British General John Burgoyne Logistics and the Defeat of Gentleman Johnny

by Major John A. Tokar

The surrender of British General John Burgoyne at Saratoga was the turning point of the Revolutionary War. Logistics problems played a crucial role in the British failure.

The British logistics system during the American Revolutionary War was gravely deficient, and its defects contributed greatly to the ultimate British failure to subdue the 13 rebelling colonies. (See my previous article, "Logistics and the British Defeat in the Revolutionary War," in the September-October 1999 issue of Army Logistician.) Nowhere were these shortcomings more apparent, or the consequences more dire, than during the Saratoga campaign of 1777. The British commander, Lieutenant General John Burgoyne (known as "Gentleman Johnny"), historically has received much of the blame for the British defeat in this most pivotal of operations. Historians have noted that he maintained a lavish lifestyle in the field and paid little notice to the severe supply and transportation challenges that faced his army.

However, much of the blame for the British failure may be misplaced. Burgoyne was not inexperienced, and many other factors contributed to the shocking British defeat by an enemy that seemingly was disorganized and under-resourced. In particular, logistics played a decisive role during Burgoyne's campaign, perhaps more than at any other time during the war. During their campaign of 1777, the British felt many logistics shortcomings acutely, while the American supply system achieved some of its greatest success.

Logistics: A Concern From the Beginning

Burgoyne was not new to the North American theater when he arrived in Canada in the summer of 1777 to take command of the multinational force that would attempt to sever the New England colonies from their Middle Atlantic brethren. Nor was he ignorant of the British Army's logistics concerns. He had witnessed how logistics influenced the first significant British strategic judgment of the war, the decision to abandon Boston. (The British departed in March 1776.) At that time, Burgoyne had been the first to recognize that, even if British forces were successful in initiating a campaign from Boston, it would be very hard to maintain a line of communication with supply bases around that city. Not only were the rebels likely to attack the precarious supply lines, but they also were likely to sweep the surrounding area clean of any usable food and fodder. So General Thomas Gage, the British Army commander from 1768 to 1775, finally decided that the evacuation of Boston was unavoidable. In correspondence to England in October 1775, Gage admitted, "It appears to me most necessary for the prosecution of the war to be in possession of some province where you can be secured, and from whence draw supplies of provisions and forage, and that New York seems to be the most proper to answer these purposes."

Gage's successor, General Sir William Howe, and his deputy, General Sir Henry Clinton, agreed with Gage's analysis and initially wanted to move the garrison to New York (Manhattan and Staten Island). From there, they could attack south, into the Middle Atlantic colonies. If the British could defeat the Continental Army in the Middle Atlantic and subsequently convince those colonies to remain loyal, Howe felt that the South would capitulate. Then New England would have to follow suit.

With less than 6 weeks of provisions on hand and no knowledge of when his next shipment might arrive, Howe had no choice but to leave Boston. However, despite the desire to move to New York for strategic reasons, the army was moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia, primarily because Howe and Clinton were unsure if they could subsist adequately in the New York area. Moreover, they were equally unsure about when they could expect the next supply convoy from Cork, the Irish city that was the main port of embarkation for supplying the British forces in the colonies. (The state of supplies at Halifax was not much better than at Boston, but at least the locals were friendly.) The move was carried out hastily, with significant logistics consequences. An estimated 30,000 pounds of supplies were left behind because of inadequate shipping, and those supplies immediately fell into the hands of the rebels.

This campaigning is a favourite portion of Life; and none but stupid Mortals can dislike a lively Camp, good Weather, good Claret, good Musick and the Enemy near. I venture to say all this for a little fusillade during dinner does not discompose the Nerves of even our Ladies.
—Sir Frances Clerke, in a letter to his father during the Saratoga campaign, 10 September 1777

Logistics and a Campaign That Fell Short

After more than 3 months in Halifax, Howe finally decided to move the garrison to New York. Because of shipping delays in England, however, Howe was forced to postpone his move south. Four victuallers (supply ships) were held up in Cork from January until April 1776 for unknown reasons. Furthermore, the Treasury delayed sending troops and other supplies to the colonies because of a rise in shipping rates. The result of these developments was that Howe and his army lost 2 months of the campaign season (the period of favorable weather after winter) in New York and New Jersey. The impact of those lost months was significant. As a direct result of insufficient logistics, Howe was not able to land at Staten Island until the middle of the summer.

