Tuesday, October 17, 2017

How Common was Desertion in the Eighteenth-Century Armies?

Soldiers from Germanic armies often had a reputation for desertion. Was it deserved?

Dear Reader,


I was speaking on the phone with one of my friends a few weeks ago. A veteran reenactor, and living-historian in his own right, he made a peculiar statement. He said that sickness, death in battle, enterprising foes and surprise attacks by the enemy all might be difficult for reenactors to simulate, and indeed, some (like death) should remain impossible to do so. "But desertion," he said, "desertion, I understand." Leading reenactors often feel a slight sense of betrayal at the tendency of unit members not to show up at events.  As a unit commander, he believed that he had a rather good understanding of how a regimental commander might have felt while facing desertion, as his (modern) eighteenth-century soldiers trickled away from his control.

This brings us to another question: how common was desertion in eighteenth-century armies? Like the previous post on sickness, this post is connected to my average soldier series. It may seem at first glance as though desertion was quite common: indeed it was much more common than it is in militaries today. J.A. Houlding quotes Frederick II of Prussia (as so many people do), who supposedly said that, "If my soldiers were to begin to think, not one of them would remain in the army." [1] This is at least as true as Frederick's statement, "Soldiers should be more afraid of their officers than the enemy," that is to say, not at all.[2] Christopher Duffy has shown, from research in Austrian archives, that Prussian prisoners of war often refused to desert their army, and as prisoners frequently preached their thoughts on the positive qualities of their prince.[3] How likely, then, were most soldiers to desert from their armies?

Recaptured deserters would "run the gauntlet" 12, 24, or 36 times, often a death sentence

Much more qualified scholars have spilled a great deal of ink on this subject. For German speakers, Michael Sikora's excellent work, Disziplin und Desertion: Strukturprobleme militärischer Organisation im 18. Jahrhundert, provides an excellent baseline of understanding. Once again, Christopher Duffy is our leading light for Central-European armies, but he is now joined by Ilya Berkovich, whose outstanding new book, Motivation in War, devotes a chapter to this important subject.  André Corvisier has long provided a rough estimate for France, arguing that between 1700 and 1763, approximately 1/5th of all French troops deserted. Berkovich implies that this figure has been taken for an eighteenth-century standard too often.  Sylvia Frey and Glenn Steppler give excellent information for the British Army during the American War of Independence, while James H. Edmonson, Charles Royster, and Mark Lender contribute to this topic with regards to the Continental Army. So, without further adieu, how likely was an eighteenth-century soldier to desert?

Any sort of exact average figure, when dealing with multiple armies, over the course of the eighteenth century, is rather difficult. By way of a rough estimate, perhaps 11% of soldiers deserted, though that figure was much smaller during peacetime, and potentially greater in wartime.  However, it may be possible to venture a more accurate guess when figures are separated by era and army. At times, it is only possible to give a percentage of total losses. Thus, we will begin data from armies over long periods of time, and then move to figures connected with the Seven Years' War era, and move to the American War of Independence. Despite the problems connected with the datasets, it is possible to observe several trends. Ilya Berkovich gives the best summary of trends during this era, which I will quote here:
"[N]ew recruits and foreigners were more likely to desert than veterans and native-born soldiers. There were more deserters in wartime than in peacetime. Units on the march were particularly susceptible to desertion, as were regiments whose soldiers learnt that they were to be send abroad. Not unlike recruitment, desertion rates demonstrate correlations with economic conditions, or even particular months of the year. Finally, armies whose desertion figures were examined over a prolonged period reveal that peacetime desertion rates declined as the century progressed."[4]


The Prussian Army in peacetime
Longterm Desertion (years):

Prussian Army (1713-1740): 3.2% per year.

French Army (1716-1749): 4.4% per year

Saxon Army (1717-1727): 7% per year. 

Average:  4.9%  [5] 



The Battle of Krefeld 

Seven Years' War Era:

Hanoverian (Electorate of Hanover, not British) Army: 14%

Austrian Army: 6-7% per year or 20.49% of total losses  (circa 62,000 men)

Prussian Army: 18% Total
                            28% of total losses   (circa 70,000 men) 
Data from the Hacke Regiment indicates a desertion of  6% of regimental strength per year on average during the Seven Years' War.


French Army (estimate 1700-1763): 20%

Average: 17.3% [6]



Perhaps surprisingly, the British Army had a low rate of desertion 


American War of Independence Era:

British Army: Frey: 4% (circa 3,700 men) 
                       Steppler: 7-8%, with recaptures/reenlistments a net loss of 4.4%
Sylvia Frey: "[D]esertion was apparently not a significant problem."

Hessen-Kassel Army in North America: 11.5%

Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel Army in North America: 11.7% 

Continental Army: 20-25%.

Average: 12% [7]


Continental Army desertion was somewhat higher than this stalwart pose might suggest.

Let us analyze these figures. The Prussian army, oft-maligned as harsh and draconian, had lower figures than some of its competitors. The Continental Army, suffering frequent privations and battlefield reverses, suffered a great deal at the hands of desertion. Perhaps most surprising is the relatively low figures for the British army, and it should be noted, they are not exact. However, Frey and Steppler concur that desertion in the British army was "not the most serious drain on the army's manpower."[8]

In summary, the data seems to imply that desertion was often less common than we have been led to believe. Although, admittedly, desertion in this era was much greater than in the 20th century, when less than .5% of the U.S. army deserted in Vietnam. However, desertion was perhaps less of a problem then has previously been believed. It remained a headache for eighteenth-century commanders, as desertion could skyrocket in adverse circumstances, much like illness. In one campaign in 1744, Frederick II lost 15% of the entire Prussian army to desertion.[9] Rarely, however, do the figures support the longstanding belief that it was normal for more than 20% of an army to be lost to desertion during a campaign.[10] Ilya Berkovich has recently used this more developed figures to argue that lower rates of desertion and higher rates of retention could have implications for the motivations of soldiers in the eighteenth century. Inflated claims regarding desertion have long been a part of the "these soldiers were the scum of the earth" myth, and deserves to be evaluated in greater detail. Desertion was a scourge in the minds of eighteenth-century commanders, but perhaps not totally debilhatating for eighteenth-century armies.

Thanks for Reading,


Alex Burns

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[1] J.A. Houlding, Fit for Service, v.
[2] Sascha Möbius, Mehr Angst vor dem Offizier als vor dem Feind?: Eine mentalitätsgeschichtliche Studie zur preußischen Taktik im Siebenjährigen Krieg. 
[3] Christopher Duffy, Instrument of War, 201.
[4] Ilya Berkovich, Motivation in War, 59-60.
[5] Willerd Fann, "Peacetime Attrition in the Army of Frederick William I," 326-327.; quoted in Ilya Berkovich, Motivation in War, 58.
[6] Data comes from: Michael Sikora, Disziplin und Desertion : Strukturprobleme militärischer Organisation im 18. Jahrhundert, 74.;  Berkovich, Motivation in War, 77.; Duffy, Instrument of War, 212.; Duffy, Army of Frederick the Great, 85.; Daniel Krebs, A Generous and Merciful Enemy, 252.; Bagensky, Regiments Buch des Grenadiers Regiments koenig Friedrich Wilhelm IV., 79.; André Corvisier, L'Armee Francaise, 736-7.
[7] Data comes from: Sylvia Frey, British Soldier in North America, 72.; Glenn Steppler, "The Common Soldier in the Reign of George III," 189.; Daniel Krebs, A Generous and Merciful Enemy, 251-252.; James Edmonson, "Desertion in the American Army during the Revolutionary War," pg. 261.
[8] Steppler, "The Common Soldier," 189.
[9] Duffy, Army of Frederick the Great, 84.
[10] Willred Fann, "Peacetime Attrition" 323.; Duffy, Military Experience in the Age of Reason, 172.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

How Sick were Eighteenth-Century Soldiers?





