America’s first POW camps

Tracing an ancestor in America’s first prisoner of war camps

Reader Fran Jackson is looking for any information or legal documents that might exist about a sixth great grandfather who served time and was later released and settled in Albemarle County, Virginia.

His crime?

Fighting on the losing side in the Revolutionary War.

The answer may not be quite what Fran is hoping for… but at least this time nobody can blame the Yankees for burning these court records!

In June of 1777, a massive British force under the command of General John Burgoyne set out from Canada, aiming to control all of upstate New York and isolate American forces in New England. When he began, Burgoyne had a force of more than 7,000 combined British, Hessian and Native American troops — larger than any force in the field from the American side. But a series of setbacks allowed the Americans to pour forces into the area, and led to Burgoyne’s troops being trapped and surrounded near Saratoga, New York, by an American army more than twice the size under the command of General Horatio Gates. By October of 1777, it was clear that the British position was untenable.1

Burgoyne Surrender, 1777

Faced with no real choice, Burgoyne chose to negotiate with Gates, and he managed to eke out what should have been a really good deal for his outnumbered troops. He got Gates to agree to a “treaty of convention” rather than an unconditional surrender. Under the terms of the treaty, his men would be marched to Boston and put on ships for England in return for their promise never to take up arms or return to America again. On 6 October 1777, Burgoyne led nearly 6,000 troops out to what he thought would be a short captivity before their return to England.2

It didn’t work out that way. The first thing that happened was a fellow by the name of George Washington practically had kittens. He knew perfectly well that shipping those troops back to England would simply result in having other troops shipped back into the fight, maybe even on the same ships. So, he wrote, it was “not our interest to expedite the passage of the prisoners to England. … (P)olicy and a regard to our own Interest, are strongly opposed to our adopting or pursuing any measures to facilitate their embarkation and passage Home.”3

The Continental Congress wasn’t any happier about the deal. They started out with a demand that every last man in the British force be particularly described (to prevent them from coming back to the fight as soon as they reached England). To say that annoyed the British is an understatement. Burgoyne and his officers objected to the taking of descriptive lists “and would not use their authority to pass the army before the note-takers and personal-description-makers of congress … after some demur, the natural effect of proud and honourable feeling, Burgoyne waived the objection, and his army was described, man by man, with all the minuteness of a French commissary of police, or of a framer of passports in the most rigid and suspicious of despotisms.”4

In the fight over whether the British would allow the descriptive lists, the Continental Congress scrapped the whole deal.5 And what that meant for the men captured at Saratoga was a long and arduous captivity in New England, Virginia and Pennsylvania in what were among the very first prisoner of war camps ever built on American soil.

Fran’s sixth great grandfather was among those men, called the “Convention Army,” captured at Saratoga and imprisoned for years. He was likely held at first in camps near Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the Convention Army spent roughly the first year of their captivity.6 In the winter of 1778, however, the prisoners were moved — 700 miles from Massachusetts to new facilities just outside of Charlottesville, in Albemarle County, Virginia.7

The Convention Army arrived at their prison camp in Albemarle County in January 1779, and the troops were held there until British forces under Lord Charles Cornwallis threatened to overcome American forces in Virginia in 1781. The men were then moved to camps in Maryland and Pennsylvania, with the British troops ending up at Camp Security in York County, Pennsylvania. They were joined there in 1782 by other prisoners captured at Yorktown and finally released at the end of the war in 1783.8

Throughout the years of their captivity, the Continental Congress had no way to pay for food and supplies for these prisoners. Often the barracks were constructed hastily and then rebuilt and added to by the prisoners themselves, and the camps had land and supplies to grow their own food. In addition, there are tantalizing hints in some of the writings that more than a few of these prisoners were paroled out to American farmers to work on American farms, replacing the manpower taken off into American armies.9

So… what records are we looking for here, and where might they be?

