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How Good Were Hessian Mercenary Troops?

12/2/2014 • Ask Mr. History

Hello!  My question is about Hessian troops.

I know that they were often hired as an army for hire, but I want to know how good / bad / so-so they were as soldiers.

Do you have any information about them? I’ve read that they were fairly well disciplined, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into how well equipped they were or how effective they were on the battlefield.

Thank you for taking my question!

—Isaac

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Dear Isaac,

During the American Revolution King George III represented the third generation of Hanoverian monarchs, reigning in Britain, so it is hardly surprising that the country would maintain friendly relations with Hannover and several other German states. The German contract mercenaries it engaged, collectively referred to as “Hessians,” were literally professional soldiers, having taken up the profession and accepted the discipline and hardships involved as part of the job. Depending on the competence of their officers, they could be quite effective and their grenadiers, advancing with bayonets fixed, could be downright fearsome to the early Continental troops, who often fled the battlefield at the sight of them. One instance of how tough they could be was their advance up the heights to take Fort Washington on November 16, 1776, led by 60-year-old Lt. Gen. Wilhelm von Knyphausen, who allegedly was brandishing a musket and bayonet at the head of his troops.

That said, Colonel Friedrich Baum’s 700-man detachment built around Brunswick-Lüneburg troops, operating in the hills of what is now Vermont with no effective knowledge of the territory came to utter grief at the hands of Brig. Gen. Jonathan Stark’s local militia at Bennington in August 1777. And we all know what happened when Lt. Gen. George Washington made the most of the element of surprise at Trenton on December 26, 1776.

As prisoners of war, Hessians often fraternized with the local populace and a sizable percentage were literally seduced by some of the local women, resulting in their taking wives and settling down to try their luck in the New World while most of their comrades were being released and repatriated.

Germans in British service would continue to fight with varying degrees of distinction during the Napoleonic Wars, most famously the King’s German Legion in Iberia and at Waterloo.

Sincerely,

 

Jon Guttman
Research Director
World History Group
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