Men from the 7th and 8th Regiments of Foot. Photo Credit: Dr. Will Tatum

Dear Reader,

Today, we are confronted with some rather heavy subject material. At the large Battle of Brandywine reenactment recently, I was fortunate enough to find myself lying on the ground, in a sense of general malaise, having just emptied the contents of my stomach into the grass next to me. I fell prey to one of the classic blunders: don't attempt to fight George Washington in 80-degree heat while suffering from a fever/sinus infection. Against the protests of my significant-other, I allowed the allure of a revolutionary war reenactment potentially numbering over a thousand individuals to draw me away from where I should have been: recuperating.

In the vein of the average-soldier series I embarked on earlier this summer, this post will examine data from a number of eighteenth-century armies, in an effort to establish how frequently sickness played a large role in the life of soldiers. To put it another way, how sick, on average, were eighteenth-century soldiers? How likely was an eighteenth-century soldier to die from disease?

Image result for Military Hospitals 18th century
Camp life in the era of the American War of Independence,
A number of scholars have written on this topic, usually with reference to a particular army and era. As usual, Christopher Duffy provides a window into the experience of armies in Central Europe. Sylvia Frey has written on the British army in the later eighteenth century, while Bill Potter and Piers Mackesy provide interesting supplementary information. Caroline Cox and Ann Becker write on sickness in the Continental Army, with an eye to the experiences of ordinary soldiers. Charles Lesser's work The Sinews of Independence provides a great mass of material on this subject. Those willing to step outside this era should examine Andrew Bamford's excellent book Sickness, Suffering, and the Sword, which examines the Napoleonic Era.  So: how sick were eighteenth-century soldiers, on average?

At first glance, it may appear as though eighteenth-century armies were quite sickly. Legends abound about the notoriously bad hygiene of these soldiers. Certainly, by modern standards, bad hygiene was rampant, although not, perhaps, in the grotesque ways often believed. As the eighteenth-century wore on, more military manuals called for soldiers to bathe frequently, and regimental orders bear this out.[1] Many Americans picture the Continental Army when Washington took command or the months or the hardship at Valley Forge, but these were perhaps outliers in terms of sickness. However, when smallpox, dysentery, and other quickly transmitted diseases could spread rapidly the setting of a military camp, ensuring that if an epidemic broke out, it would quickly incapacitate a large section of the army.

Image result for Prussian Soldiers Marching Menzel
The Prussian Army suffered from the heat on the way to Zorndorf in 1758.

On average, it appears that just less than 10% of any given military formation might be listed sick during the eighteenth century. During epidemics, that number could spike in a worrying way, up to about 1/3 or an army or more. Although there is not clear data for all armies in all situation, a surprising amount of data does exist regarding the levels of sickness in eighteenth-century armies. What is clear is that military forces with a clear framework for treating their sick men had an advantage over armies who were establishing organizations and treatments as war continued. The data for this post breaks down into three broad categories: estimates of army-wide sickness throughout conflicts, numbers of sick men in individuals regiments throughout a conflict, and individual regiment return percentages. Though 10% may seem like a small figure, it could quickly escalate in the face of highly contagious diseases.

In 1757 during the Seven Years' War, the Austrians suffered quite heavily at their defensive camp at Zittau, when 24,000 men fell ill, perhaps around 28% of their army in Silesia. This is an extreme example, usual army totals were likely lower.  In 1751, Austrian army doctor Giovanni Gabavlio estimated that some 28% of peacetime casualties were caused by fever, 18% were caused by scurvy, 15% were caused by infection, and 11% by venereal disease. The remaining 28% were seemingly unknown.[2] The Prussian army acquired "Hungarian fever" from Austrian prisoners after Leuthen in December of 1757, and by April of 1758, 15,000 men, or 27% of the army under Frederick's command, were still suffering from illness.[3]

His Excellency visits unwell soldiers (probably wounded, not sick)

During the American War of Independence, I estimate that the average number of British soldiers sick out of the entire British army, including militia in Britain, was 4.6% of the entire army. The data used to make this estimate runs from 1775-1780.[2] By contrast, I estimate that the average number of sick Continental Army soldiers was about 20%  of the army as a whole.[3] The reason for this extremely high number is that smallpox devastated the continental army in the early years of the conflict, with 31-37% of the army falling ill (not just from smallpox) during this crisis. After 1778 and Washington's program to inoculate the army, the average number of sick men dropped to within much the more normal levels of 13-15%. Perhaps 18,000 in the American military forces died of disease during the War of Independence. By contrast, between 1775-1780, the British lost 6,107 men to disease in North America. Despite this, British regular army losses and American losses are quite different (about 25,000 Americans to 43,000 British) so, as a result, it is possible the British lost heavily from disease in other theaters of war, in addition to battlefield casualties taken in other theaters.[4]


In places like Fort Niagara, the King's Regiment suffered little compared with the Continental Army
Leaving the army level, the post will know examine incidents of disease among individual units.
Thanks to the industrious research of Bill Potter, we have a sense of the level of illness among the King's Regiment during the later years of the American War of Independence. All in all, 7.5% , or around 40 men, of the King's Regiment were sick during the years between 1778 and 1783.[6] The regiment was relatively healthy in 1770 when 2.6% of its soldiers were listed sick, but in the months of 1781, Regiment had fallen prey to disease, when 11.75% (55 men) of the regiment fell ill on average. By the end of the conflict in 1783, the total number of men listed sick had returned to roughly average, around 7%.  Other regiments from this era follow this trend. In May of 1775, around 6.9% of the Royal Highland Regiment was ill, or 24 men out of 346.[7] During the Trenton Campaign, the Rall Regiment had 12.3% of its rank and file listed sick, while the Knyphausen Regiment had just 5.8% of its complement sick.[8]  When large-scale epidemics were not a factor, just less than 10% a regiment seems to have been sick, on average.

How likely was death by disease for an eighteenth-century soldier? Roughly 60% of all deaths in the Continental Army came from disease, meaning a soldier in that army was perhaps twice as likely to die from disease than in combat. Again, however, the Continental Army suffered from greatly from disease. On average, though, it was still more likely that a soldier would perish from illness than combat. Christopher Duffy argues that this trend continued throughout all eighteenth-century armies.[10] Sylvia Frey counters by suggesting that soldiers in the British army were no more likely to die from sickness than civilians, but her figure of 6,107 British soldiers dead of disease from 1775-1780  still outnumbers combat deaths in North America in the same era. Disease, not combat, killed more men in eighteenth-century armies. Soldiers died via disease in large numbers, and their experience involved great sacrifice.

I know this post has been rather heavy, and despite charges of insensitivity, I think it best to end on a humorous note. To the question: "How sick were eighteenth-century soldiers?  I think I can safely answer:  "They were, like, totally sick, man."

Photo Credit: Dr. Will Tatum 
Thanks for Reading,


Alex Burns

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[1] Sylvia Frey, The British Soldier in North America, 51.
[2] Christopher Duffy, Instrument of War, 338, 341.
[3] Christopher Duffy, Army of Frederick the Great, 204.
[4] The data for this estimate comes from: Frey, British Soldier, 52; Piers Mackesy, The  War for America,  523-527.
[5] The data for this estimate comes from: Charles Lesser, The Sinews of Independence; Ann Becker, "Smallpox in Washington's Army," The Journal of Military History, (2004), 392-394, 419-420.
[6] Caroline Cox, A Proper Sense of Honor, 134-5; Frey, British Soldier, 52.
[7] Bill Potter, "Redcoats on the Frontier" MA Thesis, pg. 133-141.
[8] Waterford Inspection, Online Version
[9] David Hackett Fischer, Washington's Crossing, 396.
[10] Christopher Duffy, Military Experience in the Age of Reason, 170.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

"They Have No More Religion Than My Horses[?]": Faith and the British Army After 1748


HM 17th Regiment of Foot leaving for church parade. (Photo Credit: Dr. Will Tatum)


Dear Reader,

Having survived my comprehensive exams, I will attempt to keep Kabinettkriege up and running, although likely at a slower pace than this summer. We recently had a fantastic guest piece, written by Jack Weaver. If you are interested in writing something relating to warfare between 1648-1789, and would like to see it featured on Kabinettskriege, please contact me via the "About the Author" page.

