THE HESSIAN FAQ
This is the Hessian Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page,. This page has answers to many frequently asked questions that Hessian reenactors are asked at events, and also questions that they would like to be asked. This FAQ also sheds some light on the many myths, misconceptions, and misunderstandings about Hessian Soldiers in the American War of Independence.
Who were the Hessians?
'Hessian' is most often a generic term for the German soldiers hired by England to fight during the American Revolution. The name comes from the State of Hessen-Kassel, which provided the most number of troops to the English during the war, some 17,000 over the course of eight years. For the purposes of this FAQ, Hessians are those German soldiers actually from the state of Hessen-Kassel.
Were the Hessians Mercenaries?
By the most technical and liberal usage of the term, yes. But the term is misleading and inaccurate.
One must understand that the Hessian soldier received no extra pay for his duty, and remained loyal to, and was still considered a soldier of the German state of his origin. The term mercenary might better be applied to the various princely governments that hired out their soldiers. But even here, the term may not be correct, since the German princes did not hire out their soldiers to just anybody, and many political and and even religious factors determined who might be hired to who.
Perhaps Author James F. Dunnigan defines it best. He considers Hessians to be term unto themselves and not mercenaries in the classic sense. If one looks at the situation the Hessian were in and calls them mercenaries, one may become very uncomfortable with the way that all "volunteer" armies are paid for today, or how the various peace-keeping contingents employed by the United Nations are also paid for. Paid allies may be the most accurate term.
(cf. James F. Dunnigan, 'Dirty Little Secrets - Military information you're not supposed to know' pp. 267-268)
Were all of them from the state of Hessen-Kassel?
No. But the majority of them were either from the state of Hessen-Kassel (17,000 officers and soldiers) or Hessen-Hanau (2,600 officer and men). The 'Hessians' actually came from all over what is now Germany. Brunswick sent 5,723 men, Waldeck sent 1,225 men, Brandenburg-Anspach sent 1,040 men, and Anhalt-Zerbst sent 1,119 men, which was approximately 5% of that state's total population!
Why did the German rulers send their soldiers?
There is no simple answer for this. But the easiest way to say it is that by having England pay for the soldiers, the princes could keep an army without having it drain state funds. And why did the German states need such armies? The answer is that to survive and keep their relative positions in the Holy Roman Empire in the 18th century, required either an alliance with a powerful nation or a large army.
However, make no mistake about it. While the soldiers were under British command in America, they were still part of their homeland's armies. Had the princes required them in Germany, they would have undoubtedly been recalled.
Did the German rulers get 'blood pay' for soldiers killed in action?
Yes, but this was not as cruel as it sounds. What in fact the Princes received was money to recruit another soldier to replace the man killed. The princes' treaties were also contracts specifying the number of men to be provided, and the regiments were required to be kept up to strength.
It should probably be noted that Hessen-Kassel did not have a 'blood pay' clause in their contract with England. Instead, a debt owed to Hessen-Kassel for hospital services rendered during the Seven Years War was finally paid by the English.
What happened to the Hessians?
Of the soldiers from Hessen-Kassel, the following is known.
- 535 reported as killed in action
- 3,014 reported as deserted or missing
- 2,628 reported as captured during the war
- 4,983 reported as died of other causes (disease, accidents, etc.)
These figures are obtained from various 'official' Hessian records but are most likely incomplete. Another accounting by Edward Lowell in The Hessians and other German Auxiliaries of Great Britain in the Revolutionary War gives a total number of Hessians killed in battle at 1,200, Hessians that died of other causes at 6,354, and Hessians that deserted at 5,000. These numbers are most likely too high.
The fate of the deserters and captured Hessians varied greatly. Some were paroled into American factories and farms, others were merely made to stand down and not fight anymore. It has been estimated that some 6000 Hessian soldiers remained in America and Canada after the war, either from desertion or naturalization. Many of the Hessians staying in America settled around Lancaster,PA, Reading, PA and Frederick, MD. Others remained in Canada, the majority of them Brunswickers.
