From Fightin’ Words to Friends Again

By Joe Craig, Park Ranger

It has been noted that starting wars is relatively easy, but getting the ensuing mayhem to cease can be extremely difficult. This is especially so if the party who is trying to get the shooting halted is considered the aggressor, like General John Burgoyne.

Of course, the British hadn’t come from Canada in 1777 as sight seers or to visit old friends who were feeling poorly. They were an invading force, well-armed and with an expressed mission that meant very bad things would happen to anyone who got in their way. So it is a bit hard to feel overly sorry for them by the time of Burgoyne’s capitulation on 17 October 1777.

Still, when Burgoyne sued for terms on 14 October 1777 his army had been put through the mill, and then some. After an arduous schlep through the Champlain and Hudson Valleys his troops had fought several costly battles, dragged themselves northward in a miserable retreat, been surrounded at Saratoga, besieged and starved. As a fighting force, Burgoyne’s troops were pretty much played out, and surrender was the only realistic option.

Surrendering sounds like a rather straightforward sort of affair: one merely drops one’s weapons, puts one’s hands up and announces one’s new-found preference for peace, love and understanding. However, as Winston Churchill noted in the Twentieth Century:

A prisoner of war is a man who tries to kill you and fails and then asks you not to kill him.

If the individual to whom one is attempting to surrender has lost close comrades, or is scared out of his mind, or just doesn’t have time to take a prisoner, one may quickly become a statistic in a different, more permanent casualty column than “captured”. Consider the experience of squadron surgeon Julius Friedrich Wasmus of the Braunschwieg Dragoon Regiment Prinz Ludwig at the (so-called) Battle of Bennington in August, 1777:

“…I remained lying on the ground until the enemy urged me rather impolitely to get up. One grabbed me by the arm and another said he should kill m, whereupon he placed the bayonet of his gun with tightened trigger on my chest. He asked whether I was a Britisher or a Hessian. I told him I was a Braunschweig surgeon, shook hands with him, and called him my friend and brother; for what does one not do when in trouble. I was happy they understood me (Freund and Bruder) for that helped me so much he withdrew his gun. But he now took my watch, looked at it hel it to his ear, and put it away [into his pocket]. After this he made a friendly face and was so human that he urged me to take a drink from his wooden flask….”

When Burgoyne had opted to seek terms from Major General Horatio Gates it was a much slower process than Wasmus trying to save his own skin. Burgoyne was trying to ensure the safety of his battered army…and if possible, some modicum of “honour” for himself.

What made things a little difficult was the matter that Burgoyne had made it plain at the start of the campaign that his intentions were far from friendly or innocuous. Burgoyne proclaimed that he was trying to restore the “blessings of legal [British] Government” to a population that had felt said “blessings” were onerous.

For those who resisted, the consequences were to be a bit more than unpleasant: Burgoyne felt that he would “stand acquitted in the eyes of God and Men in denouncing and executing the vengeance of the state against willful outcasts”. Most ominously, Burgoyne threatened “I have but to give stretch to the Indian Forces under my direction, and they amount to thousands, to overtake the hardened Enemies of Great Britain and America”. Yes, indeed, the gloves were off, and naughty rebels would be on the receiving end of “devastation, famine & every concomitant horror that a reluctant but indispensible prosecution of military duty must occasion”.

Unsurprisingly, such threatening words certainly made many inhabitants in the path of Burgoyne’s juggernaut rather uneasy. However, for some the threat helped galvanized resistance against the invaders. As the historical record shows, despite a few close calls, Burgoyne’s forces were ultimately defeated by General Gates’ Army of the United States. So the guy who had threatened to let loose “The Messengers of justice & wrath” on the population at large was going to have to swallow his previous bellicose words and a good portion of his pride to negotiate a surrender.

Generals Gates and Burgoyne had been posted as lieutenants in 1745 to the same British regiment; perhaps Burgoyne hoped that he would get some easy terms. As it turned out General Gates showed that he wasn’t for “letting them up easy” as the original proposals for cessation of arms showed. One clause in particular was pretty much straightforward:

“… [General Burgoyne’s army] can only be allowed to surrender [as] prisoners of war….”

No one could ever accuse John Burgoyne of having lacking chutzpah. Despite the fact that he’d started this little hoo-hah, unleashed the “Savages”, threatened all kinds of misery upon the pro-Independence inhabitants, and was trounced for his effort, Burgoyne felt that he deserved better terms for surrender. In fact he made it plain he would die game…and take his army with him:

“…Sooner than this army will consent to ground their arms in their encampment, they will rush on the enemy, determined to take no quarter.”

It is arguable that Burgoyne’s wretched, exhausted troops would have been a little less bellicose than their commander, but any chance of further bloodshed was averted by events to the south. General Sir Henry Clinton’s diversionary force had overrun forts on the lower Hudson, burned the state capital at Kingston and even had some troops get within 30 miles of Albany. If that force continued, it might catch the Gates’ army while engaged besieging Burgoyne.

Faced with that threat, General Gates accordingly changed his tune to allow Burgoyne much more lenient terms to capitulate, even allowing the whole business to be relabeled from “Surrender” to “Convention”. (Of course, if something walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, swims like a duck, it probably isn’t a peacock…) All that was left was to lay down arms and meet with Gates for the formalities of capitulation.

That meeting certainly had great potential for being an awkward encounter. General Burgoyne was not alone in making inflammatory remarks during the campaign. General Gates had sent a rather snarky letter to Burgoyne in August making it plain that fierce actions of the “savages” were essentially Burgoyne’s fault:

“…That the savages of America should, in their warfare, mangle and scalp the unhappy prisoners who fall into their hands, is neither new nor extraordinary; but that the famous Lieutenant General Burgoyne, in whom the fine gentleman is united with the soldier and the scholar, should hire the savages of America to scalp Europeans, and the descendants of Europeans ­ nay, more, that he should pay a price for every scalp so barbarously taken, is more than will believed in Europe, until authenticated facts shall, in every gazette, confirm the truth of the horrid tale….”

Burgoyne’s rather huffy reply labeled the accusation as “rhapsodies of fiction and calumny”, which seem to indicate that Gates’ missive was taken quite personally. Nonetheless, on 17 October, General Burgoyne donned his dress uniform, and made his way to meet with General Gates while the Crown Forces lay down their arms amid the ruins of Fort Hardy.

The encounter has spawned several versions of what the two generals said to each other. One account has Gates initiating the conversation:

G: “I am glad to see you.”

B: “I am not glad to see you. It is my fortune, sir, and not my fault that I am here”

Another has Burgoyne starting things off:

B: “General, the caprice of war has made me your prisoner”

G: “You will always find me ready to testify that it was not brought about through any fault of your excellency.”

Whatever exactly was said, it most likely was a far cry from the vitriol of their respective proclamations, and the ferocity of the battles. The generals and their respective staffs dined together and watched Burgoyne’s defeated troops march past.

All angry rhetoric was finally forgotten, or at least ignored, through the sociability of port and Madeira at dinner: toasts were offered to each other’s leaders General Washington (Burgoyne) and King George III (Gates).

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