Saturday, January 25, 2020

The Hessians

Battle of Trenton
Don Troiani
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation. - Declaration of Independence
The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane
John Quidor
The legend of the Headless Horseman (also known as "the Headless Hessian of the Hollow") begins in Sleepy Hollow, New York, during the American Revolutionary War. Traditional folklore holds that the Horseman was a Hessian trooper who was killed during the Battle of White Plains in 1776. He was decapitated by an American cannonball, and the shattered remains of his head were left on the battlefield while his comrades hastily carried his body away. Eventually they buried him in the cemetery of the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow, from which he rises as a malevolent ghost, furiously seeking his lost head. Modern versions of the story refer his rides to Halloween, around which time the battle took place. (Source)

The story is set in 1790 in the countryside around the Dutch settlement of Tarry Town (historical Tarrytown, New York), in a secluded glen known as Sleepy Hollow. Sleepy Hollow is renowned for its ghosts and the haunting atmosphere that pervades the imaginations of its inhabitants and visitors. Some residents say this town was bewitched during the early days of the Dutch settlement, while others claim that the mysterious atmosphere was caused by an old Native American chief, the "wizard of his tribe ... before the country was discovered by Master Hendrik Hudson." The most infamous specter in the Hollow is the Headless Horseman, supposedly the ghost of a Hessian trooper whose head had been shot off by a stray cannonball during "some nameless battle" of the Revolution, and who "rides forth to the scene of battle in nightly quest of his head". (Source) 
During the height of the American Revolutionary War, Irving writes that the country surrounding Tarry Town "was one of those highly-favored places which abound with chronicle and great men. The British and American line had run near it during the war; it had, therefore, been the scene of marauding, and infested with refugees, cow-boys, and all kinds of border chivalry."
After the Battle of White Plains in October 1776, the country south of the Bronx River was abandoned by the Continental Army and occupied by the British. The Americans were fortified north of Peekskill, leaving Westchester County a 30-mile stretch of scorched and desolated no-man's land, vulnerable to outlaws, raiders, and vigilantes. Besides droves of Loyalist rangers and British light infantry, Hessian Jägers—renowned sharpshooters and horsemen—were among the raiders who often skirmished with Patriot militias. The Headless Horseman, said to be a decapitated Hessian soldier, may have indeed been based loosely on the discovery of just such a Jäger's headless corpse found in Sleepy Hollow after a violent skirmish, and later buried by the Van Tassel family, in an unmarked grave in the Old Dutch Burying Ground. The dénouement of the fictional tale is set at the bridge over the Pocantico River in the area of the Old Dutch Church and Burying Ground in Sleepy Hollow. (Source)

Those troops in the opening picture? Hessians.

Growing up in New England, history was a living breathing thing. The World Wars were yesterday, the Civil War was last week, and the Revolution only a month or so before that. Or so it seemed. So in a sense I knew of those fearsome beasts, "The Hessians." If killed, they would rise from the grave and hunt you down. In life, they were unrelenting and showed no mercy. The bloody king brought them to the colonies for the purpose of showing just how cruel and merciless he was. I mean the Declaration of Independence says so, how could we be wrong? As a boy, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow terrified me, to me it was a true story, even though my parents assured me that it was not.

So just who were these "Hessians" of legend, brought to the colonies to crush the rebellion and return the Americas to their proper subjugation to the British crown?

Before going further, what the Hell was King George III thinking by hiring these mercenaries to suppress his less-than-loyal subjects? First let's answer the question of "Who is King George III?"
George III (George William Frederick; 4 June 1738 – 29 January 1820) was King of Great Britain and King of Ireland from 25 October 1760 until the union of the two countries on 1 January 1801, after which he was King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland until his death in 1820. He was concurrently Duke (Herzog) and Prince-elector (Kurfürst) of Braunschweig-Lüneburg (also known for it's capital as "Hannover") in the Holy Roman Empire before becoming King (König) of Hannover on 12 October 1814. He was a monarch of the House of Hannover, but unlike his two predecessors (George I and George II), he was born in Great Britain, spoke English as his first language, and never visited Hannover.* (Source)
So yes,  the King had German roots, held lands and titles in the Holy Roman Empire (which was not Holy, not Roman, and certainly not a proper empire) where most of the inhabitants spoke some form of German. (Though I speak a lot of German, I still can't fathom what Bavarians and Austrians are saying. Different dialects ya know.)

