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The Hessians and the other German auxiliaries of Great Britain in the revolutionary war/6 The Battle of Long Island, August, 1776

< The Hessians and the other German auxiliaries of Great Britain in the revolutionary war

Chapter VI.


The first division of Hessians, some eight thousand strong, passed Sandy Hook on August 15, 1776, and landed at Staten Island amid salvoes of artillery and musketry. The division was under the command of Lieutenant-general Philip von Heister, a tough old soldier of the Seven Years' War. It is related that when Landgrave Frederick II. called him to command the Hessian expeditionary force, he did so in these terms: “Heister, you must go along to America.” “Very well, your Most Serene Highness, but I take the liberty of making a few requests.” “And what may they be?” “First, my debts must be paid, my wife and children must be taken care of until I come back, and if I should fall, my wife must have a pension.” When the Landgrave had smilingly assented, Heister cried out: “Now your Serene Highness shall see what this old head and these bones can do.”

The army collected on Staten Island under the command of Sir William Howe numbered, after the arrival of the Hessians, between twenty-five and thirty thousand soldiers. It was supported by a fleet under Sir William's brother, Lord Howe. The opposing army of Washington was composed of some thirteen or fourteen thousand men, not more than six thousand of whom had any military experience, and whose officers were taken from civil life.

The Hessians were much struck with the appearance of wealth and plenty which they found on Staten Island. The colonists lived in comfortable houses surrounded by gardens and orchards. Their light red wagons drawn by two small horses excited the wonder of the Germans. A colonist on Staten Island lived as comfortably as a German country gentleman, and it seemed extraordinary to the Hessians that people should revolt against a government under which they enjoyed so many blessings. Many of the Americans had fled from their homes on the approach of the Hessians, and those who remained were at first inclined to be surly when troops were quartered upon them; but when they saw that strict discipline was enforced, and that only regular requisitions were made, the fugitives returned, and relations of tolerance, if not of cordiality, were soon established. The British government still hoped to reconcile the colonists to the rule of the mother country, and strict orders had been given to prevent all excesses.

No sooner did Sir William Howe find his army collected than he prepared to attack the Americans. The British advanced guard, under Sir Henry Clinton, with the Hessian chasseurs and grenadiers, commanded by Colonel von Donop, crossed the Narrows to Long Island on August 22, 1776. A diary, published in a magazine at Frankfort-on-the-Main in the following year, gives a graphic account of this operation and of those that followed:

August 22.—We weighed anchor and lay close over against Long Island. The ships of war came within range of the shore and pointed their cannon at the beach. At eight in the morning the whole coast swarmed with boats. At half-past eight the admiral hoisted the red flag, and in a moment all the boats reached the shore. The English and Scotch, with the artillery, were first disembarked, and then the brigade of Colonel von Donop (the only Hessians there). Not a soul opposed our landing. This was the second blunder of the rebels since I have been in America. Their first mistake was when we disembarked on Staten Island, for they might then have destroyed a good many of our people with two six-pounders, and now they might have made it very nasty for us. We marched on, equally undisturbed, through Gravesend, and reached Flatbush towards evening. Three hundred riflemen had been there a little while before us. We sent a few cannon shots after them, set out our pickets, and slept quietly all night. I got two horses as booty, one of which I sent to the colonel and gave the other to my St. Martin for a pack-horse.

August 23.—This morning early we were attacked on the right wing of the advanced guard. We brought up a cannon and drove them back. It rained bullets. Captain Congreve and one Constable were wounded by my side, and an Englishman was shot through. In the afternoon they attacked on the left side of the village and set fire to several houses, and we drew back into the village. Lieutenant von Donop, who stood on the left wing, was wounded in the breast; the ball glanced from his rib. I advanced on the right wing, where I occupied a big garden, with one hundred and fifty men, chasseurs and light infantry. As the enemy had fallen back from here, I relieved Lieutenant von Donop. The rebels were placing cannon on the highway, and our Scotch Highlanders had to make a battery across the road, with embrasures for two cannon. I had to cover the work, and so came to the advanced posts, where, however, I was little disturbed.

