Q&A: Douglas Cubbison on British General Burgoyne

Douglas R. Cubbison is a military historian, who authored Burgoyne and the Saratoga Campaign: His Papers (2012, Arthur H. Clark Company), which presents the documents and letters of British General John Burgoyne.
 In 1777, Burgoyne began an attempt to divide the rebellious United States in the American Revolutionary War by moving south from the British Canada to gain control of the Hudson River Valley, separating the New England states from those to the south.

After Burgoyne’s early capture of Fort Ticonderoga, his campaign had become bogged down in difficulties and ended with surrender on October 17 of his entire army after the Battles of Saratoga.

Burgoyne’s papers were gathered in preparation to his defence before Parliament of his conduct that lead to the American victory over the British at Saratoga. In addition, Cubbison presents his own interpretive narrative of the campaign, based on these documents and other sources. This is the first time most of the Burgoyne papers have been published.

Cubbison is a self-employed Military Historian currently serving as the President of Stone Fort Consulting. He previously served as the Command Historian with the 10th Mountain Division, Fort Drum, New York and was deployed to Afghanistan in 2007. Previous to this Cubbison was the Cultural Resources Manager for the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York for five years. He is a 1980 Distinguished Military Graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Cubbison also authors his own interesting blog on miltiary history.

New York History had the opportunity to do an email interview with Cubbison about Lieutenant General John Burgoyne, one of the most colorful and fascinating figures of the American Revolution.

NYH: Why publish Burgoyne’s papers?

I have studied the Saratoga Campaign of 1777 seriously for my entire adult life, now over 40 years. Although individual letters written to and from Lieutenant General John Burgoyne have been used by historians, none of Burgoyne’s papers survived. Burgoyne died without a heir, and upon his death he specified that his personal and professional papers were to be destroyed, a request that was apparently carried out. Through the previous research of Stephen Strach, a National Park Service historian for many years, we had received a suggestion that some of his papers survived, relatively intact, “in England.”

It took nearly a year’s investigation, but I was finally able to locate a significant collection of papers that Burgoyne had gathered on the Saratoga Campaign, in preparation for his planned defense of his conduct on the Saratoga Campaign to be conducted in front of Parliament. Burgoyne’s defense never occurred (it was set aside by Lord George Germain and King George III because of the political damage that it would have caused them), but the papers that he gathered remained in the Parliamentary Archives. As the only intact collection of Burgoyne’s Papers, I felt that they were historically significant enough that they should be made available for future research and study on the campaign. In particular, this is because these papers contain distinctive and important information, particularly on the planning and organization of the campaign, that has never before been available to historians.

NYH: Burgoyne has been portrayed as a showman and gambler and developed nick names &#8211 Gentleman Johnny and Sir Jack Brag, do you think those are accurate descriptions of his personality?

Well, first, General John Burgoyne was never known as “Gentleman Johnny” during his lifetime. That name was invented by an English biographer, F.J. Huddleston in 1927 in his study: Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne, Misadventures of an English General in the Revolution. My impression of Burgoyne is that he had four great loves in his life- his wife, Lady Charlotte Stanley, gambling, the theater, and the British Army. He very much enjoyed both the European and the London social life, early in his life he supported himself and his wife through his skills at gambling and card playing, and later in his life he was a productive playwright whose productions were generally well received and popular in London.

Burgoyne was also a consummate, dedicated, progressive officer of the British Army- who extensively studied military art, science and theory, and supported numerous authors by purchasing their military treatises. All of the evidence that I have been able to locate on Burgoyne suggests that he was a friendly, congenial, courteous man who was well-regarded and liked in London. The soldiers that served under him in Canada in 1776 and during the Saratoga Campaign in 1777 held him in very high admiration, regard and respect. This is a considerably different interpretation of John Burgoyne than the commonly accepted portrayal.

NYH: There has been a number of things written about Burgoyne’s actions during the campaign including some negative descriptions written by the wife of the German General, the Baroness von Riedesel. Do you think these were accurate and how to you judge Burgoyne’s actions during the Saratoga Campaign.

As I have noted, John Burgoyne was a consummate professional, who dedicated his entire life to the British Army, and was a serious student of military art, science and theory. I really believe that his reputation has been badly impinged, and that he deserves a more rounded and insightful reevaluation. He expended considerable efforts in planning the campaign, and did everything that he could given available information to adequately prepare for the campaign, and to shape conditions for its success.

