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Hessian (soldier)

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Hessian (soldier)

Two Hessian soldiers of the Leibregiment.

Holy Roman Empire

Part of Most served with but were not incorporated into the British Army
Nickname(s) "Hessian mercenaries"

American Revolutionary War

Wilhelm von Knyphausen
Johann Rall 

Hessians [1] is the term given to the 18th-century German auxiliaries contracted for military service by the British government, who found it easier to borrow money to pay for their service than to recruit its own soldiers.[2] They took their name from the German state of Hesse. The British used the Hessians in combat roles in several conflicts, including in the Irish Rebellion of 1798, but they are most widely associated with combat operations in the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783).

About 30,000 German soldiers fought for the British as an ally during the American Revolutionary War, making up a quarter of all the soldiers the British sent to America.[3] They fought in their own traditional uniforms in their old regiments under their usual officers and their own flags. They were under the overall command of British generals. Nearly half were from the state of Hesse. Historian Charles Ingrao says that the local prince had turned Hesse into a "mercenary state" by renting out his regiments to fund his government.[4] The others were rented from similar small German states. Several more German units were placed on garrison duty in the British Isles to free up British regulars for service in North America.

Patriot propaganda presented the soldiers as foreign mercenaries with no stake in America. Hessian prisoners of war were put to work on local farms and were offered land bounties to desert and join the Americans, which many did.


  • History 1
    • American Revolutionary War 1.1
    • Hessian captives 1.2
    • Nova Scotia theatre 1.3
    • Conclusion of the war 1.4
    • Commanding officers 1.5
    • Units in the American Revolution 1.6
  • Ireland 1798 2
  • In popular culture 3
  • Footnotes 4
  • Further reading 5
    • Primary sources 5.1
  • External links 6


Wilhelm von Knyphausen, the commander of the Hessians in the American Revolutionary War.

The small German states had professional armies which their princes often hired out for combat duty. John Childs wrote:

Between 1706 and 1707, 10,000 Hessians served as a corps in Jacobite Rebellion. ... In the midst of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1744, 6,000 Hessians were fighting with the British army in Flanders whilst another 6,000 were in the Bavarian army. By 1762, 24,000 Hessians were serving with Ferdinand of Brunswick's army in Germany.[5]

American Revolutionary War

During the American Revolutionary War, Landgrave Frederick II of Hesse-Kassel (a small independent country in northern Hesse) and other German princes hired out some of their regular army units to Great Britain for use to fight against the rebels in the American revolution. About 30,000 of these men served in North America. They were called Hessians, because the largest group (12,992 of the total 30,067 men) came from Hesse-Kassel. They came not as individuals but in entire units with their usual uniforms, flags, weapons and officers.

Units were sent by Count William of Hesse-Hanau; Duke Charles I of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel; Prince Frederick of Waldeck; Margrave Karl Alexander of Ansbach-Bayreuth; and Prince Frederick Augustus of Anhalt-Zerbst.

Image of Hessian hussars in America

The Hessians did not act individually. Their princes determined whether to hire out the units. Many of the men were press-ganged into Hessian service. Deserters were summarily executed or beaten by an entire company.[6]

Hessians comprised approximately one-quarter of the forces fielded by the British in the American Revolution. They included jäger, hussars, three artillery companies, and four battalions of grenadiers. Most of the infantry were chasseurs (sharpshooters), musketeers, and fusiliers. Line infantry were armed with muskets, while the Hessian artillery used three-pounder cannon. The elite Jäger battalions used the büchse, a short, large-caliber rifle well-suited to woodland combat. Initially the average regiment was made up of 500 to 600 men. Later in the war, the regiments had only 300 to 400 men.

About 18,000 Hessian troops first arrived in North America in 1776, with more coming in later. They first landed at Staten Island in New York on August 15, 1776. Their first engagement was in the Battle of Long Island. The Hessians fought in almost every battle, although after 1777, the British used them mainly as garrison and patrol troops. An assortment of Hessians fought in the battles and campaigns in the southern states during 1778–80 (including Guilford Courthouse), and two regiments fought at the Siege of Yorktown in 1781.

