It happened today - October 17, 2015

The surrender of General BurgoyneSometimes you lose a battle and win the war anyway. George Washington had a talent for it. But it’s not what happened to “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne who lost the Battle of Saratoga. Instead, on October 17, 1777 he was obliged to surrender his forces to American Revolutionary general Horatio Gates in a defeat that convinced the French the rebels could win and brought them in on the American side with decisive effect.

I feel bad for Burgoyne, a colourful high-living character who eloped with the daughter of a leading politician (Lord Darby) and after his wife died had four children with his mistress, a talented playwright and MP whose career was forever defined by Saratoga. He was marching south as part of a pincer movement with Gen. William Howe who, as I argued earlier in this space (see Aug. 27) may not have wanted to win the war and who changed his plans and left Burgoyne in the lurch. Moreover, Burgoyne returned to Britain and was never again given a senior active service command unlike, say, Howe.

The result of Saratoga was tremendous for the Americans, who later named six ships for the battle including one of their first aircraft carriers for the victory, a converted battle cruiser that took part in pre-World War II naval exercises including, of all things, a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, was twice torpedoed during the war, suffered a severe kamikaze attack at Iwo Jima and was eventually sunk in mid-1946 in nuclear weapons tests (a tough ship, she needed two blasts to sink even then).

I do not digress as badly as it might seem in this naval excursion. For the French navy played a major part in the Revolutionary War including trapping Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781 where American and French troops forced him to surrender, effectively ending British resistance to American independence.

The French, in the process, did win the battle and lose the war; their plot to break up their hated British imperial rival bankrupted the government so badly it had to convene the Estates General eight years later for the first time in 175 years with catastrophic results. Meanwhile the United States and Britain quickly became informal then formal partners in maintaining global order and fighting the Kaiser, Hitler and then the Soviet Union with France as a junior partner.

As for Burgoyne, though he never again held an active command, he did go on to be commander-in-chief in Ireland, arguably a dubious prize, and a privy councillor, and took part in the impeachment of Warren Hastings, a major parliamentary inquiry into the East India Company led by Edmund Burke, before dying suddenly and being buried in Westminster Abbey. But it’s too bad he was forever defined for his failure in this campaign, which wasn’t especially his fault, could have happened to anyone, and turned out so well for the world and his nation.