Still, despite this late start, 1776 was perhaps the best year of the war for the British. They had success against General George Washington at Long Island and White Plains and eventually had the Continental Army reeling across New Jersey. Washington was vulnerable and perhaps could have been defeated soundly. Had those 2 months not been lost early in the campaign season, Howe might have been able to crush Washington and conquer Pennsylvania as well, which would have had drastic consequences for the rebel cause. This lost opportunity often is cited as evidence of indecision and caution in the British leadership, but logistics certainly played a large part in that year's events. As historian Edward E. Curtis noted, "[The capture of Pennsylvania] would have been a far more serious blow to the Americans than the occupation of New York and New Jersey alone. Indeed, it might have sufficed to terminate the war."

The British Prepare for a Decisive Campaign

The British concept for the campaign of 1777, which eventually concluded at Saratoga, involved a three-pronged offensive. Burgoyne was to lead forces south from Canada, along Lake Champlain and down the Hudson River. Howe was supposed to detach a force from New York City to move up the Hudson to meet him, while Lieutenant Colonel Barry St. Leger hoped to create a diversion along the Mohawk River from Lake Ontario and then join them from the west. By adopting this strategy, the British hoped to split America in two, eliminating the possibility of mutual support between the New England colonies and those south of New York.

Unfortunately, Howe never really supported the plan, preferring instead to keep the bulk of his forces in New York for a push south. St. Leger laid siege to Fort Stanwix (present-day Rome, New York), but was forced to retreat when American General Benedict Arnold (not yet a traitor) arrived with 900 militiamen. Meanwhile, Burgoyne's force had such tremendous difficulties from the outset with terrain, transportation, and supplies that it never had a chance to achieve a decisive defeat of the rebels. From a logistics standpoint, Burgoyne's struggle is the most illuminating of the three movements.

Canada, where Burgoyne's expedition was to begin, was an entirely separate British command after 1775. Although British forces in Canada struggled with many of the same challenges faced by Howe in the rebelling colonies, Canada did provide some logistics advantages. That Canada was completely under British control after 1776 was certainly a benefit, but much of the British logistics success in the Canadian theater was due to Sir Guy Carleton, the British Governor-General. Carleton was able to eliminate much of the corruption and profiteering that hurt Howe's army; in particular, he established a commissariat that operated with a much higher degree of honesty and efficiency than previously experienced.

When Burgoyne returned to America on 7 May 1777, Carleton already had been notified that he would not be in command of the campaign that year. Nevertheless, he had collected most of the supplies and equipment Burgoyne required by that time, and he did not let personal misgivings about the command decision affect his preparations. However, Carleton did not make adequate arrangements for the transportation of troops and equipment, and this failure would prove fatal to the expedition. For nearly a month after Burgoyne's arrival, Carleton did little to obtain the horses, carts, and drivers needed to conduct the portage that would be required at the southern end of Lake Champlain. Carleton assumed that sufficient numbers of French Canadian farmers would volunteer their services as corvées (as required by British law). But these laborers never materialized, and Burgoyne finally directed Carleton to contract for 500 two-horse carts for provisions and an additional 400 horses to haul artillery pieces.

Burgoyne knew that these horses would not be sufficient to support the army for the duration of the campaign, but he relied on his column's ability to obtain additional transportation on the march. This was a fundamentally bad assumption, based largely on faulty intelligence. Under the best of circumstances, the region they were to traverse would have failed to sustain an army adequately, both because of its sparse population and because most of the inhabitants were unfriendly. The 500 carts originally contracted were only enough to haul 14 days of provisions, instead of the 30 days that Burgoyne intended to carry. To compound the already critical transportation problem, the contractors did not provide carts and horses in the numbers originally requested, and many of the civilian drivers later deserted the campaigning army.

