Hessians: German Soldiers in the American Revolutionary War


August 22, 2022
by Richard F. Welch Also by this Author


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BOOK REVIEW: Hessians: German Soldiers in the American Revolutionary War by Friederike Baer (New York: Oxford University Press, 2022)

Writing a detailed, authoritative account of the British Army’s German troops has always been a tough climb requiring a combination of several advanced skills. Much of the source material has remained untranslated into English either in whole or in part, necessitating not only a thorough knowledge of German, eighteenth-century German, and German military usage, as well as facility with German script. Additionally, a command of the military and diplomatic history of the American Revolution on both sides of the Atlantic is a must. The field of American Revolution studies is fortunate that a scholar possessing such expertise has appeared in the person of Friederika Baer, Associate Professor of History and Head of Arts and Humanities at Penn State University’s Abington College and specialist in eighteenth and nineteenth century German-American studies. Her newly published Hessians: German Soldiers in the American Revolutionary War provides the most complete and authoritative account of the subject to date.

Though the employment of German troops to suppress the rebellion was included in the Declaration of Independence’s list grievances against the king, Baer points out that use of foreign troops as auxiliaries was common practice in eighteenth century Europe. Indeed, Britain had contracted with German rulers (there was no united Germany until 1871) during the French and Indian War, though no German troops were sent to North America at that time. Moreover, in 1775 Britain estimated it would require at least 25, 000 troops to subdue the rebellion. Raising such an army was a daunting task that would be greatly facilitated through the use of foreign regiments.

Initially, Britain sought Russian troops as auxiliaries. When Catherine the Great declined the offer, Britain turned to several central and western German principalities. Ultimately, they obtained soldiers from Hessen-Kassel, Hessen-Hanau, Braunschweig, Wolfenbüttel, Anhalt-Zerbst, Ansbach-Bayreuth and Waldeck. Most of them came from the two Hessens, and the term Hessian was quickly extended to all German troops.

For the German rulers, renting out their militaries provided a source of income, served dynastic interests or enhanced their political power. Not all approved. The leader of the most powerful German state, Frederick II (the Great) of Prussia, denounced the Hessen rulers for selling their subjects “like cattle to have their throats cut.” Indeed, Prussia impeded the deployment of the German regiments by refusing to let them cross Prussian territory to reach their ports of embarkation on the North Sea.

The manpower contracts with Britain called for the German rulers to equip their troops. The German regiments were commanded by German officers, although overall command remained in British hands. In practice, the lack of familiarity with each other’s language often impeded effective command and control. Replacements and reinforcements arrived in North America throughout the war, and by 1780 about one-third of the British Army was comprised of Germans. Consequentially, German regiments were an indispensable part of the British war machine. As Baer observes, the deployment of German troops “probably prevented the defeat of the British by the American rebels in the war’s early stages. In fact, the steady supply of Germans kept the war going for seven more years.”

The units sent into British service were a combination of experienced soldiers and raw recruits. The men were paid the same as British troops, generally higher than German wages, and some portion could be sent to families. Additionally, the German rulers provided support for families whose breadwinner was in service. Voluntary recruitment was combined with conscription to fill regimental rosters. As usual, there were exemptions for “indispensable men” and it was economically marginal young men who made up most of the draftees. Additionally, a significant number of woman and children accompanied the regiments. Some were servants and workers, though a set quota of wives were permitted to accompany their husbands to America.

German troops participated in every major campaign in North America from Quebec to West Florida. They were heavily engaged in the New York and Pennsylvania campaigns from 1776 through 1778, and the later southern operations, 1779-81. The Hessian corps made its initial appearance in the war as part of Gen. William Howe’s expeditionary forces which landed in New York in August 1776. The Germans provided 8, 632 men to the British commander’s total 25,000. They performed with distinction at the Battles of Brooklyn, White Plains and the capture of Fort Washington.

Baer has mined German-language sources, including many never before translated, in Germany and the United States. She puts these to good use in explicating the reaction of the Germans, officers and enlisted, to the war, the enemy, and North America itself. On arrival in America most German troops were struck by the fertility and prosperity of the colonies which led them to conclude that the revolution had been perpetrated by sinister conspirators acting for their own interests. Though they came from societies that were highly stratified economically with elements of serfdom still in existence, they were appalled by the operations of the slave system and the general treatment of blacks by the colonists.

The Germans sometimes hired blacks as servants, and occasionally incorporated them into their formations as musicians, particularly drummers. These were outfitted in special uniforms intended to emphasize what to the Germans was their exoticism, a practice found in some European courts. In general, German troops considered American Indians savages, and feared them as treacherous even when they were supposedly on the same side as during Gen. John Burgoyne’s 1777 campaign. They were especially disgusted by the practice of scalping.

