This post continues an overview of York County’s Revolutionary War prisoner-of-war camp. Click here for the first two installments as well as many other posts that I have written over the past ten years about the camp.
The internees were British soldiers captured at two of the most important battles of the War for Independence, the Battle of Saratoga (New York) and the Battle of Yorktown (Virginia). This post explains why the British and Hessian soldiers surrendered by General Burgoyne at Saratoga are known as the Convention Troops.
CAMP SECURITY: CONVENTION TROOPS
The surrender of General John Burgoyne to General Gates at Saratoga, New York, on October 18, 1777 placed nearly 6,000 British, Hessian, and Canadian prisoners of war in the hands of the Continental Congress, then in session at York, Pennsylvania. An official report states that 5,800 troops surrendered at Saratoga, of which there were 2,400 Hessians. According to the terms of their surrender, written in a document entitled the “Convention of Saratoga,” the prisoners were to be marched to Boston, and shipped back to Great Britain.
When the prisoners arrived at Boston, they were quartered on Winter and Prospect hills. Congress, wanting to ensure that none of the officers returned to the battlefield, asked that General Burgoyne write a descriptive list of each of the officers under his command. This request was not specified in the Convention of Saratoga, and General Burgoyne became personally offended and refused to heed the request. On the 8th of January 1778, Congress resolved to suspend the terms of the Convention of Saratoga and kept the prisoners in custody.
After remaining in the Boston area for the winter, the decision was made to relocate the prisoners to Charlottesville, Virginia, where they could be more closely watched and better supplied. In November 1778 the prisoners marched southward. Many of the British soldiers had their wives and children with them, and wagons were provided for their transportation, but the men had to march on foot. They traveled through Lancaster and York, Pennsylvania in December of the same year, and finally reached Charlottesville, 550 miles from Boston, in January 1779.
They constructed a rectangular camp there, but the war came to Virginia and Continental Congress ordered a move to the north. The march northward began in October 1780 to Winchester, Virginia, and then Frederick, Maryland.
In the spring of 1781 Congress ordered the prisoners to be moved again, this time into Pennsylvania, where food production remained relatively unaffected by the war. There were by this time about 3,000 of Burgoyne’s officers and men in custody. Joseph Reed, President of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council, objected to the number of prisoners being brought into his state. In response to his objection, the Board of War asserted that Congress would not change its decision and that Pennsylvania must begin looking for a suitable site to house these prisoners. At the same time, Governor Thomas Lee of Maryland wrote to President Reed to inform him that Governor Thomas Jefferson of Virginia had told him that British captured at Cowpens, South Carolina were also on their way to Pennsylvania, and British prisoners at the town of Frederick, 800 in number, were being relocated to York as well.
Although President Reed again protested, arguing against Pennsylvania becoming the main location for British prisoners, Congress would not budge. The British prisoners began to reach Lancaster in early June 1781, and were quartered at and near the Lancaster Barracks. On June 30, 1781, President Reed was instructed to separate the men and move the Hessian troops to Reading and the British to a camp near York.
The narrative above is an excerpt from the recently revised longer piece on the Friends of Camp Security website. Information on the upcoming 2016 archaeological dig can also be found on the website and the Friends of Camp Security Facebook page.