This Day in History: The British hire Hessians to fight American colonists
On this day in 1776, Lord George Germain informs British General William Howe that Hessian troops are on their way to America.
What are Hessians? Why would they be headed to American shores? And why would that have been considered a thumb in the eye to the colonists?
The answer may not be what you expect. When the American Revolution began, the British had trouble recruiting sufficient numbers of soldiers from their own population, at home. As early as 1775, they sought to hire mercenaries from Russia or Germany. These efforts were unsuccessful in Russia, but the British had an easier time in Germany. Did you know that Germany then consisted of more than 300 different principalities? Some of these principalities were willing to hire out their soldiers.
The term “Hessian” is shorthand. Most of the Germanic people who came to America were from the German states of Hesse-Cassel (or Hesse-Kassel) and Hesse-Hanau. However, German soldiers were hired from other states as well.
In Hesse-Cassel, young boys signed up for military service when they were only 7 years old. They could be called to military service anytime between age 16 and 30. The training and discipline was generally harsh, yet morale was apparently pretty high. The families of soldiers received tax breaks, and the soldiers were able to keep plunder as part of their compensation.
Okay, so they weren’t really **supposed** to keep the plunder, but somehow their officers managed to look away at just the right times.
For their part, Americans were furious that the British had hired Hessians. It would have been normal practice to hire mercenaries and auxiliaries to help fight a war against another country. But at this point, Americans still considered themselves to be British citizens! Why would their own government hire Hessians to fight against them? The hiring of the Hessians, one historian explains, was “irrefutable proof to the colonists that they were to be treated as foreigners.”
In short, the British decision to hire Hessians was yet another domino that fell, pushing the American colonists one step closer to a declaration of independence. Indeed, when the formal Declaration was approved in July 1776, the issue even merited a line. Have you ever focused on it?
The sixth to last paragraph in the Declaration of Independence declares:
“[The King] is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.”
Given all this history, perhaps it is ironic that some of the Hessians eventually decided to stay and make their home in America? The German-American community in America was quite strong at the time of the Revolution: Some 200,000 people resided in the country. The Hessians noticed this fact and up to 5,000 of them decided to remain in America when the war was over.
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Primary Sources & Further Reading:
David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing (2004)
Gregory D. Bereiter, Campaigning in America: Captain Johann Ewald’s Hessians in the American Revolution (Illinois Wesleyan University honors project; 2001)
Hessians (George Washington’s Mount Vernon website)
Johann Ewald, Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal (Joseph P. Tustin ed., 1979)
John Richard Alden, The American Revolution 1775–1783 (1954)
Letter from Lord George Germaine to General Howe (April 27, 1776) (excerpt is HERE)
William Urban, Bayonets and Scimitars: Arms, Armies and Mercenaries 1700–1789 (2013)