As the year 1777 drew to a close, the region around the city of New York had been under British control for a year. Although the British position was strong, the recent surrender of a British army at Saratoga dramatically changed the prospects of the war ending any time soon. Troops in the New York garrison settled in for another winter at war.
The north end of the island of Manhattan was separated from the mainland only by a narrow waterway. The British post at Kingsbridge guarded the only bridge across, and Maj. Gen. William Tryon commanded troops stationed there. Some distance away, American troops under Maj. Gen. Israel Putnam kept a close watch British activities at Kingsbridge. The front lines were static but ever tense at this strategic location.
The soldiers under General Tryon’s command included troops from the British regular army, Loyalist troops raised in America for the war, and auxiliary troops from German states—popularly called Hessians. American commanders were keenly aware that these latter troops did not have the same vested interest in the war as their British and Loyalist comrades, and had suffered several setbacks in the previous twelve months. It was to this disinterest that General Putnam hoped to appeal.
On the morning of November 30 two officers brought Tryon separate copies of the same proclamation, written in German, their troops had found near the front lines. It was an appeal to German soldiers. Tryon’s interpreter, Anthony Fiva, quickly translated it:
By the Honorable Israel Putnam Major General & Commander in Chief of the United American Forces, On their different Stations, at the White Plains.
Whereas, The King of Great Britain, has found means, that a great part of the Subjects of the Prince of Hesse Cassel, and other German Princes have been sent Over to America, in order to force the Inhabitants thereof to his absolute Will, to destroy and deprive them of their natural Property and Liberty.
And Whereas, it is known that these Troops have been forc’d against their Inclination, to leave their native country, to take part in a War which they can reap no benefit by, and wash their hands in the blood of its inhabitants, who never did them any harm, and with whom they have no manner of controversy, they being also treated by the Troops of the proud King of Great Britain, with the utmost contempt, whose commander always Exposeth them to the most dangerous Posts, in Order that the lives of the British Troops may be spared, and so Glory in the victories gain’d by the German Troops for them, with the loss of their blood.
And Whereas, the King of Great Britain, and the above German Princes, have Renewed their alliances, that their Troops shall not return to their native country, Untill the present War be ended. I thought it fit & convenient to declare to the Officers and Soldiers of the above Troops in British pay, That the Inhabitants of the United American States, are willing to Receive them, as Brethren and Inhabitants of America, and every one of those who are willing and any way inclined to enjoy a quiet and peaceable life, free from hazards and dangers, In a contest which no ways concerns them. Therefore the best Encouragement is hereby offer’d to any of them who have any trade and upon such terms they never can meet with in any other Country. And as further Encouragement to these Troops, they may be assur’d that at the end of this War, they shall at public cost be sent over again to Germany, as soon as required, or Enjoy the same priveledges as the Inhabitants of this once happy country, if they have a mind to Stay. They shall likewise faithfully be paid for their arms, or any other things belonging to them, as they may be valued.
Given under my Hand at Head Quarters the 16th day of November 1777.
L.S. Israel Putnam
Tryon sent Fiva to ask commanders of German regiments in the area whether more copies of the proclamation had been found. More importantly, Tryon wanted to know if the German officers were concerned that it would cause unrest among the soldiery. The officers assured Tryon that “they were unanimous of opinion that not a Hesse man would be seduced with it.” They also requested that Tryon make a “contrary proclamation” and post it in the newspapers. Tryon thought such a proclamation should come from the commander in chief in New York, Gen. Henry Clinton, and sent a letter to him with Putnam’s proclamation enclosed.
It is not the first time that the Rebel Generals have made it their Study to mislead the Hessian and other foreign Troops in British Pay, and to induce them by insiduous arts to desertion, under the fair Promises, that they should be received well, rewarded with Land and other advantages to their perfect ease and Satisfaction; They began this Game last year at Staten Island, tryed it afterwards at Rhode Island, and now Old Putnam appears by his Proclamation upon the stage, endeavouring to inveigle these Troops from their Duty, and in plausible terms aims if possible to create a jealousy between them and the English, in hopes to gain his point by such base means: But of what benefit have all these invitations been to the Rebels? Have the Hessians deserted? or have those who have fell into Rebel hands join’d their armies? No, except some few villains who are Strangers both to the Hessians and their Country: The Rebel Armies cannot boast of having done them much injury in this way. Besides what reason can the Hessians have to enter the Rebel Service, when it is generally known they are well maintained, receive their ordinary pay & Provision punctually, and are provided with every necessary they stand in need of; can the knowledge they have of the miserable, pitifull, and wretched condition of the Rebel Soldiery, be an inducement for Hessians to Desert; while Deserters or Prisoners from the Rebels, without clothing, Shoes, or other necessaries, appear every day before their face, some of whom have confessed that their men Struggle under worse circumstances than Death itself.
It is in vain then to persuade the Hessians to be guilty of Desertion, or to breed a Jealousy between them and the English, since they live with one another like Brethren, and certainly will continue so to do, through the course of this War.
The Reasons the Prince their Master has to join His Troops to those of the British, rests on Stronger grounds of Policy, than a Carpenter, Butcher, Farmer, or any other who does not study the Laws of States or of Nations, can possibly conceive.
The Hessians are in particular a faithful and Obedient People to their Prince, and Country; It is impossible then to Seduce them like those Fanaticks among the Rebel Army’s, by motives of so base a nature; They never will Desert their Prince, their Country, their honor or whatever else is Dear to them, (and sell their Souls to the Devil) for the sake of a Plantation.
The best they can do for the Rebels is to give them this Salutary advice, Let them Lay down their Arms, open their Eyes, and see the fatal consequences of the unnatural War they are engaged in; They have been deceived, Tyrannized over by Committee men: Their Country is ruined.
Rouze then every one of you, suffer Yourselves no longer to be mislead. Your Leaders intend only the destruction of yourselves, your families, and extreme misery to your Country.
Rise up then in vengeance against your real Ennemies, Congresses & Committee’s, at least, endeavour to come to us, or to the English your natural Brethren, and you shall be received with open arms. This is the best time for your Submission; Since you may depend upon it, next Spring there will be such a Powerfull army of Russians and Hanoverians come over to subdue you, as will make it impossible for you to resist, then it will be too late to implore mercy, you then must wait that Dreadfull punishment Denounced against such who have obstinately persisted in their Revolt against their Parent State and lawfull Sovereign; consider well, before this horrid Scene appears of the Rashness of your ways, of the madness and Guilt of your measures, and be persuaded that on your repentance and Submission only, You can be entitled to invite the Stedfast Hessians to your Friendship.
It is doubtful many were swayed on either side, although a few may have taken up the offer. This is but one of many examples of the psychological warfare employed by both sides during the American Revolution.