Hessian mercenaries acquired a fearsome reputation during the Revolutionary War. A Hessian soldier was the inspiration for the maleficent "Headless Horseman" in Washington Irving's famous ghost story, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." ("The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane" by John Quidor)
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During the Revolutionary War, Americans had a profound dread of Hessian mercenaries hired by King George III to fight in the battle for the Colonies. Patriot sources produced exaggerated rumors and newspaper accounts which made the term “Hessian” a byword for “marauder” months before German boots touched North American soil. This fearsome perception continued as time passed. The word “Hessian” might recall in modern American consciousness the Hessian “Headless Horseman” in Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow—perhaps conjuring imaginings of a maleficent, cloaked rider brandishing a saber.

Even the U.S. Declaration of Independence contains an ominous reference to German troops: “He [King George III] is at this time transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy of the head of a civilized nation.”

When the first division of Hessians arrived at Staten Island, N.Y. in August 1776, they discovered that a harrowing reputation preceded them. “The Americans had been informed by their agents and British sympathizers of the Hessians’ impending arrival. As early as Sept. 30, 1775, the Constitutional Gazette reported that 10,000 Hannoverians were to be recruited to repress the Colonists,” according to historian Rodney Atwood. Scholars Atwood and Edward J. Lowell write that Americans regarded the German troops “with nothing less than sheer horror” and that “the popular imagination had made fiends of the Hessians.”

American newspapers portrayed them as vicious raiders “‘whose native ferocity, when heightened and whetted, by the influence and malice of the sceptered savage of Great-Britain, thirsting for the blood of his faithful American subjects, will exhibit such a scene of cruelty, death and devastation as will fill those of us who survive the carnage, with indignation and horror, attended with poverty and wretchedness,” according to The Norwich Packet of July 8, 1776 quoted by Atwood. Staten Island citizens panicked. “The arrival of the German allies had spread no little alarm among the Americans…many of the inhabitants had abandoned their homes, flying to New York and leaving in their houses many articles of value,” according an 1893 German history by Max von Eelking.

The Hessians were unaware of the myths surrounding them and were astonished when American patriots they encountered in battle reacted to them with frantic despair. “’Their fear of the Hessian troops was…indescribable,’ reported [Lieut-Gen. Philip von] Heister, quoted by Atwood, ‘in contrast, they offered the British much more opposition, but when they caught only a glimpse of a blue coat, they surrendered immediately and begged on their knees for their lives.”

Other Americans responded with desperate violence. Many had such dread and mistrust of Hessians that they attempted to kill them after surrendering – an action which outraged the Germans, whose code of soldierly honor condemned such behavior as treachery. One such incident was related by German mercenary Col. von Heeringen, quoted by Lowell: “ ‘Colonel John, of the rebels, is dead. A grenadier took him prisoner and generously gave him his life…The colonel wanted to murder him, slyly, from behind; secretly drew out a pistol, but only hit the grenadier in the arm, whereupon the latter treated him to three or four bayonet strokes.’ ”

Fear and confusion became very apparent when the Hessians obtained the American surrender of Fort Washington in New York on Nov. 16, 1776. “Colonel Rall called to one of his captains. ‘Hohenstein…you speak English and French; take a drummer with you, tie a white cloth on a gun-barrel, go to the fort and call for a surrender,”  he ordered, according to Lowell. Hohenstein and the drummer were continually fired upon until they reached the slope of the fort despite obvious calls for peace.

Lowell describes that when the Continental Army finally relinquished, the Hessians witnessed how Americans perceived them: “Captain von Malsburg relates that when he came into the fortress he found himself surrounded by [American] officers with fear and anxiety in their faces. They invited him into their barracks, pressed punch, wine, and cold cakes upon him, complimented him on his affability, which seemed to astonish them, and told him they had not been led to expect such from a Hessian officer.”