Americans, both Rebel and Tory, often feared the Hessians, believing them rapacious and brutal mercenaries. Hessian diaries frequently express disapproval of the British troops' conduct towards the colonists, including the destruction of property and the occasional execution of prisoners, the latter being doubly upsetting when American Germans were among them.[7]

The British common soldiers, much like the Americans, distrusted the German-speaking Hessians and, despite their military performance, often treated them with contempt.

The chaplain then recounts the case of a Jaeger subaltern who was assailed "by an Englishman in his cups" with the declamation: "God damn you, Frenchy, you take our pay!" The outraged Hessian replied: "I am a German and you are a shit." This was followed by an impromptu duel with hangers, in which the Englishman received a fatal wound. The chaplain records that General Howe pardoned the Jaeger officer and issued an order that "the English should treat the Germans as brothers." This order began to have influence only when "our Germans, teachable as they are" had learned to "stammer a little English." Apparently this was a prerequisite for the English to show them any affection.[8]

Hessian captives

Hessian soldiers captured during the Battle at Trenton taken to Philadelphia.

General Continental Army had crossed the Delaware River to make a surprise attack on the Hessians on the early morning of December 26, 1776. In the Battle of Trenton, the Hessian force of 1,400 was wiped out by the Continentals, with about 20 killed, 100 wounded, and 1,000 captured.[9]

Family records of Johann Nicholas Bahnert, one of the Hessians captured in the Battle of Trenton, indicate that back in Europe they were told they were needed to defend the American Colonies against Indian incursions. Only after they arrived, did they discover they had been hired to fight against the British-American colonists, rather than the Indians.[10] The Hessians captured in the Battle of Trenton were paraded through the streets of Philadelphia to raise American morale; anger at their presence helped the Continental Army recruit new soldiers.[11] Most of the prisoners were sent to work as farm hands.[12]

By early 1778, negotiations for the exchange of prisoners between Washington and the British had begun in earnest.[13] Nicholas Bahner(t), Jacob Strobe, George Geisler, and Conrad Kramm are a few of the Hessian soldiers who deserted the British forces after being returned in exchange for American prisoners of war.[14] These men were hunted by the British for being deserters as well as by many of the colonists as a foreign enemy.

Americans tried to entice Hessians to desert from the British and join the already large German-American population. The US Congress authorized the offer of 50 acres (approximately 20 hectares) of land to individual Hessian soldiers to encourage them to desert. British soldiers were offered 50 to 800 acres, depending on rank.[15]

In August 1777, a satirical letter, "The Sale of the Hessians", was widely distributed. It claimed that a Hessian commander wanted more of his soldiers dead so that he could be better compensated. For many years, the author of the letter was unknown. In 1874, John Bigelow translated it to English (from a French version) and claimed that Benjamin Franklin wrote it, including it in his biography, The Life of Benjamin Franklin, published that year. There appears to be no evidence to support this claim.[16]

When the British General John Burgoyne surrendered to American General Horatio Gates during the Saratoga campaign in 1777, his forces included around 5,800 troops. The surrender was negotiated in the Convention of Saratoga, and Burgoyne's remnant army became known as the Convention Army. "Hessian" soldiers from Brunswick-Lüneburg, under General Riedesel, comprised a high percentage of the Convention Army. The Americans marched the prisoners to Charlottesville, Virginia, where they were imprisoned in the Albemarle Barracks until 1781. From there, they were sent to Reading, Pennsylvania, until 1783.

Nova Scotia theatre

Hatchment of Baron Oberst Franz Carl Erdmann von Seitz, St. Paul's Church (Halifax), Nova Scotia, d.1782

The Hessians served in Nova Scotia for five years (1778-1783). They protected the colony from American privateers, such as when they responded to the Raid on Lunenburg (1782). They were led by Baron Oberst Franz Carl Erdmann von Seitz.[17]

Conclusion of the war

About 30,000 Hessians served in the Americas, and, after the war ended in 1783, some 17,313 Hessian soldiers 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 illness or accidents, mostly the former.[18] Approximately 5,000 Hessians settled in North America, either the United States or Canada.

