"The Convention Army," Larry Arnold
3. The July roundtable meeting will move to August 12 in order to accommodate the speaker’s schedule and a special partnership with the University of Richmond’s Osher Institute. September’s meeting will be held on September 16, as previously scheduled.
Many military historians regard the Saratoga Campaign and subsequent surrender of John Burgoyne’s army as one of the most important events in military history---but what happened to Burgoyne’s troops after the surrender?
At the March 18, 2015 meeting of the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond, historian Larry Arnold described the 5-1/2-year odyssey undertaken by Burgoyne’s army from the time of the Saratoga surrender to when the last soldiers were freed at the conclusion of the American Revolution. Arnold is a former seasonal and volunteer ranger at Saratoga National Historical Park and now serves as a licensed battlefield guide at Saratoga.
On October 17, 1777 Burgoyne surrendered his army to the American commander Horatio Gates. According to Arnold, the surrendered army numbered approximately 7,000 soldiers. These soldiers consisted of approximately 3,400 British, 2,500 Hessian and 1,100 Canadian and Loyalist troops.
“Burgoyne lost the battle but won the surrender terms,” joked Arnold. “He insisted on the surrender being called a convention, and his troops being called the Convention Army instead of prisoners-of-war.”
Under what was officially called the Convention of Saratoga, Burgoyne persuaded Gates to parole Burgoyne’s troops immediately and allow them to march toward Boston for the purpose of boarding British ships and returning to England. In return the British promised the Americans that none of Burgoyne’s troops would return to North America during the war.
However, nothing in the agreement prevented the British from using Burgoyne’s troops in Europe against France or other enemies of the British Empire. In addition nothing in the agreement prevented Great Britain from using Burgoyne’s troops as garrison soldiers throughout the Empire, which would then free up other garrison troops to sail to North America and fight.
“Today there is evidence that the British never intended to honor the Convention of Saratoga,” said Arnold. “It appears that if Burgoyne’s army had sailed, they would have gone to New York City and broken the agreement.”
As the Convention Army marched from Saratoga toward Boston, American civilians flocked along roads to gawk at the surrendered troops. Along the way some communities were hospitable toward Burgoyne’s troops, and provided shelter for them in homes and in barns. In other communities they did not. The lack of food and shelter was a common problem, and 12 of Burgoyne’s troops died from exposure along the march.
In early November 1777 the Convention Army and their American guards reached the outskirts of Boston where they camped in Cambridge. Meanwhile America’s military and political leaders were having second thoughts about the terms of the surrender agreement which Gates had negotiated on behalf of America.
George Washington was one of the earliest critics who urged Congress to reconsider the terms of the Convention of Saratoga before Burgoyne’s soldiers boarded British ships in Boston Harbor. Congress agreed, and officially delayed the embarkation in order to negotiate additional surrender terms. According to Arnold, Congress used the Convention Army during the negotiations as “a pawn”.
Among the amendments to the Convention of Saratoga which Congress proposed were names and detailed physical descriptions of all officers serving in Burgoyne’s army. This procedure would officially identify those officers not eligible to return to North America who would be severely punished if they illegally returned and got captured again.
Congress also wanted not just Burgoyne, but King George III to ratify the Convention of Saratoga. This in effect would force King George III to recognize publicly the United States as a country and not just as 13 colonies rebelling against the British Crown.
The negotiations continued for approximately one year before breaking down completely. Congress then declared the Convention of Saratoga null and void.
During the one year of negotiations, Burgoyne’s army remained encamped in Cambridge. However, desertions were quite common. Some of the troops escaped and blended into American communities where they frequently married American women. Others deserted the Convention Army and joined the Continental Army to receive an enlistment bounty, and then deserted once again at the first opportunity to rejoin another British army.
“ American formations were so small that they continued to enlist British prisoners,” said Arnold. “Hundreds of Convention soldiers deserted the Continental Army and then went back to the British. America simply didn’t have the resources, policies or even the will to stop deserters.”
In May 1778 Burgoyne was officially exchanged and William Phillips became the new commander of the Convention Army. After the British strengthened their grip on Newport, RI in August 1778 the Americans decided to move the Convention Army away from the Boston area in the event British troops advanced from Newport toward Boston.
Thomas Jefferson asked Congress to send the troops to Charlottesville, well beyond the reaches of any British navies and coastal armies. Jefferson was also anxious to receive these British captives since they were still getting paid by their government, and therefore would pump hard currency into the Charlottesville economy.
In November 1778 American guards marched the Convention Army across five states and 700 miles to Charlottesville. Desertions continued along the march, especially in Pennsylvania where many Hessian captives escaped and easily blended into the German-speaking communities of Pennsylvania Dutch.
The Convention Army reached Charlottesville in January 1779 after a brutal winter march. Their numbers were down from 7,000 at Saratoga to approximately 4,000 in Charlottesville, due mainly to desertions. During their captivity in Charlottesville, the Convention Army desertions continued and large numbers of soldiers suffered from a shortage of food and adequate shelter. Soldiers also worked for food on farms throughout the Charlottesville area.
In November 1780 William Phillips was exchanged for Benjamin Lincoln, the American commander who surrendered his army at Charleston, SC in May 1780. James Hamilton became the third and final commander of the Convention Army.
When Benedict Arnold’s British forces raided Richmond in January 1781, American guards moved the Convention Army to Winchester. Once the Americans realized that Arnold was merely conducting a raid and not an occupation of Central Virginia they moved the Convention Army back to Charlottesville.
Lord Charles Cornwallis’ army marched into Central Virginia in May 1781, forcing the Americans to move the Convention Army permanently to new prisoner camps in Frederick, MD and the Pennsylvania communities of Lancaster, Reading and York. Once again there were many desertions along the march and in the new prisoner communities.
The number of British prisoners in these new camps grew by approximately 5,000 men after Cornwallis surrendered his army at Yorktown in October 1781. Major food and shelter shortages continued to plague the camps, and large numbers of prisoners continued to escape toward British lines in New York City and as far west as the British frontier outpost in Detroit.
When the war officially ended in 1783, the last remnant of the Convention Army marched to New York City where most of them returned to England. Of the approximate 7,000 soldiers who surrendered at Saratoga, only 1,000 stayed in the Convention Army until the end of the war.
Many of the troops who deserted the Convention Army remained in the United States after the Treaty of Paris was signed. According to Larry Arnold, 58% of Hessians remained in the United States while 35% of the British remained.
During the business portion of the roundtable meeting, the following topics were discussed:
1. Roundtable officers, committee chairmen and general members announced various upcoming meetings, conferences and museum exhibits related to the American Revolution to be held in Richmond and other parts of Virginia. (See the ARRT-Richmond homepage for more details on many of these events).
2. Nominations are now open for the 2015 ARRT-Richmond Preservation Project. Anyone wishing to nominate a project to receive this year’s annual donation by ARRT-Richmond should contact President Bill Welsch prior to the May 20 ARRT meeting, or he/she can nominate a project from the floor at the May 20 meeting. Online voting will take place shortly after the May meeting.