Convention Army

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Convention Army

CONVENTION ARMY. The surrender of Major General John Burgoyne's army at Saratoga on 17 October 1777 was by a convention negotiated with Burgoyne by Major General Horatio Gates. Hence the prisoners became known as the Convention Army. According to a return (a classified listing of men present across several categories) prepared by Lieutenant Colonel James Wilkinson, the deputy adjutant general of the Northern Department, they totaled 4,991 people (2,139 British, 2,022 Germans, and 830 Canadians). The agreement was that they would lay down their arms, march to Boston, and take ship to Britain with the promise to serve no more in North America during the war. Almost immediately, a controversy broke out that kept the convention from being honored as well as the Convention Army from being returned to Britain. Each side charged the other with perfidy. Congress wanted to evade the terms of the convention because, although the prisoners would be shipped back to Europe, they would free an equal number of soldiers from other duties for service in North America or the Caribbean.

The prisoners were marched under armed escort to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the first delay was caused by Sir William Howe's attempt to have them shipped home from a port in British hands, meaning either Newport or New York. The Americans seized on this demand as evidence that Howe intended to keep them to reinforce his own army. While waiting for the British transports to arrive at Boston, Burgoyne gave Congress additional grounds for delaying implementing the convention. In a letter to Gates complaining that his officers had not been furnished with the quarters they had a right to expect, he used the unfortunate phrase, "the public faith is broke." Congress had already appointed a committee to furnish reasons to justify a delay in ratifying and implementing the convention. The first reason it offered was that, because Burgoyne's 5,000 troops had turned in only 648 cartridge boxes, they had not surrendered all their arms. Now, if Burgoyne charged that "the public faith is broke," he might be building a case for invalidating the convention. Congress therefore suspended the embarkation until it got "a distinct and explicit ratification of the convention … by the court of Great Britain."

When the transports arrived off Boston late in December 1777, they were not permitted to enter. Finally, when the king sent orders to Sir Henry Clinton (Howe's successor as commander-in-chief) to ratify the convention, Congress took the position that the orders might be a forgery; it wanted a witness to swear he had seen the king sign them. Burgoyne and two of his staff officers were permitted to leave for England on 5 April 1778, but the rest of the Convention Army finished the war as prisoners. After a year in Massachusetts, first in the towns around Boston and then at Rutland, in January and February 1779 the troops were marched through Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland to Charlottesville, Virginia. This twelve-week trek was made in the dead of winter and on starvation rations, an ordeal Baroness Riedesel, wife of Major General Friedrich von Riedesel, endured with her three daughters. Many Germans deserted as the column passed through German-speaking parts of Pennsylvania, an action their guards did little to inhibit.

After another year, the remaining Convention troops were moved to Winchester, Virginia, and then to Frederick, Maryland. In the summer of 1781 they were moved north on the approach of Cornwallis to prevent their rescue by Banastre Tarleton and John Graves Simcoe; some went to Easton, Pennsylvania, and others back to Rutland. By the end of the war their numbers had been reduced by death, desertion, paroles, and exchange to about half the original 5,000. Although the majority returned home, a few stayed in America.

American historians generally agree that Congress did not live up to the bargain Gates had struck, and some believe that its behavior impugned the honor of the new nation. But the stain was not exclusively on the escutcheon of Congress. Among the papers of Henry Clinton at the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan, which were not generally available to historians until the 1930s, is a letter of 16 November 1777 from Howe to Burgoyne in which "Howe revealed his intention of diverting to New York the homeward-bound transports and exchanging the Convention troops for American prisoners" (Wallace, p. 168).

SEE ALSO Burgoyne, John; Continental Congress; Gates, Horatio; Howe, William; Saratoga Surrender; Virginia, Military Operations in.


Clark, J. "The Convention Troops and the Perfidy of Sir William Howe." American Historical Review 37 (1932): 721-723.

Dabney, William M. After Saratoga: The Story of the Convention Army. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1954.

Wall, Alexander J. "The Story of the Convention Army, 1777–1783." The New-York Historical Society Quarterly Bulletin 11 (1927): 67-99.

Wallace, Willard M. An Appeal to Arms: A Military History of the American Revolution. New York: Harper, 1951.

                              revised by Harold E. Selesky

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Convention Army