Gentleman Johnny’s Wandering Army

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With a shrewdness that in this instance alone would have earned him his British nickname, “the Old Fox,” Washington had foreseen British intentions. Burgoyne and Howe were hoping to embark the troops from the British base at Newport, Rhode Island. Washington must have enjoyed a private laugh when Congress, on December 1, resoundingly rejected Burgoyne’s request for this “mere change of place.” Washington would have been even more pleased if he had known that his foresight had frustrated a British scheme to break the Convention. In a letter written on November 16 and smuggled to Burgoyne, Howe revealed that he planned to take unilateral advantage of the third article of the Convention, which stipulated that any part of Burgoyne’s army might be exchanged by cartel. A cartel would presuppose that the British had equal numbers of American fighting men in their hands. But this was no longer the case. In the winter of 1776-77, Howe had released some 2,200 American prisoners, largely because they were a drain on his supplies. Most of these men were starving skeletons, racked with disease from their brutal treat- ment in British prisons and totally useless to Washington. Many of them died within a few weeks of their release. The Americans therefore refused Howe’s demand to exchange healthy British captives on a one-toone basis. Howe planned to repair this “injury in which Mr. Washington so obstinately persists” by sailing the British portion of Burgoyne’s army directly to New York and pronouncing “their exchange” for the 2,200 Americans a fait accompli . The German troops were to be permitted to sail back to England.

Congress added a few embellishments of its own to Washington’s delaying tactics. Heath was ordered to take down “the name and rank of every commissioned officer, and the name, former place of abode and occupation, size, age and description of every noncommissioned officer and private soldier and all other persons” in the Convention Army. Gentleman Johnny went into another tantrum when Heath passed this order along to him. He absolutely declined to receive any orders from the Continental Congress, insisting that the Convention was a document that concerned only him and General Gates. This was preposterous and only raised fresh suspicions in Congress. The New York Council of Safety aroused the American legislators to further action by assuring them that the British had already broken the Convention by not surrendering intact all their arms, standards, and other equipment as specified in the agreement. Congress appointed a committee to investigate these charges, and letters flowed back and forth between it and Burgoyne and Gates.

In his eagerness to defend the Convention, Gates sounded like Burgoyne’s lawyer. He explained away the missing standards by quoting Burgoyne “upon his Honor” that the colors of the regiments had been left in Canada. Actually, Baroness Riedesel had sewn the colors of the German regiments into her mattress, and British officers had hidden their regimental colors in their personal baggage. Gates blamed missing bayonets and the huge number of ruined muskets on American thievery and “the infant State of our Military Discipline.” Finally, he solemnly assured Congress that “upwards of eighteen hundred Germans and English had deserted” on the march to Cambridge, which meant that “very few will embark for Europe.” This was a gross lie. Only some eight hundred men had deserted by the time a tally was taken several months later.

Fortunately, Congress was no longer inclined to regard Gates as a military oracle. John Witherspoon, on leave as president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton), now rose and attacked the cornerstone of Burgoyne’s logic—that he and Gates alone were the final arbiters of the Convention’s terms. If this was the case, there was on record Burgoyne’s signed statement that “the publick faith is broke.” Witherspoon was willing to admit that Burgoyne had used the word “broke” in a passion, but the canny Scot insisted that “his folly is our good fortune.” Congress agreed and on January 8, 1778, resolved that the embarkation of Burgoyne and his troops should be suspended “till a distinct and explicit ratification of the Convention of Saratoga shall be properly notified by the Court of Great Britain.” This was an event as unlikely as the appearance of George in in York, Pennsylvania, where Congress was sitting, to beg the young republic’s pardon. If there was one policy that the British had followed with almost fanatical strictness since the war began, it was their refusal to recognize the Continental Congress.