Hessians: Mercenaries, Rebels, and the War for British North America


September 29, 2015
by J. Brett Bennett Also by this Author


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Book Review:  Hessians: Mercenaries, Rebels, and the War for British North America by Brady J. Crytzer (Westholme Publishing, 2015).

Students of the American Revolution are at least superficially familiar with the soldiers sourced by the British who were principally from the Hesse-Cassel state of Germany and dubbed “Hessians,” however their many contributions, varied roles and persistent frustration with their command bear careful study to gain a more complete understanding of military strategy and operations during the period.

In Hessians: Mercenaries, Rebels, and the War for British North America, Brady Crytzer skillfully frames the broader engagement of the German troops by exploring the experiences and perspectives of three persons with distinct roles: Capt. Johann Ewald who led a Field-Jäger Corps; Frederika Charlotte Louise von Massow, a baroness and wife of Col. Friedrich Adolf Riedesel; and Philipp Waldeck, Field Chaplain of the 3rd Waldeck Regiment.

Through thoughtful examination of their journal accounts as his primary sources, Crytzer not only illustrates the integral roles played by Hessian forces across all theaters – from Quebec and the Hudson River Valley to the Caribbean and West Florida – but also the complexities of waging what was a trans-oceanic military conflict involving sometimes tenuous Old and New World Alliances. Further, while the Hessians were dutiful in fulfilling their responsibilities on the field and were typically at the vanguard of skirmishes and battles, their officers were often quietly critical of the decision-making of their British counterparts and policymakers in London to whom they were subordinate. In hindsight such concerns and criticism were justified.

As succinctly explained in a recent JAR feature article and detailed to a much greater degree in Hessians, the troops were not mercenaries in the truest sense but a contract fighting force secured to offset a shortage of troops that King George III found difficult to raise from his own citizenry, and who were necessary to support an imperial presence that extended from the American colonies to India and the South Pacific.

In the waning days of its feudal society and without substantial natural resources from which to generate revenue, German landgraves turned to a system of Soldatenhandel, or the “soldier trade,” that the British were pleased to leverage.

Despite pleas made by Whigs in Parliament that subjugation of the “sons of Englishmen” in the colonies by Germans was unjust, the practicality of quickly engaging more troops to suppress the rebellion, German soldiers’ reputation for professionalism and discipline and the favorable cost-benefit perceived from “renting” an army were such that both the House of Commons and House of Lords voted overwhelmingly in favor of such a measure. Subsequently, agreements were entered with several German princes, with the Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel, Frederick II, supplying the most troops – nearly 17,000 of the approximately 30,000 furnished from various states over the course of the Revolution. Hessian forces landed as early as the summer of 1776 and would participate in all major campaigns throughout the War.

Written in a story-like narrative and organized in three parts, the first portion of the book focuses on the service of Captain Ewald, a professional military officer responsible for a unit of Jäger rangers, a special force known for their marksmanship and often assigned to front positions in British General Howe’s army. The author highlights a number of encounters during Ewald’s service in the colonies that rankled his European sensibilities as to the ideals of monarchy, what he believed to be the unruly behavior and unreasonable demands of the rebels, and of course the brutal guerilla tactics and plundering employed by Patriot, Loyalist and native combatants alike. In addition we learn of Ewald’s numerous disappointments with the British command and their abiding hesitancy to aggressively pursue the poorly resourced Patriots. Possibly his greatest disdain was held for none other than Brig. Gen. Benedict Arnold, the turncoat officer under whom Ewald and his Jägers capably served in battle at Portsmouth, Virginia and where Ewald was severely wounded but never with any commendation.

Frederika Charlotte Louise von Massow was the young, aristocratic wife of Gen. Friedrich Riedesel and the subject of Part II. Through the eyes of the baroness and use of her journal entries, the author describes both the service of General Riedesel – a prominent officer who served in the Champlain and Hudson River Valleys on the staff of British Gen. John Burgoyne – as well as Frederika’s extraordinary devotion to her husband that was marked by a logistically difficult and at times harrowing journey across the North Atlantic and down the St. Lawrence River to be with him. Readers learn not only of the baroness’ relationships at the highest levels within the British monarchy and the lifestyle of one who lived comfortably as the wife of a senior officer, but also of the primitive environment and battlefront conditions at Saratoga and elsewhere that she and her small daughters endured while with the army. Not unlike the criticisms of British command recorded by Ewald, we find that General Riedesel routinely advocated for different tactics and eventually speedier retreat than Burgoyne was inclined to effect. Upon Burgoyne’s surrender to Continental army Gen. Horatio Gates, British and Hessian troops were marched to Boston where, as was custom at the time for military officers and their families, the Riedesels were allowed to live without captivity. There the baroness frequently hosted dinner guests and became known for her hospitality, even among upper class Americans. No matter, she held little regard for most Bostonians, commenting, “The city, throughout, is pretty, but inhabited by vile patriots, and full of wicked people.”

