The Hessians were mercenaries hired by the British during the American Revolutionary War. They quickly distinguished themselves during the New York and New Jersey Campaign in the battles of Long Island and White Plains. They were known for their discipline in battle as well as their brutality during it. They were schooled in European warfare and were some of its best students. Each man who was enlisted was molded into a powerful soldier capable of withstanding some of the harshest conditions. However, European warfare was not as effective in America as it was in the old world and many times these brave men found themselves surprised by an enemy they did not respect. The most notable surprise was the Battles of Trenton and Princeton in which General Washington launched a surprise attack on Hessian outpost. The attack resulted in the British pulling out of New Jersey.
Use of Mercenaries in Europe
Mercenaries were common in European warfare. The great Prussian leader, Frederick the Great, viewed mercenaries as necessary to support an empire and fight a war. In the ancient world the Romans had perfected the use of mercenaries and it had allowed them to expand their empire as well as control it. Once Rome fell factions began to form and instead of one cohesive empire there were small nation-states that came into being. These factions remained in constant conflict and often shifted their alliances based on the balance of power. Swiss and German mercenaries became the backbone of many armies, including that of the Prussians, British, Spanish, and French.
By the time of the American Revolutionary War the Germanic people had not united into one nation, but consisted of a number of factions. Each of these factions had their own strengths and weaknesses, however they all shared one common theme and that was their mercenaries. Perhaps the greatest innovator in mercenary armies was Freidrich Wilhelm II, Landgraf of Hesse-Cassel. Before we get into the genius of Freidrich Wilhelm we must first understand the state of the Germanic people during the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Germanic People
In the 18th century Germany was not a unified country. Instead it consisted of approximately 300 small nation-states with their own leaders, laws, land, and economy. Their size was about the size of a New England city. Some of these nation-states were agrarian societies that supplied Europe with food, others were on the Rhine River and were important harbors, and others were military states. Regardless of their economy, each of these nation-states practiced the selling of mercenaries to foreign countries for profit. Here is a quick table to give an idea of Hessian recruits from the German Principalities. The table is as follows:
Notice the Italicized outlier of the bunch, Hesse-Cassel. That is where I want to focus this article from this point forward. Hesse-Cassel is where we get the name, Hessians.
Hesse-Cassel located off the Rhine River and did not have a profitable economy. The Thirty Years War in Europe had decimated its infrastructure and when Freidrich Wilhelm took control of this impoverished nation-state he began to turn its economy into a military state. The Hessians from Hesse-Cassel quickly gained the reputation as the best mercenaries in Germany. The men of Hesse-Cassel would take part in one of the most important battles of the American Revolutionary War.
Freidrich Wilhelm II, Landgraf of Hesse-Cassel
Freidrich Wilhelm II was an interesting and complex character. He was an ambitious man who seemed to inherit a tough situation. Hesse-Cassel, was not positioned on a major trade route and had been ravaged by war. By 1750 it had not yet recovered from the Thirty Years War which took place more than a century earlier. In 1757 another war broke out and ravaged the land again.
Wilhelm was raised to be a soldier and had grown to love the discipline that martial life instilled. He was a devout Roman Catholic, student of the enlightenment, and held high regard for Prussian commander, Frederick the Great. While he studied natural law and reason he also practiced discipline. He studied the Prussian military and began to model his army off of what he believed to be the greatest army in Europe.
Wilhelm ruled his nation-state as an enlightened ruler. He tried to establish a rule of law and began a series of reforms. During his tenure he also expanded the Hessian military. Hesse-Cassel had been in a state of war for generations and Wilhelm believed that the only way to protect his borders was to establish a strong and competent army, which he did. Under his guidance the Hessian army became the largest army in proportion in all of Europe and possible the world. Each of his officers were career military men and were well-educated. They knew how to kill, speak various languages, and think logically. By the time of the American Revolutionary War Freidrich Wilhelm had created on of the most formidable armies in the world. Now he sought to monetize his military.
Significant Hessian Officers
Carl Emilius Ulrich von Donop – Donop was thirty-six years old during the American Revolutionary War and was a well-connected, albeit arrogant, aristocrat. He was given command over the highly coveted Jåger corps. He had a high sense of social hierarchy and often was despised by his peers. One of which was Johann Gottlieb Rall. He was considered an able officer, but unfortunately his attitude was disliked by those under him.
