Boston

“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.

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.

“Boston . . . busily employd in communicating the Infection”

Having returned to Cambridge from Concord, HANNAH WINTHROP wrote to her friend MERCY OTIS WARREN in July 1776. She described the condition of her home, the reopening of Harvard, and life in Boston after the British evacuation (pictured) on March 17.

Last Saturday afternoon we went into Boston the first time since our removal from Concord . . . . Our Barrack or Wigwam, or whatever name you may please to give it, when you see it unornamented with broken chairs & unleggd tables with the shatterd Etcetteras, is intirely at your service. . . . we breath as sweet an air as ever Cam [bridge], afforded, the peacefull shades & meandring river conspire to give us delight. The Sons of Harvard who are collected here seem to be as well Settled & as happy as if they had not known an interruption, with zeal they are attending the Philosophic Lectures.

What an unexpected Blessing! the change from the din of arms & the shrill Clarion of war. Come my Friend taste & see if your too much dejected spirits will not revive in this Salubrious Soil. . . .

As to Political matters, Consonant to my natural ingenuity they appear rather gloomy, but the Settlement of these important points I hope an opportunity for, when you make me happy & indulge me with Laying our Political heads together.

The reigning Subject is the Small Pox. Boston has given up its Fears of an invasion & is busily employd in
communicating the Infection. Straw beds & cribs are daily carted into the Town. That ever prevailing Passion of following the Fashion is as Predominant at this time as ever. Men Women & children eagerly Crouding to innoculate is I think as modish, as running away from the Troops of a barbarous George was the last Year. . . .

But ah my Friend I have not mentioned the Loss I have met with which lies near my heart the death of
my dear Friend the good Madam Hancock, A powerfull attachment to this life broken off, you who knew her worth can Lament with me her departure. Ah the incertainty of all Terristrial happiness. . . .
Yours in Affection
Hannah Winthrop

The British forces, threatened by cannon mounted on Dorchester Heights, left Boston in March 1776 for Nova Scotia. Many Loyalists departed as well; some blacks and Native Americans joined them. Those inhabitants who remained faced the scourge of smallpox. The disease had once again become widespread in 1775. George Washington, concerned for his troops, had advised them not to associate with Bostonians leaving the city during the siege. When the British evacuated they left behind their soldiers infected with the disease, which further fueled the outbreak. Washington sent an occupying force of 1,000 troops who had already had smallpox and were therefore immune. Many fearful residents sought to be inoculated, a precaution strongly recommended by Benjamin Franklin, in spite of possibly serious complications. Hannah Winthrop, rather scornfully, termed this surge of interest “modish.” In 1777, Washington ordered that new recruits who had not had smallpox be inoculated. It was one of the most important decisions he made as commander of the Continental Army.

The correspondence between Hannah Winthrop and Mercy Otis Warren is at the Massachusetts Historical Society. The letter in this post can be read in its entirety HERE. The illustration of the British evacuation is a German woodcut c. 1776. It is at the Library of Congress. The title page of Zabdiel Boylston’s An Historical Account of the Small-pox Inoculated in New England is from Wikimedia Commons.

“the Charlestown Conflagration”

HANNAH WINTHROP, distressed and heartsick over the treatment of Bostonians by British General Gage after Lexington and Concord, shares her feelings with her friend and long-time correspondent MERCY OTIS WARREN. In a letter of 17 August 1775, Hannah describes the sad plight of the many Boston residents who chose to leave the city during the British occupation. She also alludes to the burning of Charlestown by the British in order to rid it of American snipers during the Battle of Breed’s Hill, known more commonly by the name of the adjacent Bunker Hill, 17 June 1775. The British eventually won the battle in this the first major confrontation between British and American forces, but at a staggering cost: suffering many more casualties—lives lost and soldiers wounded—than the Americans. A Pyrrhic victory.

. . . . my heart Bleeds for the people of Boston my Blood boils with resentment at the Treatment they have met with from Gage. Can anything equal his Barbarity, Turning the poor out of Town without any Support, those persons who were posses of any means of Support Stopped & Searchd, not Sufferd to Carry anything with them? Can anything equal the distress of parents separated from their Children, The tender husband detaind in Cruel Captivity from the Wife of his Bosom she torn with anxiety in fearfull looking for & expectation of Vengance from the obdurate heart of A Tyrant, Supported by wicked advisers? Can a mercifull Heaven look on these things & not interpose? Is there not a day of retribution at hand? Should these things Continue what a horrid Prospect would a Severe Winter afford? how many must fall a Sacrifice to the unrelenting rigours of Cold & want? be ye cloathd & be ye warmd will be of little Efficacy to the trembling bared limbs or the hungry Soul of many a one who once livd in Affluence. . . .

You kindly enquire after my Sister, I have seen her but once since the Charlestown Conflagration, She is poorly accomodated at Stoneham, I found her & my Brother Mason Too much affected with their Loss. I really think their prospects peculiarly discouraging. He has been out of business for a Twelve month past, a Large Family to provide for. He advanced in life & losing his habitation by the hands of as barbarous an enemy as ever appeard on the theatre of life, to torment mankind. Where is the Historic page that can furnish us with such Villainy. The Laying a whole town in ashes, after repeated promises that if they would protect their troops in their return from Concord, it should be the last place that should suffer harm. How did they give shelter to the wounded expiring Soldiers & their houses, their beds were prepard to receive them, the women readily engagd in pouring balm in to their wounds, making broths & Cordials to Support their exhausted spirits, for at that time the Softer Sex had not been innured to trickling blood & gaping wounds. Some of the unhappy Victims died, they gave up the . . . ghost Blessing the hands that gave relief, and now in return for this kindness, they take the first opportunity to make 500 householders miserable, involving many a poor widow & orphan in one common ruin. Be astonished o heavens at this & let the inhabitants of america tremble to fall into the hands of such a merciless foe!. . .

