The Brunswickers in Captivity
As found in the book, "The Hessians The Revolution", By Edward J. Lowell.
THE BRUNSWICKERS IN CAPTIVITY.
The terms on which Burgoyne’s army had surrendered at Saratoga were never fulfilled. The soldiers were held substantially as prisoners of war. This led to violent complaints on their own part at the time, and on that of German and English writers down to our own day. It is reported by Bancroft that the convention had been broken by the British at the time of the surrender, by the concealment of the public chest and other public property, of which the United States were thus defrauded. In November, 1777, Burgoyne wrote a rash and groundless complaint of its violation by the Americans, and raised the implication that he might use the pretended breach to disengage himself and his government from all its obligations. Burgoyne also refused to give the necessary lists of all persons comprehended in the surrender. Congress thereupon refused to let his army be embarked until the capitulation should be expressly confirmed by the court of Great Britain.
It seems to me that in adopting this course Congress did not regard its own honor, nor that of the country. It was true that Gates had made a bad bargain. But the bargain had been made deliberately, and Burgoyne’s soldiers had performed the most important of the conditions imposed upon them when they laid down their arms. It now devolved on the Americans to fulfil their side of the agreement, and nothing less than a very flagrant violation of the minor articles of the capitulation, or very distinct evidence of an intention on the part of the British to break their parole, should have induced the victorious party to refuse to perform its promises.[Footnote: Bancroft, vol. ix. p. 466; vol. x. p. 126; Hildreth’s “History of the United States,” vol. iii. pp. 237, 255, 256; Lecky, vol. iv. p. 96. Lafayette believed that the British intended to break the convention. “Mémoires,” vol. i. p.21.]
While Congress was minded to keep the German prisoners in America, their own prince was in no haste to see them in Europe. On receiving the news of the capitulation of Saratoga, the minister of the Duke of Brunswick wrote to the English commissioner that those men who had surrendered ought not to be allowed to return to Germany, lest they should be discontented and discourage others from enlisting. “Send these remnants to one of your islands in America, place them in Europe in one of your islands, like the Isle of Wight.” On no account were the poor devils to be allowed to come home.[Footnote: Letter from Féronce to Faucitt, in French, dated Brunswick, December 23d, 1777, and quoted by Kapp (“ Soldatenhandel,” 1st ed. p. 262), from State Paper Office, German States, vol. 109.]
On the 17th of October, 1777, General Burgoyne’s soldiers laid down their arms at Saratoga. This they were allowed to do without the presence of any American detachment. General Riedesel had given orders that the flags of the Brunswick regiments should not be given up. He had the staffs burned, and concealed the colors themselves, giving out to the Americans that they were burned also. He concealed them until the prisoners had been for some time in Cambridge, when the baroness was taken into the secret. Frau von Riedesel, with the help of a “very honorable tailor,” sewed the colors up in a mattress, and an officer was sent to New York through the lines, on some pretence, who took the mattress with him as part of his bedding. The Brunswick colors were thus saved.[Footnote: Baroness Riedesel, pp. 160, 207.] Burgoyne had given his word of honor that the officers should not carry off any of the king’s property in their private baggage. Perhaps the standards were thought to belong to the Duke of Brunswick, and not to the king, who had only hired them along with their defenders; or, perhaps, Riedesel was not careful of Burgoyne’s honor.
After laying down their arms, the Brunswickers passed through the American camp, where the conquering army was drawn up to receive them. Not a regiment was properly uniformed, but every man was in the clothes he wore in the fields, at church, or at the ale-house. But they stood like soldiers, in good order, and with a military appearance very striking to the German officers. “The men stood so still that we were filled with astonishment,” writes one; “not a man made a motion to speak with his neighbor. Moreover, kindly nature had made all the men standing in the ranks so slender, so handsome, so sinewy, that it was a pleasure to look at them, and we all wondered at the sight of so well-made a people. . . . In truth, English America surpasses most parts of Europe in the size and beauty of its men.”
But few of the officers in Gates’s army wore uniforms, and those few wore them according to their own fancy, of any sort of cloth that came to hand. Wigs large and small, wigs black, white, and gray, adorned or deformed their heads. Some of them looked as if they had a whole sheep on their shoulders. For these great wigs, according to our Brunswicker, the common people felt a deep reverence, such being worn by the gentlemen of the committee. Among the wearers of these wigs were many men fifty or sixty years old, now brought for the first time into the ranks, and somewhat awkward in appearance, but thoroughly in earnest, and not to be made light of, especially in the woods. “In serious earnest,” says the German officer, “this whole nation has much natural talent for war and for a soldier’s life.[Footnote: Schlözer’s “Briefwechsel,” vol. iv. pp. 357—359.]