August 24.—A hot day. The rebels approached twice, fired howitzers and used grape and ball, so that all our artillery had to come up. At noon I slept a little while, and was waked by two cannon-balls which covered me with earth. The rebels have some very good marksmen, but some of them have wretched guns, and most of them shoot crooked. But they are clever at hunters' wiles. They climb trees, they crawl forward on their bellies for one hundred and fifty paces, shoot, and go as quickly back again. They make themselves shelters of boughs, etc. But to-day they are much put out by our green coats,[1] for we don't let our fellows fire unless they can get good aim at a man, so that they dare not undertake anything more against us.

August 25.—We barricaded ourselves in the village; and to-night our chasseurs were to take a good rest. About two o'clock the rebels roused us from our slumbers; we quickly quieted them, however, with two cannon and a few rifle-shots. To-day we were attacked again, but after several of them had bitten the dust they drew off. Long Island is a beautiful island, an Arcadia; a most delightful region, full of meadows, corn-fields, all kinds of fruit-trees and pleasantly built houses. There were still a great many cattle there, although the rebels had taken many away with them. Most of the inhabitants had fled from the houses.[2] The rebels advanced in force. General Cornwallis wanted Colonel Donop to retire, but the colonel stayed where he was and intrenched himself.

August 26.—During this day we had much trouble, and at night were continually awakened by alarms from the outposts. This was not caused by attacks of the rebels, but mostly by deserters who wanted to come to us; and when the English and the [Hessian] grenadiers heard them approach they at once fired by platoons, if they did not get an immediate answer. To-day General von Heister came over to us with six battalions.[3]

August 27.—Our colonel had been promised that he should make the first attack, and he heard that the English were to attack to-day, but he had not received any orders either last evening or this morning. About ten o'clock we were all put under arms (the colonel having then spoken with General von Heister), and about eleven we were all in order of battle. On our left and right the English advanced on the flanks, and destroyed those that we drove back. On the left wing, where I commanded the advanced guards (thirty chasseurs and twenty grenadiers), stood Colonel Block, with his battalion. Behind me I had Captain Mallet with one company, as a reserve. In the centre Captain von Wrede attacked, and had the battalion von Minnigerode behind him. On the right Captain Lory pressed on, supported by the three remaining companies of Linsig's battalion” [Battalion von Linsingen]. In describing this arrangement of the troops, the writer refers only to the brigade in which he served. The Hessians, forming the centre of the British force, were posted on the Flatbush road. The right, under Clinton and Lord Percy, with Sir William Howe, had started early in the morning and succeeded in turning the left wing of the American position, near Bedford, and in getting in its rear. On hearing the cannon on his right, Heister ordered the Hessians to advance. The battle was substantially lost and won before the first shot was fired, the Americans having been outflanked. The latter saw themselves in danger of being cut off from their fortifications, and fled. A few of them were drowned in Gowanus Creek while trying to escape. Two whole regiments would probably have been captured but for the bravery of General Stirling, who selected five companies of Marylanders, with whom he covered the retreat of the rest. Of these five companies only eight men escaped death or capture. We return to our Hessian-officer and his narrative.

“My chasseurs were so eager that I had hardly got into the wood when I found myself alone with my command. I came into the middle of the rebel camp, where they still were, saw on my left their great camp, on my right a fortification, and fifty or sixty men were forming in column before me. But we left them no time and beat them completely. Many were shot and still more taken prisoners. I did not lose a single man, so much had the rebels come to be afraid of the chasseurs. Things went equally well on the other wing. We lost few men, and, except one chasseur, who was shot in the village, not a single one was killed. On the other hand, we made on the first day more than five hundred prisoners, among whom were General Stirling and one other general, and Colonel Johnson was shot. General Stirling is one of the most important rebels, who, sword in hand, forced the people to fight against their king. As long as we had no horses, the prisoners were harnessed in front of the cannon, and they were afterwards sent aboard the ships of war. In two days we had taken eleven hundred men. The rebels looked ragged, and had no shirts on. Our Hessians marched like Hessians; they marched incorrigibly, and the English like the bravest and best of soldiers. They, therefore, lost more men than we. This was a lucky day for us. The rebels had a very advantageous position in the wood, and we had a very bad one in the village of Flatbush. At first they made good use of their position, burned down a house and set fire to the barns upon our outposts. But when we attacked them courageously in their hiding-places, they ran, as all mobs do.”[4]