Today, we are going to dig a little deeper into a subject of some controversy. That is: how religious were common soldiers in the British Army during the Seven Years' War and the American War of Independence?  This can be viewed as a follow-up to our earlier discussion of religion in eighteenth-century armies this summer. For some time, scholars (not without reason) appear to have taken the statement of an anonymous MP in 1779 at face value: "What signifies the religion of soldiers? They have no more religion than my horses."[1]

At first glance, it appears that the British soldier may have been less religious in 1754-1783 than they were at mid-century. Part of this, however, is the source material available to historians. Two common soldiers who left vivid records from the War of Austrian Succession era (1740-1748) Sampson Staniforth and John Haime, would later become Methodist ministers. In this same era, British soldiers abroad corresponded with John Wesley, the famous Methodist minister. The number of soldiers who had deeply-held religious convictions was likely small. However, as Michael Snape has suggested in his book, Religion and the Redcoat, it was "small but significant."[2]

John Wesley
Although fewer diarists in the Seven Years' War era show the strong influence of religious sentiments, we should carefully note that this  community of deeply religious British soldiers endured into that era. Methodist minister Samuel Walker created a strong Methodist society within the 58th Regiment of Foot at Truro during the Seven Years' War era. According to the nineteenth-century editor of Walker's papers:
"A great alteration, how ever, took place; punishments soon diminished and order prevailed in the regiment, to a degree never before witnessed, and the commander at length dis covered the excellent cause of this salutary change. Genuine zeal had now its full triumph and its rich reward—the officers waited on Mr. Walker in a body, to acknowledge the good effects of his wise and sedulous exertions, and to thank him for the reformation he had produced in their ranks."[3]
One of the soldiers wrote a letter to Reverend Walker after the 58th Regiment left Truro, confirming this:
"I judge no man: many would desire to die the death of the righteous, that would not desire to live their life; and [I] know that has been my case. Serjeant Moore for ever blesses the day that ever he saw Truro, and we both hope in the Almighty God to see it again, and to hear the glad tidings of salvation as formerly."[4]
British Soldiers in North America during the Seven Years' War
During the Seven Years' War, particularly in Ireland, Methodism continued to spread in the British Army. During a trip to Canterbury in February of 1756, John Wesley noted, "an abundance of soldiers and many officers," came to hear him preach. The next day, he had a meal with a colonel, who said, "No men fight like those who fear God: I had rather command five hundred such , than any regiment in his Majesty's army."[5] Likewise, nearly a year later, in 1757, Wesley noted:
"I went with T. Walsh to Canterbury, where I preached in the evening with great enlargement of spirit; but with greater in the morning, being much refreshed at the sight of so large a number of soldiers. And is not God able to kindle the same fire in the fleet which he has already begun to kindle in the army?"[6]
Indeed, Methodism continued to be such a potent force in the British Army that in 1759, Sir Robert Nugent urged William Pitt to use John Wesley (and George Whitefield) as a recruiting tool for the British Army, since Methodism continued to have influence in the army. [7]
Image result for Captain Thomas Webb
Captain Thomas Webb, Veteran of Louisbourg and Methodist Preacher

Captain Thomas Webb, of the 48th Regiment of Foot, who lost an eye to musket-fire at Louisbourg or the Plains of Abrahman (sources differ), was converted to Methodist in the 1760s.[8] He was famous for preaching in his uniform, and would often lay his sword on the lecturn, as pictured above. Webb is best remembered for establishing Methodists societies in North America, but he maintained a close relationship with John Wesley until Wesley's death in 1791.

During the American War of Independence, soldiers' memoirs not necessarily less religious, on average, than their counterparts from the 1740s to 1760s. John Wesley, taking a contrary view, recorded in October of 1779 that, "The English Soldiers of this age have nothing to do with God!"[9] This assertion seems rather ungrateful, as Wesley had been protected a number of times from mobs in Ireland by the presence of British soldiers.  But what of writing from soldiers themselves? 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a heavier concentration of religious language is present in the speeches of men about to be executed, such as Valentine Duckett and Robert Young. Readers can find excerpts of both of these soldiers' testimony in Don Hagist's excellent book, British Soldiers, American War.

How likely is it that these soldiers are discussing the varieties of religious experience?
(Photo Credit: Dr. Will Tatum) 
But what about soldiers who survived military service? Thomas Watson of the 23rd Regiment of Foot is an obvious outlier, and the religious nature of his memoir sets him apart from many of his comrades.  By clear contrast, Thomas Sullivan of the 49th Regiment fails to mention religion in almost any aspect, except noting the number of churches in towns he marched past. John Randon, a soldier mortally wounded at Bunker Hill in 1775, wrote his wife a letter, describing his religious experience in the army:
"The Almighty Parent of mankind was pleased to draw my heart to him, by the sweet attraction of his grace; and at the same time to enlighten my mind. There was in our regiment a corporal, whose name was Pierce, a pious man; I inquired after him, and we soon contracted a strong friendship. He was pleased to explain to me the amazing love of God, in giving his son Jesus Christ to bleed and die for mankind. He condescended to unfold to me the mystery of salvation by faith, the nature of new birth, and the great necessity of holiness of heart and life. In short, he became my spiritual father..."[10]
Although the provenance of Randon's letter is somewhat questionable, it is still worth sharing. The memoir in which it is recorded was written by Sgt. Roger Lamb. Lamb's memoir is oddly interspersed with religious language. He utilizes religious language in calls for the emancipation of African slaves, and ends a chapter of his book with the admission that some people charge him with too much enthusiasm for Christianity.[11] More than a heartfelt religious observance, Lamb appears to utilize Christianity when it is literately useful for his cause. Shortly after leaving the army, William Burke of the 45th Regiment converted from Roman Catholicism to some form of Evangelical belief.[12]

The diaries of many converted soldiers
contain warnings against this type of behavior.

Thomas Cranfield, who enlisted in 39th Regiment in August of 1777, likewise records a story of religious conversion. Just before being deployed to Gibraltar, Cranfield entered a church on Sunday morning, being, "prompted by curiosity... The word, under the guidance of the Holy Spiritm was brought powerfully home to his mind, so that he became convinced of sin, and of the necessity of salvation through the Redeemer." This conversion experience prompted him to learn to read, and he recorded that he had soon met, "with very good friends, who give me good advice."[13]During the American War of Independence, there was little interest in the work of chaplains, but that "small but significant" minority of devout soldiers continued to minister to the spiritual needs of the British army.

In August of 1782, while preaching in Plymouth, John Wesley was surprised when: "A little before I concluded, the Commanding Officer came into the Square with his regiment; but he immediately stopped the drums, and drew up all his men in order on the high side of the Square. They were all still as night; nor did any of them stir, till I had pronounced the blessing."[14] This points to the idea that not only did Methodism survive in the ranks, but at times could be officially endorsed by officers. Officers had previously ordered soldiers to attend Wesley's sermons in April of 1778. In April of 1775, Wesley noted that his preaching resonated particularly with the officers of the Royal Highland Regiment.

In conclusion: preachers, politicians, officers, and common soldiers hotly contested the nature of religious life in the British army during the second half of the eighteenth century. Often derided as a place for young men full of immorality and wanderlust, the army retained significant religious elements. Though deep religious fervor was not the norm, those seeking religious comfort could find it, in the Seven Years' War era work of Methodist missionaries, and in the American War of Independence era through other soldiers who had been impacted by Methodism. Despite the drunkenness, violence, and immorality prevalent in the army, a "small but significant" religious community was alive and well throughout the British Army in the second half of the eighteenth-century.

