The Hessians and the other German auxiliaries of Great Britain in the revolutionary war/24 Conclusion
Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown decided the fate of the Revolutionary War. The armies remained quiet through the winter, and in the spring of 1782 General Clinton and General von Knyphausen returned to Europe. Sir Guy Carleton assumed the command in New York, and Lieutenant-general von Lossberg became chief of the Hessian division. On the 14th of December, 1782, Charleston was evacuated, and on the 25th of November, 1783, two years after the fall of Yorktown, the last Hessians sailed down the Bay of New York. “About two in the afternoon we weighed anchor,” says the journal of the Jäger Corps, “and as the fleet fell down to Staten Island we saw the American flag hoisted on several houses. None was raised on Fort George, however. At sunset we passed Sandy Hook, and at nightfall the land disappeared from our sight.”
The force of German mercenaries which England maintained in America from 1776 to 1783 averaged not very far from twenty thousand men. In the course of that time about thirty thousand soldiers were brought over, and seventeen thousand three hundred and thirteen returned to Germany when the war was ended. For the services of these men England paid in levy-money and subsidies to the princes more than £1,770,000 sterling. This was in addition to the pay of the soldiers and to all expenses except those of recruiting and equipment.
There can be no question that for this large sum of money Great Britain obtained the services of excellent soldiers. It is true that the Germans were several times unsuccessful when left to themselves and not accompanied by English troops. Breymann's Brunswickers at Bennington found it impossible to get over the ground with reasonable speed, but the whole of Burgoyne's army was singularly slow in its movements. That general, in a private letter, speaks of the Germans at Saratoga as “dispirited and ready to club their arms at the first fire.” Yet they had fought with valor in the earlier part of the campaign, and had rendered essential services both at Hubbardton and Freeman's Farm. At Saratoga the Brunswick regiments held the most exposed part of the line. Turning now to the war in the Middle States, we see the Hessians taking the leading part and behaving with great gallantry at White Plains and Fort Washington. We see them, made over-confident by success, surprised at Trenton and defeated at Red Bank. On the former occasion they were thrown into confusion, their commander was killed, and the men “never made any regular stand.” On the latter occasion they fought with desperation, suffering a loss of three hundred and seventy-one officers and men, in a force that cannot have exceeded twenty-five hundred. It would lead us too far to consider minutely those actions in which the Germans did not form the principal part of the king's forces, but I think that it would be found that on few occasions during the war did the Hessian soldiers show either a want of courage or a want of discipline. One difficulty was inevitable in the employment of troops of different nationalities. Jealousy and ill-will arose between the officers and between the soldiers. We have seen how Heister was recalled, because he could not get on with Sir William Howe, and how Riedesel felt himself injured by Burgoyne. The British were, moreover, accused of acting unfairly in the matter of the exchange of prisoners, and of exchanging their own officers while they left the Germans in captivity. Riedesel went so far as to write to Washington on the subject, and was politely reminded that it was not a matter within the latter's control.
We may take it for granted that the jealousy felt by the superior officers was shared by the subordinates. In a letter from Brookland (Brooklyn), dated the 7th of September, 1776, a Hessian chaplain writes: “Our dear Hessians learned to bear their hardships, and I endeavored in my prayers and sermons to strengthen them in their Christian heroism. The loitering of the English general made them impatient, but still more the proud and insulting looks which the English are wont to cast on the Germans. This often led to bloody scenes. A non-commissioned officer to whom an Englishman said over their cups, ‘—— —— you, Frenchman, you take our pay,’ answered coldly, ‘I am a German and you are a ——.’ Both drew, and the Englishman was so badly wounded that he died. Not only was the good German pardoned by the English general, but orders were given that the English should treat the Germans like brothers. All this happens since our teachable Germans have learned a little English.”
Too much weight must not, however, be given to such stories, many of which, undoubtedly, obtained circulation in America during the war. “It is astonishing,” writes Ewald, many years afterwards, “what stuff deserters often tell in order to please their new friends and obtain a good reception. After I had been taken prisoner at Yorktown, and had made the acquaintance of several French officers, a French general, then chief of the Deux Ponts Regiment, asked me quite in confidence whether the Hessians were not very discontented with the English service, as it was very hard that these troops should always be employed in the most doubtful battles; that they should often be wantonly sacrificed; that they should always have the worst quarters assigned to them; that they should receive the worst provisions; that they should be improperly paid and allowed to suffer want of all sorts. I could not help laughing at his story, and assured him that not a single word of all this was true, but quite the contrary; whereupon the general was very much astonished, for every deserter had assured him that it was so.”
