Sunday, July 02, 2023

Great Britain's German Soldiers: The Hessians In The American Revolutionary War (1775 - 1783)

Hessian soldiers charging over American fortifications during the Battle of Fort Washington,
Manhattan Island, New York on Saturday, November 16, 1776.
Artwork by Don Troiani.

Great Britain's German Soldiers
The Hessians In The American Revolutionary War (1775 - 1783)

By: C.W. Roden

In the early morning hours of Thursday, August 22, 1776, an advance British expeditionary force of about 4,000 soldiers under the command of Generals Sir Henry Clinton and Lord Charles Cornwallis landed on Long Island at Gravesend Bay (modern-day Brooklyn, New York City, New York). 

Among the regiments of redcoat-wearing British regulars were other regiments of men wearing dark blue uniforms with tall, silver helmets who spoke in sharp German voices. These men were commonly known
among both the British and Continental forces as Hessians -- German auxiliary soldiers hired out to the British government by German princes to fight on the American continent to restore the British Crown's authority in the rebellious land.

Most modern histories of the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) barely mention the service of these foreign soldiers except in passing, and almost always in very dismissive terms. Almost all of these histories still erroneously refer to these men as mercenaries -- soldiers who sell themselves to fight for foreign causes for personal monetary gain.

No surprise when one considers that the vast majority of the history written about the war came from those who favored the winning side.

When most modern Americans think of the term "Hessian" they can often recall the story of George Washington's army crossing the frozen Delaware River on a snowy Christmas night of 1776 and surprising a bunch of hungover German mercenaries garrisoned in Trenton, New Jersey and soundly defeating them at sunrise the next morning. After this, these German soldiers are barely mentioned in most U.S. history books regarding the American Revolutionary War.

The truth is that the full story of these foreign-born soldiers serving with the British Army in North America is far more complex and interesting that just a single one-sided winter battle.

Throughout the course of the war these German soldiers would see action in many of the major campaigns of the American Revolutionary War from the New York and New Jersey Campaigns of 1776 to the defeat of Lord Cornwallis' British Army at Yorktown, Virginia in October of 1781.

The service of the Hessians were a critical part of the American Revolution, and understanding their history gives us a better understanding of the entire war.

This article will explore the question of who these German soldiers were and explain in detail about who these men were and their larger service in the struggle for American independence.

Who Were The Hessians?

The term "Hessian" itself is a somewhat inaccurate common American nickname for all the Germans soldiers who served alongside the British army. The exact origin of the synecdoche isn't really clear, though it likely originated in America with the soldiers of the Continental Army.

The name comes from the fact that roughly two-thirds of the estimated 34,218 German soldiers who ultimately fought with the British Army in North America came from the German states of Hesse-Kassel and Hesse-Hanau respectively
which led to all auxiliary troops being refereed to as Hessians, regardless of their true state of origin.

The remaining "Hessian" soldiers were from five other German states: Anhalt-Zerbst, Anspach-Beyreuth, Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel, Brunswick-Luneberg (Hanover) and

These German auxiliary soldiers would make up about one quarter of the overall British and American Loyalist land forces during the course of the American Revolutionary War.

Although the British Empire did have a somewhat large standing army and powerful navy at the start of the war, the British military itself was spread thinly across their vast global empire in order to maintain its security.

In spite of having tens of thousands of troops in North America throughout the war (including American Loyalist regiments that served in British uniform) it was still necessary for the British to supplement their numbers with hired foreign soldiers. For this
King George III and his loyalists in the British Parliament turned to their German allies in continental Europe.

Germany in 18th century Europe was not the unified nation as we know it today. It was made up of nearly three hundred feudal-like smaller Principalities, Duchies, and Counties loosely organized under the declining Holy Roman Empire that shared the same language and historical culture.
All of these German kingdoms were ruled by a Landgrave -- or Landgraf in German -- a king, prince, duke, or other noble-born aristocrat who inherited his position.

There were numerous power struggles and almost constant internal warfare between these various Germanic states. These feudal conflicts led to the creation of small professional armies, which were consequently experienced and well trained. Many German societies became super militarized, with most men undergoing annual training from adolescence well into adulthood, often serving for life or until they were too old and retired.

When Frederick II von Hessen-Kassel became the Landgraf of the German state of Hesse-Kassel in 1760, his land became described as "the most militarized society in all Germany" even more so than Prussia led by his namesake Frederick II -- best known to history as Frederick The Great.

Frederick II von Hessen-Kassel (1720-1785) was
the Landgrave of the militarized German State of
Hesse-Kassel and the largest supplier of German
auxiliaries to the British Crown during the
American Revolutionary War.
Portrait by Johann Heinrich Tischbein.

Under his rule all boys in Hesse-Kassel were required to register for military service when they were just seven years old! Often times these young boys started out as regimental musicians, then later they were trained as soldiers from that time until they were sixteen when they became regular soldiers of the Hessian army.

Each year, all Hessian men from ages 16 to 30 were required to go before a military board to be possibly selected for military service. There were some who were given exemptions from serving because their regular occupations were needed at home.

