BOOK REVIEW: From the Battlefield to the Stage: the Many Lives of General John Burgoyne by Norman S. Poser (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2023)
It has been three decades since the last attempt at an in-depth biography of John Burgoyne. Max Mintz in his 1992 book,The Generals of Saratoga, looked at both Burgoyne and Horatio Gates and the similarities and differences between the two men. For a study solely of Burgoyne, one has to go back another decade to Richard Hargrove’s General John Burgoyne. With that background, Norman Poser’s new biography of the British general, From the Battlefield to the Stage: the Many Lives of General John Burgoyneshould be a welcome addition.
The preface and introduction can tell a lot about a book. This book’s print and formatting are comfortable to read and Professor Poser has a pleasant, easy to comprehend writing style. More importantly, that prefatory material leaves the reader with a desire to read on, to find answers to questions about General Burgoyne.
First chapter . . . first paragraph . . . first sentence—a question I did not expect: Burgoyne’s birthday? Most sources give February 24, 1722, but this author presents it as February 4, 1723. A misprint? Confusion over the year is understandable given England’s 1752 change from Old Style to New Style calendars.The day, however, is another matter. To help resolve the issue, I contacted Saratoga National Historical Park Ranger Eric Schnitzer. He answered that some nineteenth-century sources give February 4 as Burgoyne’s birthday and, in his search to find the reasoning, he came across a record that shows Burgoyne’s baptism as February 5, 1722 (Old Style). Obviously, the New Style date used in Professor Poser’s book is more accurate. This information left me with a positive impression of the author’s work. On the down side, he did not document where he found the date he used.
The chapters of the book are not overly lengthy and are also divided into sections that do not take very long to read. To aid in comprehension, the sections are well-connected so the overall flow of the narrative is not interrupted. More than once, the author mentions a topic and comments on how there is more to come giving the reader a sense of anticipation. The end result is pages that seem to fly by.
The early chapters are full of information and commentary on Burgoyne’s development and character. While his formal education did not go past age fifteen, Burgoyne’s high intelligence drove him to take advantage of every opportunity to continue learning. In particular, Professor Poser emphasizes the impact of living in France and Italy for five years on Burgoyne’s growth and knowledge.
To add further context to the facts of Burgoyne’s life, the author places them within an informed view of England’s social and military practices. For example, in addition to being, “a man who knew how to work the system,” Professor Poser emphasizes the support Burgoyne acquired from his wife’s family, the Stanleys (the earls of Derby). That support, however, did not come easily. Burgoyne and his wife-to-be, Charlotte, had to elope since her father apparently did not give the marriage his approval. The author spends considerable time describing this situation and how, with time, Burgoyne won over Charlotte’s family.
Burgoyne’s early military career and experiences during the Seven Years’ War receive significant attention. It is during this war that Burgoyne took his military career far beyond that of his father, who had been a captain. With the sponsorship of the Stanley family, Burgoyne purchased his way up through the officer corps of the British army including a period as lieutenant-colonel of the prestigious Coldstream Guards.In 1759, the king gave Burgoyne his own regiment, the 16th Light Dragoons.
Professor Poser describes several experiences during the war that added to Burgoyne’s growing professionalism and reputation. He participated in three raids on the French coast, played a leadership role in arranging a prisoner exchange (due, in part, to the knowledge and acquaintances he gained while living on the continent in the years before the war), and, as a brigadier-general during the Portugal campaign in 1762, displayed cleverness and courage.
The author further explains that this period cemented Burgoyne’s view of British soldiers—that they should be treated decently as men. More than merely an attitude, Burgoyne instituted a “Code of Instructions” for his officers in the 16th Light Dragoons. These guidelines featured firmness guided by understanding, an attitude that continued throughout his career.
Burgoyne’s activities during the decade before the Revolution also receive substantial attention. His election and activities as a member of parliament are the topic of two chapters. A post-war tour of France, Prussia, and Austria (that apparently included a bit of spying) and his appetite for gambling, while important in his life, seem to take a secondary standing when compared with his efforts at writing “mildly erotic” verse and plays.
