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No account of the American Revolution is complete without reference to the Hessians. They are vilified in the Declaration of Independence as “foreign Mercenaries” imported to complete Britain’s work of “death, desolation and tyranny.” They are the garrison of Trenton, celebrating Christmas not wisely, but too well, until George Washington and his men rudely interrupt their revels. A Hessian ghost is implicated as the Headless Horseman in Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. They are the villains in D.W. Griffith’s 1909 film The Hessian Renegades, one of the earliest war movies. A Hessian (Yosemite) Sam Von Schmamm even serves as a cartoon foil for Bugs Bunny, finally collapsing in frustrated exhaustion with the memorable line, “I’m a Hessian without no aggression.”

Recent research is revising those traditional impressions. Hessians made up only about half of the German troops that served in North America during the Revolution, and scholars point out that almost half of these settled here after the war, intermarrying along classic immigrant lines. Military historians have even vindicated the Hessians at Trenton, demonstrating they were in fact alert and ready—just outfought by the Ameri­cans. The Hessian image nevertheless remains incomplete: They appear on the American stage without context, then vanish with little explanation. What’s missing is a clear sense of who they were, where they originated, and why they came to America to fight, kill and die in a war that was not their own.

To begin with, the Declaration of Independence was wrong: Hessians were not mercenaries in the generally accepted sense of the term—men serving the British as individuals under specified conditions of enlistment. Instead, they were classified under international law as “auxiliaries,” subjects of a ruler who assisted another by providing soldiers in return for money. In a modified form this process remains recognized in law and practice. In Vietnam, the United States supported a Korean contingent financially and materially. In turn, during Desert Storm, some states that did not send troops to the Middle East provided funds that helped defray America’s costs.

The 18th century, however, is generally and correctly understood as the great age of subsidy armies. Dubbed Soldatenhandel (the “soldier business”), it centered on Germany, and the principality of Hesse-Kassel was its archetype. The roots of the trade are best sought in the Thirty Years’ War, as states sought to pay their bills by recruiting and leasing soldiers to the highest bidder. That practice was easy to legitimize once the Treaty of Westphalia recognized the sovereignty of Germany’s lesser rulers. Instead of authorizing the enlistment of mercenaries in the traditional way, through contractors and taking a cut of the profits, the new states went into the army business for themselves, raising men, organizing regiments and negotiating contracts with larger, richer countries—rather like state-run military temp agencies.

Hesse-Kassel had always been poor—a midsize land of villages shaped by subsistence agriculture. At the same time, it lay between two parts of Prussia and athwart some of the regular routes of the contending armies. The result was catastrophe on all levels: the countryside wasted and the government deprived of its usual sources of revenue. Military service was not particularly popular as Hesse slowly recovered from its bruising. And that recovery was limited—so limited it was difficult to sustain a force sufficient to protect Hesse’s political sovereignty and territorial integrity. In 1676 its army totaled a mere 23 companies.

The following year, the Hessian Landgraf Karl leased 10 of those companies to Denmark for a total sum of 3,200 thalers. In 1687 Karl rented 1,000 men to Venice for 50 thalers apiece. Fewer than 200 returned home, but the Hessians had fought well enough to attract a more generous paymaster. The Estates of Holland had a full treasury and a long history of hiring fighting men from outside their borders. In 1688 Karl sent 3,400 of his subjects to serve William of Orange. They took no part in the invasion of England, but did so well on the continent that the Dutch wanted more of them for longer periods. In the War of the League of Augsburg (1688–1697) and the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714), Hessian troops established a solid reputation for discipline in the field, steadiness under fire and willingness to endure the high casualties characteristic of flintlock-and-saber battles. Britain’s Duke of Marlborough praised their valor. Prince Eugene of Austria, also no mean judge of fighting men, took 10,000 Hessians into Italy in 1706 and led another contingent against the Turks in Hungary.

At this stage of its development, the Hessian army was recruited in more or less traditional fashion from society’s expendables, including a strong infusion of men from other small German states. Karl saw it as a means of maintaining sovereignty, not a source of profit. Honor was also involved. Five of Karl’s sons served under arms; two were killed in action. And despite generous French offers, Karl, ruler of a Calvinist state, refused to do business with any but Protestant employers.

The pattern began to change after 1715, when the Stuarts incited rebellion in Scotland. That year Britain’s George I sought the services of no fewer than 12,000 Hessians. In 1726, when Britain reasserted a continental commitment by joining the Grand Alliance of Austria, Bavaria, Spain and other entities, it paid Hesse an annual retainer of £125,000 for first call on its army. Five years later, with no war on the horizon, Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole convinced Parliament to vote £240,000 to keep 12,000 Hessians ready for British service.