Anyone who didn't serve an essential civilian occupation was a potential military recruit: those not in school, people who were bankrupt or unemployed, the homeless, vagrants, and any others considered "expendable" were often forced into military service though conscription or being press-ganged.

The standard infantry soldier was obtained in this manner, although the cavalry tended to come from the upper classes.
The officers were often well-educated and comprised of noblemen, or aristocrats.

A Hessian soldier was drilled constantly and endlessly conditioned to be among the most ruthlessly disciplined
with harsh punishments for breaking the rules, specifically the wide use
of corporal punishment. The most common punishment was 30 lashes with a whip and for more serious offenses the soldiers were forced to run through the gauntlet in which they were pummeled by their peers with sticks, or cudgels.

Capital punishment was also used more often than in traditional European armies. Men could be hanged for leaving their post and their families would also be punished for the misconduct of their husbands, or sons.

While the Hessian army was a tough one to be in, it offered benefits to the ones who were chosen to go on military campaigns. Morale was high because opportunities for promotion were plentiful and based on merit.

One of the benefits of military life in Hesse-Kassel was that soldiers and their families were absolved from having to pay certain taxes, and the wages were higher than regular civilian wages.

A 19th century colorized print depicting a male German
peasant being conscripted into Hessian service.
Moreover, although looting of enemy civilians was expressly verboten (forbidden) they had the promise of shares in plunder and "booty" from military campaigns, which included items they could sell for additional money.

While their training and the discipline that was drilled into these men was often times brutal and extreme, but they were also proud and instilled with a strong sense of espirit de corps.

Furthermore compared to Prussia where there were many foreigners serving in the army, the Hessians of Hesse-Kassel were almost exclusively
landkinder (local men and boys) who served as soldiers. Hesse-Kassel became so militarized, in fact, that out of a total population of just over 350,000, more than 24,000 (about 7 percent) were in uniform by 1770.

The Hessian Service In Europe

Conflicts within these German states, and with the other European powers, created a body of well-trained and experienced soldiers, but hurt the feudal economy. To alleviate this, the princes of these small German states often hired out their armies to supplement their income to other nations.

The hiring of foreign armies
was actually not an unusual practice in 18th century Europe.
War and military contracting were good for business, and 18th century Europe certainly did not want for military conflicts, nor the need for experienced and highly disciplined soldiers.

German troops saw combat during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) fighting for Prince Eugene of Savoy in Italy and the Spanish Netherlands.
In 1714, about 6,000 Hessians were rented out and served the Swedish Empire during The Great Northern War with Russia (1700-1721). During the War of the Austrian Succession, (1740-1748), hired German troops fought on both sides, some by Great Britain and others by the France and would fight each other in various battles.

Many of these German States were close British allies -- one of them, the
Duchy of Brunswick-Luneburg (Electorate of Hanover) was actually ruled by King George III, who was a prince of Hanover through royal blood. His grandfather, King George I, had been born in 1660 in Hanover, the eldest son of Duke Ernest Augustus and his wife, Princess Sophia of the Palatinate, who was the granddaughter of King James I of England through her mother, Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia. George I became Duke of Hanover in 1698 upon the death of his father. 

As a result of the Hanoverian Succession in 1714 when George I came to power on the English throne, Great Britain effectively ruled the Duchy of Brunswick-Luneburg.
number of these Landgrafs were closely related to the British House of Hanover and were quite comfortable placing their troops under British command.

In addition to this the rulers of Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel came from the Bevern line of the House of Brunswick-Luneburg, while the British throne was occupied by the Hanover line of the same family.

King George I hired out 12,000 German auxiliaries from
Hesse-Kassel during the first Jacobite Rebellion of 1715 when war broke out with the Scots and French. In the 1740s and 1750s, Britain again deployed Hessians when French invasions threatened its shores, and again against the rebellious Scots in 1745-1746.

During the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), the crown would draw on more than 24,000 German soldiers from Hesse-Kassel which served with Germans from both the Anglo-Hanoverian and the Prussian armies against the French and their allies.

By 1760, during the height of the Seven Years' War, there were more German troops fighting for Great Britain than there were British soldiers in its own army in Europe at the time. Of the 90,000 men under arms at the time, only 22,000 were British, about 2,000 fewer than the Hessian contingent alone.

Time and time again, throughout the 1700s, these brutally disciplined soldiers of these feudal German states would prove themselves among Europe’s best fighting men.

With his own Hessian soldiers fighting abroad, Friedrich II was able to keep taxes low and spend money on public works projects in the state. Friedrich was even able to offer public welfare and public education with the money the hired out Hessian soldiers were bringing into their kingdom, which kept the citizens happy.

It was a winning proposition for everyone in Hesse-Cassel for them to be hired out as soldiers in foreign wars, even the soldiers themselves who saw their families reap the reward for their services even while many of them died brutally on some foreign battlefield far from home.

Hiring Out The Hessians

Although Great Britain had an army of about 45,000 soldiers in 1775, most of those were garrisoned all across the vast global British Empire with only about 8,850 in North America. Only about 3,000 of these redcoats where in Boston with General Thomas Gage with the rest garrisoned across the thirteen colonies and Canada.

