Mercenaries from Germanic states, best known for service with the British Army in the eighteenth century. “Hessian” is the generic term used during the American Revolution to describe German mercenary troops employed by the British.


Hessians at Trenton using the Rall Regiment flag (Both colors) in a painting by Don Troiani.

The use of mercenaries in the eighteenth century was quite common because it allowed the employing countries to maintain smaller armies in peacetime while allowing the supplying countries to gain much-needed national income. Mercenaries in Europe first became widely used at the time of the condottieri in Italy in the 1400s. The first well-known mercenary troops came from the Swiss provinces. By the 1700s the German states were the source of most mercenaries. Germany at that time consisted of some 300 individual states of widely varying size, all ruled by a king, duke, prince, or other aristocrat who inherited his position. As many of them felt the need to outdo their neighbors in expenditures, the hiring out of local armies was a ready source of income.

The outbreak of the Seven Years’ War placed major demands on Hesse-Kassel’s resources. While a member of Britain’s parliamentary opposition, William Pitt had been an eloquent and forceful critic of military subsidies. But as prime minister of a state at war, Pitt opened the treasurí to create an army on the continent whose regiments were largely German. Of the 90,000 men under arms in 1760, only 22,000 were British-2,000 fewer than the Hessian contingent alone. The Hessian soldiers once again proved themselves among Europe’s best. Under the overall command of Ferdinand of Brunswick, they played a central role as “His Britannic Majestís Army in Germany” and tied down superior numbers of French and imperial troops in an unheralded campaign, enabling Frederick of Prussia to outfight his enemies for seven years.

The Hessian people paid the price. Hesse was a major theater of operations for five campaigns-occupied, reoccupied and drained by requisitions, contributions and simple plundering by both sides. But as its tax base shrank, and the prospects of actually collecting taxes diminished, more and more English gold flowed into the treasury. The subsidy conventions concluded between 1702 and 1765 met a good half of Hesse-Kassel’s total budget. It was money gained without having to consult the Landtag, or diet, the assembly of merchants, townsmen and nobles who in principle controlled Hesse’s purse strings. Initially, subsidies had been used to maintain the army: soldiers supporting soldiers in accepted European fashion. But the kind of money the new treaties generated was becoming a different matter. Subsidies brought in foreign exchange, which could be used to support investment in commerce, industry and agriculture. Since they went into the military treasury, directly under the Landgrafs control, the government had a potentially powerful fiscal weapon against the diet-should it prove necessary.

Discipline might be harsh in principle, hut its weight fell primarily on the 10 percent that cause 90 percent of the problems in any military unit: the sullen, the stubborn, the stupid. Small wonder, then, that Hessian field regiments had little trouble keeping their ranks filled-or that many of the regulars saw even the voyage to America to help suppress a popular revolution as an adventure and an opportunity.

When mobilized, the Hessian army was an infantry force: around two dozen regiments of foot, field and garrison, supported by a few squadrons of s cavalry and two or three artillery companies whose pieces were I distributed as “regimental guns.” Each infantry regiment had a grenadier company composed of picked men and usually assigned to a separate grenadier battalion on active service. For the American expedition, the army added something new: a field Jaeger (hunter) corps of two companies. Foresters, hunters and the occasional poacher from all over Germany volunteered, attracted by high bounties and high pay, bringing their own rifles. Performing many of the duties of contemporary rangers, the Jaeger were widely considered the elite of the British army in North America.

An officer’s career in Hesse-Kassel was both honorable and a good way to share in the subsidy system benefits. The officer corps was characterized by long service-an average of 28 years for captains and majors of one regiment in 1776. It was primarily native-about half noble and the other half either bourgeois who began as “free corporals,” with the understanding that a commission was in the offing, or commoners promoted from the ranks. In contrast to most German states, Prussia in particular, an officer’s official status and precedence were based on his military rank and not his social origins. Senior appointments were, nevertheless, largely filled by aristocrats through the end of the period.

Elector Karl recognized the risk of professional stagnation in a small army. By 1771, 61 officers and cadets were studying academic subjects at the Collegium Carolinum, Hesse-Kassel’s foremost university. By the time of the French Revolutionary Wars, Hessian officers were among the leaders in developing new tactical doctrines. An officer who joined in 1777 described the change: “In my early youth, who could last longest at a drinking bout, who showed the most dueling cuts was held to be a fine fellow, and whoever had cheated a Jew was considered a genius. This fashion has completely changed.” A bit optimistic perhaps, but indicating an internal dynamic that produced solid leadership at regimental levels for an army designed to fight under alien high command.

During the American Revolution, the traditionally small British army needed supplementing. King George III was the first British-born monarch of the German house of Hanover, so there were close ties to German states. Six of the German states provided troops to King George, including Brunswick (5,700 men), Anspach-Bayreuth (2,300 men), Waldeck (1,200 men), Anhalt-Zerbst (1,100 men), Hesse-Cassel (17,000 men), and Hesse-Hanau (2,500 men). Owing to the predominance of troops from the last two related states, “Hessian” became the common description for any German soldier, although that was not appreciated by the other troops. Britain had hired German troops in the Seven Years War (1756-1763) and other conflicts, so the mixing of Anglo-German forces was hardly new. The employment contracts provided for the lion’s share of the purchase price to go to the ruler, while the soldier received the standard low pay of all enlisted men of that era. For a price of some £4.5 million, the British army received the services of almost 30,000 troops.

