Hessian (soldiers)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia - View original article

Jump to: navigation, search
Two Hessian soldiers of the Leibregiment

The Hessians /ˈhɛʃən/[1] were 18th-century German auxiliaries contracted for military service by the British government, which found it easier to borrow money to pay for their service than to recruit its own soldiers.[2] The British used the Hessians in several conflicts, including in Ireland, but they are most widely associated with combat operations in the American Revolutionary War.

About 30,000 German soldiers fought for the British during the American Revolutionary War. Nearly half were from the Hesse region of Germany; the others came from similar small German states. Several more German units were placed on garrison duty in the British Isles to free up British regulars for service in North America.[3]

American patriots made propaganda use of the fact that the soldiers were non-British, and portrayed them as mercenaries. They also offered them land bounties to desert and join the Americans.


The small German states had professional armies which their princes often hired out for combat duty. John Childs wrote:

Between 1706 and 1707, 10,000 Hessians served as a corps in Eugene of Savoy's army in Italy before moving to the Spanish Netherlands in 1708. In 1714, 6000 Hessians were rented to Sweden for its war with Russia whilst 12,000 Hessians were hired by George I of Great Britain in 1715 to combat the Jacobite Rebellion. ... In the midst of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1744, 6,000 Hessians were fighting with the British army in Flanders whilst another 6,000 were in the Bavarian army. By 1762, 24,000 Hessians were serving with Ferdinand of Brunswick's army in Germany.[4]

During the American Revolutionary War, Landgrave Frederick II of Hesse-Kassel (a small independent country in northern Hesse) and other German princes hired out some of their regular army units to Great Britain for use to fight against the rebels in the American revolution. About 30,000 of these men served in America. They were called Hessians, because the largest group (12,992 of the total 30,067 men) came from Hesse-Kassel. They came not as individuals but in entire units with their usual uniforms, flags, weapons and officers.

Units were sent by Count William of Hesse-Hanau; Duke Charles I of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel; Prince Frederick of Waldeck; Margrave Karl Alexander of Ansbach-Bayreuth; and Prince Frederick Augustus of Anhalt-Zerbst.

Apocryphal Image of Hessian hussars in America

The Hessians did not act individually. Their princes determined whether to hire out the units. Many of the men were press-ganged into Hessian service. Deserters were summarily executed or beaten by an entire company.[5]

Hessians comprised approximately one-quarter of the forces fielded by the British in the American Revolution. They included jäger, hussars, three artillery companies, and four battalions of grenadiers. Most of the infantry were chasseurs (sharpshooters), musketeers, and fusiliers. They were armed with smoothbore muskets, while the Hessian artillery used three-pounder cannon. Initially the average regiment was made up of 500 to 600 men. Later in the war, the regiments had only 300 to 400 men.[citation needed]

About 18,000 Hessian troops first arrived in North America in 1776, with more coming in later. They landed at Staten Island in New York on August 15, 1776. Their first engagement was in the Battle of Long Island. The Hessians fought in almost every battle, although after 1777, the British used them mainly as garrison troops. An assortment of Hessians fought in the battles and campaigns in the southern states during 1778–80 (including Guilford Courthouse), and two regiments fought at the Siege of Yorktown in 1781.

The British use of Hessian troops rankled American sentiment, and pushed some Loyalists to favor the revolution. The British use of non-English speaking foreign troops to put down the rebellion was seen as insulting, as it treated British subjects no differently than non-British subjects. Pro-British Tories believed that the British colonists deserved more than mercenary foes.

Hessian captives[edit]

Hessian soldiers captured during the Battle at Trenton taken to Philadelphia.

In the Battle of Trenton, the Hessian force of 1,400 was surprised and virtually destroyed by the Continentals, with about 20 killed, 100 wounded, and 1,000 captured. General George Washington's Continental Army had crossed the Delaware River to make a surprise attack on the Hessians on the early morning of December 26, 1776.[6]

Family records of Johann Nicholas Bahner(t), one of the Hessians captured in the Battle of Trenton, indicate that some of the Hessian soldiers were told they were needed to defend the American Colonies against Indian incursions. When they arrived in North America, they discovered they had been hired to fight against the British colonists, rather than the Indians.[7] The Hessians captured in the Battle of Trenton were paraded through the streets of Philadelphia to raise American morale; anger at their presence helped the Continental Army recruit new soldiers.[8] Most of the prisoners were sent to work as farm hands.[9]

By early 1778, negotiations for the exchange of prisoners between Washington and the British had begun in earnest. On a one-for-one exchange if a Hessian soldier deserted, there would be one less American who would return home.[10] Nicholas Bahner(t), Jacob Strobe, George Geisler, and Conrad Kramm are a few of the Hessian soldiers who deserted the British forces after being returned in exchange for American prisoners of war.[11] These men were hunted by the British for being deserters, and by many of the colonists as an enemy.

