“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.

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