The German-speaking troops sent by the King to suppress the Revolution were most emphatically not mercenaries.

mercenary (Source)
  1. serving merely for pay or sordid advantage
  2. hired for service in the army of a foreign country
Number (2) applies here, the rulers (princes, dukes, etc.) of the various places where George III procured these troops hired out entire units from their armies for cash on the barrelhead. There were even provisions in the various contracts for payments to the owning prince (duke, elector, etc.) in the event of a soldier being killed or wounded. In other words, the prince (duke, elector, etc.) expected to get his soldiers back in one piece. Or you paid extra.

Did that money go to the surviving family of the lost soldier? Depends on the prince (duke, elector, etc.), but you can bet probably not, or if the family did get a cut, it was a pittance. (There wasn't really any sort of military retirement plan back in the day for the troops. Officers, sometimes, it depends.)

So where did these "Hessians" come from and why did we call them "Hessians"? Most of the units hired out to the King were from what we know as Hesse-Cassel (which in German is Hessen-Kassel) and the folks there are known as Hessians (duh). The others were from:
  • Hessen-Hanau
  • Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel
  • Brandenburg-Ansbach
  • Brandenburg-Bayreuth
  • Waldeck
  • Hannover
  • Anhalt-Zerbst
I should note that even the troops from Hesse-Cassel (which is how they spelled it, back in the day) weren't all Hessian citizens. In those times men who had trouble finding gainful employment were often forced into the military. In those days most of the kids these days who go to Europe to travel around with nothing but a backpack to "find themselves" would have wound up in the army of some minor German princeling. Whether they liked it or not. It was not uncommon for a man just passing through the domain of the prince to get scooped up and put into uniform.

Training was brutal and based heavily on the Prussian model. Rigid adherence to discipline was enforced by officers and sergeants with drawn swords and spontoons marching behind the ordered ranks ready to "convince" a wavering soldier to advance. Flogging, hanging, and other forms of punishment were common to enforce discipline. Sure, you can't expect a guy to be a good soldier if you hang him for plundering, desertion, and the like, but it will certainly encourage his buddies to behave.

Frederick the Great (King of Prussia, a German-speaking land) allegedly stated that he preferred that his soldiers fear him (and/or his officers) more than they feared the enemy. Go forward, you might die, try to retreat or run, you will die. (Though that story may be apocryphal, I like it.)

Were these Hessians the beasts and monsters some have portrayed them as? In all armies (then and now) there will always be a certain element who enjoy lording it over the defenseless, like civilians and prisoners. The 1700s were no exception. When the British Army rolled through New Jersey in 1776 the Hessians gained a bad reputation for burning down nice houses and lifting things which didn't belong to them. The British soldiers themselves weren't much better. (After Waterloo the British were appalled at their Prussian allies for the wanton destruction of property by the common soldiery as the armies marched on Paris.)

It was a Revolution after all and in the eyes of the British and their German allies, we were a people rebelling against the authority of our lawful king. How dare we?

They were soldiers much like those of other armies of the time. They probably were no more or less brutal than any other soldiers of the time. Including the Americans, the Revolution in the South was extremely brutal, many atrocities committed by both sides.

