A little known (to most) Hessian Colonel named Johann Gottlieb Rall played a critical role in the trajectory of the American War for Independence. Unfortunately for him, that trajectory included his defeat and death. But that should not diminish the life and service of this German military officer. An experienced Hessian officer, Rall is often portrayed as the hapless loser of the battle of Trenton. But he was much more than that. He was the archetypal professional German officer of the mid-18th century: skilled, with a self-assurance that came from experience.
Johann Rall was born in the German principality of Hesse-Kassel in 1720. His father was a captain in the regiment Von Donop. At an early age the younger Rall joined as a cadet, then became a warrant officer and finally was commissioned a Second Lieutenant on August 28th, 1745. Within eight years he was a captain and, then promoted to Major on May 7th, 1760, under the command of Major General Bischhausen. In January, 1763, he was transferred to the garrison at Stein, where he was appointed Lieutenant Colonel.
On April 22, 1771, now a Colonel, he took command of the Mansbach Infantry Regiment, a storied unit. Unlike the British army of the era, officers were promoted on a merit basis, and not by purchase of birth right. Along the way to his colonelcy, Rall would have served as platoon leader, company commander (perhaps more than once) and as a staff officer, likely adjutant. So at age 51, he was a highly experienced and professional military officer. Perhaps among the best of his age.
So where did Johann Rall serve to reach the lofty heights of regimental command? Actually, Rall's service is a virtual taxonomy of the wars of the mid-18th century. He fought in the War of the Austrian Succession - serving in campaigns from the low lands of Flanders, on the Rhineland and in Bavaria.
|A youthful Rall fought in the War of Austrian Succession|
He even served in Scotland during the Jacobite rising of 1745 – not his last service to the German kings of England. Here Rall was part of a contingent of some six thousand Hessian troops under the command of their prince, the Elector, Frederick II, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel. Frederick deployed his forces in support of his father in law, George II of England.
|The battle of Culloden ended the Jacobite Rising|
Of course Rall was there when the big one broke out. Like pretty much all European professional soldiers, he saw action in numerous battles during the Seven Years' War (America’s French and Indian War) . This global conflict was fought between 1756 and 1763, and involved every European great power. It spanned five continents, affecting Europe, the Americas, West Africa, India, and the Philippines. The conflict involved two major coalitions, one led by the Great Britain (along with Prussia, Portugal, Hanover, and other small German states such as Hesse-Kassel), the other led by the France (with allies Austria, the Russian, Spain, and Sweden).
|Storming a village in the seven Years War|
Most of the professional armies of Europe had an interlude of peace after the The Treaty of Paris of 1763 ended the French and Indian War/Seven Years' War. But Rall managed to stay busy in his chosen profession. From September 1771 until August 1772, he fought for Russia’s Catherine the Great under Count Orlov in the Russo-Turkish War.
|The Russo-Turkish War of 1771 was one of many|
fought between the two empires
Coming to Amerika
What makes Johann Gottlieb Rall interesting to the Yankee Doodle Spies is his role as a Hessian officer in His Majesty’s service during the American War for Independence. Upon his return to Germany, Rall received command of a grenadier regiment that bore his name. In 1775, Landgrave Frederick Wilhelm II offered to “rent” several of his professional regiments to the King of England. It is said he used the revenues from such ventures to pay for his patronage of the arts. I guess it was blood for beauty. And so Rall and the regiment bearing his name embarked for America with a division of German troops under General Wilhelm von Knyphausen.
Knyphaussen’s forces were part of British Major General William Howe’s army that invaded Staten Island, Long Island, New York (Manhattan), Westchester, and the Jerseys. in 1776. Rall was noted for his performance under fire on Long Island and again at Fort Washington, where Knyphausen’s Hessians distinguished themselves with audacity, skill and courage.
|Rall's Grenadiers storm a redoubt at Fort Washington|
At Fort Washington, Rall led the final assault from the front. One of his men, Private Johann Reuber, recalled him encouraging the grenadiers, "All that are my grenadiers, march forward." Leading the charge, Rall’s grenadiers captured their objective. His grenadiers lost 177 men in the action, a large number of casualties for the period and a tribute to their courage and audacity - as well as Yankee marksmanship.