Americans tried to entice Hessians to desert from the British and join the large German-American population. The US Congress authorized the offer of 50 acres (approximately 20 hectares) of land to individual Hessian soldiers to encourage them to desert. They offered 50 to 800 acres to British soldiers, depending on rank.[12]

In August 1777, a satirical letter, "The Sale of the Hessians", was widely distributed. It claimed that a Hessian commander wanted more of his soldiers dead so that he could be better compensated. For many years, the author of the letter was unknown. In 1874, John Bigelow translated it to English (from a French version) and claimed that Benjamin Franklin wrote it, including it in his biography, The Life of Benjamin Franklin, published that year. There appears to be no evidence to support this claim.[13]

When the British General John Burgoyne surrendered to American General Horatio Gates during the Saratoga campaign in 1777, his forces included around 5,800 troops. The surrender was negotiated in the Convention of Saratoga, and Burgoyne's remnant army became known as the Convention Army. "Hessian" soldiers from Brunswick-Lüneburg, under General Riedesel, comprised a high percentage of the Convention Army. The Americans marched the prisoners to Charlottesville, Virginia, where they were imprisoned in the Albemarle Barracks until 1781. From there, they were sent to Reading, Pennsylvania, until 1783.

German soldiers in the American Revolution

Conclusion of the war[edit]

About 30,000 Hessians served in the Americas, and, after the war ended in 1783, some 17,313 Hessian soldiers returned to their German homelands. Of the 12,526 who did not return, about 7,700 had died. Some 1,200 were killed in action, and 6,354 died from illness or accidents, mostly the former.[14] Approximately 5,000 Hessians settled in North America, both in the United States and Canada.

Ireland 1798[edit]

After the Battle of Mainz in 1795, the British rushed Hessian forces to Ireland in 1798 to assist in the suppression of rebellion inspired by the Society of United Irishmen, an organization that first worked for Parliamentary reform. Influenced by the American and French revolutions, its members began by 1798 to seek independence for Ireland.

Baron Hompesch's 2nd Battalion of riflemen embarked on 11 April 1798 from the Isle of Wight bound for the port of Cork. They were later joined by the Jäger (Hunter) 5th Battalion 60th regiment. They were in the action of the battles of Vinegar Hill and Foulksmills.

"Hessian" units in the American Revolution[edit]







In popular culture[edit]


  1. ^ "hessian". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 2009-12-26. 
  2. ^ Rodney Atwood, The Hessians: Mercenaries from Hessen-Kassel in the American Revolution, (Cambridge University Press, 1980), ch 1.
  3. ^ Daniel Marston, The American Revolution 1774–1783 (Osprey Publishing, 2002)
  4. ^ John Brewer, Eckhart Hellmuth, German Historical Institute in London (1999). Rethinking Leviathan: The Eighteenth-Century State in Britain and Germany, Oxford University Press. p.64. ISBN 0-19-920189-7
  5. ^ David Hackett Fischer (2006). Washington's Crossing, Oxford University Press. p.60. ISBN 0-19-518159-X
  6. ^ "Battle of Trenton", British Battles.com, accessed 13 Feb 2010
  7. ^ History of Our Ancestors: The First Bohner (Bahn, Bahner) to Migrate to America
  8. ^ Johannes Schwalm the Hessian, p. 21]
  9. ^ Rodney Atwood (2002). The Hessians. Cambridge University Press. p. 199. 
  10. ^ Herbert M. Bahner and Mark A. Schwalm, "Johann Nicholas Bahner – From Reichenbach, Hessen To Pillow, Pennsylvania", Journal of the Johannes Schwalm Historical Association, Inc. Vol 3, No. 3, 1987
  11. ^ [Journal of Johannes Schwalm Historical Assoc., Inc Vol. 3, No. 1, p. 2]
  12. ^ R. Douglas Hurt (2002) American Agriculture: A Brief History, p. 80
  13. ^ Everett C. Wilkie, Jr., "Franklin and 'The Sale of the Hessians': The Growth of a Myth", Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 127, No. 3 (Jun. 16, 1983), pp. 202–212
  14. ^ Name. "Revolutionary War - The Hessian involvement". MadMikesAmerica. Retrieved 2012-10-29. 

Further reading[edit]

Primary sources[edit]

External links[edit]