Commanding officers

Units in the American Revolution


  • Rauschenplatt's Princess of Anhalt's Regiment
  • Nuppenau's Jäger Company
  • Anhalt-Zerbst Company of Artillery


  • 1st Regiment Ansbach-Bayreuth (later Regiment von Volt; 1st Ansbach Battalion)
  • 2nd Regiment Ansbach-Bayreuth (later Regiment Seybothen; 2nd Bayreuth Battalion)
  • Ansbach Jäger Company
  • Ansbach Artillery Company


  • Dragoon Regiment Prinz Ludwig
  • Grenadier Battalion Breymann
  • Light Infantry Battalion von Barner
  • Regiment Riedesel
  • Regiment Specht
  • Regiment Prinz Friedrich
  • Regiment von Rhetz
  • Geyso's Company of Brunswick Jägers


  • Hesse-Kassel Jäger Corps
  • Fusilier Regiment von Ditfurth
  • Fusilier Regiment Erbprinz (later Musketeer Regiment Erbprinz (1780))
  • Fusilier Regiment von Knyphausen
  • Fusilier Regiment von Lossburg
  • Grenadier Regiment von Rall (later von Woellwarth (1777); von Trümbach (1779); d'Angelelli (1781))
    • 1st Battalion Grenadiers von Linsing
    • 2nd Battalion Grenadiers von Block (later von Lengerke)
    • 3rd Battalion Grenadiers von Minnigerode (later von Löwenstein)
    • 4th Battalion Grenadiers von Köhler (later von Graf; von Platte)
  • Garrison Regiment von Bünau
  • Garrison Regiment von Huyn (later von Benning)
  • Garrison Regiment von Stein (later von Seitz; von Porbeck)
  • Garrison Regiment von Wissenbach (later von Knoblauch)
  • Leib Infantry Regiment
  • Musketeer Regiment von Donop
  • Musketeer Regiment von Trümbach (later von Bose (1779))
  • Musketeer Regiment von Mirbach (later Jung von Lossburg (1780))
  • Musketeer Regiment Prinz Carl
  • Musketeer Regiment von Wutgenau (later Landgraf (1777))
  • Hesse-Kassel Artillery corps



  • 3rd Waldeck Regiment

Ireland 1798

After the Parliamentary reform. Influenced by the American and French revolutions, its members began by 1798 to seek independence for Ireland.

Baron Hompesch's 2nd Battalion of riflemen embarked on 11 April 1798 from the Isle of Wight bound for the port of Cork. They were later joined by the Jäger (Hunter) 5th Battalion 60th regiment. They were in the action of the battles of Vinegar Hill and Foulksmills.

