By Joe Craig, Park Ranger
When General Burgoyne’s army capitulated its roster included four titled nobles, perhaps a half dozen members of Parliament (including General Burgoyne) and one former member of the Continental Congress: John Peters.
Peters in 1774 had been appointed from his district in what is now Vermont to be part of the First Continental Congress that met in Philadelphia in 1774. This gathering of worthies took place before actual hostilities, and as a result probably had a greater variety of political leanings than did the Second Continental Congress, which would declare America’s Independence.
There was no doubt or wavering on Peters’ part early on he noted that the “teachers, bankrupts, dissenting teachers and smugglers meant to have a serious rebellion and a civil and religious separation from the mother country.” He would have none of that, and refused the oath of secrecy required of all the delegates. Peters was shown the door without having done much with that assembly.
For Peters, the price of his loyalty was steep. On his way to and from Philadelphia, he was mobbed for his loyalist leanings. On his return home to Vermont, he received similar treatment and the constant harassment and plundering cost him “most of my moveable effects”.
All the while hoping to escape from the “madness of the people”, Peters found himself coerced to accompany the American invasion of Canada. He managed to make his way to the British forces, and in 1777 formed the Queen’s Loyal Rangers. His unit would see action throughout the Burgoyne campaign, and Peters would be in the midst of it.
His account of the Battle of Bennington shows a seldom noted aspect of the Revolutionary War: the bitter civil conflict among neighbors and relatives:
“A little before the Royalists gave way, the rebels pushed with a strong party on the front of the Loyalists which I commanded; as they were coming up, I observed a man fire at me, which I returned. He loaded again as he came up, and discharged at me again, crying out: ‘Peters, you damned Tory I have got you!’ He rushed on with his bayonet which entered just below my left breast, but was turned by the bone. By this time I was loaded and I saw it was a rebel captain, Jeremiah Post by name, an old playmate and school-fellow, and a cousin of my wife. Though his bayonet was in my body I felt regret to destroy him….”
Owing to this sort of war, it is not surprising that Peters and other Loyalists decided to make their escape before the surrender “knowing how impossible it was that any capitulation [agreement] could provide for my security…” Their breakout brought them to Fort Ticonderoga, and eventually Canada.
It is impossible to say what might have transpired had Peters remained with the army through Burgoyne’s capitulation. Perhaps as with the other Loyalists he might have been allowed to return to Canada. However, considering his treatment before the conflict started and having been part of the First Continental Congress Peters might have suffered severe reprisals as a “damned Tory”.