Burgoyne Moves South

Burgoyne's forces initially consisted of nearly 9,000 soldiers, of whom about half were British and half German. Out of the eight German regiments, roughly 3,000 soldiers were hired from Duke Carl I von Braunschweig. The latter were not merely Hessian mercenaries but regular troops, hired by the British Crown, commanded by Major General Baron von Riedesel, and bound by a loyalty oath. Burgoyne relied on Carleton to provide nearly 2,000 Canadian militiamen to assist in building bridges, acting as escorts and, most importantly, holding captured fortifications while his army advanced. However, these militiamen probably never numbered more than 150, so many regulars had to be detached to perform those tasks. Burgoyne also received only about 500 of the 1,000 Indians he expected to accompany his army.

Despite having fewer personnel, wagons, and horses than expected, Burgoyne decided to commence the expedition in the third week of June 1777. The men—particularly the German dragoons—were encumbered by bulky uniforms. Historians still debate why Burgoyne chose to march with dismounted dragoons, but most experts conclude that he assumed he could obtain the horses he needed later.

Burgoyne's officers—undoubtedly following the example set by their commander—insisted on bringing along enormous quantities of personal possessions. Burgoyne's personal baggage alone was said to occupy 30 carts, and although some stories of his opulent lifestyle have been exaggerated, he and his officers usually enjoyed their time on campaign. Compounding the critical transportation shortage was Burgoyne's insistence on hauling 138 artillery pieces in anticipation of protracted siege operations against American fortifications. The delays caused by moving the artillery overland gave the rebels time to prepare their defenses and to mass troops at critical locations. As historian Hoffman Nickerson pointed out, "It was the very movement of that apparatus that created the necessity of employing it."

The Americans Respond

American Major General Philip Schuyler was in command of the Northern Department of the Continental Army, which included New York. He considered Major General Arthur St. Clair to be his best subordinate, so St. Clair was placed in charge of the defense of Fort Ticonderoga at the southern end of Lake Champlain. However, the fort had been allowed to fall into disrepair, and St. Clair was manned and supplied inadequately. In addition, by failing to occupy Mount Defiance, which overlooked Fort Ticonderoga, the Americans made it relatively easy for the British to capture the fort. In retrospect, Burgoyne's forces probably could have bypassed Ticonderoga, but at the time the fort was considered the "Gibraltar" of New England, and its possession was of tremendous psychological importance to the Americans.

Initially, Burgoyne was able to maximize the use of his strongest support asset—waterborne transportation—and he moved his forces by boat nearly to the base of the fort. By early July, Ticonderoga was in British hands, and the Americans had lost many lives, supplies, and weapons in its defense. Because of the British supply shortages, their capture of badly needed provisions and weapons at the fort represented an even more significant loss to the Americans. Between Mount Independence (a fortification on the Vermont side of Lake Champlain) and Fort Ticonderoga, the British captured 1,768 barrels of flour, 649 barrels of pork, 5 barrels of beef, 36 bushels of salt, 100 pounds of biscuit, 180 pounds of peas, and 120 gallons of rum. They also added American ammunition, 40 artillery pieces, and 200 boats to their stocks.

Schuyler, however, had tremendous appreciation for logistics, and he "refused to despair" after the loss of Ticonderoga. Instead, he adopted tactics that he knew would exacerbate the supply difficulties that the British already were experiencing. As his men withdrew to the south, Schuyler ordered them to fell trees across the roads and into Wood Creek to inhibit the British advance. Furthermore, he adopted a "scorched earth" policy, ordering all "crops burned, bridges destroyed, and all possible horses, cattle, and wheeled vehicles moved out of Burgoyne's reach."

British Plans Go Awry

Burgoyne's decision to use two routes instead of one to move his supplies, men, and equipment from Lake Champlain to the Hudson River often has been criticized as a tactical error, but it made sense logistically. Unfortunately, both routes had their disadvantages. Burgoyne chose to send his artillery and other heavy supplies south through Lake George, again maximizing his use of water transport, even though it took 17 days to get all the boats and equipment past the falls between Lakes Champlain and George. The other route, from Skenesboro by way of Wood Creek and Fort Ann, suffered from Schuyler's scorched earth tactics, so significant British manpower and time were needed to clear the roads of fallen timber. What should have been a 2-day march took nearly 3 weeks—an average daily advance of only 1 mile! Philip Skene, the Tory chief of Skenesboro, reportedly urged Burgoyne to use this route so that the British Army's manpower could improve his infrastructure while en route, including building a 2-mile causeway through a marsh. These continual delays further strained British food supplies.

