Findings - Autumn 2005

The Baroness Eyewitness

By Anne Matthews | September 1, 2005


From a London war room, it looked so easy. Tell General Burgoyne to march from Montreal to Albany. Tell Sir William Howe to go up the Hudson and meet him. Together they would cut off New England from the other American colonies. No more rebellion.

Away went Gentleman Johnny, with his traveling wine cellar and his rented Brunswicker regiments. But Howe never showed. In the New York backwoods, that autumn of 1777, a British army fell, and a cause was saved. An excitable pharmacist named Benedict Arnold was Saratoga’s hero. But we owe the best eyewitness account to the 31-year-old wife of the German baron commanding the British troops.

Baron Friedrich Riedesel, Baroness Frederika, and their three young girls were all taken prisoner at the second battle of Saratoga, but not before mother and daughters had hidden for days in the cellar of a ruined cabin while artillery tore through the walls, and wounded British officers died all around. “I thrust my children to the floor,” she wrote in her journal, “and threw myself over them . . . as a terrifying cannonade went on . . . the horrible smell in the cellar, the weeping of the children and, even worse, my own fear kept me from ever closing my eyes.”

Once sent to live near an insurgent leader—one Thomas Jefferson of Monticello— the captive family rented the estate next to Monticello. The sight of the baroness riding astride in boots shocked some locals, but she and Mrs. Jefferson became good friends, practicing voice and pianoforte duets while their husbands talked gardening and law.

A prisoner exchange in 1780 sent the Riedesels to British-held New York. The baron, given command of Long Island, became a commuter, working on one side of the East River, living on the other. Frederika found it “a good, though rather lonely life. . . . We had a magnificent view from our house. Every evening I saw from my window New York all lighted up and the reflection in the river, since the city is built right on its bank. We heard also the beating of the drums, and, if all were quite still, even the challenges of the sentries.”

In 1783, baron and baroness went safely home to their European castle—and took along one final New World souvenir, just learning to toddle. They named her America.

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