So what happened to all of those German-speaking soldiers hired out by their ruler to go fight somebody else's war?
About 30,000 Germans served in the Americas, and, after the war ended in 1783, some 17,313 returned to their German homelands. Of the 12,526 who did not return, about 7,700 had died. Some 1,200 were killed in action, and 6,354 died from illnesses or accidents, mostly the former. Approximately 5,000 German troops, mainly press-ganged or conscripted in their countries of origin, settled in North America, either the United States or Canada. (Source)
The Hessians weren't the only German-speaking soldiers to fight in the American Revolution. In 1776 Congress authorized the raising of a number of new regiments, at least one battalion of which would be formed from the German-speaking settlers of Pennsylvania and Maryland (see sources 4 and 5 below).

So there were Germans on both sides of the Revolution.

I had no ideer.***

Other sources:
  1. The Hessians Are Coming! (This article is superb.)
  2. Hessian Soldiers of the American Revolution
  3. The Hessian Barracks
  4. German Marylanders
  5. Germans in the American Revolution

Tip of the Pickelhaube** to my fellow Lexican and long time Chanter "D" for those sources 2, 3, and 4 above. Also a great PDF concerning German prisoners in the American Revolution from Maryland Historical Magazine, issue dated September of 1945. Thanks "D"!

* Throughout I have used the proper German names for titles and localities in what would be known as Germany from 1871 to the present day. Note that "Brunswick," the English name, is properly "Braunschweig," in German.
** No, the Hessians didn't wear these, that's me being "cute."
*** Buck, miss him I do.


  1. Interesting. And from my gleanings, very accurate. Good job.

  2. It's likely that Frederick The Great's daddy got the idea for such severe discipline from the Romans. A Legionary was supposed to fear his Centurion more than he feared the barbarian enemy.

    1. A lot of military ideas came from the Romans. They were, after all, a very effective military force during their heyday.

      Good point BP.

    2. Their (the Romans) tactics translated well into pert near all warfighting until the introduction of the rifled-musket.

      Romans. Romans everywhere.

      And then there was the reintroduction of the Greek Phalanx by, first, an English king in the 900's and then the Swiss after losing bigly to the Germans. Both people (English and Swiss) moved to a long spear, with the Swiss taking it to the extreme with their pike walls.

    3. The Swiss were some bad m-f-ers at one point in history. You did not want to mess with Swiss pikemen.

  3. "Growing up in New England, history was a living breathing thing. The World Wars were yesterday, the Civil War was last week, and the Revolution only a month or so before that. Or so it seemed."

    You nailed my childhood. We had the looting of capetbaggers and that demon Sherman (spit), too. Which is why we eat black eye'd susies on New Year's day. Our kin were lucky and happy to eat cow feed, because that was all that was left by the benevolent and courageous Unionistas (just a little snark, nothing personal, you weren't marching with him!)

    You can add in "Injun Joe". He lived down by the river in my kin's land, and would kidnap any unsuspecting kids that were wandering around on their own. Mom and Dad told us stories from their youth about him. Much like Hans the Headless Hessian Horseman. Or la Llarona my wife talks about. We lived in mortal fear of him sneaking in the windows at night when visiting SW OK. Or catching us alone while we wandered the shelter belts...

    Great stories and great info Sarge.... not to mention good memories of the old ones. They started leaving in the 60's. I miss the stories and the gusto that they told them with.

    1. I can well imagine the South of your youth. Truth be told, when we were kids the events of 1861-1865 weren't even a hundred years in the past. My paternal great-grandfather fought in that war. Events were still fresh in the memory of the older generations.

    2. (Don McCollor)...not so old memories. [From the best records] The last Union veteran Albert Woolton died in 1956. The last Confederate veteran Walter Williams died in 1959...

    3. Dang. Those boys saw some stuff I'll bet.

  4. Funny how the cleansed versions of "Headless Horseman" leave out the whole war-fighting-head-removal thingy.

    And, really, it wasn't until after the Civil War between the States during the Great Unpleasantness that our military really tried to clamp down on looting, more or less.

    Hessians were just... Hessians. No more, no less. They were less worrysome and less feared than a potential English-led tribe of Indians, or a French-led tribe of Indians, or an Indian-led tribe of Indians.