Following the Battles of Lexington and Concord (Wednesday, April 19, 1775), and the subsequent Pyrrhic victory of the British military at the Battle of Bunker Hill (Saturday, June 17, 1775) during the Siege of Boston, King George III and the British Parliament realized that this rebellion would need far more than just a few thousand red-coated British soldiers in America to restore the Crown's authority.

On Wednesday, August 2, 1775, the British government issued the Proclamation of Rebellion, which declared that the American colonies were in an "open and avowed rebellion" and ordered officials of the British Empire to "use their utmost endeavours to withstand and suppress such rebellion."

Later that same year on Friday, October 27, 1775, the British government expanded on the proclamation with King George’s speech to the British Parliament in which he indicated that he intended to deal with the rebellion with armed force and asked for "friendly offers of foreign assistance" to suppress the rebellion.

Once again the British turned to their German allies on the Continent to acquire the manpower they would need to put down the rebellious American colonist.

In late 1775 George III sent General Sir William Fawcett to Germany to the principalities of Hanover and Hesse-Cassel to secure a deal for the hiring of soldiers. That same year Frederick II had a highly disciplined 12,000 man army ready for service in the field plus an additional 12,000 men serving in various garrison posts, all ready for service.

By mid-December 1775, a contract was drawn up between the parties involved.

On Wednesday, January 31, 1776, the British government struck a very expensive deal with Frederick II who promised them 12,000 Hessians soldiers -- fifteen infantry regiments, four grenadier battalions, two jager companies, and three companies of artillery -- with additional 1,000 replacements yearly for £3,000,000 pounds (£480 million today, or $597 million in U.S. dollars).

There was the provision that the landgraf would receive an additional payment for every three men wounded and each man killed in British service.

Duke Charles I of Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel and Brunswick-Luneburg (who again had strong family ties with King George III) signed a treaty with Britain to provide as many as 4,000 foot soldiers and 350 heavy dragoons for service in America and Europe.

Approximately 34,218 soldiers from seven German States were ultimately hired by the British Empire between 1776 to 1780: Hesse-Kassel (18,970), Hesse-Hanau (2,422), Anhalt-Zerbst (1,152), Anspach-Beyreuth (2,353), Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel (5,723), Waldeck (1,225), and Brunswick-Luneberg (Hanover) (2,373). Just under 30,000 of them would serve in North America and the rest would take part in other global conflicts, or garrison duty to free up British regulars for American service.

The cost of hiring out these well-trained and brutally disciplined soldiers was not cheap.
The subsidy agreements and treaties set the conditions by which each German principality would provide a certain number of troops, along with their equipment in exchange for subsidy payments from the British government. The German landgrafs also agreed to supply additional recruits, as needed, to make up for losses.

The British Parliament ultimately approved the annual expense by votes of 100-32 in the House of Lords, and 252-88 in the House of Commons.

The final overall numbers for the purchasing of their service, transportation of America, and military pay for these soldiers throughout the eight years of the war is estimated to have been about 32,000 German auxiliaries hired for the total cost of £4,700,000 pounds (the modern-day equivalent of about £7.5 billion British pounds, or $9.3 billion U.S. dollars)!

It was a huge cost for Great Britain to purchase the service of these soldiers, but the loss of the American colonies was deemed by King George III and the British authorities to be far more costly -- in both monetary terms and more importantly in terms of national prestige.

Were The Hessians Actually Mercenaries?

Word of the British hiring foreign mercenaries to fight in America quickly reached the rebellious North American colones in January of 1776. This news sparked great outrage as
the inhabitants of the American colonies feared the presence of such potentially dangerous and brutal European soldiers in their midst.

It was very useful for the propaganda of the Continental Army and the American Patriots to stress that there were foreign German mercenaries serving in the British army and to depict them as barbaric savages. This negative depiction of them became rooted in American memory and culture.

A standard Hessian Grenadier of the
Regiment Von Wutginau.
Artwork by Don Troiani.
American revolutionaries vilified the Hessians. In the Declaration of Independence the Second Continental Congress specifically condemned King George III for 27 colonial grievances. Listed among these acts is the hiring of German soldiers to fight in North America:

"He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation."

In America, these hired German soldiers are still often referred to erroneously as "Hessian mercenaries" both during the war itself, but also in most historical accounts written in the nearly 250 years since, even up till the present day; but this is a major inaccuracy.

In the modern sense of the term mercenary it implies a soldier for independent hire who makes a large amount of money from their service.

The German soldiers had no choice; they were still in the army of their prince, who had decided to rent their services to a foreign power without the individual soldier’s approval.
The employment contracts provided for the purchase price of their service went to their German landgrafs.

As for the soldiers themselves, the Hessians received the standard low payment for a British soldier serving in North America.

Both the British redcoat private and Hessian auxiliary soldier earned on average 8 pence a day (just less than one-tenth of £1 pound sterling), or a monthly sum of about 2 pounds and 5 shillings. If he were a corporal or sergeant they could earn more, as much as 12 pence (or one shilling) a day.