I would like to end by including two Methodist hymns of the era. Though the tunes have been re-worked, the words the same as they would have appeared in the eighteenth century. The first is the "The Good Old Way", which was contemporary with Wesley, and mentions soldiers and marching.


The second hymn, often called Idumea, and popularized by the film, "Cold Mountain," was present in the eighteenth century, under the title, "And am I born to Die?" John Wesley mentions being particularly moved by this song in his journal on September 18th, 1770.


Again, both of these tunes are more modern arrangements. The Watersons' version of "The Good Old Way" most likely dates from the 1820s, while Cold Mountain's arrangement of Idumea dates from the 1840s.


Thanks for Reading,


Alex Burns


[1] Jonas Hanway, The Seamen's Christian Friend, iii.
[2] Michael Snape, Religion and the Redcoat, 67.
[3] Edward Sidney, The Life, Ministry, and Selections from the Remains of the Rev. Samuel Walker, 153
[4] Ibid, 157.
[5] Journal of John Wesley, 24-25th of February, 1756. Online Version
[6] Ibid.
[7] Snape, Religion and the Redcoat, 63.
[8] Wesleyan-Methodist Magazine, 1849, 386-88.
[9] Journal of John Wesley, 7th of October, 1779.
[10] Roger Lamb, An Original and Authentic Journal, 29-30.
[11] Ibid, 415.
[12] Don Hagist, British Soldiers, American War, 263.
[13] Thomas Cranfield,The Useful Christian, 12.
[14] Journal of John Wesley, 21st of August, 1782.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

“Weak and Imperfect:” The German Regiment of the Continental Army

Two men of the German Regiment
Dear Reader,

Today we have a guest post, written by Jack Weaver.[1] Jack has a longstanding interest in the German Regiment of the Continental Army.

One of the first ethnic regiments raised by the new United States during the American Revolutionary War was the German Regiment, also known as the German Battalion, which Congress authorized on 25 May 1776.[2] The German Regiment recruited mostly from the ethnic and immigrant German populations of Pennsylvania and Maryland, and served from 1776 until 1781. It was one of the worst regiments in the Continental Army, not because it was actually bad at fighting, but because it had a poor corps of officers, which may have contributed to its soldiers’ habit of mutiny. 



Its first mutiny, in September of 1776, was most tied to its officers’ lack of good leadership. Because many men were not working when they were in barracks in Philadelphia, Lt. Col. George Stricker decided to halt rations of food for any soldiers who did not work, writing: "I shall Hereafter Direct the provisions of the day to be drawn every morning after the return from Duty I Desire that the Capn. Return to me who do not attend his duty"[3] Stricker undermined the enlisted men’s trust, and the men protested the very day he issued that order.

In his book, A Man of No Country, Historian James Davis described what happened: 


"The men gathered on the parade ground and worked themselves up to the verge of rioting. Stricker turned out several soldiers with loaded muskets and threatened to shoot someone if order was not restored. A sullen calm prevailed in the regiment after the incident. Performances did not improve, and Stricker threatened them with dire punishment without taking any action."[4]

A recreated member of the German Regiment, as they might have appeared on the Sullivan Campaign
 The second mutiny occurred a couple of years later, when the German Regiment was part of Hand’s Brigade of Light Infantry during General John Sullivan’s campaign against the Iroquois in 1779. In spring of 1779, soldiers from Pennsylvania petitioned Congress, believing that they had been defrauded into serving for the duration of the war:'
"We Being First Inlisted for three years, and received Ten Dollars bounty, at the Expiration of three months there being Ten dollars more Given to Us, Being Persuadet that it was Only a Present, of the above state, But now we are tould by Our Officers that we are Inlisted During the War. Several of use Having Received the other Ten Dollars, and Several Have not."[5]

On 14 July of 1779, William Rogers, a chaplain in Sullivan’s army wrote that “Last Night thirty three of the German Regiment deserted under the plea of their time being out. They went off properly armed with drum and fife. … a detachment of fifty soldiers on horseback were ordered to pursue them.” [6]The deserters were captured, and made to remain with the army. Some soldiers, such as Jacob Bottomer, claimed that though “his inlistment was only for three years he continued 20 months in the service after the expiration of his time.”[7]


A map of early Pennsylvania
Bottomer, along with other German Regiment soldiers, may have also participated in the mutiny of the Pennsylvania Line at Morristown in 1781, which occurred around the time of his discharge. While there is no direct evidence that the German Regiment participated in the mutiny en masse, its timing is coincidental: the German regiment arrived in Morristown on 31 December 1780, and the mutiny broke out on 1 January 1781.

The enlisted men of the German Regiment may have had such a penchant for insubordination because they lacked a good officer corps. The poor decisions of Lt. Col. Stricker have already been covered, but there were other poor leaders in the Regiment. Its first colonel, Nicholas Haussegger, though a competent commander and administrator, was also a notorious traitor whom the British captured at the Battle of Princeton. He turned his coat while a prisoner in New York City, and Washington refused to parole him.[8] The second Colonel of the German Regiment, Baron d’Arendt, a Prussian volunteer, was unpopular with the men and sought a transfer after a few months of being in charge of the German Regiment.[9] Henry Laurens described Arendt as “an Indolent worthless Creature.”[10] Samuel Smith described him as such: "He was a Prussian; a very military looking man, six feet high, and elegantly formed. Indeed, his whole appearance was that which would commend him to a command, where personal bravery was not required."[11]

The second Lieutenant Colonel of the German Regiment was Ludowick Weltner, who was the commanding officer of the German Regiment from Fall of 1777 until its dissolution. In 1780, the German Regiment was stationed at Sunbury in the Pennsylvania frontier. While in Sunbury, Weltner terrorized the local inhabitants: he encouraged his officers and men to beat the locals, steal from them, and destroy their property. [12] Besides the highest ranking officers in the unit, the junior officer corps also had a bevy of problems, which included physical infirmity, dueling, fraud, embezzlement, and cowardice in battle.

By its dissolution in early 1781, the German Regiment was one of the worst regiments in the Continental Army. It became a career dead end in August 1777 when a board of Generals decided its officers “had better rise regimentally,” meaning that they could only be promoted within the regiment.[13] At its disbandment, the German Regiment also had four vacant companies lacking a commanding officer.[14] The German Regiment was not one of the Continental Army’s worse regiments because its men were actively bad at their jobs. When the Army dissolved it, its men were transferred to other regiments from their respective states, where they continued to serve. However, they had poor leadership, which resulted in poor conduct, and that is why they were one of the worst regiments in the Continental Army. They were not wretched, but they were dysfunctional.


