Two Hessian soldiers of the Leibregiment
|Part of||Attached to but not incorporated into the British Army|
Hessians ( or ) were German soldiers who served as auxiliaries to the British Army during the American Revolutionary War. The term is an American synecdoche for all Germans who fought on the British side, since 65% came from the German states of Hesse-Kassel and Hesse-Hanau. Known for their discipline and martial prowess, around 30,000 Germans fought for the British during war, comprising a quarter of British forces.
Although very often referred to by scholars as mercenaries, Hessians were legally and politically distinguished as auxiliaries; unlike mercenaries, who served a foreign government on their own accord, auxiliaries were soldiers hired out to a foreign party by their own government, to which they remained in service. Many German states regularly rented the service of their troops to fight in wars they had no interest in throughout the 18th century as a source of funding. Like most auxiliaries, Hessians served with foreign armies as entire units, fighting under Hessian flags, commanded by their usual officers, and wearing their existing uniforms.
Hessians played a key role in the American Revolution. They served with distinction in many battles across North America, particularly in the northern theater, most notably at White Plains and Fort Washington. The added manpower and skill of German troops is credited for greatly sustaining the British war effort, but it also inflamed the American cause. The use of "large armies of foreign mercenaries" was one of the 27 colonial grievances against King George III in the Declaration of Independence, while the Patriots cited the usage of Hessians as proof of British cruelty and indifference towards the colonists.
The use of foreign soldiers was not unusual in 18th century Europe. In the two centuries leading up to the American Revolution, the continent was characterized by constant warfare, and military manpower was in high demand.Germany was not yet a unified nation, but a collection of several hundred states loosely organized under the Holy Roman Empire. Conflict between and among these nations led to the creation of professional armies, which were consequently experienced and well trained. Many German societies became militarized, with most men undergoing annual training from adolescence well into adulthood, often serving for life or until they were too old. German states varied considerably in size and wealth, and several came to rely on their troops as an economic resource, especially since sustaining a standing army was costly.
When military conflict broke out, as it often did in Europe, German states provided a ready supply of trained troops prepared to go into action immediately. Hesse-Kassel soon emerged as the most prominent source of soldiers. To field a large professional army with a relatively small population, it became the most militarized state in Europe: 5.2% to 6.7% of its population were under arms in the 18th century--with one in four households having someone serving in the army--a larger proportion than even heavily-militarized Prussia. Whereas Prussia relied partly on mercenaries from other German states, Hesse-Kassel employed only Landeskinder, native men. The military was the dominant force in the country. All Hessian males were registered for military service at the age of seven, and from the age of 16 until 30, had to annually present themselves to an official for possible recruitment. Only those whose occupation was considered vital to the country could be exempt. Those deemed "expendable", such as vagrants and the unemployed, could be conscripted at any time.
Hessian military service was notably strict and demanding, emphasizing iron discipline through draconian punishment. However, morale was generally high, and soldiers were said to take pride in their service. Officers were usually well-educated and, in contrast to most European armies, promoted on the basis of merit. Soldiers were paid relatively high wages, and their families were exempt from certain taxes. Although plunder was officially verboten (forbidden), it remained common practice (as in most military forces at the time), offering another incentive for service. Overall, Hessian troops were considered superb fighters, even by their opponents.
The Hessian military became a major source of economic strength. Hesse-Kassel manufactured its own weapons and uniforms, and its textile industry was so prosperous from supplying the military that workers could afford to buy meat and wine every day. The revenue from renting the army to the British equaled roughly thirteen years' worth of taxes, allowing the Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel, Friedrich II, to reduce taxes by one-third between the 1760s and 1784. A self-styled Enlightened despot, he also oversaw public works projects, administered a public welfare system, and encouraged education. The American historian Edward Jackson Lowell lauded Friedrich II for spending British money wisely, describing him as "one of the least disreputable of the princes who sent mercenaries to America".
Well before the American Revolutionary War, Hessian soldiers were familiar in battlefields across 18th century Europe.
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 was never formally a belligerent. While its troops remained members of the Hessian military, and even fought in their national uniform, they were hired out for service in other armies, without their government having any stake in the conflict. Thus, it was possible for Hessians to serve on opposing sides of the same conflict. In the War of the Austrian Succession, both Britain and Bavaria employed Hessian soldiers against one another; 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.