As the troops that had surrendered passed between the ranks of the Americans, not a man of the victorious army showed them any disrespect or insulted their misfortunes. It is the common testimony of the Germans that officers and soldiers treated them with courtesy and kindness. General Gates invited all the superior officers into his tent, and retained the generals to dinner. Schuyler showed especial courtesy to Frau von Riedesel. He met her as she came into the camp, lifted the children from her carriage, kissed them, and helped her to alight. After a few reassuring words he led her to General Gates, with whom she found Burgoyne, apparently on the most friendly footing. He told her to be without anxiety, for her troubles were at an end. “I answered,” writes the baroness, “that I should be indeed wrong to be anxious any longer, when our chief was not so, and when I saw him on such good terms with General Gates.”
Schuyler had dinner served to Frau von Riedesel and her children in his own tent (“ smoked tongue, beefsteaks, potatoes, good bread-and-butter “), and she spent three days with his family at Albany, treated with the greatest kindness. Burgoyne, also, was Schuyler’s guest at Albany. He apologized to the latter for burning his house and barns at Saratoga. “It is the fortune of war,” answered Schuyler; “say no more about it.” [Footnote: Baroness Riedesel, p. 195.]
The prisoners, or “conventionists,” as they called themselves, now set out on their march across Massachusetts. The weather was cold, and the roads bad. The march lasted from the 17th of October to the 7th of November. In some places the inhabitants refused to take the prisoners into their houses, and in other places, where it was necessary to halt, there were not houses enough to hold them. The inhabitants, on their side, complained that the passing prisoners burned their fences, destroyed their fodder, and stole clothes and furniture from their houses.[Footnote: General Glover to General Washington. Sparks’s “Correspondence,” vol. ii. p. 72.] From all sides the country people flocked to see the prisoners, and pressed into the houses where they were quartered, until the officers began to think that their landlords took money for the show.
In this way the Germans saw a great many of the women of the country, and the same officer who gave the above description of the American soldiers has left us his first impressions of New England women.
“The women of all this district as far as Boston and New York are slender and straight, and are plump without being stout. They have pretty little feet, good strong hands and arms, a very white skin, and a healthy color in their faces, without having to paint. Hardly any of those I have seen were pitted with smallpox; but then inoculation has been common here for many years. Their teeth are very white, their lips beautiful, and their eyes lively and laughing. Moreover, they have a natural, unconstrained manner, a free and cheerful countenance, a natural assurance. They care much for cleanliness and for being well shod. They dress very becomingly, but all their clothes must fit them very closely. . . . They curl their hair every day, make it up behind into a chignon, and in front over a cushion of moderate height. They generally go about bareheaded, and at most set a little heart- shaped thing, or some such trifle, on their heads. Here and there a country nymph lets her hair fly and braids it with a ribbon. However poor may be the hut in which they live, they put on a silken mantle and gloves when they go out. They know how to wrap themselves in the mantle very prettily, so that one little white elbow peeps out. Then they put on some kind of well-made shade-hat, from under which they peep coquettishly with their roguish eyes. ‘In the English colonies the fair ones have taken a fancy to mantles of red silk or wool. Dressed in this way a girl runs, jumps, and dances about, wishes you a pleasant good- day, or gives, according to the question, a saucy answer. So they stood by dozens all along our road, passed us in review, laughed mockingly at us, or from time to time dropped us a mischievous courtesy and handed us an apple. We thought at first that they were girls from the towns, or, at least, from class number two, standing by the roadside; but, lo and behold! they were the daughters of poor peasants, whom you could recognize as poor peasants by their clothing.
“But in spite of all the fine things I have said of the fair sex here, I must confess, to the honor of my dear countrywomen, that the soft, languishing, and tender manners, which often give the latter such an amiable charm, are seldom to be found in the beauties of this country; and that, consequently, the bliss that comes from them may be very rare here. Here you see perfectly beautiful nymphs, but seldom a true grace. And if you look for the estimable qualities which should be joined to natural beauty—but where am I going? It is high time to stop writing about girls.”
The officer goes on with his social observations. It seems that all over America the men are entirely subject to the women. The latter use their authority ml Canada for the good of the men, but in New England to their ruin. The women are extravagant. How they manage to tax the men so heavily is a mystery to our good German, seeing that they do not bite, nor scratch, nor go into fainting fits. There is hope in all this for the British crown. The women are now wearing their Sunday finery on week-days. When it wears out peace will have to be made with Great Britain in order to get a new supply.