The author gives detailed descriptions of the general’s literary endeavors and how he became known in the theater circle of England, ultimately gaining the support of none other than the famous actor David Garrick. Included is an interesting discussion of a garden party for which Burgoyne wrote his first play. The story of the festivities gives the reader a pleasant, relaxed feeling then, through a vivid description of an explosion used to announce the meal, instantaneously alters the mood. The text then switches to a discussion of the troubles in the colonies.
Once the text begins to cover the Revolution, From the Battlefield to the Stage can be seen as two books in one. For whatever reason, Professor Poser changes from keeping Burgoyne as the central element around which the story moves to having events drive the narrative with Burgoyne now simply a character being carried along. There is minimal discussion about the man.
To make matters worse, the author seems to have a limited knowledge of the war and makes several debatable, if not outright incorrect, statements, particularly in relation to the campaigns of 1776 and 1777. I noticed only one questionable comment in the text covering the years leading up to the outbreak of war. That being said, these inaccuracies are quite unimportant considering the overall biographical purpose of the book.
On the plus side, the author devotes considerable discussion to the plans for the 1777 campaign offered by Burgoyne and Gen. William Howe, their differences, and the ultimate confusion created by Lord George Germain’s decisions regarding those plans (the chapter is appropriately titled, “How to Plan a Disaster”). Furthermore, there is an interesting chapter on the Convention Army, the name given to Burgoyne’s army after the surrender at Saratoga, and Professor Poser deserves credit for spending some time on a topic seldom covered in writings on the campaign.
The last chapters cover the post-Saratoga years of Burgoyne’s life. These pages are a return to the style of the early chapters with Burgoyne returning to the center of the story. Here the author adds more on the general’s social life, his friendship with many notable people in all phases of English society, his continued affinity for gambling, and his marriage. The author also makes it clear that although Burgoyne had a reputation as a womanizer, he and Charlotte married for love and that connection continued until her untimely death after twenty-five years of marriage.
Burgoyne’s continued efforts at being a playwright are the topic of several pages. His plays made it to the stage and the author offers descriptions of them and some examples of autobiographical elements within the scripts. It is through his relationship with the theater that Burgoyne met the singer and actress Susan Caulfield, with whom the widower had a relationship for the rest of his life. Very little is known of her life or of the relationship but they ultimately had four children together.
To Professor Poser’s credit, he minimizes speculation throughout the book. On a number of occasions, he informs the reader about what is known and what is not: “In such instances I make the problem clear and state my own view, based on the historical context and my judgement as to the reliability of the available sources.” The reader is given the alternatives and some context to go with them. Also, in a feature seldom seen, where period monetary amounts are mentioned, the author gives the reader the equivalent in today’s dollars.
It seems unusual that a new book about someone as notable as John Burgoyne did not have more than a couple hundred pages of text. That is, until the author explained that very little primary source material created by Burgoyne exists. Unlike many influential people from the period, there is no collection of his papers. A nineteenth-century biography written by Edward DeFonblanque contains copies of several letters but the originals have since disappeared. It is also speculated that Burgoyne’s family may have destroyed a considerable number of documents.
This lack of personal documents may partially explain one aspect of this book that can be disturbing to historians—the extensive use of secondary sources. In a work like this, one would expect to find most of the documentation to come from primary sources but, if few of Burgoyne’s writings have survived, secondary sources—particularly early ones—comprise most of what is available to the researcher. Use of readily-available primary sources dealing with the Revolutionary War would have vastly improved those chapters.
Despite the challenges of limited primary source material and a lackluster section on Burgoyne during the Revolution, Professor Poser has done a fine job filling out the general’s life for the reader. “This humane, ambitious, patriotic, sensual, sociable, proud, brave, and sometimes reckless man deserves to be remembered for more than being the cause or scapegoat of one of Britain’s worst military disasters.” This book will, indeed, help with that memory.
On the Old Style (OS) calendar, the new year began on March 25. The New Style (NS) calendar changed that day to January 1. The result is some confusion over which year to apply to the days that fall between those two dates. Authors frequently resolve the issue by writing dates with both years such as February 24, 1722/1723 with 1722 being the OS and 1723 the NS years.