    All in all, after all the smoke and death was over, a reasonable number stayed and became Americans. Which, come to think about it, means we all won.

  5. Great info here Sarge, quite a bit of which I myself had no ideer of. A lot of those place names and titles crop up in Eric Flint's "1632" or "Ring of Fire" series (sci-fi/time travel), most of which I've not yet read. The tale(s) takes place in Thuringia of the 17th century and there's much entertainment to be found in the reading. I can't help but wonder if Flint and his co-authors didn't pick that location in part because of our history with the Hessians.

    Great post. And now it appears I have some homework reading to do...

    1. I keep hearing about 1632 and Eric Flint. Sounds like stuff that's right up my alley. Time to go shopping I think!

    2. He's a good writer. And the stuff he writes about is very interesting. And, like a good writer, he lets the characters and the drama around them make the work, rather than cramming his personal beliefs into them.

      As to Thuringia of 1632, I believe he chose that area for several reasons, not the least of which there were no actual rulers ruling in the war-torn area (either they've been removed physically by distance or removed... physically... if you know what I mean.) That, and the Hessians were the most... American of the various Germans.

  6. Careful Sarge, that's a series easy to fall into and NOT get out of. Ask me how I know.

    1. And that's a pretty good recommendation right there.

    2. The series does get quite interesting.

      Him, Ringo and Weber all write good series. All are easy to fall into, and there's enough in all their various series to spend a good amount of time on.

      Come to think of it, David Weber is probably pretty sad that the USAF is the parent military branch of the US Space Force.

    3. Argh, Space Force. I'm still trying to digest that.

  7. Ok, sorta off topic...I want you to know that I do pay attention (most of the time) and tonight it paid off.

    A few days ago you had the story about Washington crossing the Delaware, and the painting, and I read the entire post, including the links. Tonight I had a date with my Dad to go to the annual Fire Department Officer Installation Dinner. And the talk given by one of their own was about that painting, what it represented in terms of everyone in the boat having a different background/reason for being there and yet they are all pulling in the same direction, and how, as a small rural community supported volunteer fire department, everyone needs to remember that no matter the socioeconomic status (farmer, state worker, engineer, school teacher, nurse, secretary) the department is in one boat, and can count on having each other's back in bad times as well as good time. Because the solders were all joined in their desire to go kick some Hessian butt, and did, before going home to their own separate lives.

    So in the intro of his talk, the speaker was asking all kinds of questions about when had this happened, and where were they going and what was the recent background, and why were they crossing the Delaware and so on. And I knew most of the answers!!

    So, if you ever get tired of doing computer stuff for Uncle Sam, you can go write your history books, and I promise to buy and read them so I can relearn history...or learn "the rest of the story".

    See: aviation, history, HTML, tour and wine recommendations, and I remember a post of juvet's that talked about Texas BBQ places, as well as multiple discussions of the importance of "playing nice" among a diversified group of folks and of the search for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Truly a one stop shop.

    So far as the Trekkie influence goes...wasn't Flash Gordon's uniform an influence on Star Trek? I wouldn't be surprised if it was.

    1. The Flash Gordon thing? I need to look that one up!

      Thanks Suz.

  8. You would probably like the book Washington’s Secret Six, Sarge.

    It’s about six Spies that Washington used who were in Long Island which was always under British control

    I did not realize until reading the book that the British never left this area until it was decided they go.

    In other words they were there after Yorktown. And the secret six used methods for concealment that are still taught by the CIA.

    Won’t spoil it for you but one of them passed such disinformation as to probably affect the outcome of the war

    As for the Hessians they sound as nasty as the Prussians.

    A lot of Americans were pretty adept with a rifle too.

    1. I have read that book. The AMC Series Turn is semi-based on that book (jazzed up for Hollywood of course) but nevertheless entertaining.

      The Prussians were far nastier than the Hessians.


Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)
Can't be nice, go somewhere else...

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