Reluctant to depend on a single connection, successive electors sought to expand their clientele. Results were not always positive. In 1744 a treaty with Bavaria briefly put Hessians on both sides in the War of the Austrian Succession. That same treaty for the first time included a blood money clause providing extra compensation for dead and wounded. In battle, however, the Hessians sustained and enhanced their reputation for rock steadiness. In 1745 and again in 1756, Hessian regiments shipped out to a Britain fearful of invasion by French and Scots. Landgrave William VIII had a defensible case when he declared: “These troops are our Peru. In losing them, we would forfeit all our resources.”

The outbreak of the Seven Years’ War placed major demands on Hesse-Kassel’s resources. While a member of Britain’s parliamentary opposition, William Pitt had been an eloquent and forceful critic of military subsidies. But as prime mini­ster of a state at war, Pitt opened the treasury to create an army on the continent whose regiments were largely German. Of the 90,000 men under arms in 1760, only 22,000 were British—2,000 fewer than the Hessian contingent alone. The Hessian soldiers once again proved themselves among Europe’s best. Under the overall command of Ferdinand of Bruns­wick, they played a central role as “His Britannic Majesty’s Army in Germany” and tied down superior numbers of French and imperial troops in an unheralded campaign, enabling Frederick of Prussia to outfight his enemies for seven years.

The Hessian people paid the price. Hesse was a major theater of operations for five campaigns—occupied, reoccupied and drained by requisitions, contributions and simple plundering by both sides. But as its tax base shrank, and the prospects of actually collecting taxes diminished, more and more English gold flowed into the treasury. The subsidy conventions concluded between 1702 and 1765 met a good half of Hesse-Kassel’s total budget. It was money gained without having to consult the Landtag, or diet, the assembly of merchants, townsmen and nobles who in principle controlled Hesse’s purse strings. Initially, subsidies had been used to maintain the army: soldiers supporting soldiers in accepted European fashion. But the kind of money the new treaties generated was becoming a different matter. Subsidies brought in foreign exchange, which could be used to support investment in commerce, industry and agriculture. Since they went into the military treasury, directly under the Landgraf’s control, the government had a potentially powerful fiscal weapon against the diet—should it prove necessary.

Well before the Seven Years’ War it was clear Hesse-Kassel lacked the strength to pursue an independent foreign policy. On the other hand, integration into a stable subsidy system enabled postwar reconstruction without the penny-pinching and bootstrapping necessary after 1648. In the long term, subsidies also enabled the administration to develop and finance a spectrum of development programs without turning to his people for money—a revival of the medieval axiom that “the prince should live of his own.”

The mid-18th century was the heyday of enlightened absolutism, the concept of promoting public welfare from the top down through the application of reason and method. The optimistic belief that it was possible to improve humans and their institutions alike encouraged rulers to think of themselves as servants, or at least custodians, of the state and its people. In countries the size of Spain or the Habsburg Empire, where central authority eroded in direct ratio to its remoteness, enlightened absolutism tended to evolve toward window dressing. In smaller states—the size of Hesse-Kassel—central oversight enabled the establishment of regimes strongly prefiguring the modern bureaucratic welfare state.

The government’s position as a primary source of funding encouraged cooperation on the part of the diet. “Corruption” is a harsh word; “patronage” a gentler one. In Hesse-Kassel one spoke of mutually acceptable arrangements among gentlemen. The necessary administrative apparatus was at hand. Military taxation and recruitment, to be effective, required increasingly meticulous records, increasingly comprehensive enforcement of the increasingly comprehensive laws regulating military service and its ramifications, and increasingly large numbers of bureaucrats to keep the paperwork in order.

Hesse-Kassel’s subsidy-fueled recovery from the Seven Years’ War was impressive. The administration sought to expand the state’s economic base by underwriting everything from trade fairs to road and river transportation. Hesse largely produced its own uniforms and weapons, increasing the number of craftsmen and skilled workers. Government experts improved peasant agriculture, particularly by encouraging potato cultivation and sheep raising. The rural population grew apace, providing a larger pool of potential soldiers. Increased wool production expanded the textile industry to a point that workers were described as being able to eat meat and drink wine on a daily basis. Kassel, the capital city, became a showplace of public works and buildings. Subsidy money built and maintained schools, hospitals and—pragmatically—a combined maternity hospital for unwed mothers and orphanage. All of this provided architects and construction workers with steady, profitable work. Taxes even shrank, by about a third overall between the early 1760s and 1784.

Present-day taxpayers can only marvel.

