The Hessians Are Coming! German Soldiers in the American Revolution

Here’s What You Need to Know: Germany became a source of manpower for Great Britain’s North American war effort.

­“He is at this time transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation and tyranny,” Thomas Jefferson said of King George III in the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson, as usual, was telling the truth. As early as August 1775, when news of the engagement at Breed’s Hill reached Germany, Prince Friedrich Wilhelm II of Hesse-Cassel quickly offered his ranks of well-trained soldiers to the hard-pressed British monarch. With the influential prince of Hesse-Cassel being an exemplar throughout Germany, many other princes followed, making their regiments available as well to the British cause. They would play a large role in some of the most famous and decisive battles of the Revolutionary War.

Mercenaries against the Revolution

The use of mercenary soldiers was a practice that dated back as far as ancient Egypt. Almost every country in the eastern hemisphere at one time or another had contracted its military to other countries for profit. In the West, many among Europe’s noble classes viewed the selling (or renting) of their armies as an honorable way out of debt. In 18th-century Germany that was certainly the case. The growing hostilities that engulfed the American colonies prior to the outburst of open warfare at Lexington and Concord made the various princes of Germany well aware that the looming conflict in the American colonies could be a lucrative market for their own military.

At the beginning of the American Revolution, the state of manpower in the British Army was dire, with many of Great Britain’s regiments scattered widely throughout the world. His Majesty welcomed the assistance of his fellow Europeans. But while the princes of Germany immediately offered the use of their armies, they had not been the first choice of Great Britain’s leaders. Owing to extended family ties, Russia had been the king’s preference. A distant kinswoman of George III, Empress Catherine the Great controlled the Russian Army.

British statesmen approached the court of St. Petersburg with the idea of enlisting Catherine’s troops for the North American campaign. The Russians, said one British officer, were the best choice for such duty since they did not speak English and were “less likely to be seduced by the artifice and intrigue of these holy hypocrites.” Certainly, the British idea of using wild Russian troops provoked fear within many of the inhabitants of the colonies. Writing to Jefferson, fellow patriot Richard Henry Lee commented on the weak state of the American army: “We find ourselves greatly endangered by the armament at present here,” wrote Lee, “but what will be our situation the next campaign when the present force shall be increased by the addition of twenty or thirty thousand Russian?”

Within a short time, the idea of using Russian troops was set aside. Other countries were considered, including the Netherlands and Prussia. But Frederick the Great wanted nothing to do with the British, saying that the thought of lending his cherished army to Great Britain was akin to selling off his prize cattle to have their throats cut. (He supposedly imposed a tax equal to that placed on cattle on all mercenaries crossing his border en route to America.) Some members of Parliament even went so far as to suggest hiring an army of Moors from the ruler of Morocco.

Finally, Germany was looked to as a source of manpower for Great Britain’s North American war effort. It was a logical choice. Under Friedrich Wilhelm, the landlocked state had developed a sophisticated army, one that enjoyed the support of an overwhelming majority of its citizens. The prince, who idolized Frederick the Great, modeled his army after the Prussians. He encouraged aristocrats to send their sons into the army, and at one time more than two-thirds of all Hessian nobles were in the pay of the military. With a standing army of 12,000 men and another 12,000 in the militia, Hesse-Cassel had a ratio of one soldier for every 15 civilians, as opposed to a 1-in-300 ratio in Great Britain.

Friedrich’s army was well-trained and -educated, with its officers receiving advanced instruction at the Collegium Carolinium in Cassel, where they studied foreign languages, mathematics, and engineering. While the highest ranking officers came from the ranks of the aristocracy, most of the other officers came from the hard-working middle class. The men in the ranks were culled from the peasant class and were carefully segregated into appropriate units: the Jägers, or light infantry, were made up of the sons of gameskeepers and foresters; artillerists tended to be the sons of industrial workers from the cities. At the bottom of the hierarchy were the entbehrliche Leute, or expendable people. These were the school dropouts, servants, unemployed tradesmen, or wandering homeless youths who were seized off the streets by hard-boiled recruiting gangs. All were indoctrinated with the German concept of Dienst, or sense of service, and swore a personal oath to Prince Friedrich.

