A contemporary comparison between General Burgoyne's loss of an entire army in 1777 and General Cornwallis' loss of an entire army in 1781

Sean Kelleher


Less than a month after General Cornwallis surrendered his troops in Yorktown, writer Abbe Robin documented his thoughts in this letter that was later published in New travels through North-America : in a series of letters, exhibiting, the history of the victorious campaign of the allied armies ... Philadelphia, 1783. It should be noted that the Author, Abbe Robin was not an unbiased source. Robin was a Chaplain with the French Army under Rochambeau.

York, November 14, 1781

The American war, the success of which has appeared so dubious, offers to our view two events, almost unparalleled in any war that history has recorded in her annals: I mean two entire armies made prisoners, who nevertheless were under the direction of Generals of the first note and ability. It now remains to ask, which of the two has discovered the deepest talents, and most activity, or experienced the greatest obstacles, and committed the most mistakes.

Being myself a witness to the efforts of one army, and surrounded by person who had a share in reducing the other, having also in my hand some exact and faithful accounts of that affair, I will venture a few reflections.

Editor's Note – the letter was edited due to space. Subjects edited included Character of General Burgoyne – Accounts of his unfortunate expedition in 1777 – Magnanimity of Sir Guy Carleton – A considerable body of Indians join Burgoyne – He makes a speech to them – Ticonderoga abandon by the Americans.

Picking up the story after the 2nd Battle of Saratoga (editors note end)

The English General [Burgoyne] was now informed, that the enemy had dispatched forward a considerable body, to surround him entirely.

This, he took every measure in his power to prevent, and upon the night of the ninth of October, began to march, leaving his sick and wounded to provide for themselves; but the care General Gates took of these has been since gratefully acknowledged by the English themselves.

A heavy rain, that lasted the whole night, rendered their progress very slow; and at break of day her perceived the Americans posted and fortified on the heights around him. He then took a resolution to march towards Fort Edward, but his road cutters being repulsed, and the opposite shore of the river lined with enemies, he concluded to call a council of war; upon considering the matter, they saw no other probable way of reaching this Fort than by a night march, and the soldiers carrying their provisions on their backs. But while they were preparing to execute this forlorn purpose, they learnt that the enemy had taken sufficient precautions to prevent the execution of their design.

Nothing could have been more wretched-nothing more deplorable than the condition of this army. Worn down by a long series of severe duty, marches and actions; forsaken by the Indians in the needful moment, weakened by desertion, dejected and discouraged by the timidity of the Canadians and provincial troops, their regular corps reduced by repeated losses, to the number of only three thousand five hundred, their bravest officers killed, the rest forced to be continually under arms, harassed day and night, by an enemy that seemed to grow out of the ground on every side, having lost all hope of relief, and but three days provisions left, their last resource was to make the best terms they could with the enemy. The General, willing however, in an affair that regarded the future well-being of every individual in the army, to have their unanimous voice, as far as possible, called a council of war, inviting not only the generals and staff-officers, but all commanding captains; these universally gave it as their opinion, that the army could not do otherwise than treat with General Gates; and the English have since done the latter the justice to declare, that, considering the ground on which he stood, he showed not the least mark of insolence or arrogance.

The substance of the principal articles was, that the army should march out of their camp with the honours of war, and their artillery, to an appointed place, where they should pile their arms: that a passage should be granted them from Boston to Europe, upon conditions of their not serving in America during the present war. – They reckoned their loss from the sixth of July, to the capitulation, inclusive, to amount to near ten thousand men.

The great fault of Burgoyne, and what prepared the way to all his misfortunes, was his march to Fort Edward; if he had returned to Ticonderoga, and proceeded to Fort George, he would doubtless have avoided these disaster, but as has been observed, he feared that a retrograde movement would slacken the ardor of his troops, and give the Americans time to recover from their surprise. A General is always blamable when he ventures far into unexplored countries; but Burgoyne, who had seen the Americans fly, on all sides, at his approach, notwithstanding their superiority in number, and those vast fortifications which both nature and man rendered impregnable, could he believe that these very men would afterwards fail to show themselves, surround him on every side, and fight him in the open field.

