Gentleman Johnny’s Wandering Army

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So, in the fall of 1780, the Convention Army was ordered onto the roads again. By now it had dwindled to 1,450 German officers and men and approximately 1,200 British—less than half the total surrendered at Saratoga. About eight hundred British troops were marched to Fort Frederick in Washington County, Maryland, and the remaining four hundred to Fredericktown. Once more they met a by now familiar pattern of inadequate barracks, little fuel, and scanty rations. A deserter was soon reporting to General Phillips in New York that the men were going off “by threes and fours and sixes and sevens every night,” most of them trying to reach the British base at Portsmouth established by turncoat Benedict Arnold. Another factor in reducing their numbers was the abundance of stills around Fredericktown, which created cheap liquor that killed off dozens of the soldiers. Two men drank liquor “hot out of the pipe” of one still, and the next morning the two were found dead in their beds.

In May, 1781, Congress decided to move the Convention troops once more. It considered ordering them to march back to Massachusetts, but this plan was defeated by vigorous protests from that state. Pennsylvania was selected by Washington as a compromise, and the British troops, now numbering perhaps a thousand, were marched to Lancaster, which was already entertaining eight hundred prisoners of war. The Conventioners were forced to camp in a stockade on the common, and putrid fever was soon raging among them. With a considerable time lag—often as much as three months—the German troops followed the British from Virginia to Maryland and then to Pennsylvania, where they were settled in York.

In September, 1781, the British officers were moved from overcrowded Lancaster to East Windsor, Connecticut. After almost four years they were being separated from their men. Lieutenant Anburey said it was more painful than the moment when they commanded the men to pile their arms and abandon them on the plain of Saratoga. “Could you have seen the faces of duty, respect, love and despair, you would carry the remembrance to the grave … as far as sounds could convey, we heard the reiteration of ‘God bless your honors,’” Anburey said, as the regiments were marched into the local prison, which had been converted into a barracks.

Little more than a month later, Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, and the remnants of the Convention Army were blended as prisoners of war with this far larger mass of troops. On February 18, 1782, Congress empowered Washington to begin negotiating with the British to exchange prisoners. Negotiators met intermittently for the next seven months at Elizabeth, New Jersey, but settled nothing. Finally, when Congress ratified the provisional treaty of peace on April 15, it also ordered Washington to “take proper arrangements for setting at liberty all land prisoners.” The Convention troops and other prisoners were marched from their cantonments in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia to the nearest ports, where British ships picked them up and they sailed out of American history at last.