Keep in mind that a Hessian that stayed in America may not have actually been a deserter. Numbers of Hessians were discharged in America due to injury, completion of duties, or other reasons. For example, the Infanterie Regiment von Donop listed 55 men discharged in America by the end of the war, which would have been nearly 10% of the men in the regiment.
Why did they all wear those funny brass hats?
Well, for one thing, they didn't. The common perception of a Hessian soldier is one of the Hessian Grenadier with his tall brass mitre cap. While this image is certainly popular the truth is that most Hessians in America were 'Musketeers', who were normal soldiers who wore tricorn hats much like any other soldier in the war. Every Hessian regiment had a grenadier company that would consist of the most proficient men. These companies were often stripped from their parent regiments to form a battalion solely of grenadiers. Thus for every grenadier with a brass cap, there were at least four musketeers with tricorns. But there were also Fusilier regiments that wore a smaller brass cap, and 4 of the twelve regiments were of this type of soldier. The actual difference between a Fusilier and Musketeer in the Hessian Army at this time was only the headgear.
The reason for the existence of the mitre caps dates back to the 17th century when grenadier companies would actually use grenades. The pointy cap was developed for these grenadiers so that they could easily throw their grenades and sling their muskets without knocking off their floppy hats that were standard for most soldiers of the time. The first such caps were made of cloth and were much shorter than their 18th century counterparts. During the 18th century, grenades outside of siege operations fell into disuse. By then the grenadiers consisted of the largest men who were chosen more for use as 'shock troops' than for any throwing ability. Since these men were already large, efforts were made to make them look larger. The tall mitre cap can create the illusion of a soldier being much taller and thus deadlier than he may actually be. The tactic worked, at least on the American rebel soldiers. The accounts of Hessians at Long Island show how much fear could be induced by such an illusion (accounts of 7 foot tall Hessian with two rows of teeth was a popular tale).
Remember of course that this illusion was quite effective during the era. Muskets were very inaccurate and rifles too slow to be of much use. This meant that most battles were won at the push of bayonet against the enemy troops. If you could scare your opponent into running away before your soldiers reach their position, so much the better. This happened often in the Revolutionary war.
Who were the Jaegers?
Jaeger, or 'hunters' were sent from several German states as part of the treaties with George III. Basically the Jaegers were German riflemen who used rifles that were much shorter than the American Kentucky Rifle. Many of the Jaegers were second or third sons of German landlords, gamekeepers, or adventurers of one kind or another.
Jaegers were quite distinctive from their infantry counterparts; their uniforms were often a medium green lined with red. For more information you may wish to visit the Hessen-Kassel Jaeger websites here or here and read more about the Jaegers.
I have an ancestor who was a Hessian soldier, where can I get more information?
It can be very hard to find information about Hessian soldiers in most cases. Some soldiers, namely those captured at Trenton, are listed in the appendix of the book "The Hessian view of America". There is an overall list of the fate of all soldiers from Hessen-Kassel (at least as far as their superior officers were concerned), in the "Hessische Truppen im Nord Amerika"(HETRINA) catalog. A partial copy exists in the David Library at Washington's Crossing, PA, another at the Rutgers library in New Brunswick, and copies are also owned by the Johannes Schwalm Historical Association and the Lancaster County Historical Society, and the University of Pennsylvania Library.
Things that can help your search are knowing at what battle he was captured (or where he deserted), who he was paroled to, and so on. There are several newsgroups on the soc. hierarchy that may also be of help. In particular, the group soc.genealogy.german. Also, John Merz who owns "The Hessians" a website devoted to those German Auxiliary soldiers who settled in America after the Revolution, moderates a Hessian genealogy email list. This is an excellent resource to ask for genealogy information, get research tips, and get other information about Hessian soldiers and their descendants. To join the Hessian list, send email to AMREV-HESSIANS-Lfirstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line blank and the only the word 'subscribe' in the message body.
Were there African-Americans in the Hessian units?
Yes. Many slaves and free blacks were there, recruited by German units as part of the 'feldmusik' for the unit. It was considered somewhat to be a 'status symbol' to have a black drummer in the unit and not all units had them. This was a fashion in the 18th century armies emulating some traditions in the Ottoman empire that were liked by the rest of Europe.
