“…I cannot conceal the fact that as much as I was pleased over the glorious behavior of my troops on their arrival in America, so much and greater is my present astonishment and anger over the unfortunate event at Trenton… Besides the loss of so many imprisoned regiments with their colors and cannons, it is an eternal disgrace to my troops, and according to the different accounts having reached me about this affair, it leads me to believe that these regiments disregarded their duty as well as their honor, which they previously won for themselves. I consider that such a shameful occurrence can be the result of nothing less than an utter neglect of all discipline and proper order.”
Landgrave Friedrich II of Hessen-Kassel to General de Heister, 7 April 1777. De Heister was recalled from service in America, making his second-in-command, General Knyphausen, the senior Hessian officer on campaign.
“The good fortune of the war which I had always such great cause to praise in my humble letters and of which I humbly venture to hope your Serene Highness may have read with great pleasure, has given to us, and to each brave Hessian, a sad example of her fickleness. It is needless for me to write of the sorrow caused to me by the first news and contriteness overwhelms me when duty’s dictates oblige me to communicate the news to your Higness, as I know only too well how the loss of these true subjects will affect your Serene Highness. The three regiments, namely Lossberg’s, Knyphausen’s and Rall’s, which had been stationed in New Jersey, were surprised by the rebels during the night of December 27th [sic], who in overpowering force surrounded and captured them after nearly one hour of resistance, during which time all the then staff officers and the greater part of the others were either killed or wounded… At the same time 15 standards and 6 cannon were lost.”
General de Heister, commander of Hessian troops in North America, in a letter to Landgrave Friedrich II of Hessen-Kassel, 5 January 1777.
240 years ago, British military leadership ignored common sense and the protestations of its officers in the field, and extended a defensive cordon along the Delaware River. Ostensibly designed to maintain pressure on Washington’s fleeing army, the new defensive line instead ensured that Britain’s forces were spread thinly and too distantly from one another for timely response to attack.
On the morning of 26 December, Washington crossed the Delaware with more than 2,400 troops and attacked a Hessian brigade quartered in Trenton. The Hessian outposts fought a fighting retreat to the town, where runners had already alerted the garrison. By the time the first of the enemy reached the treeline outside the town, the three Hessian regiments had formed for battle. Fortuitously, American riflemen dispatched the brigade commander, Colonel Johann Rall, and his XO with mortal wounds in the first minutes of engagement. In the ensuing confusion, the remaining Hessian officers realized too late that retreat was their only option. While some had managed to escape the town before encirclement, and brought news of the “Trenton Affaire” to the closest allied encampments, more than 900 Hessian troops fell into rebel captivity. It was the first major rebel victory of the war and, as the story goes, inspired countless soldiers to reenlist in the army for another year.
Victory had been made possible by Washington’s military acumen and the irresponsible overconfidence of British command in the wake of their victories in the New York – New Jersey Campaign. Contrary to popular belief, the Hessians (who, as Germans do, celebrated Christmas on the 24th) were not surprised in a hungover stupor. A Hessian court martial of the officers captured at Trenton was concerned foremost with what they thought was the most critical question of that fateful morning: why had these officers not recognized their situation more quickly and ordered an organized retreat?
Over the next few days, I will post more information about this fateful battle in commemoration of its 240th anniversary.
Various documents from late eighteenth-century Britain reveal some interesting findings about British attitudes towards the hiring of German troops for use in the American War. Voiced opposition to the hiring of these troops was overwhelming, although the reasons for this opposition were varied and sometimes conflicting. While some articulated their positions with logic and tact, others relied on hyperbole, stereotypes and even paranoia.
Chief among the rational concerns voiced within the House of Commons was the financial burden that the German troops presented, for many thought the sums to be paid to German princes were unreasonable and exorbitant. Yet, even this argument often devolved into emotional fears of the end of the “honor, dignity and even decency” for the British state, as exemplified by Mr. Burke’s prediction in an address to the House on May 8, 1777 that:
[all] Germany will daily teaze with importunities, or stun this House with its after-claps. We shall never be easy, we shall never have done granting, nor they asking, while we have a shilling left to grant… We could never expect to be free from the claims—and demands of the German chancery, from the instant this resolution should be agreed to.
