After Saratoga

Encampment of the Convention Army at Charlotte Ville in Virginia after they had surrendered to the Americans. Publish'd as the Act directs Jany 1789 by William Lane, Leadenhall Street, London; available from Library of Congress
Encampment of the Convention Army at Charlotte Ville in Virginia after they had surrendered to the Americans. Publish'd as the Act directs Jany 1789 by William Lane, Leadenhall Street, London; available from Library of Congress

Library of Congress

The Convention Army

What happened to the Crown forces following their surrender at Saratoga on October 17, 1777?

There were about 5,900 officers and soldiers (3,400 British and 2,500 German) and 600 women and children who surrendered that day and were subject to the terms of the Articles of Convention Between Lieutenant-General Burgoyne and Major General Gates. Most American royalists, Canadiens, Royal Navy personnel, and American refugees were permitted to go to Canada; American Indians and First Nations people were already on their way north, having departed prior to the surrender.

Although this was a surrender, it was not without terms. In fact, the basic terms of the Articles of Convention were written by Burgoyne himself. One of these stipulated that the army would get “free passage…to Great Britain, on condition of not serving again in North America during the present contest; and the port of Boston is assigned for the entry of transports to receive the troops….” Hence, the prisoners were marched out to Cambridge, Massachusetts, located only miles from Boston, and waited. There, they became known as the “Convention Army.”

Congressional members were appalled by the terms of the Articles of Convention. One popular observation was that even if the British honored the terms, it would not stop them from replacing their repatriated troops with those garrisoned in Great Britain, Ireland, or elsewhere. Congress found ways to interfere with the Convention’s terms, and on December 27, 1777 members voted to suspend the Articles of Convention until the British government gave it a “distinct and explicit ratification.” But this was never going to happen, as the British government would never enter any formal, legal agreement with the unrecognized United States. Thus, the people of the Convention Army became de facto prisoners of war.

At Cambridge, the Convention Army’s people were housed in ramshackle barracks built in 1775 by American troops during the siege of Boston. The British had to pay for their upkeep, including food and fuel (wood). Numbers began dropping fast primarily due to a high desertion rate: for example, by late January 1778, the British contingent of officers, soldiers, women, and children numbered only 3,050 people, down from about 3,800 the previous October! Due to the difficulty of managing such a large host, part of the Contention Army was removed to Rutland, Massachusetts that fall.

In November 1778, the Convention Army was forced marched 700-miles south to Albemarle Barracks in isolated Charlottesville, Virginia, which was reached in January 1779. Burgoyne did not share this fate, as he and some officers succeeded in gaining permission to return to Europe on parole. Now, only one-and-a-half-years out from the October 1777 surrender at Saratoga, the Convention Army was bleeding deserters constantly, with only about 1,450 British and 1,650 German officers and soldiers remaining!

The situation at Albemarle Barracks became dire when it was announced that the British would no longer pay for the sustainment of the Convention Army. Still, the army’s men, women, and children eked out their existence as best they could by growing gardens, garnering livestock, trading with local inhabitants, and engaging in moneymaking enterprises such as soap and candle making.

As time wore on in Charlottesville, more officers were paroled or exchanged, and while the desertion rate was somewhat reduced, British and German soldiers continued to make their escape. By mid-1780, a British Army moved into Virginia and it was feared that a rescue attempt might be made to free the Convention Army, the size of which had dwindled down to about 2,650 officers and soldiers (1,200 British and 1,450 German). In the fall of 1780, the British portion of the Convention Army was transferred to Fort Frederick and, soon after, nearby Frederick Town, Maryland, a move which presented new opportunities for desertion. In February 1781, the British contingent of the Convention Army numbered a measly 950 officers and soldiers, 180 women, and 250 children! Because of Maryland’s poor management resulting in serious food shortages and few guards to watch over the prisoners, Congress ordered the Convention Army moved out of the state in March 1781. The British contingent was sent to York, Pennsylvania while the Germans (having not yet reached Frederick Town, they were still in Virginia) were ordered to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In yet another violation of the Articles of Convention, the Convention Army’s officers were removed to Connecticut, thereby separating them from their men, in September 1781.

After British General Lord Cornwallis surrendered his army at Yorktown, Virginia in October 1781, the United States once again had a boon of prisoners of war to trade with the British, and negotiations began in February 1782. Although nothing came of it, when Congress ratified the provisional war-ending peace treaty in April 1783, Washington was instructed to arrange their release. The dwindled remnants of the Convention Army, having spent over five years in captivity and amounting to about 1/6 of its original strength, was finally released.

As for the five years’ worth of Convention Army deserters, where did they go? Thousands made their way back to British lines. Thousands of others decided to remain in America and start new lives. Some even joined the revolutionary cause and fought against their formed compatriots.

Today, hundreds of thousands of Americans can call these soldiers their ancestors.

Last updated: November 19, 2020

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