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Book Review: A Generous and Merciful Enemy, by Daniel Krebs

By HistoryNet Staff 
Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: September 08, 2013 
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A Generous and Merciful Enemy: Life for German Prisoners of War During the American Revolution, by Daniel Krebs, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2013, $34.95

While historians have written much about the experiences of American prisoners during the Revolutionary War, few have addressed the accounts of German soldiers taken captive by the Americans. Of the 37,000-odd soldiers the British brought to America from six principalities of the Holy Roman Empire, about 5,400 became prisoners of war between 1776 and 1783. In A Generous and Merciful Enemy, Vol. 38 in UOP's Campaigns and Commanders series, Daniel Krebs, assistant professor of history at the University of Louisville, Ky., has studied the journals, letters and memoirs of rank-and-file German prisoners to shed unprecedented light on this overlooked aspect of the war.

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Most of the Germans came from the landgraviate of Hesse-Kassel, leading the Americans to refer to them collectively, but inaccurately, as Hessians. Some were veterans, others recruits, but the average age was 24. Overwhelmingly Protestant, they came from the lower strata, but not necessarily the bottom, of European society.

Krebs' principal conclusion is that the German prisoners of war came to play a significant role in the American hinterland. For one thing they continued to receive pay from their units, and their dependence on purchasing sustenance from outside sources, access to which their captors made readily available, fueled the local economies. Over the course of the conflict German prisoners were hired to work on farms in Pennsylvania, at saltworks in Maryland and ironworks in New Jersey. They were also used as political instruments against communities reluctant to support the revolution, as happened in Lebanon, Pa., in 1777 and 1778, when an influx of hundreds of German prisoners prompted local Moravians to change their stance from pacifism or loyalty to the crown to dependence upon the militia and Continental Army guards for protection. Great numbers of those same captives married local women and ended up settling permanently in the States after the war.

The author brings to light the 1785 Treaty of Amity of Commerce between United States and Prussia. That largely forgotten document was signed by Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams in August 1785, and by King Frederick II on September 10. That treaty included two new articles—23, regarding the protection of trade and commerce during wartime; and 24, calling for "prisoners of war to be well used." The latter marked the first time in history an international bilateral treaty regulated the treatment of prisoners of war. Revolutionary War buffs will find A Generous and Merciful Enemy both fascinating and important.

—Thomas Zacharis


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