Burgoyne's Proclamation at Bouquet River
Burgoyne's Proclamation at Bouquet River
BURGOYNE'S PROCLAMATION AT BOUQUET RIVER. 23-24 June 1777. While camped at Bouquet River, forty miles north of Fort Ticonderoga (now Willsboro, New York), General John Burgoyne issued a bombastic proclamation intended to rally loyal Americans to his support and dishearten the rebels with threats of attack by his native American allies. The document was filled with the rhetorical excess for which Burgoyne was already well known and exposed him to ridicule from both sides of the Atlantic. At about the same time he was threatening to unleash native American warriors against the rebels, he spoke to those allies in an attempt to persuade them to fight humanely. Burgoyne's two efforts at military rhetoric display a set of unrealistic assumptions about the character of the struggle, the nature of war on the frontier, and the motives of native Americans that help to explain why his campaign ended in surrender at Saratoga.
After an introductory enumeration of his titles and a general comment on the justice of his cause, his political proclamation read:
To the eyes and ears of the temperate part of the public, and to the breasts of the suffering thousands [of Loyalists] in the Provinces, be the melancholy appeal, whether the present unnatural Rebellion has not been made a foundation for the compleatest system of tyranny that ever God, in his displeasure, suffered, for a time, to be exercised over a froward and stubborn generation…. Animated by these considerations, at the head of troops in the full power of health, discipline and valour, determined to strike where necessary, and anxious to spare where possible, I, by these presents, invite and exhort all persons, in all places where the progress of this army may point, and by the blessing of God I will extend it far, to maintain such a conduct as may justify me in protecting their lands, habitations and families. The intention of this address is to hold forth security, not depredation to the country. To those whom spirit and principle may induce to partake [of] the glorious task of redeeming their countrymen from dungeons, and reestablishing the blessings of legal government I offer encouragement and employment…. The domestick, the industrious, the infirm and even the timid inhabitants I am desirous to protect, provided they remain quietly in their houses …, [and do not] directly or indirectly endeavour to obstruct the operations of the King's troops, or supply or assist those of the enemy. [Concluding with threats against those who continued in rebellion, he went on to say that] I have but to give stretch to the Indian forces under my direction, and they amount to thousands [400, actually], to overtake the hardened enemies of Great Britain and America … wherever they may lurk. (Quoted in Commager and Morris, Spirit of 'Seventy-Six, pp. 547-548)
Burgoyne addressed an assembly of chiefs and warriors by means of an interpreter on 24 June. Beginning with a why-we-fight exhortation, he then tried to lay down a few simple rules:
Persuaded that your magnanimity of character, joined to your principles of affection to the King, will give me fuller control over your minds than the military rank with which I am invested, I enjoin your most serious attention to the rules which I hereby proclaim for your invariable observation during the campaign…. I positively forbid bloodshed, when you are not opposed in arms. Aged men, women, children and prisoners must be held sacred from the knife or hatchet, even in the time of actual conflict…. In conformity and indulgence of your customs, which have affixed an idea of honor to such badges of victory, you shall be allowed to take the scalps of the dead when killed by your fire and in fair opposition; but on no account … are they to be taken from the wounded or even dying, and still less pardonable … will it be held to kill men in that condition on purpose…. Base, lurking assassins, incendiaries ravagers and plunderers of the country, to whatever army they may belong, shall be treated with less reserve. (Commager and Morris, pp. 545-547)
After an initial flush of rage, Americans started laughing, and the more literate reached for their goose quills and foolscap. One of the most widely publicized of the many satirical retorts, attributed to Francis Hopkinson, included these lines:
I will let loose the dogs of Hell,
Ten thousand Indians who shall yell
They'll scalp your heads, and kick your shins,
And rip your—, and flay your skins,
And of your ears be nimble croppers,
And make your thumbs tobacco-stoppers.
If after all these loving warnings,
My wishes and my bowels' yearnings,
You shall remain as deaf as adder
Or grow with hostile rage the madder,
I swear by George and by St. Paul
I will exterminate you all.
(Quoted in Commager and Morris, Spirit of 'Seventy-Six, p. 550)
Another anonymous American commented, "General Burgoyne shone forth in all the tinsel splendour of enlightened absurdity" (Montross, p. 198). In England, Horace Walpole suggested that "the vaporing Burgoyne," "might compose a good liturgy for the use of the King's friends, who … have the same consciousness of Christianity, and … like him can reconcile the scalping knife with the Gospel" (quoted in Nickerson, Turning Point, p. 122). In the House of Commons, Edmund Burke evoked a picture of the keeper of the royal menagerie turning loose his charges with this admonition: "My gentle lions, my humane bears, my tenderhearted hyenas, go forth! But I exhort you as you are Christians and members of civil society, to take care not to hurt any man, woman or child" (Commager and Morris, p. 544).
Montross, Lynn. Rag, Tag and Bobtail: The Story of the Continental Army, 1775–1783. New York: Harper, 1952.
Nickerson, Hoffman. The Turning Point of the Revolution, or Burgoyne in America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1928; Cranbury, N.J.: Scholar's Bookshelf, 2005.
revised by Harold E. Selesky