Gentleman Johnny’s Wandering Army

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With Washington providing a heavy guard when they approached New York, the Convention Army made its long march without any notable incidents and with surprisingly few desertions. Only 299 British and 280 German troops vanished—an impressive contrast to the 1,035 British and 333 Germans who disappeared during their stay in Massachusetts.

In Pennsylvania the line of march passed through York and Lancaster counties, heavily peopled by German immigrants. Here many of the Brunswick soldiers deserted. But on the whole the Germans did not get a very warm reception from their excountrymen. Lieutenant August Wilhelm Du Roi, who kept a journal of the march, wrote, “Our hopes of being hospitably received by our countrymen were cruelly deceived.” Most of the population permitted the Brunswickers to take shelter in their houses and barns only at the points of the bayonets of their American escorts. Bitterly, Du Roi concluded, “we were ashamed of being Germans, because we had never met with so much meanness in one spot as from our countrymen.”

Throughout most of the march the weather was relatively mild. But it was mid-January by the time the troops neared Charlottesville and the first citizen of that little town, Thomas Jefferson, pronounced the weather “the worst in the memory of man.” A blizzard, which began to fall when the British were in Fredericktown, was described by Lieutenant Anburey as being “as severe as any I ever saw in Canada; the snow is up to one’s knees.”

This was only the beginning of the army’s troubles. When they arrived in Charlottesville, they found that “this famous place we had heard so much of, consisted only of a Courthouse, one tavern and about a dozen houses, all of which were crowded with officers.” Anburey and the officers of his brigade “were obliged to ride about the country, and entreat the inhabitants to take us in.”

Their problems were small compared to those of the common soldiers. Instead of finding comfortable barracks, they were “conducted into a wood, where a few log huts were just begun to be built, the most part not covered over, and all of them full of snow.” Worse, there was no food in the town. For six days the men lived on “the meal of Indian corn made into cakes.” The Germans were equally dismayed by their barracks, which were in the same unfinished state. “Never shall I forget the day [of arrival],” Lieutenant Du Roi said. It was “terrible in every way. Never have I seen men so discouraged and in such despair.” A chronic shortage of nails in Charlottesville, which eventually inspired Jefferson to start a nailery at Monticello, had made it practically impossible to weatherproof the cabins. ”… fresh air and rain had free passage through the walls,” wrote the disgusted Du Roi.

The British officers sought consolation in the wine of the country, which Anburey described as “an abominable liquor called peach brandy.” It raised an “absolute delirium,” and several were guilty, in their cups, “of deeds that would admit of no apology.” In fact, Anburey said, “the inhabitants must have actually thought us mad, for in the course of three or four days, there were no less than six or seven duels fought.”

If populous Massachusetts found it difficult to accommodate the Convention Army, it is easy to imagine its catastrophic impact on the rural economy of Charlottesville. The situation inspired an avalanche of protests to the state government, and Governor Patrick Henry considered the possibility of breaking the army into smaller groups and scattering them around the state. Jefferson wrote a long letter to Henry protesting this idea violently “as an American” and “a citizen of Virginia.” Henry’s plan would involve the separation of officers and men, which would be a direct violation of the surrender terms signed at Saratoga. This, Jefferson solemnly declared, “would be a breach of public faith.” Since the Saratoga Convention had been breached in its essential point already, this must have struck Henry as irrelevant. But the idea of further movement was dropped, and the problem of quartering the officers was solved by giving them a parole that permitted them to live anywhere within a hundred miles of Charlottesville.

The men, meanwhile, went to work and finished the barracks themselves. They filled in the cracks in the walls and roofs with the bright orange clay that abounds around Charlottesville. In the spring they planted gardens and began raising chickens. General Riedesel spent over £200 on seed for his men. Soon one German soldier was writing home proudly that their gardens were “a great attraction for visitors from even sixty or more miles away.” The 21 st British Regiment built a church, and another company built a theatre in which two performances were held weekly. The men had three different sets of scenery, and on the drop curtain there was a harlequin with his wooden saber pointing to the words “Who would have expected all this here?” The officers wrote satirical plays about their American cousins. In fact, the American militia guards were soon barred from the performances in order to prevent riots. Elsewhere, “two American speculators” built taverns and installed billiard tables, and both were soon doing a brisk business with the English.