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Based largely on the book of the same name, the blog is a kind of trailer for it and the primary source material it contains. An invitation, you might say … to eavesdrop on the lives of women writing 250 years ago … to become acquainted with 144 little-known but amazingly articulate chroniclers … and to discover a valuable new perspective on the Revolutionary Era.

The women featured lived between 1765 and 1799. But once you attune your ears to their way of writing, their voices easily leapfrog across the centuries. Read just a few sentences and you’ll find yourself back in time, entering their concerns, sharing their feelings. And what they have to say is always fascinating, often eye-opening, sometimes heart-rending.

Please bookmark the blog and visit regularly to see which writers and issues are being featured. There are two new posts weekly: on Monday and Thursday. And do explore those related to the many topics listed on the right. In addition to posts based on the book, others introduce the writings of women who didn’t make it into the book or who turn up as a result of ongoing research. To subscribe via email, click here. Leave a comment. Email a question. And enjoy your visits.

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posted May 23rd, 2018 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Uncategorized

“Sing another,” he said . . . “but something jolly.”

Baroness von Riedesel continues to describe their stay in Virginia to which the Convention Army, as prisoners of war, had been relocated. Her husband paid to have a house built for the family and they planted a garden which the Baron enjoyed. But he could not tolerate the heat. She describes what happened to him on one hot day.

I was busy setting our new home to rights and putting my husband’s things in his room when I heard a commotion outdoors. I ran to the window and saw some men carrying my husband into the house. His face was blue, his hands white, his eyes rigid, and beads of perspiration covered his forehead. He had had a sunstroke. I was more dead than alive myself, and the children uttered penetrating screams. We laid him down at once, tore off his clothes, and fortunately the surgeon of the regiment, who lived with us, was at home at the moment, so that he could bleed him immediately. He began to gain speech again and told us that while walking through the garden he had felt the sun burning hot on his head. He had hardly been able to reach the house, when his aides arrived, without whose help he would have been lost. Good Lord, what would have become of me and my little children among the captives so far from home in the enemy’s country!

The von Riedesels went to a spa the doctor had recommended for the Baron’s health. He did recover although he suffered from the ill effects of the incident for the rest of his life. The Baroness tells a charming story of a bargain she made with a local farmer. At the spa she made friends with Mrs. Charles Carroll who visited every morning to enjoy a musical treat. A Captain Geismar played the violin for the Baroness who sang Italian arias.

On day a farmer came to our house, whom we had frequently asked with many kind words to bring us fresh butter. As most Americans love music, he listened attentively, and when I had finished, he told me I would have to sing again. I asked him jestingly what he would give me for my singing, as I did nothing without being paid. He immediately replied, “Two pounds of butter.” That amused me very much, and I sang another song. “Sing another,” he said when I had finished, “but something jolly.” In the end I had sung so much, that the next day he brought me four or five pounds of butter. He had brought his wife with him and begged me to sing again. I won their affection, and after that I always had everything I needed. The best of it was that he really thought I wanted to be paid for my singing and was very much astonished when I paid them for the butter before they left.

The Baroness developed critical views of Southerners and their plantations cultivated by slaves.

The Virginians are mostly indolent, which is ascribed to their hot climate . . . . The plantation-owners . . . have numerous Negro slaves and do not treat them well. Many of them let the slaves walk about stark naked until they are between fifteen and sixteen years old, and the clothes which they give them afterward are not worth wearing. The slaves are in the charge of an overseer who leads them out into the fields at daybreak, where they have to work like cattle or suffer beating; and when they come home completely tired out and sunburnt they are given some Indian meal called hominy, which they make into baked stuff. Often, however, they are too exhausted to eat and prefer sleeping a couple of hours, because they must go back to work. They look upon it as a misfortune to have children, because these, in turn, will also be slaves and unhappy men. . . . But there are, of course, good masters too.

In the next post: the possibility of an exchange.

Marvin L. Brown, Jr. A Revised Translation and Introduction and Notes, Baroness von Riedesel and the American Revolution: Journal and Correspondence of a Tour of Duty 1776-1783 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of NC Press, 1965), 83-86. The portrait appears HERE.

