How Revolutionary Soldiers Came to be
Housed in the Poorhouse
|Quoted almost verbatim from:
Dabney, William M.
After Saratoga: the story of the Convention Army.
Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 1954 [i.e. 1955]90 p. illus. 23 cm.
University of New Mexico publication in history, no. 6.
and posted on eBay as background for an historic letter offered for sale on January 23, 2001.
|During the summer of 1780, a group of "Conventioners" (British and German prisoners-of-war) and their guards, who had been wandering about the country since October 1777, needed temporary housing; and the soldier guards were housed in the poorhouse at Frederick ( Frederick County) Maryland. To read more of the story, see slightly edited narrative below .... PHL|
|In October 1777, British General John Burgoyne found his defeated
army trapped on the west bank of the Hudson River, surrounded by
American forces who outnumbered them three to one. Rather than
capitulate, Burgoyne then negotiated a most unusual
"Convention" agreement with the Americans. Technically, the
British did not surrender; instead, after laying down their arms, 6,000
British troops (half of whom were actually German) were allowed to march
off the field "with all honors", while swearing never again to
fight in North America during this War.
The Saratoga Convention further provided that the British troops were then to be transported back to Europe. But the American Congress refused to carry out this stipulation, and, for the next four years, until the very end of the Revolutionary War, the "Conventioners" were shunted about from one spot to another, marching well over a thousand miles through the heartland of the Eastern United States, the expense of their supplies and maintenance, meanwhile, being payed for by the British Government! While not formal Prisoners of War, they remained under close guard, the Americans always fearing their "rescue" by another British Army.
The fall of 1779 found the British and German Conventioners (whose numbers had dwindled, through death, desertion, escape and exchange to 3750) in Virginia, where they came under the American command of Colonel James Wood - the recipient of this letter - who, in turn, reported on their status to Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson. On the British side, many officers of General rank had been already exchanged for high-ranking American prisoners; Brigadier General James Hamilton, who had commanded the Center Column of Burgoyne's forces at Saratoga, was one of the few who remained prisoner.
During the summer of 1780, disturbed by rumors that British troops were about to march on Virginia to rescue the Conventioners, Jefferson and Wood secured, from the American Congress, permission to move the prisoners across the Potomac River to Fort Frederick, Maryland.
This was not at all pleasing to Maryland Governor Thomas Sim Lee, a staunch friend and supporter of General Washington's, who feared his state would be in greater danger of British invasion if so large a group of enemy prisoners were interned there. Nor did he fancy the cost of building emergency barracks for the Conventioners and detailing hundreds of Maryland militia troops to guard them. While Lee protested to the Congress, the first British troops invaded Virginia and Governor Jefferson ordered Colonel Wood immediately to begin marching the prisoners to the Potomac. Leaving the more trustworthy and amenable Germans in their camp, in late November, some 800 British soldiers and their officers, including General Hamilton, were marched to the River - only to find Lee's Maryland militia waiting there to prevent their crossing.
Eventually, Lee's plea to Congress was denied and he was forced to find room for the Conventioners at Frederick. No adequate barracks had yet been completed and some of the troops had to be housed in the county poorhouse, while officers who could not find quarters in private residence had to be satisfied with dirty little rooms in taverns. The prisoners were also inadequately clothed and fed and, on December 5, they attempted - unsuccessfully - a mass break from their confinement.