December 1972 | Volume 24, Issue 1
Defeated at Saratoga, Burgoyne’s troops faced nearly five years of enforced exile in a hostile countryside
On October 17, 1777, Elijah Fisher confided the following information to his diary: … Gen. Burgoin and his howl army surrendered themselves Prisoners of Ware and Come to Captelate with our army and Gen. Gates. … Then at one of the Clock five Brigades was sent for Albeny (for there come nuse that Gen. Clinton was a comin up the North river). … Gen. Clinton having nuse that Gen. Birgoyne had capetlated and had surrendered his army prisoners of war he Returned back to New York. …
In this maze of misspellings there are not only the essential facts about a major turning point in the American Revolution the surrender of Major General John Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga—but also the reason why Burgoyne, totally surrounded, and outnumbered, was able to browbeat the American commander, Horatio Gates, into making the surrender a “convention.”
The bespectacled former British major, whose men called him “Granny” Gates, had initially demanded unconditional surrender and contemptuously refused Burgoyne’s first overtures “to spare the lives of brave men upon honorable terms.” Then came the news that Sir Henry Clinton was on the Hudson with a British relief army and had broken through the forts guarding the Highlands near West Point. Gates suddenly accepted Burgoyne’s two main propositions: that his army be allowed to surrender with “the honors of War” and then be paroled “upon condition of not serving again in North America during the present contest.” Coolly sensing he had the upper hand, Burgoyne agreed “in principle” but insisted on a formal negotiation to work out details. Gates soon found himself confronting a thirteenpoint document that Burgoyne agreed to sign only if it was called a convention rather than a capitulation. Once more Gates gave in. He even agreed to let the British army stack their arms in a secluded spot, out of sight of his own army, and some eleven hundred Tories, Canadians, and Indians were permitted to return to Canada immediately.
The Saratoga Convention was a remarkable tribute to “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne’s diplomatic finesse—and Horatio Gates’s timidity. It also set the stage for a five-and-a-half-year tragicomedy.
The day after the men of what was thereafter called the Convention Army had performed the melancholy task of stacking their arms and marching past the American army to the tune of “Yankee Doodle,” Burgoyne’s troops were ferried across the Hudson to begin their trek to Boston, which was specified in the Convention as their port of embarkation. In reality, they were two armies. Of the nearly 5,900 officers and soldiers, 3,379 were British, and 2,492 were German troops largely from the duchy of Brunswick Lüneburg, whose hereditary prince, Duke Charles William Ferdinand, had married a sister of King George in. In addition to these forces there were about a thousand women and children. The British had permitted these camp followers to accompany the soldiers to America, and they issued them daily rations from the commissary. Burgoyne, with that overconfidence that wrecked his dreams of American conquest, had expected such trifling opposition that he made no attempt to prevent them from marching with his army.
The reactions of the British and German troops to their adventures along the line of march were remarkably different. The British, mortified by their defeat, never lost an opportunity to sneer at the Americans. Thomas Anburey, a young lieutenant who later wrote the fullest account of the experience, harped on the Americans’ insistence on hard money in exchange for paper dollars. Around Albany they were willing to trade nine continentals for a guinea. At Williamstown, Massachusetts, on the other side of the Berkshire Hills, the Yankees offered eighteen and twenty dollars for the same coin. The lieutenant thought this cast some doubt on “their great veneration for Independency and Congress.” He professed to be even more scornfully amused by the militia general who offered to sell a British officer his boots.
But Anburey was forced to admit that he and his countrymen did not come off too well in their numerous encounters with the inhabitants who crowded around them to gawk wherever they stopped. The locals were particularly interested in the numerous noblemen among the British officers. Four women practically forced their way into one house where young Lord Napier was boarding for the night. “I hear you have got a lord among you, pray now which may he be?” one asked. Lord Napier said nothing; the British troops had marched all day in driving rain, and he was covered with mud. But one of his friends, with an elaborate bow, introduced him in the style of a herald at arms. “This is the Right Honourable Francis Lord Napier,” he intoned, and proceeded to list “all his lordship’s titles with a whole catalogue of additions.”
The women stared, and finally one of them twanged, “Well, for my part, if that be a Lord, I never desire to see any other Lord but the Lord Jehovah.”
