This blog post was written by T. Cole Jones, Ph.D., NEH Fellow, Assistant Professor, Purdue University.
You probably learned in grade school that the Battle of Saratoga was the turning point of the American Revolution. American General Horatio Gates’ victory over British General John Burgoyne in October 1777 convinced the French to enter the conflict on the side of the plucky Americans. With French help, the Americans emerged victorious, securing their independence. But I bet you didn’t learn what happened to the nearly 6,000 British and German soldiers who surrendered there. What did the Revolutionaries do with the enemy in their hands? Answering this question will require traveling from New York to Massachusetts, Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. Fortunately, the New-York Historical Society possesses two rare documents that help us better understand the prisoners’ tortuous path through American captivity.
For starters, Burgoyne and his soldiers shouldn’t have become prisoners. Instead of demanding that Burgoyne capitulate, Gates offered to enter into a convention with the British general. A convention was a formal treaty that temporarily suspended hostilities between two armies. Under the terms of the Convention of Saratoga, Burgoyne and his army were free to return to England so long as they did not fight in America again. These terms were extremely generous, and Burgoyne readily acquiesced.
Predictably, Revolutionary Americans were less than pleased by Gates’ generosity. From the outset of the conflict, the British had refused to treat Americans as legitimate combatants. Consequently, American prisoners suffered in overcrowded prisons and disease-infested prison ships. The death toll was staggering. Furious Revolutionaries demanded retribution.
Responding to the demands of constituents, the Continental Congress resolved to suspend the Convention of Saratoga. Burgoyne’s army would remain in American captivity for the rest of the war, over five and a half years. But in resolving to hold the men captive, Congress had failed to provide for their upkeep. The British had no intention of reimbursing Congress for the soldiers’ expenses, and Congress barely had enough money to feed and outfit its own army. The solution Congress hit upon would have disastrous consequences for the British prisoners.
Congress’s first action was to move the prisoners. Prior to the suspension of the Convention, the men had marched to Boston to await ships that would return them to England. But the people of Boston wanted nothing to do with the expensive and ill-tempered redcoats. With Massachusetts refusing to supply the troops, Congress resolved to relocate them to Charlottesville, Virginia. After surviving a grueling winter march of hundreds of miles, the prisoners arrived to find little food and no shelter in Virginia. The local population viewed them with a mix of hostility and greed. Merchants and farmers exploited the prisoners by selling goods at inflated prices, and militia guards vented their frustrations on the helpless men. Two letters at New-York Historical tell the story of one such instance of abuse.
In early May 1780, British prisoner Lieutenant Colonel John Hill reported that one of his officers, Ensign Parker of the 62nd Regiment, had been “greatly insulted and struck” by a party of six or seven American militiamen. The Americans, under the command of Captain Len Thompson, beat Parker with a stick and threatened his life. Thompson demanded that all of the prisoners leave the county within the week or suffer the consequences. Hill intended to complain to the American commander at the barracks, Colonel James Wood, but his protest would fall on deaf ears. As an officer in the Continental Army, Wood had no control over the militia. All across the county, British prisoners suffered similar attacks as American militiamen, furious over the violence of the British war effort in the south, vented their frustrations on the hapless captives.
Just as in Boston, the Convention prisoners elicited the ire of local Revolutionaries at Charlottesville. Without cooperation from the inhabitants, congressional officials could not continue to supply the prisoners in Virginia. They ordered the men northward in a second arduous winter march, first to Maryland and then to Pennsylvania. In both states the captives suffered from privation, exposure, and abuse. The pitiful prisoners were finally released when news of the articles of peace reached their internment camps in the spring of 1783. Fewer than 800 survivors returned to England at war’s end. If Saratoga was one of the greatest victories of the American Revolution, the plight of the Convention prisoners was one of its greatest tragedies.