The army on which this social edifice depended began taking definitive form in 1762. As casualties mounted, keeping thousands of men under arms became an immense human burden for a state whose population was no more than 275,000. Frederick II responded by dividing Hesse-Kassel into cantons, each responsible for maintaining a field regiment for the subsidy army and a garrison regiment for home defense. Some towns were exempt. So was a spectrum of what similar American legislation a century later called “deferred occupations.” In practice, those owning more than 250 thalers in property fulfilled their obligation with money instead of blood. Craftsmen, apprentices and servants, workers in military-related industries and men essential to the prosperity of their farms or the support of their families were also exempt. All other men between 16 and 30, over 5-foot-6 when fully grown, were listed as available for military service, to be inducted and assigned as needed.

Hesse-Kassel thus became, in numbers and percentages, the most militarized state in Europe. Its army stabilized at a strength of 24,000 men: a 1-to-15 soldier-civilian ratio, twice that of Prussia. In contrast to Prussia, while foreigners could enlist in the Hessian army, it consisted overwhelmingly of native sons. One household out of four was represented in its ranks. In Prussia the ratio was 1-to-14. Both travelers and military inspectors consistently remarked on the size and fitness of the Hessian regulars, qualities frequently credited to their austere upbringing on hardscrabble smallholdings. No less remarkable was their apparent acceptance of military life, despite a term of service totaling 24 years.

Again this was frequently ascribed to nurture, with young men hearing from fathers and uncles tales of adventure in far places while omitting the negatives. Moral factors were involved as well. The Hessian countryside was still strongly Calvinist in practice. Children were inculcated at an early age with fundamental concepts of duty and calling. Enhanced by secular indoctrination of loyalty to the ruler, concretized by rigid discipline in field and garrison, they produced soldiers worthy of their hire.

That is the master story; there were several subtexts. Conscription itself was a two-tiered process, with field regiments taking the most expendable recruits: the landless, the jobless, the feckless, supplemented by a steady trickle of foreigners. The “less expendables” were assigned to garrison regiments that were essentially militia formations, brought together annually in early summer for anywhere from three to six weeks of training and otherwise remaining part of the civil population and its economy. In field regiments as well, at minimum about a third of each company was on leave at any one time—working as craftsmen or laborers, assisting on family farms. That number could reach as high as 50 percent over 10 or 11 months, depending on the regiment and the circumstances.

A Hessian soldier, then, was hardly isolated from Hessian society. Conscripts and militiamen could volunteer for the field regiments, and the state encouraged that in concrete ways. An active soldier’s pay was higher than that of a domestic servant or farm laborer—enough, properly husbanded, to buy a cow or two pigs a month. That gave a man influence in his parental household. Once mastered, moreover, the routines of drill and service were significantly less demanding than those of a menial job in a subsistence economy. Discipline might be harsh in principle, but its weight fell primarily on the 10 percent that cause 90 percent of the problems in any military unit: the sullen, the stubborn, the stupid. Small wonder, then, that Hessian field regiments had little trouble keeping their ranks filled—or that many of the regulars saw even the voyage to America to help suppress a popular revolution as an adventure and an opportunity.

When mobilized, the Hessian army was an infantry force: around two dozen regiments of foot, field and garrison, supported by a few squadrons of cavalry and two or three artillery companies whose pieces were distributed as “regimental guns.” Each infantry regiment had a grenadier company, composed of picked men and usually assigned to a separate grenadier battalion on active service. For the American expedition, the army added something new: a field Jaeger (hunter) corps of two companies. Foresters, hunters and the occasional poacher from all over Germany volunteered, attracted by high bounties and high pay, bringing their own rifles. Performing many of the duties of contemporary rangers, the Jaeger were widely considered the elite of the British army in North America.

An officer’s career in Hesse-Kassel was both honorable and a good way to share in the subsidy system benefits. The officer corps was characterized by long service—an average of 28 years for captains and majors of one regiment in 1776. It was primarily native—about half noble and the other half either bourgeois who began as “free corporals,” with the understanding that a commission was in the offing, or commoners promoted from the ranks. In contrast to most German states, Prussia in particular, an officer’s official status and precedence were based on his military rank and not his social origins. Senior appointments were, nevertheless, largely filled by aristocrats through the end of the period.

Elector Karl recognized the risk of professional stagnation in a small army. By 1771, 61 officers and cadets were studying academic subjects at the Collegium Carolinum, Hesse-Kassel’s foremost university. By the time of the French Revolutionary Wars, Hessian officers were among the leaders in developing new tactical doctrines. An officer who joined in 1777 described the change: “In my early youth, who could last longest at a drinking bout, who showed the most dueling cuts was held to be a fine fellow, and whoever had cheated a Jew was considered a genius. This fashion has completely changed.” A bit optimistic perhaps, but indicating an internal dynamic that produced solid leadership at regimental levels for an army designed to fight under alien high command.

