Deserter a Day 4 (of 5)

Arts & Literature

April 14, 2016
by Editors Also by this Author


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The soldiers from several German principalities who were contracted to supplement the British army in America are often called mercenaries, a misnomer propagated during the war itself to vilify these soldiers and enhance the impression of British oppression. Although the British government did pay for these soldiers, they paid the German princes who then sent regiments from their own armies to fight in America. The soldiers themselves were no more mercenary than any other soldiers in the pay of their own governments

As in all armies of the era, desertion was a problem in the German regiments in America. Many of the German soldiers chose to remain in America when the war ended, but many of those were not deserters in a strict sense but prisoners of war who chose not to return when they were released. But others deserted outright. As with the British, very few German deserters were advertised in newspapers. Here is one of the few:

Deserted from my company in the Hessian Regiment of Losberg, in the night of the 7th instant, a Soldier named John Ansell, a native Frenchman, 24 years old, five feet one inch high, marked with the small-pox, when he went off he wore his regimentals, a blue coat faced with orange. It is likely the above deserter may be concealed either in this city or Long-Island, whoever should discover him, is desired to give notice to the regiment of Losberg, de Altenbockum, Captain.

[Royal Gazette (New York), 10 November 1779]

What is noteworthy about this soldier is that he was not German at all, but French. This exemplifies an important attribute of all of the armies in the conflict: they included soldiers of many nationalities, serving side-by-side within each regiment. Battalions of British regulars were composed primarily of English, Scottish, and Irish men, but usually included a smattering of continental Europeans (Germans, Poles, Swedes, French and others) and some Americans; American regiments included many soldiers born in Great Britain and continental Europe; French regiments included Germans and other Europeans. It must have been fascinating to stroll through the ranks of any regiment in any of the armies!

The Johannes Schwalm Historical Association is dedicated to the study of Hessian and other German-states soldiers who served in the American Revolution.


  • I do believe that most of the German-based principalities who supplied “Hessians” were under the filial obligation of King George and therefore were not mercenary but as duty bound as the Scots or the Irish. Some of the principalities were not so directly bound. As all regiments were paid by their Colonel (or Prince) who was reimbursed by the British government I see no difference in regulars versus mercenaries.

    In Iraq and Afghanistan we call these people “contractors”, not mercenaries. Is there a difference?

    Please advise me if and where I am mistaken as I do speak to groups and this has been a question in the past.

    1. There is no analogy between the German regiments that served in the American Revolution and contractors serving abroad today. The German troops were regiments of the armies from German principalities, operating under the leadership of their own officers. The only thing “mercenary” about their service was that the British government was funding their deployment to America. All of the funding was through contracts negotiated between the governments; the soldiers and officers had no involvement in the contracts, but were simply soldiers following the orders of their own government. If such an arrangement were made today we would call them “allies” rather than “mercenaries.”
      Arrangements of this sort were quite common during the eighteenth century. We have a brief article that gives more details.

  • Eric and Don: Perhaps a better comparison for “mercenaries” would be the foreign officers referred by the Paris Commission officials to the Congress for senior positions? Their value was to be in areas such as engineering and artillery or strategic leadership.

  • Except for the 3d englisch-waldeckisches Soldregiment (“soldregiment” = Mercenary Regiment where service in this regiment was not authorized for residents of Waldeck) and the nearly 1000 individuals recruited by Colonel von Scheither in the vicinity of Hanover for service in British regiments, the other “Hessians” (from Hesse-Cassel, Brunswick [Braunschweig], Anspach-Bayreuth, Hesse-Hanau & Anholt-Zerbst) where first in the service of their rulers who supplied them to the British as “auxillary troops.” They certainly were not “contractors” but in modern-day comparison more like military units serving in area were US troops are not serving but the cost of those foreign troops is borne by the UN, NATO, &c. [and paid for principally by the US, UK, &c.].
    Here is an example of desertion notice for four Anspach-Bayreuth jaegers who were never retaken.
    D E S E R T E D , From the Corps of Yagers of his Most Serene Highness the Prince of Anspach, the following undermentioned Four Men the 25th Octo. 1782, Viz …
    JOHN SHLETTERER, Five Feet 7½ inches high, 22 Years of Age, short brown Hair, Middle size and Smallpox-Faced. Had on when he went away, a Green Coat with Red Facings and large brass Buttons, Green Waist-coat with sleeves and small brass Buttons, Yellow Leather Breeches, and a pair of Leggins of Grey Cloath, a brass Hanger with a Yellow Leather Belt, a Rifle-Piece and a Black Leather Knapsack.
    GEORGE SHLETTERER, Five Feet 4 inches, Aged 18 years, Meagre Stature, Black Hair. Had on the same Cloathing and Accoutrements as the former and a Brown Leather Knapsack.
    GEORGE KAMNIZER, Five Feet 4 inches high, A Stout Fellow, Yellowish Hair. Small Pox Faced, has in his left Ear a Yellow small Ring, Had on when he went away the same Cloathing and Accoutrements as the two former.
    PAPTISTA COURBEAU, Five Feet 4½ inches high, Middle sized, black Hair, Black-small-Pox-Faced, born of French Parents, speaks bad German, had on when he went away a Green Coat and Waist Coat, black Velvet Breeches, and Accoutrements as the Former, Aged 23 Years.
    The Commanding Officer of the aforesaid Corps Captain de Wurmb, desires, that if any of the before mentioned deserters should come to any Person or Person’s sight to apprehend and deliver him or them to the nearest Post in possession by his Majesty’s Troops or to the Corps at present garrisoned at HALLIFAX: The Commanding Officer Captain de WURMB Offers not only to pay all reasonable expences, but will Reward the Person or Persons, apprehending any one of them, handsomely. VON WURMB, Captain.
    [Halifax] Nova Scotia Gazette & Weekly Chronicle, issue of 29 October 1782, p. 3, col. 3.

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