8 Fast Facts About Hessians

vonboferegiment

By the start of the American Revolution, the British military was spread thinly across their global empire. Despite having tens of thousands of troops in America throughout the war, it was still necessary to supplement their numbers by hiring foreign troops. By 1776 thousands of soldiers from Hesse-Cassel were pouring into New York. They served the big names like Charles, Earl Cornwallis, Sir William Howe, and even Benedict Arnold. Despite their good reputation among their contemporaries, these soldiers are largely forgotten. Today the majority of Americans only know about Hessians because of the popular TV show Sleepy Hollow based on Washington Irving’s famous book. Of course, this is not a fitting legacy for these well trained soldiers who fought, died, and were a part of the American experience. They were from the culturally and religiously diverse regions of what is now southwest Germany. Research into these soldiers contracted to fight in the war gives us an enlightening history that shows just how global a war the American Revolution really was. Here are a few important facts about the Hessians who served in America:

1. They weren’t that kind of mercenary

Today we consider mercenaries individuals who voluntarily get involved with a conflict for their own personal profit. However, the German soldiers who came to fight were established soldiers in their national armies who were required by their country to serve; the Landgrave (Prince) of Hesse-Cassel himself pocketed the money.[1] This was a widely unpopular move. American Patriots and sympathizers in Europe quickly turned this against the British government. Propaganda like the famous Sale of the Hessians, possibly authored by Benjamin Franklin,followed the defeat at Trenton, attacking the use of these soldiers as being cruel to the Germans who had no stake in the war. It also portrayed the Hessian military leaders and Landgrave as cruel and uncaring about their own people in addition to representing King George as hiring men to slaughter his own people.[2]

2. Hessians had long been the go-to subsidy allies of the British[3]

Landgrave Fredrick II of Hesse-Cassel was the son in law of King George II, giving him a valuable family tie to the Hanovers.[4] The Landgrave’s ancestors had been involved in every major conflict Great Britain found itself in with its roots going back to the Nine Years War (1688-97).[5] It is also worth noting that the British brought in soldiers from other parts of the Holy Roman Empire as well, those being the principalities of Brunswick, Anspach-Bayreuth, Waldeck, and Anhalt-Zerbst, as well as Hesse-Hanau.[6] However, because of the Landgrave’s peacetime buildup of troops, political ties, and reputation, Hesse-Cassel was the main source of troops, hence the colonists donning them with the broad nickname ‘Hessians.’

3. Hesse-Cassel was Europe’s most militarized state

That includes Prussia, the military giant to the north. Men were trained from adolescence and continued their training well through adulthood until they were deemed unfit or too old to serve.[7] Much like America’s National Guard, they would take a few weeks out of every summer to drill. The Landgrave was so enthralled with this way of life he drilled soldiers himself every day no matter the weather, and added his own ideas to a system that copied the famous Prussian military. Two centuries of warfare had created a true military society. Most politicians, including high ranking nobles such as the Prince, had either served themselves or had sons who were officers that bolstered their families’ positions. Unique among European armies, , even commoners could become officers through merit.[8]

4. A number of ‘Hessians’ were not even from Hesse

Though the men who were first sent to America served willingly, the burden of honoring an agreement to keep a minimum of 12,000 troops in America caused the Landgrave to look elsewhere for soldiers. This included unfortunate travelers, criminals, and other ‘undesirables’ that Fredrick’s fellow princes were eager to be rid of. Others enlisted willingly; the enlistment incentives and a free ride to America made the dangers worthwhile to many. Those already in the army who opted to desert rather than go to America did so out of fear of being separated from their families or dying during the crossing.[9]

5. Hessians were a part of every major battle

"Darmstaedter Handschrift," 1785, Georg Ortenburg, Hessisches Militaer.

“Darmstaedter Handschrift,” 1785, Georg Ortenburg, Hessisches Militaer.

German soldiers, whether from Hesse or other German states, would see action from the city of Quebec to the wilderness of Florida. The majority landed in New York in the summer of 1776. There they fought in the battles over Fort Lee and Fort Washington, and were made infamous to militiamen after the Battle of White Plains. Hessians pushed General Washington to the shores of the Delaware and looted and destroyed many of the beautiful homes that dotted New Jersey. Finally, these men were with Lord Cornwallis as he pushed from Charleston to Guildford and up to Yorktown. These campaigns were led in part by excellently trained German officers such as Captain Johann Ewald, chosen by Cornwallis personally to plan strategy. The loss of Colonel Rall and 918 Hessians at Trenton and later hundreds more at Bennington and Saratoga were major defeats for the British during the war.[10] Without these Germans who intimidated the colonists and operated effectively on the field, the Revolution would have been dramatically different.

