Two Hessian soldiers of the Leibregiment
|Part of||Attached to but not incorporated into the British Army|
Although characterized in American popular narratives as mercenaries, jurists of the time drew a distinction between auxiliaries and mercenaries: auxiliaries served their prince and were sent to the aid of another prince, while mercenaries served a foreign prince as individuals. By this distinction, the troops which served in the American Revolution were auxiliaries.
Hessians were contracted by the throne of Great Britain and others in several 18th-century European wars, including the Irish Rebellion of 1798, but are most widely associated with the American Revolution. Around 30,000 German soldiers fought for the British during that conflict, a quarter of the troops sent to British America. The term Hessians is used by Americans to refer to all German troops fighting on the British side, a form of synecdoche, as 65% came from the German states of Hesse-Kassel and Hesse-Hanau, while the remainder were leased from other small German states. The Hessians were led by Wilhelm von Knyphausen, entering British service as entire units, fighting under their own German flags, commanded by their usual officers, and wearing their existing uniforms.
The use of German troops to suppress a rebellion in the British colonies angered American activists, and one of the 27 colonial grievances against King George III in the Declaration of Independence was "transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries".
The small German states of the Holy Roman Empire had professional armies, which their ruling princes sometimes hired out for service with other armies as auxiliaries. When military conflict broke out, the German states provided a ready supply of trained troops that were prepared to go into action immediately. Hesse-Kassel was particularly prominent in this role:
Between 1706 and 1707, 10,000 Hessians served as a corps in Eugene of Savoy's army in Italy before moving to the Spanish Netherlands in 1708. In 1714, 6,000 Hessians were rented to Sweden for its war with Russia whilst 12,000 Hessians were hired by George I of Great Britain in 1715 to combat the Jacobite Rebellion. ... In the midst of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1744, 6,000 Hessians were fighting with the British army in Flanders whilst another 6,000 were in the Bavarian army. By 1762, 24,000 Hessians were serving with Ferdinand of Brunswick's army in Germany.-- John Childs, Rethinking Leviathan
In most of these wars, Hesse-Kassel never became a belligerent by declaring war on any other country. The troops were hired out for service in other armies, and Hesse-Kassel itself had no stake in the outcome of the war. Thus, it was possible for Hessians to serve with the British and Bavarian armies in the War of the Austrian Succession, even though Britain and Bavaria were on opposite sides of the war.
In the Seven Years' War, the forces of Hesse-Kassel served with both the Anglo-Hanoverian and the Prussian armies against the French; although Hesse-Kassel was technically allied to Britain and Prussia, her troops were actually leased by the British. In July 1758, the city of Kassel and most of the principality was occupied by a French army under Charles, Prince of Soubise, easily overcoming the home defence force of 6,000 Hessian militia. Soubise ordered his troops to live off the land while taking high-ranking hostages and extorting payments of cash and produce; the intention being to force the withdrawal of Hessian troops from the war. Hessian forces together with their allies attempted to liberate their homeland but were repulsed at the Battle of Sanderhausen on 23 July. They later participated in the first Siege of Cassel in 1761 and the second Siege of Cassel in 1762 which was finally surrendered by the French that November, the last action of the whole war.
To field a large professional army with a relatively small population, Hesse-Kassel became the most militarized state in Europe. The country maintained 5.2% to 6.7% of its population under arms in the 18th century, a larger proportion than even heavily-militarized Prussia. In contrast to Prussia, which relied in part on mercenaries from other German states, Hesse-Kassel employed only Landeskinder (natives of the country). One in four households had someone serving in the army. Hesse-Kassel manufactured its own weapons and uniforms. Its textile industry was so prosperous that workers could afford to buy meat and wine every day. Subsidy payments from Great Britain were used to build public works and buildings, and taxes were reduced by one-third from the early 1760s to 1784. In 1884, the American historian Edward Jackson Lowell lauded the Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel for spending the British money wisely, describing him as "one of the least disreputable of the princes who sent mercenaries to America."
The characterization of Hessian troops as "mercenaries" remains controversial over two centuries later. American history textbooks refer to them as "mercenaries." American historian Charles Ingrao said that the local prince had turned Hesse into a "mercenary state" by renting out his regiments to fund his government. However, British historian Stephen Conway called them "Britannia's auxiliaries." Canadian military historian Rodney Atwood explained that jurists of the time drew a distinction between auxiliaries and mercenaries. Auxiliaries served their prince and were sent to the aid of another prince, while mercenaries served a foreign prince as individuals.
Great Britain maintained a relatively small standing army, so it found itself in great need of troops at the outset of the American Revolutionary War. Several German princes saw an opportunity to earn some extra income by hiring out their regular army units for service in America. Their troops entered the British service not as individuals but in entire units, with their usual uniforms, flags, equipment, and officers. Methods of recruitment varied according to the state of origin. The contingent from Waldeck for example was drawn from a principality army based on universal conscription, from which only students were exempt. Other German princes relied on long-service voluntary enlistment supplemented by conscription and the press-gang when numbers fell short. Many of the princes were closely related to the House of Hanover and were comfortable placing their troops under British command.