Also consider that half of a British and Hessian soldier's eight pence a day would go towards basic amenities: paying for the cost of his uniform, shoes, food, medical care, ect. The rest would go for incidental expenses such as drinking alcohol, pipe tobacco, washing and mending clothes, and other necessities.

This was not a great deal of money even back then, roughly less than what an unskilled laborer earned and serves to paint a bit more of a realistic picture of how much of a "mercenary" the Hessian soldier actually was. He received no extra pay for his duty, and remained loyal to the German state of his origin.

For that little bit of personal money, these German soldiers were packed like sardines in the hull of wooden sailing transport ship, shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to a county almost half the world far from anything he'd ever known, and told to fight in a war he had no personal stake in because the prince of his land told him to.

The Uniforms And Organization of the German Auxiliaries
A private of the Brunswick-Luneburg
Regiments. Note the striped breeches.
Portrait by Don Troiani.

The roughly thirty regiments of Germans auxiliaries who served with the British Army were made up of five distinctive categories.

The well-disciplined regular infantrymen, who made up the backbone of the Hessian forces. The Grenadiers, who were specialized light infantrymen largely used for flanking maneuvers. The Hussars, who were light cavalry units that employed quick hit and run tactics. Three companies of German Artillery units that served in North America.

Finally the elite Jager Corps (or Jagerkorps), light infantrymen that served as sharpshooters on the flanks of the regular infantry.

Jager (sometimes spelled Jaeger) in German means hunter, or huntsman. They were recruited from
civilian occupations (hunters, policemen, and foresters) that made them well-suited to patrolling and skirmishing in rough terrain on an individual and independent basis, rather than as part of a large-scale military unit or traditional line infantry.

The Jagers also had their own unique rifled muskets, rather than the standard smooth-bore muskets carried by the regular infantry units.
Jagers operated as a own standing force. They communicated with hunting horns and went to battle in small groups. This made them work best as snipers and sharpshooters when patrolling in wooded areas, and they would prove more than a match for American riflemen in skirmishes. 

The German kingdoms of Hesse-Kassel and Anspach-Bayreuth both provided a large contingent of Jagers who were an equal match for the Continental army's riflemen.

Although these soldiers all came from rival states, the German auxiliaries
A member of the Hessian Jagerkorps.
Artwork by Don Troiani.
took great pride in their personal appearance. They wore distinctive uniforms and accessories that identified them as belonging to a particular regiment. German soldiers from the Brunswick-Luneburg regiments, for example, wore white and blue striped breeches, while those from Hesse-Kassel wore tan breeches.

Infantry and grenadier soldiers wore dark blue uniform coats with red and yellow lining and tall pointed
mitre caps with silver or brass facings that resembled helmets. Black books with dark, or white gaiters would also largely be worn, along with white, or tan breeches. Most Hessian soldiers also wore their hair long and tied in the back in braided ponytails, or short with wigs with a similar style. Some regiments wore red neck stocks which signified that they were veterans of previous wars.

The Jagers were probably the most distinctive in appearance with their red-lined green coats and tan breeches with black boots and gaiters. This made for better camouflage in wooded areas than the standard uniforms of their fellow Germans. They also carried short hunting swords called Hirschfangers, or deer catchers.

These German regiments were often named after, or referred to by the names of their commanding officers. Many of these changed over the course of the war. For example, the Hesse-Kassel Regiment Von Trumback later became the Regiment Von Bose in 1778 when its previous commanding officer was replaced by Colonel Carl von Bose.

Thought these Germans fought with the British military and were required to swear an oath of loyalty to the British Crown without renouncing their oaths to their landgrafs, their loyalties remained with their various German kingdoms and they proudly served underneath their own distinct and unique regimental flags rather than carrying the British King's Colours.

The Germans In The Northern Campaigns 1776-1778

The first division of 8,000 Hesse-Kassel troops, along with one of the Jager companies, set off for North America on Monday, May 6, 1776 from the Netherlands aboard Dutch sailing ships.

Many of these men where also accompanied by their wives and children.
It was a common practice in the 18th century for each British or Hessian regiment to bring along 50-80 wives who served as nurses and fulfilled other support roles for the army.

On the voyage from Europe to America, while officers generally enjoyed better quarters, conditions for the enlisted men herded below in the hulls of the wooden Dutch sailing ships were often were little better than those onboard North Atlantic slave ships. Cramped  and overcrowded  accommodations, rancid drinking water, and poor food were the norm for the nearly three month journey across the Atlantic Ocean.
Death on the transports to American often claimed thirty to forty German soldiers out of every thousand.

Colonel Carl Emil Ulrich von Donop
(1732-1777) of Hesse-Kassel served
with distinction in North America during
the New York and New Jersey Campaign
in the first years of the war commanding
the prestigious Hessian Jagerkorps.

After a brief stopover in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the first Hessian troops to arrive in America landed at Staten Island, New York on Thursday, August 15, 1776. These Hesse-Kassel troops commanded by
Hessian Generals Leopold Philip de Heister  and Wilhelm von Knypahausen, both men veterans of several continental European wars.