Part III centers on German experiences supporting British forces in the Caribbean and Gulf Coast through the lens of a chaplain, Philipp Waldeck. From the author’s interpretation of Waldeck’s firsthand accounts we learn of European nations’ tussle and the increasingly knotty geopolitics driving control of the Caribbean Islands, British Florida and the Mississippi River Basin, a topic that has traditionally seen marginal attention from scholars.

Of particular intrigue for Waldeck were the “savages” – Creek, Choctaw and other natives – with whom the British had established trade and wartime relationships. Representative of the war’s complexities and wide-ranging alliances, Waldeck recognized the parallels the Hessian fighters shared with the natives, none of whom had a meaningful affinity for King George nor the British regime. A recurrent theme, Waldeck repeatedly cited indecisiveness, the poor handling of relationships with native and Loyalist forces and overall ham-handedness of the British military effort that precipitated defeats at Baton Rouge, Natchez, Mobile and finally Pensacola in short succession, and all to an opposition that included very few American rebels.

While Crytzer’s analysis of primary sources is sound and context explained thoroughly, the book could be enhanced through insertion of more numerous direct quotes from Hessian diaries to reinforce his arguments and provide readers with the opportunity to draw their own conclusions. Also, of minor note, a number of distracting copyediting errors were found that are likely to be corrected in subsequent editions (e.g. “tappy” rather than “tabby” in reference to building material once used along the Carolina and Georgia coast).

Regardless, Hessians is recommended for all who lack an intimate knowledge of German forces’ service during the Revolution. Importantly, the book provides valuable insights from highly active but somewhat dispassionate participants in the war effort and succeeds in demonstrating both their significant service as well as tensions associated with adjuvant positions under British command in a struggle that we know ultimately yielded far reaching global implications.


  • Our family just hosted a German exchange student for three weeks. While eating ice cream on Germantown avenue in Philadelphia, conversation turned to our battle for independence. I brought up the subject of Hessian troops and the sixteen year old was taken by surprise. He didn’t know about this and said he had relatives living in Hess, Germany.

    1. Interesting conversation and response from the student. I suspect it’s something that will be remembered for some time.
      Having worked with and become close friends with quite a number of knowledgeable Europeans and Germans in particular, I’ve always enjoyed discussing and learning from their perspectives on their nations’ histories. Our conclusion is almost invariably that our cultures and lineages are more interconnected and overlapping than we oftentimes think, and it’s not only a phenomenon of the 20th and 21st century.

  • My son is doing a paper on the topic of Europeans who assisted American colonies in their fight for independence. Can anyone recommend any primary or secondary sources for him?

  • The book referenced, Hessians by Brady Crytzer, would be a tremendous start, as would several articles on Hessian forces available through the Journal of the American Revolution. In addition, a new biography of Lafayette was recently published — The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered. Although I’ve not read it just yet, I suspect it would provide insights on the involvement of the French. Similarly, another recently published book addresses the global nature and complexity of the Revolution on its frontiers and along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. It’s entitled, Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution. My understanding is that the work is quite comprehensive and covers the involvement of the Spanish and Cajun inhabitants of the area. Lastly, there are a number of diaries and journals written by Hessian soldiers and officers that could serve as excellent primary sources. Examples include those by Ewald, Doblin, and Waldeck.

  • I would very much like to find the real story of Johann Ewald’s Hessians in Princess Anne County just prior to the Battle of Great Bridge. His diary has a picture of a battle on the James Farm, near Doziers Bridge and on the way the to Pungo Chapel. Locally there was one history researched who determined that the battle was made up. However, the map is very good and correct. It could be very important to document the activity of the war in this area. Can you be of any help with this?

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