So Slender, Beautiful, and Strong. Saratoga, NY. October 1777.

On October 17, 1777, the British army under General John Burgoyne surrendered to the American army under General Horatio Gates at Saratoga. Burgoyne’s army included around 5,900 British and German soldiers who became prisoners of war. Henceforth, they would be known as the Convention Army. To the German corps belonged 1,800 Braunschweigers and 600 men from Hessen-Hanau. A provisional return compiled several weeks later gave the number of women with Burgoyne’s army as 297; of those, 82 were German. The number of children was not recorded.

At 10:30 in the morning of October 17, under the command of their own officers, the men proceeded to the designated place where they would lay down their weapons. The British left the entrenchments first, followed by the Germans. The men then marched down the road that was lined on both sides by American soldiers. It was a highly ritualized process, marking the transition of the defeated enemy from armed soldiers to unarmed captives. Several German officers described the experience in journals and correspondence. All were impressed by the Americans’ discipline and order. They had expected to see an unorganized band of rebels.

Daniel Chodowiecki, Die Americaner machen das Corps des General Bourgoyne zu Gesangnen, bey Saratoga. am 16ten Octobr 177 [1783], Library Company of Philadelphia. Accessed at

The letter included with this post includes an unusually detailed description of the Americans at the surrender. It also represents the kind of entertaining commentary and candid observations that shows up regularly in personal correspondence by German soldiers. Although the author (possibly Heinrich Urban Cleve) is writing this letter as a prisoner of war and after a major military defeat, he has not lost his sense of humor.  

First, he is amazed by the physical beauty of the American men. He is especially impressed by their height. He jokingly warns the recipient of the letter not to share his gushing description of American men with German women since it might get him into trouble with German men. Second, the author describes the Americans’ uniforms – or lack thereof. Finally, he dedicates a section to the perukes, or powdered wigs, that were worn by some of the men, including chaplains. The popularity of wigs had actually declined by the time of the American Revolution, and most men who in earlier times would have worn one, such as officers and gentlemen, now wore their natural hair that they powdered white. Enlisted men never wore wigs; rather, they plaited or braided their hair into a pigtail (or queue) tied with a ribbon (supply orders for German troops in America often include large quantities of ribbon intended for this purpose). However, this letter suggests that wigs did not remain an unusual sight. Moreover, they seemed to have retained their significance as a status symbol. The author is clearly amused by what he describes as their ridiculous and pompous appearance – some wearers looked as though they kept a ram under their hat!

A few clarifications regarding the text:

The letter refers to Captain Conrad Anton Ahlers of the Regiment von Rhetz. He was present at the surrender. In addition, the author directly addresses “brother Bethgen,” presumably the recipient of the letter. I have not been able to identify this person. Finally, the author mentions that he will share more about the Americans’ appearance when he gets to “Kenderhone.” He probably means Kinderhook, located roughly twenty miles south of Albany, NY. The German members of the Convention Army passed through the town on their way to Massachusetts (October 22-23).

The author uses the German unit of length Zoll in his description of the American soldiers’ height. One Zoll roughly equals one inch. In this case, the author specifies that he is using the Prussian standard for Zoll. In 1781, one Prussian Zoll equalled 26.15 mm, which is a little less than one inch (25.4 mm). References to height generally only give the number of Zoll above five feet, which is the assumed minimum height of the person. For example, a soldier whose height is given as 6 Zoll is approximatly 5 feet 6 inches tall (c. 168 cm).

Folio (page) numbers are included in brackets.