The troops may have been regarded as mercenaries, but the average soldier probably was not serving for personal gain. Many of the troops were forced into service, and many more were not even citizens of the state for which they served, as methods up to and including kidnapping were not uncommon in order to put men in uniform. Traditional tactics, like promising wealth and adventure or taking advantage of drunks, brought in men, as did visits to prisons. Discipline was harsh, but effective enough to train troops that were as good as any at the time. The infantry was obtained in this manner, although the cavalry tended to come from the upper classes.

Officers were aristocrats with little care for the welfare of their men. On the voyage from Europe to America, conditions for the enlisted men often were little better than on slave ships, with cramped accommodations and poor food.

The first action the German troops saw in America was in August 1776 at the Battle of Long Island. There they fought well but gained a bad reputation for slaughtering prisoners. It was in the months following William Howe’s capture of New York City, however, that the Hessian troops gained their first serious attention from the Americans. Howe ordered his army into winter quarters after defeating George Washington’s army at White Plains in October 1776. Placed in a large arc around New York City, the regiments were ordered to quarter themselves in outlying towns and wait for the spring campaign. A Hessian regiment un- der Johann Rall was billeted in Trenton, New Jersey. Under the provisions of the Quartering Act passed by Parliament in 1774, the local population was obligated to provide housing and supplies for the occupying troops. This was an odious law to the colonists and one of the “Intolerable Acts” that had provoked the Revolution. Its implementation by mercenaries did nothing to assuage the colonists’ ire. Washington, having just suffered three defeats, needed a victory to ensure recruits for the revolutionary army the following spring. He figured that beating the Hessians would rescue the population from a hated occupying force while restoring his flagging reputation for generalship at the same time.

Washington launched a surprise attack at dawn the day after Christmas 1776, and in a matter of minutes killed, wounded, captured, or scattered almost 1,500 men for a loss of but five of his own. This incident confirmed in the British a condescending attitude toward their allies, the Hessians, whom they thought overpaid and overrated. One British officer wrote to a friend hat “these Hessians are the worst troops I ever saw. Government has been Cheated by their sending one half Militia, and the greatest part of the others Recruits, very few Viterons amongst them, they are voted British pay, which their Prince Cheats them out of one half, they are Exceedingly dissatisfied at this, so that to make it up they turn their whole thoughts upon plunder. It was their attention to this Plunder, that made them fall a sacrifice to the Rebels at Trenton” (Lowell, 1884).

Hessian troops seemed to fight quite well when part of a larger force, but the only other time they fought alone was also a disaster. In 1777, as John Burgoyne made his way south from Canada in an attempt to control New York, he sent a force of Hessians to obtain supplies and horses near the town of Bennington, Vermont. They met a force of local militia that outnumbered their own 800 troops and who used the terrain to its best advantage, outfighting and outmaneuvering the Hessians. Once beaten, they staged a fighting withdrawal toward Burgoyne’s army and met with a 600-man relief force that had arrived too late to assist in the earlier battle. Both Hessian units found themselves swamped by Vermonters. When it was all over, the Hessians had lost 900 killed or taken prisoner.

Casualty replacement became an unexpected problem. British soldiers and diplomats promised quick victory. Instead, almost 19,000 Hessians, 7,000 more than the original contingent, crossed the Atlantic after 1776. Five thousand died from all causes, more than 80 percent from disease alone. Another 1,300 were wounded. Between 2,500 and 3,100 went missing. Many of those simply remained in the New World. Their number nevertheless suggested a significant degree of alienation from the subsidy system among those at its sharp end,

Other than these two defeats, the Hessians acquitted themselves fairly well in every major battle of the Revolution, up to and including the final battle at Yorktown in 1781. They remained in America until the signing of the peace treaty in 1783, but not all of them went home. The years they had spent in America affected many Hessians greatly, for they saw the American farmer working lush fields that were larger than many royal estates at home. The lure of good land, and the discovery of attractive and hard-working American women, convinced many Germans not to go home. The Duke of Brunswick encouraged many to stay in the new United States or in Canada. He could always raise more troops but did not want to pay transport for any more than necessary at that time. There was little reason to go home if one wanted to remain a mercenary, however, for their time was coming to an end. The American Revolution, soon followed by the revolution in France, began the creation of national armies using only citizen soldiers.

References: Hibbert, Christopher, Redcoats and Rebels (New York: Norton, 1990); Lowell, E. J., The Hessians, and the German Auxiliaries of Great Britain in the Revolutionary War (New York: Harper & Bros. 1884); Smith, Page, A New Age Now Begins (New York: McGraw- Hill, 1976).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.