Hessian soldiers have earned themselves a strange place in American history: often mocked as ruthless mercenaries or scorned as incompetent drunkards. In reality, they were neither. So who were they?
In the Eighteenth Century modern-day Germany was divided into many smaller states, often ruled by kings, dukes, electors, or landgraves. The Kingdom of Prussia, under Frederick the Great, is probably the most well-known, but there were many others. Largely agrarian in nature, and thus with poor tax bases, it was difficult for these small states to raise funds to support basic government functions, especially the standing armies needed to keep their rulers on their thrones. One marketable resource they did have was trained and disciplined soldiers. Since the Seventeenth Century the Landgraves of Hesse-Cassel, among others, had been “leasing” military units on a contract basis to foreign powers; Great Britain was one of their biggest customers.
A small, wealthy nation with a large navy but relatively small, far-flung army, Great Britain faced considerable difficulties in raising large armies on short notice. It was more economical to rent military units from agreeable German states. So, when the American colonies rose in rebellion and King George III resolved to crush the revolutionary upstarts, he turned to the German states for troops.
Great Britain signed treaties with several German states for the provision of troops in exchange for payment and, in some cases, defensive treaties. In exchange for the provisions of a corps of 12,000 troops guaranteed to fight together under a unified command, the Langrave of Hesse-Cassel received a defensive alliance and over £100,000 per year, plus a stipend (or “blood money”) for every soldier killed and every three wounded. Ultimately nearly 30,000 German soldiers served for the British in the Americas, hailing from Hesse-Cassel, Hesse-Hanau, Braunschweig (Brunswick), Anspach-Bayreuth, Waldeck, and Anhalt-Zerbst. The largest complement, and the first to arrive in North America, were the Hesse-Cassel contingent; hence forth all German troops fighting for the British were known as “Hessians.”
The units sent to America were led by professional soldiers, many with significant combat experience. The individual soldier were an eclectic bunch, many volunteers, some forcibly inducted (although typically only “foreigners” were impressed). Typically they were prepared and organized along Prussian lines, so training was hard and discipline fierce. Altogether they formed an effective fighting force. They did however, have some limitations.
British troops in America adapted effectively to American conditions. British officers often modified uniforms, tactics, and training in order to maximize their units’ effectiveness. For example they adopted open formations and tended to move quickly on the battlefield, jogging to close the distance to American troops, and relying heavily on the bayonet. The Hessian troops remained beholden to their princely rulers, who often forbade modifications to uniforms, training, and tactics that proven effective on the rolling plains of Europe, but which proved to be liabilities in the wooded hills and valleys of North America. The British tended to regard the Hessians as slow and inflexible. They were however, very efficient when they came to grips with the Americans.
On Long Island and Manhattan the Hessians earned a reputation for ferocity, with tales told of them pinning American riflemen to trees with their bayonets. In the assault on Fort Washington Hessian discipline and training proved devastatingly effective. Their reputation suffered a significant blow when an entire brigade of Hessians was captured at Trenton on January 26th, 1776. Contrary to myth, the Hessians in Trenton were not drunk. In fact, they were on high alert and patrolling actively; those not on duty were sleeping in their uniforms with weapons at their side. Washington was able to achieve tactical surprise due to a combination of good luck and fearsome weather, and the Americans’ aggressiveness prevented a coordinated response. The British command, and officer corps, was highly critical of the Hessians for the loss at Trenton, so it was with understandable satisfaction that the Hessian officers viewed the subsequent American capture of most of a British brigade at Princeton.
German troops fought throughout the American Revolution. When well-led they proved very effective, but like all soldiers their morale suffered when used incompetently. For the most part they did their duty well, fighting on the losing side in an unpopular war far from home. For many of them the strange, distant land of America would become their final resting place.
American Revolution.org > Hessians: http://www.americanrevolution.org/hessians/hessindex.php
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