"Reprinted through the courtesy of Cowles Magazines, publisher of
by Debra Brill The Almost 30,000 German Troops Hired to Help Great Britain Fight the Rebellious American Colonies Are Frequently Misnamed and Unfairly Maligned.
Ambrose Serle, a civilian secretary to General William Howe during the American Revolution, described the German troops who fought with the British in that war as "a dirty, cowardly set of contemptible miscreants." It was not a very nice way to refer to one's allies.
A negative opinion of the German force--frequently referred to as Hessians--has persisted for so long that even today they are commonly spoken of with disdain and, despite the fact that they composed nearly half of the British fighting force in America in 1776, they receive scant attention in general histories of the conflict.
King George III's decision to hire foreign troops was not a popular one in England. It was, however, a necessity if Britain was to put down the rebellion in its American colonies. The Seven Years' War that ended in 1763 had reduced the army's numbers, and new recruits were hard to find among the war-weary British populace. The king applied to Empress Catherine of Russia for troops, but she refused.
In desperation, King George turned to the German principalities in Europe, as had other British monarchs before him. He struck deals with the rulers of Hesse-Cassel, Hesse- Hanau, Brunswick-Luneburg, Anspach-Bayreuth, Anhalt-Zerbst, and Waldeck. The two Hesses provided about two-thirds of the almost 30,000 German soldiers hired out to King George, hence the common appellation, "Hessians," for all the Germans.
The treaties, which were drawn up to look like reciprocal agreements rather than bargains for hired soldiers, generated a political battle in the British Parliament. "Is there one of your Lordships," Lord Camden asked, "who does not perceive most clearly that the whole is a mere mercenary bargain for the hire of troops on one side and the sale of human blood on the other; and that the devoted wretches thus purchased for slaughter are mere mercenaries, in the worst sense of the word?"
The British Prime Minister, Sir Frederick North, took the opposite view, reasoning that mere numbers of combined British and German troops would cow the Americans into submission and that the rebellion would, therefore, be shortlived and relatively bloodless. In the end, the treaties were easily approved--100-32 in the House of Lords and 252-88 in the Commons.
The terms of the agreements varied. The Duke of Brunswick, for example, was to be paid a levy of about 7 Br. pounds per recruit, an annual subsidy of 11,517 Br. pounds until the war's end, and twice that amount annually for two years thereafter.
Of the six princes, however, the Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel profitted the most. While it is true that he supplied more troops to the British--more than 16,000--than the others, he also drove a harder bargain, receiving nearly 3,000,000 Br. pounds for the use of his soldiers.
The Landgrave, for all his astuteness in negotiating for the use of his men, did not insist on a "blood money" clause by which a prince would receive a sum equal to the levy for each man killed (three wounded warriors were considered equal to one dead soldier). This clause, which was part of four of the six treaties, riled even the Americans. Not only were German troops being sold to fight in a war that in no way concerned them, but their avaricious princes were to reap a profit from their deaths!
Benjamin Franklin attacked the blood-money clause after the capture of some nine hundred Germans at the 1776 Battle of Trenton, during which twenty-two of their number died. In a satirical letter from the "Count de Schaumbergh" to the "Baron Hohendorf," Franklin had the Count express his "joy on being told that of the 1,950 Hessians engaged in the fight but 345 escaped. There were just 1,605 men killed, and I cannot sufficiently commend your prudence in sending an exact list of the dead to my minister in London. This precaution was the more necessary as the report sent to the English ministry does not give but 1,455 dead. This would make 483,450 florins instead of 643,500 which I am entitled to demand under our convention."
Just as "Hessian" fails to convey adequately their place of origin, the term "mercenary" is an inaccurate reflection of the German troops' status. Mercenaries hire themselves out. In this case, however, the rulers profited, while the soldiers did the fighting.
Indeed, some of the German troops--far from being mercenaries--were kidnap victims, impressed into service. One such was Johann Seume, a theological student at the University of Leipzig. Having left the university due to a religious dispute, he was headed for Paris when the Landgrave's recruiting agents arrested him. Seume later wrote in his autobiography that "No one was [then] safe from the grip of this seller of souls. Persuasion, cunning, deception, force--all served....Strangers of all sorts were arrested, imprisoned, then sent off."