It has sometimes been said that the German soldiers deserted in great numbers in America. This assertion is only partially borne out by facts. At the time when the first Hessians arrived at Staten Island, Congress caused papers to be distributed among them, encouraging them to desert. Washington was busy with such papers within a few days of their landing. The promises then made were renewed from time to time. One proclamation, dated on the 29th of April, 1778, promises fifty acres of land to every soldier that will come over, and any captain who brings forty men with him shall receive eight hundred acres of woodland, four oxen, one bull, two cows, and four sows. Deserters were not to be obliged to serve on the American side, but might devote themselves at once to the improvement of their estates. Such officers, however, as would accept service in the army of the United States should receive a rank higher than that which they had enjoyed in the army they were leaving, and should be appointed to a corps composed of Germans, to be employed on frontier or garrison duty exclusively, unless at its own request.
These promises were not entirely without result. In August, 1778, two Hessian lieutenants came to Washington's camp, and held out hopes that other officers would follow them. These hopes were illusory for the most part. Ewald asserts that no other born Hessian officer deserted, but I have reason to suppose that some few officers of the smaller German contingents went over.
Even among the privates the desertion was less than might have been expected. It was proportionally large among the prisoners of war. The army that surrendered at Saratoga in October, 1777, numbered five thousand seven hundred and ninety-one men, of whom two thousand four hundred and thirty-one were Germans. From this army six hundred and fifty-five Englishmen and one hundred and sixty Germans had deserted by the 1st of April, 1778. There is no doubt that continual efforts were made to induce these and other prisoners to desert and enlist in the American army. Washington was very much opposed to this system. On the 27th of November, 1776, he writes to the President of Congress: “By a letter from the Board of War on the subject of an exchange, they mention that several of the prisoners in our hands have enlisted. It is a measure, I think, that cannot be justified, though the precedent is furnished on the side of the enemy; nor do I conceive it good in point of policy. But as it has been done, I shall leave it with Congress to order them to be returned or not, as they shall judge fit.” And again, on the 30th, he expresses the same opinion to the Board of War, and adds: “Before I had the honor of yours on this subject, I had determined to remonstrate to General Howe on this head. As to those few, who have already enlisted, I would not have them again withdrawn and sent in, because they might be subjected to punishment; but I would have the practice discontinued in future.” In a letter written on the 8th of October, of the same year, he had gone still further, and said that mechanics and other prisoners who wished to remain should be obliged to return. On the 12th of March, 1778, he says that if prisoners have been enlisted by the Americans he has not known it. “We have always complained against General Howe, and still do,” writes he, “for obliging or permitting the prisoners in his hands to enlist, as an unwarrantable procedure, and wholly repugnant to the spirit at least of the cartel.” A few days later, however, he refers Pulaski to Congress. “I have informed him,” writes Washington, “that the enlisting of deserters and prisoners is prohibited by a late resolve of Congress. How far Congress might be inclined to make an exception, and license the engaging prisoners in a particular detached corps, in which such characters may be admitted with less danger than promiscuously in the line, I cannot undertake to pronounce.”
It is probable that Pulaski did, in fact, enlist deserters, and it is certain that the so-called Chevalier Armand (in fact Marquis de la Rouerie) did so. Wiederhold, when in captivity at Reading, early in 1780, saw two squadrons of Armand's corps pass through that town. He says that the corps had been four hundred strong and composed entirely of German deserters.
On the 22d of May, 1778, Congress passed a resolution advising the states to declare all deserters and prisoners free from militia duty, and to forbid their serving as substitutes in the militia. On the 29th of the same month a singular scene is said to have taken place at Cambridge. Some Brunswick officers caught a deserter, one of the prisoners on Prospect Hill. He was making off to Watertown, where Colonel Armand had a recruiting station. The poor wretch was brought back to camp, and, as he was the first that had been caught, it was determined to make an example of him. He was tied to a post and flogged with a rod, three hundred strokes. His hair was then cut off, and he was dishonorably dismissed from the service. The Americans are said to have looked calmly on, but to have received the man with kindness after the punishment, and led him away in triumph. Eelking gives no authority for this story, and we may hope that it is apocryphal. At any rate, the punishment, if it really took place, did not prove very effectual, for some fifty Brunswickers deserted in the course of the next five months, and the loss of men from desertion during the journey to Virginia was heavy.
Some of the desertion among the prisoners was only apparent. The German captives sometimes left the dreary huts in which they were confined and wandered away, in hopes of reaching New York, or one of the British armies. On the 18th of May, 1779, Governor Clinton writes to Washington concerning “an alarm on the frontiers of Ulster County, occasioned by the appearance of about one hundred Indians and Tories. They were joined at this place by twenty-seven Tories from east of Hudson's River, mostly Hessian deserters from the Convention troops. The sudden assembling of the militia deterred them from penetrating farther into the country, and prevented them from doing any material injury.” And in February, 1781, General Greene wrote that thirty-eight out of a detachment of forty men in Armand's legion had deserted to the enemy, and that Baron Steuben had been obliged to order a number of them to join their regiments, who were prisoners at Charlottesville.
