Gentleman Johnny’s Wandering Army

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Another opportunity to desert was provided by the practice of hiring prisoners out to farmers. With so many American men in the army, farmers came as much as a hundred miles to bid for the prisoners. Men with trades were particularly sought after, but anyone willing to “thresh, chop wood and do other menial offices” could be hired. “The food they receive is good, and they are not forbidden to tap the cider-barrel,” wrote one German officer. Not a few soldiers married the daughters of their employers or their neighbors and vanished from the Convention Army. By the fall of 1778 there were only 2,300 British and 1,900 Germans left on the muster rolls.

 

The surge of desertion was by no means inspired by enthusiasm for the American cause. On the contrary, Washington and his officers soon learned that the British Convention soldiers had decided service in the American army was an ideal way to get within running distance of the royal lines. So many of them redeserted to the king’s service that Washington asked Congress to issue a resolution forbidding further enlistment of Burgoyne’s men —or any other prisoners of war.

As the days of captivity lengthened into the summer new tensions built between the troops and their guards. On the fourteenth of June a Brunswick soldier was going out for a walk with his wife, who had accompanied him from Europe. Six American militiamen, according to General Riedesel, “began joking with the woman in a coarse manner.” The husband took after the insulters with a cane and was reportedly getting the better of all six of them when an American sentry rushed up and fatally stabbed him with a bayonet. Three days later an English lieutenant named Brown was coming down Prospect Hill with two Boston ladies in a one-horse carriage. The sentry ordered him to stop. Fearful of upsetting the carriage, Brown declined and instead tried to show the sentry his saber to prove he was an officer. As he leaned out of the carriage the sentry fired at him and killed him with a single bullet.

General Phillips rushed to his desk and dashed off a ferocious letter to Heath. “Murder and Death has at length taken place.” He linked these “horror’s” to “that bloody disposition, which has joined itself to rebellion in these Colonies.” He demanded that Washington’s headquarters allow him to inform General Clinton, the new British commander in chief. “I do not ask for justice, for I believe every principle of it is fled from this Province.” Heath called these expressions “a violent infraction” of Phillips’ parole and placed him under house arrest. The sentry who shot Brown was court-martialled and promptly acquitted. The sentry who bayonetted the German private was sent to Boston, supposedly for trial, but apparently none took place.

These incidents, and Phillips’ wild language, contributed to American jitters about the Convention Army. With the British as close as Newport, there was a growing suspicion that they would make a sudden lunge to rescue the captives.

These fears were by no means groundless. Burgoyne had left Phillips a cipher and sent its counterpart to Howe, enabling the two generals to exchange “indifferent” letters disguising secret messages. At least as worrisome was the problem of supplying the Convention troops. The arrival of the French fleet after its abortive attempt to liberate Newport was the final blow to an already tottering local economy. Food prices soared out of sight, and General Heath became frantic. A British regiment had already been marched to Rutland, more than fifty miles into the interior of Massachusetts. Heath now ordered the rest of the Convention troops to follow. They were there just long enough for several of the officers to get thrown into jail for brawling with the local inhabitants when they received astonishing news. Congress had finally heeded the howls of complaint from the citizens of Massachusetts and resolved that the Convention troops would henceforth reside in Charlottesville, Virginia, remote from all then-existing British bases.

Winter was coming on, and Anburey immediately saw, so he said, the evil motive in the American decision: ”… marching the men eight hundred miles in the depth of winter would be the means of their deserting in numbers, rather than endure such fatigue.” A little reflection might have made the lieutenant realize that it was also a rather desperate move to march these surly, disaffected men through a countryside that was in many places heavily loyalist and within striking distance of the royal army in New York.

Before they left Massachusetts, the British had to settle all their accounts with General Heath. The officers also had to pay their individual bills. This caused a temporary panic. Heath charged the Convention Army twenty thousand dollars a week for food and fuel and in obedience to explicit orders from Congress would accept only hard money. The British squawked mightily over this, but Washington wryly pointed out to Heath that it was only fair to make them pay in coin because they refused to accept Continental paper in any of their transactions with the American army and were busily counterfeiting American money to increase its already disastrous depreciation.