Having spent the last couple of years focusing on United States colonial and Revolutionary history on our family vacations, I've often wondered about the fates of those on the losing sides of war. When an ARTICLE showed up on my Facebook feed a few months ago about the preservation of Camp Security, a Revolutionary era POW camp located east of the City of York, PA in Springettsbury (then Hellam) Township, I dug around online for more info about those who supported and fought for British colonial interests.
Camp Security was built in 1781 primarily to detain British troops and their families who were surrendered by General Burgoyne at Saratoga, New York.
Surrender of General Burgoyne by John Trumbull
On October 17, 1777 British General John Burgoyne surrendered his army of 5000+ according to the terms of the Convention of Saratoga, which specified that the captured troops would be sent back to Europe following a parole if they pledged not to return to the colonies to continue fighting. But the Continental Army under the command of General George Washington did not trust that these terms would be honored, and therefore stalled the prisoner release, eventually forcibly removing them to remote locales. In addition to distrust about the terms of the Convention being honored, there was perhaps also an element of retaliation for the notoriously poor treatment by the British of Continental POWs.
Thus it was that in 1779 some 3700 Convention Army prisoners, including many from Brunswick-Lüneburg under the command of Major General Riedesel, were marched 700 miles. This journey took them from Boston, through the York/Lancaster area, to Albemarle Barracks in Charlottesville VA near Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. Along the way, lore has it that some Hessians were helped to escape by German residents of the eastern Pennsylvania counties they passed through, who sympathized with countrymen pressed against their will into foreign service by their princes.
The men proceeded on foot and their wives and children in wagons. This march took over three months, and the last leg was particularly harsh since winter had set in. Upon arrival, the prisoners discovered that only half the huts has been completed, and many of those were roofless. There was no food and no infrastructure in place. The men themselves eventually cleared an area six miles in circumference, building hundreds of huts, two churches (Anglican for the British and Lutheran for the Hessians), a tavern (huzzah!), theater and billiard hall:
It was better than nothing, but no posh resort. In his journal,Lieutenant August Wilhelm Du Roi of Brunswick wrote:
Each barrack is 24 feet long, and 14 feet wide, big enough to shelter 18 men. The construction is so miserable that it surpasses all that you can imagine in Germany of a very poorly built log house. It is something like the following: Each side is put up of 8 to 9 round fir trees, which are laid one on top the other, but so far apart that it is almost possible for a man to crawl through ... The roof is made of round trees covered with split fir trees...a great number of our men preferred to camp out in the woods, where they could protect themselves better against the cold than in the barracks.
The prisoners remained in Charlottesville until October 1780. Security concerns prompted by the defection of the general in charge of their camp and the advancement of British troops through the South led to the prisoners being marched north again, this time over the Appalachian Trail. They stayed briefly at Winchester, Virginia and at Fort Frederick in Maryland (from which 40 Hessians were paroled to Fort Roberdeau in Sinking Spring Valley on the Bedford County frontier in order to mine and smelt lead for the use of the Continental Army). Congress then ordered the group to move yet again to the security of interior Pennsylvania. This entailed another brutally difficult march over rough terrain in bad weather, and many died along the way.
They were joined by British captured at Cowpens, South Carolina and eventually British and Hessian prisoners captured at Yorktown, Virginia. The president of Pennsylvania (there have been seven presidents and 46 governors of Pennsylvania to date) ordered that the prisoners be split. Most Hessian POWs were moved outside of Reading, and the British were housed at what became known as Camp Security. Outside of the stockade in which prisoners were kept (particularly those last captured from Yorktown), a second village called Camp Indulgence was built to house some non-commissioned officers, women and children.
The prisoners were lucky to be alive at this point.
I never had the least idea that creation produced such a sordid set of creatures in human figure-poor, dirty, emaciated men, great numbers of women who seemed to be but beasts of burden, having a bushel basket on their backs by which they were bent double. The contents seemed to be pots and kettles and various sorts of furniture. Children peeping through the gridirons, some very young infants who must have been born on the road, the women in bare feet, clothed in dirty rags.
