York Town Square

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Camp Security combines history, beauty

Earlier this year on a sunny Saturday, I visited a spot offering a view of the fields and ridge where Camp Security once operated.
The site of York County’s American Revolution camp is a wonderful piece of land, and the nearby 1730s Schultz house just adds to this prize. No wonder the Springettsbury Township property is a point of contention between preservationists and a developer.
Last year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation identified the camp as one of the nation’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. The controversy between a developer targeting McMansions on the site and local preservationists is on low simmer.
The nut of the Camp Security story:
Some prisoners from an encampment in Charlottesville, Va., moved to Camp Security in 1781 when Gen. Charles Cornwallis’ redcoats moved northward into Virginia. The Continental Army was concerned that the British would detach a unit to free the prisoners, many of whom had surrendered about four years earlier at Saratoga, N.Y. About 2,000 mostly British prisoners were housed there from 1781 to 1783. German mercenaries — Hessians — were largely assigned to farms around York County.
Here’s a tale of the camp excerpted from “Nine Months in York Town, American Revolutionaries Labor on Pennsylvania’s Frontier:”

Some 5,000 British, German and Canadian soldiers captured at Saratoga, N.Y., trudged southward from New England toward their destination in Charlottesville, Va.
It was the dead of winter, December 1778.
American Revolutionary War forces were moving the Convention Army — troops defeated at the pivotal Battle of Saratoga — south to avoid British rescue attempts and to move closer to provisions.
They passed through Lancaster, preparing to walk a route through York Town and McAllister’s Town — later York and Hanover, respectively — to the Shenandoah Valley and then to Charlottesville.
The Susquehanna loomed, with its swift current and rocks protruding just above the surface.
One flat-bottomed boat, carrying officers and soldiers, almost capsized after hitting a jutting rock. But they crossed successfully, and the troops covered the 10 or so miles to York — a town that impressed captive soldier Thomas Anburey.
“. . . (I)t is not so large as Lancaster, but much pleasanter, being situated on Codorow-creek, a pretty stream which falls into the Sequehannah . . .,” he wrote in his journal.
Anburey arrived in town in late afternoon and prepared to march to McAllister’s Town early the next morning. He found time to record a few observations:
“. . . (B)ut in walking about, I saw the Court-house and a few churches, which are very neat brick buildings, and I remarked the houses were much better built, and with more regularity than at Lancaster; of the two, though York is considerably less than the other, I should give it the preference for a place of residence.”
Another Convention Army prisoner, Lt. DuRoi, wrote about York Town in less glowing terms.
The prisoners camped in the woods in snowy, frozen conditions because none in this land of German-speakers would take in their countrymen.
“It really does credit to the character of the Germans,” DuRoi wrote, “that our countrymen were the only ones who treated us mean and tried . . . to get something out of us and to cheat us. They were also rude.”
Still, many Hessians — German troops fighting for the British — liked York County and other German-speaking parts of Pennsylvania.
Scores of Convention Army soldiers deserted along the long route, particularly the Hessians, who felt they could make their way among the Pennsylvania Dutch. The long trudge south was embarrassing for soldiers and officers, as part of a surrendered army.
Some deserters found their way to York Town.
Hessians were viewed with distaste by York Town residents because these mercenaries were paid to fight for the despised British. As more and more German deserters settled in York County, they became accepted and provided needed laborers. Local families often discovered distant relatives among the prisoners.
“Some of them attended our services,” York’s Moravian pastor George Neisser wrote, “and were attentive and earnest.”
That spring, Continental Army Gen. Anthony Wayne led his 1,000-man Pennsylvania Line south to join Marquis de Lafayette, who was trying to head off soldiers dressed in red and moving into Virginia under Charles Cornwallis.
American forces feared that Cornwallis would send a unit to free the prisoners, detained in Charlottesville.
This prompted Joseph Reed, president of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council, to write to William Scott, lieutenant of York County:
“. . . It is the advice of the Council that you mark out some suitable place, well wooded and watered, for their accommodation, where they may build huts, which are to be picketed . . .”
After scouting the terrain around York, Scott found a spot about 4 1/2 miles east of the town.
