Thomas Jefferson, writing the list of 27 grievances against King George III included in the Declaration of Independence, didn’t hold back when talking about Britain’s decision to dispatch foreign troops to fight in the American colonies.
“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.”
This damning language was intended to rile up support for the American Revolution at home and abroad (particularly in France), and to paint the hired foreign fighters—ethnic Germans known collectively as “Hessians”—as brutal, cruel and less than human.
In all, 30,000 Hessians fought for the British during the Revolutionary War, but they weren’t bloodthirsty “mercenaries” motivated by greed, says Friederike Baer, a history professor at Penn State Abington, and author of Hessians: German Soldiers in the American Revolutionary War.
“The Hessians were what we call ‘auxiliary forces,’ says Baer. “They weren’t individual soldiers who signed up with Britain to make money. They were troops raised by their respective German rulers, and then these rulers contracted with Britain to essentially rent out complete military units with their own commanders.”
Promised a short deployment and an easy victory, Hessian armies ultimately spent seven long years in the colonies, fighting from frozen Canada to swampy Florida, and losing thousands to disease, musket balls and desertion.
Britain Needed Troops, Germans Needed Money and Influence
Germany was not a unified kingdom or country in the 18th century, explains Baer, but a fragmented collection of more than 300 states, cities and territories, each with its own ruler. They were all “German” in the sense that they were ethnically German and spoke essentially the same language in different dialects.
When war with the Americans broke out in the spring of 1775, the British commanders quickly realized that they needed a lot more ground troops, and they needed them fast. King George and his advisors knew that they couldn’t raise tens of thousands of soldiers in Great Britain or Scotland in a matter of months, so they began shopping around.
“The hiring of foreign armies was a common and accepted practice in Europe,” says Baer. “A lot of major powers did it all the time. Britain had done it for a century. There was nothing unusual about this arrangement at all.”
The Empress Catherine the Great rejected King George’s request for 20,000 Russian soldiers, and the Netherlands, home to a famed regiment of fighters called the Scots Brigade, also turned the British down.
Several German territories required less convincing, says Baer. “They want to have a say in European affairs, and one way to have an influence is to have a powerful military. These territories don’t have the resources to maintain a large standing army. In order to have a powerful military and exercise that sway and influence, they rented out their army.”
German armies had fought for the British as recently as the 1760s during the Seven Years War with France.
The six territories that signed contracts with King George in 1775 and 1776 were Hessen-Kassel, Hessen-Hanau, Braunschweig, Anhalt-Zerbst, Ansbach-Bayreuth and Waldeck. Since more than half of the troops came from the two provinces of Hessen-Kassel and Hessen-Hanau, they were lumped together in America by the catch-all nickname “Hessians.”
Professional Soldiers, Petty Criminals and Scientific Explorers
German soldiers who shipped off for America came from many different backgrounds, but none qualify as “mercenaries,” a slur that was used by Britain’s political enemies to demonize the Hessians and King George, says Baer.
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Some were professional soldiers who served their territorial armies on a “reserve” basis, spending 11 months of the year farming and a few weeks in active military service or training. Others were forcibly conscripted if they fit a certain age range, were physically fit and determined by local authorities to be “expendable,” says Baer. That list included petty criminals, “drunks” and the unemployed.
“At that point, if you were identified as eligible to serve, you didn’t have much of a say in it.”
Some Germans were excited by the idea of traveling overseas. The pay was good, passage was free, and they’d get to explore a whole new part of the world. Among this group were naturalists, poets and even amateur paleontologists.
Baer says that a young man named Christian Friedrich Michaelis volunteered for the Hessian corps to search for mastodon bones in New York. Another, Friedrich Adam Julius von Wangenheim, published books on the trees and shrubs that he cataloged while on duty in America.
One group of German soldiers, known as the Jäger or “hunters,” were prized fighters who gained their sharpshooting and tracking skills as huntsmen and foresters. During the war, they fought in special Jägerkorps, carrying rifles instead of muskets, and earned the respect and fear of the enemy.
How the Americans and Germans Saw Each Other
While hiring foreign armies was a common practice in the 18th century, Britain’s critics in Europe and the American colonies saw King George’s actions during the Revolutionary War as unforgivable.
“What was different this time was that Britain was hiring foreign troops not to defend its own borders or interests,” says Baer, “but to fight against other British subjects on another continent.”
In the colonies, the Hessians were vilified as ruthless mercenaries hired to do King George’s dirty work. The word “Hessian” became a racialized slur used interchangeably with “Catholics,” “savages” and “negroes,” says Baer. “This was all meant to signify that these are violent, uncivilized, non-white people that the king is dispatching across the ocean to fight against us.”
That characterization began to change after the Battle of Trenton in 1776, when George Washington famously crossed the Delaware a day after Christmas and captured nearly 1,000 surprised Hessian troops. Face-to-face with German soldiers, the Americans not only saw them as human, but as “victims” themselves of tyrannical governments that “sold” them into war.
“That’s when you see colonists drafting resolutions and circulating broadsides offering land and liberty to German soldiers willing to desert,” says Baer.
For her book, Baer read hundreds of letters and journal entries penned by German soldiers about their experiences in America and their opinions of Americans. The beauty and bounty of New York and New Jersey blew the German soldiers away, as well the wealth and prosperity even the humblest Americans seemed to enjoy.
“The Germans quickly concluded that the Americans were ungrateful,” says Baer. “Since everyone was doing so well, why the heck were they rebelling? Why would you rise up against a king under whose rule you were able to grow so prosperous?”
On August 31, 1776, a German soldier named Andreas Wiederhold wrote home, saying: “The heart pounds in the body of an honest man to see such a fortunate land and habitations in ruins, which have been plundered by evil and disobedient rebels, who are dissatisfied with their undeserved beneficence of heaven, and who are disloyal to God and the king. But God will give us fortune and give them remorse, so that not everything will be destroyed by their delusions.”
German soldiers also commented frequently in their letters and journals about the condition and treatment of Black people, both enslaved and free, in the American Colonies. In stark contrast to the prosperity of white Americans, Black men, women and children were “oppressed and mistreated, often very cruelly by whites,” says Baer.
After War, Some Hessians Choose to Stay
During almost the entire Revolutionary War, at least a third of the British regular army was composed of Hessian soldiers. German troops fought in every major British victory and defeat from 1776 to 1783, and the cost was high.
Baer says that of the 30,000 German troops dispatched to the colonies, roughly a quarter of them, or 7,500, died. Only around 1,200 German soldiers died in combat. Disease was the most ruthless killer.
Of the 23,000 German soldiers who survived the war, the vast majority shipped back to their home provinces, but between 5,000 and 6,000 Hessians decided to stay. A lot of them settled in British-ruled Canada, but others were welcomed by German American communities in the Mid-Atlantic states.