Accusations that he carried a Mistress with him on campaign, and dedicated more than a score of scarce and valuable carts for his personal baggage and comfort, have no basis in reality. Other accusations that he hauled an unreasonable train of artillery with him through the wilderness are also invalid. Clearly, as a cavalry officer who had achieved his great success in Portugal, he was ill prepared for a campaign from Canada down the Lake Champlain-Hudson River corridor through hundreds of miles of an utter wilderness. Yet Burgoyne prepared a carefully-considered, viable and ultimately successful plan to seize Ticonderoga. His pursuit of the Continental Army’s Northern Theater Army retreat from Ticonderoga was aggressively pressed and proved to be a significant accomplishment. The destruction of the American Lake Champlain fleet at Skenesboro on July 6, 1777 almost won the campaign. However, his logistical and tactical plans for his subsequent movements south from Lake Champlain and Lake George were inadequate, and failed to establish a logistical and transportation scenario that could carry his army victorious to Albany.

Following the Battle of Freeman’s Farm in late September and early October, Burgoyne suffered some kind of breakdown, although whether this breakdown was mental (through stress and tension) or physical (through illness and exhaustion) cannot be determined with available evidence, although there is some evidence that supports the Baroness von Riedesel’s contention that Burgoyne’s use of alcoholic beverages certainly contributed to his breakdown. His movements in July were sweeping and aggressive, his raid upon Bennington was audacious and carefully considered in mid-August. However, his subsequent movements were dilatory and hesitant, and Burgoyne’s previous dash and spirit were entirely absent in September and Octob
er. The inevitable result would be his capitulation at Saratoga.

NYH: What do you feel is misunderstood about Burgoyne? What surprising thing did you discover as you researched Burgoyne?

As an American raised on Kenneth Roberts and Bruce Lancaster, John Burgoyne doesn’t come across very well. Such proclamations as his unfortunate Manifesto to Americans published in June 1777 are bombastic, pompous, ridiculous, and arrogant- Burgoyne clearly could have benefited from an American editor. But as I worked with Burgoyne’s Papers and studied him, I realized that Burgoyne was actually a passionate, sensitive, caring man- who provided inspiring leadership to his soldiers and subordinate officers- was well respected by such accomplished British commanders as Governor General Carleton and Major General Phillips- and was held in high regard by the fickle and difficult London society. Burgoyne’s previously unpublished letter to Sir Henry Clinton upon the death of his wife is absolutely heartrending. I feel that John Burgoyne has been very poorly served by historians. I believe I would value his friendship as a gentleman and fellow professional Army officer and student of military history, and that I would greatly enjoy an evening with him spent at cards, conversation and madeira wine.

John Burgoyne remains one of the most fascinating soldiers of the American Revolution. His early military accomplishments, his elopement with a lady of nobility over an affair of the heart, his enjoyment of the gaming tables of Europe and London, his success as a playwright, his participation in the London social scene, his relationships with the leading politicians of England including King George III and Lord George Germain, together render him a sensational and fascinating historical figure. But such evaluations of John Burgoyne are somewhat superficial and ignore his dedication to the British Army, his effort to learn military art and science, his support of the expansion of British military theory and learning, his interest in military history, and his consummate professionalism.

NYH: How did surrendering an entire British army affect Burgoyne in his later life?

Well, it certainly terminated his career in the British Army, although he continued to hold a post as Military Governor for the remainder of his life. Burgoyne remained active in the London social circle, he wrote a number of theatrical plays that were quite well received and attended, and received positive reviews. He was apparently quite well liked and very popular in London society. All the evidence is that he enjoyed his years following the end of his military career in London.

NYH: Why do you think the Burgoyne papers and the Saratoga Campaign are still relevant some 235 years later?

The Saratoga Campaign had a direct and immediate influence upon the development of three nations- England, the United States and France. The Saratoga Campaign was the first major defeat that the British had ever sustained, and they could never recover from it. Although years of conflict remained, Saratoga was the first inexorable step towards American independence. As a result of Burgoyne’s capitulation at Saratoga, France would enter the American Revolution on the side of the United States, virtually ensuring its independence, and simultaneously setting it down the path to economic bankruptcy that would less than two decades later result in the French Revolution. The events at Saratoga had a profound influence on three nations….influences that remain to this very day.