The editor of the Frankfort magazine, who publishes the above, remarks that many letters from Hessian officers have appeared in the newspapers; that these officers ascribe a great part of the credit of the victory to themselves, and that, in view of the well-known valor of the Hessian soldiery, they undoubtedly deserve it, but that some of them make too little of the resistance and military knowledge of the Americans, “so that the honor of having gained a victory over an enemy numbering only one third as many as themselves almost suffers.” The remark is certainly pertinent, and the odds do not appear to be overstated. Washington's army before the battle was occupying lines which extended from Kingsbridge to Flatbush. There were probably not more than eight thousand Americans on Long Island, while those actually engaged on the advanced lines numbered only four or five thousand, against twenty thousand Englishmen and Germans.

Sir William Howe, in his official report, sets the American loss in killed, wounded, prisoners and drowned, at three thousand three hundred men; but Bancroft believes this to be a gross exaggeration, and, relying on Washington's report and a careful inquiry, says that the total American loss did not exceed one thousand, of whom three quarters were taken prisoners. The English loss, according to Howe, was seventeen officers and three hundred and one non-commissioned officers and privates; the Hessians had two men killed, and two officers and twenty-three privates wounded.

“The enemy,” writes Colonel von Heeringen, commanding a Hessian regiment, “had almost impenetrable thickets, lines, abattis, and redoubts in front of them. The riflemen were mostly spitted to the trees with bayonets. These frightful people deserve pity rather than fear. It always takes them a quarter of an hour to load, and meanwhile they feel our balls and bayonets.” Among the prisoners taken by the Hessians were two generals—Sullivan and Stirling. Nothing can be more characteristic of the hatred and contempt felt at this time by the Hessian officers for the undisciplined troop of rebels to whom they were opposed, than Von Heeringen's account of these generals and of other officers of the American army. “John Sullivan was a lawyer, and previously a domestic servant, but a man of genius, whom the rebels will much regret. Among the prisoners are many so-called colonels, lieutenant-colonels, majors, and other officers, who, however, are nothing but mechanics, tailors, shoe-makers, wig-makers, barbers, etc. Some of them were soundly beaten by our people, who would by no means let such persons pass for officers. Sullivan was brought to me. I had him searched and found the original orders of General Washington on him; from which it appears that he had the best troops under his command, that everything depended on his holding the wood, and that he was eight thousand men strong. The English have one hundred and fifty killed and wounded” [three hundred and eighteen, says Sir William Howe]. “This they owe more to their disorderly attack than to the valor of the enemy. It looked horrible in the wood, as at least two thousand killed and wounded lay there. Colonel John, of the rebels, is dead. A grenadier took him prisoner and generously gave him his life, only telling him to go back to the battalion which was following, for the grenadier was a skirmisher. The colonel wanted to murder him, slyly, from behind; secretly drew out a pistol, but only hit the grenadier in the arm, whereupon the latter treated him to three or four bayonet strokes.”