I now write from the Solitude of Andover, & the reducd & humble life, yet by no means is my firm persuasion Staggerd in the glorious Cause we are Struggling in, the Cause of Virtue truth & justice. Your Faith, that the united Efforts will be Blest with Success animates me. I catch a spark of that heavenly flame which invigorates your breast. Knowing your Faith has a permanent Foundation & your acquaintance with those in the Cabinet must enable you to form a better Judgment than those who have not those advantages . . . .

Read the entire letter HERE. The print is titled “An Exact View of the Late Battle at Charlestown, June 17, 1775 by Bernard Romans, a Dutchman to who worked as a surveyor and cartographer for the British. He joined the American side when the war began. In the illustration the Battle of Breed’s Hill is depicted on the left; in the center is Charlestown afire; on the right is Boston. This is a somewhat different perspective than is usually seen. The print is in the collection of Colonial Williamsburg.

“the roads filld with frighted women & children”

HANNAH WINTHROP continued her letter to MERCY OTIS WARREN in May of 1775 describing the flight from Concord to a place of safety. She is saddened by the closure of Harvard and the disruption of education for its students. She fears for the library and worries that her husband will not be able to continue his work in astronomy.

Thus with precipitancy were we driven to the town of Andover, following some of our acquaintance, five of us to be conveyd with one poor tired horse & Chaise. Thus we began our [pilgrimage] alternately walking & riding, the roads filld with frighted women & children Some in carts with their tallest furniture, others on foot fleeing into the woods but what added greatly to the horror of the Scene was our passing thro the Bloody field at Menotomy which was strewd with the mangled Bodies, we met one Affectionate Father with a Cart looking for his murderd Son & picking up his Neighbours who had fallen in Battle, in order for their Burial.

I should not have chose this town for an Asylum, being but 20 miles from Seaports where men of war & their Pirates are Stationed, but in being fixd here I see it is not in man to direct his steps. As you kindly enquire after our Situation, I must tell you it is Rural & romantically pleasing. Seated in a truly retired spot, no house in sight, within a mile of Neighbours, thinly settled, the House decent & neat stands
under the shade of two venerable Elms on a gently rising, one flight of steps with a View of a spacious meadow befour it, a Small Rivulet meandering thro it, the grassy Carpet interspersd with a Variety of flowery shrubs, several little mounts rising in the Conic form intersected with fertile spots of waving grain. The Horizon bounded with a thick wood as if nature intended a Barricade against the Canonade of some formidable despot. But here all is perfect Silence, nothing is heard but the melody of the groves & the unintelligible Language of the Animal Creation. From the profound stillness & serenity of this Woody region I can almost persuade myself we are the only human inhabitants of Creation, & instead of Losing my fondness for Society I shall have a higher relish for the pleasures of friendly Converse & Social endearments, tho the Family we live with are very obliging.

But alas the gloomy appearance of mortal things sets the Vanity of the Clearest demonstration before me, nor can I forbear to drop a tear over that Seminary which has been the glory of this Land, and Lamenting those walls early dedicated to the Study of Science & Calm Philosophy Instead of the delightful harmony of nature nothing but the din of arms & the Clarion of War. the Youth dispersd, the hands of their preceptors sealed up, those fountains of knowledge the Library & Apparatus entirely useless & perhaps may fall into those hands whose highest joy would be to plunge us into darkness & Ignorance that we might become fitter Subjects for Slavery & Despotic rule, my partner wishes some attention might be paid to these important Treasures. Oh shall we ever be restord to that peacefull abode, that happy roof where retird from all the glitter & noise of the gay & busy world my Consort would joy to finish his mortal life in investigating the great Temple of the Skies & adoring the Divine Architect of Heaven & quietly quitting this Lower Creation.

When I think of the Sufferings of my Friends in Boston I am ashamed that my inconvenience should have such an undue effect upon me. I blush that I have so little Fortitude to encounter the Struggles we must expect to meet before the unnatural Campaign is over. I must Confess I sometimes Indulge Fears which excite mirth rather than Sympathy in my Philosoper. I have not seen our Son Since his return from Sea. It is a satisfaction that our Sons possess that love of Liberty which will engage them in the Cause of their Bleeding Country. It would give me great pleasure to pay you a Visit in your hospitable abode of peace & Elegance, but the Length of the journey & the uncertainty of the times forbid it. It would add Inexpressible pleasure to us to see you in our Rural retirement, then might I profit by your Example of Equanimity & patience in times of Affliction. We are now cut off from all our Living, but those divine intimations in that Sacred Book which have been the Consolation of Many an Exild one must be our Support. pray Let me hear from you as often as possible.

As it has been the mode of some distinguished Patriots on the other side the water in their Late letters to a person of my acquaintance in these perilous times not to affix any Signature to them but that of Sentiment & Affection, so in humble imitation after offering my partners & my best Affection to you & Coll. Warren
I Subscribe Yours Unalterably

Read the entire letter HERE. The engraving of Amos Doolittle’s “The engagement at the North Bridge in Concord, 1775” is a focal point of the gallery at the Museum of the American Revolution dedicated to the Battles of Lexington and Concord.

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