Sunday, October 12, 2014

People: The Hessians

Who were these guys?

In the days when American schools taught history with some substance, almost all students learned the word "Hessian" when the American Revolutionary War was taught. These were those big, bad foreigners hired to help crush the rebellion. Tall men who fought us with a cold-bloodedness that even discomforted  some  British officers and men. Most of what we learned in school  of the Hessians centered around perhaps their lowest moment - the battle of Trenton in which a force of over a thousand were captured by General George Washington's rabble of a half starved army. But the Hessians were just some of the Germans King George leased to suppress the rebellion. Although they made up the largest contingent - more than half. Since there were some German settlers in parts of  Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia it was convenient to pin all the German mercenaries with the name, a name that came to send chills down the spines of Americans.

Who they were

Landgraf Friederich-Wilhelm II
German soldiers made up about a quarter of the British fighting force in America. That term Hessian is applied to all the soldiers fighting in units leased to the King of England by the various prince-lings of the place called Germany. Friederich Wilhelm II, Landgraf of Hesse Cassel, was the most renowned of the German prince-lings and he had the best mercenary force on the continent. In the time of the Yankee Doodle Spies, Germany comprised over 300 independent yet interdependent states, dukedoms, princedoms, archbishoprics,electorates, margravates, landgravates and such. These would be greatly consolidated some thirty five years later by Napoleon. But the majority were from the areas of Hesse-Cassel and Hesse-Hanau. Others came from regiments raised in Brunswick, Anspach-Bayreuth, Waldeck and Anhalt-Zerbst.

The typical German soldier was  conscripted from the lower classes of these regions: men who had no other recourse to avoid conscription such as paying a tax, leveraging social position or bribing a corrupt official. Occasionally these "dregs" included craftsmen, tradesmen, educated men and other men of substance as well as the occasional fallen cleric. But most German soldiers who came to fight in America were farm boys who came from farms that reached hard times. So in most instances, these men were forced into service by circumstances. The fortunate soldier who did not fall in battle or succumb to disease might reach the rank of corporal or sergeant. But calling the German soldiers mercenaries is a bit misleading. They were soldiers serving in the army of their prince. It was their princes who were mercenary in leasing out whole regiments and companies to the King of England. This was not an uncommon occurrence in the 18th century.

Where  they served

The first wave of German troops came over in 1776 to reinforce the British for the planned attack on New York. Their first engagement was in the Battle of Long Island but the Hessians also fought in many other battles in the Revolutionary War including: Harlem Heights; Fort Washington;  White Plains; Savannah; Trenton; Bennington; Bemis Heights; Freeman's Farm; and Guilford Courthouse. They served as garrison forces and in hundreds of smaller engagements throughout the colonies. German troops made up a considerable chunk of the Cornwallis' surrendering army at Yorktown. They were noted for their ruthlessness and the American propagandists missed no opportunity to leverage that to stir up fear, anger and resentment against them and their British masters.

Hessians were present at Yorktown's surrender

How many came

The British purchased the services of 30,000 German soldiers, the payment of which went into the royal coffers of the German princes, not the troops. The units came from the German states of Hesse Cassel, Hesse Hanau, Brunswick, Anspach, Bayreuth, Anhalt Zerbst and Waldeck.

               Place               Number sent    Number not returned home

           Hesse Cassel                16,992             6,500
           Hesse Hannau                 2,422               981
           Brunswick                    5,723             3,015
           Anspach - Bayreuth           2,553             1,178
           Anhalt Zerbst                1,152               168
           Waldeck                      1,225               720

The total sent was 30,067 from 1776 to 1782; 12,562 did not return... 7,754 dead (mostly from disease) and 4,808 remained in America... Perhaps making them perhaps the first great wave of non-English speaking immigrants to America. 

