“No one should praise America to me”: Hessian Experiences in the American War

By Gabriela Maduro

The possibility of desertion was a fear voiced by Members of Parliament who opposed the hiring of German auxiliaries, as it was thought that their supposed desire to escape tyranny and the large German-speaking population in the colonies would lead to mass desertions upon reaching America. Clearly, however, these MPs dramatically underestimated the cultural differences between Germans and Americans during this time period. These deep differences are highlighted by the journal of Captain Andreas Wiederhold, who fought in the American War in the Hessen-Kassel von Knyphausen Regiment.

Wiederhold’s perception of Americans as a backward, even barbaric people is immediately evident in his assessment of their farming practices, with his descriptions of how “they scratch the land like chickens… Nothing is done according to plan and what they have by chance is of little value.” Further proof of their barbarism for Wiederhold was their institution of slavery, as he described with bewilderment their interactions with slaves: “Animals are treated better in Germany… It can be seen how little the people care about them, how blindly they are led, and how they are held back from all knowledge of God and His word, so that they believe they are of a lower class than we are, and were made to be slaves.”

Obvious too is Wiederhold’s awareness of the contemptuous attitudes of many Americans towards his fellow German auxiliaries:

Now the stupid Americans had strange ideas and a fear of us Hessians, believing that we were not like other normal humans, that we spoke a strange language, and above all, were an uncivilized, wild and barbaric people.

Clearly, Wiederhold did not contemplate desertion for even a moment, as he claimed:

Personally, I would rather have a mediocre farm in Hesse than the largest plantation here. No one should praise America to me once I have gotten to know it, except the one who has been sentenced to hang in Europe, and to avoid such has sought refuge here. I will make such a concession to him.

Despite his obvious dislike of America, Wiederhold also stated that, “There was certainly much friendship, I can say even love, to be enjoyed from these people, who we should soon treat as enemies again.” This was particularly true in terms of his interactions with women, including “one beauty who was enamored with me and who I will always hold in favor” whom he encountered in 1778 and yet another “beautiful girl [who] was our salvation” with whom he conversed over a year later in 1779.

Wiederhold’s opinions of Americans were not only informed by his time campaigning but also by his experiences as a prisoner of war. Captured after the disastrous Battle of Trenton, Wiederhold filled many pages of his journal with condemnations of Colonel Rall, who had “more stupidity than courage in his conduct” and who mistakenly “believed the name Rall was so frightening and stronger than the words of Vauban and Coehorn, against which no rebel would attack.” As Wiederhold went on to say, “Woe unto him who is responsible for the misfortune of so many honorable men. The loss of all fortune, the unnecessary and meaningless loss of blood that was spilled, is on his hands and charged to him.”

Worse were Wiederhold’s experiences three years later on a ship that was intended to sail to Quebec. Things were bad enough to begin with, as the ship was not only devoid of any beds and so small that a third of its passengers had to be on its deck at all times, but it was also devoid of any toilet facilities, meaning that “the troops were in fear of falling in the sea and drowning whenever nature called.”

But the true misery of the trip reached its height eleven days later, as it suddenly encountered a hurricane off the coast of New Jersey. In the course of one horrible night, surrounded by waves so large “it was impossible to see the heavens above… and we appeared to be buried by them,” the ship lost both of its masts and four of its six cannons. This resulted in a panicked effort led by Wiederhold to, in the dark and among soaring waves, secure the other two cannons before they crushed a passenger or caused further damage to the ship. The waves were so violent, in fact, that at one point they dragged a man overboard before heaving him back onto the deck of the ship a few minutes later. As Wiederhold described, “All of our men lay still and waited, part sighing and weeping, part with prayers, and others from fear, as if in shock, awaited the last minute of life.”

Upon finally reaching land, Wiederhold and his men “thanked Heaven that we were finally reunited with our own.” Such a reaction seems understandable considering that during his time in America, Wiederhold was not only suspicious of and unimpressed by the Americans but was also faced with hostile conditions from nature. Yet, neither Congress’ plans to incite Hessians to desert nor his struggles while at sea could persuade Wiederhold to abandon his cause. Wiederhold’s dedication is evident in an entry he wrote before departing for Quebec, in which he rejoiced that:

We would finally have the opportunity to show that we were still the same old regiment… that the Hessian blood still flowed in our arteries and flowed gladly for the honor and service of our master.

