During the American Revolutionary War, Great Britain tried to shore up its small troop numbers in North America by hiring German mercenaries, known collectively as Hessians, after the state that contributed the largest contingent, Hesse-Kassel. (King George III had German roots, including a royal title within the Holy Roman Empire, and was thus able to pull some strings with various German princes.)
Numbering around 30,000, the Hessians made up one-quarter of Britain’s forces in the war, and fought as distinct units led by their own commanders, albeit under overall British control. Participating in almost every major campaign, they were a visible presence in the conflict, and were proficient fighters with a fearful reputation (among both Loyalists and Patriots).
But despite their military advantage, and the fact that mercenaries were standard in European warfare at the time, the Hessians were a huge public relations disaster for the British. In fact, their use was one of the main factors that convinced many Americans to fight for the Patriot cause (at the start of the war, the majority of colonials, including many Founding Fathers, merely wanted greater rights and autonomy, rather than outright independence).
The reasons for this are twofold.
First, the fact that the King would use foreigners to fight his own subjects, as many colonials still considered themselves to be, was considered scandalous and offensive. If these are the lengths he would go to settle this dispute between brothers, then he truly is as tyrannical as the pro-independence camp says.
Second, the German states had a reputation for being some of the most authoritarian in Europe. Using troops from such an autocratic source made many Americans fearful of the King’s intentions. Maybe autonomy within the empire was no longer viable? And again, this was seen as an awful length to go to.
In any case, the Americans used this miscalculation to great effect. In one notable example, Hessian prisoners of war from the Battle of Trenton were paraded in the streets of cities like Philadelphia to rile up residents, leading to higher recruitment rates. Patriot propaganda was aimed at the Hessians, trying to bring attention to the sizeable German population in the colonies (about 10 percent), and offering up acres of land to anyone who would desert; indeed, following the end of the war, thousands of them would settle in the new United States).
I am not sure why, but there is something fascinating about the Hessians, proud and austere soldiers eager and willing to fight wherever their princes contracted them to. Perhaps it is part of my interest in mercenaries and contract soldiers in general; people who make a career out of doing something deadly and abhorrent to most of humanity. We learn that war is something to be avoided in all but the most desperate (and ostensibly necessary) circumstances, such as defense. And yet there have always been, and likely always will be, Hessian-types for whom warfare is a job like any other, or even a thrilling experience.
I might also find them alluring because the Revolutionary War is not one in which foreigners are believed to play any part. It was just spunky colonials versus a tyrannical empire that had since grown cold, cruel, and distant. Not even loyalist factions, which numbered anywhere from 20 to 30 percent of the colonial population, get much attention. So unsurprisingly, the pivotal role played by Germans, French, Spaniards, Poles, and others, whether for or against the Revolution, get little attention or acknowledgement. Expect me to share similar highlights into the forgotten foreigns of the American Revolution.
[Though it is worth pointing out one minor but enduring exception to the Hessians’ absence from American historical consciousness: the Headless Horseman of Washington Irving’s short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was a Hessian artilleryman decapitated by an American cannonball and unceremoniously buried thereafter.]
If you want to learn more about Hessians, such as why they were enlisted by the British and how they fared during and after the war, check out these eight facts here.