Anburey himself claimed to have resisted the temptation to enjoy “that indelicate custom’ which the Americans called bundling. Stopping for the night in a small house, he noticed that there were only two available beds. Having paid his money in advance, he asked which he was to sleep in. “Mr. Ensign,” replied the lady of the house, “our Jonathan and I will sleep in this, and our Jemima and you shall sleep in that.” Jemima was “a very pretty, black-eyed girl of about sixteen or seventeen.” Mr. Anburey spluttered his astonishment and declared he was ready to sit up all night. “Oh la! Mr. Ensign, you won’t be the first man our Jemima has bundled with, will it, Jemima?” said Jonathan.
“No, Father, by many,” said Jemima, “but it will be with the first Britainer.”
True to his gentleman’s code, Anburey declined Jemima’s “smiling invitation” and slept on the floor.
The Germans were far more impressed with the evidence of American affluence they saw along their line of march. They were awed, as one officer wrote, by the “incredible stores of grain” in New York barns. At Kinderhook they noted that the Dutch farmers breakfasted on milk, tea, roast meat, baked apples, and all kinds of rich butter cakes. The Germans, who devoutly believed that women should think only about Kirche, Küche, Kinder (church, kitchen, children), were perplexed by the “evident mastery” that American women possessed over their men. “The man must fish up the last penny he has in his pocket in order to keep his wife and daughters in finery,” one letter writer solemnly declared.
The Germans were far more outraged than their British compatriots by the profiteering approach the Americans took in selling them the necessities of life. The Dutchmen of Kinderhook were pronounced “as fond of money as a Jew.” In Massachusetts the Germans were angry at people coming “from different points with tons of this paper money which they desire to exchange.” Everything one bought was “five and six times dearer than formerly.”
On one thing both Germans and British agreed. The weather was abominable. In the middle of the British march through the Berkshires, a snowstorm struck. “After this, it is impossible to describe the confusion that ensued,” Anburey wrote. “Carts breaking down, others sticking fast, some oversetting, horses tumbling with their loads of baggage, men cursing, women shrieking, and children squalling.” That day Anburey was in charge of the baggage guard, with which the women and children travelled. He came upon a soldier’s wife giving birth to a baby, sheltered from the storm by nothing but “a bit of an old oilcloth.” Although the woman was “small, and of a very delicate constitution,” both mother and child survived.
The Germans, on the twenty-eighth of October, near Great Barrington, Massachusetts, met “alternately hail, rain, and snow. The wind was so piercing, that, no matter how warmly we wrapped ourselves in our cloaks, it penetrated to the very marrow. In addition, our wet clothes froze as stiff as iron. … The oldest soldiers admitted that they had never before experienced such a march.” Although the locals sometimes were willing to rent rooms to officers for hard money paid in advance, the enlisted men had to shiver in unheated barns. On occasion the Americans, who seemed to resent the Germans more than the English, refused the Brunswickers even these poor shelters. One bitter night, forced to camp in the woods, two German soldiers froze to death.
The commanding generals, meanwhile, were relaxing in the comfortable opulence of General Philip Schuyler’s Albany mansion. The aristocratic Schuyler did his best to entertain them as if they were invited guests, but his lively four-year-old son, Rensselaer, kept bursting into Burgoyne’s room in the morning, shouting, “Surrender! You are all my prisoners.”
While Burgoyne professed elaborate gratitude to Schuyler, he took advantage of an article of the Convention that permitted him to send dispatches—unopened and uncensored—to Sir William Howe, the British commander in chief in America. Proudly Burgoyne expatiated on the triumph he had snatched from the jaws of defeat. The Convention would “enable the Mother Country to send forth the force at home in proportion” to what she would receive from his men’s return. It was therefore imperative to “order transports and convoy to Boston without delay.” Burgoyne was even more anxious to get himself home. “I confide in your justice and friendship not to leave me unexchanged. My honor and in great measure my life depend upon my return to England.”