Thanks for Reading,


Jack Weaver


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
[1]Jack Weaver is a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia, where he majored in History and minored in German Studies. His Honors Thesis: 'A Corps of much service: the German Regiment of the Continental Army,' received the Ellen Monk Krattiger Award for outstanding work in the study of Colonial North America. He is currently an English Teaching Assistant with Fulbright Austria, and plans to attend graduate school for history.
[2] Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, ed. Worthington C. Ford et al. (Washington, D.C., 1904-37), 4:390
[3] “Head Quarters Philadelphia Septbr. 24. 1776,” Nicholas Haussegger orderly book (Collection Am .623), The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
[4] James F. Davis, A Man of No Country: the Case of Colonel Nicholas Haussegger 1729 – 1786 (Lebanon: Lebanon County Historical Society, 1989) 27.
[5] Pennsylvania Companies of the German Regiment to the Continental Congress, https://www.fold3.com/image/356707.
[6] William Rogers, The Journal of a Brigade Chaplain in the Campaign of 1779 Against the Six Nations Under Command of Major-general John Sullivan ed. Sidney Smith Rider (Michigan State University: Sidney S. Rider, 1879) 62.
[7]Jacob Bottomer Pension Application, R1557. Fold3 Military Records, Fold3.com
[8] “From George Washington to John Beatty, 19 August 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified February 21, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-22-02-0151.
[9]To George Washington from Colonel Arendt, 7 August 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified December 28, 2016, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-10-02-0541.
[10] January 8, 1778 letter from Henry Laurens to John Laurens, Paul H. Smith, ed., Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789, Vol. 8, September 19, 1777 – January 31, 1778 (Washington, D.C.; Library of Congress, 1981), p. 547.
[11] “The Papers of General Samuel Smith,” The Historical Magazine, Second Series, Vol. VII, No. 2 (Morissania, NY; Henry B. Dawson, Feb. 1870), pp. 88-89.
[12] To George Washington from John Buyers, 18 May 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-01780.
[13] To George Washington from a Board of General Officers, 19 August 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-11-02-0002.
[14] Henry J. Retzer, The German Regiment of Maryland and Pennsylvania in the Continental Army, 1776 – 1781 (Westminster: Family Line Publications, 1991) 96.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Kabinettskriege Update/Hessian Podcast Appearance

Some light summer reading.
Dear Reader,

As you might have noticed, Kabinettskriege has been rather quiet lately. I have been preparing for my comprehensive exams at West Virginia University, which involves a great deal of time spent in reading, study, and deep thought. I appreciate you all bearing with me, and I promise to return to writing after my exams are finished, hopefully on September 12th.

As you may or may not be aware, at the Ph.D level, comprehensive exams involve reading a number of books in your areas of research/interest, and then taking written exams on those fields, followed by an oral exam in front of a panel of historians. I begin my exams tomorrow, and would appreciate all the thoughts, prayers, and good energy you have time to send my way!

After the exams conclude, I'll be returning to work on my dissertation, and hope to write more on here. If any of you are interested in seeing what I've read, I am going to add a "book list" page to the top bar.

Fear not: Kabinettskriege will return.

In the mean time, I'd like to share a podcast I was on recently, in which we discussed Hessian troops in the American War of Independence. It is called the "History to War Games" Podcast, and is hosted by Rob Rhodes.

You can find the Podcast here.

As ever, thanks for reading.

Alex


Thursday, August 10, 2017

"The Rest Set about the Enemy and Hacked Them to Pieces.": the Erzherzog Carl/Ferdinand Regiment


Image of an Austrian Grenadier, possibly from No. 2
Copyright Royal Trust Collection and Lessing Archive
Reproduced here for educational purposes only.
It may seem odd that the first regiment I choose to focus on is an Austrian unit. Indeed, when I suggested this series on facebook, one commenter suggested that Austrian units were mediocre. However, not all Austrian units were created equal. The Austrian army was divided into a number of "national" contingents, and of these, one of the best groups were the Hungarian infantry regiments. Today, we are going to look at one of the best of those Hungarian troops: the Erzherzog Carl infantry regiment.

When examining the Austrian Army of the Seven Years' War era, Dr. Christopher Duffy is the master, and this case is no different. Please refer to his two volume study of the Austrian Army in the Seven Years' War if you have further questions about this capable and oft-maligned fighting force. In his concise and insightful manner, Duffy records that the regiment was "distinguished at Kolin, Breslau, Lethen [and] Hochkirk." He also indicates that at Torgau it took the heaviest losses of any regiment involved, "resulting from its repeated counterattacks."[1]

So- how does the regiment fair under our criteria? Duffy asserts that the regiment had, "a fine reputation," and that it was "crack" infantry regiment, but little has come down to us by way of other Austrian army commentators on the regiment's reputation.[2] However, in two categories, specifically their performance on campaign and the reputation of their commander, we shall see the men of Erzherzog Carl developed a stellar name for themselves.

No. 2's service record was exemplary in the Austrian service. Its officers were distinguished at Kolin, and it displayed remarkable self-control in containing the disaster at Leuthen. When a group of blue coated infantry rushed the regiment's position, the men displayed perfect self-control, waiting to receive them with, "good platoon fire."[3] It quickly came to light that these were allied Würtemburg troops, not Prussians. The men quickly opened holes in the ranks, and then played a vital part in the rearguard defense of the fleeing Austrian army. This was difficult to do in the stress of battle, and the Prince de Ligne commented on the fortitude of regiments who withheld their fire in similar circumstances.

The men of Erzherzog Carl also displayed a great sense of initiative in the face of the enemy. During the advance at Hochkirk, No. 2 had the misfortune to attack a number of heavy enemy entrenchments. Prince de Ligne recalled the scene: "The cries of the Hungarians and of the enemy who were being taken by surprise, and the horror of the night, illuminated only by the musket shots, had something really terrifying about it."[4] After initial repulse and resulting confusion, officers such as Major Jerky rode throughout the regiment, quickly restoring order, and allowing 2nd Lt. Dezier to move forward with sixty volunteers, and clear the redoubts.[5]

A drawing of the regiment taken in 1762
The regiment fought with great determination at the Battle of Torgau, even after it was completely surrounded by Prussian forces. It refused to surrender for some time, resulting in the highest single unit casualties of the engagement. Some men cut their way out, others were forced to surrender. After this massive loss of men, the regiment was placed in reserve duty, in order to recover its strength. A portion of the regiment were placed in the fortress of Schwiednitz in order to protect it from a Prussian siege in 1762. In the course of the siege, the regiment once again made a name for itself, when 1st Lt. Waldhütter and thirty men of the regiment spearheaded a successful sortie against the besieging Prussian forces. Franz Guasco, the fortress commandant, left this description of the sortie:
"Waldhütter and his troops jumped inside without hesitation and found the Prussians on their guard.Some of the opened fire, while some knelt on the floor and raised their muskets, the bayonets fixed to the muzzles. Our men flung themselves blindly among them, sabre in hand; some of them were skewered on the bayonets, but the rest set about the enemy and hacked them to pieces."[6]
So, clearly, these men were not afraid to snuff some powder. Observers praised the regiment's ability to deliver "effective musket fire."[7] It is possible that this ability stemmed from the regimental commander Joseph Siskovics' frequent practice of having the men fire at targets.[8] Jacob Cogniazzo, a veteran of the regiment, described Siskovics as "an excellent drillmaster."[9] It appears that Siskovics placed a high importance for language training among his officers. The Prince de Ligne, another Austrian veteran, marveled at Siskovics ability to exercise and maneuver 4 different regiments at once, when each of those regiments spoke a different national language.[10] Siskovics sponsored language training for some of his officers and was not shy about publicly rating individuals in his officer cadre, "Good" or "Poor" depending on their service with the regiment.[11] He maintained an excellent reputation among the Austrian military, largely because he drilled his regiment into a highly competent fighting force.

As a result of their performance on campaign, the reputation of their commander, and the opinions of historians, the Erzherzog Carl Regiment deserves to be considered one of the best regiments in Austrian service during the Seven Years' War, and perhaps one of the best regiments of the eighteenth century.

Thanks for Reading,


Alex Burns




[1] Duffy, By Force of Arms, 429.
[2] Ibid, 126,; Duffy, Instrument of War, 65.
[3]Cogniazzo, Gestaendnisse eines oesterrichishen Veterans, Vol 2, 419.
[4] Prince de Ligne, Melanges Militaires, Vol 14, 168-169.
[5] Duffy, By Force of Arms, 136-137.
[6] Kriegs Archiv, Vienna, HKR Memoires 1762  880/12, Guasco, Relation du Siege de Schweidnitz, 31 October, 1762.
[7] Anon., Neues Militaerisches Zeitschrift, Vol 4, (1811), 99.
[8] Duffy, By Force of Arms, 427.
[9] Cogniazzo, Gestaendnisse eines oesterrichishen Veterans, Vol 3, 15.
[10] Prince de Ligne, His Memoirs, Letters, and  Miscellaneous Papers, 93.
[11] Duffy, Instrument of War,  65, 173.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Austrian Struggle Against... Vampires?