Johann Gottlieb Rall – Rall was a self-made man and a career Hessian soldier. He had served in the army for over 35 years when he left Hesse-Cassel for America. He was beloved by his men and a distinguished commander. He was charismatic and fair to his men. He was known for standing up for his soldiers and always made a point of treating them with respect. During battle, he always remained under control and disciplined and his men soon had that same reputation.
Andreas Wiederholdt – Donop came from the upper class, Rall from the middle, Wiederholdt came from the lower class and worked his way up in rank due to his natural ability. He was part of the Knyphausen regiment and fought during the French and Indian War as well as the American Revolutionary War. He kept a journal in which he was critical of many of his superiors. Although he was recognized for his ability he could only go so far in the Hessian army. After he returned from the America he migrated to Portugal where he was given the rank of General.
Recruitment was well-organized in Hesse-Cassel. At seven years of age every male would register for the military. At sixteen years of age each male would appear for examination. The recruiter would then decide if their physical body was able to withstand a military life. After their examination at sixteen they would return every Easter for a re-examination until they were thirty years old. During the recruitment process they would decide if the individual was indispensable to the economy of Hesse-Cassel.
Recruitment was meant for all-classes but typically it was the lower classes that would end up serving in the military. This was typical of all armies during the eighteenth century. The proportion of males who served in the Hesse-Cassel military was one out of fifteen.
Recruitment was also forced upon some individuals. School-dropouts, wanderers, and others were often forced into the military.
Discipline and Training of a Hessian Soldier
The Hessian system of discipline was different from the British system in that they made more use of corporal punishment. The most common punishment was 30 lashes and for more serious offenses the soldiers were forced to run through the gauntlet in which they were pummeled by their peers. If the charges were very serious then they would be forced to run the gauntlet many times. The weapon used for these punishments was the dreaded cudgel which the British deemed unfit to punish animals with.
Capital punishment was also used more often than in traditional European armies. Men were hanged for leaving their post and their families would also be punished for their misconduct. These stiff penalties resulted in the most disciplined army in Europe.
A Hessian soldier was drilled constantly and endlessly conditioned. Men became proud of their military accomplishments and their discipline was displayed on the battlefield quite often. During the Battle of White Plains, Hessians took heavy casualties, but remained calm and continued their march towards the Americans. They marched through grass that was on fire and heavy gunfire. Their discipline led to a victory for the British and the respect of their enemy.
Organization of the Hessian Army
Jåger Corps – Jågers were élite light infantry that had the ability to move quickly. They were well-disciplined and often taller than normal infantry units. They were quite effective in Europe and during the New York and New Jersey campaign against the Continental Army.
Regular Infantry – Infantry was the backbone of the Hessian Army. They were well-disciplined and well-educated on the art of killing.
Hussar – Refers to Hessian light cavalry units. Hussars originated in Hungary and were used throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.
Grenadiers – Refers to specialized light infantry used for flanking maneuvers.
Artillery – There were three companies of Artillery units that came from the German principalities that fought in the war.
Service in the American Revolutionary War
The British Army that fought in the American Revolutionary War was approximately 30% Hessian. The first men arrived on Staten Island on August 15, 1776 and fought most of the battles. They were effective during the Battle of Long Island and distinguished themselves during the Battle of White Plains. However, the Hessians were soundly defeated in New Jersey when 1,000 men were surprised and defeated at the Battle of Trenton.
The presence of foreign troops in America hurt an already damaged British reputation. Although foreign mercenaries were customary in Europe, the colonists did not see it the same way. Many loyalists began to favor the revolution after the arrival of the Hessians.
The Continental Congress did attempt to entice hessian soldiers to desert the army. Depending on rank a hessian deserter was given 50 or more acres of land. This did entice some to desert, but they did so at the risk of execution. Many deserters were hunted by the British and brought back to be executed.
- Bobrick, Benson. Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution. New York. Penguin Books, 1997.
- Fischer, David Hackett. Washington’s Crossing. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
- Stephenson, Michael. Patriot Battles: How The War of Independence Was Fought.New York: Harper Perennial, 2007