Let’s start with what Fran knows. Her ancestor was imprisoned at the camp near Charlottesville, in Albemarle County, Virginia, and settled there after the war. If specific court records were ever created in Albemarle County with respect to her ancestor or other individual prisoners during the years between the prison camp’s start in 1779 and the time the men were marched out of Virginia in 1781, Fran can “thank” her ancestor’s compatriots for the fact that those records no longer exist.

In early June, 1781, a British force under the command of Col. Banastre Tarleton set out from the main body of Cornwallis’ troops, intending to strike at Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia legislature, then holed up in Charlottesville. The force stopped for the night in Louisa County, where their plans were overhead by one Jack Jouett, called the Paul Revere of Virginia,10 who snuck out of town and rode one or more horses into the ground getting the warning to Jefferson and the Virginia Assembly at Charlottesville.11

Although Jefferson and most of the Assembly members escaped Tarleton, the records of the Albemarle County Court were not so lucky: “Down in Charlottesville, the British were raiding the town, burning goods and seizing firearms. … Also, invaluable county legal records were destroyed, … burned on the Courthouse green.”12

Ouch. No records of paroles or indentures or anything else that might have been recorded in the court documents survived those bonfires.

Fortunately, most of the Albemarle County records generally and the court records after 1783 do exist at the Library of Virginia,13 and interlibrary loan of microfilm is an easy matter.14 Since Fran’s ancestor settled in the county, it’s entirely likely that he will appear in the county records that do exist — he may have taken an oath of allegiance or sought naturalization in the county court; he may have married or bought land or left a will; he would surely have paid taxes.

Even if he didn’t, and no Albemarle records can be found, Fran surely won’t let that stop her from doing the general research to put this man into his proper perspective. Even if it isn’t possible to find records about this particular person and his particular experience, it’s almost always possible to find records about people who had similar experiences in the same time and same place to help give context to an ancestor’s life.

First off, the bulk of the records on the Convention Army are most likely at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., in Record Group 360, Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention, 1765 – 1821. There are published indices to some of those records (the Papers of the Continental Congress, compiled 1774 – 1789), that a good library should have.15 In Fran’s shoes, I’d definitely be hunting for the descriptive lists made of Burgoyne’s men, if they still exist — what a joy it would be to find an ancestor’s name and description on those lists!

There are also papers of General Horatio Gates, 1760-1804, held by the Manuscripts and Archives Division at the New York Public Library.16 Among the 1.5 linear feet of holdings at the Library are Gates’ correspondence and his orderly books for the period of his engagement with Burgoyne and his troops.

Don’t overlook papers by Burgoyne. Ronald Gephart’s bibliography of works as to Revolutionary America17 should also be in a nearby good library and lists a handful of diaries and orderly books that might be useful, including Burgoyne’s orderly book, edited by E. B. O’Callaghan in 1860 as part of the New York State Archives Documents series.

What a fun question… We want to know what you find, Fran!