The shame of re-iterated defeats, the immediate calamities they felt and greater still to be expected, the dread of Indian cruelty and indiscriminate plunder; all these considerations must have wrought wonderfully on the minds of the Americans to have produced so sudden and universal a change; let it be remembered, however, that the very elements assisted in the reductions of Burgoyne; the heavy rains threw continual obstacles in his way, particularly in the affair of Bennington, where, by delaying the march of Colonel Breyman, General Starke had an opportunity of attacking and defeating Colonel Baum, before the other's arrival; the Indians, likewise, forsook him at the very time when they could be of use to him; his expected reinforcements never joined him; and Clinton, who then commanded at New York, and might with the greatest ease have failed in force up the North River, was too flow in making the diversion. All that genius, activity and courage could suggest was put into practice by Burgoyne; his marches were judicious, his positions advantageous, and his skirmishes obstinate; But the Americans, reanimated by hope, and emboldened by despair, became every day more numerous active and warlike.

As to Lord Cornwallis, he had to contend with enemies better disciplined and longer inured to war, but he had the advantage of Burgoyne in long experience in America in a more exact knowledge of the country, in being better supplied with provisions and ammunition and not having to struggle with such severe weather and impassable tracts of wilderness. He had also the most perfect confidence of his troops and was become so formidable to the enemy, that General Washington was thought to be the only man that could, as such, be placed in competition with him, Burgoyne had constantly to do with enemies who were either strongly entrenched or infinitely more numerous than his own troops. Cornwallis, on the contrary, at the head of an army of at least eight thousand choice troops, and always superior to his dispersed enemies, yet strange as it may seen, did not think proper to attack the Marquis de la Fayette, who never had more at any time than two thousand, nor to hinder the landing of three thousand men under the orders of M. de Saint Simon, to prevent them from joining the Marquis. If he had marched down upon them at their first landing he would have found a body of men totally ignorant of the country they were in, their arms and ammunition yet on board the vessels, and not a single intrenchment (entrenchment) thrown up: superior to them still, after their junction with the Marquis, and threatened with the approach of the armies of General Washington and Count Rochambeau ought he not to have hastened, by forced marches, to attack and disperse them, that he might afterwards have it in his power to make head against the other.

But if, after the instructions of Clinton, and his promises of speedily relieving him, he nevertheless thought it improper to hazard any attack, how advantageous forever it might promise to be, he ought at least to have done all in his power to retard and prolong the siege; for whatever might have been the relief promised by Clinton, contrary winds might have delayed its arrival, and a few days gained would have been of the greatest importance to him. He likewise knew that Count de Grasse had declared that he could not remain but a short time in the bay; so that, retarding his departure, would have been deranging his plans, and consequently hindering him from serving his country elsewhere. The season being, also pretty well advanced, the autumnal rains must have made the siege very fatiguing to our troops, and perhaps have occasioned contagious distempers among them, in a country where the air and water are less wholesome than more northward.

The distance between York and Williamsburg is twelve miles, and this whole interval is covered with very thick woods; it would certainly have been an easy matter then, for Cornwallis to have made lines of abbatis throughout this forest, and have stopped up the roads from post to post; three thousand slaves at least, which he had taken from the planters, would have rendered this mode of defense still more practicable- all our military connoisseurs have given it as their opinion that a few detachments and some field pieces, might have retarded the combined army at least a a month in its approaches to the works at York, and probably would have destroyed us a great number of men. The lands adjoining the town were covered with Indian corn, and by taking it away or burning it, he would have obliged the assailants to get food for their horses at a greater distance, and by that means delayed the transportation of the artillery, which was landed several miles from the camp.

Cornwallis thus shut up in York, with artillery badly enough served, and his worked disadvantageously constructed, had it not in his power to sally out upon us without risquing too much, while the besiegers had time to prepare to receive him, and event to cut off his retreat: being thus incapacitated from acting offensively, he could no way extricate himself but by some desperate attempt.

If he had known how to profit by circumstances, the relief promised by Clinton might have saved him, or at least made a great diversion in his favour. The English squadron, consisting of twenty-seven or twenty-eight ships of the line, with four thousand land forces on board, appeared before the capes on the 26th of October, that is to say, seven days after the surrender. Count de Grasse's fleet, being thirty six ships of the line, was then at anchor within the Horse-Shoe, a sand bank, over which vessels of war cannot pass, except through a narrow channel on the east side; the squadron from getting under way and consequently could not have hindered Clinton from effecting a landing for his troops. I cannot say whether it was a fear of bad weather that inclined the County to make choice of this place, but his over great precaution was, I am sure, an obstacle to his pursuit of the English, the wind being favorable enough, had the fleet been in any other place.

May we now ask which of the two English Generals has manifested the best conduct? For my part I am of the opinion, Burgoyne have succeeded better in defending York, and that Cornwallis could not have done more in the wilderness adjacent to Saratoga.

Copyright © 2007 Sean Kelleher. All rights reserved.