Burgoyne was now at what some consider the decisive point of the entire campaign. Because he had received no replies to his urgent requests that Howe move up the Hudson to meet him (as originally planned), he correctly concluded that no assistance would be coming from that quarter. Moreover, he had received no word from St. Leger in the west, and his logistics situation was now deplorable. Although several other options were available, Burgoyne decided to keep his main force at Fort Edward and send a detachment to conduct a local foraging expedition. Von Riedesel suggested raiding nearby Bennington, Vermont, because intelligence sources reported that a large supply of corn, flour, and cattle there was guarded only by local militia. The German commander also hoped to acquire more horses to mount his forces. Skene had assured Burgoyne that the countryside around Bennington was full of loyalists and that the suspected enemy militia force was weak. He was not aware that American General John Stark had assembled 1,500 New Hampshire militiamen in a single week and was preparing to face the British raiding party. Moreover, the composition of the British force was curious, including female camp-followers and musicians. On 16 August, the British detachment was attacked, and the resulting British losses approached 900, half of them regulars.

Because Carleton was unable to augment his force, Burgoyne had to garrison Fort Ticonderoga, and that compounded the impact of his personnel losses in Vermont. The raid also proved that the initial estimates of loyalist support in the area were greatly exaggerated. When Burgoyne subsequently learned of St. Leger's defeat by Benedict Arnold, his right flank became vulnerable. Finally, the considerable delays caused by insufficient supplies and an overly cautious advance had allowed the rebels to amass a considerable opposing force on his front. To withdraw completely would be to admit that his plan was flawed, and that, to someone with Gentleman Johnny's ego, was unacceptable. By 13 September, he had amassed 30 days of supplies, so he chose to cross the Hudson and attack Schuyler's successor, General Horatio Gates. Perhaps he had resigned himself to his fate by this time, justifying his failings by reasoning that his expedition was only intended to tie up Gates so that he could not move south on Howe.

On 19 September, Burgoyne approached Freeman's Farm with about 6,800 regulars and 870 others. He had moved only 50 miles in the 74 days since arriving at Skenesboro. The resulting battle was a British defeat. Clinton, although under no instructions from Howe to do so, finally responded to Burgoyne's urgent request by starting a force of 3,000 men up the Hudson on 3 October. His progress was slow, however, and as had happened earlier, the delays allowed the rebels to swell their ranks (now more than 23,000 men) while the meager British supplies continued to dwindle. Burgoyne was forced to either retreat or plan a final drive south in an attempt to meet Clinton. His reconnaissance met with fierce American counterattacks, and on 7 October the British withdrew to Saratoga. Ten days later, hopelessly surrounded, with his supplies exhausted and with no hope of replenishment, Burgoyne surrendered.

What Went Wrong?

The difficulties of conducting military operations during an oppressive New York summer, through dense foliage and over difficult terrain, and the resulting delays that allowed the rebels to reorganize and resupply their forces compounded the inadequacy of Burgoyne's transportation. These were the primary factors leading to the surrender.

The British had abandoned their greatest advantage of the war—command of the sea—to adopt a plan of inland invasion that depended on lines of communication that were precarious at best. Although they did achieve temporary command of the lakes, they failed to use it to their logistics advantage. As historian James Huston points out, "Burgoyne allowed logistics to become his master instead of his servant. He was so concerned with getting everything up to meet all possible contingencies that he was too paralyzed to meet any contingency." Burgoyne was unable to seize the initiative at any time, and surprise was almost always an advantage for his enemy.