“we got orders to go to Virginia”

Members of the Convention Army——British and Hessian troops surrendered by General John Burgoyne after the battle of Saratoga in 1777——became prisoners of war after Britain and the Continental Congress failed to reach an agreement which would have allowed the troops to return to England.(See previous post.) According to the prevailing conventions of warfare, prisoners of war were supposed to be provisioned by their own country, but this rule was often ignored or impracticable.

There were three ways for prisoners to gain some or all of their freedom: exchange, parole, and desertion. Only high ranking officers were candidates for exchange and this was negotiated by the Continental Congress. States and local governments could grant parole on an individual basis; parole allowed soldiers limited freedom contingent on their promise not to engage in fighting. Because it was hard to provide for POWs, they were often paroled to farmers to help till the soil and also to provide their own food. Some prisoners with their own funds or money sent by relatives could purchase extra food and other supplies. Quite a few prisoners would desert. With the British failing to send supplies for the prisoners, it fell to the states and local communities to provide them with food and shelter (even in some private homes), and to local militias to guard them. When a state reached the limit of its ability to care for prisoners the Continental Congress ordered them moved to another state.

One of the most interesting diaries of the Revolutionary War era is that of BARONESS FREDERIKA VON RIEDESEL. Her husband, Major General Friedrich von Riedesel, was an officer in charge of a contingent of Brunswickers recruited by the English to fight in America. He became the commander of all the Hessians (and Indians) in the Saratoga campaign. Seventy-seven wives had accompanied the Brunswicker soldiers including some wives of officers. Among them was Frederika who traveled from the Continent with three children, the youngest of whom was still a babe in arms, to join her husband in Canada. After the defeat at Saratoga she accompanied the Convention Army to Boston. She describes her arrival there.

We finally reached Boston, and our troops were quartered in barracks not far away, on Winter Hill. We were put up at a farmer’s house, where we were given only one room in the attic. My maids slept on the floor, and the men in the hall. Some straw on which I had spread our bedding was all we had for a long while on which to sleep . . . .

We stayed in this place three weeks before we were then taken to Cambridge, where we were put up in one of the most beautiful houses, previously the property of royalists [loyalists]. [On Brattle Street which was called “Tory Row” because of the number of loyalists who resided there.] . . . .

We lived in Cambridge quite happily and would have liked to stay there as long as our troops were held prisoners, but as the winter drew near, we got orders to go to Virginia.

In January and February of 1779, during a hard winter, the troops and their followers, on low rations, were marched to Charlottesville, Virginia. Baron von Riedesel secured a carriage for his family but made the trip with his troops. The Baroness recounted experiences on the journey and upon her family’s arrival in Virginia.

Before crossing the Blue Ridge Mountains we had to make another week’s halt in order to give our troops a chance to reassemble. Meanwhile there had been so much snow that four of our men had to ride ahead of my carriage and make a path for us. We passed through picturesque country, but so rough and wild that it was frightening. Often our lives were in danger when we passed over breakneck roads, and we suffered terribly from the cold and, what was even worse, from lack of food. When we arrived in Virginia and had only another day to go before reaching our destination, we had nothing left but tea and some bread and butter, nor could we get anything else. One of the natives gave me a handful of dried fruit. At noon we arrived at a house where I asked for some food, but it was refused harshly with the remark that the people had nothing to give to the royalist dogs. I saw some Turkish flour [Indian meal] and begged for a couple of handfuls so that I could mix it with water and make some bread. The woman replied, “No, that is for our Negroes who work for us; you, however, wanted to kill us.”

Our destination was called Colle, in Virginia, where my husband had gone on ahead with the troops and now awaited us with impatience and longing. We arrived there in the middle of February 1779, having gone from Boston through the provinces of Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, traveling 678 English miles, in about twelve weeks. . . . The troops were in Charlottesville, two hours away. One had to go through a beautiful forest to get to them. At first they were very uncomfortable there. They had log cabins, but these were not plastered, and they lacked doors and windows so they suffered terribly from the cold. They worked very hard to build better houses . . . and in a short time the place became a pretty town. Each of the barracks had a garden in the back and a nice little fenced in yard for poultry . . . . We had a large house built with a big room in the center and two smaller rooms on each side, which cost my husband a hundred guineas. . . . A number of Negroes brought us everything they had in the way of poultry and vegetables . . . . In the summer we suffered terribly from the heat and lived in constant fear of rattlesnakes, and the fruit was completely ruined by three sorts of insects. We had heavy thunderstorms, sometime five or six a day, and the wind was so terrific that a hundred trees or more were uprooted. . . . We had no chairs at all, only treestumps on which to sit, and these were also used for tables by laying boards across them. . . . My husband was always sad, and, what was more, he could not stand the heat at all, which went as high as 103 degrees and was most oppressive.