A Hajduk: and potentially: a Vampire? 
Dear Reader,

In the early to mid eighteenth century, the Austrian Empire, Russian Empire, and Ottoman Empire waged a see-saw battle for control of the Balkans. Historians traditionally see the eighteenth-century as a time of sharp Ottoman decline, but that is not entirely fair, considering Ottoman success in 1711 and 1739 at places such as Prut and Grocka. On the other hand, the Ottomans were defeated quite soundly by Prinz Eugen in 1717, and by the Russians at numerous points throughout the century. See the map below for further details.

A Map of Ottoman Decline
Our story begins in the aftermath of Prinz Eugen von Savoyen's victory at Belgrade in 1717. It may greatly enhance your enjoyment of this post if you listen to this commemorative song while reading it.  After this victory and the resulting Treaty of Passarowitz, the Austrian government ruled most of Serbia and northern Bosnia via direct military control. Communities of refugee Serbs, who were induced to resettle the acquired territory, form the heart of our story.

These Serbian communities were protected by militiamen in addition to regular Austrian military forces. These militiamen are occasionally referred to as "hajduk" (today "Hajduci") a term possibly derived from the Ottoman word ""hajdud" meaning Polish or Hungarian soldiers.[1] These soldiers served as border guards against renewed attacks from the Ottoman Empire. One of these Hajduks, Arnold Paole, was one of the first of a series "reported" vampires in the region in the 1720s and 1730s.

Arnold Paole, a Hajduk and former refugee, claimed that he had been visited/attacked by a vampire near Kosovo, before traveling to the village of Meduegna, near modern Trstenik, in Serbia. Likewise, another Serbian, Petar Blagojevich, possibly from the modern town of Kisiljevo, reportedly died and then began to prey upon his family members as a vampire. In both cases, Blagojevich in 1725, and Paole in 1732, Austrian local government officials responded to the events as a serious crisis. Austrian Kameralprovisor Frombald, (first name, alas, unknown), traveled to the village in order to deal with the crisis. Local peasants petitioned Frombald and the parish priest to permit the exhumation of the body, which after some initial hesitation, they permitted.
Hajduks, from the late 17th century

Frombald explained in a report:

"Since I could not persuade them otherwise, by promises or threats, I went to the village of Kisiljevo, taking along the priest from Gradisk, and viewed the freshly exhumed body of [Petar Blagojevich], finding in accordance with thoughtful thoroughness, that first of all I did not detect any odor which normally accompanies the dead, and the body except for the nose... was completely fresh. The hair and beard, and even the nails, of which the old ones had fallen away- had grown on him; the old skin, which was somewhat whitish, had peeled away, and a new fresh one had emerged under it... Not without astonishment, I saw some fresh blood in his mount, which, according to local belief, he had sucked from the people he had killed."[2]
The stunned Frombald looked on as, perhaps unsurprisingly, the villagers took the sane precaution of driving a sharpened stake through Petar's heart, and burning his body. [Of course, I jest. Modern medical analysis indicates that such signs in a recently deceased corpse are rather normal.] However, in the borderland between the Austrian and Ottoman Empires, numerous fears regarding death and violence trumped the rational concerns of the Kameralprovisor.

Around the same time, Serbian Hajduk Arnold Paole reported being menaced by a vampire, but that he had employed folk remedies to free himself of its dark influence. In 1725, shortly after returning to his home village, he died after falling from a hay wagon. Almost immediately, villagers began to complain of being visited by Arnold in vampire form. Four villagers died under mysterious circumstances, and the local village Hadnack ordered an exhumation of Paole. His body displayed almost the same symptoms Blagojevich, and the villagers performed the same remedy, repeating it on the four individuals who were supposed to be his victims.

The matter was considered closed, until around 6 years later, villagers in Meduegna once again began to die under mysterious circumstances. 13 villagers died after brief illnesses, and their deaths were reported to Lt. Colonel Schnezzer, the local Austrian army officer. He sent for Imperial-Contagions-Medicus Glaser, who ignored the vampiric assertions of the villagers. According to the villagers, both of the young women who had initially died were infected during their time on the Turkish side of the border. According to the villagers, in the Turkish lands, "Vampires were everywhere, in great strength."[3] Glaser began to investigate the deaths and concluded that the deaths were a result of malnutrition and extreme Eastern Orthodox fasting.[4]

Austrian Infantry in the 1740s, by David Morier

The villagers would not budge and demanded that the vampires be exhumed and executed. Consenting to an exhumation, Glaser discovered that those who died earliest were in a perfect state of preservation, while those who died later had partially decomposed. Glaser reported these findings to Botta d'Adorno, the vice-commandant in Belgrade, who organized a secondary commission, consisting of five army officers:  a Lt. Colonel, Ensign, and three military surgeons.

These military men concluded that a number of the villagers who had died were indeed in "vampiric condition," (Vampyrenstand) and ordered that those in such condition were to be executed via stakes, burned, and ashes scattered over water. The villagers concluded that Arnold Paole must have been feeding on local cattle, which were then consumed by the new victims, transmitting vampirism to them. [5] While doubtless pleasing the local villagers, the conclusions of the military men had annoying repercussions for Austrian army reformers.

Gerhard van Swieten, a figure of the Austrian enlightenment, railed against army physicians who allowed themselves to be taken in by superstition. He argued, "the stories about vampires in Moravia are still recent, and too much in need of rebuttal, for me to have a favorable opinion of the local physicians, who would never have allowed themselves to be taken in by these fables if they had been good doctors."[6] For van Swieten, rationalism and education needed to trump superstition, in order for Austrian military medicine to compete with other leading states of Europe.

So, even as Ottoman pressure and Serbian fears created stories of vampiric activity, Austrian officials were divided on the response. Should local beliefs and the vampire threat be taken seriously, as the military commission suggested, or should superstition be banished in the name of education and efficiency? All of these sentiments were at war, as the Austrian army and state attempted to control the Balkans in the mid-eighteenth century.

Feel free to share this post if you know individuals who might be interested.


Thanks for Reading,




Alex Burns








[1] Aleksandar Petrovic, The Role of Banditry in the Creation of National States in the Central Balkans During the 19th Century, MA thesis, 2003, Section: Terminology.
[2]Frombald, Wienerisches Diarium, July 21, 1725, 11-12.
[3] Klaus Hamberger, Mortuus non mordet: kommentierte Dokumentation zum Vampirismus, 48.
[4] Ibid, 46.
[5] Don Augustin Calmet, Treatise on the Apparitions of Spirits and on Vampires or Revenants: of Hungary, Moravia, et al. (2015), 333-335.
[6] Quoted in Christopher Duffy, Instrument of War, 332.

Monday, July 31, 2017

How Religious were Eighteenth-Century Soldiers?


A group of men from the 7th, 8th, and 17th Regiments of the British Army

Dear Reader,

Today, we are going to look at a question very near and dear to my heart. At a reenactment last weekend, sitting around the camp fire, I heard a reenactor loudly proclaim that he would not go to church parade, (a military formation/church service held on Sunday mornings) regardless of what the practice was in the eighteenth century. This post does not intend to get into modern religious debates: indeed, nor am I trying to force anyone to do anything against their conscience. However, with that statement rolling around in my head, I decided to give a cursory glance at the sources, with the following question in mind: How religious was the average soldier of European armies in the eighteenth century?