In their first official action of the war, the Hessian Jagerkorps took place at the village of Flatbush (modern-day Brooklyn) on Long Island, New York, where the Jagers, along with other Hessians, had stationed themselves on August 22. The Jagerkorps had been placed with the brigade under the command of Colonel Carl Emil Ulrich von Donop and were led by Captain August von Wreden, who would distinguish himself throughout the war, eventually earning the order Pour la Vertu Militaire from Frederick II, along with three other officers of the elite Jagerkorps.

The Hessians first major engagement took place less than two weeks later, in the Battle of Long Island on Tuesday, August 27, 1776 where they were decisive in securing the British victory. Hessian casualties were 5 killed and 26 wounded -- their first casualties of the war.

German auxiliaries subsequently fought in almost every major battle of the New York and New Jersey Campaign that year.

The Hessians distinguished themselves at the Battle of White Plains on Monday, October 28, 1776, where two Hessian regiments of infantry under Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall and Jagers under Colonel von Donop were instrumental in securing the British victory.

During the battle the Hessians took heavy casualties (about 53 killed and wounded) but remained calm and disciplined as they continued their march towards the American lines through grass that was on fire and heavy gunfire. Their iron discipline led to victory for the British and the grudging respect of their enemy.

A few weeks later at the Battle of Fort Washington on Saturday, November 16, 1776, these same Hessian regiments under General von Knyphausen overran the American defenders. Knyphausen gave the honor of requesting the American surrender to Colonel Rall. With these victories, the British would capture and hold New York City for the remainder of the war.

By December of 1776, with the help of their German allies, the British Army under General Sir William Howe had driven the survivors of General George Washington's Continental Army from New York and New Jersey, and began taking up winter quarters along the banks of the Delaware River, occupying several small towns and villages.

Two Hessian brigades under Colonels Johann Rall and Carl von Donop took up positions at the towns of Trenton and Bordentown along the New Jersey side of the Delaware River.

On the Christmas night of Wednesday, December 25, 1776, in one of the boldest actions of the war, Washington's Continental Army crossed the icy Delaware River during the middle of a snowstorm and surprised Colonel Rall's Hessians after sunrise the next morning.

The Battle of Trenton was a decisive victory for the Continental Army, with Colonel Rall mortally wounded and dying later that day and nearly his entire force captured, or killed. At Trenton the Germans lost 105 men killed and wounded and 918 men captured (including 23 officers) six brass cannons, four regimental standards, and nearly a thousand rifles and ammunition.

Remembered in American history as one of the most defining battles of the war, the Battle of Trenton was also the first major defeat for the German auxiliaries, but it would not be the last they would suffer in the northern campaigns.

The mortal wounding of Colonel Johann Rall at the Battle of Trenton on Thursday, December 26, 1776.
The battle was the first major defeat of the Hessians during the American Revolutionary War.
Artwork by Don Troiani.

Less well remembered, but certainly no less important, was the Battle of Assunpink Creek (or the Second Battle of Trenton) a week later on Thursday, January 2, 1777, where Hessian Jagers served as skirmishers with a British force commanded by General Lord Cornwallis attacked with the hopes of capturing Washington's army still holding Trenton.

The Jagers suffered 15 casualties in the battle (4 were killed and 11 wounded) along with 365 British casualties. Like the Battle of Trenton, this too was a strategic loss for the Crown's forces as Washington's army held the ground by the end of the day's fighting.

Washington's army would sneak out of Trenton that night, march further into New Jersey, and defeat British forces at the Battle of Princeton the next day on Friday, January 3rd, before returning across the Delaware River safely into Pennsylvania for the winter.

During the winter months of 1777, the Jager Corps would take part in an indecisive series of skirmishes known as the Forage War (January - March, 1777) and then later at the Battle of Bound Brook (Sunday, April 13, 1777) where Jagers under the command of Hessian Captain Johann von Ewald, along with Colonel von Dunop's Hessian
grenadier battalions, took part in the British victory.

When the major fighting resumed in the spring of 1777, the German auxiliaries continued to serve with distinction in the northern campaigns in Pennsylvania and New York, though with some considerable cost of life.

German troops from Hesse-Hanau and Hesse-Kasel and Anspach-Bayreuth served in Howe's British army during the Philadelphia Campaign (1777-1778).

The Hessians under General Knyphausen would be instrumental in the British victory at the Battle of Brandywine Creek on Thursday, September 11, 1777. Knyphausen launched the final attack against the weakened American center across Chadds Ford, breaking through and forcing the disheartened Continentals to retreat and leave behind most of their cannons. Of the 587 British casualties in the battle, about 40 were Hessians. 

Almost a week later during the Battle of Whitehorse Tavern
Hessian battle flag used in the 1700s.
on Thursday, September 18, 1777, Von Donop's Hessian Jagerkorps bravely engaged the Americans during a pouring thunderstorm. The sharpshooter's weapons were virtually useless since the rain dampened the gunpowder, so they had to charge using their bayonets and swords. They captured 34 prisoners while only suffering 12 casualties --  5 killed and seven wounded.