Seume was held in a fortress in Ziegenhain with some 1,500 other conscripts, who plotted to escape. Their attempt failed when they were betrayed. Later, while en route from Ziegenhain to Munden, they planned a second attempt, but this too was foiled.
Unhappy conscripts such as these formed a larger proportion of the army as the war dragged on. In their negotiations with the British, the princes had promised more men than they could easily deliver. Having dispatched the best-trained, regular soldiers to America in the conflict's first years, the princes were forced to resort more and more to ruthless conscription--even beyond their own borders--in order to meet their quotas.
In November of 1776, only seven months after the first German division sailed for America, the Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel petitioned several German principalities and free cities for permission to recruit within their territory. Some acquiesced as a means of weeding out undesirables. In March 1777, a London newspaper quoted a letter writer from Hamburg: "I have long wondered [why] the magistracy have not put a stop to recruiting here, but I am told it is a political stroke of theirs, for as long as Hamburgh [sic.] is a free city, it is the reservoir of all the rogues, rascals and runaways in Germany, and as the army and the gallows refuse none, they by that means get rid of them."
Before they set sail for America, the German troops were reviewed by Colonel William Faucitt, King George's minister plenipotentiary in Germany In his early reports to Lord Suffolk, the British Minister of State, Faucitt described the hirelings as an "exceedingly fine body of men...fit for any service whatever."
As time passed, however, the quality of troops declined, and by April 1778, Faucitt was finding that "the Hessian recruits, as usual, appeared raw and undisciplined; some few of whom, moreover, I found it necessary to reject, on account of old age and other infirmities." A year later, his report noted that many recruits were "very raw, and clownish, and will require a good deal of drilling." Even some of the elite Jagers--German hunters who were excellent marksmen--were found to be of poor quality. A Jager captain called one batch sent to him in America "the dregs of society."
The first groups of Germans to leave for Britain's rebellious colonies, expecting peculiarities of wildlife, terrain, and climate quite remote from anything they had known, expressed apprehension about what they would find. They believed the Indians to be cannibals and had heard that the colonists ate horse meat and cats. Before learning the accuracy of these notions, these men, reared in landlocked countries, had to cross more than three thousand miles of unpredictable ocean.
The voyage behind them, however, they found America surprisingly like their native lands and praised it in their letters home. "On the whole," wrote one, "nearly everything here is the same as with us at home--the same kinds of bushes and trees; but as the soil is richer here, the leaves grow larger and the wood thicker." Another described Charleston, South Carolina as "more beautiful than I had imagined. The wealth of the inhabitants was apparent everywhere."
"At the present time," yet another declared, "I can form no mental picture of an earthly paradise without including in the jerseys and Long Island." But, this same writer thought Pennsylvania an undesirable place to live because never had he "met anywhere with more crazy people than in [Philadelphia]... [N]early all of the people are quietly mad--a sort of mental aberration caused by a compression rather than a heating of the blood." He attributed this singular state of affairs to the non- nutritious quality of Pennsylvania food and milk.
Having come from relatively poor states, the German troops found the abundance of wealth in America quite astonishing. Some of the officers, who had at first felt sympathy for the colonists, came to feel that the Americans did not appreciate their good fortune. A Major Baurmeister concluded that Americans were the greediest people on earth, while another Hessian officer wrote, "When I was in Europe, I had pity of them, but now no more. They have been the happiest people under the sun."
Although the American women were much admired for their beauty, the population in general was variously described as indolent, fearless, good-for-nothing, and haughty. The German officers felt a great deal of contempt for their American counterparts, who were not officers by profession, but merely tailors, cobblers, bankers, and other low types. Coming from a society that put a premium on rank and status, the Germans of the officer class could not readily accept the American philosophy that all men are created equal. One German captain complained that "what we have seen so far brings us little honor to fight against these."
For their part, Americans did not hold a high opinion of the Germans. From the first, when news of the British-German alliance reached the colonies, the Germans were portrayed as fearsome and vicious savages. One American newspaper expected their participation in the fighting to result in "such a scene of cruelty, death and devastation, as will fill those of us who survive the carnage, with indignation and horror." A German lieutenant colonel reported that Americans believed that his troops ate small children, and another officer wrote that when spectators gathered to see captured German soldiers, they found it hard to accept that these normal-looking men were the "monsters" about whom they had heard.
