Two Reviews: Journal of the Hessian Jäger Corps and The Disaffected


March 11, 2020
by Timothy Symington Also by this Author


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Journal of the Hessian Jäger Corps 1777-1779 by W. Steedman, translator, and Ian Saberton, translator and editor (Tolworth, Surrey, UK: Grosvenor House Publishing Ltd., 2018)

The Disaffected: Britain’s Occupation of Philadelphia During the American Revolution by Aaron Sullivan (Philadelphia PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019)

Recently this reviewer had the good fortune to tackle two books at once. Both touched on the events leading up to and including the occupation of Philadelphia in 1777. The first is a valuable first-hand account of the Hessian Jäger Corps, which formed part of the German auxiliary troops employed by the British. The second is a fascinating look at the plight of a group of Philadelphia civilians known as the “Disaffected” as they experienced the early days of the Revolution and the British take-over of their city.

Editor Ian Saberton worked with co-translator W. Steedman to publish Journal of the Hessian Jäger Corps 1777-1779 in 2018. The Jägers were the elite of the Hessian troops, consisting of excellent marksmen, armed with rifles instead of muskets. They were “employed to great advantage in leading the van of a marching army or protecting its rear, covering a withdrawal, reconnoitering, and conducting partisan warfare, particularly ambuscades” (p. xiii). Both the original German journal entries and their English translations are printed, opposite each other in the text. The entries begin with June 1777 and the last one is in December 1779. Several maps help the reader follow the exploits of the soldiers in various skirmishes in the New Jersey and Pennsylvania campaigns.

Many of the major characters who played important roles in the Revolution are mentioned in the journal entries, including Howe, Gates, Cornwallis, and Washington. The endnote entries are valuable in explaining the names, places and terms. The Journal offers a no-nonsense play-by-play account of the Jäger corps’ activities after Trenton, during the Battle of Brandywine, and their withdrawal across New Jersey to New York.

The Journal is not for a large audience. It is great as a resource for details about the military exercises of the Jäger corps. Poor editing is difficult to ignore, such as missing endnote numbers and words unnecessarily repeated. Footnotes would have been easier to use than endnotes. But these criticisms do not take away from the fact that the Journal has great information to offer any reader interested in another view of the Revolution.

On a scale of 1 (fie!) to 10 (huzza!): 7

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An interesting contrast to the Journal is Philadelphia historian and writer Aaron Sullivan’s fascinating picture of an almost completely ignored group of people. There were obviously more than two sides in the Revolution; the British and the Patriots fought each other, and the Loyalists were torn between the two. However, a fourth group suffered from the fighting of the other three. The Revolution was a dangerous calamity that devastated their lives, their property, and their families. This group was simply called the “Disaffected,” those who did not show loyalty to either side. Either because of religion or pragmatism, they simply withheld allegiance. The idea of apathy and disaffection was viewed by the Patriots to be a threat to their legitimacy. Unanimity and mutual consent was absolutely necessary to justify American independence. Disaffection and dissent weakened that unanimity. Therefore, disaffection had to be dealt with. It had to be silenced.

The Disaffected: Britain’s Occupation of Philadelphia During the American Revolution tells the story of several individuals who not only had to survive the British invasion and occupation of Philadelphia, but to deal with an ideologically zealous faction who could not accept the idea of disaffection. James Allen was a lawyer who once supported colonial nonimportation and boycotts. The move towards independence was not a direction he believed the colonies should be going in, and he tried to divorce himself from the Patriot cause. Elizabeth and Henry Drinker were Quakers who could not support either side due to their religious beliefs.

The Disaffected were isolated so that their lack of support would not “spread” to others. They were a danger to the Patriots and were treated to arbitrary arrests and abusive treatment. The Patriots’ fear bordered on hysteria. Pennsylvania prided itself on its civil liberties, but freedom of the press and speech eluded the Disaffected. Henry Drinker, for example, paid for his convictions by being arrested, held without charge, and forced to march to Virginia.

The main chapters of the book chronicle the events centered around Philadelphia, from its invasion to just after the occupation. The invasion of the city was first welcomed by both Loyalists and the Disaffected, who believed that the British would bring peace to the inhabitants. People were hoping the British would instill a missing sense of order and financial security, and be defenders of the peoples’ rights. Slaves were hopeful that they would be freed and farmers hoped that their produce could be brought to market. All of these high hopes were dashed once the British established themselves in the city and the Patriots laid siege to it. Not only did the British not free more slaves, they participated in slave auctions and allowed Loyalists to keep their slaves. Parts of the city were destroyed by fire, and there were severe food shortages caused by sustaining a large army. The sudden departure of the British from the city in 1778 left it in terrible condition. Overall, the occupation pressured the Disaffected to throw their support to the Patriots.

In between each chapter is an “Interlude,” which describes in detail the stories of several individuals whose lives were torn apart by the Revolution and the actions of the Patriots. James Allen and his Loyalist brothers tried to comfort each other. Elizabeth Drinker kept a diary and tried her best to maintain contact with her husband, who was attempting to make sense of his own arrest. She wrote of her difficulties and observations, and included interesting details of the friendship she formed with the British officer who took up residence in her home during the occupation. She even met with General Washington in order to get her husband released. These interludes bring personalsituations back into focus for the reader, putting a human face on the many things going on in the City of Brotherly Love.

The story of the Disaffected demonstrates the fear and extremes of the Patriots during the early days of the Revolution. Sullivan’s account does not paint a rosy picture of the Patriots and their behaviors during the war. Civil liberties were often too easily thrown aside so that the Patriots’ message could be forced on unwilling participants. There was no room for dissent, apathy or disaffection. Sides had to be chosen by everyone, and the failures of the British and the hostile actions of the Patriots made some choices clear. Sullivan finishes his book pointing out the irony of the situation in the end:

The success of the Revolution and the longevity of the nation that eventually arouse from it demonstrate that new nations, even new republics, can in fact be secured and established without the unified, expressed consent of the people. Loyalism and disaffection can be overcome, or at least overlooked. Some hearts and minds were altered of their own accord in the fifteen years before Lexington and Concord; others were made to yield, were conquered, through social pressure, fines, threats, or outright coercion; and still others were simply forgotten, their discordant notes and suspicious silences lost amid the historic echoes of Adams’s thirteen perfectly synchronized clocks. We would do well to restore that disharmony to our memory of the Revolution [p. 229].

On a scale of 1 (fie!) to 10 (huzza!): 10

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One thought on “Two Reviews: Journal of the Hessian Jäger Corps and The Disaffected

  • I see that the focus of The Disaffected is the early part of American Revolution in Philadelphia. I wonder if anyone has done research on this topic in the Southern colonies. I assume the author addresses this in the book but wonder if Charleston, SC would be a good place to start since the British occupied this city from 1780 to 1783. I am sure there were disaffected people in the South who had to make the hard choice of joining the Loyalist crowd or the Patriot cause. The aspects of civil war and slavery added to the stress in the Southern colonies. Some may have left the region to go to the Northern colonies or travel back overseas to England. I have a feeling there is going to be a rich discovery here since the current Southern campaign history focuses on the Patriots, British, Loyalists, slavery and battles.

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