The Hessians in the [American] Revolution [*]
In the 18th century Germany was divided into nearly 300 sovereignties, each maintaining a court and a military force. The possible revenue was often very limited, the burdens were almost intolerable and the princelings were often profligate and cruel; they did not need their forces for home defense, and were glad to make money for themselves by letting out their regiments for hire, though except in one case they remitted no taxes on the people from the receipts. There was also a lingering tradition that soldiering was an honest trade like any other and that it was useful for helping sovereigns to keep order; especially to put down insurrections, which were wicked.
This, however, did not apply to rulers hiring out their troops and pocketing the money; and not only the liberal school of writers and public men, but enlightened despots like Frederick the Great, denounced it. But England had not sufficient army for the American War, and wished drilled troops rather than raw recruits and after vainly endeavoring to hire 20,000 Russian soldiers, turned to the German princes, with some of whom she had dynastic relations and all of whom were so eager to sell their wares that two of them offered soldiers for hire immediately after Bunker Hill, without waiting to be asked. Only those which could furnish considerable numbers were worth treating with and all the German auxiliaries were finally hired from six states; about half being from two Hessian states, and by far the largest (more than three times greater than any other) from one.
All were indiscriminately termed “Hessians,” as all German immigrants were formerly called “Palatines.” The first treaty was made with the Duke of Brunswick, 9 Jan. 1776, for 4,300 troops; reinforcements or replacements were sent year by year, till the total had amounted to 5,723, only 2,708 of whom ever returned. The second was with the Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel, 15 Jan. 1776, for 12,805; finally increased to 16,992, of whom 10,492 returned. 
The contingents from the others, under various treaties, amounted to — Hesse-Hanau, 2,038; Anspach-Baireuth, 2,353; Waldeck, 1,225; Anhalt-Zerbst, 1,152. Total sent to America, 29,867, of whom 17,313 returned; the rest either died or remained as citizens. There were about 20,000 in America at any one time after 1776. These forces cost Great Britain in subsidies and incidentals about £1,770,000; besides the lump sum, it was obliged to replace the dead, and at least in one case count three wounded men as one dead one.
About 18,000 were shipped in 1776; the commander-in-chief was Lieut.-Gen. Philipp von Heister, a veteran of the Seven Years’ War. The first division of some 8,000 landed at Staten Island 15 August; they included a body of chasseurs and grenadiers under Lieut. E. W. F. von Donop, an able and daring officer. They took a leading part in the battles of Long Island and White Plains, and all the operations for capturing New York; and stormed Fort Washington with a loss of 56 killed and 276 wounded.
During this time the second division of about 4,000, under Lieut.-Gen. Wilhelm von Knyphausen, joined them. Washington’s surprise at Trenton fell on Colonel Rail’s brigade of Germans. Rail was a regular officer whose contempt for the ragged Americans surpassed that of the most arrogant Briton, and he refused to take the most elementary precautions; he was mortally wounded. Early in 1777 Heister was superseded by Knyphausen; Howe finding the former intractable and the Landgrave of Hesse laying the blame of Trenton upon him.
Meantime the Brunswickers and a Hanau regiment under Baron von Riedesel had made a clearance of Canada; and in 1777 they were joined to the expedition of Burgoyne, in whom Riedesel had no faith. It was from this division that Baum’s detachment was sent off to raid Vermont and to meet its fate at Bennington, with Breymann’s sent to support it; 365 of Baum’s 374 Germans did not return, and 231 of Breymann’s were killed, wounded or captured. Riedesel and his remaining men shared in Burgoyne’s surrender.
Around Philadelphia, at Brandywine and Germantown, Knyphausen’s command was of the first importance; and at Red Bank Donop tried to storm the American fort and was mortally wounded, his command losing 82 killed and 229 wounded, besides 60 prisoners. In the three years’ occupation of Rhode Island, from the fall of 1776 to that of 1779, about half of the British corps was Hessians; and they liked, and were liked bv the inhabitants — when they departed, ill persons, but especially women, were prohibited from appearing at the Newport windows, in fear that the soldiers might not wish to go.
In the South, at Savannah, Charleston, Pensacola, Baton Rouge, etc., they left many dead; and shared in the bloody drawn battle of Guilford Court House. Finally, at Yorktown, they bore the brunt of the actual fighting, losing 53 killed and 131 wounded.
The Germans did their duty bravely and faithfully, with loyalty to a service they had been sold into to no profit of theirs. Very few deserted, in spite of constant inducements held out to them; a policy which Washington strongly deprecated. Probably one reason was, that they were at once recognizable from their speech.
Nor were they in the least inhumane or rapacious: the charge that they were cruel barbarians was a mere political weapon of the time. In a strange country, they would have run the risk of being murdered in reprisal had they been such; but in fact they appear to have been well-meaning men.
Of the 29,867 who came over, only 17,313 returned to Germany. Of the 12,554 remaining, 548 were killed; some of the total 1,652 wounded died; some disappeared; but a great number are known to have remained and settled in the country. Grants were given them in Nova Scotia, but many scattered as chance directed.
[*] “Hessians in the Revolution,” The Encyclopedia Americana, 30 vols. (New York 1919), 14:159. Back.
Translation © 2019 Doug Stott