As Germans and Americans became familiar with each other, their opinions changed. German prisoners, in fact, were generally better treated than the British, partly due to a propaganda campaign directed at instigating desertions within their ranks.
It was a strategy that some Englishmen had foreseen. Indeed, during the original debate on the treaties, Major General Sir Henry Clinton--later to command the British troops and their auxiliaries--had recommended procuring Russian troops since there were few in America able to communicate with them. People of German ancestry, by contrast, represented the second largest ethnic group in America at the war's outset.
The Americans seized every opportunity to try to wrest the German troops from the British. On the August 1776 day that the first German contingent set foot on American soil, a broadside-- translated into German--offered to any "foreigners who shall leave the armies of his Britannic majesty in America and shall choose to become members of any of these states; that they shall be protected in the free exercise of their respective religions, and be invested with the rights, privileges and immunities of natives, as established by the laws of these states...." Further, Congress would provide any such deserters with fifty acres of unappropriated land.
The capture of almost a thousand Germans at Trenton further fueled the propaganda effort. The Pennsylvania Council of Safety issued a proclamation stating that General George Washington, in turning the prisoners over to its care, recommended they "have such principles instilled into them, whilst they remain prisoners, that when they return on being exchanged they may fully open the eyes of their countrymen" as to their error in fighting such people as the Americans.
These tactics met with a measure of success; on many occasions exchanged prisoners did praise the Americans and their way of life. But the beauty of the land needed no advertising, and the apparent equality of all levels of society appealed to many among the German rank and file. Of the almost 30,000 Germans who fought for the British in the Revolution, approximately 5,000 deserted or were given permission by their sovereigns to remain in America after the war.
Although many of the German soldiers had been forced to fight in America, others--mostly officers--were professional soldiers who saw the war as an opportunity to seek promotion. They anticipated an easy victory, which would assure them glory and advancement.
In his journal, Lieutenant John Charles Philip von Krafft, a mercenary in the true sense, frequently complained of the delays of his promotion. Overlooked on several occasions when promotions were announced, he threatened to leave his regiment and join the British. He had earlier thrown his lot with the Americans, but when General Washington refused him a captaincy, von Krafft joined a Hessian regiment.
Some officers were particularly irked when they still had not received promotion by war's end. Even Seume, the reluctant soldier, praised by his superiors, became ambitious. "When finally the news of the concluded peace arrived," he wrote, "we were not exactly happy because young, energetic men do not like to have their careers thus abruptly changed."
The relationship between the British and their auxiliary troops was not particularly good, although no serious rift occurred between the two armies. The Germans proved convenient scapegoats for the British since everyone seemed inclined to think ill of them. General Friedrich Adolphus Riedesel, commander of the Brunswick troops, wrote that he was "surrounded only by Englishmen who are drunk with haughtiness. With these people I have to get along; if something disadvantageous happens, it will be all my fault."
German soldiers participated in every major and most minor battles from the summer of 1776 to the war's end, from Brunswick forces in Canada (later to be captured at Saratoga with General John Burgoyne) to the Waldeckers in the Floridas. Their previous experience had not prepared them for the American terrain or style of fighting. Trained as they were in the highly-disciplined European manner, the Germans were surprised by, and disapproved of, American guerrilla tactics.
The Americans claimed that the Germans were vicious fighters and would give no quarter. This was, in fact, generally true early in the war; the Germans had been told by the British, who hoped to goad them into enthusiastic combat, that they would be especially targeted by the rebels, who would show them no mercy.
By war's end, however, many of the Germans had fought against and lived amongst the Americans for eight years. They never fully comprehended--some from lack of interest, others due to the language barrier--the issues at stake or the consequences of an American victory. (Baron Riedesel felt the rebels themselves did not know why they were fighting.)
Nonetheless, when the German soldiers returned home, they carried with them memories of a new people and a rich and beautiful land. As the final transports of soldiers prepared to leave, Americans waved to the departing troops. "During [it] all," a Hessian captain wrote, "there was a deep silence on board the ships that were lying at anchor with troops, as if everyone were in deep mourning because of the loss of the thirteen beautiful provinces."