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.

The Hero of Two Worlds

Thanks to the popularity of the musical Hamilton, more Americans are aware of one of the greatest heroes of American history, the French noble Marquis de Lafayette. His legacy on both sides of the Atlantic earned him the moniker of “The Hero of Two Worlds“.

When he was only 18, Lafayette professed that his “heart was dedicated” to the American cause. Just two years later, he paid his own way to cross the Atlantic and offer his services to the Patriots—for free. In fact, the Continental Congress was overwhelmed with French volunteers; while many were motivated by the chance to fight against their hated British rivals, there was genuine support for the American Revolution and its ideals. Lafayette stood out in many ways: he learned English within a year of his arrival (unlike most French volunteers), had won over Benjamin Franklin, and bonded well with George Washington, to whom he was a close advisor. He also had military experience, which the ragtag colonials desperately needed. Perhaps just as importantly, he truly believed in what the Americans were fighting for: while France had over a thousand years of resolute monarchism, it was also a hotbed for the sorts of ideas and discussions that were now being played out for the first time in the Thirteen Colonies.

During the Battle of Brandywine against a superior British force, Lafayette was wounded in action but still managed to organize an orderly retreat, for which Washington commended him and recommended he be given command of American troops. He served with distinction in several more battles in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Rhode Island—of which some sites still bear his name—before sailing back home in 1779 to lobby for more French support for the Americans.The following year, Lafayette returned to a hero’s welcome in Boston, having secured thousands of French troops as well as naval forces and supplies. He was given senior positions in the Continental Army and was so popular among Americans that Washington and Hamilton had him write letters to state officials urging them to send troops. Lafayette was a unifying figure and American icon to the fragmented U.S. states: he was foreign, did not live in the U.S., fought across all theaters of the war, and was motivated by ideology rather than money—all of which made him universally trusted by the bickering, often distrusting states.

In 1781, Lafayette played a pivotal role in the decisive Siege of Yorktown, where troops under his command held off British forces until other American and French forces could position themselves to strike. This victory at Yorktown—which involved almost as many French troops as Americans—helped end the war and secure U.S. independence. (Credit is also due to Frenchmen Comte de Rochambeau and Comte de Grasse, who also coordinated with Washington to secure victory.)

After the war, Lafayette remained committed to the cause of liberty for the rest of his life. He played a pivotal role in the French Revolution, and with Jefferson’s input helped draft the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, one of the earliest and most groundbreaking expressions of republicanism and civil rights. His commitment to human rights was also consistent: he was staunchly opposed to slavery, and joined the French Society of the Friends of the Blacks, which advocated the end of the slave trade and equal rights for blacks. He urged the emancipation of slaves and their establishment as tenant farmers in a 1783 letter to Washington, who was a slave owner (and who declined). A year after his correspondence with Washington, Lafayette helped abolish slavery in his homeland.

Lafayette opposed the later excesses of the French Revolution, and the subsequent rise of Napoleon as emperor; after seizing power, Napoleon offered to make him minister to the United States, but Lafayette firmly refused, as he would have nothing to do with an authoritarian regime. In 1802, he was one of the few to vote against making Napoleon ruler for life. When Napoleon again dangled an enticing opportunity—an appointment to the Senate as well as the Legion of Honor—Lafayette not only declined, but added that he would gladly have accepted the honors from a democratic government. When Jefferson offered him an opportunity to govern the newly purchased Louisiana Territory, he turned it down, wishing to focus on restoring French liberty.

In 1824, Lafayette was invited by James Monroe to visit all 24 states of the Union, in part to celebrate America’s upcoming 50th anniversary. He remained deeply popular, receiving widespread praise and love everywhere he went. He took gifts with him, as well as American soil to be placed on his grave. At President Monroe’s request, Congress voted to give him $200,000 in gratitude for his services to the country, along with a large tract of public lands in Florida. He returned to France aboard a ship renamed the USS Brandywine in honor of the battle where he shed his blood for the United States.As France slipped into absolute monarchy starting in 1830, Lafayette, by then in his seventies, remained consistent in speaking out against anyone who opposed liberty. He even broke with his king, following the latter’s violent suppression of a protest. When he died in 1834 aged 76, he was buried under soil from Bunker Hill, which his son Georges Washington sprinkled upon him.

In the U.S. Lafayette received the same memorial honors that had been bestowed on Washington. Both Houses of Congress were draped in black bunting for 30 days, and members wore mourning badges. Congress even urged Americans to follow similar mourning practices. Later that year, former president John Quincy Adams gave a eulogy of Lafayette that lasted three hours, calling him “high on the list of the pure and disinterested benefactors of mankind”.