With its critical manpower shortages in mind, Great Britain approached the various German princes with a contract for enlisting their regiments. Parliament wanted the North American rebellion crushed as quickly as possible, hopefully in “one campaign,” as Lord George Germain quipped. The act of putting down the rebellion required the use of experienced soldiers. Knowing that the various principalities throughout Germany could meet those demands, the Crown sent Colonel William Faucitt to Germany to procure disciplined troops for the North American front. Faucitt traveled to the principalities of Brunswick and Hesse-Cassel, which offered a total of nearly 10,000 troops to crush the growing American rebellion. By mid-December 1775, a contract was drawn up between the parties involved.

The American conflict was not the first time Great Britain had utilized foreign mercenaries within its ranks. When the “Great Pretender,” Bonnie Prince Charlie, led his Scottish clansmen against the army of King George II in the Jacobite Rebellion, the king’s army employed German mercenaries to put down the uprising that entangled the highlands. The Germanic princes were not particular—they would hire out their troops to any country that could provide a large enough subsidy. Although Great Britain was Germany’s best customer, it was not Germany’s only patron. In the late 17th century, during a conflict with Turkey, Italy employed thousands of Germanic mercenaries. During the period of the American Revolution, Germany was made up of seven different principalities: Hesse-Cassel, Hesse-Hanau, Brunswick, Anhalt-Zerbst, Waldeck, Anspach-Beyreuth, and Hannover. All would eventually provide troops to the British war effort, with Hesse-Cassel’s 18,970 soldiers representing more than 60 percent of the military manpower provided by Germany.

As Great Britain began the process of acquiring foreign mercenaries, the inhabitants of the American colonies feared the presence of such grizzled soldiers in their midst. Patriotic pamphleteer Thomas Paine spoke for many when he said, “Of all the acts of transcendent folly and wickedness perpetrated by the British Ministry, none could do more to convince the Americans of the necessity of an immediate declaration of independence than the hiring of foreign mercenaries.” Many colonists viewed the German soldiers as fearsome, if not gruesome, creatures who would literally eat their children for breakfast. What many of the colonists did not realize was that these same German soldiers, in time, would help change the very culture of the new American republic.

“Seller of Souls”

Efforts in recruiting the regiments that were to be sent to North America were harsh. Each county of a state was required to supply its prince with a certain number of men, and many were hastily pressed into the mercenary trade. Recruiting officers were not choosy in their efforts to fill the ranks of the army. If an individual cut a healthy appearance and was under the age of 60, he was almost guaranteed a position in the prince’s ranks. Men of all lifestyles were dragged into the service. Drunkards, tradesmen, drifters—anyone needing the basic necessities of life—found themselves approached by recruiting parties.

Johan Gottfried Seume was approached by one such “seller of souls.” Leaving his position as a theological student at the University of Leipzig, Seume had just set off for Paris to pursue other ambitions when he was arrested and escorted to Ziegenhayn along with other recruiters’ targets—including a monk—to find himself being pressed into the ranks of Hesse-Cassel. “I gave myself up to my fate, and tried to make the best of it, as bad, as it might be,” Seume recalled. “No one was safe from the grip of the seller of souls. Persuasion, cunning, deception, force—all served. Strangers of all kinds were arrested, imprisoned, sent off. I improved daily and soon I got the reputation of being the man who knew perfectly all the manual and how to execute quickly and easily all the evolutions and military formations on the parade ground.” Those who did not adapt were beaten severely, and two of Seume’s fellow recruits were hanged for desertion.

Transportation for the mercenaries was dependent on a variety of Dutch vessels. The voyage to North America was a long and cramped one at best. While officers enjoyed the privilege of sharing comfortable quarters, the enlisted men in the regiments were packed into the ships in “spoon fashion,” as Seume termed it. For Seume, the voyage to the colonies proved quite uncomfortable. The space within the ships was cramped—“a tall man could not stand upright between decks,” he complained. The food was as undesirable as the living conditions. A staple of the men’s diet was a biscuit that was so hard that a story spread that it had been taken by the British from the French during the Seven Years’ War. As for drinkable water, Seume said that it “stank between decks like Styx, Phlegethon, and Cocytus all together.” Thick with filaments as long as a man’s finger, the water had to be strained through a cloth before anyone could hold his nose long enough to drink it.