These battles were mostly, although not always, against raw, undisciplined and poorly supplied troops. It did not take long for the Hessians and Rall himself, to hold die Rebellen in contempt. In fact, most of the Hessian officers became perplexed that Howe did not strike the "rabble" more aggressively and destroy them. Howe’s ponderous style of warfare did not sit well with the smash mouth approach of the crack German troops and their leaders.
Blitzkrieg turns to Winter Quarters
As General George Washington led his defeated army across the cold and snowy Jerseys in December 1776, it looked like the war was about up. The Germans, along with many of the British officers, felt it was just a matter of days before they would have Washington crushed and the rebel capital taken. To their dismay, Howe decided he had done enough for the year. He put the army into winter quarters with the smug expectation that he would have a cake walk to Philadelphia in the spring. After all, the rebels had been chased across the Delaware with their tails between their legs and the morale of the American populace was at nadir. He was right, too. Except for one small problem, General Washington was not in winter quarters.
|Gen William Howe put his|
army into winter quarters a bit too early
Howe compounded his mistake by spreading his forces in small garrisons across West Jersey. From Perth Amboy, New Brunswick, Princeton, Trenton and Bordentown. The weather, and the appetizingly small, brigade-size garrisons gave the beleaguered American commander the opportunity he needed. He would strike the closest garrisons: Bordentown and Trenton. Bordentown proved a missed opportunity but Trenton did not.
The some sixteen hundred Hessians that made up Trenton’s garrison had been under pressure. The Jersey militia had rallied against them. Couriers, patrols and foraging efforts were attacked. Rall’s officers recommended they fortify Trenton. The town had a comfortable barracks that the troops occupied but other than an isolated block house north of the town, they had nothing. Professional though Rall was, his contempt for the Americans was telling. He dismissed the suggestions as unnecessary. Rall in fact stated he dared the Americans to attack so he could crush them. This was not mere hubris, but a cold, professional calculation. It would, however, prove a bad one.
|The Trenton garrison had some of the best infantry|
in any army of its day
Rall also dismissed the engineer officer sent to assist with the defenses. He simply felt his men would overwhelm any rebel force that came near Trenton. Rall claimed he could be attacked from all sides and would defends from all sides. No redoubts were needed. But he did increase patrols, leading some of them himself.
As Christmas approached, British intelligence had received word from a spy that the Americans might be preparing an attack on Trenton. The British commander in the Jerseys, General James Grant himself was skeptical of a rebel attack. But he sent a note to Rall to warn him anyway. Rall scoffed at the notion and dismissed the idea as alarmist. Besides, he had complete faith and trust in the professionalism of his men, and incompetence of the enemy. The former is usually a good thing, the latter not so good. Rall stuffed the note in his pocket.
|Washington launches his gambit on Christmas|
Now, in the German world Christmas eve is a very big deal. Bigger than Christmas day. How much “celebrating” took place is subject to some speculation. Likely some did. But the real problem the Hessians faced was the weather, the Jersey militia, and frankly, some fatigue. The campaign had been long.
Rall spent Christmas eve at the Stacey Potts house in Trenton. Unbeknownst to him, his officer of the day, Major Friedrich von Dechow, cancelled the next morning’s dawn patrol due to the bad weather. Other officers ordered their troops in outposts to shelter in place as the weather came in in. It was, as they say, a perfect storm. Washington struck Trenton in a surprise early morning attack on Christmas Day 1776. Washington’s 2400 men outnumbered the 1600 hundred defenders. But numbers were not the decisive factor, surprise was.
|The Americans depended on the cover of dark |
and bad weather to fuel their surprise
The Element of Surprise
Just after sunrise, one of the Hessian officers sheltering near the outskirts of Trenton, Lieutenant Andreas von Wiederholdt, stepped out the building he had sheltered in and was surprised to see rebels emerging from the woods around the town. He rallied his platoon and exchanged fire with the oncoming troops, but was quickly overwhelmed. By time the alarm was finally sounded,Trenton was already surrounded on three sides.
