Gentleman Johnny’s Wandering Army


On October 17, 1777, Elijah Fisher confided the following information to his diary: … Gen. Burgoin and his howl army surrendered themselves Prisoners of Ware and Come to Captelate with our army and Gen. Gates. … Then at one of the Clock five Brigades was sent for Albeny (for there come nuse that Gen. Clinton was a comin up the North river). … Gen. Clinton having nuse that Gen. Birgoyne had capetlated and had surrendered his army prisoners of war he Returned back to New York. …

In this maze of misspellings there are not only the essential facts about a major turning point in the American Revolution the surrender of Major General John Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga—but also the reason why Burgoyne, totally surrounded, and outnumbered, was able to browbeat the American commander, Horatio Gates, into making the surrender a “convention.”

The bespectacled former British major, whose men called him “Granny” Gates, had initially demanded unconditional surrender and contemptuously refused Burgoyne’s first overtures “to spare the lives of brave men upon honorable terms.” Then came the news that Sir Henry Clinton was on the Hudson with a British relief army and had broken through the forts guarding the Highlands near West Point. Gates suddenly accepted Burgoyne’s two main propositions: that his army be allowed to surrender with “the honors of War” and then be paroled “upon condition of not serving again in North America during the present contest.” Coolly sensing he had the upper hand, Burgoyne agreed “in principle” but insisted on a formal negotiation to work out details. Gates soon found himself confronting a thirteenpoint document that Burgoyne agreed to sign only if it was called a convention rather than a capitulation. Once more Gates gave in. He even agreed to let the British army stack their arms in a secluded spot, out of sight of his own army, and some eleven hundred Tories, Canadians, and Indians were permitted to return to Canada immediately.

The Saratoga Convention was a remarkable tribute to “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne’s diplomatic finesse—and Horatio Gates’s timidity. It also set the stage for a five-and-a-half-year tragicomedy.

The day after the men of what was thereafter called the Convention Army had performed the melancholy task of stacking their arms and marching past the American army to the tune of “Yankee Doodle,” Burgoyne’s troops were ferried across the Hudson to begin their trek to Boston, which was specified in the Convention as their port of embarkation. In reality, they were two armies. Of the nearly 5,900 officers and soldiers, 3,379 were British, and 2,492 were German troops largely from the duchy of Brunswick Lüneburg, whose hereditary prince, Duke Charles William Ferdinand, had married a sister of King George in. In addition to these forces there were about a thousand women and children. The British had permitted these camp followers to accompany the soldiers to America, and they issued them daily rations from the commissary. Burgoyne, with that overconfidence that wrecked his dreams of American conquest, had expected such trifling opposition that he made no attempt to prevent them from marching with his army.

The reactions of the British and German troops to their adventures along the line of march were remarkably different. The British, mortified by their defeat, never lost an opportunity to sneer at the Americans. Thomas Anburey, a young lieutenant who later wrote the fullest account of the experience, harped on the Americans’ insistence on hard money in exchange for paper dollars. Around Albany they were willing to trade nine continentals for a guinea. At Williamstown, Massachusetts, on the other side of the Berkshire Hills, the Yankees offered eighteen and twenty dollars for the same coin. The lieutenant thought this cast some doubt on “their great veneration for Independency and Congress.” He professed to be even more scornfully amused by the militia general who offered to sell a British officer his boots.

But Anburey was forced to admit that he and his countrymen did not come off too well in their numerous encounters with the inhabitants who crowded around them to gawk wherever they stopped. The locals were particularly interested in the numerous noblemen among the British officers. Four women practically forced their way into one house where young Lord Napier was boarding for the night. “I hear you have got a lord among you, pray now which may he be?” one asked. Lord Napier said nothing; the British troops had marched all day in driving rain, and he was covered with mud. But one of his friends, with an elaborate bow, introduced him in the style of a herald at arms. “This is the Right Honourable Francis Lord Napier,” he intoned, and proceeded to list “all his lordship’s titles with a whole catalogue of additions.”

The women stared, and finally one of them twanged, “Well, for my part, if that be a Lord, I never desire to see any other Lord but the Lord Jehovah.”