The British Manpower Problem in the American War

By Gabriela Maduro

As Thomas Paine pointed out in Common Sense, the distance between Great Britain and its American colony was one of thousands of miles. This not only called to question Britain’s dominion over the American colonies, as he charged, but also put the British at an immediate disadvantage in the American War. In addition to being tasked with organizing troops on a foreign continent, the British had to transport supplies and reinforcements from the Old World, leading to many delays and periods of waiting for the British soldiers in the American colony. Letters written by William Glanville Evelyn, a captain in the British Army who fought in the American War until his death on November 6, 1776, exemplify this phenomenon. Only four days into the war, in fact, it was clear that the manpower problem that had plagued the British Army throughout the eighteenth century had reemerged, as Evelyn wrote on April 23, 1775 that, “We expect every day the three Generals [Generals Howe, Clinton and Burgoyne], and a strong re-inforcement of troops from Great Britain and Ireland. I wish they were arrived.”

Many of these reinforcements were likely acquired by “beating up,” a process in which a drummer would accompany army officers to areas that likely contained numerous willing new recruits. Enlistments were normally life-long commitments, but Special Recruiting Acts were sometimes passed during wartime, in which high bounties were offered along with short-term enlistments, often defined as being a length of three years or the duration of the war. When even these methods were insufficient, however, force was also used, as individuals ranging from debtors to those capitally convicted could evade prison time and punishment by enlisting. In truly desperate times, such as in 1778-1779, The Press Acts were passed, which required the impressment of able-bodied men who were unable to prove that they were engaged in some form of constant employment.

Even when sufficient numbers of recruits were procured, however, the British Army struggled to find adequate numbers of “complete soldiers” who were prepared to engage in military service abroad. A popular though ultimately ineffective solution to this problem was “drafting,” a process by which experienced and trained men were transferred from a unit not likely to immediately see action to another unit actively fighting or about to go on service. Often employed as well were “additional companies,” which were units attached to regiments serving abroad that consisted of experienced men who were meant not for active service but rather to train the members of the regiments to which they were attached.

Further exacerbating the British manpower problem was the inherent corruption that accompanied the purchase system, the process by which individuals bought positions within the Army rather than advancing through promotion. Contemporary critics denounced the system, alleging that it discouraged ordinary men from enlisting because promotion was based upon wealth rather than true merit. Many thought that it riddled the Army with laziness and incompetence, for, as a contemporary critic lamented:

The army is officered by gentlemen of anything but a studious turn of mind… A great many of them being well born, and all of them gentlemen, they do not look with much respect to a profession which requires study and close attention, or what they term plodding and drudgery. In fact, not a small portion of them have betaken themselves to the Army from their distaste to study… They have viewed with envy the seemingly easy, gentlemanly life of some officer in the army who happened to have no other object than riding out after the morning parade, or sauntering about a town, ogling and coquetting with the fair who admired his dress and equipment, and who was an object of notice at concerts, theatre, and evening parties.

Grenadier, 40th Foot

Ironically, even Evelyn’s personal correspondence is indiciative of frustration with the purchase system’s emphasis on the need for connections for advancement, despite the fact that he had purchased a captaincy in 1772. Although he was a member of the upper classes, many of his letters consisted of requests to his father to “cast about, and find out what channel you could come at… any General or man of rank,” for, as he explained on October 7, 1775, “’Tis inconceivable the trifling circumstances by which one rises in our line… I have taken up this profession for life, and it is my business to get on in it as fast as possible.”

It is no coincidence, then, that in the century following Britain’s defeat in the American War, major reforms were undertaken in the British Army, including the abolishment of the purchase system in 1871. Though a hindrance to the British, the manpower problem of the eighteenth century allows for an interesting case study for historians, as it brought about phenomena such as the hiring of Hessian troops for the American War.

British Perspectives on the Hiring of German Troops: Hyperbole, Stereotypes, and Paranoia

By Gabriela Maduro

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.

English caricature of a Hessian soldier, British Museum

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.