SOURCES

  1. New World Encyclopedia contributors, “Battle of Saratoga,” New World Encyclopedia (http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Battle_of_Saratoga?oldid=956130 : accessed 20 Feb 5 2012).
  2. Ibid. And see “Articles of Convention Between Lieutenant-General Burgoyne and Major General Gates,” October 16, 1777; Yale Law School Avalon Project (http://avalon.law.yale.edu/subject_menus/statech.asp : accessed 20 Feb 2012).
  3. Letter, George Washington to William Heath, November 13, 1777; “The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799,” American Memory Project, Library of Congress (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/gwhtml/gwhome.html : accessed 20 Feb 2012).
  4. George L. Craik and Charles MacFarlane, The Pictorial History of England During the Reign of George the Third (London : Charles Knight & Co., 1841), 348-349; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 20 Feb 2012).
  5. New World Encyclopedia, “Battle of Saratoga.”
  6. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Convention Army” rev. 8 Jan 2012.
  7. Ibid. And see also the wonderfully detailed and documented blog entries by Tim Abbott in his Walking the Berkshires blog about this amazing journey: “Documenting Burgoyne’s Convention Army on the March Through Connecticut,” Part I, posted 18 May 2011; “Documenting the Route of Prisoners from Burgoyne’s Army Between Saratoga and Boston in 1777,” Part II, posted 18 May 2011; “Escorting the Convention Army Through Connecticut in 1778,” Part III, posted 20 May 2011; and “Personal Observations from the Convention Troops on the March Through Connecticut,” Part IV, posted 22 May 2011).
  8. Friends of Camp Security, “A Revolutionary War Prison Camp 1781-1783” (http://www.campsecurity.com/index.html : accessed 20 Feb 2012).
  9. See e.g. Robert C. Doyle, “Prisoners of Independence,” The Enemy in Our Hands : America’s Treatment of Prisoners of War from the Revolution to the War on Terror (Lexington : University of Kentucky Press, 2010), 11-31.
  10. Jennie Thornley Grayson, Jack Jouett of Albemarle, the Paul Revere of Virginia (Charlottesville, Va. : DAR Jack Jouett Chapter, 1922); digital images, Internet Archive (http://www.archive.org : accessed 20 Feb 2012).
  11. John Maass, “To Disturb the Assembly: Tarleton’s Charlottesville Raid and the British Invasion of Virginia, 1781,” Virginia Cavalcade, Autumn 2000; online reprint, A Student of History (http://fusilier.wordpress.com/banastre-tarleton-article-2000/ : accessed 20 Feb 2012).
  12. Stephen Meriwether Long, “British Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton and the American Revolution: Drama on the Plantations of Charlottesville,” The Meriwether Society, Inc. (http://homepages.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~meriweth/ : accessed 20 Feb 2012). And see “Burned Record Counties (VA-NOTES)”, Library of Virginia (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/ : accessed 20 Feb 2012).
  13. See generally ibid., “Albemarle County Microfilm.”
  14. See ibid., “Interlibrary Loan.”
  15. John P. Butler, compiler, Index, Papers of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, 5 vol. (Washington, D.C. : U.S. Govt. Printing Office, 1978), or ibid., reprint edition (Buffalo, N.Y. : W.S. Hein, 1982).
  16. See New York Public Library, description of Horatio Gates papers, 1760-1804 (http://www.nypl.org/archives/2265 : accessed 20 Feb 2012).
  17. Ronald Gephart, Revolutionary America, 1763-1789: A Bibliography (Washington, D.C. : General Printing Office, 1984).
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5 Responses to America’s first POW camps

  1. Douglas Anger says:

    Thank you for an interesting and informative article. Just last week I was researching some of my own Loyalist ancestors that were held as POWs during the revolution.

    I found this record from the National Archives on Fold3 that may be interesting for those with Pennsylvania Loyalist connections. It is part of the “Papers of the Continental Congress” collection, which is available and searchable for free.

    A quick search of the collection shows several records pertaining to Gen. Burgoyne and Col. Tarleton as well.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Nice find, Douglas! That set of Papers is part of Record Group 360, and well worth a careful look for anyone researching this time period.

  2. Dale Ellickson says:

    Great Article! Yet, I was left hanging by the part about “descriptive lists.” Were there any real lists made of the soldiers in the Convention Army? The footnote (No. 4) did not answer that question, and in the next paragraph of your article, you indicate that “the Continental Congress scrapped the whole deal.”

    If such a list exists, I would like to check it for the name of my 3rd g-grandfather who supposedly was a grenadier in a flank company of the 31st Regiment under Burgoyne.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Dale, I haven’t been able to determine definitively if the lists exist. But if they do, they’d most likely be in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., in Record Group 360, Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention, 1765 – 1821. There are published indices to some of those records (the Papers of the Continental Congress, compiled 1774 – 1789), that are referenced in footnote 15. If you follow up, please let us know what you find!

  3. Pingback: Robert Temple, High-Flying Tory, Brought Low in Plymouth, Mass. | New England Historical Society

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