6. Many of the Hessians opted to stay in America

Opportunities in America impressed these soldiers so much that thousands of them opted not to return to their native country. Johann Döhla, an enlisted man who kept a journal about his experiences, wrote upon seeing New York for the first time that, “The American land is good and incomparable land…It is rich and fruitful, well cultivated, and with much grain, especially a great deal of Indian corn; and it has many and beautiful forests of both soft and hardwood trees unknown to us.”[11] He went on to write about the diversity of religion in America and wanted to explore the many ways of life in the colonies much like his comrades. This is an attitude reflected in many journals, diaries, and letters that remain. Ultimately Hesse sent 19,000 of their sons to America.[12] Between casualties rates and the sheer number of deserters little over half returned home.

7. As the war went on, some of these men began to side with the Americans

In a country with strong political ties to England many soldiers were sympathetic to King George III. One stated in a letter, “Everyone at home who thinks they had good cause for rebellion ought in punishment to spend some time among them and learn how things are here…not necessity but wickedness and pleasure was the cause of the rebellion.”[13] However, others were swayed to the American side either by bribery or their experiences fighting with the British. Pamphlets were snuck into camps offering freedom and land to anyone willing to desert and sign up with the American troops. By the wars end Congress offered soldiers farm land, two pigs, and a cow to Hessian deserters along with citizenship,[14] a much brighter future than the one those that returned would have had. Ewald himself returned to Hesse in spite of having frequently criticized British command in his journal. Nearing the war’s end, his attitudes began to change how he saw the war and his duty to the British. In one bold statement after describing Benedict Arnold turning traitor he wrote, “America must be free and André must be hanged!”[15]

8. The American Revolution was the downfall of Hesse-Cassel as a mercenary state

At the start of the war sending men to America was very convenient for the overpopulated German duchies. As the war went on and casualty rates went up, valuable tradesmen, farmers, and other workers were eventually the ones sent to America. The country began to suffer, and the industries that were originally benefiting from the war began to fail. Eventually the debt of maintaining the long supply lines between America and the duchy became too much. It had been expected that thousands of men would be sent from the countryside to supplement loses. However, the unprecedented length of the war had caught the British and the Hessian governments by surprise.[16] Overwhelming losses to desertion and death, and the treatment of prisoners, horrified the people of Hesse. Worse yet, they ended up on the losing side! Political powers both British and German turned against the age old practice of hiring out troops. After the American war, the Hessians would never be seen fighting as mercenaries again. “We had flattered ourselves with the best reception, were deceived in our expectations in our most undeserved way…We bent our proud backs under everything, because it could not be otherwise.”[17] The Revolution had seen an estimated loss of 5,000 casualties and 3,000 desertions.[18] [FEATURED IMAGE AT TOP: "Vonboferegiment." Source: Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library]

 


[1] The title Landgrave was equivalent to Duke; the Landgrave of Hesse was the sovereign of that region.

[2] Benjamin Franklin, “The Sale of the Hessians,” (1777).

[3] When a government such as the British parliament allows a certain sum of money to be used to buy foreign soldiers they can be referred to commonly as mercenaries or subsidy allies. There is some argument as to what name is the best one to be used to describe Germans hired to fight in the war. For the sake of simplicity however, the term mercenary will be used.

[4] Charles Ingrao, The Hessian Mercenary State, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 2.

[5] Peter K. Taylor, Indentured to Liberty, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), 5.

[6] Johann Ewald, Diary of the American War, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979), xix.

[7] Ewald, Diary of the American War, 129. It’s worthwhile to note that Johann Ewald’s Diary of the American War mentions a man of fifty reenlisting in Hesse. He had earned experience serving in the Seven Years War as an officer but deserted. Despite this he was sent to serve in the American War.

[8] Ingrao, The Hessian Mercenary State, 129-132.

[9] Ingrao, The Hessian Mercenary State, 140-144.

[10] Theodore Savas, J. David Dameron, A Guide to the Battles of the American Revolution (New York: Savas Beatie, 2006),87.

[11] Johann Döhla, A Hessian Diary of the American Revolution, (Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1913), 23.

[12] Taylor, Indentured to Liberty, x.

[13] Ray W. Pettengill, Letters From America (Saratoga, NY: published by the author, 1924), 166.

[14] Ingrao, The Hessian Mercenary State, 160.