Far more genuinely grateful for Schuyler’s hospitality was the commander in chief of the German mercenaries, Baron Friedrich Adolphus von Riedesel. His reason was obvious. Captured with him were his lovely, dark-eyed wife, Frederika Charlotte Louise, and their three daughters, Augusta, six, Frederika, three, and Caroline, nineteen months. [See “Baroness on the Battlefield,” A MERICAN H ERITAGE , December, 1964.]
After several days the Riedesels abandoned Schuyler’s comforts and caught up with the slow-moving troops. Burgoyne followed a week later. Not until November 7 did the Convention Army arrive in Cambridge.
The citizens of Cambridge—and the rest of Massachusetts, for that matter—were not at all delighted to find themselves playing host to the Convention Army, and they did not try to conceal it. The troops were ordered into makeshift barracks on Prospect and Winter hills. These ramshackle affairs had been built by Washington’s army during the siege of Boston and were now falling apart. ”… We suffered severely from the inclemency of the weather,” Lieutenant Anburey said. “The barracks were, in fact, bare of every thing; no wood, and a prodigious scarcity of fuel, insomuch, that we were obliged to cut down the rafters of our room to dry ourselves.” Six officers were jammed into a room not twelve feet square. “The barracks are without foundations, and built of boards, through which the rain and snow penetrate from all sides,” lamented a German officer.
Burgoyne and his suite had to settle for Bradish’s Tavern, just off Harvard Square, which he called “dirty, small, miserable.” He and General William Phillips, his commander of artillery, slept in the same room, while their aides slept on the floor in the next room, “a good deal worse off than their servants have been used to,” huffed Gentleman Johnny.
The recipient of this complaint was Major General William Heath, the obese, bald-headed commander of the American forces in the Eastern Department, which included Massachusetts. A farmer most of his life, Heath was at first treated with condescension by the British. They were about to sit down to dinner in Boston, at Heath’s invitation, when Phillips coolly suggested that Heath “delegate to General Burgoyne the power of seeing your orders executed.” The implication was plain: an amateur like Heath did not have the brains to command British troops.
Heath declined the invitation, saying that he was prepared to exercise his own command and enforce his own orders. He informed the British officers, to their immense chagrin and consternation, that they would not be allowed to live in Boston. This was the Massachusetts government’s revenge for the destruction wrought by the British army during the long siege that ended in March of 1776. Their parole was to confine them to the town of Cambridge.
Burgoyne, trying to flatter Heath and thus grease the Convention machinery he had so ably constructed, strolled through the streets of Boston after dinner, while an immense crowd of men, women, and children peered down from windows and roofs of houses and swarmed around them. “Sir,” said Gentleman Johnny, “I am astonished at the civility of your people: for, were you walking the streets of London, in my situation, you would not escape insult.” But eight days in Bradish’s Tavern demolished his good humor. He was finally offered accommodations in the Apthorp mansion, formerly owned by the Tory founder of Christ Church in Cambridge. The Americans had looted both the church and the house of every movable piece of furniture, yet they graciously offered to rent the mansion to Burgoyne for150, payable in advance. Burgoyne lost his temper and ripped off a letter to Horatio Gates. He dilated on the hardships of his officers, who were being forced to live in a barracks “without distinction of rank,” and blamed the situation on “the supreme powers of the state,” who were “unable or unwilling to enforce their authority, & the inhabitants want the hospitality or indeed the common civilization to assist us.” Then Burgoyne added words that were to haunt him and the Convention Army: “The publick faith is broke, & we are the immediate sufferers.”
Gates forwarded this letter, written on November 14, to Congress. Arriving almost a month after the glorious news of Burgoyne’s surrender, it met a very different reception. Congress had voted Gates a medal before they bothered to read the thirteen articles of the Convention. But George Washington had read them and as early as November 5 was advising: ”… I think, in point of policy, we should not be anxious for their early departure.” Washington did not suggest that the Convention be broken, but he saw no reason to make it easy for the British to get Burgoyne’s army home in time to ship out replacements to join Howe for the spring campaign of 1778. A severe shortage of military manpower and the very strong possibility that France would now enter the war made it extremely unlikely that the British would dare to send replacements before Burgoyne’s men had arrived home.