Artillery rounds from Henry Knox’s battery began to pound the town. The Americans had occupied several houses and as the infantry tried to rally they picked them off. In the wet snow, return fire by the Hessians was difficult with wet powder and flints.
|Knox's Artillery suppressed the Hessian attempt to|
Surprised, outnumbered, surrounded, and overwhelmed by firepower – the situation for the defenders was bleak. But the Hessian discipline was not gone. What you do in training you will do in combat. And the Hessians were well trained. Drummers were soon beating away and Rall’s regiment rallied. Officers signaled for ranks to form. Sergeants and corporals got the men into ranks. Some were in partial sate of dress or without all their equipment. But they formed.
|Washington's pincer movement almost bagged the entire garrison|
Commands were shouted over the crack of musket shots. But confusion began to turn to order when Rall appeared. He looked tired, some say in his cups, but this is unproven. Rall struggled to mount his horse and rally the troops for a charge that would disperse the rebels like so much chaff from a scythe. That is how they always did it. They would do it again.
As at Fort Washington, Rall called on his grenadiers to advance with him. This they did and two of the three regiments formed ranks and advanced with colors flying and drums beating. They would disperse the rebels yet. But this was a different army. Well led and motivated. More importantly, the advancing formation was enfiladed from three sides by Continental infantry firing from the cover of houses and artillery bombarding them from the flank. The wet snow prevented much return fire and cold steel would not be enough this day. Still, they were advancing on the enemy. "Nach Vorne!"
|The American infantry surpassed the crack Hessian regulars|
At that critical moment, a musket ball struck Rall in the side. He jerked, but managed to turn his horse around and tried raise his saber. Then a second round struck him. Rall went down, mortally wounded. Seeing their commander shot from his horse, the usually steadfast Hessian infantry retreated into an orchard and attempted to form up once more. Rall was carried to a nearby church and finally back to the house of Stacey Potts. He died there that night.
|Rall was stuck down at the critical moment|
Determined, Washington had his men pour fire into their ranks while Knox’s guns cut through them with round shot. Men were falling. Having just seen their beloved commander carried off, morale was quickly ebbing. At first, the Hessians refused calls to surrender. Washington was preparing to order Henry Knox to switch canister – this would have torn through the Hessian ranks like a 12 gauge rounds through a flock of fat geese. But the grim work was not to be. Ever professional, the Hessians realized it was over and began to ground arms in surrender. Other than a few hundred who fled across the Assenpunk River, the Trenton garrison was captured by the ragged rebel forces led by General George Washington.
|After he was struck down,|
Rall's men forced to surrender to die Rebellen
What of Rall?
So was Johann Gottlieb Rall an arrogant Teuton and drunk, whose hubris cost him his command, his life, and most importantly, his reputation? As is usually the case, the verdict is mixed. Rall was well respected by his men. In an army when blind obedience to officers and NCOs was demanded, respect was not. And he had their respect. Even more remarkable, Rall was liked by his men.
|Rall in better times|
A noted diarist of the war and adjutant to Rall at Trenton, Lieutenant Jakob Piel writes, “Considered as a private individual, he merited the highest respect. He was generous, magnanimous, hospitable, and polite to everyone; never groveling before his superiors, but indulgent with his subordinates. To his servants he was more a friend than master. He was an exceptional friend of music and a pleasant companion."
British Colonel William Faucitt considered Rall, “... one of the best officers of his rank in the Landgrave’s Army."
Goat? Or Scapegoat?
|Friederich Wilhelm II - not|
Yankee Doodle Postscript
Actually, a shameless Yankee Doodle Spies plug - my second novel in the famed Revolutionary War espionage series concludes with all the events surrounding the campaign that led to and the battle of Trenton. I take some liberties with dialogue and certain scenes but none with the actual events of history. I believe I captured Rall pretty well as part of the mix.