More about the von Riedesels and the Convention Army in the next post.

Marvin L. Brown, Jr. A Revised Translation and Introduction and Notes, Baroness von Riedesel and the American Revolution: Journal and Correspondence of a Tour of Duty 1776-1783 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of NC Press, 1965), pp. 68, 69, 72, 79, 80, 82-83. The portrait of the Baroness is by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein in 1829. The illustration is a framed 1789 engraving, “Encampment of the Convention Army at Charlottesville, ACHS 1848, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Va. Other posts on Baroness von Riedesel can be found HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.

“To declare them all Prisoners of War”

HANNAH WINTRHOP continued her correspondence with MERCY OTIS WARREN. She reported in January 1778 that the British officers of the Convention Army, which had surrendered at Saratoga in 1777 and marched to Cambridge, “live in the most Luxurious manner Possible, rioting on the Fat of the Land, Stalking at Large with the self-importance of Lords of the Soil.”

The status of the British and Hessian troops quickly became a bone of contention. The Americans were not about to allow them to return to Europe as promised until the British government signed the Convention. Signing would have meant recognizing American independence and the British, unwilling to treat the Americans as anything but rebels, declined. As HANNAH WINTHROP wrote in February 1778 “an important order just arrivd, To declare them all Prisoners of War. O amazing reverse of Circumstances!” So prisoners of war they became.

According to the practice of the time prisoners of war were to be provided with food and supplies by their own authorities. For a time British General Henry Clinton based in New York sent some supplies. But these soon stopped and it fell to the American forces and local communities to provide for them. This quickly became a heavy burden, especially given the severe New England winter. It was therefore decided that the so-called Convention Army, now prisoners of war, should be moved south to Virginia, in late 1778, where the climate was less harsh and it would be less costly to maintain them. During the year the prisoners remained in Cambridge it is reckoned that 1,300 of the original 5,700 troops escaped. Many married local women and blended into the local population.

To return to HANNAH WINTRHOP, her husband died in 1779 and her letters to MERCY OTIS WARREN constantly allude to her grief. Looking forward, she hopes that Warren “would oblidge the world, for the Honor of America, with Her arrangement of facts, which will, certainly make as Conspicuous a Figure as any Else Era in the History of the World.” MERCY OTIS WARREN does write and publish a History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution.(1805) HANNAH WINTHROP dies in 1790.

More about the relocation of the British and Hessian troops of the Convention Army in the next post.

The letters of Hannah Winthrop from which the quotations above are taken can be found HERE, HERE, and HERE.

The Convention Army

In 1777, in an attempt to divide New England from the other colonies, British and Hessian forces, under Lieutenant General John (Johnny) Burgoyne, marched from Canada through the Champlain Valley and Lake George intending to rendezvous at Albany with General Henry Clinton’s troops coming up the Hudson River from New York City (which was occupied by the British) and another British contingent marching eastward from Lake Ontario. The plan failed. The help Burgoyne expected did not arrive. His troops fought two battles, at Bemis Heights and Saratoga in upstate New York; they were overwhelmed by superior American forces, and Burgoyne was forced to capitulate on October 17.

The victory is considered by many as the turning point of the Revolutionary War because it convinced the French that the Americans could fight and win battles against the British, and thus were deserving of French support. Without assistance from the French it is unlikely that the Americans could have won the war.

General Burgoyne and General Horatio Gates negotiated the Convention of Saratoga by which the surrendering forces, numbering 5,900, were marched under guard to Boston, the plan being to allow them to return to England contingent on a promise not to fight in America again. The so-called Convention Army wended its way eastward and reached Cambridge. HANNAH WINTHROP described the scene in a letter to her friend MERCY OTIS WARREN dated November 11. Her comments remind us that armies of that time were accompanied by many women camp followers. During the winter of 1777-78, ordinary soldiers were housed in crude barracks on Winter Hill and Prospect Hill in the vicinity of Cambridge. Officers lodged in private homes and in some buildings at Harvard where classes were suspended.