Next we come to the negroes. These are to be found on most farms west of Springfield. The black family lives in a little outhouse. “The negroes here are very prolific, like the rest of the cattle. The young ones are well fed, especially while they are still calves. Moreover, the slavery is very bearable. The negro is to be looked on as the servant of a peasant; the negress does all the coarse house-work; and the black children wait on the white children. The negro can take the field in the place of his master, and so you do not see a regiment in which there are not a large number of blacks; and there are well-grown, strong, and sturdy fellows among them. There are, also, many families of free blacks here, who occupy good houses, have means, and live entirely in the style of the other inhabitants. It looks funny enough when Miss Negress pulls up her woolly hair over a cushion, puts a little shade-hat on her head, wraps herself in her mantle, and shuffles along the road in this finery, with a slave negress waddling behind her.”[Footnote: Schlözer’s “Briefwechsel,” vol. iv. pp. 363—366.]
Baroness Riedesel was making her first observations of the American people. She relates that one night her husband was ill, and that the guard were drinking and making a noise before his door. He sent word to them to stop, whereupon they only redoubled their clamor. Frau von Riedesel then went out, told them that her husband was sick, and begged them to make less noise. They were quiet immediately, “a proof,” says the baroness, “that this nation also has respect fc(r our sex.” The citizen officers of America were a continual puzzle to the Germans. No story was too extravagant for the latter to believe. “Their generals, who accompanied us, were some of them shoemakers,” writes Frau von Riedesel, “and on the days we halted made boots for our officers, or even mended the shoes of our soldiers. They set a great value on coined money, which was very scarce among them. The boots of one of our officers were badly torn. He saw that an American general had on a good pair, and said to him, for a joke: ‘I would give you a guinea for them.’ The general immediately got off his horse, gave up his boots, took the guinea, and mounted again in the officer’s torn pair.”[Footnote: Baroness Riedesel, p. 198. We get a side light on this story from the writer in Schlözer’s “Briefwechsel” above quoted. He mentions one Tielemann whom he calls marschcornmissaire (commissary general ?), a native of Mannheim, innkeeper at Albany, shoemaker by trade, and major in the militia.] General von Riedesel’s temper was at this time imbittered by ill-health and misfortune. It is to this that we must attribute the judgment he passes on the Americans. Indeed, he is quoted as saying that he had met but one American officer in Cambridge whom he respected. Of the members of the General Court of Massachusetts he gives an extraordinary description. “One can see in these men exactly the national character of the natives of New England. Especially are they distinguished by the fashion of their clothing. They all present the appearance of respectable magistrates, with their very thick, round, yellowish wigs. Their clothes are of the very old English fashion, and they wear, winter and summer, a blue cloak with sleeves, which they fasten round their bodies with a leathern strap. You seldom see one without a whip. They are mostly thick-set and of medium height, so that it is difficult to tell one from another, when they are summoned by the consul of Boston as delegates of their townships, or have to appear on militia business. Not one in ten of them can read writing. Still less can they write. This art is only known to the knights of the pen and to the female sex. The latter are well brought up, and therefore succeed in obtaining mastery over the men more than in any nation in the world. The New-Englanders all want to be politicians, and, therefore, love the tavern and grog-bowl, over which they do their business, and drink from morning till night. They are all extremely curious, credulous, and madly in love with freedom, but at the same time so blind that they have not yet become at all aware of the heavy yoke of slavery laid on them by Congress, under which they are, in fact, already beginning to sink.” [Footnote: Eelking’s “Life of Riedesel,” vol. ii. p.230, 231.]
On the other hand, if we may believe the Brunswick officer above quoted, the Americans could not understand the social condition of their captives. “It was hard to make the inhabitants understand,” says he, “that our officers had no professions. They had believed that it was from caprice that they would not work at their trades.” [Footnote: Schlozer’s “Briefwechsel,” vol. iv. p. 378.]