Nevertheless, the practice of lending out auxiliaries did sometimes result in direct consequences. In July 1758, during the course of the Seven Years' War, most of Hesse-Kassel, including its capital, was occupied by a French army under Charles, Prince of Soubise, which easily overcame the home defence force of 6,000 Hessian militia. Soubise ordered his troops to live off the land, take high-ranking hostages, and extort payments of cash and produce, with the intention of forcing Hessian troops to withdraw from the war. Hessian and allied forces attempted to liberate their homeland but were repulsed at the Battle of Sanderhausen on 23 July. Following two sieges of Cassel, in 1761 and 1762, the capital was retaken, which constituted the last military action of the war.
The characterization of Hessian troops as "mercenaries" remains controversial over two centuries later. American history textbooks refer to them as "mercenaries", and they are still widely perceived as such in the popular imagination. American historian Charles Ingrao describes Hesse as a "mercenary state" whose prince rented out his regiments to fund his government. By contrast, British historian Stephen Conway called them "Britannia's auxiliaries". Canadian military historian Rodney Atwood notes that, contrary to some Patriot propaganda and perceptions, Hessians would not have been considered mercenaries at the time, but rather auxiliaries. Eighteenth century jurists distinguished mercenaries as those who served a foreign prince as individuals, whereas auxiliaries served their prince and were sent to the aid of another prince.
Hessians would not be categorized as mercenaries under modern international law. Protocol I (1977) to the Geneva Convention defines a mercenary as "any person who ... has not been sent by a State which is not a Party to the conflict on official duty as a member of its armed forces." Hessian troops served in America on official duty from the armed forces of Hesse-Cassel and Hesse-Hanau. Protocol I also requires a mercenary to be "promised, by or on behalf of a Party to the conflict, material compensation substantially in excess of that promised or paid to combatants of similar ranks and functions in the armed forces of that Party." While not formally incorporated into the British military, Hessian troops were paid the same wages as British soldiers.
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 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.
Hessian troops included jägers, hussars, three artillery companies, and four battalions of grenadiers. Most infantrymen were chasseurs (sharpshooters), musketeers, and fusiliers. Line infantry was armed with muskets, while the Hessian artillery used the three-pound 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, due to death in battle, death by disease, and general desertion to settle in the Colonies, the regiments may have been reduced to only around 300 to 400 men.
The first Hessian troops to arrive in North America landed at Staten Island, New York on August 15, 1776. Their first engagement was less than two weeks later, in the Battle of Long Island, the first major battle in the war. Hessians proved decisive to the British victory, and subsequently fought in almost every battle that year.
By 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. 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. They were led by Baron Oberst Franz Carl Erdmann von Seitz, who is commemorated in a church in Halifax.
Notwithstanding their reputation as skilled and disciplined fighters, many British soldiers shared the American distrust of Hessians, who often spoke little or no English and were perceived as crude and barbaric.
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.
Hessians, for their part, spoke out against executions of captured prisoners of war after the Battle of Long Island, especially since many were of German descent: "many among them were Germans, and that cut me doubly to the heart." One American woman spoke to the Hessians of her re-appraisal of them after the battle, as they did not take part in any plundering: "she saw very plainly there was no truth in what people had told her of the Hessians, namely that they were cruel."
Americans, both Patriot and Loyalist, often feared the Hessians, believing them to be rapacious and brutal mercenaries. The American Declaration of Independence, written roughly a year after hostilities broke out, condemned King George III of "transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to [complete] 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." Throughout the war, reports of plundering by Hessians were said to have galvanized neutral colonists to join the Patriot side.
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 Trobe, 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.
Throughout the war, Americans tried to entice Hessians to desert the British, emphasizing the large and prosperous German-American community. The U.S. Congress authorized the offer of land of up to 50 acres (roughly 20 hectares) to individual Hessian soldiers that switched sides. 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, home to a large German community known as the Pennsylvania Dutch. German prisoners were subsequently treated well, with some volunteering 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.
After the war ended in 1783, some 17,313 German soldiers returned to their 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, most of whom had been press-ganged or conscripted in their countries of origin, opted to settle in either the United States or Canada.
Artillery and engineers:
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.
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.
Because most of these soldiers-for-hire came from the Germany principality of Hesse, the Americans called all the European mercenaries Hessians.
The British also undertook to pay each Hessian soldier at British rates of pay.