Fate of German soldiers in the American Revolution

In popular culture


  1. ^ "hessian".  
  2. ^ Rodney Atwood, The bobs: Mercenaries from Hessen-Kassel in the American Revolution, (Cambridge University Press, 1980), ch 1.
  3. ^ Alan Axelrod (9 January 2014). Mercenaries: A Guide to Private Armies and Private Military Companies. SAGE Publications. p. 66.  
  4. ^ Charles W. Ingrao, The Hessian mercenary state: ideas, institutions, and reform under Frederick II, 1760-1785 (Cambridge University Press, 2003)
  5. ^ John Brewer, Eckhart Hellmuth, German Historical Institute in London (1999). Rethinking Leviathan: The Eighteenth-Century State in Britain and Germany, Oxford University Press. p.64. ISBN 0-19-920189-7
  6. ^ David Hackett Fischer (2006). Washington's Crossing, Oxford University Press. p.60. ISBN 0-19-518159-X
  7. ^ Steven Schwamenfeld."The Foundation of British Strength: National Identity and the Common British Soldier." Ph.D. diss., Florida State University 2007, p. 123-124
  8. ^ Schwamenfeld 2007, p. 123
  9. ^ "Battle of Trenton", British, accessed 13 Feb 2010
  10. ^ History of Our Ancestors: The First Bohner (Bahn, Bahner) to Migrate to America
  11. ^ Johannes Schwalm the Hessian, p. 21]
  12. ^ Rodney Atwood (2002). The Hessians. Cambridge University Press. p. 199. 
  13. ^ Herbert M. Bahner and Mark A. Schwalm, "Johann Nicholas Bahner – From Reichenbach, Hessen To Pillow, Pennsylvania", Journal of the Johannes Schwalm Historical Association, Inc. Vol 3, No. 3, 1987
  14. ^ [Journal of Johannes Schwalm Historical Assoc., Inc Vol. 3, No. 1, p. 2]
  15. ^ American Agriculture: A Brief HistoryR. Douglas Hurt (2002) , p. 80
  16. ^ Everett C. Wilkie, Jr., "Franklin and 'The Sale of the Hessians': The Growth of a Myth", Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 127, No. 3 (Jun. 16, 1983), pp. 202–212
  17. ^
  18. ^ "Revolutionary War - The Hessian involvement". MadMikesAmerica. Retrieved 2012-10-29. 
  19. ^ Colonel of the Hesse Cassel Garrison Regiment Von Seitz - see Hessian (soldiers). The Baron fought in the American Revolution, particularly on 16 November 1776, he captured Fort Washington; 1776-1778, Garrisoned New York; 1778-1783, Garrisoned Halifax. See "The Hessians of Nova Scotia" by John H Merz and Winthrop P. Bell entitled, "A Hessian conscript's account of life in garrison at Halifax at the time of the American Revolution". Collections of the Nova Scotia Historical Society, Volume 27, 1947

Further reading

  • Atwood, Rodney. The Hessians: Mercenaries from Hessen-Kassel in the American Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 1980), the standard scholarly history
  • Faust, Albert B. (1909). The German Element in the United States I. Boston: Houghton & Mifflin. pp. 349–356. 
  • Fischer, David Hackett (2004). Washington's Crossing. Oxford university Press. p. 517. 
  • Ingrao, Charles. "'Barbarous Strangers': Hessian State and Society during the American Revolution," American Historical Review (1982) 87#4 pp. 954–976 in JSTOR
  • Ingrao, Charles W. The Hessian mercenary state: ideas, institutions, and reform under Frederick II, 1760-1785 (Cambridge University Press, 2003)
  • Krebs, Daniel. “Useful Enemies: The Treatment of German Prisoners of War during the American War of Independence,” Journal of Military History (2013), 77#1 pp 9–39.
  • Lowell, Edward J. (1884). The Hessians. New York: Harper & Brothers. 
  • Mauch, Christof. ""Images Of America--Political Myths-- Historiography: 'Hessians' in the War of Independence," Amerikastudien (2003) 48#3 pp 411–423
  • Mellick, Jr., Andrew D. (1889). "Chapter XXV: The Hessians in New Jersey". The Story of an Old Farm. Somerville, New Jersey: The Unionist-Gazette. pp. 352–370. 

Primary sources

  • Winthrop P. Bell, ed. "A Hessian conscript's account of life in garrison at Halifax at the time of the American Revolution". Collections of the Nova Scotia Historical Society, Volume 27, 1947
  • Johann Conrad Döhla. A Hessian Diary of the American Revolution (1993)
  • Valentine C. Hubbs, ed. Hessian journals: unpublished documents of the American Revolution (Camden House, 1981), translation of the Von Jungkenn manuscripts.

External links

  • American – The Hessians
  • Johannes Schwalm Historical Association website
  • Historical Project: Letters by a Hessian Officer, Marburg University
  • Diary and letters covering the role of Hessian troops in America
  • Haldimand Collection – Numerous references to the role of Hessian troops in the American war of Independence
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