The German “Mercenaries” Who Played a Key Role in the American Revolution

Among the most fascinating but largely forgotten aspects of the American Revolution are the Hessians, German soldiers who fought for the British. Numbering around 30,000, Hessians made up a quarter of all British troops. They took part in virtually every military engagement, from the very first battle (Long Island) to the last (Yorktown). Hessians played a decisive role in most British victories, and it is believed the war would have ended sooner without them.

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Ironically, their presence ended up being an unexpected boost to the American war effort. The Patriots believed King George III had crossed a line by involving “foreign mercenaries”; propaganda campaigns painted the Hessians as brutal and rapacious thug that proved the British were cruel and uncaring towards the colonists. The Declaration of Independence, written roughly a year after hostilities broke out, explicitly cited the use of Hessians as one of the driving forces for independence.

Washington’s famed crossing of the Delaware River in December 1776 was aimed at a sneak attack against Hessian forces in Trenton, New Jersey. The subsequent capture of over 1,000 Hessians was decisive: the POWs were paraded through Philadelphia to boost morale and recruitment among the beleaguered Americans, and prove the British were going too far by hiring barbaric foreigners. Previously neutral or loyalist Americans were said to have changed sides or even enlisted. The Patriots also tried to entice Hessians to switch sides in exchange for land; in fact, several thousand of them stayed in the U.S. after the war, joining an already large German community.

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Contrary to popular belief, the Hessians were not mercenaries, but auxiliaries; whereas mercenaries hire themselves out as individuals, auxiliaries were sent by their government to serve a foreign power. They basically served whoever their government told them to, and remained part of their national armed forces; they even fought in their own uniforms and under their own flag (as in the American Revolutionary War).

Germany at the time was not a unified country, but a broad label that included hundreds of independent German states; most of them, like Hesse-Karel, were small and poor. Since ancient times, the Germans had a reputation for martial prowess and fierceness. Hesse, which provided most of Britain’s German troops—hence the broad label “Hessian” for all German soldiers in the war—was the most militarized state in Europe. One out of four households had someone in the military, and males had to be registered for service at age seven. From age sixteen, virtually all men underwent weeks of drills every year, serving for life or until they were too old.

As a small, resource-poor country, Hesse’s only source of wealth were its troops, who were known for their skill, iron discipline, and high morale. The Hessian army was also among the few that was strictly meritocratic, and its officers were well educated. Europe’s constant wars meant Hesse, as well as other small German states, made plenty of money renting their soldiers; the British alone paid thirteen years’ worth of tax revenue for Hessian troops, allowing the little country to ease taxes on citizens and build impressive monuments and public works. Hessians sometimes even fought on opposite sides of the same conflict, though Hesse itself was never a combatant—it was just doing business leasing its armed forces.

For their part, Hessian soldiers were paid relatively well, while their families enjoyed tax breaks and other state benefits. Their discipline and sense of duty meant they usually fought well even in wars they otherwise had no stake in; Americans learned this lesson painfully on the battles of Long Island, White Plains, and Fort Washington. In fact, Long Island was not only the first battle of the war, but remained the biggest and most decisive, costing the U.S. control of New York.

Despite all this, Hessians remain largely forgotten in American history. Their sole enduring presence, albeit sometimes is forgotten, is The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, whose iconic Headless Horseman was a Hessian.

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