Laura's Blog

Happy Birthday, Gentleman Johnny!

- by Laura Malone Elliott

February 24, 2018


Today is General Burgoyne's birthday. One of the most ironic, odd, but certainly Old World chivalrous facts I learned researching PEGGY's narrative: After the Patriots defeated the British at the Battle of Saratoga, AFTER Burgoyne ordered the torching of the Schuylers' country estate, mills, barns, and crops at Saratoga, Philip Schuyler --(who I would suggest is the one who should be called gentleman) -- invited the defeated Brit to stay at his mansion in Albany while he awaited deportation from our shores. Oh yes, and all of Burgoyne's staff officers and his Hessian counterparts, too. Philip remained in Saratoga, shivering in a tent, to rebuild his house and farm buildings as quickly as possible before winter set in. The people who had to host (politely and lavishly as befitted state diplomacy) their enemy and the arsonist of their beloved country home: Peggy and her mother, Catharine. (More on the in a later blog... but I did have great fun imaging what the witty and often sassy Peggy would have to say to them over dinner in Chapter 7) Today, Peter raises a glass to Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne:

Today marks the birthday of Johnny Burgoyne. Johnny Burgoyne, or "Gentleman Johnny," as he was famously referred to, one of the most mercurial figures of the Revolutionary War.

And you probably have no idea who he is.

That's okay. I didn't either.

When my lovely mother (the even lovelier L.M. Elliott) first told me about Gentleman Johnny, my first reaction was exactly the same as yours. But when I dug in on the research on him, however, I was fascinated by what I found.

Firstly, his aforementioned nickname derived from his huge appetite for boozing, gambling, womanizing, and his immense skill in sword-fighting and horseback riding. (His march through the New York wilderness would be slowed not only by Schuyler's men felling trees across their path, but by Johnny insisting on carrying 30 carts filled with champagne and his other luxury belongings) Despite his shortcomings, he was actually a terrific commander, and had risen to prominence for his heroic exploits in the Seven Years War. And, ironically enough, Burgoyne was quoted on record as being sympathetic to the colonies' cause, saying "...should the American colonists rebel against the treatment accorded them by His Majesty's Government, I, for one, would not blame them."

Burgoyne rode into battle during the desperate fighting at Saratoga. Our commander, General Gates (who had successfully assassinated Philip Schuyler's reputation with Congress to win his command of the Northern Army and replaced Schuyler at literally the last hour) stayed in his tent the whole time. Despite all of his supposed talents on the battlefield, however, Gentleman Johnny and his army of 8,500 troops were roundly defeated by the Americans at Saratoga. After surrendering and lounging around the Schuyler Mansion, Burgoyne went back to England and took up playwriting (and presumably lots of drinking).

No, I don't know what his plays were about. Oh how I wish I did.

It seems a shame to me that he's been mostly forgotten in history, as he is, in my humble opinion, one of the most amusing, interesting, and contradictory characters of the entire Revolution. He's one of the rare people who successfully walks the tightrope of being highly intelligent, dashing, and brave, while also being a bit of a buffoon.

What a guy.

So, let's all raise a glass to Johnny for his birthday, because I know, for certain, that he is doing so himself, right now.


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