If it be true, as the German writers assert, and as seems to be the case, that the German soldiers deserted less than the English in this war, the cause is not far to seek. The troops were employed for the most part in neighborhoods where the inhabitants could speak no German. Moreover, the “Hessians,” as the auxiliaries were indiscriminately called, were objects of peculiar abhorrence to the natives. Their name might probably be sometimes heard as a term of reproach to this day in country districts. The English deserter became indistinguishable from the moment when he took off his red coat. The German could speak no word that did not betray him.
Neither among the English nor among the Germans was desertion so prevalent as among the Americans. But in saying this, one great difference must be noted. The British or German soldier could only desert to the enemy. The American militiaman generally returned to his home. The Revolutionary militia were, in some important respects, more like the clans of Scotch Highlanders in the civil wars of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries than like modern soldiers. They came or went, as patriotism or selfishness, enthusiasm or discouragement, succeeded each other in their breasts. Often intrepid in battle, they were subject to panics, like all undisciplined troops, and were such uncomfortable customers to deal with that it was equally unsafe for their generals to trust them or for their enemies to despise them.
We have seen that seventeen thousand three hundred and thirteen Germans, or about fifty-eight per cent. of those who came over as mercenaries, returned safely to Europe. Of the twelve thousand five hundred and fifty-four that remained, a small proportion had been killed in battle or had died of their wounds, many had died of sickness, many had deserted, some had remained in America, after peace was concluded, with the consent of the authorities. Hessian officers and privates received grants of land in Nova Scotia, and the Duke of Brunswick, with characteristic inhumanity, ordered that not only soldiers guilty of crimes and disorderly conduct, but those who were bodily unfit for military duty, should be left in Canada.
The Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel has not failed to find apologists. These dwell, in the first place, on the general wickedness of the Americans, and on their criminality in revolting against the King of England, under whose government they were only too happy; and, secondly, maintain that the letting of troops was in accordance with the customs of the last century, that the money received by the Landgrave was used for the benefit of his people, and that these approved of the transaction. Into the first contention I do not propose to enter further than is necessary to point out its irrelevance. Had the Landgrave gone into the Revolutionary War on its merits, an argument drawn from the depravity of the rebels and the wickedness of rebellion would have been pertinent. It has no force when applied to a prince who, in accordance with a policy that was hereditary in his dynasty, let out his troops to the highest bidder. As to the second argument, it is true that public morality in the matter of the employment of mercenaries was and is deplorably loose. A nation engaged in a great struggle can hardly be expected not to take help where it can find it. The individual soldier of fortune has long been looked on with too much indulgence. But to be a soldier of fortune by proxy, to coin money out of other people's blood, and by perils which he who profits by them does not share, has never been considered a manly occupation; and those who say that the Hessian people approved of Landgrave Frederick's bargains condemn his subjects without excusing himself. A better argument was found by his minister, Schlieffen, in the close connection between the English court and the courts of Hesse and Brunswick. The American provinces might conceivably be inherited by a Hessian prince. Did we, therefore, see Hessian soldiers serving in English pay against American rebels without pecuniary compensation to the Landgrave, we might believe that they were sent for political reasons. This argument loses its force in the face of the subsidies. The Landgrave entered into a sordid bargain, and it is in the light of this bargain that he must be judged.
- Eelking's “Hülfstruppen,” vol. i. p. 340.
- Schlözer's “Briefwechsel,” vol. vii. p. 362.
- The colonel of the Deux Ponts Regiment was the Count de Deux Ponts. I suspect that he was the “general” alluded to.—Ewald's “Belehrungen,” vol. ii. p. 424.
- Washington, vol. iv. pp. 66, 67. See in the MS. journal of the Regiment von Huyn a copy of a proclamation addressed at this time to the Hessian officers.
- Eelking's “Hülfstruppen,” vol. i. pp. 344-347.
- Ewald's “Belehrungen,” vol. ii. pp. 425-427.
- This letter is not given by Sparks, from whose edition the other quotations from Washington's writings are made. This is from an old London edition of “Washington's Official Letters.”
- Washington, vol. iv. p. 196.
- Washington, vol. iv. p. 147.
- Ibid. vol. v. p. 270.
- Ibid. vol. v. p. 278. See, also, Washington's letters to James Bowdoin and to General Heath against enlisting deserters.—Washington, vol. v. pp. 287, 346.
- Eelking's “Riedesel,” vol. ii. p. 262.
- Sparks's “Correspondence,” vol. ii. p. 298.
- Ibid. vol. iii. p. 247.
- Ibid. vol. iii. pp. 142, 154.
- MS. journal of the Grenadier Battalion von Platte; Eelking's “Hülfstruppen,” vol. ii. pp. 253-255; Appendix D.