Initially, German soldiers viewed American troops as an undisciplined rabble, a conclusion derived from the often-motley appearance of troops who lacked uniforms, standardized equipment and, at the beginning of the fighting, organizational competence. Subsequent events would alter these first impressions. For their part, rebel civilians and soldiers as well as the Continental and state governments were often of two minds about the Hessians. In the first year of the conflict, they were often depicted as cruel and pitiless murderers and plunderers, a view that was amplified by charges of widespread criminality during the campaign across New Jersey in the fall of 1776. On the other hand, they were also seen as dupes and victims of tyrannical governments, and attempts were made to entice them to desert with offers of land and bounties.

Defeats at Trenton, and later Bennington and Saratoga where German troops made up almost half of Burgoyne’s regulars, caused a reappraisal of rebel abilities. Increasingly, German officers and men came to believe that despite their often-tattered appearance the patriot forces could and would fight, and when well led could be formidable. Simultaneously many troops, especially officers, became increasingly critical of overall British leadership which they often deemed insufficiently aggressive, especially when pressing home a battlefield advantage. Capt. Johann Ewald, commander of Hessian Jaegers (special light troops comprised of hunters and woodsmen) complained that British commanders aimed to “have something in every corner and much nowhere.” Such criticisms became more prevalent as the war continued.

By 1778 large numbers of German and British troops were in American captivity. 6,000 “Hessians” would become prisoners during the war. Prisoners of the so-called “Convention Army,” named for the peculiar surrender agreement at Saratoga, were distributed from New England to Virginia. Lancaster, Pennsylvania and Charlottesville, Virginia became the largest prisoner of war camps. German troops were treated leniently by their captors, and the prisoners soon planted gardens and raised animals outside their barracks. The POWs were also hired out to local businesses including some, such as iron working, which contributed to the patriot war effort. Moreover, German prisoners received their pay across the lines. Such hard currency was beneficial to local economies. German prisoners and locals socialized frequently, and revolutionary leaders such as Thomas Jefferson and Charles Carroll forged close social relations with Gen. Friedrich Freiherr von Riedesel and his wife Friederike who had been surrendered at Saratoga. It is no surprise, then, that the majority of German POWs who deserted from the “Convention Army” settled in America.

The number of German prisoners would swell when the British southern campaign, which had begun so promisingly, ended in defeat. The Third Waldeck Regiment, suffering greatly from heat and disease in West Florida, was one of the units surrendered to Spanish-led forces at Pensacola. Larger numbers of German troops served in the Carolinas and took part in Gen. Charles Cornwallis’s vain attempt to destroy the Continentals under Nathaniel Greene. Indeed, German units distinguished themselves at the Battle of Gilford Court House, but like their British compatriots they were exhausted, ragged, and played out when they entered Virginia. In May 1781, Cornwallis was reinforced with an additional 1,200 men from the Anspach-Bayreuth regiment. They arrived in time to be cut off with the rest of Cornwallis’s forces by the Franco-American Army at Yorktown (their colors are on display at the Yorktown Battlefield’s Visitor’s Center). Interestingly, the French forces at Yorktown included two German regiments.

With Cornwallis’s surrender another 8,000 troops, including 2,000 Germans, became prisoners of war. While officers were paroled as was the custom, most of the new crop of prisoners were marched to POW camps in Virginia and Maryland where they were placed under increased pressure to join American forces. Many deserted but few enlisted with the enemy.

With the announcement of impending peace in April 1783 most prisoners left their camps and marched to New York where they rejoined their units in preparation for embarkation to Europe. Most German troops who intended to remain in America had already deserted, and the majority of those released in 1783 returned to Germany where they were paid, discharged, or reassigned. Most remained proud of their service, and blamed British military and civilian leadership for the defeat.

Of the 30,000 or more German troops who served in America, 1,200 were killed or died of wounds. Typical for premodern medicine, 6,354 died of disease or accident. Of the 23,000 or so survivors, between 5,000 and 6,000 remained in North America. 3,500 stayed in the new republic, with the others choosing to settle in British Canada.

While the book’s overall production values are excellent, it has some deficiencies. There are very few illustrations and only one map which is inadequate in a book of this length, complexity, and price ($75.00). In particular there are no pictures of the many German commanders who are named in the text and only one illustration of German troops, despite the variety of units fighting in North America. The sole map is a contemporary one of Philadelphia during the 1777 campaign. Baer provides a link to her website (well worth a visit) which has some maps, but this is often inconvenient for the reader. The inclusion of maps relating to major engagements such as Bennington and Saratoga would have been helpful.

Hessians is a deftly written, richly detailed study and appraisal of a complex and vital component in Revolutionary War history. The writing is clear, smooth, and generally devoid of the politically correct usage that plagues much academic writing today. Baer’s mastery of source material—twenty-six pages of bibliography, six of manuscript collections, mostly German—is reflected in her skillful weaving of first-hand accounts into her overall narrative. She states in the introduction that the German soldiers “vantage point is unlike that of any other group of people that participated in the war. In this book I have tried to let them tell their stories.” She has succeeded. Hessians is a superb work of scholarship and is an essential volume for any student of Revolutionary War history.

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