[15] Ewald, A Hessian Diary of the American Revolution, 249-250. Major JohnAndré was head of British military intelligence during the war in addition to being a former acquaintance of Ewald’s. When Benedict Arnold decided to turn traitor in 1780 he met with the general the night before the plan was discovered. Because André was wearing civilian clothing instead of a military uniform when he was captured by American soldiers he was hanged as a spy instead of being given a military trial.

[16] Ingrao, The Hessian Mercenary State, 148.

[17] Ewald, Diary of the American Revolution, 361.

[18] Valentine C. Hubbs, Hessian Journals, Unpublished Documents of the American Revolution, (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 1980), 1.

Bethany Collins

Bethany Collins is an undergraduate student at Salem College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She is studying history and religion with a focus on the Revolutionary War. A member of the New River Chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution, she has always had a love for this era of American history. She looks forward to continuing to contribute to the historical community throughout her academic career and onward. She lives in Galax, Virginia.

21 Comments

  • Reply August 19, 2014

    Thomas Verenna

    Great article; a topic rarely covered and yet so interesting!

  • Reply August 19, 2014

    Michael Sheehan

    Another great journal of a Hessian who served in American and returned to live in New York and eventually get a job with the government was Johann Phillip Carl von Krafft, who changed his name to de Krafft. His journal is available on archive.org; he served at one time ( as commissions became available) in the Regiment von Bose you have pictured. Great stuff!

  • Reply August 19, 2014

    Phil

    While I agree with much of what this article says, there some things I must point out that are misconceptions.

    1. Calling the first 12,000 troops sent over as “willing” is a bit of a misnomer. Many were in the army because of compulsory service requirements. They really were simple, drafted soldiers.

    2. Fredrick II did not really “pocket the money”.. In fact, he was a good example of the best qualities of an Enlightenment era ruler. He kept his personal and the State’s money as separated as possible. Much of the British money went to repair the State’s infrastructure that was destroyed or damaged in the Seven Years War. He also used the funds to establish public schools, museums and even a fire insurance fund.

    3. Once they landed in America the level of desertions from the Hessian ranks was at or below normal levels for an 18th century army, and far below that of most American units. There is little evidence that the American bribes had any effect on the rate of desertions. This may be because while desertion was punishable by Running the Gauntlet (or even forgiven if the soldier reappeared during a declared grace day), deserting and then taking the bribe would be considered treason. Punishable by death.

    4. It should be noted that the term “Hessian” was applied to all the German Auxiliaries (over 30,000 by wars end), such as Brunswickers, no matter their State of Origin. Of this 30,000 our best guess is only around 5,000 may have deserted. Although this number certainly includes some casualties who were simply missing.

    • Reply August 20, 2014

      Bethany Collins

      Thank you for sharing! I’ll double check our facts and see if I can’t get the website updated. I only began plunging into the world of Hessians in the last year, so I appreciate any corrections that I can get.

  • Reply August 19, 2014

    John L Smith Jr

    A great article, Bethany, Congratulations! I agree, the saga of the Hessians is a subject not often covered. In my book writing, I’m using the translated diary of Johann Conrad Dohla.

    Again, enjoyable reading and writing style…and just what I would expect from a Salem College student! My daughter is a 2006 graduate of Salem College and she loved the experience.

    • Reply August 20, 2014

      Bethany Collins

      Well tell her hello from another Salem Sister! Dohla is a wonderful read, and I wish I could have incorporated him more into the article. Good luck with your book, I’m glad you’re researching such an interesting man.

  • Reply August 19, 2014

    Mike Barbieri

    Thanks for putting together some info on the German troops, Bethany. While often mentioned in discussions of the war, the vast majority of folks making those comments have done little research and know not of what they speak.

    Personally, I’m something of a student of the northern theater and relish finding material on the Germans (mostly Brunswickers) who served in that area. With a little searching, folks can find several primary source German accounts of their service. My favorite is “An Eyewitness Account of the American Revolution and New England Life: The Journal of J.F. Wasmus, German Company Surgeon, 1776-1783,” translated by Helga Doblin. Wasmus kept a very detailed account of his experiences both before and after he became a prisoner at the Bennington battle. Great read!

    • Reply August 20, 2014

      Bethany Collins

      Thank you for sharing that source with me, I hadn’t heard of it yet. There are so many prime sources written by these men about their time spent in America fighting, and yet so little attention is paid to them.

  • Reply August 19, 2014

    steven paul mark

    Very enlightening article, Bethany. I noted no mention of Frederick Riedesel who commanded all German troops at Saratoga. The story of his experiences with his wife, Frederika at his side, is a fascinating tale — a love story of sorts — especially because she wrote it. There isn’t much documentation of women during the War in general and any with the intimacy the Baroness experienced. Her diary is a great read and a vivid first-hand account.