NYH: Much of the Saratoga Campaign is researched and referenced from the British perspective. It is commonly called the Burgoyne Campaign of 1777 or the Surrender of Burgoyne at Saratoga. Do you feel at that the Saratoga Campaign is told from the British perspective rather than the victorious American perspective? Why do you think that is done?

Actually, I would disagree with this statement. The traditional interpretation of the Burgoyne Campaign is predominately based upon early American histories of the campaign, published in the 19th Century, and heavily influenced by the “American National” tradition and culture then preeminent in the United States. Many of the common traditional narratives of the Saratoga Campaign can be traced to these early histories, which have no validity when primary sources are evaluated, such as the brave Virginia rifleman, the stupid and arrogant British officers who hauled tons of baggage and scores of heavy cannon through the wilderness, the courageous American militia who defended their homes against the horrid British, Indian atrocities that raised the entire countryside, heavily equipped German soldiers carrying a staggering load and wearing 30-40 pound boots, the stupid Americans losing Ticonderoga because they weren’t smart enough to safeguard Mount Defiance, Timothy Murphy killing General Fraser with his special double-barreled rifle, and a handful of hardy American woodsmen delaying an entire British army for weeks by chopping down a few trees across a road through the woods.

Although new histories are produced for the Saratoga Campaign every couple of years, few of them have provided any new interpretations or reevaluations of the campaign. Many of them incessantly repeat the old campaign stories, created by sensational and nationalist American historians in the 19th Century with little basis in fact or history. Amateur or armchair historians have nearly universally given logistics and transportation issues short shift.

Few of the new histories of the Saratoga Campaign have performed any new primary source research. Let me offer three examples. Before I located Burgoyne’s papers in the Parliamentary Archives, nobody had made use of them, although they were available for decades, and it simply took a little bit (all right, a lot) of focused research to locate them. A second example is that the numerous and extensive German-language primary sources describing the campaign have not been taken advantage of by most historians. A third example is that the numerous and extensive British Army and Continental Army Orderly Books surviving from the Saratoga Campaign are rarely used by historians. These Orderly Books are a rich source of research from the campaign. From a single entry buried in one of these Orderly Books, for the first time myself and Justin Clement were able to document the precise number of British Artillery Gunboats, their ordnance, their commanders, and their tactical deployment at the Battle of Valcour Island.

I believe that the Saratoga Campaign demands an entirely new, comprehensive, exhaustive and complete re-evaluation that is based on extensive and focused primary source research. By transcribing and editing Burgoyne’s Saratoga Papers, and by providing a lengthy essay on Burgoyne’s leadership in the Saratoga Campaign, I have attempted to provide the impetus for this effort. I hope and trust that other historians will accept my challenge.

NYH: This is your third book on the history in New York and Canada in 1776 and 1777. Why do you have such an interest in that area and time period?

Among my earliest memories are walking with my father, holding his hand, between the dry-stacked stone walls leading from the parking lot to the Saratoga Visitors Center. This visit remains vivid in my memories &#8211 I remember the Dan Morgan’s Turkey Call in the diorama at the Visitors Center, and recall Dad explaining to me why a monument only had a boot on it and no name, and what a blockhouse was and how it was used. My family always spent a summer’s vacation at the end of the school year at Lake George, where we visited the myriad historic sites around that heritage area- Crown Point, Fort Ticonderoga, Mount Defiance, Fort William Henry, and the Saratoga battlefield. When I was thirteen years old, knowing that I had an interest in American and military history, my father re
commended that I read Kenneth Robert’s acclaimed historic novel, Rabble in Arms and Bruce Lancaster’s superb work of historic fiction, Guns of Burgoyne. I was hooked.

Note: Books noticed on this site have been provided by the publishers. Purchases made through this Amazon link help support this site.

Douglas Cubbison will be speaking at Saratoga National Historical Park Visitors Center in Stillwater, NY on Sunday, September 16, 2012 at 1 pm.

Sean Kelleher is the Historian for the Town of Saratoga. He has worked with a number of Champlain, Hudson and Mohawk Valleys historic sites on grant writing, interpretive planning, and marketing.

One thought on “Q&A: Douglas Cubbison on British General Burgoyne

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.