Writing in 2011, historian Marc Leepson concluded about Lafayette’s life:

The Marquis de Lafayette was far from perfect. He was sometimes vain, naive, immature, and egocentric. But he consistently stuck to his ideals, even when doing so endangered his life and fortune. Those ideals proved to be the founding principles of two of the world’s most enduring nations, the United States and France. That is a legacy that few military leaders, politicians, or statesmen can match.”

We should consider ourselves lucky to have had a French nobleman embody our cause and values better than even many of our Founding Fathers.

The Fateful Franco-American Alliance

Depiction of the signing of the treaties by Charles E. Mills

On this day in 1778, the United States and France signed two treaties – the Treaty of Alliance and the Treaty of Amity and Commerce – that established strong and perpetual military, economic, and political ties. As the Revolutionary War grinded on, the Patriots realized that they needed diplomatic and military support from abroad to succeed. France was the natural choice, as it was a longstanding rival to Great Britain and the only country that rival its power. Continue reading

The Symbolic Passivity of the Term President

When the Founding Fathers of the United States set about forming a new nation, for obvious reasons they wanted to ensure that the executive could have neither the potential nor the pretensions of tyranny. So in addition to setting in place all of the checks and balances we learn are integral to the U.S. political system, they made a conscious effort to devise a new and unusual term for their head of government: President, derived from the Latin prae- “before” plus sedere “to sit”.

Up until that point, a president was someone originally tasked with presiding over (e.g., sitting before) a gathering or ceremony to ensure that everything runs smoothly. It was largely limited to academia, and was hardly an authoritarian position — which of course was precisely the point. The executive of the United States was not vested with anything more than the power to help enforce the laws of Congress, and to essentially preside over a system of power wherein the people, via their representatives, governed themselves.

(Interestingly, several countries, such as Germany and India, have offices of the president that are truer to the original etymology of the term: their presidents are mostly figureheads with few actual powers in paper and in practice.)

Granted, all this was pretty idealistic and aspirational, and as we all know, the office of the president has not always been true to its original spirit; indeed, even back then there was debate as to how much authority or power the president should have, and it was not long before presidents of all political stripes started pushing the boundaries of executive power. But it is interesting to see how even semantics could be an important consideration in formulating a political system.

 

Foreigners of the American Revolution: The Prussian Who Helped Make the U.S. Army

Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (Wikimedia)

Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (Wikimedia)

In a previous post, I outlined the role of Hessian mercenaries fighting for the British in the American Revolutionary War. But plenty of Germans fought for the Patriots, too, of whom the most famous is Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben.

Born in Prussia, he joined the military at age 17, and saw combat in the Seven Years’ War, then one of the biggest conflicts in European history. By the end of the war, he had risen to become captain, and even served as one of the right-hand men of Frederick the Great, one of history’s most brilliant military reformers.

Discharged from the Prussian Army once the war was concluded, Steuben found himself unemployed and deeply in debt. Through a chance meeting with the French minister of war, he was introduced to none other than Benjamin Franklin, the noted Francophile and diplomat who was trying to garner support for the Patriots in Europe. The French believed that the Americans could use an experienced soldier from one of the continent’s leading military powers, and doubtless Franklin agreed.

Steuben’s credentials and force of personality made such an impression on George Washington, that he was immediately appointed as Inspector General. Though a temporary post, it would grant the Prussian considerable influence in managing the training, logistics, and discipline of this ragtag, unprofessional, yet spirited Continental Army (which consisted of various local and provincial militias slapped together). Continue reading

Foreigners of the American Revolution: The Hessians

Hessians. (Landofthebrave.info)

During the American Revolutionary War, Great Britain tried to shore up its small troop numbers in North America by hiring German mercenaries, known collectively as Hessians, after the state that contributed the largest contingent, Hesse-Kassel. (King George III had German roots, including a royal title within the Holy Roman Empire, and was thus able to pull some strings with various German princes.)

Numbering around 30,000, the Hessians made up one-quarter of Britain’s forces in the war, and fought as distinct units led by their own commanders, albeit under overall British control. Participating in almost every major campaign, they were a visible presence in the conflict, and were proficient fighters with a fearful reputation (among both Loyalists and Patriots).

But despite their military advantage, and the fact that mercenaries were standard in European warfare at the time, the Hessians were a huge public relations disaster for the British. In fact, their use was one of the main factors that convinced many Americans to fight for the Patriot cause (at the start of the war, the majority of colonials, including many Founding Fathers, merely wanted greater rights and autonomy, rather than outright independence).

The reasons for this are twofold. Continue reading