MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History


On March 27, 1777, King George III received Major General John Burgoyne at Saint James Palace, where, in a private audience, Burgoyne reviewed his audacious proposal to attack the rebellious American colonies “from the side of Canada.” If all went well, he said, the offensive would bring a speedy end to the American Revolution.

King George pored over the details of Burgoyne’s plan. It called for marching an army south from Montreal along the western shore of Lake Champlain, recapturing Fort Ticonderoga at the south end of the lake in New York, and then hurrying on to Albany in time to link up with an army led by General Sir William Howe, which would be marching north from New York City.

Burgoyne, the illegitimate son of a nobleman, had long since earned a reputation in London’s high society as a compulsive gambler—and the nickname “Gentleman Johnny.” After joining the British Army as a teenager and quickly rising through the ranks, Burgoyne had tapped his aristocratic wife’s dowry to buy a commission as a captain, but he then lost so much at the gaming tables that he had to sell the commission to cover his debts.

Commissioned again when the Seven Years’ War broke out, he distinguished himself as a risk taker, leading the Coldstream Guards on daring attacks in France and Portugal. His capture of the enemy’s commanding officer led to a promotion to major general and a seat in the House of Commons. Burgoyne had been posted to Boston as the Revolutionary War began at Lexington and Concord.

If all went well, Burgoyne said, his plan would bring a speedy end to the revolution.

By that time the king’s privy council had banned the importation of weapons to the American colonies, but such a brisk contraband trade had sprung up that General Thomas Gage, the commander in chief of British forces in North America, had warned London that the radicals were “sending to Europe for all kinds of military stores.”

In May 1775, a full year before the individual colonial congresses deliberated independence, the Continental Congress appointed a secret committee headed by Robert Morris, who would almost singlehandedly arrange the financing of the Continental Army, to attempt negotiations with the French and Dutch governments for shipments of arms. Though these governments avoided direct complicity—supplying such contraband to the American rebels violated French neutrality under international law—they seldom interfered with entrepreneurs involved in the contraband trade. In France, Silas Deane, a Connecticut merchant and former member of Congress, acted as Congress’s commercial agent, working with Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, a playwright (The Marriage of Figaro) and arms dealer, to secure the secret approval of the foreign minister and King Louis XVI. They then set up a dummy mercantile firm, Roderigue Hortalez et Compagnie, to disguise their purchases of arms and ammunition in the Netherlands and other European countries.

Louis XVI, declaring that it was time to refit French weaponry, allowed merchants in Nantes to withdraw “outmoded”

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