We passed the enemy camp, out of which all regiments as well as the artillery had moved and stood under arms. Not one of them was properly attired. Rather, every one of them was wearing the clothing that he wears when he is going to work in the field, to church, or to a tavern. However, they were standing like soldiers, upright, and with a military demeanor that could hardly be faulted. All muskets were equipped with bayonets and the riflemen had rifles. The men were standing so quietly that we were very surprised. Not one fellow made any sign of talking to his neighbor. Furthermore, [38] Mother Nature had made all of the men that were standing in rank and file so slender, beautiful, and strong that it was a pleasure to look at them, and we were all amazed to see such a beautiful people. Regarding the height, dear brother Bethgen! – on the whole the men are on average 6 to 7 Zoll in Prussian measurements, and I am not lying when I say that it was more common to see men that were 8 to 10 Zoll tall than men that were 5 Zoll tall. Men that were even taller were in all companies. This should be confirmed by Captain Ahlers, who complained that he was not allowed to recruit from among these people. To be honest, it is true that British America surpasses most nations in Europe in regards to the growth and beauty of the people. Halt! the time has not yet come to talk about this. However, when I come to Kenderhone [Kinderhook] I will talk about it. As a sign of friendship toward me, you must [39] promise me right now with your word of honor that you will check my description thoroughly to determine whether you may read it to a lady without me having to worry about getting into trouble with my dear countrymen because of it. If this is the case, please show me mercy and immediately pour an inkwell over the entire page. In retaliation, you shall very soon read a chapter about perukes [powdered wigs].

Very few of the officers of the regiments in General Gates’ camp wore uniforms, and the ones that did wear them wore something of their own invention. Cloth of any color is used for this; e.g. brown coats with ocean grey facings, white lining and silver dragons [epaulettes or shoulder knots?]; there were also many grey coats with straw-colored facings and yellow buttons. […] The grenadiers and generals have [40] special uniforms and ribbons, which they wear like ribbons for orders over their waistcoats and by which one can recognize their rank. In contrast, most of the senior and other officers were wearing their regular clothing. They were holding their musket with three bayonets in the hand, and their cartridge pouch or powder horn was slung around their back. Their left hand was on their hip, and they put their right foot a little forward. Look there! Men with bright white wigs with two extremely long and wide sideburns and thick lamb tails on the back. Look there! glittery black abbot [?] wigs that emphasize especially red and copper faces. But also see there the grey and white English ministers, whose horse and goat hair has been teased into a dangerously large and mountainous bulge. One would think that such a man has an entire ram under his hat that is hanging around his neck. One has a great esteem [41] for these wigs, not only because they are highly venerable and highly learned, but since they are worn by almost all gentlemen of the committees, they have also taken on the status of the highly wise. I am calling them highly stubborn, because I once had a quarrel with such a wig and as a result will guard against it in the future.

James Peale, Horatio Gates (1782), National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; partial gift of Mr. Lawrence A. Fleischman. Accessed at


Wir passirten das feindl. Lager, in welchen alle Rgtr. danebst der Artillerie ausgerückt waren und unter dem Gewehr standen. Nicht einer davon war ordentlich montiert, sondern ein jeder hatte das Kleid an, in welchen er ins Feld, in die Kirche oder in den Krug gehet. Sie standen aber wie Soldaten, wohl gerichtet, und mit einem militairischen Anstande, an den wenig auszusetzen war. Alle Gewehre waren mit Bajonets versehen und die Riffelmänner hatten Büchsen. Die Leute standen so still, dass uns solches in äusserste Verwunderung setzte. Nicht ein Kerl machte eine Mine mit seinem Nebenmann zu reden. Nochmehr, alle [38] Kehrls, die in Reihe und Glieder standen hatten die liebe Mutter Natur so schlanck, schen und nerwigt erschaffen, dass es eine Lust war, sie anzusehen, und dass wir uns alle verwunderten, ein so schön erschaffenes Volck zu sehen. In Ansehung der Grösse, liebster Bruder Bethgen! Kerls so im durchschnitte der Ganzen von 6 – 7 Zoll nach Preussischen Maasse und ich lüge nicht, dass man weit eher 8 – 10 zöllige Kerls sehe, wie einen 5 zölligen. Leute von noch grössern Wuchs waren in allen Compagnien. Dieses soll einmal der Capt. Ahlers bestättigen, der sich härmte, keine Recruten aus diesem Volcke anwerben zu dürfen. Ganz ehrbar gesprochen, so ist es wahr, dass das engl. America in Ansehung des Wuchses und Schönheit der Menschen, die meisten Staaten von Europa übertrifft. Halt! es ist noch nicht die Zeit erschienen, davon zu reden: allein wenn ich nach Kenderhone [Kinderhook] komme, so rede ich davon. Aus Freundschaft gegen mich müsst ihr [39] mir aber aldann jetzt gleich versprechen und dieses mit aller Parole d’Honneur, dass ihr meine Beschreibung erst genau prüfet, ob ihr solche einer Dame vorlesen dürfet, ohne dass ich Händel mit meinen lieben Landsmänners deswegen dermaleins zu befürchten haben dürfte. Ist ersteres, so erzeige mir von Euch die Barmherzigkeit, sogleich ein Dintenfass über die ganze Seite zu Giessen. Zur Vergeltung solt Ihr sehr bald ein Capit von Peruquen lesen.