How they dressed and armed

The Hessian soldiers included  infantry plus hussars (dismounted), three artillery companies, and four battalions of grenadiers.The infantry were sharpshooters, musketeers and fusiliers who were armed with smooth bore muskets. The line companies were armed with musket, bayonet and hanger (short sword). The line infantry made a contrast to the redcoats with their dark blue jackets. They wore tricorne  hats. In a style unique to the Germans, the traditional queue, the fashion at the time, was twisted so tightly it protruded straight out from beneath the German's headgear giving the appearance of a skillet handle. The Jaeger units carried a special short rifled musket and were excellent skirmishing in the rough American terrain. Most were hunters in Germany and excellent shots. They wore distinctive dark green jackets and hunting style hats. The grenadiers (easy to spot in their tall miter hats) were the biggest of the big. German troops, especially those from Hesse-Cassell, were powerfully built. The Hessian artillery used three-pounder cannons (so called because they fired three pound balls). These lighter cannon supported the infantry and were more manageable in the dense forests of America. A key event in the attack by the Americans on the Hessian Garrison at Trenton in December 1776 was a fight over one such cannon. Over one thousand Hessian soldiers were captured in the struggle, which arguably prevented the American cause from ending that winter. This is mentioned in book two of the Yankee Doodle Spies, The Cavalier Spy.

How they fought

Well, they fought well. The German regiments were disciplined, could endure great hardship, were highly trained and skilled, and most of all brave. Despite the harsh terms of their enlistment and the brutal discipline imposed, they had great elan and esprit de corps. They had pride in their profession and they did not like to lose. In fact, they always expected to win. The Germans were well armed with the best weapons of the period and fought in disciplined companies of between forty and eighty men. The companies  usually formed part of a regiment, typically named for its commander or place of origin. With extremely professional officers and non-commissioned officers the Germans made a reliable force with a combat power beyond their numbers. German regiments rarely failed to have a major impact on a battle. They led the attack at the passes on Long Island and stormed Fort Washington's outer works. Their reputation was such that their presence before Washington's army helped pin the American front at Brandywine while the rebel flank was turned up stream. I could go on.

Hessians adapted well to combat in America
Jaegers skirmishing

Who led them

Von Knyphausen
 The German officer corps (commissioned and non-commissioned) was excellent. They led from the front and many fell in combat - the most famous of course is Colonel Johann Von Rall, who was mortally wounded trying to rally his  regiments for a counter attack after the Continental Army surprised them at Trenton. Colonel Carl Von Donop was another noted Hessian officer who fought in many of the war's battles until he fell leading assaults at the Battle of Red Bank in 1777. The commander  of the Hessian forces was Wilhelm, Reichsfreiherr zu Innhausen und Knyphausen. He replaced the original commander Von Heister, who  commanded the Hessian troops with efficiency if not with distinction, Following the disaster of the Hessian defeat at Trenton, for which Heister, as corps commander, had ultimate responsibility,the old and ailing general was recalled to Hesse in 1777. It should be noted Heister clashed with Howe over strategy. Unlike other British generals, he could be quite blunt with the commander in chief. Perhaps this contributed to his return as well. Knyphausen remained the senior German officer for the remainder of the war. He led the attack on Fort Washington and one of the redoubts was later renamed for him. He commanded the New York garrison as well, but returned for health reasons to Germany in 1782.  General Friedrich Wilhelm von Lossberg succeeded him in command of the Hessian troops in New York.

Von Heister

Legend and Legacy 

Hessians were viewed as brutal oppressors
by most Americans
One can argue that the German contingent played  a crucial but perhaps not decisive role in the war. Although it is hard to imagine how Britain could have raised as many fine regiments at home to make up the difference if the Teutonic regiments had not been available. The large scale use of hired foreign troops played into the Americans' worst fears and prejudices, enabling papers and pamphlets (as well as word of mouth) to spread myths about these strange invaders in order to galvanize the people in what was in the end, a war of hearts and minds. Although the Hessians did behave harshly to civilians in some instances, many cases were embellished and and expanded to stir up the people. They were brutal to the rebels in combat though, and treated prisoners more cruelly than the British, but not more harshly than the American Loyalists and Patriots treated each other. The myths and legends grew and still abound. Written within memory of the war, it is no coincidence that Washington Irving's famed "Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow" was a Hessian artilleryman whose head was taken by a cannon ball. But it is no myth that the Hessians were valiant and reliable soldiers who added a unique dimension to the American struggle for independence.

Even the USPS contributes to the legend


  1. thank you for posting this - one of my ancestors was a Hessian soldier.

  2. I am not sure they were the first great wave of non-English speakers. Nearly all my ancestors came to America before the Revolution and they all spoke German up to my grand mother in one case.