Although I cannot hope to answer this question in the statistical detail of my "average" soldier posts, I still thought that it might be worth a crack, as there is certainly some information regarding this topic available.  In answering the question, I am indebted, as usual, to the fine work of Christopher Duffy, as well as the writings of Michael Snape, Charles Royster, Caroline Cox, and Richard Gawthrop. Once again, I am truly standing on the shoulders of giants.

The only anecdotes of military-religious fatalism even approaching those of the Swedish and Russian armies, come oddly enough, from an army supposed by many in North America to be irreligious: the British Army. The rise of Methodism, described by Michael Snape in The Redcoat and Religion, created a swell of religious feeling in the British army during the War of Austrian Succession. The French military of the eighteenth century did not have an official chaplaincy, as a result of the Louis XIV's unwillingness to submit to papal authority. Rather, regimental commanders appointed their own chaplains, and were responsible for their pay. By contrast, Phillip V of Spain appointed a vicariate general of armies, who supervised the chaplaincy in 1705. Jean-Paul Bertaud asserts that in both cases, "Chaplains were not able to halt the de-Christianization of the armies."[15]


Would period soldiers have engaged in such debauchery?
With the caveat that religiosity and belief varied greatly from army to army, we can safely say that European and North American armies of the eighteenth century were incredibly religious, much more religious than society today. The remainder of the post will compare religious views across different armies, and attempt to "take the pulse," of religion in these armies. Perhaps unsurprisingly, soldiers in the earlier part of this era display fanatic levels of religious devotion, so we will start there.



A 19th Century depiction of Swedish Karoliner at prayer, by Gustaf Cederstrom

The Armies of the Great Northern War: Sweden and Russia

Both Swedish and Russian soldiers were fiercely religious in the early eighteenth century and directly applied their religious beliefs to their job as soldiers. A writer accompanying the Swedish army in Livonia during the Great Northern War noted that at the outset of an engagement, the Swedish commander:
“Count Lewenhaupt then addressing himself to the Lord of hosts and victories, ordered the prayers usual upon the like occasions; the cavalry alighting, and the whole two lines kneeling upon the field. The prayer ended with a verse taken from a hymn, which was echo'd by the whole army, and then the signal was given: with the help of God, and in the name of Jesus.”[1] 
Such sentiments were still clearly being expressed by men such as Leopold von Anhalt Dessau thirty years later. The religiosity of Swedish army did not apply only to the high command. If you peruse the enormous collection of Great Northern War era Swedish soldiers' writings published in 1913, letters such as the following are common:
“It was a great sorrow to behold the poor men, who were frozen by means of the slow march. Indeed, many a cavalrymen and dragoon sat frozen to death still on their horses. The day after, which was the 24th of December, the companies were surveyed, and each had 25 or 26 men found frozen, and regrettably, this forced the amputation of hands, legs and feet. There was more sorrow and sadness than one could believe. ...Blessed be the Lord my God, who has brought me warmly through so many dangers. Blessed be my God, in both good and bad times, in all times. Indeed, Eternal glory , thanks, and praise to my God, full of grace, goodness and mercy. To me, the proof is now evident that the day of my death is swift approaching. So, I ask you, my God, with a humble heart, full of grace, send your peace and blessing to me, remain with me, and allow me to abide with you forever. Oh my Lord God, hear and grant me this, for the sake of Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Amen, Amen.”[2]
Such displays of military-religious fatalism were common in the Swedish army, but matched by the Russian army of the same era. From the writing of European observers, and the few diaries of the lower rank men who could write, we can see that military-religious myths arose in Russia, such as the belief that a man killed in battle would be brought to life again three days later in his native village.[3]

An Orthodox Priest blesses Russian soldiers in the Napoleonic Era


The Russian military planners often disregarded the dietary requirements of Eastern Orthodox soldiers, leading one western military observer to note that there were, “religious fanatics who preferred to die rather than take a meat broth.”[4] Peter I’s response was to make the religious soldiers eat by threat of force, whereas other generals obtained permission from the Holy Synod for their soldiers to abstain from the dietary requirements. This would seem to indicate that the religious nature of Russian military life came from inside the army, and was not forced on it by the state in hopes of creating a fearless body of soldiers.

These ideas remained in place in the Russian army for much of the century. Charles Immanuel Warnery, a Prussian cavalry officer, described the battle of Kunersdorf, where the Russian Corps of Observation was caught in a heavy artillery crossfire: “This respectable Corps, did not defend themselves, but instead lay on the ground, and allowed themselves to be massacred by thrusts of the bayonet, in the honor of St. Nicholas. “[5] In both the Swedish and Russian armies, then, observers noted an acceptance of the will of God, which applied to military affairs.



This British soldier, painted by Morier in the 1740s, was likely not a Methodist

Religion in Anglophone Armies: British and American Piety

British soldiers such as John Haime converted to the Methodism of John Wesley, and recorded intense bouts of religious emotion on the battlefield. At the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745, Haime recalled:


"The spring following, we took the field again : and on Mayllth,.l745, we had a full trial of our faith at Fontenoy. Some days before, one of our brethren, standing at his tent-door, broke out into raptures of joy, knowing his departure was at hand ; and, when he went into the field of battle, declared, 'I am going to rest in the bosom of Jesus.' Indeed, this day God was pleased to prove our little flock, and to show them His mighty power. They showed such courage and boldness in the fight as made the officers, as well as soldiers, amazed. When wounded, some cried out,  'I am going to my Beloved.[Christ]' Others, 'Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly!' And many that were not wounded earnestly desired  'to be dissolved and to be with Christ.' When W. Clements had his arm broken by a musket-ball, they would have carried him out of the battle ; but he said,  'No ; I have an arm left to hold my sword : I will not go yet.' When a second shot broke his other arm, he said, 'I am as happy as I can be out of paradise.' John Evans, having both his legs taken off by a cannon- ball, was laid across a cannon to die : where, as long as he could speak, he was praising God with joyful lips."[6]
From the perspective of 2017, such words might seem almost haunting, and some readers may doubt the sincerity of the men who wrote them. However, far from being the outlier, these types of sentiments abound in the writings of British soldiers who had joined Methodist societies. We cannot know with certainty how much of the army joined these societies, but indicators in the letters and memoirs consistently make Methodists out to be a sizeable minority. Methodist preacher John Wesley received a letter from soldiers at the front, describing the same battle, which expressed similar sentiments:
But we were all endued with strength and courage from God, so that the fear of death was taken away from us. We left our brother Mark Bend in the field; whether he be alive or dead we cannot tell; but the last of our brothers that spoke to him, after he was wounded, found him quite resigned to the will of God. We that he has spared a little longer, desire you to return thanks to God for all his mercies to us."[7]
Methodism would remain a force within the British army until 1815 and after; during the Peninsular War, Wellington expressed fears that Methodism was again on the rise, and requested Anglican chaplains to combat this sentiment.[8]Despite this, we should not assume that ALL British soldiers held these views, in fact, some commentators observe that the British were less religious than other eighteenth-century soldiers. A German Subsidientruppen from Ansbach-Bayreuth, Johann Dölha serving alongside the British army in the era of the American Revolution, recalled,"
The common English soldier is swift, marches easily...[w]hen they go against an enemy, they are fresh, optimistic, and do not worry about their life... The English keep their clothing very clean and have only the vices of cussing, swearing, drinking, whoring, and stealing, and these more so than other people.[9]


It would also seem that the British Soldier of the era got into some trouble
When specifically describing the British navy, Dölha informed his reader,  On the other hand, the seamen are a thieving, happy, whoring, drunken lot and much inclined to swearing and cursing people. They can hardly say three words without their curses ‘God damn my soul, God damn me…’ toward us they are rather rough, impolite, and rude."[10]

The British army, then, seems to have been a contradiction, with both fervently religious and more profane elements. This should not surprise us, it is quite likely that the British were simply more expressive of this contradiction, existed in most eighteenth century armies. Another Anglophone army of the era, the Continental Army, was deeply religious, but perhaps less fatalistic than the Swedish, Russians, or Methodist Britons.