Although the German mercenaries came from diverse regions, most were from the Landgraviate of Hesse-Cassel, which gave rise to all German troops in America being referred to indiscriminately as “Hessians.” Hesse-Cassel was a poor state that, at that time, had still not recovered from the Thirty Years’ War. It had also fought as Britain’s ally against France during the Seven Years’ War and had been further devastated.

Densely populated and threatened with starvation, Hesse hired out its military to earn revenue. According to Charles Ingrao of The American Historical Review: “Hessian society in general valued the Soldatenhandel [lit. ‘soldier trade’] for its role in stimulating the economy, keeping taxes low, and providing attractive career alternatives for all social groups.”

Hesse-Cassel was not alone in its “soldiers for hire” scheme. During the Revolutionary War, six German princes “rented” their armies to Britain, including rulers in Bavaria, Upper and Lower Saxony, Hesse and Waldeck. Of these, the Hessian regions were most prepared for war. “The Elector of Hesse, Frederic II., whose arsenals were well filled, and whose troops were always ready, was the most active, and by the end of February his Regiments were in Cassel, prepared to start,” according to Eelking.

The forces consisted of a mix of aristocratic officers, professional soldiers, volunteers, and conscripts. While awaiting British transport ships, they performed battle exercises and drills daily, even in deep winter snow.

The enlisted men were a diverse bunch. Many were volunteers who saw service as a chance to earn respect while others just wanted to escape poverty. Others were forced. The prince of Hesse-Cassel had a quota of regiments with which he had agreed to supply Britain—his recruiting officers resorted to oppressive tactics to meet the demands of their sovereign. They seized men and compelled them into the ranks—these victims included political dissidents, drunkards, peasant workers, debtors and others in unfortunate circumstances.

Some conscripts found themselves packed off to America after simply being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Johann Gottfried Seume, a runaway theology student en route to Paris, was captured by Hessian recruiters after a chance roadside meeting.

“‘I was brought under arrest to Ziegenhayn, where I found many companions in misfortune from all parts of the country,” according to quotations from Seume’s 1835 autobiography in Lowell’s book The Hessians and other German Auxiliaries of Great Britain in the Revolutionary War. “There we waited to be sent to America in the spring, after Faucitt [the British Colonel who had negotiated the treaties] should have inspected us. We stayed a long time at Ziegenhayn before the necessary number of recruits was brought together from the plough, the highways, and the recruiting stations. The story of those times is well known. No one was safe from the grip of the seller of souls.’”

Higher-ranking officers looked forward to battling in foreign countries to win honor. Most were noblemen, since in those days—and indeed up until the early 20th century—it was generally impossible for a German officer of common birth to advance beyond the rank of Sergeant Major. German researcher Hans Huth, in Letters from A Hessian Mercenary, writes: “Since it was generally impossible for the German officer to advance his career at home, he took service wherever a better future seemed to beckon him; but that did not at all signify the complete abandonment of his ‘fatherland.’ ”

The soldiers were given heroic sendoffs. In Hesse-Cassel, the troops marched off to the applause of a cheering multitude. In the state of Waldeck, the prince gave each man a hymnbook. The prince’s mother was also generous, providing the troops with lavish entertainment and promising all returning soldiers that they would be taken home in carriages.

The first time Hessians saw the Americans was on the shores of Staten Island in 1776. “The width of the water was a little over three hundred paces, and the Americans gathered on their side to watch the German soldiers, who were now for the first time in sight,” according to Eelking. One of the Hessians noted that few rebels were in uniform and though they resembled a hastily assembled mob. The “rebels” made a poor impression on their Hessian enemies and the concept of a disorganized American “mob” remained with the Germans throughout the conflict. Much to the surprise and contempt of the Hessians, captured American officers (and even generals) turned out to be craftsmen, farmers, or merchants. The Hessian Col. Heeringen expressed sentiments of contempt. “Among the so-called Colonels and other officers, many were tailors, shoemakers, barbers…My men would not let them pass as officers,” dismissed Heeringen, according to Eelking.