Following Howe's capture of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on Friday, September 26, 1777, the Hessians fought a successful defensive battle against Washington's attack at the Battle of Germantown on Saturday, October 4, 1777. Of the 520 British casualties at Germantown, 24 of them were Hessians.

The Battle of Red Bank, one of the last major battles of the Pennsylvania Campaign that year took place on the evening of Wednesday, October 22, 1777 on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River opposite Philadelphia at Fort Mercer. About 1,200 Hessians under Colonel von Dunop attacked the fort located on high ground at Red Bank and were defeated by the fort's outnumbered defenders.

The Hessians reported casualties of 82 killed and 228 wounded with 60 missing, or captured -- their worst defeat since the Battles of Trenton and Assunpink Creek. Among the wounded was Colonel Von Dunop himself, who would die of his injuries three days later on Saturday, October 25th and is buried at the Red Bank Battlefield.

Hessian and Brunswick troops served in New York and Canada with the British forces under General John Burgoyne during the ill-fated Saratoga Campaign (June 14 - October 17, 1777).

Of the 7,000 regular troops under Burgoyne's command, approximately 3,100 of these were Hesse-Hanau, Hesse-Cassel, and Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel troops commanded by
Major General Baron Friedrich Adolph Riedesel.

These troops took part in almost all the battles of the campaign, beginning with the Siege of Fort Ticonderoga New York (July 2 - July 6, 1777) and the subsequent Battle of Hubbardton, (modern-day Hubbardton, Vermont) on Monday, July 7th. During both actions 10 Germans were killed and 14 were wounded.

A month later, the Germans would suffer one of their worst defeats of the campaign at the Battle of Bennington on Saturday, August 16, 1777 where a Hessian and Brunswick force of about 1,400 men under the command of
Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Baum and supported by Lieutenant Colonel Heinrich von Breymann were ambushed and soundly defeated by Brigadier General John Stark and his New Hampshire Militia along with Colonel Seth Warner's Green Mountain Boys. The battle ended with 207 Germans killed and wounded -- among the dead Colonel Baum -- and over 700 captured.

These losses, along with a lack of support from General Howe in Pennsylvania, led to the final Battles of Saratoga, New York at the Battle of Freeman's Farm (Friday, September 19th) and the Battle of Bemis Heights (Tuesday, October 7th).

Around 300 Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel men under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Heinrich von Breymann defended one of the two redoubts that defended the British position on Bemis Heights. The redoubt and the Germans were captured by Continental forces led by Major General Benedict Arnold.

It was during this battle that Arnold would be severely wounded in the leg by an unknown German auxiliary soldier retreating from the battle. The subsequent historical events that followed this action would have widespread consequences for Benedict Arnold personally, and for the American cause as a whole.

"Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne would surrender his army soon after to America General Horatio Gates, leading to around 6,200 British and German troops becoming prisoners of war. 

Hessian Infantry of the Breymann Grenadiers (Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel Troops) retreating during the
Battle of Bemis Heights during the second day of the Battle of Saratoga on Tuesday, October 7, 1777.
Artwork by Don Troiani.

The Germans would find victory in battle again a year later during the Battle of Quaker Hill -- or the Battle of Rhode Island (Saturday, August 29, 1778) where four Hessian regiments and two Anspach-Beyreuth regiments under the command of Major General Frederich Wilhelm von Lossberg successfully engaged and defeated Continental and French forces attempting to recapture Aquidneck Island and the British and Hessian garrison there. Of the 260 British casualties of the battle, 128 were German. 

Prisoners & Deserters

Many of the estimated 6,000 Germans who were captured during the course of the war were held as prisoners around Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The area was ideal because of its distance from the fighting, and large German-speaking population. Hessian prisoners of war were put to work on local farms as laborers.

Today there is a stone memorial with a bronze plaque on the corner of Jordan and Gordon Streets in Allentown, Pennsylvania that marks the location of the prison camp where the Hessian prisoners of war were held.

Those Hessian and Brunswick auxiliaries who surrendered with Burgoyne's British Army at Saratoga were held as prisoners of war alongside their British counterparts at the Albemarle Barracks near modern-day Charlottesville, Virginia as part of what became known as the Convention Army.

Hessian POW Camp memorial in
Allentown, Pennsylvania, USA.

As prisoners of war, many of these Germans came to better know the people of the American States and came to realize that the "godless rebels" the British told about were anything but the sort. Learning this fact firsthand, many of these prisoners would later choose to remain in America following the war. A few others would even turn their coats and fight for the Continental Army.

The Continental Congress did attempt to entice Hessian soldiers and officers to desert the army. They issued several proclamations aimed at the Germans. Depending on rank a Hessian deserter was given 50 or more acres of land with officers granted more than 100 acres. It also promised no taxes for ten years, and all the rights and privileges of an American citizen.

Thousands of these Germans, seeing a good thing, would desert into the American woods and blended into the fabric of the country, but they did so at the risk of execution. Many deserters were hunted by the British and Loyalists and brought back to be executed by their own Hessian commanders, or face running the gauntlet.