George Washington in prayer at Valley Forge, a later artist's reimagining
Charles Royster argues that religious language was one of the primary ways through which Continental Army soldiers understood the world.[11] Preachers followed the Continental Army, and frequently distributed religious literature to soldiers, who eagerly lapped up any insights from the gospel on their current situation. British army officers believed that religious thinking had led the colonies to war in the first place.[12] Especially during the early war, religion mattered a great deal to the Continental Army. Even army officers from supposedly more secular areas of North America, such as the Chesapeake region, frequently used religious injunctions in their orders.[13] Coming out of the harsh winter at Valley Forge, George Washington ordered May 6th to be a day of thanksgiving for providential protection.[14]


French Soldiers of the Seven Years' War Era, Don Troiani

Armies of the Catholic Powers: Austria, Spain, and France


The Austrian army possessed an official chaplaincy, and as a result of the work of Christopher Duffy, we know a good deal more than we otherwise might. In the mid-century, the average Austrian chaplain was 39 years old, with five years of service under his belt.[16] The Austrian chaplains "exercised a considerable moral authority over officer and man alike." [17]

Considering the Austrian Empire's  status as a polyglot religious state, we should not be surprised that many Austrian soldiers were openly Eastern Orthodox or secretly Protestant. Only a chaplaincy for Catholics existed, but the army regulations indicate that: "Religion is something you should never speak about. Rather it is something you should strive to live by. Upon pain of severe and unfailing punishment, we forbid any behaviour which may create ill-feeling between those of different faiths."[18] The Austrian army managed to keep its soldiers fighting together, despite the religious, ethnic and politic divisions holding them apart. Such an achievement is truly remarkable. 


Menzel's Reimagining of a Prussian Infantry Chaplain

The German Protestants: Prussia and the Western German States

There were deep, heartfelt religious motivations among many of the common soldiers and officers fighting in German Protestant armies in the eighteenth century. In places as diverse as modern Poland and upstate New York, soldiers in Protestant German armies could be heard singing hymns as they marched into battle.[19] Most of these armies also contained numerous Feld-Predigers, or chaplains, who ministered to the men, and occasionally made rousing speeches on the day of battle.

Hessian soldiers such as Dölha complained about the lack of religious feeling in British soldiers and even deployed religious complaints about slavery in North America. August von Dinklage, a Lt. Colonel of a Hessian grenadier battalion,  he thought that the whites used religion to mistreat African slaves. Dinklage believed that the animal-like treatment of the blacks was, "to the shame of so-called Christians." He went on to say, "it is a sad sight when one views these people, who in their capacities and the quality of their intelligence yield nothing to the whites, sold like cattle in the market to the highest bidder."[20] The Hessians brought their chaplains with them to North America, and many of those chaplains recorded their thoughts on the young United States. Unlike many eighteenth-century armies, the Prussian army contained ministers of Catholic, Calvinist, and Orthodox faiths, in addition to the official state sanctioned Lutheranism. [21] The Lt. Colonel of the Brunswick Prinz Friedrich Regiment, Christian Julius Prätorius, allowed his Catholic soldiers to attend mass separately from the rest of his men.[22]

Many men of an earlier generation, such as Leopold von Anhalt Dessau, were rough Christian soldiers of a simple, childlike faith. Though Leopold was an effeciency-minded reformer, he nonetheless possessed a firm, gruff sense of religion. His order to attack at the Battle of Kesselsdorf was a simple, "In Jesus Nahmen marsch!" (In Jesus name, forwards!).[23] He and men like him were consistently in conflict with the more intellectual officers of the Prussian army, and both added a necessary ingredient in Prussian success.


Richard Knötel's depiction of  Leopold von Anhalt Dessau at Kesselsdorf
So, for most eighteenth-century Protestant German soldiers, religion was a moderating force, which provided cohesion, stability, and occasionally empathy. An observer noted of a Prussian regiment at prayer:
"you could imagine nothing more elevating than to see this band of heoes, who make provinces and kingdoms tremble, bow down before the Almighty. The generals, the officers, and the rank and file stand in a circle around the preacher, who makes his altar out of two drums, and they all pray to Lord with bowed heads."[24]
Frederick II was a deist, not an atheist 

Non-belief in Eighteenth-Century Armies

As better and more famous historians than I have noted, measuring non-belief before the twentieth century is indeed a difficult proposition.[25] What we can say with certainty is that members of the upper classes expressed Deistic ideas. Frederick II, himself a deist, was not afraid to resort to theistic language in order to inspire his troops. At one point, he and General Seydlitz were listening to one of these religious speeches, and Frederick commented on the religious language: "That's just for the baggage drivers!"[26]

In the Austrian service, despite the incredibly high level of religious devotion among the rank and file, many officers were less devout.  Describing a particular brand of young Austrian officer, a commentator noted that, "few of them have religious beliefs, and they scorn those who harbour them..."[27] Still- despite the efforts on modern atheists (such as Christopher Hitchens on Thomas Jefferson) to read back atheist into the eighteenth century, real atheism was quite rare, if not unheard of. Frederick II strongly defended the deist position against atheism in the later years of his reign.[28]

In summary: despite being "the age of reason," in a military context, the European eighteenth century was a highly religious place. Although the highest echelons of society may have espoused deism, most ordinary soldiers remained extremely devout. Although Christian religious belief in Europe was quite diverse, most states still divided their official military-religious ceremonies along sectarian lines. A few North German states such as Prussian and Brunswick were making small strides in the areas of military-religious freedom.

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Thanks for Reading,


Alex Burns




[1]Gustavas Adlerfeld, The Military History of Charles XII, Vol 2, 138.
[2]August Quennerstedt, Karolinska Krigares Dagböcker Jämte Andra Samtida Skrifter., Vol 3, 232.
[3] Christopher Duffy, Russia's Military Way to the West, 135.
[4]C. J. Ligne, Oeurves Choisies (Paris, 1890), 73.
[5]Charles-Emmanuel De Warnery, Campagnes De Frédéric II, Roi De Prusse: De 1756 à 1762 (1788), 312.
[6] Thomas Jackson eds, The Lives of the Early Methodist Preachers, Vol 4, 137.
[7] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Vol 2, 37.
[8] Richard Holmes, Redcoat, 117. 
[9] Dölha, A Hessian Diary, 71-2
[10] Ibid, 15. 
[11] Charles Royster, A Revolutionary People at War, 18. 
[12] Ibid, 19. 
[13]P. Benson de Lany, "Biographical Sketch of Robt. Kirkwood," Graham's Magazine, vol 28, pg 104.
[14] Royster, A Revolutionary People, 250-4. 
[15] Michel Delon eds, Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment, 1247. 
[16] Christopher Duffy, Instrument of War, 344. 
[17] Duffy, Army of Maria Theresa, 133. 
[18] Reglement für die sämmentlich-kaiserlich-königliche Infanterie, (1769), 60. (Duffy's Translation.) 
[19] Alexander Burns, Honor, Religion, and Reputation, MA Thesis, Ball State University, 25. 
[20]Landesbibliothek Kassel, 4̊ Ms. hass. 186, Tagebuch des Obrist Lieutenants von Dinklage 1776-84. fol 202.
[21] Duffy, The Army of Frederick the Great, 208.
[22]Lt. Colonel Christian Prätorius to Karl I of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, NdsStA Wf, 38 B (Alt 237), Acta Militaria.
[23] Duffy, Army of Frederick the Great, 245. 
[24] Ibid, quoted on page 207. 
[25] Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith, 20. 
[26] Kalckreuth, 'Kalckreuth zu seinem Leben und zu seiner Zeit' , Minerva, Vol IV, 144. 
[27] Duffy, Instrument of War, quoted on page 187. 
[28] Duffy, Army of Frederick the Great, 207.