    • Reply August 20, 2014

      Bethany Collins

      Riedesel and his wife were two amazing characters. I’ve gotten to read some of Frederika’s journal before, and honestly it’s one of my favorite reads. I remember her describing rumors that the Americans were cannibals and some fun stories of her time spent with nuns before making the crossing. I feel that the two of them deserve their own article, possibly one just for the Baroness, so I can give people a good idea of the value of the records they left behind and of their contributions to history.

  • Reply August 19, 2014

    Jason

    Very interesting article on some of the most important players in the American Revolution. They also assisted Howe at the battle of Brandywine Creek. Do not forget the battle of Long Island where the Germans were said to have bayoneted the American wounded (according to the colonists). Glad you wrote this article.

  • Reply August 19, 2014

    John Pearson

    Thank you for a very interesting article on the German mercenaries in the war. I have been reading in great detail about the Crown forces tremendous drive (although at times slow and ponderous) through New Jersey in pursuit of Washington after the disasters of Ft. Washington as well as Ft. Lee. What is very clear is that the “Hessians” behaved extraordinarily badly along with many of their British associates. This misbehavior included widespread rape, murder, looting and complete destruction of property. The Hessians were simply a brutal enforcement mechanism hired by the Crown to annihilate opposition but ultimately proved a dismal failure. Thank goodness they were badly and savagely defeated at Trenton, Bennington and Saratoga. They in fact deserved their fate.
    Thanks again.
    John Pearson

  • Reply August 20, 2014

    Charles

    That’s a highly informative and well-written article, thank you very much! Learned many details I did not know. The politico-social background to the presence of these troops is of particular value. Your outstandingly clear and enjoyable writing style greatly enhances the value of the article, as people don’t recall things they didn’t enjoy reading in the first place, no matter how well-researched the factual content may have been.

    For me, probably the most startling revelation was that the state of New Jersey was once dotted with beautiful homes and countryside. :) Great article and I look forward to your next.

  • Reply August 21, 2014

    David Brooks

    Great article and spurs the desire to research on this some more. I recall reading several years back some local anecdotal accounts of Germans that had been captured at Trenton and additionally Bennington choosing to settle into this part of the Mohawk Valley – conceivably due to the existing Palatine population. Most of the accounts I read indicated their descendants labor in the tanneries near where I grew up and the early stages of industrial America.

    However, I can’t understand the neglect of Fast Fact #9 – Hessian Troops hid in lairs… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rZMmPWTwTHc
    We know that School House Rock would not lie to children, and Washington “surprised them in their lair…”

  • Reply August 23, 2014

    John Pearson

    Charles,
    Sorry to say that there are still many, many nice homesteads with plenty of acreage left in NJ today. I know, I grew up there – right next to Jockey Hollow outside of Morristown and obviously know the area very well. Unfortunately you have a bias which is hard to overcome in view of your ignorance. Try visiting some of the best Rev. War sites in America and during your travels, maybe just maybe you will come to a different conclusion regarding the great State of New Jersey. Given your writing that may not be possible.
    Regards,
    John Pearson

    John Pearson

  • Reply August 24, 2014

    Alex Burns

    Bethany-

    Wonderful article! Dr. Daniel Krebs at the University of Louisville has just written an excellent book on point number 7, called, “A Generous and Merciful Enemy.” Glad to see that these troops are being well represented. Might I make a suggestion- as opposed to calling these soldiers “Hessians,” call them “subsidy troops.” This is what more and more German scholarship is trending towards, as exemplified by younger scholars like Dr. Krebs and Stephan Huck.

    Thanks again for a great article!

    • Reply August 24, 2014

      Bethany Collins

      Thank you for your comment! I’ll be sure to pick up the book soon. I’ve been asked several times about how people who came to the American side, or stayed in the new nation after the war fared and I felt like I couldn’t give a conclusive answer. As for your suggestion, the phrases, ‘Hessian’ and ‘mercenary’ are something many people are sensitive about when it comes to my topic. I’m always welcome to new suggestions and I agree, more people are tending towards them being subsidy troops. I thought I’d simplify it though for the masses, however. I make a quick note about this in footnote number three.