African-Americans In Hessian Service

Great Britain's hired German allies
Black drummer of the Hesse-Hanau
Artwork by Don Troiani.
themselves came from societies where serfdom still existed for the most part, they were appalled by the British and American institution of African slavery and the general treatment of blacks by the American colonists.

Black British Loyalists, many of them former Patriots slaves who were motivated primarily by the promise of freedom for their service, joined the ranks of the Hessians.

The Germans sometimes hired these blacks as camp servants (cooks and laborers), as well as military pioneers, and occasionally incorporated them into their formations as musicians, particularly as regimental drummers which was considered a position of honor in European armies at the time.

In some cases, Black Americans actually served in the Hessian lines as uniformed infantry soldiers as vacancies from battlefield losses and deaths from disease decimated German ranks.

Blacks enlisted into German units held the same enlisted rank as some white soldiers.

Modern research into how many of these men served with the Hessians is difficult because, in many cases, their names were recorded by their German equivalent (examples: Carl becomes Karl, John becomes Johann, and Lewis becomes Ludwig). Also the records of Hessian service do not include the racial identity of these men, only that there were enlisted and served their military roles. The estimated numbers of Black Hessian service range from a few hundred to just under a thousand over the entire course of the war. 

Germans In The Southern Campaign

Although their role in the Southern Campaign of the American Revolutionary War was nowhere near as prominent as it would be in the north and in the rest of North America, the German auxiliaries did see some important action in the south.

Four battalions of Germans (about a 1000 men) were present with the British and Loyalist Provincial forces in Georgia under the command of Scottish-born Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell during the 1st Battle of Savannah (Tuesday, December 29, 1778).

Among them were the musketeers of the Hessian Regiment Von Bose which transferred south in November of 1778 and participated in the capture of Savannah. The grenadiers of the regiment would remain in New York for the remainder of the war.

At the Battle of Stono Ferry, South Carolina (Sunday, June 20, 1779), the regiment served successfully as part of the rearguard covering the retreat of British forces attempting to capture Charleston. The Von Bose regiment also fought in the 2nd Battle of Savannah (September 16 - October 18, 1779) along with British and Loyalist forces in successfully defending the occupied American port city from a combined Continental Army and French Naval siege.

The musketeers of the Regiment Von Bose under the command of
Major Johann Christian du Buy also participated in the British Siege and capture of Charleston (March 29 - May 12, 1780) and remained in Charleston as part of the occupation forces throughout the remainder of 1780 and early 1781.

The Von Bose Regiment would later march north with General Lord Cornwallis’s British Army and participated in the Pyrrhic victory at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina on Thursday, March 15, 1781 along with an attached
Ansbach-Bayreuth Jager Company commanded by Captain Friedrich Wilhelm von Roder
The battle lasted about two hours. The total loss of the British was five hundred and thirty-two, eighty of which belonged to the Regiment von Bose and the Jagers. Lord Cornwallis would retreat to the North Carolina coast after the battle.

In addition to the musketeers of Regiment Von Bose, the German troops accompanying Lord Cornwallis' disastrous expedition to Yorktown, Virginia were Hessian and Ansbach-Bayreauth regiments. These included the Hessian Jager Company under Captain von Ewald, two Ansbach-Bayreuth Infantry Battalions commanded by Colonels Friedrich Voit von Salzburg
and Johann von Seybothen, Captain von Roder's Jager Company, the Ansbach-Bayreauth Artillery, the Hessian Prince Hereditaire Regiment under Lieutenant Colonel Matthew de Fuchs, and the Fusilier Regiment Erbprinz -- an estimated 1,800 German soldiers overall.

During the decisive three week Siege of Yorktown (September 28 - October 19, 1781) men of the Regiment Von Bose would fight in one of the final major engagements of the siege while defending Redoubt No. 9 from the assault by French soldiers on the evening of Sunday, October 14, 1781. The result of the engagement was the capture of the redoubt with 18 killed and another 50 British and Hessian soldiers captured.

With the capture of Redoubts 9 and 10, the Franco-American army was able to complete their last siege trench and, five days later, Cornwallis surrendered his army, effectively ending the major fighting of the war in North America.
Among the 8,000 soldiers of Cornwallis' Army that surrendered, almost 1,600 of them were German auxiliaries. The rest died either as a result of the siege, or mostly from diseases in camp contracted due to the close quarters within the town.

German Service For Great Britain Outside Of America

Over the course of the seven years of war these German soldiers spent extended periods of time in locations as widely dispersed and varied, from Canada in the North to West Florida and Cuba in the South. Without the added strength of the German auxiliary troops, the British war effort in the wider global conflict against America's French and Spanish allies would have been seriously hampered.

One battalion of around 700 Anhalt-Zerbst men arrived in North America in May 1778 and were assigned to guard Quebec City and the Saint Lawrence River valley from another potential American invasion. Hessians also served in Nova Scotia for five years (1778–1783), where they protected the colony from American privateers, such as during the 1782 Raid on Lunenburg.

