By D. Allan Kerr
Gen. William Whipple was a former cabin boy from Kittery, Maine, who went on to sign the Declaration of Independence. “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne was a successful playwright and prominent member of Parliament, as well as one of King George III’s most famous generals.
Their lives became intertwined for several days after the Battle of Saratoga in October 1777, a pivotal victory for the American colonies in which Burgoyne surrendered 6,000 British troops.
Whipple, a brigadier general of New Hampshire’s militia and a delegate to the famed Second Continental Congress, helped negotiate the terms of the British surrender at Saratoga.
He was then given the honor of escorting John Burgoyne back to the Port of Boston, where the defeated general was eventually placed on a ship and sent back to England.
Today, Whipple’s small travel journal from that adventure sits in the Athenaeum of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. His account offers a unique insider’s perspective from the most important era in our nation’s history – the birth of the United States.
Whipple’s father, also named William Whipple, was a seaman and a maltster, or brewer. Whipple’s grandfather was the renowned Kittery shipbuilder Robert Cutt.
Born in 1730, Whipple shipped out to sea as a cabin boy when still a youngster. Although he would go on to serve in the Continental Congress with some of the most learned men of the age – think of Franklin and Jefferson as examples – young Whipple attained no formal education beyond his years at sea. And in the mid-1700s, a mariner’s life was no pleasure cruise.
But Whipple became a ship’s master by the age of 21, and by the time he was 30 the young sea captain had earned enough of a fortune to settle down across the Piscataqua River in Portsmouth and go into business with two brothers, one of whom died shortly thereafter.
He married his first cousin Katherine Moffatt, moved into what we know today as the historic Moffatt-Ladd House, where he resided for many years, and emerged as a leader of the American Revolution.
After serving on various committees and being appointed colonel of the local militia, Whipple was sent to Philadelphia in 1776 to represent New Hampshire in the Continental Congress. In July of that year, he joined 55 other patriots in signing the Declaration of Independence. In 1777, he was given a general’s commission in the state militia.
Whipple could be irascible and blunt in his letters. He sometimes misspelled words, his grammar wasn’t always precise, and he didn’t always bother with punctuation. But the old salt was passionate in his belief freedom was worth the fight.
Burgoyne, on the other hand, was something of a dandy. He was known as “Gentleman Johnny” for his stylish uniforms and affection for high society.
During this era, British military officers could purchase their commission of rank, and on more than one occasion Burgoyne had to sell his commission to pay off gambling debts.
He was also elected to Parliament and became a renowned dramatist, having penned the successful stage comedy “The Maid of the Oaks.” And he had the good sense to marry into aristocracy.
But make no mistake, the flamboyant Burgoyne knew how to fight. He saw quite a bit of action in the Seven Years War against France, particularly in Portugal in 1762, and helped popularize the concept of light cavalry in the British Army. By 1777, Burgoyne was a lieutenant general.
His intent during the Saratoga campaign was a sound strategy – to strike south from Canada and drive a wedge separating New England from the remaining colonies.
Burgoyne was partly done in by the failure of British Gen. William Howe to bring his force from New York City to meet up with Burgoyne’s troops. Howe decided to capture Philadelphia instead, leaving Burgoyne to be surrounded by colonial forces.
The American victory showed the world the ragtag rebel army could go toe-to-toe with the world’s greatest military force, and helped convince France to join the fight.
What we refer to as the “Battle of Saratoga” was actually two battles which took place in September and October of 1777, surrounded by a series of running skirmishes. After the initial action of 19 September, a call went out for additional militias to aid the Continental Army in New York under Gen. Horatio Gates.
In answer to this call, Whipple set out from Portsmouth on 30 September.
His handwritten account currently housed in the Portsmouth Athenaeum includes an inventory of items listed under the heading “Cash pd for Equiping (sic) myself for a campaign to the North.” These expenses include a sword belt, horses and tobacco, and payments to a smith, a shoemaker and a “sadler.”
Expenses are also listed for Prince Whipple, who is referred to as a “servant” in these documents but was actually the general’s slave. According to legend, Whipple freed Prince while embarking on this campaign, although Prince didn’t officially receive his freedom papers until the early 1780s.
Whipple’s journal indicates he departed in the company of his aide, Major George Gains, as well as Prince, and traveled across New Hampshire thru Exeter, Londonderry, and Keene. He then continued into Massachusetts and on thru Vermont en route to New York.
On 8 October, Whipple reports arriving at headquarters outside Stillwater, New York, and meeting with a general “who gave me an account that the enemy were retreating and that more forces was wanting to stop them.”
On 10 October, Whipple writes: “I was ordered to take post … the enemy appearing to be in motion. I keep on the watch all night.”
