Dear Reader,There are many myths regarding the revolutionary war, but none seem as hard to eradicate as the idea that the "Hessians" were "mercenaries". Today's post isn't for the fully initiated: if you are familiar with the story of the German Subsidientruppen in the American War of Independence, there might be some new material for you. By and large, however, this post is aimed at those who are unfamiliar with the story of these German-speaking soldiers, and why they made the decision to travel to America.
For those of you who don't know me, I'm an academic historian writing on transnational military culture in the Atlantic World in the Eighteenth Century. I wrote my masters thesis on these troops, and then completed my doctoral work, in part, on the related (but not interchangeable) Prussian army. I've published several articles on these German-speaking armies, and am working on more (and a book.) Dr. Friederike Baer's forthcoming book (published later this month) is set to become the new standard text on these soldiers. You can pre-order it here.
In my ten years of academic work, from the time I entered my MA program to my work as lecturer now, I have heard many wrong-headed ideas about these troops. Here are a few: These troops should be called Hessians. They were mercenaries. They were sold to America because their princes were greedy and wanted to build palaces and pay for their illegitimate children. They were drunk on Christmas, and so George Washington beat them. They committed many brutal war-crimes in America. Many of them deserted to stay in America, where life was better.
All of these ideas are wrong. Or, if they have a grain of truth to them, that grain has been badly distorted. So, without further introduction, let's examine these myths in turn.
Myth 1): These troops were Hessians.
Although most came from the mid-sized state of Hessen-Kassel, troops from six different principalities (Hessen-Kassel, Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, Hessen-Hanau, Ansbach-Bayreuth, Waldeck, and Anhalt-Zerbst.) If you include the larger, global war outside America, fought in places like Gibraltar and India, troops from the state of Hanover (Braunschweig-Lüneburg) also fought for the British outside of the Holy Roman Empire (the pre-German territorial entity.) So, while over 60% of these troops came from Hessen, they really hailed from all over the western and central Holy Roman Empire. As a result, it might be better to call them something other than Hessians. "Germanic" has been put forward, but that usually conjures up images of the fall of the Western Roman Empire. What else might we call them? Read on.
Myth 2): They were mercenaries.
Imagine you are a soldier in the United States Army, serving in West Germany during the Cold War. You are stationed there because of longstanding agreements and alliances, which stretch back decades. The United States Government and the West German government have a financial understanding that helps maintain your presence in the region. Are you a mercenary? The situation was very similar for the German-speaking soldiers who fought in the American War of Independence, They had a longstanding relationship with Great Britain, stretching back decades. They had fought with alongside the British since the 1690s, both in continental Europe and in the British isles. As a result of the Hanoverian succession in 1714 (the British Royal family was drawn from Hanover) they had longstanding marriage connections with Great Britain. Horace Walpole, a British politician from the 1730s, referred to the Hessians as the Triarii of Great Britain.
These soldiers did not personally or corporately take on contracts from the British. they were members of state militaries: their governments were paid a subsidy by the British in order to fight in their wars. Frederick II (the Great) of Prussia, received subsidies from the British during the Seven Years War. As a result, the modern German term for these troops is Subsidientruppen, or subsidy troops. Thus, it might be better to speak of the German-speaking subsidy troops, as opposed to calling them Hessians, or mercenaries. Historians have argued that it might be fitting to call their countries "mercenary states". This is different from saying they were mercenaries.
Myth 3): They were sold to America because their princes were greedy and wanted to build palaces and pay for their illegitimate children.
The princes of the Western Holy Roman Empire lived in an incredibly dangerous world during the eighteenth century. Their territories were small, rural, principalities, trapped between the military giants of France, Austria, and Prussia. As a result, from the 1670s, these princes attempted to use subsidy contracts to build themselves larger armies, in order to preserve their independence. These subsidy contracts were a standard feature of European politics, diplomacy, and conflict resolution. They allowed the princes to better protect their small domains. None of the princes who formed subsidy contracts with Britain during the American War of Independence were doing something radically new or greedy. Instead, they were following on decades of practice which had allowed them to maintain their own independence. The Hessian (Hessen-Kassel) Landgraf Friedrich II actually used the funds from the contract, in part, to promote economic development and the textile industry in his territories. Some of them had illegitimate children. Some had palaces. Portraying them as sex-crazed misers limits our understanding of the economic and security necessities which actually underpinned their subsidy policies. Following the long-standing practices of their governments, princes in the Western Holy Roman Empire entered subsidy agreements to maintain the costs of their states.
Myth 4): They committed many brutal war-crimes in America.
The subsidy troops had been used in messy civil conflicts before. Hessian troops were used against the Jacobites in 1745-6, where they remarkably refused to take part in the repression against the Scottish Jacobites. Their troops were remembered in Perthshire, Scotland, as "a gentle race," and their commanding Prince (Friedrich II) declared, "My Hessians and I have been called to fight the enemies of the British crown, but never will we consent to hang or torture in its name." (Duffy, Best of Enemies, p. 133). English officers in the Seven Years War, noted that their troops were reprimanded for plundering more than Hessian forces. (Atwood, The Hessians, p. 173). In North America during the War of Independence, the Hessians once again behaved better than their British counterparts. Although their was a surge of fear about Hessian brutality early in the war, after the first few years of the war, Americans believed that the Hessians treated them better than British soldiers. Aaron Burr wrote of Hessian atrocities: "Various have been the reports concerning the barbarities committed by the Hessians, most of them [are] incredible and false." (Matthew Davis, Memoirs of Aaron Burr, Vol 1. p. 107). Comparing the brutality of the Napoleonic Wars with the American War of Independence, a Hessian veteran who served in both wars commented: "Everything which the author has subsequently seen in this regard greatly exceeds what one should term cruelty in America, which in comparison with more recent times, can be regarded as nothing more than a harmless puppet show." (Adam Ludwig von Ochs, Betrachtungen Ueber die Kriegkunst, 60-61.) Hessian troops committed crimes in America, there is no doubt. What is clear is that these crimes were not excessive for an eighteenth-century conflict.
Myth 5): Many of them deserted to America, where life was better.
Many Americans claim Hessian ancestry. As a result, it is common to encounter the sentiment that these "mercenary" troops were simply waiting to switch sides. In reality, most of these troops returned to their homelands in the Holy Roman Empire. A very small number switched sides before the end of the war, a larger (but still small) percentage elected to remain in America after the war ended in 1783. Far from being an act of rebellion, the princes encouraged their subsidy troops to remain in America if they desire: this would cut costs, and make the process of slashing the military budget easier in peacetime. Most returned to celebrations, public parades, and being welcomed by loved ones. For more on exact data of desertions, as well as the subsidy-troops' return home, see Daniel Krebs' book, A Generous and Merciful Enemy. The majority of these troops remained loyal to their princes, and returned home to their own native lands.
Who Were the Hessians?
The experience of 37,000 soldiers mainly drawn from six small counties is not all one thing. There are elements of truth to each of the myths about the Hessians, but their story is more complex than the myths that are told about them in English-speaking circles in North America. They were drawn from a fascinating world in Central Europe with its own customs, practices, and traditions. They entered the American story, and as a result, it is worth taking the time to understand and remember their path in it in a complex way.
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