Another 770 German soldiers of the Waldeck Regiments served as garrison troops in the gulf port town of Pensacola in what was then British controlled Western Florida in 1779, helping to defend from the Spanish. Many of these men died from the elements and from disease. When the Spanish captured Pensacola on May of 1781 following a two month siege only about 250 Waldeck men were left to be taken prisoner.
British prisoners of war were later exchanged, but the Waldeck prisoners were kept by the Spanish in New Orleans, Veracruz, and for more than a year in Havana before finally being exchanged in 1782.

In addition to fighting in North America, German troops saw action in other parts of the British Empire, both in the defense of the British West Indies and in Europe and Asia. Perhaps most notably the Hanoverian troops commanded by General August de la Motte who served with the British during the Great Siege of Gibraltar (June 24, 1779 - February 7, 1783) -- the largest siege of the war. Hanoverians also served with the British during the Spanish invasion of Menorca (1781-1782). Two regiments from Hanover were also sent to British India, where they served in the indecisive Siege of Cuddalore (June 7 - July 25, 1783) during the Second Anglo-Mysore War (1780-1784).

The Human Cost Of War & Aftermath
The final German auxiliary soldiers departing America with the British soldiers and returning to Europe left Sandy Hook, New York on the morning of Tuesday, November 25, 1783 -- about seven years and three months from their arrival in North America. Many of their comrades whom their fought with did not return. 

Hessian casualties are estimated at about 7,554 throughout the course of the war in North America. Like most wars in the 18th and 19th century, the vast majority of these deaths were the results of
disease, illnesses, and accidents. Only about 1,200 were actually killed in combat actions. 

It has been estimated that, of the nearly 19,000 troops Hesse-Kassel contributed during the course of the Revolutionary War, 6,500 did not return -- the highest number of losses among the various German States that sent troops to North America.

Hesse-Hanau provided 2,422 troops; but only 1,441 returned in 1783. A significant number of Hessian soldiers were volunteers who had enlisted with the intention of staying in the Americas when the war was over.

Brunswick sent 5,723 troops to North America, of whom 3,015 did not return home. Some losses were to death or desertion, but many Brunswickers became familiar with America during their time as prisoners, and when the war ended, they were granted permission to stay (many of them with their families brought to America) by both Congress and their officers.

Ansbach-Bayreuth sent 2,353 soldiers, about 461 did not return to Germany.

Waldeck contributed 1,225 men to the war, and lost 720 as casualties or deserters. In the course of the war, 358 Waldeck soldiers died from sickness, and 37 died from combat related injuries.

Of the formerly enslaved black soldiers who joined the ranks of the Hessians, about one hundred of these men traveled back to Hesse-Kassel with the departing Hessian troops, bringing some of their family members with them and settling in Germany and other parts of Europe. These soldiers and their families would live the rest of their lives in Germany as free people, having gained the respect of their former comrades. Some of their descendants remain there to this day.

After the war some German soldiers chose to stay in the newly independent United States, drawn by the opportunity and freedom offered by the new nation. Its estimated that of the roughly about 6,000 Germans either deserted, or were discharged, and remained in the United States and Canada after the war. About 2,500 of these men and their families settled in Canada -- the majority in Quebec and the rest in Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island. The remainder settled in the newly formed United States in German-speaking areas in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, and the Carolinas.

When the final number is tallied, of the 29,840 German soldiers who served in the eight years of the American Revolutionary War in North America, 17,313 returned home to Europe and their respective German States, while 12,527 did not.

The practice of hiring out Hessians to foreign powers would continue in Europe until at least the end of the 18th century, with 12,000 Germans auxiliaries fighting in Great Britain's war with France in 1793 and another 1,000 would serve alongside the British in the Irish Rebellion of 1798.

Following the French defeat of Austrian and Russian coalition forces at the Battle of Austerlitz on Monday, December 2, 1805 and the subsequent signing of the Treaty of Pressburg later that month, Hesse-Kassel was annexed to the Confederation of the Rhine (1806-1813) by Napoleon Boneparte (Napoleon I of France). Less than a year later, on Wednesday, August 6, 1806, the Holy Roman Empire came to an end and with it the days of the hired Hessian soldier.

This blogger would like to thank the following sources for the information in this article:

Rodney Atwood, The Hessians: Mercenaries from Hessen-Kassel in the American Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980.
David Hackett Fischer, Washington's Crossing. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Charles Ingrao, Barbarous Strangers': Hessian State and Society during the American Revolution, The American Historical Review, 87 (1982), 954-976.
Edward J. Lowell, The Hessians, and the German Auxiliaries of Great Britain in the Revolutionary War (New York: Harper & Bros. 1884) ISBN-13 ‏: ‎ 978-1521121320.
Benson Bobrick, Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.
Michael Stephenson, Patriot Battles: How The War of Independence Was Fought. New York: Harper Perennial, 2007.

Captain Johann Ewald, Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal. Yale University Press, 1979.
ISBN-0300021534 (ISBN13: 9780300021530).
Black Hessians: American Blacks as German Soldiers, Elliott W. Hoffman, Negro History Bulletin Vol. 44, No. 4 (October–November–December, 1981), pp. 81-82, 91. Published by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.

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