On 11 October: “A heavy commencing between the two armies. Gen. Gates took a number prisoners.”
12 October: “This morning threw up a brestwork and mounted a six pounder (cannon) that arrived last evening and exchanged some shots with the enemy.”
The firing continued the next day, but on 14 October, Whipple writes: “A flag from Gen. Burgoyne with some proposal for treaty in consequence of which a cessation of arms.”
On the 16th, Whipple reports articles of capitulation established “by delegates of the contending commanders,” then adds, “but Burgoyne has been quibbling & in consequence it is just off to 12 at which time Hostilities are to commence if the terms are not agreed on by Mr. Burgoyne.”
Whipple, a modest sort, does not mention he was reportedly one of the delegates tasked with negotiating those terms. Whipple, after initially referring to the opposing commander as “Gen. Burgoyne,” continues to refer to the defeated general as “Mr. Burgoyne” throughout the remainder of his entries. Burgoyne’s action also marked what would become a continuing pattern of behavior.
Remarkably, the Athenaeum collection in downtown Market Square actually includes an original copy the Articles of Convention between Burgoyne and Gates.
The document declares British troops are to “march out of their camp with the Honours of War,” with “arms to be piled by word of Command from their own Officers,” and artillery left behind as well.
The 13 articles also call for safe passage of Burgoyne’s army to Massachusetts Bay, to be transported back to England “upon Condition of not serving again in North America during the present Contest,” and for troops to be marched via the “easiest, most Expeditious & Convenient route.
They also call for the defeated troops to be fed the same rations as their American conquerors, and for British officers to be allowed to wear their sidearms and maintain contact with their men.
The Continental Congress later revoked these terms, and many of Burgoyne’s soldiers became prisoners of war throughout the remainder of the conflict.
Another document housed at the Athenaeum, dated 24 October, provides a list of American officers taken prisoner by Burgoyne, to be exchanged for officers of equal rank taken by Gates.
Whipple’s journal notes that on 20 October he dined with both Gates and Burgoyne, and on the 21st he was “preparing to set out with Burgoyne.”
But on 22 October, Whipple writes: “Mr. Burgoyne desires to tarry until Oct 24.” The next day he notes: “Mr. Burgoyne is very desirous to tarry one day longer to finish his dispatches which is granted him therefore 25th is the day agreed on to set out.”
Then on the 24th: “Mr. Burgoyne is still desirous of another day which is granted him he promises not to tarry longer than 26.”
But due to poor weather, it wasn’t until the morning of the 27th that they finally embarked from Albany on their journey, according to the journal. “It rains hard all the way,” Whipple noted.
This rain continued over the next couple days. Whipple at one point reports poor accommodations at Nobletown, New York, (now known as Hillsdale) compelled him to ride ahead to Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where the rest of the company met him the following day. “Had a very good dinner and determined to halt here until the weather is fair,” he notes.
In a letter written that same day to fellow Portsmouth patriot John Langdon, a successful shipbuilder who would go on to sign the U.S. Constitution, Whipple recounts their progress.
“Gen. Gates indulged Mr. Burgoyne to tarry in Albany,” he writes, before describing the persistent rain which followed the early part of their journey.
“Have had as good a time as could be expected all things considered,” Whipple tells his friend. “I know you are somewhat impatient to hear many Particulars which I hope I shall be able to gratify you in, in the course of ten days.”
The final dated entry of Whipple’s journal, recorded 8 November, shares little sentiment of his shared experience with “Gentleman Johnny.”
If Whipple did indeed share with Langdon – or any other patriotic cohorts – “many Particulars” regarding Burgoyne upon his return home, there doesn’t appear to be a written record of it. And there does not seem to be evidence of correspondence between the two statesmen/generals in the years following.
Burgoyne was something of a pariah upon his return to England in defeat. But he continued his career in Parliament and continued to write plays, including “The Heiress,” his most famous literary work. He even dabbled in opera.
He eventually regained some political favor and was later made commander in chief of Ireland. He died in 1792, at age 70.
Whipple took part in the 1778 Rhode Island military campaign and continued in the Continental Congress until 1779, when he had to step down due to ill health. He also resigned his military commission.
But he continued to serve the country and was on horseback riding the circuit as a New Hampshire Superior Court justice when he suffered a heart attack in November 1785. He died a few days later at 55 years of age. His grave can be found today in Portsmouth’s North Cemetery.
The Athenaeum, a non-profit organization funded by annual membership fees and donations, does not receive a dime of public tax dollars.
[Editor’s Note: If you go out to celebrate the Fourth of July holiday weekend, please WEAR A MASK.]
(July 3, 2020)
He can also be found on seacoastonline.com