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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
By the time this information reached Cambridge, both the Convention troops and their captors realized that they were going to be together for some time. This did not improve tempers on either side. The British persisted in sneering at the Americans, particularly at the soldiers who guarded them. One prisoner called an American officer “you God damn clown with a sword under your arm.” Lieutenant Anburey described the Americans changing the guard: “You will see an old man of sixty, and a boy of sixteen; a black and an old decrepit man, limping by his side; most of them wear great bushy wigs; in short, they would be a subject for the pencil of Hogarth.” The Americans retaliated by tormenting the British at every opportunity. To differentiate officers from enlisted men, Heath had specified that the officers had to wear their swords at all times. Unfortunately, many had lost their weapons with their baggage. A sad tale to this effect left the sentries unmoved. “I swear now you shan’t pass, because you have not got a sword,” they invariably drawled. Moreover, they had itchy trigger fingers. “If a soldier comes the least near them they level at him and say, ‘I swear now, if you attempt to pass, I’ll blaze at you,’ ” Anbureysaid. In the first month the sentries shot two soldiers and arrested forty others. Heath attempted to remedy the tense situation by setting up a passport system that enabled specified soldiers to go beyond the narrow limits around their barracks. But this idea was soon abandoned because most of the sentries could not read.
Then, early in January, came serious trouble. A redcoat struck an American sentry with a rock that “deprived him of his reasoi nd near his life.” He then stole the musket from the unconscious guard and hid it in the barracks. When two hundred American reinforcements arrived and tried to search the barracks for the culprit and the missing weapon, the redcoats armed themselves with clubs. The next morning Colonel David Henley, a hot-tempered man who was in immediate charge of the prisoners, refused to permit them to assemble outside their barracks. When a British corporal named Reeves talked back to him, he roared, “I believe you to be a great rascal.”
“I am no rascal, but a good soldier and my officers know it,” Reeves replied. He then added that he hoped soon to carry arms “under General Howe” and was determined to fight for “King and country.”
“Damn your King and country,” roared Henley. “When you had arms you were willing enough to lay them down.”
Reeves hotly iterated his hopes. The enraged Henley leaped from his horse, seized a bayonet, and pushed the tip of it into Reeves’s jacket. He told him if he said another word he would “have it through his body.”
A few days later Henley got into another altercation with a corporal named Hadley and wounded him in the side with his sword. Burgoyne was enraged. In a blazing letter to Heath he accused Henley of “intentional murder” and demanded “prompt and satisfactory justice.” Heath ordered a court of inquiry to look into the matter, and it decided that a formal court-martial should be held. Burgoyne, never a man to refuse an opportunity to seize the stage, took upon himself the role of prosecutor. From the twentieth of January till the tenth of February he strutted back and forth across the front of the packed Cambridge courthouse, ranting on everything from Henley’s bloodthirsty character to “a general view of the state of things.” Predictably, Henley was acquitted by the all-American courtmartial board. General Heath, in publishing the court’s decision, remarked that the British style in courts-martial was “both tedious and expensive,” and he hoped there would be no more of them.
Meanwhile, Burgoyne, stubbornly refusing to face the inevitable, had moved into the Apthorp mansion, furnishing it at the usual outrageous prices, and then announced he was giving a ball. The Cambridge Council of Safety instantly issued an order forbidding American women to attend. Only General Schuyler’s two daughters, who were living in Boston at the time, dared to defy the ban. It is a small explanation of why Schuyler was so unpopular with New England troops.
Once the news that the Americans considered the Convention a dead letter passed through the army, the enlisted men began deserting in great numbers. Early in April Burgoyne was permitted to return home, leaving General Phillips in command. This abandonment seemed to encourage desertions. Ruefully, in May, Anburey reported, “… a few days since the whole band of the 62nd regiment, excepting the Master, deserted in a body, and are now playing to an American regiment in Boston.” General Riedesel was strolling down a Cambridge street when he saw three horsemen in American uniforms. He did a double take when he realized two of them were Germans. One galloped away, but the other was dragged by Riedesel into a nearby house and ordered to strip. The general then marched him back to his barracks, presumably in his underwear.