At its peak, Camp Security housed 1500 individuals. It was guarded by York County militia and Continental troops until the war ended in 1783. The Camp Security website indicates that the longest-held prisoners and their families engaged in making lace, spoons, and buckles, and were even granted passes to York to sell these items to the local communities. There are also accounts that some prisoners were paroled to local farmers as indentured servants, to help with farming during what was essentially a wartime manpower shortage. A contemporary account of life at Camp Security was provided in the published wartime journal of Sergeant Roger Lamb, an Irishman who served with Burgoyne and who later escaped from Camp Security. His account indicates that with the passage of time, these troops and their families became accustomed to their lives and imprisonment, and did not try to escape:
I was astonished at the spirit of industry, which
prevailed among them. Men, women and children were employed making lace, buckles,
spoons, and exercising other mechanical trades, which they had learned during their
captivity. They had a very great liberty from the Americans and were allowed to go
round the country and sell their goods, while the soldiers of Cornwallis' army
were closely confined. I perceived that they had lost the animation, which ought to possess the breast of the
soldier. I strove by every argument to rouse them to their lethargy. I offered to head any
number of them, and make a noble effort to escape into New York and join our comrades in
arms; but all my efforts proved ineffectual.
After the struggles and forced marches of their early years of imprisonment, it seems only natural that the prisoners and their families finally felt safe and well-treated enough that they weren't willing to consider venturing forth unprotected to pursue other fates, even if it meant their freedom. They knew the war wouldn't last forever, and were content to wait things out rather than take matters into their own hands whilst living in the midst of enemy territory. Or perhaps they were simply exhausted and only the will to survive was left in them.
Meanwhile the near-by market town of Reading, Pennsylvania had a population of some 300 families of German descent. A section had been set aside there for barracks to house 400-500 men, mostly officers. But by October 1851, the area housed as many as 1050 Hessian soldiers. Laura L. Becker of Clemson University has speculated that the primarily German residents of Reading lost their earlier sympathies and were resentful of their countrymen, noting "One German officer wrote that the German-Americans of Reading "could hardly hide their anger and hostile thoughts."" Many of these former Hessian captives stayed in the area after the war ended and were referred to as "Brunswickers and Hanauers" in local church records. Becker notes that "....the expression "Du bist ein Hesse" was an insult in Reading well into the nineteenth century."
What happened to all these folks? From the Convention Army sent to Ablemarle Barracks, General Riedesel and his wife were transferred to New York. He spent a year on parole there before being exchanged for American General Benjamin Lincoln, and returned to Europe in late 1783. British commander William Phillips was also sent to Virginia with the Convention Army, and at one point during his captivity was entertained in the Monticello home of Thomas Jefferson -- quite a civilized POW experience! Jefferson described him as the proudest man of the proudest nation on earth." Phillips was also included in the exchange for Lincoln. He returned to fighting for the British but contracted typhus and died a few months before the battle at Yorktown.
As for the surviving soldiers and remaining officers, a camp epidemic raged in the winter of 1782-1783 and many were then buried on site. After the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, some former prisoners stayed in the United States, but others returned to their former homes abroad or moved to Canada. As noted above, many of the Hessians who were refused transport back to Germany settled in the Reading area. The land occupied by Camp Security was returned to its owner, and the encampment slowly deteriorated over time and returned to the wild. It's thought that older homes in the York area were probably built in part from harvested lumber from the site. This York home, for example, is reportedly intact from the Camp Security stockade complex:
The Camp Security site is one of, if not the last, remaining undisturbed Revolutionary War prisoner-of-war camps. In May 2012, the non-profit group The Conservation Fund announced its purchase of a 47-acre property that was the primary site of Camp Security, assuring preservation for future archeological excavation and documentation. There is much to be explored: the stockade and cemetery sites have yet to be determined on the property. And in another of those neat bits of historical connectivity that I love, a new historical marker was placed just last week in Charlottesville VA to mark the site of the Ablemarle Barracks.
It is good to know that the struggles of these prisoners will not pass unheeded into history. We may never know their individual stories, but the findings from exploration at Camp Security should yield fascinating information about their daily lives. That info would have been lost had a housing sub-division been built on the land.
Selected bibliography and further reading:
Chase, Philander (1983). "Years of Hardships and Revelations: The Convention Army at the Albamarle Barracks, 1779-1781". The Magazine of Albemarle County History (Charlottesville, VA).
du Roi, August Wilhelm. Journal of Du Roi the Elder: Lieutenant and Adjutant, in the Service of the Duke of Brunswick, 1776-1778.