      • Reply August 25, 2014

        David Brooks

        How would the concept of “subsidy” troops transfer to the understanding of today for most people? I think in the age of larger alliance organizations such as NATO and the UN it may be difficult for the “masses” to truly understand the idea of hired auxiliary troops – so understandably the term “mercenary” generalizes the idea. Assuredly there could be the debate over explaining the difference, the circumstances and placing it deeper into context, but for the sake of shorter articles meant for enjoyable historic reading I think you did well Ms. Collins and footnote #3 suffices.
        So far as trying to relay to people how many of those “Hessian” whom stayed in America fared, that – I imagine – is as diverse as the American experience. Perhaps that is the best way to explain it simply, and that German emigrants had long been sewn into the fabric of the country. Once can look at future generations of German-Americans to see that.

  • Reply August 25, 2014

    steven paul mark

    When all is said, done and researched, perhaps the most accurate description of the German troops who fought for Britain would be “German.” One could then avoid the concerns about mercenary, subsidy and Hessian, none of which are perfectly accurate. But if ‘Hessian’ was the term used by those opposing British rule, do we need to concern ourselves at all? Historical research distinguishes the duchies, principalities and other territories from which these ‘German’ soldiers came so I don’t believe that using the original term coined does an injustice to the historical record.

    • Reply August 25, 2014

      Mike Barbieri

      But, Steven, it makes some folks feel so good to find another term to replace one that is viewed as carrying a negative connotation. Look at the quest to find a politically correct term to replace “Indian”–there are at least a dozen commonly used. And the p—er is that most “native peoples” couldn’t care less one way or the other. The challenge is that it’s not the word that is the problem but, rather, the way it is used. Folks can call me Italian but do they say it in a neutral way or do they have a bite to their tone? The former is not problem but the latter upsets me. To me, “Hessian,” while geographically inaccurate in some cases, does not carry a negative note today. It is just a generic term used to describe the German troops much as “Italian” is used to describe my family from Parma and my wife’s which is from Calabria. I think your approach is the right one. Of course, we could call them “levies” since Parliament often referred to their pay as “levy money.”

  • Reply August 26, 2014

    Jon v. Briesen

    Minor points:

    1. I would not attempt to assign an English equivalent of “duke” to “Landgrave.” A Landgraf could, as in the case of Hesse-Kassel, be a sovereign. No duke, AFAIK, in UK, even “royal duke,” issues their own currency, e.g. True, Murray, Duke of Atholl has a private army, the last such in Europe.

    It’s just different in the Holy Roman Empire and often confusing. And, the HRE had its own Dukes / Arch Dukes / Grand Dukes.

    Interestingly, when the proprietary colony of the Carolinas was being created, the plans were to establish “Landgraves,” not a term much in use in England, as officials.

    2. On the idea of the Americans as cannibals: It was somehow conveyed, at the handsome little stone church, outside Newtown, Bucks, Penn., which was hospital, and prison for captured German aux. troops, that, due to minimal American troops to guard the POWs, they were supposedly frightened into staying put, by such tales.

    3. Interesting that the citation for the marvelous illustration at the head of this article misses the non-final “s” and makes it an “f.” When searching on my own name, in Google Books, I must use “f” instead of the “s” to pick up more items. Somehow the treatment of Fraktur letters doesn’t always make the proper distinction.

    4. http://www.americanancestors.org/hessian-descendants/

    See here for efforts at recovering Hessian deserter roots.

    5. The German troops, in general, and the Riedesels, in particular, are sometimes credited with bringing the Christmas tree custom to N. America.

    6. Of course, in terms of personal relationships, the Hanoverian Kings of England were much closer to Hanover than to Hesse. They remained Electors (later Kings) of Hanover, and retained their titles as Dukes of [in various permutations] Braunschweig-Lüneburg-Wolfenbüttel-Celle. Can’t get much closer.

    This situation was reflected in the arms of Gt. Britain, with a quarter divided, itself, for Hannover/Braunschweig/Lüneburg and an inescutcheon with the Crown of Charlemagne, indicating the hereditary position as treasurer of the HRE. This inescutcheon was ensigned with an electoral cap, later upgraded to royal crown.

    Victoria, barred, by gender, from inheriting the German titles/estates simplified the arms of Gt. Britain.

    Very much enjoyed the article, as I do the entire site.

    Allow me to second the sentiments of commenter John Pearson. New Jersey has some very fine Rev War sites and houses — “Crossroads of the Revolution.” My favorite is Monmouth, where orchards stand and crops are grown, as they surely were in 1778. The battlefield park is not mucked up with monuments. I prefer the hedgerows and rail fences. There are houses remaining that saw the battle, and the magnificent Tennant Church, field hospital at the time of the battle.

    Jon von Briesen
    Forked River NJ

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