The German “conventionists” were put into barracks on Winter Hill, near Cambridge, Massachusetts, while the English occupied the neighboring Prospect Hill. These barracks had been erected by the Americans for their own use during the siege of Boston, and were of the lightest description. The wind whistled through the thin walls, the rain came through the roofs, the snow lay in drifts on the floor. Wood and straw were but scantily furnished,[Footnote: Wood was very scarce that winter. In October, before the arrival of the prisoners, General Heath had written to Washington: “Wood is now twelve or fourteen dollars per cord, on the wharves, and the inhabit. ants cannot obtain a supply at that price. So many of the coasters are taken by the enemy’s cruisers, that they are become very unwilling to run the risk of falling into their hands. I submit to your Excellency- the propriety and expediency of obtaining a protection from Lord Howe for such a number of vessels as may be thought necessary to supply the pris. oners, from the eastern country. If some such method cannot be devised, I do not at present see how it can be obtained.”—Sparks’s “Correspondence,” vol. ii. p. 17.] and the uniforms that had been worn through a hard campaign in the wilderness hung in rags on the freezing soldiers. They cut off the tails of their coats to make patches for the rest of their clothes. Even in the hospital it was freezing cold. Hope and disappointment followed each other in the breasts of the prisoners as the negotiations for their return to England were renewed or broken off. Once, during the year of their stay, came the hope of a rescue, and preparations were made by the Germans to welcome the friendly fleet, and by the Americans to march off their captives to quarters farther inland. But the greatest suffering, perhaps, of the prisoners was the monotony of their confinement. There was nothing to do, for a little drilling without guns can hardly be called an occupation. We recognize in the journals and letters of the officers the petulance of inactivity. There were quarrels with the American guard. In this respect, however, the Germans fared somewhat better than the English. The care of Riedesel to preserve discipline among his men was recognized, and the Americans took up the habit of turning delinquent Germans over to their own officers for punishment.
The condition of the soldiers not included in Burgoyne’s surrender, the prisoners of Bennington, and of the battles north of Stillwater, was in some respects more fortunate. These, for the most part, let out their services to the New England farmers. Many of them were allowed to visit the camp on Winter Hill—in order to induce the “conventionists” to desert, say the Germans. In the spring, as the temptation to get away into the country became strong, Riedesel thought it wise to open the door somewhat, and gave permission to some soldiers to go off to work on the farms, on condition of returning to camp once a week. The German officers were mostly quartered in the uncomfortable houses near the hill, or in the barracks themselves. The generals, however, had good houses in Cambridge. No man, of whatever rank, was allowed to go to Boston. Baroness Riedesel went there occasionally. She says that the town was very pretty, but inhabited by violent patriots, and full of bad people. The women would spit before her in the streets. The principal errand of the baroness was to visit Mrs. Carter, a daughter of General Schuyler. This lady was kindly and good, like her parents, but her husband Frau von Riedesel believed to be wicked and deceitful. “They often came to visit us, and dined with us, in company with the other generals. We tried to show them our gratitude in every way. They seemed to have a great friendship for us, and yet it was at this same time, that, as General Howe had set fire to a great many villages and small towns, this nasty Carter made the horrible proposal to the Americans, to cut off the heads of our generals, pickle them in firkins, and send one to the English for every village or small town that was set fire to; which inhuman proposal was fortunately not adopted.” [Footnote: Baroness Riedesel, p. 202.]
“On the 3d of June, 1778, I gave a ball and supper in honor of my husband’s birthday. I had invited all the generals and other officers. The Carters were there, too. General Burgoyne sent an excuse, after keeping us waiting until eight o’clock in the evening. He was always excusing himself, on different pretexts, from coming to us, until his departure for England, when he came and made me many excuses, to which I only answered, that I should have been sorry if he had put himself to inconvenience on our account.
“We danced a great deal, and our cook prepared us a splendid supper for more than eighty persons. Moreover, our courtyard and garden were illuminated. As the birthday of the King of England fell on the 4th, we decided not to separate until we should have drunk his health, which was carried out with the most hearty attachment to his person and to his interests.
“Never, I think, was ‘ God save the King’ sung with more enthusiasm, or more genuine feeling. Even my two oldest daughters were with us, having been brought down to see the illumination. All eyes were full of tears, and it seemed as if every one were proud to have the courage to do this in the midst of the enemy. Even the Carters had not the heart to separate themselves from us. As the company was leaving us, we saw that the house was entirely surrounded by Americans, who, when they saw so many people go in, and noticed the illumination, suspected that we were contemplating an insurrection; and if the least disturbance had taken place, it might have cost us dear.
“The Americans, when they wish to call their troops together, set burning beacons on the hills, and all men hasten to come at the signal. We were once witnesses of this, when General Howe wished to try to land at Boston, to free the captive troops. This was known, as usual, long beforehand, and tar-barrels were lighted; whereupon, for three or four days in succession, we saw a crowd of people without shoes or stockings, and with guns on their backs, hastening in. So many people came together in this way that it would have been too difficult to effect a landing.”[Footnote: Baroness Riedesel, pp. 204—206. This was probably at the end of August, 1778, when an English fleet followed d’Estaing to the neighborhood of Boston, after his unsuccessful attempt on Newport.]