“Among the officers taken I did not find a single one who had been in foreign service. They are nothing but rebels and citizens settled here. Tailor Graul would play a considerable part here.” Colonel von Heeringen clearly considers it far more honorable to fight in other people's quarrels than in one's own. A man who had once been a mercenary could be more readily forgiven for being a rebel. “My Lord Stirling himself is only an échappé de famille, and does not pass for a lord in England. He looks as much like my Lord Granby as one egg does like another. General Putnam is a butcher by profession. I imagine him to be like Butcher Fischer at Rinteln. The rebels desert in great numbers, and it is nothing to see colonels, lieutenant-colonels, and majors come in with whole troops of men. The captured flag, which is made of red damask, with the motto, ‘Liberty,’ appeared with sixty men before Rall's regiment. They had all shouldered their guns upside down, and had their hats under their arms. They fell on their knees and begged piteously for their lives. No regiment is properly uniformed or armed. Every man has a common gun, such as the citizens in Hesse march out with at Whitsuntide. Stirling's regiment, however, was uniformed in blue and red, three battalions strong, and mostly composed of Germans recruited in Pennsylvania. They were tall, fine-looking fellows, and had extremely good English guns, with bayonets. This regiment met the English, and as the latter took them for Hessians in the bushes, they did not fire; but their error cost them Colonel Grant, several other officers, and eighty men. A volley was fired. The English gathered themselves together, attacked with the bayonet, knocked everybody head over heels, and those they did not massacre they took prisoners. In short, the whole regiment is ruined. The rebel artillery is miserable, mostly of iron, and mounted on ships' carriages.”[5]

It is said that many times in this battle the English and Hessians did not give quarter when it was asked. Colonel von Heeringen says: “The English did not give much quarter, and constantly urged our people to do the like.” The Americans are said also to have believed that the Hessians gave no quarter, and to have fought with peculiar desperation, after hope was lost, in consequence. The fact that neither side could understand the other may have tended to diminish the chance of surrender, and have contributed to swell the complaints that some of the Americans had treacherously attacked their captors after yielding. “They were,” says Lieutenant Rüffer in his diary,[6] “so timid that they preferred to be shot rather than to take quarter, because their generals and officers had told them that they would be hanged.” Surely the most curious proof of cowardice ever alleged against any soldiers whatsoever.

After the loss of so important a position, and of so many men in proportion to the numbers of his little army, Washington thought it inexpedient to try to hold the works at Brooklyn, and seeing that the English fleet was preparing to occupy the East River and cut off his retreat, he abandoned Long Island on the night of August 29th-30th, and crossed over to New York, bringing off all his stores and cannon, except a few heavy pieces which stuck in the mud. A myth was current among the Hessians, to the effect that an order of Washington had been found in the deserted camp, stating that, whereas it was impossible to resist such cruel and terrible enemies as the Hessians, one must make the best of one's way off. Thus had the German troops seen their first battle in the New World. It had added to the contempt they had already felt for a rebellious and undisciplined enemy, a contempt which it was to take long years of war and of disaster wholly to eradicate.[7]

The Hessians - Battle of Long Island.jpg


  1. The chasseurs wore green coats with crimson trimmings.
  2. For a particular description of this part of Long Island see “Schlözer's Briefwechsel,” vol. ii. p. 103 et seq., by Lieutenant Hinrichs of the chasseurs.
  3. Of Hessians. According to Bancroft these regiments crossed on the 25th. For an account of the curious and complicated nomenclature of the Hessian regiments, and of the different regiments engaged in different battles, see Appendix A.
  4. “Die Neuesten Staatsbegebenheiten,” 1777, Frankfurt a. M., pp. 110-116. The letter, of which the above is the largest part, would seem to have been written by an officer of chasseurs, probably either Major von Prueschenk or Lieutenant von Grothausen.
  5. Quoted in Eelking's “Hülfstruppen," vol. i. p. 37 n., from the Preussisches Militair-Wochenblatt, 1833, Nrs. 863, 864.
  6. Quoted in Eelking's “Hülfstruppen,” vol. i. p. 45.
  7. For the Battle of Long Island, see the authorities above quoted and the MS. journals of the Grenadier Battalion von Minnigerode, the Regiment von Lossberg (Heusser), and the same regiment (Piel). For the Evacuation of Long Island, see “Washington's Writings” (Sparks's ed.), vol. iv. p. 69.