A total of 29,875 German troops fought alongside British troops in the American Revolution, of which 16,992 came from Hesse-Kassel and 2,422 from Hesse-Hanau. Other contingents came from Brunswick (4,300), Ansbach-Bayreuth (2,353), Anhalt-Zerbst (1,119) and Waldeck (1,225). Since the majority of the German troops came from Hesse, Americans use the term Hessians to refer to all German troops fighting on the British side, a form of synecdoche.
Hessian troops included jägers, hussars, three artillery companies, and four battalions of grenadiers. Most of the infantry were chasseurs (sharpshooters), musketeers, and fusiliers. Line infantry was armed with muskets, while the Hessian artillery used the three-pounder cannon. The elite jäger battalions used the büchse, a short, large-caliber rifle well-suited to woodland combat. Initially, the average regiment was made up of 500 to 600 men. Later in the war, the regiments had only 300 to 400 men.
The first Hessian troops to arrive in North America landed at Staten Island, in New York, on August 15, 1776. Their first engagement was in the Battle of Long Island. The Hessians fought in almost every battle, although after 1777, the British used them mainly as garrison and patrol troops. An assortment of Hessians fought in the battles and campaigns in the southern states during 1778-1780 (including Guilford Courthouse), and two regiments fought at the Siege of Yorktown in 1781.
Americans, both Rebel and Tory, often feared the Hessians, believing them to be rapacious and brutal mercenaries. Meanwhile, Hessian diaries frequently express disapproval of the British troops' conduct towards the colonists, including the destruction of property and the occasional execution of prisoners, the latter being doubly upsetting when American Germans were among them.
The British common soldiers, in a similar fashion to the Americans, distrusted the primarily German-speaking Hessians and hence, despite their strong military performance, often treated them with contempt.
The chaplain then recounts the case of a Jaeger subaltern who was assailed "by an Englishman in his cups" with the declaration: "God damn you, Frenchy, you take our pay!" The outraged Hessian replied: "I am a German and you are a shit." This was followed by an impromptu duel with hangers, in which the Englishman received a fatal wound. The chaplain records that General Howe pardoned the Jaeger officer and issued an order that "the English should treat the Germans as brothers." This order began to have influence only when "our Germans, teachable as they are" had learned to "stammer a little English." Apparently, this was a prerequisite for the English to show them any affection.
The Hessians served in Nova Scotia for five years (1778-1783). They protected the colony from American privateers, such as when they responded to the Raid on Lunenburg (1782). They were led by Baron Oberst Franz Carl Erdmann von Seitz.
General George Washington's Continental Army had crossed the Delaware River to make a surprise attack on the Hessians in the early morning of December 26, 1776. In the Battle of Trenton, the Hessian force of 1,400 was quickly overwhelmed by the Continentals, with only about 20 killed and 100 wounded, but 1,000 captured.
The Hessians captured in the Battle of Trenton were paraded through the streets of Philadelphia to raise American morale; anger at their presence helped the Continental Army recruit new soldiers. Most of the prisoners were sent to work as farmhands.
By early 1778, negotiations for the exchange of prisoners between Washington and the British had begun in earnest. These included Nicholas Bahner(t), Jacob Strobe, George Geisler, and Conrad Grein (Konrad Krain), who were a few of the Hessian soldiers who deserted the British forces after being returned in exchange for American prisoners of war. These men were both hunted by the British for being deserters and by many of the colonists as a foreign enemy.
Americans tried to entice Hessians to desert the British and join the large German-American population. The US Congress authorized the offer of 50 acres (approximately 20 hectares) of land to individual Hessian soldiers to encourage them to desert the group. British soldiers were offered 50 to 800 acres, depending on rank.
Many Hessian prisoners were held in camps at the interior city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Lancaster was a center for the Pennsylvania Dutch, who treated the German prisoners well. The Hessians responded favorably; some volunteered for extra work assignments, helping to replace local men serving in the Continental Army. After the war, many POWs never returned to Germany and instead accepted American offers of religious freedom and free land, becoming permanent settlers. By contrast, British prisoners were also held in Lancaster, but these men did not respond favorably to good treatment and often tried to escape.
About 30,000 Germans served in the Americas, and, after the war ended in 1783, some 17,313 returned to their German homelands. Of the 12,526 who did not return, about 7,700 had died. Some 1,200 were killed in action, and 6,354 died from illnesses or accidents, mostly the former. Approximately 5,000 German troops, mainly press-ganged or conscripted in their countries of origin, settled in North America, either the United States or Canada.
Artillery and engineers:
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Next in importance came the armies of Hesse-Kassel (not to be confused with Hesse-Darmstadt) and Brunswick, which were not allied contingents in a political sense, but were directly leased by the British government.
Whereas in the mid-eighteenth century, Austria and Russia had between approximately 1.1 per cent and 1.5 per cent of their population in the army, the percentage for Prussia for 4.2. ... In 1730, a year of peace but also of war preparations, Hesse-Cassel had 1 in 19 of the population under arms.
Because most of these soldiers-for-hire came from the Germany principality of Hesse, the Americans called all the European mercenaries Hessians.