Gentleman Johnny’s Wandering Army

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The officers were fortunate in having Jefferson for a neighbor. The Riedesels settled into Colle, a house built by Philip Mazzei, the Italian admirer of Jefferson and things American. Mazzei, a physician and merchant, was returning to Europe, and he sold off every stick of furniture in his house before handing it over to the Riedesels. The general soon refurnished the place, adding to it a pianoforte he bought from Jefferson for £100. Soon the Jeffersons and the Riedesels were exchanging polite notes and travelling back and forth between their houses for dinner parties and musicales. One young English captain named Bibby later recalled how he and his friends would visit Monticello and almost invariably find themselves pressed into an impromptu musicale, those who could play performing on instruments and others joining in the singing. Bibby said that Jefferson was one of the best amateur violinists he had ever heard.

General Phillips was less contented with life. He was living at Blenheim, a semiabandoned plantation that in recent years had been used as a shelter for plantation work parties. It was costing him “30 golden guineas a month,” and it was practically falling down around him. He decided to build a new house for himself—as Riedesel eventually did, after Colle almost collapsed in a windstorm. But the British agent in Fredericksburg, to whom Phillips sent his golden guineas to buy American dollars, expended the precious hard cash on counterfeit money produced by the British in New York. The apoplectic Phillips was reduced to borrowing money from Jefferson and occasionally asking Baroness Riedesel if she would send him as much oil “as will dress a salad.”

Meanwhile, the American commissary broke down almost completely. The British had stopped paying the Convention Army’s bills after the troops had marched to Virginia, and the Americans had only depreciated paper money with which to buy food. For thirty and forty days, at different periods, there was nothing to eat but Indian cornmeal. Under these conditions desertions soared. Some soldiers sneaked away to the mountains and married local women, and a few others were persuaded to slip away and join an American privateering venture; but most of the deserters were escapees determined to reach the British base in New York. Many, Lieutenant Anburey said, “communicated to their officers their intentions, previous to their desertion, requesting a certificate, that on that day there was due to them so much pay and so many years clothing.” Anburey says that “we could refuse [it] no more than we could their desertion, but to be candid … we rather connived at it.” One party of twenty men asked a sergeant to lead them and drew up a set of rules designed to maintain solidarity. The penalty for breaking any one of them was to be “immediate instantaneous death—tobe hanged upon the next tree.” Nineteen of them made it safely to New York.

At one point the distraught American commander at Charlottesville, Colonel Theodorick Bland, informed Jefferson that no fewer than 327 Convention troops had vanished in the past fortnight.

Officers, meanwhile, began deserting in more gentlemanly fashion. More and more of them began getting permission to extend their parole to New York, where they could personally appeal to Sir Henry Clinton to be exchanged. Once it became evident that there would be no mass exchange on the basis of a cartel, it was each man for himself. Whoever had the most influential friends in New York or London had the best chance of obtaining his freedom. Phillips and Riedesel were equally anxious to escape by the same route. Phillips’ letters to Clinton are an interminable series of pleas for exchange. Finally, late in 1779, both the British and the German generals received permission to abandon their men and head for New York. Eventually both were exchanged and returned to active commands. A German and an English colonel were left in command of the troops, whose situation continued to deteriorate.

Then, in mid-1780, the British army began making strong probes into Virginia, moving with ease up the tidal rivers. Alarmed Americans suddenly realized that a strong force might easily push through the thinly populated center of the state and rescue the Convention Army. Another reason that rendered such an enterprise “by no means desperate,” wrote a worried Thomas Jefferson to Governor Thomas Sims Lee of Maryland, was the “extensive disaffection which has been lately discovered.” In fact, Jefferson admitted in other letters he wrote around this time that the Convention troops’ presence “furnishes perpetual fuel” to the “smothered fire” of that disaffection. George Washington had obviously heard similar rumors, and he blamed the discontent prevailing in central Virginia on the British officers who “take so much pains wherever they go to debauch the minds of those they converse with.”