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Gentleman Johnny’s Wandering Army
Defeated at Saratoga, Burgoyne’s troops faced nearly five years of enforced exile in a hostile countryside
December 1972 | Volume 24, Issue 1
The citizens of Cambridge—and the rest of Massachusetts, for that matter—were not at all delighted to find themselves playing host to the Convention Army, and they did not try to conceal it. The troops were ordered into makeshift barracks on Prospect and Winter hills. These ramshackle affairs had been built by Washington’s army during the siege of Boston and were now falling apart. ”… We suffered severely from the inclemency of the weather,” Lieutenant Anburey said. “The barracks were, in fact, bare of every thing; no wood, and a prodigious scarcity of fuel, insomuch, that we were obliged to cut down the rafters of our room to dry ourselves.” Six officers were jammed into a room not twelve feet square. “The barracks are without foundations, and built of boards, through which the rain and snow penetrate from all sides,” lamented a German officer.
Burgoyne and his suite had to settle for Bradish’s Tavern, just off Harvard Square, which he called “dirty, small, miserable.” He and General William Phillips, his commander of artillery, slept in the same room, while their aides slept on the floor in the next room, “a good deal worse off than their servants have been used to,” huffed Gentleman Johnny.
The recipient of this complaint was Major General William Heath, the obese, bald-headed commander of the American forces in the Eastern Department, which included Massachusetts. A farmer most of his life, Heath was at first treated with condescension by the British. They were about to sit down to dinner in Boston, at Heath’s invitation, when Phillips coolly suggested that Heath “delegate to General Burgoyne the power of seeing your orders executed.” The implication was plain: an amateur like Heath did not have the brains to command British troops.
Heath declined the invitation, saying that he was prepared to exercise his own command and enforce his own orders. He informed the British officers, to their immense chagrin and consternation, that they would not be allowed to live in Boston. This was the Massachusetts government’s revenge for the destruction wrought by the British army during the long siege that ended in March of 1776. Their parole was to confine them to the town of Cambridge.
Burgoyne, trying to flatter Heath and thus grease the Convention machinery he had so ably constructed, strolled through the streets of Boston after dinner, while an immense crowd of men, women, and children peered down from windows and roofs of houses and swarmed around them. “Sir,” said Gentleman Johnny, “I am astonished at the civility of your people: for, were you walking the streets of London, in my situation, you would not escape insult.” But eight days in Bradish’s Tavern demolished his good humor. He was finally offered accommodations in the Apthorp mansion, formerly owned by the Tory founder of Christ Church in Cambridge. The Americans had looted both the church and the house of every movable piece of furniture, yet they graciously offered to rent the mansion to Burgoyne for150, payable in advance. Burgoyne lost his temper and ripped off a letter to Horatio Gates. He dilated on the hardships of his officers, who were being forced to live in a barracks “without distinction of rank,” and blamed the situation on “the supreme powers of the state,” who were “unable or unwilling to enforce their authority, & the inhabitants want the hospitality or indeed the common civilization to assist us.” Then Burgoyne added words that were to haunt him and the Convention Army: “The publick faith is broke, & we are the immediate sufferers.”
Gates forwarded this letter, written on November 14, to Congress. Arriving almost a month after the glorious news of Burgoyne’s surrender, it met a very different reception. Congress had voted Gates a medal before they bothered to read the thirteen articles of the Convention. But George Washington had read them and as early as November 5 was advising: ”… I think, in point of policy, we should not be anxious for their early departure.” Washington did not suggest that the Convention be broken, but he saw no reason to make it easy for the British to get Burgoyne’s army home in time to ship out replacements to join Howe for the spring campaign of 1778. A severe shortage of military manpower and the very strong possibility that France would now enter the war made it extremely unlikely that the British would dare to send replacements before Burgoyne’s men had arrived home.
Studying the Convention articles, Washington noted that Boston was specified as the port of departure and that nothing was said about supplying the British with food for the voyage home. On both these points he urged strict interpretation. Writing to Henry Laurens, the president of Congress, on November 26, the American commander in chief said, “If the embarkation is confined to Boston, it is likely that it will not take place before sometime in the spring or at least towards the end of February.” For a landsman, Washington knew his way around Massachusetts waters. Once the prevailing northwest winds began whistling down from Newfoundland, it was a risky business for any ship to attempt to round Cape Cod for Boston harbor—doubly so for the leaky vessels used as transports in the Royal Navy.