Studying the Convention articles, Washington noted that Boston was specified as the port of departure and that nothing was said about supplying the British with food for the voyage home. On both these points he urged strict interpretation. Writing to Henry Laurens, the president of Congress, on November 26, the American commander in chief said, “If the embarkation is confined to Boston, it is likely that it will not take place before sometime in the spring or at least towards the end of February.” For a landsman, Washington knew his way around Massachusetts waters. Once the prevailing northwest winds began whistling down from Newfoundland, it was a risky business for any ship to attempt to round Cape Cod for Boston harbor—doubly so for the leaky vessels used as transports in the Royal Navy.
With a shrewdness that in this instance alone would have earned him his British nickname, “the Old Fox,” Washington had foreseen British intentions. Burgoyne and Howe were hoping to embark the troops from the British base at Newport, Rhode Island. Washington must have enjoyed a private laugh when Congress, on December 1, resoundingly rejected Burgoyne’s request for this “mere change of place.” Washington would have been even more pleased if he had known that his foresight had frustrated a British scheme to break the Convention. In a letter written on November 16 and smuggled to Burgoyne, Howe revealed that he planned to take unilateral advantage of the third article of the Convention, which stipulated that any part of Burgoyne’s army might be exchanged by cartel. A cartel would presuppose that the British had equal numbers of American fighting men in their hands. But this was no longer the case. In the winter of 1776-77, Howe had released some 2,200 American prisoners, largely because they were a drain on his supplies. Most of these men were starving skeletons, racked with disease from their brutal treat- ment in British prisons and totally useless to Washington. Many of them died within a few weeks of their release. The Americans therefore refused Howe’s demand to exchange healthy British captives on a one-toone basis. Howe planned to repair this “injury in which Mr. Washington so obstinately persists” by sailing the British portion of Burgoyne’s army directly to New York and pronouncing “their exchange” for the 2,200 Americans a fait accompli . The German troops were to be permitted to sail back to England.
Congress added a few embellishments of its own to Washington’s delaying tactics. Heath was ordered to take down “the name and rank of every commissioned officer, and the name, former place of abode and occupation, size, age and description of every noncommissioned officer and private soldier and all other persons” in the Convention Army. Gentleman Johnny went into another tantrum when Heath passed this order along to him. He absolutely declined to receive any orders from the Continental Congress, insisting that the Convention was a document that concerned only him and General Gates. This was preposterous and only raised fresh suspicions in Congress. The New York Council of Safety aroused the American legislators to further action by assuring them that the British had already broken the Convention by not surrendering intact all their arms, standards, and other equipment as specified in the agreement. Congress appointed a committee to investigate these charges, and letters flowed back and forth between it and Burgoyne and Gates.
In his eagerness to defend the Convention, Gates sounded like Burgoyne’s lawyer. He explained away the missing standards by quoting Burgoyne “upon his Honor” that the colors of the regiments had been left in Canada. Actually, Baroness Riedesel had sewn the colors of the German regiments into her mattress, and British officers had hidden their regimental colors in their personal baggage. Gates blamed missing bayonets and the huge number of ruined muskets on American thievery and “the infant State of our Military Discipline.” Finally, he solemnly assured Congress that “upwards of eighteen hundred Germans and English had deserted” on the march to Cambridge, which meant that “very few will embark for Europe.” This was a gross lie. Only some eight hundred men had deserted by the time a tally was taken several months later.
Fortunately, Congress was no longer inclined to regard Gates as a military oracle. John Witherspoon, on leave as president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton), now rose and attacked the cornerstone of Burgoyne’s logic—that he and Gates alone were the final arbiters of the Convention’s terms. If this was the case, there was on record Burgoyne’s signed statement that “the publick faith is broke.” Witherspoon was willing to admit that Burgoyne had used the word “broke” in a passion, but the canny Scot insisted that “his folly is our good fortune.” Congress agreed and on January 8, 1778, resolved that the embarkation of Burgoyne and his troops should be suspended “till a distinct and explicit ratification of the Convention of Saratoga shall be properly notified by the Court of Great Britain.” This was an event as unlikely as the appearance of George in in York, Pennsylvania, where Congress was sitting, to beg the young republic’s pardon. If there was one policy that the British had followed with almost fanatical strictness since the war began, it was their refusal to recognize the Continental Congress.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.