In November, 1778, the Brunswickers were obliged to leave the neighborhood of Boston, where they were beginning to feel somewhat at home, and undertake the long march to Virginia. Frau von Riedesel still accompanied her husband, having found a comfortable English carriage in which to make the journey. At one of the stopping-places on the road she met General Lafayette, whom she asked to dinner. Lafayette told her of the civility which he had received from the King of England, and how everything had been shown him. The baroness asked him how he could have the heart to receive so many favors from the king, when he was on the point of going off to fight against him. The marquis seemed somewhat ashamed, and answered: “It is true. The idea passed through my mind, so that one day when the king offered to have his fleet shown to me, I answered that I hoped to see it some day, and then went away secretly, to avoid the embarrassment of having to refuse again.” [Footnote: Baroness Riedesel, p. 211; see also Lafayette’s “Mémoires,” vol. i. pp. 13, 14.]
Frau von Riedesel was able, while travelling, to observe something of the feeling of the inhabitants towards the mercenaries. At one house where they stopped for the night she noticed a great deal of meat, and asked the hostess to let her have some. “I have many kinds,” was the answer,” beef, veal, and mutton.” The baroness’s mouth watered. “Give me some,” said she,”I will pay you well.” The woman snapped her fingers. “You shall have none,” cried she. “Why did you come out of your own country to kill us and devour our property? Now you are our prisoners, and it is our turn to plague you.” “See these poor children,” answered the baroness, “they are almost dying of hunger.” The woman would not be persuaded until Frau von Riedesel’s little daughter, only eighteen months old, seized her hand and said to her: “Good woman, I am very hungry.” Thereupon the woman took the child into the next room and gave her an egg. “No,” said the child, “ I have two sisters.” The woman was moved, gave the child three eggs, and bread and milk to the mother. Frau von Riedesel saw her opportunity, brought out her stock of tea, then a great rarity, and offered some to the countrywoman. The baroness presently went into the kitchen, where the woman’s husband was eating a pig’s tail. This he handed to his wife, who ate a little of it and gave it back to him. Seeing the baroness staring at them, they passed the stump to her, and she felt obliged to pretend to take a few bites, and then threw it into the fire. Peace was now entirely made, and Baroness Riedesel obtained some potatoes, and made a pot of soup.
This was not the only occasion on which food was refused or lodging begrudged to the baroness and her children. The people with whom she lodged were generally ardent revolutionists. On one occasion she spent the night at the house of a Colonel Howe, whom she thought to compliment by asking him if he were related to the British general of that name. “God forbid !“ answered the colonel, “he is not worthy of me.” “This same colonel had a pretty daughter, fourteen years old, but of a bad disposition,” says Frau von Riedesel. “I was sitting with her before a bright, open fire; she looked at the coals, and cried out ‘Oh, if I only had the King of England here! With what pleasure I would cut open his body, tear out his heart, cut it in pieces, lay it on these coals, and then eat it.’ I looked at her with abhorrence, and said to her: ‘I am almost ashamed to be of the same sex with one who could have such a desire.’ “[Footnote: Baroness Riedesel, p. 220.]
In the middle of January, 1779, the Germans reached Charlottesville, in Virginia. Here they found no barracks ready for them, and were obliged to build for themselves. Soon a village was raised, and here, and in various other parts of Virginia, the remainder of their captivity was passed. For many of them this lasted until the end of the war. The soldiers made themselves gardens and poultry yards. The officers bought good riding horses. In one settlement a small theatre was erected by the English soldiers, and satirical pieces were played, in which the captives made fun of their captors, until it was found necessary to forbid the American militia forming part of the audience.[Footnote: About thirty English miles from Staunton (Schlözer’s “Briefwechsel,” vol. v. p. 404—408). In May, 1780, there were still one thousand five hun. dred and three German “conventioners” in Virginia (Sparks’s “Correspondence,” vol. iii. p. 143).] General von Riedesel returned to New York on parole in the autumn of 1779, and was shortly afterwards exchanged. His health had suffered much from exposure, low spirits, and a slight sunstroke received in Virginia. After he was exchanged he returned to Canada, where he remained in the service of the King of England until the end of the war, but he never again met the Americans in the field.