This attitude filtered down to the lower ranks and produced a spirit of overconfidence in the Hessian army. “‘The rebels looked ragged, and had no shirts on,” according to an excerpt from a Hessian officer’s diary quoted by Lowell. “’Our Hessians marched like Hessians; they marched incorrigibly, and the English like the bravest and best of soldiers. They, therefore, lost more men than we.’ ”

The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton, December 26, 1776 by John Trumbull
The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton, December 26, 1776 by John Trumbull.

Yet it proved a costly mistake to underestimate the Americans. During the calm before the stormy Battle of Trenton, Col. Johann Rall ignored the advice of other German officers and refused to fortify his position across the Delaware River. “Let them come. What, outworks! We’ll meet them with the bayonet,” Rall boasted, according to Eelking. Rall’s arrogance led to disaster when Washington’s army launched a surprise attack on Christmas Day. Rall, severely wounded and covered with blood, surrendered his sword to Gen. Washington and died later that night in the home of a Quaker family. His men were taken prisoner and escorted to Virginia.

When Hessians were taken captive, they and their American enemies had a chance to see eye-to-eye without vision blurred by gun smoke and rumors. A German soldier’s letter indicates some Hessians repented of their hubris. “In serious earnest, this whole nation has much natural talent for war and for a soldier’s life,” according to material quoted by Lowell. The Americans, however, were not so forbearing. “ ‘Big and little, young and old, looked at us sharply. The old women cried out that we ought to be hanged for coming to America to rob them of their freedom; others brought us bread and wine,’” according to the diary of Cpl. Reuber, quoted in Eelking. Due to the wild myths and exaggerated newspaper reports, most Americans expected to see bloodthirsty barbarians and were rather surprised by what they found instead.

“Great crowds gathered at every place to see the dreaded Hessians, whose reputation had spread far and wide. Many expected to see wild robbers and murderers, with terrible angry faces––devils in human form—and beheld only neat soldiers, preserving, even in their misfortune, cleanliness, order and discipline. They were looked upon with astonishment, and sometimes with real or affected anger, and then they were abused and even stones were thrown at them,” according to Eelking.

George Washington was quick to cure this ill feeling by issuing a proclamation. Washington declared that the British had forced the Hessians to fight and that the Germans should be treated as friends instead of enemies. This changed American attitudes and the Hessian POWs soon found themselves showered with food and kind treatment. The German prisoners also were favored with the attention of American women. A German soldier quoted by Lowell wrote that “women stood by dozens all along our road, passed us in review, laughed mockingly at us, or from time to time dropped us a mischievous courtesy and handed us an apple.” Other Hessians quartered in Maryland were glad to find fellow Germans. Many South German settlers there, particularly Swabians, ransomed their compatriots and welcome them to live in their communities.

A large majority of German mercenaries refused to desert. Despite attempts by Congress to recruit them into the Continental Army, most remained steadfast in performing their military duty. Some waited until the end of the war to ask permission to stay in America.

At the end of the war, German mercenaries once feared as barbarous raiders made their home in America. Those who returned to Germany numbered about 17,313 (about 58% of those deployed, according to Lowell). Returning to their native land, many received heroes’ welcomes. Whether or not the Waldeck troops were actually conveyed to their homes in carriages remains to be discovered, but Eelking tells us that the Hessians’ story in America became the subject of German folk songs and sayings.

In America, the Hessians have been largely forgotten over the years. Many fought and died here, while others stayed and vanished into American society. If he is fortunate enough to cross the mind of an American today, the nameless Hessian soldier might find himself conjured by imagination into the formidable specter in Washington Irving’s legend:

“The dominant spirit, however, that haunts this enchanted region, and seems to be commander-in-chief of all the powers of the air…is said by some to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannon-ball, in some nameless battle during the Revolutionary War; and who is ever and anon seen by the country folk, hurrying along in the gloom of night, as if on the wings of the wind.”  MH