The officer in charge of the prisoners agreed with the location for them, Camp Security.
By early August 1781, Col. Wood wrote Reed that British prisoners from Saratoga had been settled on “good Ground . . . between York and Susquehanna, so as to be Very Convenient to throw them across the river on any Emergency.”
Some Pennsylvania members of the York County militia stood guard, while others in their unit and prisoners constructed a stockade and huts within its walls.
Workers drove 15-foot wooden posts, sharpened on both ends, into the ground.
Within these confines, some 600 to 900 prisoners, wives, children and camp women braced for the winter.
The relocation of prisoners to Camp Security proved to be unnecessary.
Cornwallis surrendered his army — the primary British fighting units in America — to Continental Army forces at Yorktown, Va., on Oct. 17, 1781.
News of the surrender reached York Town, Pa., several days later.
Townspeople built a large bonfire, highlighting a celebration remembered decades later.
For York County, the Continental Army’s victory also meant more prisoners of war for Camp Security.
Even before the surrender, about 40 men, women and children died in captivity at Camp Security in a span of five weeks in the summer of 1781.
British surgeon’s mate Benjamin Shield heard of the deaths in Lancaster and hurried across the Susquehanna to lend a hand.
Entering the stockade, he found work had started on a hospital, but the prisoners had fallen ill with camp fever and other ailments in such numbers that all available workers were called to tend to the sick.
Shield organized two other medical men to efficiently treat the ill. One took the names of the infirmed and prescribed the medicine, the second dispensed the medicine and the third carried the prisoners for treatment.
The men, working all day, treated all the sick.
Shield found that some survivors of fever lived in dread of relapse.
One man was said to be so distracted and delirious that he cut off the head of his own child with an ax.
The men were without shirts and blankets, fearing the onset of winter.
“. . . I thought it a duty incumbent on me to make known to you their sufferings, and represent their distresses,” Shield wrote to British Gen. James Hamilton.
He added that a type of tree bark used to treat camp fever and malarial fits was in demand:
“(H)ere the Bark is very scarce, dear and Bad.”
A Camp Security prisoner, one Sgt. Lamb, lived outside the stockade in the village.
He planned his escape but could find no one among his comrades in “Camp Lethargy” to join him. He sent word within the guarded compound of his plan. Seven prisoners responded that they would join him.
On the appointed night, the prisoners scaled the stockade wall, joined Lamb and set off toward the Susquehanna River. The group initially found the ice too thin to walk across the mile-wide river.
While waiting through the night for the river to refreeze, the group met up with a British deserter, who was familiar with the area.
Finding the deserter reluctant to lead the group to the safety of the British army in New York, they set to work to entice him.
“After much entreaty, and supplying him with repeated drams of peach whiskey,” Lamb wrote, “he at last consented to guide us through Pennsylvania and the Jerseys . . .”
At daylight the next morning, the group braved the thin and broken Susquehanna ice.
“. . . (T)he love of liberty had such a powerful effect, that we ventured with firmest resolution,” he wrote, “although the ice cracked under our feet every step we took, while we marched in Indian file.”
The group safely reached the other side, regrouped and eventually found its way to New York.
York Town again was aglow two years later.
By April 1783, news of peace with England had crossed the Atlantic and the Susquehanna. Benjamin Franklin, John Jay and John Adams had signed the Paris Peace Treaty in the Hotel York in Paris.
In York Town, cannons fired. Houses glowed with candles. A huge bonfire roared.
Euphoria overrode concerns about the wicked influence British officers, connected with Camp Security, had on the town. By now, the redcoats had developed a reputation for insolence, boorish behavior and attempts to corrupt the morals of York Town’s 1,700 residents.
“But notwithstanding all this rejoicing,” George Neisser wrote in his diary, “every thing passed off decently and in order.”
The presence of Camp Security meant American troops remained in and around York Town after the establishment of peace with Britain.
Frenchman Charles Armand’s legion was one such fighting unit.
York Town’s leaders, by now savvy to the misconduct of many visitors to their town, issued a letter to Armand, as his legion was disbanding.
“We return to you our hearty thanks, as well for the service rendered to America in the field, as for the attention you have paid to the property and civil rights of the people,” they wrote.
Armand, also known as the Marquis De La Rouerie, replied:
“I think it is my duty to thank you for the good behavior of the legion whilst amongst you, for it was encouraged and supported by your conduct towards them.”