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. 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. Hessians had long been the go-to subsidy allies of the British
Landgrave Fredrick II of Hesse-Cassel was the son in law of King George II, giving him a valuable family tie to the Hanovers. 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). 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. 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. 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.
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.
5. Hessians were a part of every major battle
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. 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.” 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. 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.” 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, 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!”
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. 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.” The Revolution had seen an estimated loss of 5,000 casualties and 3,000 desertions. [FEATURED IMAGE AT TOP: “Vonboferegiment.” Source: Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library]
 The title Landgrave was equivalent to Duke; the Landgrave of Hesse was the sovereign of that region.  Benjamin Franklin, “The Sale of the Hessians,” (1777).