Die Off. der Rgter im Lager des Gen Gates trugen sehr wenig Uniformen, und sie, so sie etwa trugen, waren von ihrer eigenen Erfindung. Alle Couleuren von Tüchern schicken sich darzu E.g. braune Röcke mit seegrauen Aufschlägen, weissen Unterfutter und silbern Dragons, auch graue Röcke mit paille Aufschlägen und gelben Knöpfen sah man genug. […] Die Grenadiers und Generals haben [40] besondre Uniform und Bänder, die sie wie Ordens-Bänder um die Westen tragen und woran man ihren Rang kennen kan. Die meisten Ober und andere Off waren daggegen in ihren gewöhnlichen Kleidungen. Ihr Gewehr mit drey Bajonette hatten sie in der Hand, und ihre Patronen-Taschen oder ihr Puver-Horn um den Rücken hängen. Ihre linke Hand setzten sie in die Seite, und den rechten Fuss setzten sie etwas vorwärts. Sehen Sie da! Männer mit schlessweissen Peruquen mit 2 gewaltig langen und breiten Seitenhaaren und dicken Lammmerschwänzen auf dem Rucken. Sehen Sie da! glietzerschwarze Abbe. Peruquen, die besonders rothe und kupfrige Gesichter sehr Releviren. Aber sehen Sie auch da die grauen oder weissen engl. Pastoren, deren Pferde und Ziegen-Haar in einen gefährlich grossen und bergenstehended Wülsten auf touppiert ist. Mann glaubt, ein solcher Mann hätte hinten einen ganzen Hammel unter seinem Hut berestiget, der ihm um den Hals hinge. Man hat eine grosse Reve- [41] renz für diese Perücken, nicht allein weil sie hochehrwürdig und hochgelehret sind, sondern weil sie fast von allen Herren der Committee getragen werden und also auch den Gradum der Hochweisen angenommen haben. Ich nenne sie hocheigensinnige, den mit solcher Perücke habe ich einmal Händel gehabt und werde mich dafür in der Folge hüten.

Featured Image: John Trumbull, Surrender of General Burgoyne (1822), accessed at

Citation: Briefe eines Braunschweigers über den Krieg und die Zustände in Amerika während des Krieges 1777…, in “Braunschweigische Truppen im amerikanischen Freiheitskriege, Briefe, Berichte, Nachrichten,” Braunschweig City Archives, H VI 06 – H VI 6: 24, fols. 37 – 41.

For a shorter but similar description of the Americans at the surrender at Saratoga, see The Specht Journal: A Military Journal of the Burgoyne Campaign, trans. Helga Doblin, ed. Mary C. Lynn (New York, 1995), p. 101. This journal was written not by Colonel Johann Friedrich Specht, but  by a Braunschweig officer with the Specht Regiment. The author was possibly Colonel Specht’s adjutant Lieutenant Anton Adolph Heinrich Du Roi, brother of Lieutenant August Wilhelm Du Roi, the elder (p. xvii). While the entry in this journal refers to the Americans’ discipline and uniforms (with some variations to the information given in the letter, such as “ocean green” instead of “ocean grey” facings), it does not include any references to their physical beauty or descriptions of their wigs.