Many Members of Parliament extended their criticisms beyond these supposedly greedy German princes to include their subjects as well, largely by stereotyping and dehumanizing them. German men were characterized as nothing more than barbarians, unable to devote themselves ideologically to the British cause and, therefore, no better than mercenaries. Worse than that, some assumed that they would prove ineffective in suppressing the rebellion, as highlighted by the Duke of Manchester’s claims on March 5, 1776 that:
The mercenaries we employ, for they may be justly called so, since that man must be deemed a mercenary soldier who fights for pay in the cause in which he has no concern, are a motley band of various nations, who are yet in Germany, are yet to be conveyed across the Atlantic; some will perish in the way, some desert, but I suppose the remnant landed on the American shore—Will conquest immediately follow? Impossible to expect it.
It is interesting to note the ways in which these arguments over the hiring of German troops became entangled with debates over the validity of the American War itself. Moral arguments against the war, especially those that questioned the right of the British to attempt to stifle attempts at American independence, capitalized upon the negative perception of Germans. In portraying the princes as dishonest and greedy characters who were willing to sacrifice their own men for personal profit, those who made moral arguments against the American War perpetuated the perception of the German princes as cruel tyrants, the very antithesis of many Parliamentary members’ own ideals. The hiring of German troops was portrayed by some to be a direct threat to concepts of freedom and liberty, as illustrated by Lord Camden’s statement on March 5, 1776 that:
The whole is fluffed up with pompous expressions of alliance, founded in reciprocal support and common interest, as if these petty states were really concerned in the event of the present contest between this country and America… Should the time ever arrive, in which Our existence as a nation depended on the assistance of foreign hirelings, from that instant I should deem our consequence as a sovereign state, and our liberties as a free people, no more.
It is ironic that such speculation about the character and abilities of the German troops contrasts so deeply with their actual documented performance, as it is clear that the contribution of German troops was integral to many British military victories in the American War. Yet, even in a contemporary chronicle published in 1779, wide-spread stereotypes are evident, as exemplified by the writer’s descriptions of the “unrelenting, cruel, and inhuman manner” in which the war was carried out by German troops, for there were numerous instances of rape, rapine, cruelty and murder. Although the writer admits that British troops were involved in these activities as well, he blames Hessians as the source of this misbehavior. He claims:
[The Hessians], naturally fierce and cruel, ignorant of any rights but those of despotism, and of any manners, but those established within the narrow precinct of their own government, were incapable of forming a distinction between ravaging and destroying an enemy’s country, where no present benefit was intended but plunder, nor any future advantage expected but that of weakening a foe, and the reducing of a malcontent people (who though in a state of rebellion, were still to be reclaimed, not destroyed) to a due sense of obedience to their lawful sovereign.. They continued in a course of plunder, until they at length became so encumbered and loaded with spoil, and so anxious for its preservation, that it grew to be a great impediment to their military operations.
It seems odd, then, that despite the fact that the Germans were, apparently, so greedy, so barbaric, so wholly unable to devote themselves to the just cause of suppressing the American Rebellion, they were still ultimately deemed adequate enough to fight and die in a war on behalf of the British Empire. Lord Cavendish’s thoughts on February 29, 1776 on the hiring of German troops seem to encapsulate the thoughts of many members of the House of Commons on the matter, and thus seem an appropriate note on which to end this exploration:
Britain was to be disgraced in the eyes of all Europe; she was to be impoverished; nay, what was, if possible, worse, she was compelled to apply to petty German states, in the most mortifying and humiliating manner, and submit to indignities never before prescribed to a crowned head, presiding over a powerful and opulent kingdom.
It is my distinct pleasure to welcome a new contributor to GermanHistorian.com: Gabriela Maduro. Gabriela comes to the project through Florida State’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, which pairs exceptional undergraduate students with faculty and graduate students who act as research mentors for the academic year.
Gabriela is a sophomore double-majoring in History and English. She is fluent in Slovak and an active student of German, which influenced her desire to work on this project. As the year progresses, Gabriela will post excerpts and summaries of her work here on the site, with a particular focus on the structure and role of the British Army in the American War of Independence.