Thursday, May 24, 2012

Letters from the Front: Consoling Burgoyne

"I am ever ready to do justice to the merit of the Gentn & soldier__ and to esteem, where esteem is due, however the idea of a public enemy may interpose__ "

In the spring of 1778, as John Burgoyne's Northern Army languished in captivity in New England, their commanding general sent a letter to George Washington. While it no longer survives, Washington's reply (presented in full below) indicates that Burgoyne's dispatch was a gesture of friendship. The British commander's April 4th response, which can be seen here, supports this conclusion. Washington's letter is significant in the way it shows the American commander espousing universal elements of eighteenth-century military culture. Though officially at war with the British, Washington nevertheless shows great compassion for Burgoyne, attempting to ease the sting of defeat with kind words and praise for Burgoyne's merit as an officer and a gentlemen. In the eighteenth century, European officers saw themselves as members of an elect club that was above the divisive nature of national politics, reflecting a military culture where officers of two different armies had more in common with one another than they did with the men under their command. While generally seen as a personification of American exceptionalism, it is important to remember that Washington did his utmost to follow the general conventions en vogue at the time.



Sol Feinstone Collection No. 2443
George Washington to John Burgoyne, Head Quarters Pennsylvania, 11 March 1778
Transcribed by W. P. Tatum III, June 2011

“Head Qrs. Pensylvania [sic] Mar. 11th


            I was only two days since honored with your very obliging Letter of the 11th. Of February.—
            Your indulgent opinion of my character, and the polite terms in which you are pleased to express it, are peculiarly flattering; and I take pleasure in the oppertunity [sic] you have afforded me of assuring you, that far from suffering the views of national opposition to be imbittered and debased by personal animosity, I am ever ready to do justice to the merit of the Gentn & soldier__ and to esteem, where esteem is due, however the idea of a public enemy may interpose__ You will not think it the language of unmeaning ceremony [pg 1] if I add, that sentiments of personal respect, in the present instance, are reciprocal.
            Viewing you in the light of an officer contending against what I conceive to be the rights of my Country, the reverses of fortune you experienced in the Field, cannot be unacceptable to me; but, abstracted from considerations of national advantage; I can sincerely sympathize with your feelings as a Soldier—the unavoidable difficulties of whose situation forbid his success, and as a Man whose lot combines the calamity of ill health, the anxieties of captivity, and the painful sensibility for a reputation, exposed where he most values it, to the assaults of malice & detraction.
            As your Aid de Camp went directly on to Congress__ the business of your Letter to me had been decided before it came to Land__ I am happy, that their chearful acquiescence with your request [pg 2] prevented the necessity of my intervention; and wishing you a safe and agreeable passage with a perfect restoration of your health,
                        I have the honor to be
                        Very respectfully

                                                Yr Most Obedt. Servt.
                                                Go: Washington”

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