Recruited mainly for music, and labor, some blacks also served as weapon carrying soldiers in some Hessian regiments. The Regiment Erbprinz recruited some as early as 1777, and recruited more when it was sent to Virginia in 1781.
Probably the best source of information on this subject is George Jones' article on Black Hessians. It should be noted that not only African-Americans, but Africans (as in directly from that continent) were to be found in various German States armies' field music in Europe.
Where are the Hessians buried?
The Hessians who died during the course of the war are not buried in any special place. Old graveyards that date back to the 18th century in areas where the Hessians campaigned may have a grave or two. But it is unlikely to be easily found. One of the best known burial grounds of Hessian soldiers is in Runnemede, NJ, where some 40 to 50 Hessians who died of wounds received at Fort Mercer are buried. Another grave, nearer to fort (in Red Bank or National Park, NJ), may have once held an equal or greater number. But during World War I, anti-German hysteria seized a few locals, who unearthed the remains in the grave and dumped them into the Delaware River.
Did England ever hire German soldiers at any other time beside the American Revolution?
Actually, English often hired Germans and other nationalities to supplement their army. It is a tradition that dated back to at least the 16th century, when Henry the VIIIth hired German Landesknechts for his campaigns in France and Scotland. Many other European soldiers were hired from the Middle Ages to the English Civil War. However, these soldiers were most often 'true' mercenaries and were actually incorporated into the English Army of the time. The English hired Hessian (and other) soldiers during the War of the League of Augsburg (1688-1697), The War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), The War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) and the Seven Years' War (1756-1763). During the Scots Rebellion in 1745, 7,000 Hessians were hired to help garrison England and Scotland. Although the British army did recruit for its regiments in Germany, and 2,000 Germans were recruited in 1776, The Hessian regiments sent to America remained in their own units with their own unit commanders, and often remained in their own brigades.
What happened at Trenton? Were the Hessians really all drunk?
No, but their position was poorly prepared for defense due to the poor decisions made by the commander of that post, Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall. Rall himself may have been drunk that night, but the Hessian sentries were able to alert the forces (all sober) in Trenton. All the advantages, however, were with the Americans. The Americans employed their artillery well while the Hessians had only were able to get two guns into action. Worse yet, the flintlocks used (by all soldiers of that time) were next to useless in the rain/sleet storm like the one that occurred that Christmas day. Rall tried to overcome these problems by leading a bayonet charge with his regiment, but the artillery drove them back and Rall was fatally wounded. After that, the Hessians either fled or surrendered. It can be argued quite easily that if Rall had merely given up the town instead of making such a futile fight for it, not many Hessians would have been captured. As it was, of the 1,500 Hessians at Trenton, 900 were captured, 26 were killed or wounded and the rest escaped. The survivors were formed into a 'combined battalion' for the 1777 campaign, and eventually all of the units were reconstituted with replacements from Hesse. For a more detailed accounting of the battle, try this article on the battle of Trenton.
King George was also the elector of Hanover! So why didn't he just use his Hanoverian troops instead of hiring Hessians?
Because the estates of Hanover had made it law that the Elector could not use Hanoverian troops outside of Europe. George III did actually 'loan' himself six regiments from Hanover which were used to garrison Gibraltar in Spain. The fear in Hanover was that George would use the Hanoverian troops to fight the 'dirty' wars in the Indies (the Caribbean Islands), where troops would succumb to diseases and exposure long before they actually had a chance to see combat. In fact, when the Revolutionary War became a "world war" by the entry of the French and Spanish and Dutch into the conflict, the British did want to use Hessians in the Indies. However, Landgraf Friedrich forbade the use of his troops in such a way. Others were not so lucky. The Waldeck Regiment was sent to the Gulf coast of Florida in 1778, where it was captured at Pensacola in May of 1781. The English government did not even bother to tell the Prince of Waldeck that his regiment had been sent south, and when the Prince inquired of Lord Germain about the whereabouts of his troops in March of 1779, The Prince did not get a reply until May of 1780!