It is not a great while since I wrote my dear Friend on my disappointment in not paying her a Visit. Now methinks I hear her wondring how it is with her Cambridge Friends, who are at this time delugd with British & Hessian, what shall I call them? who are Prancing & Patrolling every Corner of the Town, ornamented with their glittering Side arms, Weapons of destruction. A short detail of our Situation may perhaps amuse you. you will be able to form a judgment of our unhappy Circumstances.

Last thursday, which was a very Stormy day, a large number of British Troops Came Softly thro the Town Via Watertown to Prospect hill. on Friday we heard the Hessians werto make a Procession in the same rout, we thot we should have nothing to do with them, but View them as they Passd. To be sure the sight was truly Astonishing, I never had the least Idea, that the Creation producd such a Sordid Set of Creatures in human Figure—poor dirty emaciated men, great numbers of women, who seemd to be the beasts of burthen, having a bushel basket on their back, by which they were bent double, the contents seemd to be Pots & kettles, various sorts of Furniture, children peeping thro gridirons & other utensils. Some very young Infants who were born on the road, the women barefoot, cloathd in dirty raggs Such Effluvia filld the air while they were passing, had they not been smoaking all the time, I should have been apprehensive of being Contaminated by them. After a noble Looking advanced Guard Genl J-y B n. headed this terrible group on horseback, The other Gl also, cloathd in Blue Cloaks. Hessians Waldecker Anspachers Brunswickers &c. &c. &c. followd on. The Hessian Gl gave us a Polite Bow as they Passd. Not so the British their Baggage Waggons drawn by poor half starved horses. But to bring up the rear, another fine Noble looking Guard of American Brawny Victorious Yeomanry, who assisted in bringing these Sons of Slavery to Terms, Some of our Waggons drawn by fat oxen, driven by joyous looking Yankees Closd the cavalcade. The Generals & other Officers went to Bradishs, where they Quarter at present. The Privates trudgd thro thick & thin To the hills, where we thot they were to be Confind, but what was our Surprise when in the morning we beheld an inundation of those disagreable objects filling our streets? How mortifying is it? they in a manner demanding our Houses & Colleges for their genteel accomodation. Did the brave G- Gates ever mean this? Did our Legislature ever intend the Military should prevail above the Civil? is there not a degree of unkindness in loading poor Cambridge, almost ruined before with This great army seem to be let loose upon us. & what will be the Consequence time will discover.

Some Polite ones say, we ought not to look in them as Prisoners they are persons of distinguishd rank. perhaps we too must not View them in the light of enemys. I fear this distinction will be soon lost. Surprising that our Gl, or any of our Cl should should insist on the first University in America being disbanded for their more genteel accomodation, & we poor oppressd people seek an Assylum in the woods against a piercing Winter. where is the stern Virtue of an A[dam]s who opposd such an infraction in former days? who is there to plead our Cause? Pity. Pity it is our Assembly had not settled these matters before their adjournment It will be vastly more difficult to abridg them after Such an unbounded Licence. perhaps you may see some of them at Plimouth. for my part I think, insults Famine & a Train of evils present to View. Gl. B-n din’d a Saturday in Boston with Gl. Hh. He rode thro the Town properly attended down Court Street & thro the main street, & on his return walkt on foot to Charlestown Ferry Followd by as great a Number of Spectators as ever attended a pope & generously observd to an officer with him the Decent & modest behavior of the inhabitants as he passd, Saying if he had been Conducting Prisoners thro the City of London, not all the Guards of Majesty Could have prevented Insults. He likewise acknowledges [Benjamin] Lincoln & [Benedict] Arnold to be great Generals. It is said we shall have not Less than Seven thousand persons to feed in Cambridge & its environs, more than its inhabitants. Two hundred & fifty cord of wood will not serve them a week, think then how we must be distresst. wood is risen to £5.10 pr Cord. & little to be purchasd. I never thought I could lie down to sleep Surrounded by these enemies. but we strangely become enured to those things which appear difficult when distant.

The letter is at the Massachusetts Historical Society and can be accessed HERE. John Trumbull’s painting of the surrender at Saratoga was completed in 1821 and hangs in the Capitol Building in Washington, DC.


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