Burgoyne made many tactical errors, to be sure, but the larger strategic mistakes were probably the ones that were fatal. Burgoyne was guilty of taking enormous baggage trains; he might have delayed unnecessarily in taking Fort Ticonderoga; and his choice of the Skenesboro route to move part of his army, instead of using only Lake George, is suspect, at least in hindsight. However, strategic planning mistakes were made in London before the campaign ever commenced (although Burgoyne was a participant in that planning), and coordination between Lord George Germain, the Minister of War, and Burgoyne was lacking. Another critical flaw was the assumption that loyalist support abounded in the countryside of New York and Vermont and thus would be a source of logistics aid. Most important was the fact that Howe never intended to support Burgoyne's effort by sending a force north to Albany. Howe's focus remained on the Middle Atlantic colonies.

Logistics Remains a British Problem

Instances of logistics inadequacy and their impact on operations did not end with the British defeat at Saratoga. The entry of France into the war following the debacle at Saratoga caused a change of strategy in London. The command of the army was given to Clinton on 8 May 1778 in Philadelphia, and he was ordered to abandon that city immediately and fall back on New York. Clinton also was instructed to carry out "harassing operations," which were consistent with his need to forage the countryside for provisions, and to send large detachments of his army to Georgia and the West Indies. The cumulative effect of these orders caused Clinton to sink into a deep despair, feeling that London had given up on his army's ability to quash the rebellion outright. The inadequate amount of provisions that he was receiving from Cork only reinforced in his mind that the British Government had switched priorities to the West Indies. His despondence over ceasing to be perceived as the main effort, as well as the lack of adequate supplies from England, caused another campaign season to pass without significant British offensive action.

The final significant example of British logistics inadequacy occurred in 1781 in the South. Lord Charles Cornwallis had the unenviable task of pursuing Nathaniel Greene's American army. Cornwallis had limited success in a campaign that featured not only a lack of logistics assets but also a lack of understanding of basic logistics principles. By contrast, Greene had been given the Southern command of the Continental Army after serving for 2 years as Washington's Quartermaster General. This experience provided Greene with an impressive education in the importance of logistics. Although he had an inferior force, he divided it in the face of Cornwallis' greater numbers, primarily so that he could subsist off the land with greater ease. Cornwallis, conversely, kept a line of communication open to the coast so that he could maintain his resupply options.

In January 1781, however, Cornwallis cut loose from his baggage trains in order to increase the speed of his pursuit. (He actually burned his wagons and remaining supplies!) He soon was forced to halt his chase after Greene in order to collect flour and other provisions, and over 250 men deserted rather than face the hardships of foraging. Cornwallis' gamble paid off in the short term, for he managed to catch Greene's force at Guilford Court House, North Carolina, in March. However, his fundamental mistake was the one so often witnessed in the early years of the war: he wrongly assumed that a significant loyalist presence in the region would rise up and provide for his army. Lack of provisions meant that his men were too ragged to follow up on the victory at Guilford. Cornwallis was forced to return to the Cape Fear River, where he could receive supplies by sea and attempt to refit his army. As soon as he disengaged, Greene quickly reorganized his own forces, moved away from Cornwallis into South Carolina, and continued his mission of reducing British control in the South.

As these examples demonstrate, the lack of sufficient provisions and the means to transport men and equipment severely affected British military operations in the Revolutionary War. Saratoga is widely recognized as the pivotal campaign in the war, and it also is the one that most clearly displays British logistics inadequacies. On a strategic level, the impact of the Saratoga campaign was far reaching, for it brought France into the war. General Burgoyne, while not incompetent, did not devote the necessary attention to logistics concerns during the New York expedition, and the result was ultimately fatal for the British Empire.

Modern logisticians can learn much through careful analysis of previous campaigns. Although time and technology have altered warfare greatly in the 223 years since Burgoyne was forced to surrender at Saratoga, the Revolutionary War still holds truths that are valuable to today's soldier. ALOG

Major John A. Tokar is the Support Operations Officer for the 24th Corps Support Group at Fort Stewart, Georgia. He holds master's degrees in international relations from Syracuse University and in military arts and sciences from the School of Advanced Military Studies. He is a graduate of the Quartermaster Officer Basic and Advanced Courses and the Army Command and General Staff College.