What was frequently described as Hesse-Kassel’s “golden age” had its downsides. The need to maintain the army’s strength and effectiveness opened the door to an increasing intrusion of government into everyday life. If someone in an exempted category enlisted, his case might even be investigated to make sure he was a true volunteer. On the flip side of the coin, the state encouraged a steady supply of marginalized “have-nots” by adjusting patterns of inheritance and employment. Parents were held responsible for sons who emigrated—even imprisoned until the miscreants reported for duty. One ambitious local official pushed for creation of a commission to enforce the fidelity of wives whose husbands were fighting in North America.

This precursor of what modern commentators call the “mommy state” was, however, more irritating than alienating. More significant was the diet’s growing perception of the subsidy system as a threat to the society it was supposed to nurture, not to mention on its own financial interests. In part this reflected an emerging critique throughout Europe of managed government, or <>dirigisme, in favor of more open economic systems. Its major taproot, however, was pragmatic. In 1773 new legislation in favor of rural primogeniture, with cash payments for younger brothers, created a large number of men suddenly—and unhappily—eligible for conscription. It also generated a legal crisis, as courts were flooded with suits and countersuits involving issues like the right to sell or mortgage land.

The resulting social disruption was enhanced by what initially appeared to be the greatest triumph of Hesse-Kassel’s subsidy system. Even before the outbreak of revolution in its American colonies, the British government had begun negotiations with the Landgraf—who was, not coincidentally, an uncle of King George III. The resulting treaty put almost 20 million thalers into Hesse-Kassel’s treasury—much of it up front, a rare phenomenon in subsidy arrangements. Conditions included payment at British rates—well above local ones—a guarantee not to commit Hessians outside North America, and another guarantee that if Hesse-Kassel itself were attacked, Britain would come to its aid. Finally, in contrast to contemporary British treaties with other German states, Hesse-Kassel’s did not include a blood bonus—to official Hesse-Kassel, proof of its ruler’s enlightenment and goodwill.

All the Landgraf, Frederick II, had to do was maintain some 12,000 men for service across the Atlantic. Meeting the original number required mobilizing four garrison regiments in addition to the field army. Despite the strain on the system, the proposition seemed ideal to the diet, which supported the treaty enthusiastically; it also provided support for the personal lifestyle of Frederick. The general population benefited from more than a half million thalers in pay and bonuses distributed directly to soldiers’ families.

Times, however, were changing. In Europe and in Germany, intellectuals and publicists raised a cry against a “trade in human flesh” that flew in the face of everything the Enlightenment supported. Casualty replacement became an unexpected problem. British soldiers and diplomats promised quick victory. Instead, almost 19,000 Hessians, 7,000 more than the original contingent, crossed the Atlantic after 1776. Five thousand died from all causes, more than 80 percent from disease alone. Another 1,300 were wounded. Between 2,500 and 3,100 went missing. Many of those simply remained in the New World. Their number nevertheless suggested a significant degree of alienation from the subsidy system among those at its sharp end.

The long absence of so many men bore heavily on their families and on a subsistence economy that proved more dependent than expected on the labor of furloughed soldiers. The subsidizing of trade and industry had absorbed funds without generating what would later be described as an economic takeoff.

The last Hessian losses were recorded in 1784. William IX, who succeeded Karl as Landgraf in 1785, responded to critics by revising land inheritance laws in ways intended to leave more muscle on family farms. The conscription system was modified to eliminate the complex structure of occupational deferments. The concept of “expendability” was applied to the entire male population, the term of service reduced to 12 years as a tradeoff. Administered with a cautious eye on local reactions, the revamped system for practical purposes restored the army to its central place in Hessian society.

William IX was Francophobic—a tendency encouraged after 1789 by the serious direct threat revolutionary France posed to the small German states across the Rhine. The Landgraf was correspondingly willing to engage his army for lesser sums than his predecessor. Britain, however, was still a reliable paymaster and partner, willing to pay premium prices for good men. A four-year treaty of alliance in 1787 provided annual payments for 12,000 troops never called on to deploy—among the few cases of “something for nothing” in the subsidy system’s history. A series of treaties in 1793 and 1794 brought 12,000 men plus artillery into British service, where they fought as well as ever in the Low Countries and Westphalia. Hessian regiments served in Ireland against the 1798 Revolution, with more success than their predecessors in North America. William was able to parlay his troops’ service into an electoral title from the Holy Roman Empire in 1803. Three years later, in the aftermath of the Battle of Jena, Hesse-Kassel was merged into the Confederation of the Rhine, and William was an exile in Austria. Hessians continued to fight across Europe under foreign colors, this time French ones. But the Hessian mercenary state had passed into history—and into myth.

For further reading, Dennis Showalter recommends: The Hessians, by Rodney Atwood, and The Hessian Mercenary State, by Charles W. Ingrao.

This article was written by Dennis Showalter and originally published in the October 2007 issue of Military History Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to Military History magazine today!