in the American public and in its military circles, as Ticonderoga was widely believed to be virtually impregnable, and a vital point of defense.

  5. The Kid 1945

    Burgoyne is often credited for the British’s terribly embarrassing defeat. After his surrender, he returned England and gradually retreated out of the public’s eye to focus on his career as a playwright.

    1. Eric Coda

      Another interesting tidbit, Burgoyne died on June 4, 1792 and was interred at Westminster Abbey on August 13; a great honor.

  6. Tom Bushmaster

    A little more background. During the Battle of Valcour Island, he began formulating an idea for an invasion of New York, the Campaign of 1777. The plan required generals Howe and Barry St. Leger to meet Burgoyne in Albany, New York, but fell through after Howe decided to take Philadelphia instead of meeting Burgoyne in Albany. That decision proved fatal to Burgoyne’s efforts in New York.

    1. Nick Lighthouse

      Thanks for the additional info. When plans go bad, they sometimes go really really bad.

  7. Army Captain

    I agree, very interesting life of British Gen. John Burgoyne. He inadvertently helped the Americans and should be remembered fondly by us all.

    1. Roger Yellowmule

      Yes, Army Captain, and his bumbling of basic strategy and the military tactics that go with it should be a lesson for us all.

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