“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.

Utter Neglect of All Discipline and Proper Order

“…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.

Fortune’s Fickleness

“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.

The Battle of Trenton

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.

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.

Introducing Gabriela Maduro

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.

Welcome, Gabriela!

More Graves in New York

I’ve really fallen behind on posts this busy semester, but will start making up for it now!

An historical marker and a sunset.
An historical marker and a sunset.

Another interesting, and purely accidental, find related to the American Revolution. A private home in the middle of rural upstate New York has an historical marker in its backyard. In the early nineteenth century, a number of Brothertown Indians, natives who had converted to Christianity and settled in New York after the Revolutionary War, were buried there. It appears as though the gravestones used to stand in place, but they have since been laid flat. Every year, representatives from the Brothertown Indians (a federally-unrecognized tribe) return here to pay their respects and ensure the upkeep of the site.

What the gravestones look like today. Some of the inscriptions are already difficult to decipher.
What the gravestones look like today. Some of the inscriptions are already difficult to decipher.

The Revolution in an Upstate Cemetery

The White Store church off of Route 8 in Chenango County, NY.
The White Store church off of Route 8 in Chenango County, NY.

A quick stop at a local national historic site today yielded some surprise Revolutionary War connections. The town of White Store, NY, was founded in Chenango County in 1800. The White Store church was built in 1820 by “Baptists, Methodists, and Universalists” (according to the New York State Education Department marker, 1935), and remains in original condition aside from the pulpit that was modified in 1863. Beside the church lies the Evergreen Cemetery, the final resting place of twelve soldiers of the Revolutionary War: Colonel Stephen Winsor, Major David Richmond, Major Samuel May, Captain Edward Greene, Captain Anan Winsor, Captain Abner Wood, John Secor, Jeremiah Burlingham, Andrew Webb, Ezekial Wheeler, Philemon Shippey, and Caleb Arnold. Arnold’s son, Peleg, was a soldier in the War of 1812 and is also buried at the cemetery.

The gravestone of Major David Richmond, veteran of the Revolutionary War, in the Evergreen Cemetery.
The gravestone of Major David Richmond, veteran of the Revolutionary War, in the Evergreen Cemetery.

The local American Legion appears to have marked veterans’ graves in the cemetery for some time, with many old markers commemorating service in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, the Civil War, World War I, and, for many of the most recent graves, World War II. It is an impressive testament to the ways in which world events touch even the most remote places. RIP.

The City of Marburg

A recent visit from an old friend and former college roommate – the same who organized the trip to Normandy about which I still need to write – inspired another walking tour through the historic city of Marburg. I’ll briefly cover some of the highlights here and encourage anyone traveling to Germany to schedule a stop in this wonderful town and see these treasures for yourselves!

Easily one of the most famous sites in Marburg is the church of St. Elisabeth, built by the Teutonic Knights. Construction began in 1235 and was completed in honor of St. Elisabeth of Thuringia, whose grave inspired the location of the building. Elisabeth is an important political and regional figure for Hessen and is honored for her dedicated assistance to the sick and needy. She died as a result of illness at the age of 24.

The remnants of the Teutonic Knights' hospital in Marburg located next to the Church.
The remnants of the Teutonic Knights’ hospital in Marburg located next to the Church.

Her remains became holy relics and were a popular occasion for pilgrimage to Marburg in the 14th-16th centuries. Landgrave Philipp the Magnanimous, an important figure for the Protestant Reformation and the head of the House of Hessen who converted his state to the new religion, had them removed from the ornate sarcophagus in order to put an end to this practice. The ultimate fate of her remains is still unknown.

The church also contains many period coat of arms belonging to prominent Teutonic Knights. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the church is also the final resting place of Paul von Hindenburg and his wife. They had originally been buried in the massive nationalist monument commemorating the Battle of Tannenberg, but were removed during the retreat of the German army in 1944. After discovering the caskets in a salt mine, US occupation authorities decided to move the remains to Marburg.

Overlooking Marburg is the Marburg Castle, an old fortification that was gradually expanded and transformed over the centuries. For the longest time, it was also the seat of the Landgraves of Hessen, and even held the Hessian state archives until 1938. Today, it is a space for events as well as a large museum dedicated to the history of the city and the surrounding area. There are many rare portraits, artifacts, and an impressive collection of cast iron stoves from the sixteenth century. For those who are interested in Hessen’s history during the age of the American Revolution (as I am), the museum contains portraits of several Hessian officers who served in America, a large portrait of their commanding Landgrave (Friedrich II), a powder horn decorated by a Hessian soldier with scenes from America in 1777, an officer’s sword from the period, and a wooden “recruiting soldier,” a tool used to attract new recruits in the eighteenth century (further examples of such wooden soldiers can be seen in the French army museum in the Invalides).

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The Landgraves’ reception hall, decked out for an evening event.

The “Oberstadt” of Marburg, built on the slopes between the Lahn river and the large castle on top of the hill, is home to many of the oldest buildings in town. The old town hall sits at the head of a large market square, and the many Fachwerk-style buildings in the Oberstadt house university students as they have done for hundreds of years. During their time at the University of Marburg, the Brothers Grimm lived here as well.

A view of the Oberstadt on the way to the castle on the hill. The Brothers Grimm lived for a while in the building in the foreground.
A view of the Oberstadt on the way to the castle on the hill. The Brothers Grimm lived for a while in the building in the foreground.

A very somber sight at the bottom of the hill is the former site of the Marburg Synagogue. It was built in the late nineteenth century to accommodate Marburg’s growing Jewish community. On the night of 9 November 1938, it was set ablaze, and only the Torah could be saved from the fire. The damaged building was completely demolished in the following years, as the members of the community fled Germany or were deported East. Today, the site is marked with a monument, and the nearby bus stop features informational placards that detail the history of this erstwhile building.

The memorial to the Marburg synagogue destroyed in 1938.
The memorial to the Marburg synagogue destroyed in 1938.

Even if you are not planning on doing any research at the Hessian State Archives or studies at the University, a trip to Marburg is a rewarding one. The town boasts two convenient train stations, a comprehensive bus system, and many antique book shops, good restaurants, and beautiful views of the area (and what more does one need?).