Saratoga Surrender

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Saratoga Surrender

SARATOGA SURRENDER. 17 October 1777. On 13 October, John Burgoyne's officers unanimously agreed he should treat for surrender on honorable terms, and Burgoyne sent an officer to Horatio Gates proposing to begin negotiations. Gates consented, and the next day Major Robert Kingston, Burgoyne's adjutant general, was led blindfolded to the American headquarters. To the amazement of the British emissary (as well as Gates's aide, James Wilkinson), Gates immediately produced from his pocket a paper saying that only unconditional surrender would be considered. While this has sometimes been called a blunder, Gates was simply following classic European protocol. Burgoyne countered with an equally conventional response: in addition to demanding the honors of war, he now proposed that his command be paroled "upon condition of not serving again in North America during the present contest." This was a technical distinction, but one of great consequences that had been last used by a British commander at Kloster-Campen during the Seven Years' War. The men of the defeated force did not become prisoners of war, but rather would be allowed to depart the theater of war and fight elsewhere—or to release British troops in European garrisons, which would then come to America and fight. Uncertainty as to the status of Clinton's expedition and unwillingness to risk casualties in a frontal assault on the British defenses led Gates to agree to the outline of the terms on the 15th, provided that Burgoyne signed the capitulation by 2 p.m.

This last proviso was a blunder. Although Burgoyne had no hope of escape, he interpreted from the urgency of this time schedule that his adversary was worried about the British forces from the south. So Burgoyne agreed "in principle" but insisted on more time to work out details. Both commanders then appointed representatives with full powers to negotiate for them: Wilkinson and militia brigadier general William Whipple (a Signer of the Declaration of Independence) were the Americans; Lieutenant Colonel Nicholas Sutherland and Captain James Craig were their counterparts. They met between the lines and drew up articles of capitulation that all four signed at 8 p.m. At 11 o'clock that night Wilkinson was given a letter from Craig saying Burgoyne would sign the agreement if it were termed a convention rather than a capitulation. Gates promptly sent his consent, incorrectly feeling that there was no material distinction between the words.

On this same evening (the 15th) Burgoyne learned from a Loyalist messenger that Clinton's forces had taken the Highlands, had reached Esopus, and had probably gotten to Albany. He called a council of war to consider this development. His officers voted 14 to 8 that he could not honorably withdraw from a treaty he had promised to sign and, by the same majority, that the favorable terms should not be thrown away on the strength of the Tory's dubious report. Burgoyne now seemingly attempted to out-blunder Gates. He announced that he was not bound by these votes and, to stall for time, on 16 October he informed Gates he had learned that the latter had detached a considerable force, which meant that the Americans might no longer have the numerical superiority that had persuaded him to start negotiations. Burgoyne, therefore, wanted to verify the remaining American strength. Gates sent Wilkinson to ask Burgoyne if he intended to resume hostilities. Faced with the possibility of being crushed, Burgoyne finally agreed at 9 a.m. on the 17th.

Riding forward on 17 October in a splendid uniform, Burgoyne was introduced by Wilkinson to a small, plainly clad American general. "The fortune of war, General Gates, has made me your prisoner," the Englishman reportedly said. "I shall always be ready to testify that it has not been through any fault of your Excellency," Gates is supposed to have replied. Burgoyne handed Gates his sword and Gates returned it to Burgoyne. The senior officers of both sides then went to dinner while Burgoyne's men laid down their arms, as the terms specified, under their own officers' orders. Under the agreement, officers would retain their side arms and the Convention Army would be allowed to march to Boston under guard to await the arrival of transports to take them to Europe. Meanwhile, as required by honors of war, American musicians played British or German marches to show respect for the defeated, and British and German musicians played American tunes.

A political firestorm erupted when Washington and Congress learned of the terms of the surrender. Washington correctly recognized that the British could simply rotate troops and make good the supposed losses. More to the point, the Virginian knew that the British had renounced the Kloster-Kampen agreement as soon as their men were out of French custody, and he feared similar duplicity.

SEE ALSO Burgoyne, John; Burgoyne's Offensive; Clinton's Expedition; Convention Army; Gates, Horatio; Honors of War; Parole; Whipple, William; Wilkinson, James.


Nelson, Paul David. General Horatio Gates: A Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976.

Nickerson, Hoffman. The Turning Point of the Revolution; or, Burgoyne in America. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1928.

                              revised by Robert K. Wright Jr.